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Hunting with the Last Delaware River Hunter-Carver
A day with Vincent Giannetto III leads to a life-time of change for Dave G Chasseur



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 dark.  

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 simple. 

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 sound. 

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 to come. 

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.

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As I sit now looking back at the day I realize I didnít write much about impact shots or the ducks we killed. 

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.