Born and raised duck hunting in Connecticut, Bill Embacher began carving traditional gunning decoys as a youngster. While he makes his living doing so today, it’s come to mean more than that. Ramsey and he got to know each other through a black duck travel decoy. How’d he get started carving decoys? Who influenced his carving style? What’s it like duck hunting in Connecticut, what’s his typical gunning rig, how’s hunting there changed–and how does practicing old-school traditions keep things on an even keel? What else did he recently build as a father-daughter project? Like scoring a single black duck hand-carved decoys, this episode is all about quality.
Carver of the Black Duck Travel Decoy
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Today I have got a great guest, friend of mine. And you know what? A lot of y’all that keep up with us in social media have been seeing this beautiful black duck travel decoy I’ve been traveling with. Slap full of signatures right now, and still got about three weeks left to go before we’re done with it. And the carver of that decoy Mr. Bill Embacher is today’s guest. Bill, how the heck are you today?
Bill Embacher: I am great, Ramsey, thanks for having me on.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, what’s the weather like up in Connecticut right now?
Bill Embacher: We are on our first day above freezing in a couple of weeks. It is sleeting and snowing and kind of crappy at the moment, but the rest of the week is going to be forties and sunny, so I am looking forward to that.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good man. I stopped by and saw you when I was up there in Connecticut this year, John and I did, and how did your season end up going?
Bill Embacher: It was a tough one. We never got the weather to really push good numbers of birds down. Same story from a lot of the country, I think this year it was a rough one. You know that last two weeks is kind of when I put my time in, so to speak, cause I know that’s our best bet. And even within those last two weeks this year, it just never happened for us.
Ramsey Russell: It was a grind. I hunted from September till about the first week of January then convention and everything else got me. And had some great hunts. I really did. I saw a lot of the country, met a lot of great people, saw just a lot of nooks and crannies, well I described the heartbeat of duck hunting, but it was a grind. I have talked to a duck hunters all day every day and I think a lot of hunters had a tough season, but now I will say this Connecticut was tough. That was a beautiful hunt. We got to see some great habitats and see some interesting things, but that was a tough hunt, man, that was tough hunting.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, we don’t have a lot of birds to play with here. It can definitely be difficult. You saw that. And again, we don’t get that cold. It’s just it’s rough. You make the best of it. There are definitely guys out there, younger guys mostly, like I used to be that could put the time in and scout and just get out every day and find those pockets of birds. But for your average guy, it’s tough man.
Growing Up with a Hardcore Waterfowl Dad
And when I grew up, you idolize your father. And that’s it. All I wanted to do was hunt ducks.
Ramsey Russell: So how did you actually get into duck hunting in Connecticut?
Bill Embacher: So my father was a hardcore waterfowl guy back in the seventies and eighties. And when I grew up, you idolize your father. And that’s it. All I wanted to do was hunt ducks. And he was also a woodworker. So in our basement was a wood shop and every book he had about duck hunting, waterfowl hunting, had decoy chapters on decoys, and furthermore every book has a chapter on Connecticut decoys because there’s so much history here. So that kind of all just came together and made me so to speak.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about a little bit of that. Describe to me growing up hunting with your dad? How old were you? What did you all hunt? Where did you all hunt? How did you all hunt?
Bill Embacher: So I found his old journals about my first full day. I was five years old where I saw sunrise and sunset from a duck blind. I don’t remember that day unfortunately and I can’t tell you which one it was from all the others, but lots of memories. He couldn’t wait for Saturday morning kind of thing every single week and of course occasionally. I couldn’t go for one reason or another and that just absolutely killed me. I remember waiting for him to come home and get to hold the ducks in hand see what he got on that day. And you know lots of good memories, lots of fond memories of all that.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of ducks mostly bring home?
Bill Embacher: Mostly mallards and black ducks. He was a puddle duck guy. It was a real treat to me when he brought home something different. To us, it was some type of sea duck or something just because they didn’t really target that stuff. So I think that kind of led to me as I got older, I really love diver hunting just because it’s, I don’t know, first of all it’s exciting as you well know, but just wanted me to go off in my own direction a little bit maybe, I am not sure.
Ramsey Russell: Do you still remember your first duck?
Bill Embacher: Oh, clearly. It was a hand buffle head shot from a homemade layout boat that my Dad and his friend built.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Bill Embacher: Yep, I’ll never forget that one.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me, did he make his own decoys?
Bill Embacher: He did not. That was something I took up on my own. We hunted over largely LL Bean decoys. Of course plastics in the mix always, but I always loved those LL bean decoys. And I am sure that contributed to wanting to make my own. Because the first many I made were modeled after those very rough copies of those of course, but those were the first ones I tried to copy and make my own.
Ramsey Russell: How old were you when you started carving there, Bill?
Bill Embacher: I could tell you exactly if I looked at the dates on my oldest decoys, but it was early 90s, which would have made me 12, 13, 14 in there somewhere.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a like a pretty young age to get into decoy carving I think.
Bill Embacher: Yeah again, it stemmed from all that stuff of looking at all those old books of wooden decoys and then having all that stuff available to me with the wood shop and just being, the duck hunting just drove me so much at that age. I just wanted to be involved in every inch of it. And that was a good way at that age to keep the season going, as it does now of course, keep the season going right through the summer. Until October came back around, I could carve decoys and just involve myself as much as I could.
