Cap’n Gary Bragg
Still Makes Wooden Geese
By Aycock Brown
(Originally published November 13, 1938)
Migratory wildfowl, ducks, geese and brant will be more plentiful along
the coast of North Carolina this year  than in several seasons.
Already the professional guides who will serve the gunning sportsmen
who will be coming down for the waterfowl shooting are making
preparations to take care of their parties.
Lawton Howard with Ducks:
If you are cruising on Pamlico or many of the other coastal sounds and
bays at this season and see what you think is a new beacon in the
distance, the chances are that the “beacon” will turn out
to be a recently constructed blind, erected by some guide who is
expecting parties down for the gunning with the opening of the season
on November 15.
If you stroll around any one of several communities along the coast,
Davis, Atlantic, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Hatteras, Manteo or others, as
the migratory wildfowl open season approaches, you will note many of
the residents at work in small outhouses getting their decoys ready for
use. You will see some of them making new decoys, because now that it
is unlawful to use live geese, brant or ducks for the purpose of
attracting their wild cousins within gun range it takes more wooden
decoys to attract game near a blind or stand. [The use of live decoys
was forbidden in 1935.]
But back to the first sentence and why wildfowl will be more plentiful
In 1930 for some unknown reason to which no satisfactory explanation
has been made eel grass disappeared from the sound and bay bottoms of
North Carolina’s coast and as for that matter the entire coast
from way down south to New Brunswick.
With the disappearance of eel grass there was noted an almost immediate
shortage of game along the coast. On Ocracoke Island during the winter
and spring of 1930-31 wildfowl in large numbers literally starved to
death. It was nothing unusual to ride or walk along the beaches of the
island and sight not just a few but hundreds of geese and brant so
weakened (apparently from food shortage) that they could not fly. It
was an easy matter to catch them, and many were caught to be fed awhile
by their captors and then released.
The Biological Survey experts were not quick to realize the seriousness
of this famine among wildfowl, but when they did, the three months open
season was reduced to 30 days and for the past two or three years
during which time the season has been shortened wildfowl gunning, once
an important wintertime method for hundreds of guides to gain a
livelihood, dropped to almost nothing. It is true that the duck
shooting in the vicinity of Davis and Atlantic continued fair, and it
was usually easy when weather conditions were right to get your bag
limit of geese and ducks at Mattamuskeet, Hatteras and Ocracoke, but
often the game would be so poor and “green” that it would
be unfit to eat.
But this year it is a different story. Eel grass has returned in larger
quantities than since 1928 or 1929. The 1938-39 Federal wildfowl season
has been lengthened. This year it will be a 45-day season opening
November 15. Persons who once made an excellent livelihood during the
winter time serving as guides are looking forward to new business this
winter. They are building blinds and getting their wooden decoys in
shape. Many are at work as this story is written on the construction of
new decoys. Decoy making is an art but the old-time guides stick to
their homemade type instead of those which are offered for sale by the
mail order houses and sporting goods stores.
Brant Decoy by Pinta Williams:
Captain Gary Bragg [1881-1954] of Ocracoke Island is one of the old
timers who still prefers to shoot game or have parties which he is
guiding shoot game over decoys he has made. In his decoy house near his
Cedar Grove Inn on Ocracoke Island, are stands of geese, duck and brant
decoys numbering several hundreds. In a pound near by are his live
decoys which have been penned by the time this story appears in print.
They are penned because during the gunning season a domesticated
decoy’s life is in danger if permitted to roam around the shores.
But Federal regulations will not permit the shooting of game over live
decoys. As a result, there are hundreds of Canada wild geese decoys
(alive) unemployed in each community of the coast and outer coast.
Captain Bragg was born on Ocracoke Island, over 65 years ago. Since he
was 15, except for the time during his youth he might have served
before the mast on coastwise vessels or was in the West Indian trade,
he has pent winters on Ocracoke. And winters on Ocracoke means wildfowl
Years ago, few sportsmen came to the coast for the wildfowl gunning,
because game was plentiful on every bay and sound of the country.
During these days, Captain Bragg, like many other residents of Ocracoke
and outer banks communities, went market hunting [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_hunters]
during the winter months. In those days, from a market standpoint, the
demand for Red Head ducks was far greater than the demand for Canada
geese, brant or other species of wild duck. If market hunting had not
been curbed, many species of migratory wildfowl today would be extinct.
Today it is just too bad for anyone to try and sell any kind of
wildfowl on the market – if arrested on the charge the offender
pays aq heavy penalty.
