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A PIED PIPER FROM DOWN EAST
Duncan Barnes
January 08, 1968
Maine man George Soule quacks a duck calf that sounds like the real thing, but when he adds his bigger-than-life cork decoys to the Casco Bay scene he sometimes has trouble keeping inquisitive black ducks out of his blind
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January 08, 1968

A Pied Piper From Down East

Maine man George Soule quacks a duck calf that sounds like the real thing, but when he adds his bigger-than-life cork decoys to the Casco Bay scene he sometimes has trouble keeping inquisitive black ducks out of his blind

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At daybreak, from a vantage point half a mile away, it looked like nothing more than a typical Maine tidewater duck-hunting setup. The blind, fashioned from driftwood, kelp and seaweed, blended nicely into the lee shore of Lane's Island in a narrow arm of Casco Bay. Hiding inside the blind were George Soule, a decoy manufacturer of Freeport, Me.; Suzy, his American water spaniel; and two shooting friends. Gunning conditions were excellent. The tide was just beginning to ebb and, in the face of a building southeast wind, rafts of black ducks took off from the open water and headed up into the bay to seek shelter against the shore and to feed on eel-grass seeds and mussels. As the flocks of ducks whistled by high overhead, intent on reaching the brackish guzzles that drain into the bay, small bunches of fringe birds peeled off to look over Soule's cork decoys. White underwing feathers flashing against the cold gray sky, the birds descended rapidly, circled the decoys once and, coaxed in by Soule's seductive notes on a rosewood duck call, set their wings and hurtled down into shotgun range. In less than an hour Soule and his guests had their limits (two blacks each), and still the ducks were skidding into the decoys.

Just another good day for three hunters with a corner of the bay all to themselves? Not quite. There were at least half a dozen other hunters in equally unobtrusive and well-positioned blinds on both sides of Soule, as well as on several nearby islands. All of them had large, attractive decoy spreads. Yet not until Soule and his guests pulled out and headed back by boat to the mainland did any of the other hunters get a shot at a duck.

The secret of George Soule's success that morning was simply the presence of a stool of his own superducks—economy-size cork tollers at least half again as large as the black ducks they simulated. By all rights they should have frightened birds as cautious as black ducks clean out of the country. Instead, they drew them like magnets.

"Sometimes it gets to be downright criminal," says Soule, a short, soft-spoken man of 55 with squinty blue eyes, an unruly shock of gray hair and a sort of medium-rare down-East sense of humor. "You only need a small stool of these oversize tollers—most gunners call them magnums. I like to put a few floaters out in the water downwind of the blind and then add a nice bunch of stand-ups high and dry in the grass right in front of the blind. Everything about these decoys is big, and they sit much higher on the water than the real thing. But then everything is also in proportion. The secret is, the ducks can see them from farther away. There can be any number of other hunters nearby, but unless some of them are also using magnums or else have set out right smack in the middle of the only feeding hole in the entire bay, then we get all the ducks that have any inclination at all of decoying. It's sort of like being the Pied Piper of black ducks."

Compared with most other species of puddle, or shallow-feeding, ducks, the black is a rather drab, dusky-brown bird (the sexes are identical in color except that the legs of the adult male are a brighter red), and in the southern portion of its range, especially in Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, it tends to feed primarily on skunk grass and baitfish, which makes it anything but a delicacy on the table. Yet the black is the ranking bird, both in numbers and in hunters' preference, on the Atlantic Flyway. In New England, which is bypassed by the bulk of southward-migrating waterfowl species, the black is the duck, the "eatin' bird" (even coastal blacks seem to taste better up north) that gets men out of bed and into cold, wet tidewater blinds before dawn. Larger than most ducks, swift and strong in flight, it is unquestionably the shyest of all ducks and the most difficult to decoy. Not surprisingly, gunners have endowed it with almost supernatural powers over the years. Blacks, for example, are supposedly the only ducks with a sense of smell, capable of detecting and pinpointing the scent of man (or of his sandwiches, coffee, tobacco and his dog) even when flying upwind. There's more. Oldtime baymen swear that blacks can count and that they will always flare off from even numbers of decoys. Then there is the blacks' legendary long-distance vision. As one gunner put it: "A black can see a man from as far away as a man can see the moon."

