HUNTING STORIES AND MORE
How I came to own the marsh
I am the son of a navy chaplain, a Presbyterian minister…my father was also a duck hunting fool.
In 1963 I shoot my first duck-a drake mallard- from a boat hide along the edge of the Santee- Cooper River outside of Charleston, SC. That single act pretty much ruint’ me forever. At least some would say so. Being that my dad is military we move around a lot. Every 2-3 years the family uproots then resettles. Part of the resettling process is learning where to hunt near our new home. Any navy base is on the water and if you have water, you’ve got ducks. All we have to do is find ducks we can access. My dad isn’t above using his status as a preacher to get at the fowl.
Dad learns to hunt amidst the marshes of the Great South Bay on Long Island, NY. As a result, in later years, he is partial to shooting black ducks and scaup; staples of the Long Island sounds. One would be well advised not to get between the preacher and a decoying black duck.
My brothers and sister don’t care much for duck hunting, but I am crazed for it. Consequently, from the age of eight, my dad and I are fairly inseparable gunning buddies. Throughout our moves, I am blessed to explore myriads of marshes, little known backwaters and bays. In particular, I have memories of the areas around Charleston, SC, Northeastern NC, Southern VA, coastal NJ, Newport, RI, Long Island Sound in New York, the Horicon marshes in Wi. and Lake Erie layout shooting just above Chicago, IL. Since 1978, however I’ve settled very comfortably into my life here in Northeastern NC.
A brief sidebar at this point will explain how I end up in the situation I am now in- how I end up owning the prettiest marsh in North Carolina.
As an offshoot of my dad’s love of duck hunting he also begins collecting decoys before it is popular to do so. Any family trip includes a visit to one or several crusty old carver’s, gunner’s or collector’s houses. The family is usually required to wait in the car while my dad talks and trades, but I can usually exercise my status as gunning buddy to get at least a peak at the decoys and decoy makers of a bygone era.
I find myself in the shops of and speak to the likes of the Ward brothers in Chrisfield, MD. I also meet Hurly Conklin, all the Jobses, T.J. Hooker, the Veasy clan, Erleen Snow, the Waterfields, the Brunets, Bill Mackey, Dr. Starr and Bud Ward, to name just a few. Also, and just as important, I’ve held the carvings of all the great decoy masters from the Mississippi eastward. Crowell’s, Hudson’s, Lincolns, Wards, Masons too numerous to mention, Dudley’s, Cobb’s, Verity’s, Shourdes’, Elliston’s and Perdue’s. I’ve also fondled the unidentified regional master’s decoysfrom Monhegan Island scoters to hollow little gems from the Delaware River. The folksy Carolina clunkers, Susquehanna flats factory runoffs, pretty painted brilliantly preserved Mississippi blocks and ingeniously designed New England beauties have shaped my views of the classic decoy. In the sense of gunning history I have been truly blessed.
Anyway. The man who founds Outer Banks Waterfowl (OBW) did so around 1965. His name is Jimmy Curling and he is a native Outer Banker. In the summers he is the mate for boat builder and Captain, Bobby Sullivan. In the winter, Jimmy is the boss and Bobby the helper for duck guiding. On the second to last day of the 1977 season Jimmy has a boating mishap and drowns as he is returning to the marsh to pick up the day’s hunting charter and return them to shore.
As one of Jimmy’s best gunning buddies, his family calls my dad right away. At the funeral my dad learns that they are going to sell Jimmy’s marsh in Oregon Inlet, called Herring Shoal Island. The marsh is located across from a small bay to the south of the Bodie Island Refuge and lighthouse, and is just a bit to the north of the expansive Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Jimmy’s marsh covers an area of approximately 85 acres, and when you factor out all the creeks and ponds, encompasses 44 acres of actual land and sports five maintained gunning sites. The marsh sits right in the freaking center of twenty five miles worth of refuges.
When my dad returns home from the funeral (He is stationed at Great Lakes, IL), he realizes he has a very small window of opportunity. I remember my dad coming up to me and asking my opinion. He doesn’t have much money, but he does own one of the country’s larger decoy collections. The pivotal question we have to answer is this, “Would we rather look at the birds on the shelves in our house, or the birds in the air over Herring Shoal Island?”
My dad makes the call that night. A wealthy buddy has been after my dad to sell him the collection for years. Dad simply tells the collector that this is his chance. If he can find a suitcase, fill it with cash, and make it to our house by the following evening, my dad might be disposed to negotiate the sale of some decoys. Two days later we own a most excellent marsh!
When Vern takes control of OBW there isn’t much to work with. He does own the marsh, which is very good, but there is virtually no client base. Jimmy, for lack of a better term, was organizationally challenged. He had a logbook, which at first sounds good, but the only information it has is last names, the number of men gunning and how much they owe. That is all the information Jimmy ever needs because all of Jimmy’s clientele come out of his summer fishing charters. Addresses, Jimmy doesn’t need no stinken addresses! If they want to hunt, then they’d best get a hold of Jimmy themselves and of course, they always had.
About this time, Vern is diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a result of being Agent Oranged during his tour in Vietnam while serving with the marines. Despite the inconvenience of an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, Vern sets out to run a guide service. The first year is pretty much a wash. Allied with 2 young guides and a list of names to use as backups, all pretty well starve that first year. During the previous summers fishing season all of the old clients learn of Jimmy’s demise and due to Vern’s non-native status shift their business to other captains from the fishing fleet. Business is good for them. Not so much for Vern and company.
The following summer, Vernon resorts to advertising. Ducks Unlimited brings in, by far, the most clients. Numerous other periodicals and print media are explored and utilized. Many hunts are ‘comped’ to outdoor writers in a bid to bolster a now burgeoning mailing list. By the ’80-81 gunning season , – the year after I graduate college with a Biology/philosophy double major. (What better degrees could a duck guide have?!) Outer Banks Waterfowl, Inc. is a steamrolling juggernaut.
