SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
September 27, 1971
Don O'Brien is a fanatic about wildfowl. But if his prize-winning collection of decoys seems out of this world, you should observe some of his hunting habits
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September 27, 1971

With A Quack, Quack Here

Don O'Brien is a fanatic about wildfowl. But if his prize-winning collection of decoys seems out of this world, you should observe some of his hunting habits

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The flagpole sways, and the wind rips the small-craft warning into shreds. The sea is an insane lather of whitecaps. Far to the east of Long Island Sound, the red edge of the sun slides over the horizon, flashing bolts of fire on the windowpanes of houses along the coast. Four miles out lies the granite-block seawall, slick with onionskin ice. The temperature is below 30�, and the forecast calls for continuing northwest winds. It is a time and place for normal persons to avoid, but Donal O'Brien Jr. arrives at the launching ramp with his boat, peers at the distant seawall and exclaims, "Gee. I can hardly wait to get out there!"

O'Brien is a duck hunter, a fanatic duck hunter. He loves ducks with such passion that a nephew calls him Uncle Duck. His decoy collection is one of the best in the country, and he himself is a superb amateur decoy maker whose carvings have won a number of best-in-shows at national and world championships. He is an excellent shot, and he trains tough, willing retrievers. A black Lab that he raised and sold, Why-gin Cork's Coot, has twice won the National Open Retriever Championship. For O'Brien, ducks have a magic that other creatures lack. When he shoots one, he does not toss it aside but smooths the feathers in admiration. When his wife and four children are asleep in their house in New Canaan, Conn. and the snow lies thick on the ground, O'Brien likes to slip out of the house to look at the birds in the moonlight.

By profession, O'Brien is a lawyer, a partner in a Wall Street law firm. "It's great to be able to come home from the office on a Friday night and know that at 4:30 Saturday morning I'm going to be getting up to shoot on the Sound," he says. "Duck hunting is very physical and very basic to me. I like the whole thing, feeling the cold, picking up the decoys, and when I am home on Sunday and think about what I did on Saturday, I'm revitalized and prepared to go back to the office to be civilized for five days." For a good part of the season. O'Brien risks his life getting revitalized for the office.

Shooting from the seawalls in the Sound ranks among the most dangerous pastimes known to American sportsmen. Some hunters get badly frostbitten, and others just disappear. Shooting off the coast of Maine can be risky, but usually there is a lobsterman or a fisherman around. In November, December and January, the Sound is a vast, blank piece of water exposed to the wind and waves with only ducks—and duck shooters—on the move; the sailors and fishermen have retired to the fireside. It is a hard trip out to the icy rocks, and one misstep into the chilling water can mean death, but for O'Brien the seawalls hold an unmatchable spell, although he admits, "I have a ball of fear in my stomach every time I go out."

A couple of years ago O'Brien and a friend. Bob Johnson, embarked at dawn for the four-mile run to one of the walls. The weather was rough, but they made the trip safely. With O'Brien bouncing up and down in the 16-foot outboard, Johnson clambered onto the rocks. He reached for an oar held by O'Brien to pull the boat in close but a swell rocked the boat and Johnson slipped into 60 feet of water. When he spluttered to the surface, O'Brien grabbed him by the scruff of the parka and pulled him into the boat. "It was freezing cold, about 10�," O'Brien recalls, "and I think Bob went into shock. He couldn't function. He was lying on the bottom of the boat. I told him to put his boots up in the air to drain the water. But he didn't have the strength."

O'Brien gunned the boat back to the ramp. He threw over the anchor, jumped out, ran ashore, got into his car and drove the trailer into the water. He climbed back into the boat, pulled in the anchor, started the engine and ran the boat straight up onto the trailer. He then got into the car and pulled the boat ashore, where he got Johnson out of it and out of his clothes. "I took my clothes off and gave them to him," O'Brien says. "I was left with long Johns and hip boots."

O'Brien took Johnson to a diner where he downed four or live cups of coffee. "He was absolutely gray and shaking," says O'Brien. "At nine o'clock we went into a package store, me in my long Johns and hip boots, and Bob all dressed up and walking like Frankenstein. The guy in the liquor store literally thought something was going to happen to him. He was scuttling along the walls, and I remember saying, 'Don't worry, we're not going to harm you, we're not going to rob your store, we're duck hunters, and this guy fell in.' We got a bottle of brandy, Bob drank it, and at 12 o'clock we were back on the wall, shooting."

Now 37, O'Brien was born in New York City. He became interested in ducks when he was five, and by the time he was 10 and began shooting with his father, he could identify every duck he saw. He even picked his prep school—Hotchkiss—and his colleges—Williams and the University of Virginia—for the hunting and fishing to be found around them. While in law school, O'Brien, who had a fondness for painting but no time, seriously started carving decoys because he could whittle away at a head between classes.

"The first thing I do in making a decoy is to draw the duck I have in mind," O'Brien says. "I'm working on a black duck now, and I decided I wanted a low head. I sketch to scale, and I may make 20 or 30 sketches, all freehand, and usually without a model in front of me. When I get something that appeals to me, I'll cut it out for my pattern." When all goes well, it takes O'Brien about half a day to make a shooting decoy and two days for a contest bird.

In 1966 O'Brien entered his first contest, the U.S. National on Long Island. He won best-in-show in the amateur decorative miniature class, an award he has won on two subsequent occasions. He prefers, however, to concentrate on the working-decoy division, the division in which there is the most competition. He was the U.S. National amateur champion in working decoys in 1969 and regained the title this year. In addition, he has won best-in-shows in 1969 and 1970 in the Maine contest and, this past June, in the first world championship, he won best-in-show in the working-decoy class and in the class for working-decoy pairs. Decoy contests are like dog shows in which classes are judged and the winners compete for best-in-show, and along the line O'Brien has won dozens of bests-in-class.

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