Like many New England wildfowlers, George Soule has enjoyed a love affair with the black duck for a long time, and it was the cunning of the blacks on Casco Bay that forced him into the decoy business back in 1935. At the lime Soule was running a fly-tying business for L.L. Bean, Inc., the Freeport sporting-goods mail-order house, and on occasion he went gunning for ducks with the late L.L. himself. "Old L.L. had a ragtag set of round-bottom wooden tollers that skittered, bobbed and pitched like seagoing rocking horses in the slightest chop," Soule recalls. "Once the opening-day barrage was over, and with it the age of innocence for the birds working the bay, all those little decoys did was flare the blacks. And L.L.'s old smokepole, a great heavy 12-gauge Remington automatic fitted with a nine-shot extension magazine, didn't help much either."

After one particularly frustrating morning on the bay, Soule drove to Portland, scrounged up some old insulation cork from two abandoned refrigeration trucks, and made a dozen black-duck decoys in his basement. "They were pretty crude," Soule admits, "but they had flat bottoms and keels, and they acted pretty natural on the water. The first time we shot over them we got a bunch of blacks, and L.L. was so impressed that he offered to find a spot in his catalog for cork decoys if I would make them. So I guess you might say I got my start in a duck blind. And don't listen to my friends. It's not true that I've been living in a duck blind ever since. Anyway, it's all in the pursuit of pure decoy research."

With L.L.'s approval, Soule and several helpers began turning out cork decoys on the second floor of Bean's factory-store. Soule has since branched out on his own to a rambling wooden "factory" overlooking Casco Bay, where he annually turns out some 10,000 hunting tollers—blacks, mallards, whistlers, pintails, scaup and canvasbacks, as well as brant and Canada geese—and 5,000 hand-painted decorative decoys for collectors and gift shops. "A lawyer from Portsmouth, N.H. came in to Bean's one day and asked me to make him some oversize tollers to use on Merrymeeting Bay," Soule recalls. "It wasn't a new idea, really. Goose shooters have always used big tollers, and we were already making coastal decoys which are a bit larger than average. But this lawyer wanted something even bigger. Merrymeeting Bay has always been gummed up with gunners, and he figured on outdecoying them. So I made him up 12 magnum blacks. They were so huge—21 inches long and 10 inches wide—that I really didn't hold out much hope for them. I never heard from that lawyer again, but the following season Ransom Kelley, who guides duck hunters on Merrymeeting, called me up. He wanted several dozen magnums right away. He was pretty excited, too. He explained that this lawyer was decoying all the blacks on the bay. The ducks were flighting downriver, passing up everyone else's stool and sailing right into the lawyer's magnums. What made it so humiliating was that the lawyer and his friends would limit out every day on the dawn flight and then retire to the camp porch to drink coffee and watch the blacks continue to pour into their big tollers."

Since duck hunters are fanatic traditionalists, Soule's magnums have not exactly caught fire. But more New England coastal gunners are switching over every year, and Soule filled orders for some 6,000 magnum blacks in 1967. L.L. Bean, which handles 35% of Soule's hunting tollers, is moving them well, and some of their customers in Texas—naturally—are using Soule's magnum mallards with great success.

Why do magnums work so well? "It's not just that ducks can see them easier," says Soule. "Frankly, I think they give the ducks more confidence. When we used to shoot over standard-size tollers, the blacks would repeatedly circle them. Maybe we'd get one bunch out of five in close enough to shoot at. But when we switched to magnums we started getting three or four of every five bunches to swing the stool, and most times they circled only once and then came right in."

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