Ramsey Russell meets with Bob Keeney, a 5th-generation Barnegat Bay duck hunter from Tuckerton, New Jersey. It was supposedly here, in what was formerly one of America’s largest waterfowl market hubs, that the earliest incarnations of hand-carved waterfowl decoys originated. It was here, for sure, that the deadly Barnegat Bay sneakbox hunting tradition began. What is a Barnegat Bay sneakbox, how’s it used, and how’d Keeney learn to make them at a very young age? What’s the traditional Barnegat Bay decoy rig, how important are black ducks to local hunters, and why is practicing these traditions important to young Keeney? What ever became of the hundreds of famous old duck clubs once occupying a nearby 30-mile stretch? What kind of coat did Babe Ruth once wear duck hunting and what became of it? Like a black duck form emerging slowly out of dense marsh fog, the past comes clearly into the present in today’s episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
Barnegat Bay New Jersey: Cradle of American Duck Hunting Traditions
South Jersey Duck Hunting and the Barnegat Bay Sneakbox
In the Barnegat Bay area, we used to have rafts of broadbills that would black out the day sky, they were so thick. They would just drift over, scull over to them, and fire the punt gun into the flock. Flocking, it was called.
Ramsey Russell: I’m still in New Jersey because it is Duck Season Somewhere, and today it is duck season in New Jersey. We went out and shot more black ducks and shot some brant. Shot a bonus Canada goose that was mixed up with the wrong crowd. He came in with those brant. I’m presently at the Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen’s Decoy Museum in Tuckerton, New Jersey [that was settled in 1698] Why? Well, because that’s where I wanted to meet today’s guest, Bob Keeney. New Jersey has got a very rich and colorful history in the annals of American duck hunting. I think y’all are going to find today’s conversation extremely interesting, like I did. Bob, how are you?
Bob Keeney: Good. How are you?
Ramsey Russell: I’m fine. Did you go duck hunting this morning?
Bob Keeney: No. I had to work this morning, but Monday morning, right before, I ended up going. We ended up getting a few black ducks, a goose, and—time will tell—there’s a little winged mallard hanging around the marsh somewhere that I couldn’t find. Neither could my dog.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I don’t know where to start. Well, I’m going to start here. What is the significance of New Jersey to duck hunting? Because if you asked the average duck hunter today—that did not live in the Atlantic Flyway, or especially in New Jersey—about New Jersey, they’d shrug and say, “Sopranos. Boardwalk Empire.” But, really, we’re almost in the cradle of American duck hunting, right here.
Bob Keeny: Yes, we are. That’s funny you say Sopranos. My cousin owns a club down in Arkansas. Shovelers Rest in Cash, Arkansas, which is about twenty minutes north of Claypool Reservoir. It’s about fifteen minutes from there. We were hunting, and this one old guy—he looked at me and said, “Shoot, you’re from Jersey? I thought you’d have gold chains on and slicked-back hair.” I’m like, “Well, first of all, I’m from South Jersey. There’s a big difference between New Jersey and South Jersey. New Jersey is basically all oil refineries and is just little New York’s puppets. South Jersey, we’re basically Alabama. We’re the same as the South.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all talk different than Alabama, but you know what it really is? South Jersey Is wooded, it’s forested. There’s a lot of water, a lot of duck hunters. I would say that it’s a lot more like Alabama than New York City. That’s for damn sure.
Bob Keeney: But back to what you asked: the tradition of gunning, or duck hunting, in South Jersey—New Jersey, in general—has dated back till the early 1700’s when settlers first showed up. In the winter months, they saw all these ducks flying by. They had crude weapons, the flintlock, and they needed it. They wanted to try to get it. In 1836 in the Tuckerton-West Creek area, a man named Hazelton Seaman created a gunning boat called a Devil’s Coffin to come up into the shallow water, and marsh, and gun the ducks. Well, after a while, the name was changed to Barnegat Bay Sneakbox. So the sneakbox originates. It’s twelve foot-long, four and half foot-wide. Shallow draft and a displacement hull. You could row it, sail it. Now, you can put an outboard on it. They started gunning, and, during the time, it was just crude market gunning. You’d go out there with a 2-gauge, 4-gauge, and a punt gun, and just flock them. In the Barnegat Bay area, we used to have rafts of broadbills that would black out the day sky, they were so thick. They would just drift over, scull over to them, and fire the punt gun into the flock. Flocking, it was called. Around the
1890’s, I believe early 1900s, that was outlawed federally. So that just went into sportsman hunting, and hunting to survive, after the market hunting stopped. Which also turned around to South Jersey’s famous gun clubs being made.
Hand-carved decoys originated in Tuckerton, New Jersey area?
