2:30 AM. The house is vibrating
with a sound that fills your ears. Iíve never heard wind like
this. When it comes in off the bay and pushes over the meadow for a
mile it breaks into the tree line like thunder. Itís so cold
outside the branches clack together in the wind. Itís too cold even
for snow - not that it snows often this close to the bay.
Two hours before we go out into
that. It is enough to strike a note of concern in the heart of a
weekend hunter like myself.
On the drive in every waterway
was frozen solid or crowded with pack ice. Iíve never seen the way
pressure pushes it into ridges three or four feet high. Iím told
weíll break ice with the boat tomorrow ďtaking a peekĒ out into the
bay, just to see where the flocks are rafting. You wonít see that
on TV. Paying hunters never pay for that experience.
I am awoken by the whistle of a
kettle heating water. In the kitchen I hear hushed conversation
from the group Ė Vincent Giannetto III and three of his sons,
Richard, David and Dominic. Vince is an old-timer; some say heís
the last of the great hunter-carvers from along the Delaware River.
A region that turned decoys into an art form.
You can tell the three boys are
his sons Ė they donít know any better - they grew up thinking this
is just how you make a hunt of it. To them itís just another day
duck hunting on the Delaware Bay. Old-timers. It doesnít take long
to feel that old-timers are a bit insane.
Two hours later we are putting
in at the little town of Shellpile. It once supplied oysters all
the way up to Philadelphia. Today it is a struggling bay community
mostly consisting of the oyster house and private fishing boats. It
still boasts an impressive two story pile of white shells you can
actually drive a truck up on, overlooking the area.
Around us the bay slowly pushes
in and out over miles of flat wetlands cut with deep draws and
dotted with potholes. They house a more diverse ecosystem and
variety of life than almost anywhere else in the United States. Not
what people expect from New Jersey. Somewhere on the water the
laughing of a gull is taking on new meaning. They are usually quiet
this time of night. It sounds evil, sinister, and knowing in the
They go about their business
with a practiced confidence that eases my concerns and re-enforces
that they have been doing this together for years. Like their
father they are a quiet family. As an outsider it feels like a show
of respect for the environment and the game we are pursuing, a
thankfulness for having this time to be part of the environment that
has shaped so much of their fatherís life, and in turn theirs.
My concern doesnít really rise
to the level of fear until we plough into 3-foot breakers and Iím
hit with the first salt spray Iíve ever tasted that actually has
flakes of ice in it. Every surface in the boat that isnít exposed
skin is instantly covered with a thin sheet of ice. Iím sent
sliding onto the floor next to Dominic. Now I know why heís sitting
down there. They all look at me and share a knowing smile at my
newness and I confess I am caught up in it.
Motoring back into the wetlands
from the bay, the water is covered with a frozen sheet of ice. Iím
taken off guard the first time we have to drive the boat up onto it
and let its weight break us back down threw so we can continue on.
Within the small waterways we are cut-off from the outside by high
muddy banks and even higher marsh grass and reeds.
We set-up the temporary blind
near both potholes and a deeper draw that comes in off a river,
giving us access to both divers and puddle ducks. Rich, the oldest
son, and Vince are talking about the decoy rig. They arenít sure
the two mergansers are far enough in to allow the puddle ducks to
feel comfortable. It isnít a discussion about fishhook decoy
layouts and theory; it speaks of Vince watching and learning what
waterfowl do for over five decades. Some ducks are just too flighty
to come in over stronger species.
This type of knowledge, this
love of it, is what has made Vincent Giannetto III different than
other carvers, and hunters, of our time. In a time when few
carverís decoys ever see open water, and the old traditions that
made hunter-carvers on the Delaware so respected are nearly
forgotten, he still lives his life founded upon these things. But
he didnít become once of todayís most respected and collectable
decoy carvers without the list of modern day credentials.
He has made his living solely as
a decoy carver for over twenty-five years now. The number of guys
capable of doing that in the entire country can be counted on one
hand. He quickly admits he never expected to be invited to the
White House and recognized as one of the nationís most treasured
artists a few years ago. He never expected to have his work placed
in the Smithsonian Institute, or to have museums run exhibits on his
life. He is just doing what he loves. As a teen-ager he couldnít
afford decoys to hunt over, so he made his own. It started that
The day begins a brilliant red.
The wind dies, the temperature picks up slightly and the snow
begins. We huddle down and I notice how deathly quiet everything
is. The snow is furious for a brief time but it hits the water and
the marsh in eerie silence. It is the most complete silence I have
ever experienced. A pintail, the greyhound of ducks, cuts
effortlessly through the air just outside the rig. It too makes no
Vince explains that today should
be a good day with lots of movement. The ducks will have to
constantly fly in search of open water. They canít stand on ice for
too long or they experience their version of frostbit. Bad weather
Ė good hunt.
Their rig of 28 hand-carved and
hand-painted Delaware River style gunning decoys float about us.
Most of them are Vinceís, but mixed throughout are ones made by his
sons. It is unlikely that I will ever again hunt over a rig of
decoys that are amongst the finest in the country. Who would dare
hunt with a rig worth about $9,000? Old-timers.
Hunting over hand made decoys
makes the hunt an intimate experience and is part of the reason why
diehards and collectors love them so much. With decoys made by a
master-carver like Vince each is unique in its look, feel, position
and character. Watching something that mixes art and tradition
cutting through the water fills the gaps in the day when the hunt is
slow. Having them on the mantle carries this love between the
seasons and brings back memories of hunts gone by, and hunts still
Unexpectedly a pair of
Buffleheads pop up at the edge of the rig. No one moves. No one
shoots. There is a quiet discussion of how it rides the water, the
position it holds, and how it compares to Vinceís Buffleheads riding
the water not far away. I reflect that I donít think I ever hunted
with guys that werenít interested in the body count, but spent just
as much time simply watching them.
A short time later a Black Duck
is dropped coming in. When Dominic brings him back he jokes that he
didnít even hit him, he just died of fright landing too close to
Richís ďraccoonĒ black duck decoy. The joke is light-hearted since
Vince has won nearly every carving competition in the country and
for the past several years even his sons have been winning blue
ribbons of their own.
I find myself caught up in it.
Throughout the day we shoot, watch more ducks come through the rig
and briefly walk the marsh when we get cold. At low tide they
reposition the decoys and the boat. At the end of the day they show
me how to pull in the decoys, using one decoy weight to catch
another. Vince is moving a little slower than he did in the
morning, but his smile is bigger and faster.
As I sit now looking back at the
day I realize I didnít write much about impact shots or the ducks we
Shortly after the sky cleared a
flight of Widgeon came across the pothole. With a rush of wind they
wheeled when they saw us and started their chirping. We dropped
two, a hen and a drake. I love drake Widgeons like so many people
do, but Vince spent a long time looking at the hen.
Hens, he said, have a hidden
beauty unlike the clown-like gaudiness some drake waterfowl have.
He showed me the iridescence in the feathers and I was amazed to see
every color in the rainbow there, on a duck I think of as brown. He
talked about how hard that is to capture in oil paints and how he
does it. Next to me his sons watched even though they had seen it
before and listened even though theyíve heard it before. This was
part of the traditions of the Delaware River hunter-carvers. And to
myself I was happy it would be carried on in them.
For me hunting has never been
the same. I went out expecting to hunt with Vince and be able to
tell my friends I had hunter with ďthe last of the Delaware River
Hunter-CarversĒ Ė someone whoís name many of them already knew. I
came away seeing the rainbow of colours in every brown duck, and
taking a few extra moments to watch and appreciate each one. Even
though I usually still pull the trigger.