Ramsey Russell: It’s interesting to me that Connecticut, part of New England, is heavily civilized now. A lot of people, a lot going on, like John and I described, it’s a lot of progressive politics with regards to firearms, and handguns, and permits, and hunting. It struck me as odd that to get my hunting license in Connecticut I had to show up personally to present mine. And look, we all took Hunter’s Ed in Mississippi, everybody I knew in high school, we all took it ninth grade, half the semester was Driver’s Ed and the other half was Hunter’s Ed. And it didn’t matter if you hunted and fished, or what you did, you freaking showed up to Coach Roy’s class and got educated on hunter safety, which was a great class, but there really is a significant amount of waterfowl and decoy history in that state because it does go back so far. What have you learned or what do you know about the history of decoy carving in Connecticut and waterfowl hunting in Connecticut?
All About Waterfowl Hunting & Decoying in Connecticut
It’s the functionality of the decoy, not the realism and the true art.
Bill Embacher: So being that we are so, Long Island Sound where you hunted nearby, anyway and I know you saw it. That was the hub of waterfowl for New York City especially when you could commercially hunt ducks and sell them. So you had guys of course with no commercially available decoys easily anyway, they make their own. And that I am sure just built on itself and get some guys making just absolute working blocks. But then you have some artist’s type that started making pretty fancy decoys and it grew from there some of my idols like Shane Wheeler and others that hunted the Connecticut coast and some of the same places I hunt. It’s just, I always thought that was really cool to have so much history here, and you know, think back and hunt over wooden decoys just like they did back 100 years ago.
Ramsey Russell: That’s interesting. You know what, we stopped by your shop got a little bit of touch up paint on some of the wear and tear and this old black duck travel decoy. And got to looking around your shop and saw some pretty cool stuff and you had some old decoys. I remember seeing some of those old LL bean decoys and then I remember seeing some buffle head decoys that were made out of buoys. And you said, oh yeah. And you were in high school, I mean you were maybe a freshman or sophomore in high school when you made those decoys.
Bill Embacher: Yep, beyond like herders, there wasn’t really a lot of commercially available buffle head. And of course they’re really an easy target. There’s lots of them around. But furthermore I didn’t really have the money to buy too many decoys. And again, Dad didn’t have buffle heads. He had mallards and blacks. So I had seen where somebody took the old crab pots and lobster pots, cut them in half and turned them into decoys. So I just started doing that on my own. And that rig was maybe a dozen or so buffle heads, and a dozen or so golden eye that I made, and they’ve kind of whittled down over the years because so many people, yourself saw them and thought they were interesting. So I gift them away or trade them away or whatever. I just have a few of my own now.
Ramsey Russell: Bill, I have got it in my game room. Now I don’t collect, I know a lot of these guys, rich guys collect folk art expensive decoys. And I don’t have the money or the inclination for that. You know what speaks to me is as a hunter, and I do have a bunch of decoys, I do collect decoys, but I tend to air towards those kinds of decoys for some reason. I like simple. I like homemade. I like functional. Boy, kudos, it has got BB holes in it. And which means it worked. And one of my favorite decoys and I may have told this story before. I was in a far flung place called Azerbaijan and saw a bunch of trash or something kind of off in the grass. And obviously it was decoys of some sort. And the guy just waved me off, he wouldn’t go look at him. And we get back and talk to the translator and he hooked up a boat and off we go to go find him. And the guy just explained that those were his just crappy homemade decoys and they were nothing to him. They were literally, I have never unwrapped it, but it was literally like sheet insulation, foam insulation it feels like inside. It wrapped with black plastic. And it was wrapped with like a very small diameter copper mountain filament, just wrapped like with twine, like you’d wrap a package and placed out on the water and had decoy holes. And it looks to me like a really crude coot. But obviously he had killed ducks over. They hunt for keeps over there. And he had killed them. And I love old decoys like that. And I saw some last time I was in Azerbaijan, I actually, as it got light I could see a spread. I glassed it to make sure it was decoys instead of ducks. But I walked all the way over thinking I might find me another prize and really all it was that they had about four dozen, two liter pop bottles, Clorox bottles, and things of that nature, stuck inside old wool socks, green, blue, brown, black, white, and just old wool socks and anchored. And I am thinking, and I walked over to where they’ve been standing and hunting over that spread, and it was just knee deep in holes. So obviously they had shot ducks over those decoys. That kind of stuff speaks to me. It’s the functionality of the decoy, not the realism and the true art. I am just not geared that way. And hearing you describe growing up duck hunting, it seems to be kind of a function of practicality. You were a kid, you didn’t have a lot of money for the kind of ducks you wanted to hunt. So you just made your own.
Bill Embacher: Yep, absolutely. And it’s funny you’re telling your story, I am thinking about well what’s my favorite decoy that I have in my collection. And it’s similar that be a couple of them that are old. They have lead shot holes in them. I have no idea what their origin was. One of them I found in an antique shop and you know I got it for 20 bucks. It was made by Abercrombie and Fitch, believe it or not, before they were who they are now.
Ramsey Russell: Back when they were hunting company. They were actually a kind of a hunting outfitting company.
Bill Embacher: That’s right. And so I have a black duck of theirs. It’s all full of lead shot. And I don’t know the story behind it. I just found it very cheap shop and that one is super cool to me. It’s just old and beat up and I don’t think it’s worth more than 20 bucks, but it is to me. And then another one I have is another old wooden broad bill decoy and into the bottom of it is burned C. Bartlett. So I did some research and he was one of the original waterfowler in coastal Connecticut that took out high end clientele New York City that wanted to go shoot ducks.
Ramsey Russell: What era would that have been?