Ramsey Russell: Well, back up just a minute, Bob. You were telling me something, earlier today, about the decoys and about the significance of where Tuckerton is located. How your thoughts are that the decoy, the carved decoy, originated here.
Bob Keeney: Yes. Tuckerton and the Barnegat Bay decoyer. Tuckerton decoy. Within a thirty mile area from Toms River to Tuckerton, there’s a large body of water called Barnegat Bay, Manahawkin Bay, Tuckerton Bay. and Great Bay. It was all considered, in my notes, as the Third Port of Entry for the Continental Congress, back before we were the United States of America.
Ramsey Russell: Third port of entry.
Bob Keeney: What that means is that we had big trade and trading options to go through the country. That deemed market hunting and gunning in general— They needed supplies, and—instead of taking a ship, or taking a horse-drawn carriage, out to Philadelphia to work and buy shotguns, or whatever—they deemed, “We have to start doing it ourselves.” So guys around started carving their own decoys. Now, whoever originated the decoy in South Jersey is hard to tell, but there were a few. Joe King is always one that comes to mind, who was a little north of us in Eagleswood, Manahawkin. His dates back to around the Civil War era. We don’t know an exact date, but mostly he was carving decoys around the Civil War era. There was also J. G. Downs, who carved here in Tuckerton, New Jersey. Which, they all have similarities that resemble each other’s decoys. Those decoys became so well known that they were actually shipped, via train, down to other gunning clubs outside of New Jersey. I have one of Joe King’s decoys. It’s a black duck. It was actually shipped to the Potomac Club, down in Virginia or Maryland. I forget exactly where it’s at. The only reason we know that is, the Potomac Club made silver dollar decoy weights, and they poured them themselves. It was about the size of the silver dollar. You look under the decoy I have, and there’s two silver dollars weighted on the bottom. That’s the only reason we know that his decoys ended up being shipped. Then you can see similarities to Maryland carvers in Jersey decoys. There’s a few that will resemble a Tuckerton guy—he is basically known as the grandfather of decoy carving in Jersey—Harry V. Shourds. Shourds lived right across the creek here from where we’re standing, only four hundred yards away, and he was the first-ever commercial decoy carver. The exact number isn’t known, but his decoys, now, in original paint, are worth upwards of $100,000.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I’ve heard of him, of course. I’ve heard $200,000. Wow. That’s incredible, isn’t it?
Bob Keeney: It is.
Ramsey Russell: He’s probably rolling in his grave, knowing how he gave them things away for a quarter.
Bob Keeney: I don’t own it, but I’ve seen it. There’s a receipt that he wrote out to a guy on Long Beach Island. Twelve geese decoys for $24. If you bought those twelve geese decoys in an auction today, you’d be looking at over a million dollars. Just for some old, cedar, hollow, wood decoys.
Ramsey Russell: And you probably wouldn’t throw them in the bottom of a Barnegat Bay sneakbox and take them out hunting.
Bob Keeney: I might be that crazy one that does, because I still do that. When I buy a new decoy that was at auction, I have to throw it back in the water because that’s what it was deemed to do. Granted, if I paid $100,000 for a bird, I might not, but it’d be in the back of my head. “I got to throw some line onto this and see how she floats in the water.”
Ramsey Russell: I got some friends like that. I sure do.
Duck Hunting Origins
You can’t have that light. That light will scare off every black duck in the marsh when you’re going out there. You go out in the pitch black. If it has to take you two hours, it takes you two hours. You just got to leave early. The second you shine a light on the water next to the marsh, that black duck’s going to either wake up and swim away, or he’s just going to leave.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s back way up. You’re born and raised here. Your dad and granddad—did you grow up hunting? What is your duck hunting origins?
Bob Keeney: My hunting origin is my dad hunted, my grandfather. Both sides of my family hunted. I’m a fifth generation out in Tuckerton, New Jersey, here. From what I was told, my second great-grandfather was a market gunner here on Barnegat Bay. I wish I had his punt gun, but I’m glad I don’t. I’d end up getting into too much trouble taking out some bufflehead, or a big flock of black ducks, on the marsh.
Ramsey Russell: I can see where that’d be trouble, today.
Bob Keeney: I grew up on the Bay. My family and I own a marina, right here on the creek. I grew up around decoys, boats. Not just even duck hunting; there’s pheasant hunting, deer hunting. Right now, if I’m not duck hunting, I’d be out in the woods. This is 6-day Firearm shotgun week for Jersey. Or, as I like to say, the Orange Army. The deer clubs walking—Buck Week—just guys walking through the woods, yelling, “Yo, buck!” Hoping a six-pointer or eight-pointer will run out in front of them. But, other than that, that’s all I’ve really known, is duck hunting. Going out in the boat. Clamming. My roots are so deep here. Even if they cut my roots, I’d still be stuck.
