Hunting Ducks Over Art

Hunting Ducks Over Art
Hunting Ducks Over Art
Decoys were made for one purpose, and that was to kill ducks. It didn’t have to be a work of art … but every decoy maker had an idea of what they were supposed to look like.”
— Evans McKinney

By Steve Wright

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. – Capt. Bob Jobes could use more customers like the one who walked into his shop one day and said, “How much do you want for those decoys?”

“All of them?” Jobes replied.

“Yeah, all of them,” the man answered.

“He bought 50 that day, and now that guy has 650 of my decoys,” Jobes said. “When he was a kid he’d hunted over plastic decoys, and he’d always wanted to hunt over wooden decoys.”

Jobes, 51, is the older of two brothers who learned how to carve decoys from Robert Madison Mitchell, who is known as the “dean of decoy making.” It was Mitchell, born in 1901, who made Havre de Grace the self-proclaimed “Decoy Capital of the World.”

Jobes knows of a pair of Mitchell’s decoys that were bought for $10,000; he said older Mitchell decoys continue to sell for $3,000 to $4,000 apiece.

But a decoy-maker today has much different numbers to add in an effort to carve out a living. Jobes has long been a “waterman” – someone who makes his living in Chesapeake Bay. He gave it up for awhile, when making decoys paid the bills. He’s back now, running crab traps.

Check out the Havre De Grace Decoy Museum photo gallery:

“We grew up making decoys,” Jobes said of he and his younger brother Charles. “We made our living going out fishing and crabbing. I got out of that for about 10 years, but I’m back into it.

“People are filling up their gas tanks now instead of buying decoys. I never thought it would change, but it has. I tell my son to go get a job working for the government or something. You can’t fish and make decoys for a living anymore.”

It’s obvious Jobes is still trying to do that, though. When you step into his shop, a small building beside his house on a quiet street in Havre de Grace, it’s obvious the man has been working. Jobes still has a full head of hair, but it’s mostly gray now. A smudge of black paint marks his forehead. Three plastic laundry baskets full of finished decoys leave barely a walking path through the shop. They are on their way out to a waterfowl fundraising banquet. Sawdust lines the floor.

It’s a dreary, rainy mid-November day, and Jobes' mood matches the weather. He had a booth at the 41st annual Easton (Md.) Waterfowl Festival the previous week. Nothing happened there to improve his outlook.

“Everybody got into decoy collecting in the mid ‘70s,” Jobe said. “The various shows started in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the collecting craze took off. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was going big-time.

“But with this economy, everything has crashed. Traditions are changing. There’s a new generation, and they don’t have the hunting traditions that we have.”

There will always be people who collect wooden decoys, if not in the numbers Jobes would prefer. And there continues to be hunters who prefer shooting ducks lured by carved wooden blocks. It’s too late for Jobes to begin a new profession, so he’s left with picking up an old one – crabbing in Chesapeake Bay.

The decoy-making tradition won’t suddenly vanish from this town of 15,000 residents located at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum has preserved more than 1,200 decoys made by famous local carvers, like Mitchell, Charlie Bryan, Steve and Lem Ward, Paul Gibson, Bob Litzenberg, Evans McKinney and others.

The museum is more than just decoy-makers. It’s a great stroll back in time through the history of waterfowling. And you simply must include Chesapeake Bay in any discussion of North American duck hunting; it’s the birthplace of this outdoor sport in America.

Among the displays is a giant punt gun used in the days when ducks and geese were a significant source of protein for many Americans. Punt guns were like one-man cannons, mounted on the front of a boat and stuffed with lead shot or anything imaginable, including nails, that could wipe out a flock of sitting ducks. (Search for “punt guns” on YouTube if you want to see examples of what these guns could do.) Punt guns were outlawed in the early 1900s when declining waterfowl populations became a concern.

In his novel, Chesapeake, James Michener describes the use of an 11-foot, 6-inch punt gun that weighed 110 pounds. It was loaded with three-quarters of a pound of black powder and one-and-a-half pounds of No. 6 shot.  Burlap bags stuffed with pine needles were placed behind the gun’s stock to absorb the recoil that was powerful enough to rip a man’s shoulder from its socket.

The gun was mounted on the front deck of a small wooden boat that was quietly paddled near ducks gathered on the water at night. One shot could keep two Chesapeake Bay retrievers busy for hours. The chapter of Michener’s book entitled “The Watermen” provides a detailed look at how men made a living by waterfowl hunting and dredging oysters in Chesapeake Bay in the late 1800s.

Now, over a century later, the number of watermen is declining, like the number of decoy collectors, according to Jobes.

Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Billy, who also played in the Majors, were born in Havre de Grace.

“The Ripkens grew up playing baseball,” Jobes said. “My brother and I grew up making decoys.”

Even though he learned from a master, Jobes sounds like a man who wishes he’d done something else with his life.

“I just spent five or six thousand dollars to put a new coat of paint on all my crab pots,” Jobes said. “The cost of everything has gone up. Then you have to buy fuel and bait.”

When you read Michener’s book, you realize that the life of a waterman on Chesapeake Bay has never been easy. And it’s never been safe, combining that deadly duo of open water and winter weather. Now, from a financial standpoint, it may be harder than ever before.

The French general Lafayette, who became a Revolutionary War hero to Americans, provided the name for Havre de Grace. He thought it reminded him of the French seaport, Le Havre, which was originally named Le Havre-de-Grace, which translates to “harbor of grace.” The residents adopted the name in 1785.

Think about that: Seventeen eighty-five.

They’ve been decoying ducks here for a long time.

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