Bill Embacher: Oh, I think twenties or thirties. Hold me to that, I’d have to get the book out and look, but it was kind of when that whole thing first started guiding waterfowl hunting, so to speak, but that’s what I had to say about the C. Bartlett. Charles Bartlett. So I think that’s a really cool decoy because that obviously saw some good days back then, have some story to tell, if they could talk.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention: How a 12 Year-Old Starts Carving Decoys
The first one I remember finishing was a hand buffle head. And that I think I had a scrap of wood that just looked at about the right size. I drew the pattern on it and carved it, painted it up and it now sits in my brother’s collection.
Ramsey Russell: How did you get started carving decoys? You are little boy, your dad’s got a shop. You want to start carving some of these decoys for buffle heads or golden eyes or whatever you’re trying to hunt besides mallards, black ducks. What was the inspiration? How did you make a pattern? I mean, where did you go from there? How did a 12 year old kid start carving decoys?
Bill Embacher: Yeah, it was all those books that dad had. But the one I remember was by Harry Shorts and it was a pattern book. I can’t remember exactly where I got it, but I chose the littlest duck because I thought it would be easiest. So I chose the ruddy duck, and dad got me the wood, and I drew out the pattern, and I didn’t have a band saw. So it was a coping saw. And probably got about an inch down per night just working my way around that pattern with the coping saw and chipped away, and chipped away at it. And I never actually finished that one that just took too much. And this is before I was 12 or 14 was, I would guess I was maybe 10 or so doing that. But I never finished that one up. I don’t even know where it is anymore. The first one I remember finishing was a hand buffle head. And that I think I had a scrap of wood that just looked at about the right size. I drew the pattern on it and carved it, painted it up and it now sits in my brother’s collection.
Ramsey Russell: Really.
Bill Embacher: That will never go anywhere, that’s signed and dated. That’s the first done when I did. But in between that ruddy duck that I didn’t finish and that buffle head, I am sure there were a handful of not quite finished, or I got mad or got frustrated or what, you know, what have you? But that I started with and just went –
Ramsey Russell: You’re breaking up a little bit now. But you got to sit still wherever you are you got a good signal, sit still.
Bill Embacher: Okay sorry, here you go.
Ramsey Russell: It’ll drive some of us deaf people crazy, I have learned later in life, I am about half deaf. But anyway, you were telling me, does your brother still hunt with that decoy?
Bill Embacher: No, that one it wasn’t made well enough that I would trust it in water too much.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. What kind of wood? What kind of material was it made from?
Bill Embacher: That was made out of cork? I couldn’t tell you where I got scrap cork, whether I broke up an old decoy or what. But that’s what it’s made from.
Ramsey Russell: Now, you were telling me previously that at some point time you were a state biologist, you are a water wildlife biologist, I am assuming.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, that’s correct. I start I went to school at University of Rhode Island. Got my degree in Wildlife Management. I did all the seasonal things for several years and worked my way from research technician up to a biologist, finally. And after several years of working for the government, I just kind of decided that wasn’t for me anymore. And instead I’d always been a hobbyist decoy carver, of course, and did waterfowl taxidermy.
Ramsey Russell: What did you do for the state Bill?
Bill Embacher: I was a neurobiologist. So I did lots of deer research.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Bill Embacher: White tail deer.
Ramsey Russell: It’s interesting to me the parallels because I come listen to you described growing up duck hunting and carving and being all eat up with the outdoors, which I am assuming led to a career in wildlife management.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, it did. I would have preferred obviously to be a waterfowl biologist, but as you know or anybody who’s pursued that field, he knows it’s a very difficult road. And just kind of the way things fell together for me was that there was openings in the deer, lots of deer work and I was able to make that happen. And then all of a sudden it’s a few years later and I did help out on a lot of waterfowl projects. I got to do some cool stuff. I did a lot of duck banding and goose banding. I even got to do some sea duck banding at one point. But it just never materialized into a full out career, whereas the deer work was just sort of always there, and I was able to make a living at it for quite a few years.
Ramsey Russell: If you get a job with a state and federal government as a biologist and there are way more students and want to be then there are actual jobs in that profession. You got to kind of wear a lot of different hats to get by.
Bill Embacher: You certainly do. One of the things I had heard one of the other biologists telling me at one point was you go to be a wildlife biologist thinking that you’re going to spend your time managing wildlife and what you really end up doing is managing people.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a tremendous amount of truth to that. I got a degree, I stuck it out. It took longer and more coursework to get a wildlife degree at Mississippi State than forestry, but I stuck it out. And my diploma was ready even though I had gone through the wildlife course and forestry. And to get a job in the system, I got a job in forestry which made perfect sense to me because it was habitat management. You know a lot of what we were doing with the federal government was the missive of wildlife habitat and that’s kind of how I got to get involved with waterfowl and native game and different things. So it really worked out well until I too realized this isn’t really what I want to do. It’s funny because when I was a kid and in college, what you want to do in the field of wildlife is the tech stuff, the bottom rung, the entry level stuff, that’s what you want to do. You want to trap bobcats, and put on radio collars, and go out and do veg work, and all that fun stuff. That’s the really fun stuff. The problem is kind of hard to feed a family when you start getting older. It is bottom rung. So you got to move up and then moving up most jobs move up into more administrative responsibility. And if you go all the way you realize I am a bureaucrat, this isn’t fun. This isn’t what I signed up for, man. I want to go out and put my hands on critters.
Bill Embacher: Obviously you had the same path I did and that’s exactly what I found it. It’s so politically driven. And again, circle back to a little bit about what we’re saying about Connecticut. It’s so much politics involved. It stops being fun and it’s not why I got into it, certainly that drove my decision to get out.