Ramsey Russell: Still be stuck. Growing up around your family, did you ever hear any old duck hunting stories? Did your granddad or anybody tell you any stories about his daddy being a market hunter? Did you ever hear any oral tradition passed down?
Bob Keeney: No, there wasn’t too much because it was just so long ago, but there have been stories. I know of one. My grandfather, when he was young, was going out black duck hunting with a friend of his and one of the old Tuckerton guys. I forget his name right now. They were sitting in a pit blind, which is, basically, just a pit dug into the marsh. You’re right on the side of the water, waiting for them. It’s right before light, and the gentleman told my grandfather and his buddy, “Don’t shoot until it’s light.” Well, they’re sitting there waiting, all happy that they’re hunting with this old-timer. Then all they hear is “Bang! Bang!” My grandfather yelled out to him, “You told us not to shoot until light!” He said, “You’re right, I did. But these two black ducks were right there. I had to!”
Ramsey Russell: That reminds me of a time hunting down in Mississippi with an old-timer. Very, very old-timer. We went to an oxbow. He just came into the shop one day, and we started talking. Next thing I know, he calls me up. Said, “Yeah, I’ll go out there with you in the morning.” There’s a narrow spot of real dense cypress we had to go through, and that’s right when my battery-operated light decided to go out. I was like, “Oh my gosh, how are we going to get through?” He’s like, “Just calm down. Calm down.” As his eyes adjusted to the black, he started pointing. So I navigated through the cypress, and he said, “Now, where do you want to go?” I said, “Well, I thought we’d go to the mouth of Tippo out there.” Right there in the pitch-black dark, he took me. He’d been hunting that place for sixty, seventy years, since the end of World War II. I pulled up a blind. The ducks were flying. As a matter of fact, that was the last black duck I ever saw in the state of Mississippi. This was twenty years ago. I started shooting ducks, and I was like, “Mr. Golden, getting close to the limit here. You might want to shoot.” He said, “Boy—” He had a single-shot Sears & Roebuck shotgun. He says, “I haven’t shot a flying duck in fifty years, and I don’t intend to start this morning.” It’s fun hunting with them old-timers. They do it their way or no way.
Bob Keeney: It’s funny you said about the light. I have one good friend that stopped gunning in 2013, but I still talk to him all the time. I told him how my buddy likes to have a big LED light bar on his boat, and he likes to drive through the marsh and get into the spot early. He always tells me, “You can’t have that light. That light will scare off every black duck in the marsh when you’re going out there. You go out in the pitch black. If it has to take you two hours, it takes you two hours. You just got to leave early. The second you shine a light on the water next to the marsh, that black duck’s going to either wake up and swim away, or he’s just going to leave. You’ll never see him again, until the next morning.”
Ramsey Russell: You believe that?
Bob Keeney: I don’t have a spotlight.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I didn’t see any LED lights on your boat, out front.
Bob Keeney: I have a little light. Just a little one. Just in case I break down, the light goes “S.O.S.” on it, if my phone dies. I like to let my eyes adjust and run those marsh.
Ramsey Russell: I still know people that will just blaze off into rice fields, or wherever they’re going, with four-wheelers. Throw out their decoys and back off a little ways, go walk back to the blind and hunt. I don’t like to do it that way. Like the holes I hunt, back home on our camp—I like to see the shine of the water. I know where I’m going. I see the outline of that willow tree, or there’s a clump of button bushes. I’ve hunted there for twenty years, and, to me, it’s a lot of satisfaction in walking as quietly, and with as little light, as I can. I actually see better in the dark, once I let my eyes adjust, than I do— Because when I put that little beam of light on, all I see is where that beam of light is. I know where I am when I start seeing outlines. It is a little satisfying to get your decoys out and walk back to your tree and sit there and hear ducks quacking around you. You know you didn’t scare them all off. I like that way.
Bob Keeney: I had one day where I set all the stools out, we placed them, and I’m just sitting there. It’s maybe 5:30 in the morning. Another hour and a half until shooting time. I’m just sitting there. All you hear—just like you said—you hear quacking, and then I start seeing silhouettes. I had black ducks swimming through the decoys, and they didn’t know what they were. They said, “That looks like a duck, so I’m just going to swim over. They must have some food over there.” They sat there until shooting time, and then we unloaded on them.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, of course. What are some of your early recollections, growing up hunting with your dad and granddad who, judging from you, are very traditional hunters?
