Portland — November 15, 2006 — Ronnie Burrell has been hunting ducks for about 70 years, but his hearing shows the strain of a lifetime spent working around B-29’s, woodsaws and shotguns, so he is less likely to hear birds flush out of the marsh, and therefore is less likely to shoot.
Burrell, a 77-year-old Air Force veteran, recently sat for an interview at the kitchen table in the home of his longtime friend Buster Prout, who is 66. Since they were young men, the two have worked as hunting guides on nearby Merrymeeting Bay, a sportsman’s paradise an hour’s drive northeast of Portland, Me.
They speak of ducks with tenderness, authority and wonder.
State and federal wildlife authorities have imposed various regulations on duck hunting over the decades, perhaps the most significant being a ban on lead shot (most hunters now use steel).
However skeptical Burrell and Prout might have been at first about some of the restrictions, they would now like to see them tightened. More than anything, they would welcome a swift end to the use of motorized duck decoys, which have exploded in popularity since the late 1990s.
The robotic ducks, which are often battery powered and remote controlled, have been a fatal attraction for many a jaded mallard. But purists say they are unethical, and wonder if declining duck populations can support the burden of such an innovation.
The scorn that Burrell and Prout feel for the contraptions is so complete that it extends all the way to their pronunciation of the name Roboduk, an industry-leading motorized-decoy producer in California.
“You’ve got an uphill battle now, there’s so many robeeducks out there,” Burrell said. “But them old-timers never figured they’d do away with live decoys, or lead shot.”
While motorized decoys are banned outright in Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon, and partly restricted in several other states, their popularity throughout the nation has soared.
“If you picked up our catalog six years ago and compared it to our catalog today, the number of motion decoys has proliferated tremendously,” said David Draper, a spokesman for Cabela’s, the Nebraska-based outdoor goods retailer. “You’ve gone from just one model to about 20 or more.”
The motorized flock has expanded to include decoys that rock gently in the water (“The Wobbler”), decoys that churn the water behind them (“The Thrasher”) and decoys that move by virtue of an underwater screw propeller (“The Torpedo”).
But the most conspicuous category is spinning-wing decoys. Their gyrations mimic the action of ducks coming in for a water landing and they are designed to catch the attention of a passing flock looking for temporary food or shelter.
Often hunters mount such a decoy on a stick so it seems to hover just over a flotilla of stationary decoys, enhancing the realism of the regular decoy spread.
A November 2005 poll on the Web site of Field and Stream magazine showed that 54 percent of those responding thought it was ethical to use spinning-wing decoys, both those that are motorized and those that are wind-powered. But the old-school duck hunters of Bowdoinham have drawn a line in the tide flats, and are leaving the voltage-powered decoys on the other side.
Burrell is old enough to recall when men from this small town went into the bay’s marshes with live ducks, tying them to anchors to lure migrating flocks into range — a practice that was outlawed in the 1930s.
“That was a deadly way of hunting, what I heard,” Burrell said, adding that he has never used live decoys. “I heard of one of them that had fliers — birds that they trained to go out and join flocks and bring them into range.”
Prout, a soft-spoken man who builds specialized duck-hunting boats, nodded at the story. “I don’t know how they knew which ones to shoot at,” he said.
The two friends say that the water in their beloved bay has gotten much cleaner since mills upstream on the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers were decommissioned. The duck population has shrunk, they say, even though they estimate that only a tenth as many hunters come to visit.
“I’ve seen a big decline since we started gunning on the bay,” Prout said. “I remember seeing 25,000-30,000 ducks out there. Now you see 2,000 and you think you’ve seen a lot of them.”
For Prout, the whole debate is less about right and wrong and more about the satisfaction of hard-earned rewards. He is dismayed that novice hunters are using the gadgets to hunt as successfully as their more experienced counterparts.
“You can’t blame the guys that are using them, and we’ve got friends that use them, but I’d rather work for my birds,” said Prout, whose favorite method is to sneak up on ducks in his low hand-built “gunning float,” which features a single sculling oar pointing out the stern like a fish tail.
Lying on his back on the floor of the boat, with marsh grass piled up on the bow, he works the oar back and forth with one hand while clutching a 12 gauge in the other. There is no squeaking oarlock, flashing paddle or rumbling motor to scare the ducks into flushing.
“There’s quite a thrill to it,” Prout said. “You start half a mile away sometimes, and finally you’re right aboard of them, and you’re laying so you just see over the bow as the ducks get closer. That gets the old heart pounding.”