Late in January, O'Brien and his friends do most of their shooting from lieout boats anchored a few hundred yards from the lee shore where they try to hold steady in the calmer sea. "We'll put out a lot of broadbill decoys," he says. "The last day of last season, we put out about 100. Broadbill are very sociable birds—they like a lot of company. A very good setup is shaped like a fishhook. You follow the shank of the hook, come around to the barb and extenuate the barb.
"One of the great sights is the broadbill coming in. They'll come in quite high, and they'll see the rig. They'll spill the wind right out of their wings. They come down incredibly fast, and the next thing you know they're boring right in at you and landing right there in the hollow of the hook. All you see is black. The black head and the black chest. We let them come until they're not going to want to come anymore. Then we sit up and these birds go into a flare, and they really are moving. All of a sudden they turn from black into a tremendous pattern of black and white, and if the sun's out, they're really beautiful."
When the broadbill season ends on Jan. 31, O'Brien is depressed, though his wife Katie, he admits, "really has had her fill of it." But February and March are not lost time. In those months O'Brien does most of his serious contest carving for the U.S. National, which is held in mid-March. He spends hours studying his heads, going so far as to put them on the dashboard of his car so that he can study details on the drive to and from his office. "Another reason I drive to New York is so I can look out the window and watch the ducks," he says. "Even along the Harlem River by the Columbia boathouse, I see canvasback, broadbill and black duck."
In April, O'Brien forgets about ducks momentarily when he starts trout fishing. He has his own trout stream on his property and for a number of years he was entranced with the idea of breaking the world record for brook trout. But come summer, when O'Brien and his family vacation on Nantucket, he gets back to his carving, making decoy heads on the beach when the stripers and blues aren't hitting.
In September, O'Brien is busy getting ready for duck hunting. As befits a hunter of his ardor, he usually has several retrievers about the house. He trains them himself, but during the summer he may ship a dog off to a professional trainer for polishing. In the 1960s O'Brien competed in retriever field trials, and although he did well, it simply took too much time from real shooting.
O'Brien's passion for ducks has not gone unnoticed at his law firm. In a skit at the office party last Christmas, a young associate played the part of O'Brien dressed up in hunting clothes. O'Brien didn't complain. In fact, he wasn't around at the time; he was off on a duck hunt in Texas.