Bob Keeney: My earliest duck hunting trip, I remember getting into my dad’s Garvey. We were going out to Horse Foot Cove, here in Tuckerton, and we were going to go diver hunting. We go out. He throws a rig of Herter’s decoys that he painted up. They were black ducks, but he painted up as bufflehead and broadbill just because he liked the bigger-body decoys more than I do. I remember just sitting there, freezing to death, because it was the middle of January and all I had was a pair of Carhart’s and some rubber boots. I’m just sitting in a pond box next to him. He said, “All right, these ducks are dumb, but you can’t move. We can talk all you want until they start coming in, but you can’t move. Their eyesight is too good.” So we ended up sitting there, and I remember he crippled one. This hen broadbill. He crippled her. She’s swimming away, but she was going with the tide, so he didn’t want our dog to go out and get her. He said, “Bobby. Here, you go get it.” He gives me a single-shot H&R .410, and he said, “Go hit that cripple again, and then we’ll go out in the boat and get it.” I said, “But, Dad, I’m only six. I’m not allowed to hunt.” He said, “It’s .410. You’re not going to fall on your butt. It’s not going to hurt. Just go and shoot it.” So I get out of the box, walk over to the marsh where she’s running away. With her moving so fast, just from swimming and going with the tide, he told me to lead her a little bit. So I hit her. I shot, ended up hitting her, and we went and got it. Hen broadbill. Beautiful, in full plumage, and what’s she got on her? She got a little piece of jewelry on her leg. Yeah. I still have that. Sits in my gun safe.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Have you shot many bands?
Bob Keeney: I’ve only shot about four or five. That’s about it. Not too many. I know a bunch of guys that always get bands. They’re just luckier than me. But I’m not in it just to shoot bands. I’m in it more for the tradition.
Continuing Barnegat Bay Sneakbox Traditions
Ramsey Russell: I knew that the minute you pulled up. You pulled up in a Chevrolet truck, pulling a twelve-foot by about four-foot wide boat. A very traditional Barnegat Bay sneakbox. Tell me, did you make that yourself?
Bob Keeney: I made it myself with my grandfather and dad helping me. That was about the second boat I helped build, but that was the first one I was lead builder on instead of looking over the shoulder of my grandparent and dad. We made it a little bigger. I wanted an elongated cockpit. Not that I’m a big guy, but I like having foot room. I hate sitting in a sneakbox and having my waders stuck up underneath the ribs of the boat. So we elongated the cockpit. That was all my idea. After I started cutting it, my grandfather walks over. He’s like, “What the hell are you doing? Where are you going to put the decoys?” I said, “We’re going to put them on the bow or in a bag.” He’s like, “I don’t…” and he walked away. Then he sees it, when it’s all said and done, and he sits in it. He’s like, “Huh. I should have thought of this fifty years ago. This would have been nice.” I said, “Yeah, that’s why it’s the Cadillac.”
But now the sneak box that I built, and we built, they’re white cedar. Swamp cedar, as I call it. Jersey cedar. All white, no knots, and the ribs are oak. Normally they’re made with cedar or oak. It’s all traditional. It floats right. But the difference in my sneakbox and a regular one, like a sailing one, is that mine’s a planing hull. So it’ll plane, instead of the bow just sticking up when you have the outboard on it and push it in the water. She’ll actually plane over. You’ll go a little bit faster. Not that it’s a speed demon with fifteen horse, but I go about twenty miles an hour instead of ten. But she’s still the safest twelve-foot boat I’ve ever been in. I can guarantee it will be, for anybody that doesn’t know anything about boats.
Ramsey Russell: What’d y’all make it from? What kind of materials y’all make it from?
Bob Keeney: White cedar. Swamp cedar. It’s just wood and some fiberglass and silicone bronze screws.
Ramsey Russell: Were you telling me your granddad also opposed you using fiberglass?
Bob Keeney: Yes. My grandfather hated that I used fiberglass. He said he never owned a boat with fiberglass on it. He’s always had wood boats. When I was about six years old, he built me a twelve-foot Garvey, which is another Jersey-style boat. It’s flat-bottomed, shallow draft. He built it for me, and he said, “You have to cotton it, seam compound it, and paint it every year.” So there’s young me, up until about fourteen years old, that was still pulling the cotton out every winter.
Ramsey Russell: What do you mean, cotton it?
Bob Keeney: The seams of a boat are about an eighth of an inch wide to about a quarter-inch. Cedar will swell to almost as tight as a frog’s butt, but it helps it when there’s cotton. You run a line of cotton—like from a shirt, or boat cotton—you push it in the seams and then put seam compound over it. Like a caulk or a silicone. That wood will get wet, and that cotton will get wet. She’ll get so tight, that water will not leak at all through it. She’ll just sit there watertight until you pull it out of the water.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll be danged. Hunting over in Azerbaijan—people have heard me maybe describe this before, or seen some of the short films and pictures we’ve taken—it’s very, very, very traditional hunting. They’ve got these tiny little pirogues. Just flat-bottomed, twelve-foot boats. Guy will stand in the back. It’s just raw lumber put together and a skiff draft, in real shallow water. But they literally just caulk it with mud. They’ll come in before the hunt and dip it in the water and caulk it with mud. Off they go hunting. If it leaks a little bit while we’re hunting, they’ll re-caulk. You know, reach down and grab the clay and caulk it. Come on back in. It’s just simple.