How Decoy Carving as a Profession All Came Together
Ramsey Russell: One thing that has always interested me about decoys and why I love to meet with carver such as yourself is I can remember being a young man, not a kid, but a young man. I had a job. I’d gotten married. And I went up north to hunt. Spend Christmas with my in-laws and go out and duck down a little bit. And I have told this story, I’ll just glib over it. But we actually walked into this old camp house and he had some old decoys that he and his dad had bought. This was up in Maryland. And describe to me where I could get my hands on some of those decoys and I went and looked around and found a couple of cheap ones. I wish I still had them. I actually killed ducks over those. And I am still in touch with the carver himself who has continued carving all these decades later. And I went out not knowing nothing about nothing and ordered some cork and went and got me an old hickory Chicago cutlery butcher knife and a cope saw and wood saw. And every now and again I’d go in and borrow a band saw, go into somebody’s shop. But boy, they hated me because that freaking dark cork would get everywhere. And I guarantee you it’s steel up in them shops that I used. But I started carving some decoys and I still got a lot of the decoys and I still take them out. But the thing about it is I am not a decoy carver. I am not artistic, creative enough to really make great functional art, but I was good enough to make some for myself. And when I think back to that era because I carved them for years. And I actually had the bright idea that I was going to be a decoy carver and that didn’t work out. I never could be consistent with my patterns. And I’d be sitting there flying off carving ahead or carving something, and thinking, and doing things, and they all kind of look a little bit different. And the pressure to make a really nice looking decoy was just too much. I mean, I sold a few. I have given away a bunch over the years and now I am down to about four dozen that I just hang on to. You know what I am saying? They just piled up at my campus, and I take them out and float them, and I love to kill ducks over my own decoys. But for me personally, it was two-fold. It was one: hours in the shop by myself listening to music or something and just carving, just taking a square piece of wood and then I’d top profile, side profile them when I had my own band saw. And then I’d walk through steps and so I might spend a couple of weeks just shaping them. Then I might spend a couple of weeks just finally upgraded to a Fordham and I’d shape those heads. And it was just the hours spent lost thinking and feeling about duck hunting as I was making those decoys and putting them together. And then paint them and take them out and hunt with them. And that was part of it. And the other part of it, besides just the being in the moment in the shop, and I used Atlantic white pine for the heads and it was the most sensuous smell when that Fordham would light up that wood, it smelled so good, like a lady’s perfume. And I would I just get lost in the moment of, you know, I’d have just buckets of heads and different faces and bodies styled up in different phases, and then I put them together, and go on about it. But really and truly, the most rewarding part for me was going out and even though they look crude compared to store bought and everything else, it was a, a sense of connection between those hours thinking of ducks and being in that moment to looking at these ducks on the water. And they look pretty dang good really on the water and killing ducks over it. It took it to a whole another level that I really didn’t expect it to go to. How was your trajectory, you’re little boy, you’re carving, but now you’re a grown man with a family of your own and you’re still carving in your carving as a business. What was your chronology of doing all this? How did it all come together?
Bill Embacher: I mean I always did it hobbyist like I had said and I can’t tell you when I sold the first one because I don’t remember, but friends see him and man, those are really nice how much? And it kind of catch you off guard. Like I don’t know just sort of think about it come up with a price and one leaves it to, and then somebody wants a pair of this or that and it’s just all of a sudden, I was selling decoys and I don’t know that I ever really set out to do it that way. It just sort of happened. But it just continued to grow and of course the internet just came along and I started posting pictures of decoys. So rather than just getting inquiries from friends or friends of friends now, all of a sudden I am getting inquiries from people across the country, you know how much for decoys and it just sort of took on a life of its own that I didn’t really expect or anticipate. But it’s grown from there to the point now where here I am sitting talking to you about a decoy that I got the car that’s traveled around the world, like it’s kind of a just surreal in a way. I don’t know if that’s a good answer what you’re looking for.
Ramsey Russell: Well, yeah, I mean it just when you come to a fork in the road, take it. I have said it once, I have said it a million times, a lot of times you just start down this path of life and you find yourself somewhere different than what you had envisioned 10,20,30 years ago, you know what I am saying? And it’s good, speaking of this travel decoy. I had bought some gadwalls from you before. And I just carved mallards black ducks and we aren’t got a lot of black ducks, but it’s a simple paint scheme for me. It works good out there on the water. The ducks don’t know the difference. And I paint green wings but that’s really just kind of my, that’s it, actually I picked up, it’s been about four years ago now. I had about two dozen finished decoys. Carved but unpainted, sitting and collecting dust for 20 something years since I moved and no longer have a shop, and I just got a wild hair, decided I was going to paint them and committed my summer and fall to paint out those decoys. That was about the last dozen and a half decoys. I still got six teal decoys. I am saving for a special blue wing rig. But other than that I just kind of got them knocked out and I enjoyed it. My painting got better, and it’s just not practicing for 20 years, but I realized I am better at drakes and solid black ducks than I am, excuse me, at details, like the hens drive me crazy.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, hens are difficult for sure. I have been doing it for however many years and I still don’t feel as though I have painted a really nice hen. It’s just, there’s so many, so many ways to do it and I don’t know, it’s just part of being an artist. Maybe that you never happy with your work. So one of these days, hopefully I do ahead that I look at it. I am really proud of, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The Heartbeat of Duck Hunting
My goal when I carve a decoy is simple as possible but to get the essence of that species.
