Tidewater Day Tripper - December 2009


Tidewater Day Tripping:
Duck Blinds - Sculptures on the Winter Bay
Bonna L. Nelson

   To some they are temporary human habitats from which to take aim and fire, but to me they are objects of interest, silent sculptures on the edges of the winter Bay and rivers. In the winter the intricate twig osprey nests resting on poles and markers are empty. In the winter most watercraft are not sailing or motoring on the water but rest on land awaiting spring. In the winter the Bay activity quiets. What are left to amaze are duck blinds standing sentry on the water or at water’s edge and the influx of ducks and geese who call the Chesapeake Bay their winter home with their cacophony of honks and quacks.
    Duck blinds seem more of a presence when the air is chill and boats are elsewhere. Built with wood, branches, twigs and brush, they are barely noticed in the summer. They all look the same. But in the hushed emptiness of winter, duck blind sculptures become more distinct. Duck blinds command the sea around them as they watch over winter’s migratory flock.
    Native Americans hunted waterfowl on the Bay for food and clothing and early settlers followed suit. Eventually, when there was enough food on the table, hunting waterfowl became a sporting tradition. Hunters formed gunning clubs, built duck blinds, and used a variety of methods to bring down birds, with negative cumulative effects. By the late 1800s the excessive numbers of waterfowl downed caused concern. Government began to regulate hunting times, bag limits, and types of boats, blinds, guns and ammunition used by hunters. Today, waterfowl hunting continues to be a Bay tradition, with hunting regulations ensuring that the waterfowl flocks will continue to flourish.
    A hunting blind is a camouflaged device designed to prevent detection of the hunter by the hunted. Blinds may also provide protection from the elements, wind, rain, snow and cold.
    Usually a blind on or near the water is called a duck blind even though it may be used to hunt geese. Duck blinds may also be found in the middle of grain fields.
    There is more to duck blinds than meets the eye. Some blinds are simple in design and some are quite elaborate and complex. Blinds may be temporary, permanent, land-based, or water-based. Blind types include coffin, camo mesh, boat, collapsible land or boat, magnum decoy, boathouse, pit, box or stilt. Natural blinds may be made in emergent vegetation, in driftwood, in shoreline willows, behind flooded timber, at fence lines or behind boulders. Blinds may hide a single hunter, or several hunters, as well as a dog and/or boat. Blinds may also have special amenities such as seats, heaters, shelves, cushions or rugs. I have seen some blinds that look like little cabins or tree houses!?!
    What is that saying about men and their toys or little boys and their toys? Pardon me, female hunters.
    Duck blinds must not only conceal the hunter but blend in with the surroundings so as not to arouse the suspicion of the hunted. The best blind camouflage is made from natural materials collected at the hunting site. I have seen cattails, driftwood, shoreline grasses, cedar and pine boughs, brush and tall weeds covering blinds and gracefully swaying in the breeze.
    The location of a duck blind is as important as it is with any real estate…location, location, location. The blind has to be located where the birds will land. This can be a disadvantage for permanent blinds where no waterfowl land and an advantage to a temporary or portable blind that can be easily dismantled and moved to another location. Waterfowl will land in a particular spot to feed, get out of the wind, rest, find safety, etc. Experienced hunters watch the patterns of waterfowl before determining an ideal location. And they realize that the pattern of the hunted may change as wind and weather changes, food supply runs out or too many hunters frighten them off.
    I recently had the privilege to get in on the ground floor of the building of a new duck blind. A complex operation at best. My husband, John, and some friends formed a goose hunting group. They knew that Byron Yarbrough’s Carpentry II class at St. Michaels High School likes to take on “real” woodworking projects. One member of the hunting group designed the blind with Yarbrough, a style called a “box blind.” The carpentry students called it the “Bentley” duck blind model, and they were proud of the finished product. According to Yarbrough, the students learned to plan, measure, mark, cut, assemble and install during the blind building project. They also used safety guidelines while building the blind, which they completed in 10 class days. Many of the students who made the blind hunt themselves
    The “Bentley” model is 5’ by 12’ with a rear door, swing seat, and roof. The floor is ¾” plywood on 2x4s on 16” centers. A shotgun shell/snack/beverage shelf was included. The front of the blind has a slot opening for observing and shooting. The students built the unit in separate partitions so that it is, in a sense, a pre-fab, is portable, and is easier to put up, take down and move to another location. All the wood used in the blind was pressure treated. The students built the blind to specifications and loaded it onto a truck for the hunting group to transport. The hunting group paid for all materials.
    The hunters met in early fall to assemble and paint the duck blind at a point on a local river. (Ideally the Bay duck blind location is away from residential areas, near corn or soybean fields and near water.) They first used a compass to determine the placement of the blind at a location facing southeast, away from prevailing northwest winds. Usually geese land into the wind in order to slow down for a controlled landing. So with a southeast-facing blind, hopefully the geese will fly toward the front of the blind. Next they cleared and leveled the ground where the blind was to be raised. Then they put down cinder blocks at four corners and in the middle, all flat and level. The floor was placed on top of the blocks and the blocks were adjusted again.
    They set the plywood sides in place and secured them to each other with galvanized screws. The roof was screwed on and tarpaper nailed to the roof. Four metal fence posts were hammered into the ground at each corner and screwed into the blind to prevent the wind from toppling the blind.
    Painting was next on the agenda. In and out. And what color paint do you think they used? You won’t believe it. “Old Goose” is a mottled greenish brown color made especially for painting duck blinds. It sort of looks like aged chocolate pudding.   Finally, they attached wire mesh to the sides of the blind. The camouflage, cedar greens boughs, the local natural vegetation in the area, was inserted into the mesh.
    I got the inside scoop that hunters may take cushions, coffee, donuts, egg sandwiches, guns, ammunition, dogs, goose calls, hand warmers and an assortment of other “necessities” to the blind on hunting day. They want to be comfortable, after all. Also, on hunting day the hunters will place molded plastic geese decoys in various locations around the blind to lure the geese into thinking it is a safe location to land, rest and eat. The exercise takes time in order to make some decoys look like they are feeding and some serving as scouts, but none too close to the blind. Many of the hunting techniques used today were learned from the practices of Native American hunters.
    The hunters wear camouflage pants and jackets, hats and waders (in case they have to go into the water to retrieve a downed bird). But hopefully one of the hunters will bring along an experienced dog, a retriever, to keep them company in the blind and retrieve the birds after shooting. Our golden retriever, Jake, is a favorite with the hunting group not because he is full of personality and knows it, but because he is an excellent retriever. A good retriever will ignore the decoys and dead birds and look for the wounded birds to bring back first and then bring in the dead birds. A good retriever can do a much better job of chasing down a wing-clipped goose than even the youngest, most athletic hunter.
    The experienced hunting group will assign one person to spot and call to the birds with a goose call. Hunters will take turns shooting. There are ethics or manners in a shoot; for example the person on the left should only shoot to the left for safety reasons. Currently, the limit is 2 geese per person per day. The hunters enjoy the male camaraderie and the hunting tradition of their forebears.
    Whether the sculpture on the Bay is occupied or unoccupied, they are mostly quiet. They blend in with the environment, making them pleasing to the eye. I would like to hang out in one someday, not to hunt, just to observe nature. I guess I could make my own and call it a nature observation blind. Of course, I would want a bench, cushions, rug, shelf, heater, donuts, coffee, hand warmers, binoculars, etc. On second thought I need to contact Mr. Yarbrough and his Carpentry II class to help me design and make a “Bentley” model nature observation blind…a new type of sculpture for the Bay!