Bob Keeney: Well, that’s all a Garvey, basically, is, is a pirogue or a bateau. That’s where the Garvey originated. Well, the Garvey itself was created, here, in the 1700’s, but it was off the same design as an English bateau or a French bateau. Just flat-bottomed, slab sides, and just to get into shallow draft water.
Traditional Barnegat Bay Decoy Rig
I was always taught by my grandfather and a bunch of old-timers—you don’t need a lot of decoys. I was always told that you got to use seven black ducks for a puddle duck rig. Seven black ducks and one seagull.
Ramsey Russell: I noticed that’s your hunting boat you came up in. Still got your shotgun case laying down in it. Your decoy, your bag of decoys. It’s a tiny bag of decoys.
Bob Keeney: Yes. Up here in this area—I was always taught by my grandfather and a bunch of old-timers—you don’t need a lot of decoys. I was always told that you got to use seven black ducks for a puddle duck rig. Seven black ducks and one seagull. You got to have a seagull decoy, for confidence, for black ducks. They’re very smart animals.
Ramsey Russell: They’re wary. Black ducks are very wary.
Bob Keeney: They do not like going anywhere where they’ve never been before. I was always taught: you throw a seagull out there, they’ll be more comfortable in their surroundings. Because when you’re scouting, and you’re looking—you’ll see black ducks, but you’ll always see a seagull or a blue heron or an egret. They’ll be there, because the heron and the seagull—not that they’re skittish, but they know when something’s not right. They’ll always leave in high time. I’ve always run seven black ducks, and the seagull for the eighth decoy. I’ve been, not ridiculed, but always laughed at at the boat ramp or something. You’ll see guys coming, “You only go out with that many decoys?” I said, “That’s all you need. Tell me anywhere, up here in Jersey, that you see a flock of forty black ducks in one area, except maybe inside the marsh where they’re sleeping or bedding down.”
Ramsey Russell: How do you put those seven or eight decoys out? Are they in one big group?
Bob Keeney: No. I spread them out as far as they can go.
Ramsey Russell: One here, two there?
Bob Keeney: They’re normally in pairs. So, the ones I showed you, they’re rigged up as pairs. Then I’ll have a single, here and there, and the pairs will go twenty yards apart, thirty yards apart. From what I’ve always noticed: black ducks, they hang out together, but they were ahead of the COVID-19. They like to social distance themselves from everybody. Even their own kind.
Ramsey Russell: Where do you put the seagull?
Bob Keeney: The seagull’s far out from the flock. That’s maybe sixty, eighty yards away. That’s so far away from everybody, but they know. They’ll see that white and be like, “All right, we’re pretty good.” They’ll see the white head of that seagull. I’ve gotten a couple looks from the wardens, when they stop me, thinking I’m hunting seagulls.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you would think, being from around here, they’d know. When you go out, your target is black ducks. Do you shoot anything else that comes in, or?
Bob Keeney: It really depends what I feel like doing. You’ll have bufflehead, you’ll have gadwall. Mallards will come in. Then you’ll have hooded mergansers, or just common mergansers. You’ll have everything come in. But if I’m black duck hunting—to me, at least—I don’t see the need to shoot another duck if it comes in. If I’m not actively targeting it, I’m not going to shoot it.
Hunting Black Ducks in New Jersey
If I shoot one, I’m happy. Because I know what I’ll eat, and I know I’m not going to go and just keep killing to kill. I’m not about that. I’m more about tradition
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I’m trying to establish. Around here, the way you’re set up with the Barnegat Bay Boat, with your traditional spread of seven black ducks and a seagull—you get up in the morning to go duck hunting. You’re chasing a limit of black ducks. Two. How was your duck season, not too long ago, when the limit was one black duck?
Bob Keeney: For a lot of guys, it was probably a terrible time. For me, it didn’t matter. You can ban duck hunting tomorrow, on me. I’m still going out there and throw my decoys and watch the birds work. To me, it’s not about killing. The limit could be thirty black ducks. If I shoot one, I’m happy. Because I know what I’ll eat, and I know I’m not going to go and just keep killing to kill. I’m not about that. I’m more about tradition; I want to keep it going, and whoever I can teach— You don’t need to go out and shoot forty ducks to be a good duck hunter. You can go out and shoot one duck, and be a great duck hunter, because you know how they work. You know how the animals work. You know where they’re flying. You know their flight path. You know that they like these certain areas this time of the month. You know when you’re going out—well, you can sort of tell a juvenile duck from a full-grown adult duck. At least, I’m pretty good at it. I can tell. Other than that, it won’t affect me at all.