Ramsey Russell: The travel decoy concept started, as I started getting out and traveling more and more, I wish – I don’t have many regrets in life – but I wish I had conceived this idea 20 years ago. I wish I had the signature of every hunter I have ever shared a blind with on these decoys because I treasure it. You know it really and truly is like walking through a game room, and I have got straps and decoys, and dead ducks, and first and last, and banded, and this and that, but as I start looking at those mementos and telling stories, it’s almost always about the story that involves the people. And that became very important to me. And so I had this idea, I said, you know what, I am going to about three years ago, I decided I am going to start traveling and seeing a lot of the US. I do a lot of the world but I want to see more of the United States because I think we’ve got something very singularly unique about hunting here in America than hunting elsewhere. And I hunted a lot of people and I just decided I hunt with a lot of outfitters but I want to get and begin hunting more with “regular people like myself”. Just regular people I want because that is the heartbeat of duck hunting. And I just decided to memorialize those people and those experiences in those places that I was going to start with a travel decoy. And I had this, I bought a black duck, a very simple beautiful wooden black duck off eBay. I got $30 in it. I wouldn’t sell it for 500. It’s a beautiful decoy. No idea who carved it. And it was sitting over at camp on the cabinet. And I said I am going to get that decoy, that’s what I am going to sign. And I went over to get that decoy and right next to it with an old foam herders decoy green wing teal. And when I saw that decoy I remembered where I got it, who I got it from. And he was one of the first clients I ever had, that may not know it, and him not knowing at the time, it was one of those kind of clients when you’re young and you’re starting a business you really need that kind of encouragement sometimes just to push you further down the road. And he was so funny that there were mornings I would wake up and my stomach hurt like I’d been doing sit ups from laughing. But he had demons. He suffered a part of the human condition, and his life ended tragically, and I had that decoy, and I took it and said, you know what, that story and what that guy meant to me, and who he was in the time we shared – because even though his life ended tragically – I do have photos in my game room of he and I sitting there holding a bunch of birds down in Uruguay or Argentina or a fishing trip we went on. And it just occurred to me one day as I was looking at those photos that we all, you know, life isn’t wild flowers and rainbows, real life is sometimes tough. And I had spent some of the best times of that man’s life with him on some of these hunts. And I decided I was going that was the decoy. Well, let me tell you all a Styrofoam decoy is terrible for science. And the ink runs off, and wears off, and yada, and it just got banged up and just, but it’s hanging prominently and so I decided when I was going to do this again that I wanted a better decoy. And I gave it some thought and I said, you know what a simple black duck without any paint any feathers. I am going to use the signatures as stippling myself. And it turned into, have you ever seen that show, Bill, with Tom Hanks when he was working for FedEx and crashed on that island was, I can’t remember the name of?
Bill Embacher: Castaway.
Ramsey Russell: Remember Wilson is his soccer ball?
Bill Embacher: Of course, I do yup.
Ramsey Russell: This decoy has become my Wilson. I call it Wilson because anytime I travel, I mean, I am just going to carry with me and just, man, it’s with me. And it started off, I was just going to take it around the United States. But it’s been to Peru. It’s been to South Africa. It’s been to 3 Canadian provinces, 15 US states. A lot of hometown places. I took it to conventions because some handful of the people that I record and meet with I am unable to hunt with. And I began to commemorate that. And now I am about three weeks Argentina, excuse me, three weeks in Mexico. And it’ll be full up, I don’t know where I’d put another signature after three weeks down in Mexico with all the clients and staff. But it was it just kind of took a life of its own and for me personal, I don’t, I can’t remember a lot of ducks I kill, but I can remember a lot of people and I remember a lot of times and I can remember how I felt. And this travel decoy, my little Wilson every year has taken a life of its own. And your decoy, I am not going to put words in your mouth, but it’s a very simple, very old school gunning decoy. And so it will float out on the water if I wanted to. How would you describe it? It’s real easy once you start floating other people’s decoys. I can look out through my spread and I don’t have just mine if I am hunting over homemade spread, it’s usually other carvers to. And I can look right at them and know who they are. And I can be online and see that same carvers, decoys, and know exactly who carved it because everybody’s got their own little nuance, their own little style, the way they make the bill, their favorite pose, their paint schemes. And how would you describe your decoys?
Bill Embacher: My goal when I carve a decoy is simple as possible but to get the essence of that species. So black duck is kind of an easy one. Just it’s shape. It is your generic duck shape. It’s mallard black duck, it’s that and then the simplest way to knock out a black duck paint scheme is just that dark chocolate brown and it’s going to look good. And then I just want to convey that, and all the other species, of course, some of them are a lot more difficult. I am sitting here looking at a swatch in right in front of me and that’s not so simple to pull off in a simple paint scheme, but that’s my goal, whatever I make is I want it to be kind of as simple as possible. Some of that old school flair to it because that’s the stuff I appreciate and go from there, try not to get too carried away with them, but keep them looking good.
Ramsey Russell: So you talk about this old school flair, how would you describe? What influences most affected the way you carve? Was it those old LL Bean style decoys? But I do see similarities in yours versus that.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, definitely those Bean decoys are a big influence. For those familiar, if you look at like the Stratford School Connecticut, old school, Shane Wheeler, and of course I am going to brain fart right now on the other names, but those old, especially black ducks and scoter decoys and broad bill decoys and they all have a certain look to them, that’s just very distinctively Connecticut. And that’s kind of always in the back of my mind when I am drawing a pattern, whether I do it on purpose or not at this point, it’s just sort of comes out I think. So that’s always going to be there. And as you’re saying like every carver has their own unique style and hopefully that’s mine, I shoot for that a little bit. But again, at this point I think it may be just, it’s coming out of my hands on its own.
