Delbert (Cigar) Daisey, a legendary duck poacher on this marshy Eastern Shore Island, admits to being a lousy shot.
There's irony in this, considering the poacher's own career statistics: He says that he once killed 40 ducks with one shot and that he wrung the necks of 102 ducks in three minutes one sunny morning. Daisey claims to have killed about 30,000 ducks in his 52 years, but some wildlife authorities suspect the figure is closer to 100,000.
Irony, of course, is little understood by a duck. This is especially true of the legions of red-breasted mergansers, pin tails, green-wing teals, curlews, mallards and black ducks that between 1940 and 1965 fell victim to a cigar-chomping poacher who took no pride in marksmanship.
During his peak poaching years, when Daisey was supplying ducks for congressmen, judges, lawyers, diplomats and other pillars of Washington society, his joy was to sneak up on a flock of swimming ducks, line up as many as possible and blast away.
"If I could shoot five or six at once, that made me real happy. It saved ammumition, too," said Daisey, a red-faced, green-eyed waterman who grew up on this little coastal island "shooting every damn thing that crawled, creeped or flew."
Is wasn't sport for Daisey, it was a living. In the years before tourists and their money made this island solvent, game officials say Chincoteaguers like Diasey couldn't find a job that paid better than poaching.
"The people on this island back in the '40s and '50s and before felt that the Lord gave them the ducks to do with as they want and nobody in Washington or Richmond has anything to do about it," said J. C. Apple, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Poachers like Daisey, who trapped 2,400 to 3,000 ducks a year and shot countless others, could sell a pair of ducks for $2.50 during the good years. Their $3,000-a-year poaching incomes were considered high in the years after World War II, but the work was not easy.
"It is the coldest, bitterest job in the world. I been frozen to death many times," said Daisey, whose winters have been spent on an open boat on the marshes here. He now has sever arthritis in his hands and says the cold has done something to his ears, making them feel "funny" all the time.
Daisey, who quit the poaching business in the 1960s when the federal government stiffened the jail penalties and sent undercover enforcement agents to the island, says he began his illegal killing before he turned 10 years old. He then killed songbirds with a BB gun and hung his bounty from his belt.
It was while duck poaching one night in 1945 on the game refuge at nearby Assateague Island that Daisey earned his nickname. Nicknames are a proud tradition among the people who grow up on Chincoteague. Men and women are known as Bird's Breat, Boo Lamb, Fishy, Glade Mud, Tiger and Frog. When a man dies, here the local funeral parlor places his nickname over the doorway in the viewing room. "If they didn't, we wouldn't know who was dead," said Daisey
Anyhow, Daisey stole all the ducks he could carry that night from a game warden's trap. During the theft, he dropped a handful of cigars in the trap. A game warden found the cigars the next morning and put out word that he was looking for a smoking man.
Although Daisey gave up cigars 10 years ago ("I was smoking 100 a week and I couldn't breath."), the nickname stuck.
Today Daisey is famous among the 3,000 or so people who grew up on this island. Down at the Poney Pines Restaurant and Lounge, he's known as a "catbird," a man who charms the ladies. He's been married three times and has worked as a trapper, fisherman, decoy maker, shark killer, blacksmith and, of all things, an ardent conservationist.
"He's been into everything. I don't think there's a whole lot that Cigar didn't do," said Clyde Romids, who's lived here since World War II.
As far Daisey's reputation as a poacher-turned-conservationist, Apple, at the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, said Daisey is like many of the older outlaw hunters.
"They are very concerned about the destruction of the habitat where there used to be so many ducks," said Apple. "Cigar now has very high-level-conservation attitudes. He has spent great effort helping us preserve the island's resources."
Daisey, himself, claims that all his poaching didn't do as much damage to the local duck population as pesticides and tourists have done. Indeed, federal wildlife officials say the duck population here has dropped dramatically since poaching was curtailed in the '60s and more people started vacationing here.
"There ducks need all the help they can get," said Daisey. And one of the things that he says doesn't help either the ducks or him is the summer crush of tourists, when the island population swells to about 14,000.
"Tourists are not the same kind of people we are. They drained the marshes here, to get rid of the mosquitoes. They made the island ugly. When they moved in, the first thing they told you is how dumb you are.
"Ain't nothin" good about the tourists except the money they leave here and I don't get none of that," said Daisey.
But Daisey is exaggerating when he claims that the tourists ignore him. He now works as the official decoy carver at a private museum here. Some of his handcarved decoys, which have won first place awards in world waterfowl carving competition, bring him $400 and more.
Daisey is also considering a book about his life with ducks and his knowledge of them. He says the book would sell. After all, Daisey said, "You can learn a lot from a duck." CAPTION: Picture 1, Delbert (Cigar) Daisey, a poacher-turned-conservationist, now carves duck decoys in a private museum on Chincoteague; Picture 2, For Daisey, poaching ducks was a living, not a sport.