Ramsey Russell: You play a clean game. That’s kind of how I describe it. It’s one thing—let’s say the limit’s six, you’re hunting down South—it’s one thing if you could have shot six and come back with one. It’s something else if you could only have shot one, and you killed him. You play that clean game. And it’s a drake, or it’s this. I’ll admit to you this: I’ve hunted Mexican ducks, down in the Sonoran Desert, and, by gosh, I can spot a drake. They’re dark, mallard-like birds. Not as dark as a black duck, more like a mottled duck. The drakes are notably bigger. If there’s some sunshine, you can see the bill. She quacks, he doesn’t. I feel 99% certain I can pull the trigger and kill the drake, if that’s the deal. I’ve tried that, down here, the last few mornings shooting black ducks, and that doesn’t work. If the sun is right, but often it’s not always just hanging low where you can see the bills perfectly. They’re above you, and the sun’s below, or something like that. The lighting is sometimes tough. I’ve had a hard time just judging by size. A big duck and a little duck come by; I shoot the big duck; it’s a big hen. That’s tough hunting black ducks like that.
Bob Keeney: That, and you also have the real migratory black ducks. Those big Canadians that come. I don’t know if you’ve come across them, yet, here. A regular Jersey black duck’s about sixteen inches long. Sort of thin, not too fat. Then you’ll get these monster Canadian black ducks that come in, and they’re just massive.
Ramsey Russell: Big red leg.
Bob Keeney: Big red leg, big old bill, big old head. They’re just monsters.
Ramsey Russell: We’ve shot some. I’ve shot some smaller ones and some bigger ones. Forrest shot a black duck drake a few days ago, maybe last week—days are running together—over in New York that was just ginormous. It had real reddish-orange legs. Just absolutely stunning. We shot a couple of his close cousins down here, too, but that’s just it. Our host asked us today at the boat ramp, “Well, do y’all want to go try brant tomorrow, or black ducks?” I’m like, “Uh, black ducks.” Something about them. I just love them.
Bob Keeney: They’re an abundance of black ducks up here, but I know that outside of the Atlantic they’re pretty scarce.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. They get harder as you go West. Do you ever target Atlantic brant? Do you ever hunt brant?
Bob Keeney: I hunt brant. I do it maybe twice a year just out of tradition. Brant’s probably my favorite bird to gun. They’re the best looking bird, in my opinion. I love how they look in the water. I love how they’re just chirping at each other. I’ve always done a traditional tuck in a brant shoot, just me and a couple of buddies. We throw out a rig of about eighteen brant decoys, just sit there and let them chirp. I’ve always told my buddy, “You don’t shoot them on the first pass. You have to wait.” Because that’s them just checking you out. That second pass—they come back, you unload on them. Let them wait, then you just sit back down. They’ll circle again. They’re not the smartest animal in the world.
Ramsey Russell: I like a dumb duck. And a dumb goose.
New Jersey Decoys
You got to keep traditions alive, because if you don’t keep traditions alive, you’re going to lose everything. You could be the richest man in the world, but if you forgot where you came from, it doesn’t matter what you have.
Bob Keeney: Other than snow geese destroying their population up in Nova Scotia, it’s just because they’re dumb. They’re dumb. You shoot at them, they lay back down. They’re like, “Oh look! I’m over here again.” Jersey has had an abundance—from decoy makers and just going around looking—of brant. The whole Jersey Coast, you won’t find one New Jersey decoy maker that hasn’t made a brant decoy. However, their interpretation of a brant— That’s what I love about our Jersey decoys. You see influences from each area. You have a general idea about where the bird came from and who carved it. A decoy, to me; it’s the eye of the beholder. He carved that bird because that’s what it looks like to him. To go off topic: that’s the reason I started carving, other than tradition. I hated going out and having plastic decoys, because I knew our area had an abundance of decoy makers and a rich tradition. So I’d say, “Well, I’m going to try to learn to carve.” My family never carved. They always bought decoys, but I had a couple good friends, older friends, that have carved their whole lives. They took me under their wing. Life is too short, to me, to hunt over plastic decoys. Because if you can have something, yourself, that you physically made—whether it’s crude and the paint’s not good on it—if it brings a duck into you, whether you get it or not, you’re not mad. You’re amazed that that animal thought highly enough that your bird worked. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. I know I ramble a lot, but back to the brant.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I really was digging the conversation because I had a brief spell a long time ago—I still haven’t painted a dozen of them—but I did carve some decoys. I don’t take them out all the time. They’re big, clunky cork, not nearly as attractive as that. They don’t have a style. I just decided to carve some, bought a few patterns, and chopped away and sawed away. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but it’s unbelievable when I kill ducks over them. I’ve killed ducks over them. It takes it to this level of connection. I can’t explain it. And it doesn’t have to be art. It doesn’t have to be super realistic. I am absolutely determined to go film shooting ducks over black pop bottles, because we’re hunting an animal with a pea sized brain. It doesn’t take the latest, greatest, most scientific anything to hunt this bird. It’s just the fundamentals. When I think about decoy carving, I think about being in that shop. How it smelled when that wood hit the blade, that pine, and just the thoughts. What are you thinking about while you’re carving a decoy? I’m thinking about killing ducks. I’m thinking about how this duck’s going to look sitting in the water. How that duck is going to react. It takes that to a whole new level.