After the market hunting was stopped, many of the professional gunners
became professional guides. Captain Bragg is one of the old-time market
hunters who has changed to a modern day guide. Although he has tried
shooting over the factory-made decoys brought to the island by some of
his parties, he still prefers those which he has mad himself and as a
decoy maker he is an expert.
Proper Wood Important
The proper kind of wood is an important factor when a person starts to
make a decoy. Captain Bragg and 90 per cent of the decoy makers along
the coast today use juniper or cypress because both of these woods when
thoroughly seasoned are easy to carve and almost as light as cork.
Canada Goose Decoy by Lawrence Howard:
In many of the Outer Banks communities, the decoy makers see abandoned
telephone poles of the Coast Guard lines. Through the years, these
poles have become thoroughly seasoned and are easy to shape into bodies
of a decoy. Only a few tools are used in making a decoy. For instance,
Captain Bragg in the accompanying photo is shown making a Canada goose
decoy. The tools he uses includes a handsaw, a hatchet, a drawing knife
of regulation size and a smaller one for use on the heads, and his
pocket knife. After he has located an old telephone pole, his first
move is to saw off a chunk from which he can carve a body of
approximately the same size as a live goose.
Taking this chunk measuring about two feet in length between his knees
and resting one end on a solid block lying on the ground he is ready to
start the preliminary work of shaping the body with an ordinary
hatchet. After the chunk begins to take shape he uses his drawing knife
to add the proper curves to the breast and rump and the base of the
neck. By the time the body has taken shape he has probably worked a
couple of hours depending, of course, on how easy the wood cuts.
Gary Bragg Working on a Decoy:
Next an important phase of making a decoy comes – the carving of
the head. The head and neck will be made of solid hardwood. Quite
frequently the head is made from a forked red cedar limb, which not
only has the crude shape of a goose or waterfowl’s head, but is
also substantial and will not break. If you have ever visited the
outhouses and work shops in communities along the outer banks and
wondered what would be done with those forked cedar limbs, you can stop
wondering now. They were destined to become the carved head of a wooden
decoy. In shaping the head Captain Bragg uses his small drawing knife
and his pocket knife. If he works fast his head will be pretty well
shaped up within an hour.
Next move is to fit the head on the body. This is a very important part
of the job. Long finishing nails are used, and even they are usually
good for but one season due to rust and the heads have to be renailed
the following year before painting time. With the head and neck
attached solidly to the body you have your decoy in shape to be
painted. Painting a Canada goose decoy is an easy job, but the have got
to know exactly where to put your black and white paints which are
used. The lower part of the rump and the throat of the head are painted
white. The remainder of the body is painted solid black. It is true
that this is not the exact color of the wild goose you will kill, but
if you can tell a wooden decoy bouncing on the water 100 or even 50
yards away from a live, wild goose, you are an expert. Especially if it
is a windy day, and you who have hunted wildfowl know that unless it is
a windy day you might as well stay at home, or go fishing.
Last move in the making of a decoy is attaching the anchor. Usually on
the belly side of the decoy are nailed strips of lead or metal to serve
as ballast and deep the decoy upright while it floats on the water. But
to prevent the decoy from floating away it is necessary to anchor it.
Many guides use heavy pieces of iron which they have found along the
beach on old ship-wrecks as anchors, but the majority of today cast
their own mushroom type anchors from lead they have accumulated or send
to foundries on the mainland to have them made. The anchor is attached
to the decoy with a heavy cord, which will not break the first
season it is used, but if not changed by the following year is liable
to break quickly after it has been placed near a blind where the tides
are running strong or the wind is blowing a good clip.
Gary Bragg with a Stand of Decoys:
Captain Bragg along with other professional guides are glad that the
season opens November 15 this year, two weeks earlier than last
season. They are glad that the bag limit on ducks of most species will
be 10 daily, that three re-heads, canvasbacks and buffleheads may be
killed each day this season. Last year they were protected. They are
glad that the hunter can kill five geese each day, but sorry that there
will be no open season on brant. Especially is the latter true in the
Ocracoke region where Captain Bragg lives, because waters within a
radius of 20 miles of Ocracoke is the sole winter feeding grounds of
brant, the fast flying waterfowl which in size is halfway between
a duck and a goose – and by far the favorite feast of the
islanders and sportsmen who have had an opportunity to eat them.
Ocracoke duck hunting guides: https://www.ocracokenavigator.com/category/recreation/
A history of live decoys: http://edecoy.org/livedecoy.html
NCWRC 2016-17 Seasons and Limits for Waterfowl Hunting: http://www.ncwildlife.org/Hunting/Seasons-Limits#5555196-waterfowl
NC Decoys: http://ncpedia.org/decoys