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Recalling my Woods & Waters duck mentors: Tom Shank

Posted 9/5/18

Woods & Waters mentors are those individuals that have made a lasting impact on you. They knew how to do things and if you needed advice, they were the ones to turn to.

They were always …

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Recalling my Woods & Waters duck mentors: Tom Shank

The group of duck calls was given to Tom Shank from Mrs. John Barnes. The wooden mallard hen decoy was given to him many years ago from James “Ginny” Gallagher. The cork black duck was given to Shank by Tim Taylor. “The above items are priceless to me and are a remembrance of a true mentor,” Shank said.
The group of duck calls was given to Tom Shank from Mrs. John Barnes. The wooden mallard hen decoy was given to him many years ago from James “Ginny” Gallagher. The cork black duck was given to Shank by Tim Taylor. “The above items are priceless to me and are a remembrance of a true mentor,” Shank said.
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Woods & Waters mentors are those individuals that have made a lasting impact on you. They knew how to do things and if you needed advice, they were the ones to turn to.

They were always available to the “rookie.”  Their knowledge was obtained through years of experience. Trial and error made them the go to reference. I had the great opportunity during my Susquehanna River water fowling to know three such individuals.

My Woods & Water mentors were not found on television, hunting and fishing for a million dollar business. They weren’t creating video coverage and television shows which advertises merchandise that is well beyond the means of the average hunter or fisherman.

These hunting movie stars are putting on a show for the audience. Hunts are staged and the places they hunt are well beyond the reaches of our pocketbook. Techniques aren’t applicable and the equipment that is shown only the rich and famous can afford.

My mentors are just like you or me with one big exception. They were experienced in what they did and their expertise was home grown. Local folks hunting and fishing the same river, creek, or mountaintop in our home state of Pennsylvania. That is why I looked no further than my backyard to my outdoor mentors.

When it came to the Susquehanna River around Middletown and Highspire, three such mentors came and entered my life. All three were water fowlers and when it came to ducks they knew the game — John Barnes, James “Ginny” Gallagher and Tim Taylor. I was fortunate to have hunted with all three where I would watch and observe their methods of taking ducks.

All three hunted from stationary water blinds as their main hunting spot. Decoys would be massed around their grassy floating blinds. The blinds would float on pontoons and appeared like a large bushy pile protruding from an island head or weed patch.

As ducks would pass in the vicinity, calling would take place to lure the overhead ducks to within shotgun range. I was told not to overcall and be soft and enticing with my notes.

The call of choice was a wooden Faulks which could easily produce realistic quacks and the best note of all the feeding chuckle. The stationary blind was one of their methods but the one they loved and would consistently harvest ducks and geese was their “running set” and the use of a sneak boat. I was taken out on several sneak attacks and will never forget the feeling and the anticipation of the stealth approach of “ducking.”

A running set of decoys would involve many decoys. Mostly decoys that would resemble the migrating of ducks making their trip south for the winter.

Puddle ducks like black, mallard, teal, and wood ducks would be their early season set-up. As the season would progress, their decoy spread would always have the diving variety like bluebills and goldeneyes, since those were late migraters.

Sometimes the set would have 50 to 75 decoys anchored separately. For example, 20 decoys would be at the top of the string and be spread out, then an open gap and another group of decoys. This arrangement would continue until all the decoys would be anchored in place.

The open water where the set was placed, had to be away from land or grass. This would give the ducks a false sense of security. Seeing a large mass of decoys on the open water, the real ducks would land among the decoys. There is strength and security in numbers even in the duck world.

With the ducks or geese comfortably in the decoys, the sneak-boat would be launched. A typical sneak-boat at the time was a cut down canoe with a flat decking front and back. An open cockpit allowed two hunters to sit and to paddle. A rudder with cables would be attached on the stern with two cable lines running on either side of the boat to a foot lever or cable stirrups. If you pushed either right or left on the foot apparatus the cable attachment on the rudder would move the rudder right or left. This action of the rudder moved the boat in the desired direction as you manually paddled.

The sneak boat would be painted a drab color like brown or black which was to appear as a floating log or debris. You would propel the boat from the stationary blind toward the York County shoreline in an angle toward the decoys always keeping the ducks to your right and the shoreline and mountain on your left. This allowed the boat to blend into the trees and vegetation of the mountain from the waterfowl.

A typical sneak-boat run would take half an hour or more since you were paddling upstream and a considerable distance from your launch location. The paddler in the back would be the one in charge and would quietly tell you to put your paddle away and hold your gun.

He would continue a slow and deliberate paddle toward the decoys keeping them in a direct intercept. The real ducks would keep within the decoy spread believing that the floating sneak boat was just a log or something natural floating downstream.

The moment of truth would come when the sneak boat would be turned and the folding canvas curtain would be pulled down from the rear paddler exposing both hunters. The words, “take them” and the shotguns would erupt.

I was on such a sneak with John Barnes that ducks filled the air and I was so amazed at the numbers that I looked at them instead of shooting. I did hear about that one for quite some time. Many similar sneaks was part of my mentor years until I obtained my own sneak boat handed down from Ginny Gallagher. I was on my own and what I learned from my mentors carried over into my sneak-boat ducking.

My mentors made decoys in the spring and summer and blind building was as much fun as hunting itself. They hunted throughout the season and when it became bitter cold the more they hunted. All three were inspirational to me as a young river hunter. I will never forget the tips and experiences I had with them.

One tip I was given and want to convey is to keep the decoys cleaned and void of grass and debris build-up. When decoy lines are hung up with debris, they nose dive and float unnatural. Long anchor lines are a must with good lead anchors to hold the current.

My story is to all who engage in Woods & Waters, that outdoor mentors can be found right here. It could be a relative, a neighbor, or a person you meet along the river or stream, woods or field. They are out there and their local knowledge and experience can help you in the sport you love.

I was fortunate to have known three of the best. They will remain in my Woods & Waters memory book forever.   

Tom Shank has been writing Woods and Waters for the Press & Journal for about 10 years. His expertise has been gained through more than 50 years hunting, fishing, trapping and exploring the full gamut of nature. The Susquehanna River and his cabin in Lycoming County are his true loves. Woods and Waters is his playground in life, and to write about it for the Press & Journal is a dream come true.