Bob Keeney: Oh, yeah. I’m the same way. When I’m sitting there carving, I’m just sitting there smelling the cedar. Because Jersey birds are made out of cedar. They’re not pine. They’re all white cedar heads, white cedar bodies, and they’re hollow. Or dug out. We hollow all the decoys out so they’re lighter. But I’m sitting there thinking, “How is this bird going to look in the water? Is the paint realistic enough, to me, that it will look like a black duck when a black duck’s flying over? Is he going to look and say, ‘That looks like one of my guys?’”
Ramsey Russell: How old are you, Bob?
Bob Keeney: I am only 28 years old.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, because I was going to say, you’re a very young man to be so traditional. I find it interesting that you’re about the age that a lot of guys are still in that phase where something else matters more than tradition. When I was 28 years old, I’m going to tell you, I was a bloodthirsty killer. I just wanted every strap, every time, and I threw as many decoys as it took. Went hard, and whatever. You know, that guy. I was in a totally different place when I was 28 years old. How did you end up here? Why is hunting over eight wooden decoys in a boat you built yourself so important?
Bob Keeney: To me, it just has to be because my roots are deep, here in South Jersey. I’m a fifth generation out of Tuckerton, New Jersey. I was always instilled, and had driven in my head— My family always said, “Your name is the best thing you have for you. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You got to have a good name. You got to keep traditions alive, because if you don’t keep traditions alive, you’re going to lose everything. You could be the richest man in the world, but if you forgot where you came from, it doesn’t matter what you have.”
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. That’s very well said. You talk about those black ducks, how many you can eat. Do you have a favorite way you like to cook black ducks and brant and some of these other species you shoot?
Bob Keeney: Black ducks, I like roasting them. Just a roasted black duck. Throw onion in the cavity, put some orange zest over top of it, and just roast it.
Ramsey Russell: Salt and pepper, a little orange zest.
Bob Keeney: Yeah, that’s about it.
Ramsey Russell: Stick an onion in the cavity, and then put it in the oven at 350°.
Bob Keeney: Yeah, for about forty minutes. So it’s like a medium-rare, basically. Like steak. That, and then my girlfriend—she just tried duck for the first time, last Wednesday night. Had black duck for the first time. I wasn’t going to roast it for her because it’s sort of an acquired taste when you’re roasting it with the orange and the onion. So what I did was, I breasted it for her, and I did a maple cayenne glaze.
Ramsey Russell: Elaborate. I want to hear more about this.
Bob Keeney: All right. So I kept the skin on the breast, and the fat. Pan-seared it. Put the breast in the pan when it’s cold, and then—with a little butter, salt, and pepper—pan-sear both sides so it gets just good. You put the maple glaze on it, as it’s in there, then you put in the oven once it’s pan-seared.
Ramsey Russell: What do you call it? Maple syrup?
Bob Keeney: Yes, so you got about a cup of maple syrup and a quarter-ounce of cayenne pepper and a tablespoon of brown sugar. Mix that all together. Let that all sit and render. You have that duck breast in the oven for about four minutes. You pull it out.
Ramsey Russell: Back up, now. I’m going to put it skin-down on the pan with the butter, flip it over for a little bit, sear both sides, and put it in the oven,
Bob Keeney: Put it in the oven at 425º for four minutes. Pull it out, glaze the one side, put it back in for four minutes again with the glaze side up. Pull back out, put that second glaze on the opposite side, keep it out of the oven for five minutes. Let it rest. Get that glaze onto the top, set it, and forget it.
Ramsey Russell: When you’re browning your meat like that, both sides in the skillet, you’re not running it real high and just putting a hard sear on it, are you?
Bob Keeney: No, you’re starting the pan cold. Because with a duck, it’s fatty. You let that fat render in the pan with it so you get all that good flavor. Flip it on both sides so you get a nice brown sear on it.
Ramsey Russell: Are you timing it, or going by look?
Bob Keeney: I’m going by look. Every duck’s different to me.
Ramsey Russell: I do something very similar. I get the skillet hot. A little bit of fat. Boom, throw it hot. Three minutes. I make a glaze—butter, bourbon, jelly something or other—then put it in. When I pull it out of the oven after four minutes, it’s done. When you cook it this way, is it still medium-rare?