Ramsey Russell: I remember when I was meeting with you were drinking coffee and looking around your game room, cause you do a little taxidermy, and we were looking at all your little collection of stuff. I mean you got a bunch of it, we’re going to talk about it, but I remember you describing to me that your decoy, your goal was just a simple fundamental gunner. Not the fanciest, not the most decorated, not the most realistic, but just a simple gunner.
Bill Embacher: That’s it what I want to make.
Ramsey Russell: That kind of decoy that really speaks to me. It just does it, that’s my kind of decoy. I just like a simple basic gunner and you talk about making them look the essence of the species. And I remember one time reading, I don’t know where, reading something about guys that time flies and this guy was reading, he was saying that to make whatever grasshopper that he didn’t look at a grasshopper, and try to make it look like that grasshopper, that what he would do is he would put that grasshopper on in an aquarium, and then he would look at it from the bottom, look at it through the water. And that’s what he tried to make, was something that looked like that grasshopper looks to a fish. And my point, I am making it this is like, you take any 20 or 30 carvers, and you lay out their black ducks, and some of them are more sophisticated. Some of them are more simple. Some of them are more elaborate. Some of them scratched the detail on the head. Some of them painted. So I mean, and they all look different when you say, oh, that’s so and so, but laid out on the water to a black duck, they all look the same.
Bill Embacher: That’s it.
Ramsey Russell: Crazy, isn’t it?
Bill Embacher: It is, yeah. The species we’ve talked about a little bit when you were here was gadwall because I had done something for you and the essence of a gadwall. Their head is almost square they have almost like a punk rock hair. Do you know just that species?
Ramsey Russell: That head shape is a lot of stuff can vary on a gadwall, but if the head shape, it doesn’t have that flat top, that long, rectangular stretch of crown, it’s off.
Bill Embacher: And that’s a gadwall. So that’s just, as I am mentioning, that’s something I shoot for when I drop a gadwall, that’s what I am looking at, is that square head and you build off of that. And every duck’s got something that is unique to that species that for those of us with the experience of 50 yards or 100 yards, you could look at the silhouette and say, that’s this, that’s a gadwall, that’s a wigeon, that’s a black duck. And that’s what I am going for.
Ramsey Russell: What’s your favorite species to carve or what do you find yourself carving the most as a Connecticut duck hunter and carver?
Bill Embacher: It’s got to be black duck. For all those reasons, there’s just so much history with them here and it’s a unique species to the East Coast for the most part. They’re just neat, and you just said, you could have 10 different black duck decoys done 10 different ways, but they’re all right. And they’re all cool, so just something about that.
Ramsey Russell: I think there is, but you don’t just carve decoys, it’s like when we were there, you showed me a project that you and your daughter had made. Talk about that, talk about building that.
Bill Embacher: So over the years, I guess it goes hand in hand with making my own decoys at some point I started, I was also going to make my own boats. And a friend of mine and I built a couple of pumpkin seed layouts in my dad’s basement, probably over 20 years ago, 25 years ago. And that grew into me building my own sneak boat from Zac Taylor’s book. I used those old plans and built an old cedar sneak boat that I still hunt from to this day. And then from there I had taken on some bigger boat projects but I you know to jump back a little bit, I had a TDB. When I was doing a lot of hunting 10, 15 years ago. Got a house, got a wife, got a kid sold the TDB which was probably a pretty common story. But came back around to where it was time that I wanted another duck boat. Spending a lot of time hunting again, just really wanted a dedicated duck boat. And I was going to buy one. And sort of got to realize like why would I buy a boat when I have the resources and the ability to build one. And what a perfect age that my daughter, eight years old, to help build a boat, and we’ll have that set of memories to have a boat for forever that we could hunt out of or do whatever. So over the course of the summer she and I spent several days weeks over the course of a couple of months and built a Garvey. That will be our new hunting boat from here on out. And you know of course we photo documented the whole thing and she’ll have those memories forever. Hopefully.
Ramsey Russell: You’re not ever selling it.
Bill Embacher: No way. That’s my boat, that’s staying here.
Ramsey Russell: What is unique about a Garvey regards your hunting situations in Connecticut? Where would you use that? What kind of habitat?
Connecticut Hunting Habits & History
How many decoys do you normally put out for hunting puddle ducks and divers?
Bill Embacher: So to be honest with you going in, I like the lines of it. it just, it appealed to me, I like the way that boat look, there’s a lot of hunting history with them, especially down in New Jersey. But I just liked it. But then this year obviously I finished it up and I took it hunting and I saw why duck hunters go to them so frequently. That upswept bow is great when you get into a little bit of a chop as we often do here in Long Island Sound. But furthermore it goes up on the bank really nicely and easily and then more importantly if the tide goes out on you a little bit, it comes back off the bank without too much effort. Rides nice, hunt really nice, just a nice stable platform for waterfowl hunting. And this year I hunted it in marshes, just anchored up into the edge of a marsh. And I also open water, hunted it for scooter and broad bell and it worked really nicely in that application as well. So it makes a really nice all around waterfowl hunting boat, and then I throw it full of wooden decoys in my wooden boat, and it’s like going back in time.
Ramsey Russell: What is the typical setup? You hunt the marsh, let’s say for black ducks. What how many decoys? What kind of decoys? And you’re hunting out of this classical Garvey boat which haven’t spent some time up around New Jersey, Barnegat Bay with those Garvey boats. So the real classic designs. How many decoys do you normally put out for hunting puddle ducks and divers?