No one advertises nationally for waterfowling on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in conjunction with access to Currituck County immediately to our north. Vern wheels and deals and eventually consolidates several smaller guide services. The calls come in and the days of starving through duck season are in the past. The 80-81 season is also the best in terms of ducks harvested up until these last few seasons some thirty years later. The 2010\11 season is our new best year ever for total harvest. Before that the early eighties are the good old days.
There is little room for me in the guide rotation that first year out of school. Vern has himself and another guide working our marsh daily. Besides. Vern has a more pressing need that season. A duck plucker. Nobody else wants the job. I have moved back home and haven’t gotten a job yet. “Hey boys, meet the new duck plucker!” That year i am everybody’s bitch.
In the two and a half years since Vern takes over OBW, Inc., he has succeded in getting the business humming. Twenty to 30 gunners per day, two men to a guide and the guide sits with you all day. That’s a max of 45 men in the marshes per day! The scene at the hotel each pre-dawn is fascinating. Dogs, cammo, boots and boats virtually explode into the hotel’s parking lot , then disperse like a smoke grenade at an out of control rock concert. Caravans group then head out until, eventually, there is nothing left but a parking lot devoid of everything but the preacher, his Chesapeak retreiver dog and a duck boat. He’ll sit around with another cup of coffee and talk to the night clerk long enough for any phone calls to report broken down outboards to reach him. Barring that he’ll slide out and find himself a spot to hunt a few hours by himself.
That first year out of school we reach the thousand duck threshold before the season is even half over! Fowl, weather and clients all cooperate. I can’t start cleaning the fowl until the gunners return each evening so my work begins well after dark. All birds gathered that evening need to be cleaned, packaged and returned to the hotel coolers prior to the time the hunters may need to embark the following morning. That first year I am pulling two to four all-nighters per week over the duration of the gunning season. The up-side? $20-30.00/hour cash. The downside. Duck lice and too tired to do much gunning myself. Even though I am the owner’s son, believe me when I tell you, I have started at the bottom and aim to work my way up.
The benefit of starting out as duck-plucker is that I am there to greet the gunners each evening. I get the stories of the day first, all the hits and the muffed shots- those rare situations that last a lifetime on the back shelves of a waterfowler’s mind. It is wonderful being totally immersed in ducking and goosing.
The other benefit to a duck-plucker is the magic of watching the gunning reverend work his crowds. The need is to organize the next day’s hunt each evening prior and the process starts at 7PM. If he can, he meets everybody in the hotel’s bar, where a little noise and excitement is expected and encouraged. All money due is collected prior to your first day’s hunt. That lesson I learn early on! The hunters who have gone out that day are showered and cleaned up by then and those arriving that day are raring to go. All are having drinks .Over there is an older two-man group. Over there is a 12 man group from Michigan just showing up. On the other side of the bar is an eight-man group of police officers from Pittsburgh, PA talking to a group of seven podiatrists who – having brought their wives along – are left with only one vehicle. On the other side of the coin Vern has a list of all the guides, their limitations and the geographic areas each guide may work.
Everybody wants to buy the Reverend a drink and hear a few duck stories. Pretty much he delivers. Around 10:30PM everything is pretty well lined up as Vern shakes hands with the elderly two-man group. When told where they’re going to hunt the next day and for what you can see them stiffen noticeably. “No, we’re not going to hunt Currituck. We’re here to hunt divers. That’s all we want. Divers. Preferably cans.” Monkey wrenched- totally! Vern hustles off to rearrange all the magic he has just spent the last three or so hours creating.
In Oncology if a patient lives five years past diagnosis, they get to call him cured. It’s good for morale . Yea . A survivor. Vern passes six months past that date. It’s in the early spring, with a full load of memories fresh from the previous fowling season. He spends only the last 10 days in the hospital and that is good. Nothing personal but cancer in conjunction with hospitals sucks.
I take over the guide service full time in the ’85-86 season. For four years I run the business full bore until one evening I hear myself apologizing in advance.“Tomorrow’s going to be slow, but I promise you’ll get this or that the next day. He’s the hot guide with the hot blind.” I feel a bit like a pirate as I say it. What’s that say about tomorrow’s hunt?
The client kind of flinches and gives me a bit of a look. At first I put it off on him as being, ‘one of those difficult hunters.’ The next day in the blind, during one of those slow times of the day, I start thinking. ” I have worse guides and filler guides; Hmmm. I wouldn’t want to pay good money to gun with bad guides. Hmmm. I’m not doing anybody any favors by hooking them up with substandard guides and\or equipment.”
Soon thereafter I embark in a house-cleaning . I weed out just about everybody , but that doesn’t work out so great either. I sometimes need to book eight men to get my own two man group for the day. Hmmm. Slowly but surely-over the years- the fates have brought excellent guides into our lives. Every year ,Ellen and I say “No more. We’re not getting any bigger. We’re not hiring any new guy’s. Then one of my guys brings one of his buddies over . And we get to talking. Then the next thing you know…. Essentially . If I’m jealous of his gunning areas and equipment after I’ve met a potential new guide and he loves being out in the wildness we’ll figure a way to work him into the rotation. I’ve got certain clients that I use to scout my new guys. That, and we still live on a very small island. I guess what I’m trying to say is that what the guide service has evolved into is a beautiful thing. The guides get that it’s a team effort. How can you not when you’ve just spent the day with men who are telling stories about hunts, guides and retrievers from two and three decades past? We all keep an eye on each other. We shoot lots more fowl and have lots more fun. And on no occasion do I look in the mirror and see a pirate looking back, nor do I ever feel the need to apologize in advance.