Delbert (Cigar) Daisey concedes he has been befuddled once or twice in his weatherworn life by water and game wardens.
During half a century as a trapper, fisherman, shark killer and outlaw duck hunter, Daisey has learned to expect sun in the morning and hurricanes by afternoon. But few things have surprised him more than the fuss people are making over his hand-carved wooden duck decoys.
"I used to use them for firewood," said Daisey, who has green eyes and a small, puckered mouth that looks like it is pinching a grin. "Now they're too expensive to hunt with."
Daisey is king of the Chincoteague decoy carvers--the gruffest, stub-fingered artists that ever graced a gallery. Born on soggy land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, most were raised on hunting and fishing. Duck decoys were their bait. Carving and painting them was part of their job. And, until 20 years ago, few ever thought a wooden duck on water could be worth more than a dead one on land.
"I still don't claim to make any money at it," said Daisey, who has sold decoys for $400 and more that he once carved for a dollar each. "But it has helped out some."
Daisey spent last weekend with a few dozen carvers at a show in Chincoteague, an island that is famous for its wild ponies and duck decoys. Wooden canvasbacks, green winged teals, pintails and mergansers rode cafeteria tables in a high school auditorium while their makers sat and watched the collectors who now flock to their art the way the ducks and geese used to.
That interest, fueled by an appreciation for fine craftsmanship and nostalgia for an American era that is fast changing, has spawned decoy associations, a national circuit of shows with thousands of dollars in prize money and collectors' publications with names like Decoy Fever.
It also has created a new source of income for watermen at a time when the market for bay clams has been torpedoed by ocean clammers, oysters have been afflicted by an unknown condition that has left many small and black and the ducks and geese have declined in numbers.
"The water's got so bad, I'm going to have to do something," said Cork McGee, a 51-year-old waterman and waterfowl hunter who has been carving decoys too long to remember when he started but has just begun selling them in the last three years. "I'm too old to find anything else to do."
It is ironic that some of Chincoteague's oldtimers are making a living off imitations of the ducks and geese they once hunted so mercilessly. There still are duck hunters who remember a time before there were any restrictions on waterfowl hunting, when ducks were killed by the hundreds with scatterguns and the only limits were the time and expertise of the hunter. And there are more who hunted after the arrival of bag limits and seasons, who admit their livelihood was dependent on how sneaky they could be.
"I was 17 before I ever heard of a game law or game warden," said Tom Reed, an 80-year-old former outlaw hunter turned conservationist. "It was a hard life getting by the game warden."
Reed, who now gets paid to talk about his outlaw past, revealed to an audience in Chincoteague some of the tricks of his old trade, such as hiding ducks in the hollowed bodies of floating decoys and concealing a shotgun in a special bracket under the seat of his boat.
"I was like an eagle or fox," said Reed. "You might think it's wrong for a fox to steal a fat chicken out of the henhouse, but the fox doesn't think so. Gunning was all I knew and I had a family to raise."
Daisey is another confessed outlaw hunter. He figures that he has killed at least 30,000 ducks in his career and that, he says, in spite of being a bad shot. He got the nickname Cigar from an episode in his poaching days when he inadvertently left a handful of stogies in a game warden's trap he had relieved of its feathered catch.
Daisey now is reformed and an ardent conservationist. In 1977, when the Refuge Waterfowl Museum was opened on Chincoteague, Daisey was appointed carver in residence.
Carvers like Daisey and McGee are the heart and soul of the booming decoy business. But they are being outnumbered by a younger generation of carvers. Many of them are the sons and daughters of the oldtimers who were brought up making their own decoys for hunting, but cannot make their livings on the water.
Then there are others, professional artists bred in cities from Maine to Florida, who have moved to places like Chincoteague and taken up the decoy carving craft because they are smart enough to recognize a good thing when they see it. Some of them have produced wooden works of breathtaking detail and beauty. Others, say the pioneers in the craft, have badly missed the mark.
"I see people who have great hands, real talent for carving," says Daisey. "But some of them don't know what a real duck looks like. In the end they just don't have it."
As for the future of decoy carving, Daisey thinks the more the old ways disappear, the more valuable his wooden baits will become.
"In times of high inflation," said Daisey, "people want to spend money on artifacts."