Bill Embacher: If I am hunting puddle ducks like in a river scenario from the boat, which I really don’t do very often. It’s I usually use the boat more as a vehicle to get to and from, but if I am hunting from the boat, very few puddle duck decoys, you saw it here, most often you’re not going to see more than six or eight or 10 black ducks, maybe some mallards scattered in. Throwing a pintail for good luck sometimes if I am feeling like, but that’s about it. I typically don’t go very big on my decoy spreads. Divers, you know, anything from 2-3 dozen out to when I used to hunt a lot with the guys and run the layout boats, to put out 200 broad bill decoy was the norm, but those days are kind of past. We’re all a little bit older now. That’s a big undertaking, as you’re aware to run several layout boats, and the tender boat, and all those decoys.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a lot of work for a few ducks, isn’t it?
Bill Embacher: It sure is. It’s I can’t believe I am saying this, but it’s a little bit more of a young man’s game, and a group of four or five of us to hunt together a lot are all getting a little bit older, and have families and whatnot? And spending all day Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday out hunting is not really a thing anymore.
How Has Hunting in Connecticut Changed Over Time?
The amount of hunting pressure that I have seen, especially just in the past 10, has grown like I never thought it would.
Ramsey Russell: You’re still a young man. But how has hunting in Connecticut changed since you shot that first hand buffle head versus today?
Bill Embacher: Oh, it’s changed dramatically and especially in these past few years. The amount of hunting pressure that I have seen, especially just in the past 10, has grown like I never thought it would. I spent three or four years where all I did was duck hunt every day of the season, from October right through to January. And during the course of – in midweek – you rarely saw another duck hunter wherever you wanted to go. It didn’t matter. If you did see someone you knew who it was because it was one of the other 2-3 guys out there kind of did the same thing you did. Of course Saturdays are always busy. Nowadays, Wednesday might as well be a Saturday. I am not sure what’s changed, if there’s more guys into it, if it’s just schedules have changed, and especially since Covid everyone’s got a little bit different schedule. But I am not sure what that is. But man it’s any morning you want to hunt somewhere that’s a public spot. You’re having to get up early and make sure you get your spot because there’s no more having stuff to yourself as far as definitely say as well. It’s every year is different. You know that I think that’s a universal Past couple have definitely been a little slow. I am not sure how much pressure.
Ramsey Russell: Breaking up pretty bad Bill.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, I am not even moving. Sorry, Yeah I don’t know how much pressure affects, how many birds you see or if it’s a climate thing or what I am not educated enough to be able to say that. But it’s big changes in the past few years especially.
Ramsey Russell: Well, hunting pressure in and of itself is, to me becoming problematic in terms of quality hunting. Anywhere you go that there is far and few between the number of places on the US continent that you’re hunting unpressured ducks, and that presents its own problem in and of itself. And I have wondered sometimes when we talk about all the folks going out hunting and doing this, I wonder if it’s just kind of me getting older, and seeing younger guys like I used to be, out there gung ho for it. I mean I was that young guy one day that was mad at him. Once upon a time, I was really mad at him. And it was out there all the time. Getting up, didn’t mind getting up early back then. I didn’t need to sleep now I am older I need to sleep.
Bill Embacher: Right.
Ramsey Russell: What other changes besides hunting pressure and stuff like that have you seen? Do you find yourself targeting different species than you did when you were a young man or hunting them differently? But I mean now used to hunt with the TDB. Now you’re hunting with a handmade boat. Sure, and you’re hunting over your decoys. That’s a big difference for a lot of people.
Bill Embacher: It sure is. We used to again, younger days, younger man’s game, we hunted sea ducks quite a bit. That’s changed a lot too in the past several years. It went from, again, you never saw a sea duck hunter too, now everybody’s a sea duck hunter. I think technology has a lot to do that. I think the internet has a lot to do with that. People realizing that it’s a doable. You don’t need a big giant duck boat or hundreds of decoys. You can kind of do it. I don’t want to give people the wrong impression and make you think you can go out in a 14-foot aluminum boat and shoot eider. You certainly shouldn’t do that, but it does get done. And I think people are kind of realizing that when you pick your days, and you have decent equipment, you can get out and do it. And I am not sure if that wasn’t a known thing before the internet or what, but we never saw sea duck hunters and now everybody’s a sea duck hunter. So that’s changed a lot. And I can’t remember the last time I even shot eider, but man, back when we used to, it was every week we get out after them two or three times when the weather allowed, we go shoot eider and scoter and old squaw. Like I said weekly basis and I haven’t done that in years.
Ramsey Russell: It could just be a function of gravitating towards where there’s more opportunity for trigger pulling.
Bill Embacher: It certainly is that for a lot of people. When you go the other way, we’ve all heard how you age as a hunter and you start out just trying to get a duck and then it turns into get a limit and then to get in a specific limit and then you kind of work back the other way down. And that’s where I am at now. I really don’t need to go shoot a pile of eider anymore. It’s fun, but I just assume go out and try to shoot my two, or a couple of mallards, and maybe a pintail, or whatever might have you. But different priorities, I guess when you’re in the blind changes things a lot.
Favorite Sea Duck & Puddle Duck Recipes
Ramsey Russell: Bill, do you have a favorite duck recipe for sea ducks and for puddle ducks?
