O'Brien also brings a most practiced eye to decoy collecting. The art of decoy making is uniquely American, which is one of the attractions to O'Brien. "I get hooked on things that are purely American," he says.
The classic period of decoy making began in the mid-19th century with the advent of the breech-loading shotgun. In those days there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of waterfowl and an expanding and hungry populace. The period ended, says Historian William J. Mackey Jr., a friend of O'Brien's and author of American Bird Decoys, with the passage in 1918 of the Migratory Bird Treaty, which put a stop to market hunting. Perhaps the finest decoys were carved by Albert Laing and his followers of the Stratford, Conn. school. To O'Brien, Laing, who died in 1886, was "a Michelangelo," and O'Brien's collection includes a number of gems by Laing, among them: a black, a canvasback, a sleeping broadbill and a drake whistler in a tuck-head position.
O'Brien also has a number of decoys by Benjamin Holmes, Shang Wheeler, who died in 1949, and other members of the Stratford school. "The Stratford decoy tends to be a little bit oversized," says O'Brien, "always hollow, except for the cork bird, with the head its finest feature. The head is very realistic, tends to be quite puffy in the cheek and always has considerable detail in the bill. It's a sleek bird, not cluttered up. There is no wing carving, no feather carving. There is usually a crease down the back separating the wings, and in the cork bird the tail is frequently inlaid. Stratford decoys catch the overall impression of ducks. They're full-bodied, tapering to a flat bottom. They're not round like Jersey decoys. The Stratford birds had to take rough weather and big seas, and a dew-drop weight was normally used instead of a keel. I consider myself in the Stratford school, though a lot of my decoys are made with keels."
A friend, Tom Marshall, a former fieldman for Ducks Unlimited, admires O'Brien's carvings but deplores the keels as unnecessary. In turn, O'Brien is dismayed at Marshall's continued use of a number of original Shang Wheeler decoys in his working rig. In a voice somewhat reminiscent of Titus Moody's, Marshall says, "Shang made 'em to hunt over, not look at."
O'Brien's collection is very strong on New England shorebirds, especially decoys from Nantucket. "From a collecting standpoint, I enjoy the shorebirds more than the ducks," he says. The gem of the shorebird collection is a set of six Eskimo curlews that O'Brien acquired several years ago from a friend who is a seventh-generation Nantucketer. Now believed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew was avidly hunted on Nantucket during the 19th century. All told, O'Brien's decoy collection, displayed in a special room built onto his house, numbers perhaps 600 birds. It includes decoys from Connecticut, Chesapeake Bay (some of these are by Lee Dudley—"one of the greats"), Cape Cod, Maine, and Long Island. The collection is genuinely staggering to see. O'Brien first met Kenny Gleason, one of his hunting companions, when Gleason happened to come to the house to fix the phone. "When Gleason saw the decoys," O'Brien says, "we couldn't get him out of the house.
"There's a tremendous excitement in decoy collecting," O'Brien says. "There's a whole mystique to it. I never forget where good decoys are. Once I was on a trip up to Maine, and I stopped for gas. There was a sporting-goods store across the street, and in the window there were a number of Maine decoys, including a couple of mergansers. They were just like Tiffany jewels. I went in to talk—I use a soft approach, and this may cost me at times—but the owner wouldn't sell. I made two or three trips, all the way to Maine, but the owner still wouldn't sell. Last fall I put 60 decoys in my car, good decoys, and drove up to Maine. It took me 20 minutes to put all 60 on the floor, and after I finished I said to the owner, 'Now you suggest a trade.' He stepped back, looked and finally said, 'Oh, you win.' We made a trade. I got the mergansers, and he got three very good birds in return."
O'Brien's year begins the first week in October when he goes to New Brunswick, to shoot black duck and teal. In mid-October the season opens in Connecticut, and he begins shooting surface feeders—blacks, mallards, teal and widgeon—in marshes and on the Sound. His working rig generally consists of 36 absolutely stunning black ducks that he carved himself. Hunting inland marshes, he will use as few as two or three decoys because the clever blacks would be wary of a large rig in a small area. "I try to simulate the wild-duck situation," O'Brien says. Also, more things can go wrong with a big set in the marshes.
"When the inland water freezes over," O'Brien continues, "the ducks start to use the open water. Then I work with a fairly large rig of two to three dozen. You're trying to attract birds from a long distance. When we shoot from the seawalls where the birds feed on the rocks, I try to have a few decoys right close in. Some of these will be feeding decoys with the bills in the water. There will be other decoys 20 or 30 yards out, in a dew-drop shape. I try to leave something open in the middle, though that's not important for the black duck, which can land on a dime. Finally, I'll have some stringers or liners out of range. Three or four of my black ducks have high necks. They're watch birds. Few of the commercial decoys have high necks, but you watch blacks. There will always be a few with high necks. That's an alert bird, and I'll usually have a couple out in the middle of the rig, and the last high-neck bird will have a comfortable low-neck bird in front of him."
To O'Brien, the black duck is a marvelous bird. "They're the wariest," he says, "and you tend to be happier with fewer. They're very coordinated in the air and seem much more in control of what they're doing than the broadbill or canvasback."
When the first half of the split season closes in Connecticut in late October, O'Brien hunts for grouse and woodcock. In early December he begins duck hunting again. By now weather conditions have made the Sound perilous, and the best shooting is when the water is at its icy worst.