Bill Embacher: Sea ducks, I’ll usually do a chili. A lot of guys will tell you, you can’t eat them. That’s definitely not true. It’s just a matter of how long you keep them in brine. You don’t want to take a fresh eider and throw them on the grill. You’ll have a bad experience, but you can’t eat them. Puddle ducks, I think simple, stupid. You leave the skin on the breasts and you cook them breast down in a cast iron for about five minutes till that fat oozes out, and then flip it over and cook it for 2-3 more minutes in the fat. And you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a better meal than that as far as I am concerned.
Ramsey Russell: That is the best way to cook a regular duck. And I think about, you talk about eating the eider and eating sea ducks. They’re stronger, they’re gamey, but a bird that always in line of decoys, we’re talking about a bird that always makes me wonder is the fact that a lot of the old decoy carvers up in your part of the world used red-breasted Organza decoy. And some of my favorite old antique, expensive decoys are those like I have seen these old red organza that had horse hair sticking out the back for the crown. And I am thinking, man, these guys weren’t wasting their time making these decoys if they weren’t eating them. They were eating those old fish eaters. And I wonder how they were cooking them, but I’d love to know how they were cooking without stinking out the house.
Bill Embacher: Yeah, I am not sure. That’s one I’ll admit to have not figured out yet. I have tried. We have a lot of the big common, more dancers here too. I typically don’t shoot them because of that reason right there. I have cooked a handful of them and I just can’t get one. It’s done much for me yet. So I just don’t shoot them red breasted. Obviously they’re really special birds. They’re really cool looking, but as far as table fare, they’re rough.
Ramsey Russell: I am not going there. I have shot a few red breasted for taxidermy and whatnot for the collection, but not for any other reason. Yeah, it reminds me of the time, there was a hunter at camp that went out by himself and shot some wood ducks and some hooded organza’s. And we were looking around at the ducks, I am thinking, God, what’s he going to do with those? And a year or two or three later we’re all sitting at camp and he just announced flatly, he doesn’t eat ducks. His wife was an excellent cook, one of the best cooks he’d ever had. And one time he brought some ducks home and cooked them and they stunk the house up so bad. They threw the whole pot away and I am thinking, I know what you had in that pot. But when I was there, you were baking bread. So you are decoy carver, a boat builder, and a bread baker.
Bill Embacher: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Is this something you and your daughter started, did you learn to bake bread from your mom? How did you get into baking bread?
Bill Embacher: That’s a funny thing, unrelated. My grandfather was a baker, but it didn’t have anything to do with that. When I was a wildlife biologist, I took a traveling job and we lived out of hotel rooms for months on end. And one of the other biologists baked bread. And when you’re stuck in a hotel room for months on end, you just kind of pick up new and different hobbies, something to do, something to kill the time. And so I learned from him and brought it home with me. And now I have been doing it for several years. That’s it. It’s not a romantic story in any way. It’s just was something to do at a time when I needed something to do and I have kept it up.
Ramsey Russell: One thing I remember a lot about the few days I spent hunting in Connecticut is the bread. I guess there’s subway around because it’s a big conglomeration, but we didn’t go to Subway. We went and got sandwiches at places that had existed for 70, or 80, or 90 years. Little family businesses that would make just real sub sandwiches on bread that was baked there daily. It’s like the half dozen places we went to eat. Nobody, we didn’t eat store bought bread, we ate bread that was baked right there. And I am thinking, man, this is a quality of living now that I could take back home to Mississippi. That’s the way it should be.
Bill Embacher: I don’t know. You would know better. You’ve traveled so much. That’s a regional thing around here. But man, every time I drive by a Subway, and no offense to them, but just for a lack of anybody else. I wonder why people go there because there are so many options as far as little ma and pa sandwich shops in this area that why wouldn’t you choose them? And even if there’s one you don’t like, there’s just another one on the next corner that you can go to instead. And you’ll get a much better product that’s, I don’t know if homemade is the right word, but certainly it’s not.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, it makes all the difference in the world. Speaking of Subway, I read one time that there are countries on earth that ban Subway because they have so much sugar in their bread that is not classified as bread in said country. Think about that. It’s so refined that some countries don’t even consider it to be bread.
Bill Embacher: That’s the truth. And some of the other fast food chains with their meat and there was something going around with that.
Ramsey Russell: I haven’t had a fast food burger in so long. It’s not even funny. Life is too short man, I want real food. Well, Bill, I look forward to getting back up to Connecticut, and I hope – I would like to jump in that Garvey with you and maybe go shoot a black duck.
Bill Embacher: Alright, I’d love to have you, take you out and sit on some of the same places that these old decoy carvers did, and as you saw the hunting might not be the greatest here, that there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of Connecticut as a waterfowl hunting destination. But we’ll have a good time and we can have a nice old-school hunt and maybe even get to shoot a bird or two. That would be great.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Bill, tell everybody how they can get in touch with you?
Bill Embacher: Yeah, certainly my social media, Instagram or Facebook, you can send me a DM and get in touch with me about taxidermy or decoy carving.
Ramsey Russell: That’s Bill Embacher Decoys.
Bill Embacher: That’s correct Bill Embacher on Facebook. Bill Embacher Decoys on Instagram. And that’s how you get me. That’s it. It is a bit of a list at this point, but I will get to you and do what I can. That’s it.
Ramsey Russell: Good, thank you very much for joining us. Folks, thank you all for listening to today’s episode with decoy carver, Connecticut, decoy carver, Mr. Bill Embacher. We appreciate you all. See you next time.
Bill Embacher: Thanks for having me.
Ramsey Russell: Yes sir, thank you all see you next time.