Bob Keeney: It’s a little past medium-rare. It’s about a medium. I wasn’t going to throw a medium-rare on her, for never having it. Then for brant—you’ll like this brant recipe. All right. You breast the brant. That’s all you do. You breast it. You put it on a cedar log with salt and pepper. Then you put it in the grill. Wait for that log to smoke, get that nice aroma. When the brant has a nice cooked color, you pull it out. You look at it. You throw that brant in the trash and start gnawing on the wood. I swear to you.
Ramsey Russell: No, now. I’m going to tell you one better than that. I was scared. Here I was taking notes, thinking, not seeing that old joke coming.
Bob Keeney: I make brant jerky. That’s about it. There are ways to cook it.
Ramsey Russell: I ate some the other night, sawed up real nice. I said, “Man, this is good.” He goes, “Well, that’s brant.” I go, “No way, man, because Atlantic brant is terrible. Everybody for twenty years said you can’t eat them.” He said, “Well, you’re eating them.” I said, “Well, that’s good.”
Bob Keeney: Well, it all depends, too. If you get them early season, they’re really not too bad. I would cook them like black duck. Once you get mid-season, January—when they really get into that cabbage grass, and you really look at their butt and it’s green—you don’t want to eat that. All you taste is that seaweed and cabbage. That’s all cabbage.
Ramsey Russell: I know he’s taking the fat off, and he is soaking it in—well, he’s going to show me tonight, we’re going to eat some—soy sauce and some different things, and grilling it. I posted that up, that day, and someone was like, “Oh, well, that’s some kind of— He’s messing with you, just pulling your leg. That’s chuck roast.” It ain’t. It’s brant. It’s good. I’ve heard that a lot of these marsh black ducks will get strong, too.
Bob Keeney: They get strong. That’s why you got to—I forgot to say—I brined it for two days
Ramsey Russell: Brined it for two days. Saltwater?
Bob Keeney: Saltwater. Just brine it. First day, after you breast it, sit it there in salt water. Rinse and repeat the next day.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Bob Keeney: Because up here in Jersey you get that real strong saltwater marsh flavor. It’s tough to get out. You won’t get it completely out. I even had it, when I had it on Wednesday. Still I’m like, “Ugh, that piece there. He was eating some mud right there.”
Ramsey Russell: Do your dad and granddad still duck hunt?
Bob Keeney: No, they don’t.
Ramsey Russell: Why?
Bob Keeney: My grandfather—back in the 80’s, when they dropped it down to two black ducks—he said, “It’s not worth my time anymore to take a party out to kill two black ducks apiece.”
Ramsey Russell: Was he a waterfowl guide?
Bob Keeney: He was a waterfowl guide.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. Wow. I bet people would pay him to.
Bob Keeney: Yeah, but he was remembering growing up with his dad. They would just gun black ducks because that was a source of food for them. When you can’t do that anymore, he stopped gunning. Now, he gunned with me once when I was a kid. My dad stopped gunning just because he didn’t feel it anymore. Not that he lost interest, but he just didn’t want to anymore. He got tired of gunning. He just wanted to relax, which I understand. But he did say that when I have kids, he will go out gunning with them.
Ramsey Russell: New Jersey marsh hunting is arduous.
Bob Keeney: Yes, it is.
Ramsey Russell: It takes a little effort to get out there in that marsh. Even if you’re running mud motors and aluminum boats, it’s a mess getting out there and doing that kind of stuff. Do your dad and granddad ever talk about anything else that’s changed? Besides the limits? Do they ever talk about the good old days, what it used to be like?
Bob Keeney: Yeah. They talk about the loss of ducks. They don’t believe there are as many ducks, any more, as there were. My dad, when he was growing up, you were still allowed to bait ducks. My grandfather, that’s all they knew, was throwing out four hundred pounds of corn on a Friday night, baiting those broadbill and bufflehead and black ducks. So that’s what they miss. My grandfather always had an idea of it. When they started building up the area, you started losing more habitat for the ducks to come and stay. There is one area he always talked about, Reams and Meadows, which is now called Beach Haven West. Massive development. It was all on marsh, and that would hold thousands of black ducks, he would say. People would bait them, so they had a food income, but there was also natural food there for them. Going back into the freshwater, they had the wild rice. They would come in and swim. But once you start taking out habitat, there’s not really anything for a duck to come and stay. I’ve always been a proponent to say, “Let us bait.” I’m allowed to bait for deer. Why can’t I bait for a duck?
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good question. I don’t know. If the limit’s six, the limit’s six. What does it matter if I shoot him at night? Over corn? With an unplugged shotgun? I’m not saying we should do that, I’m just saying, “Why not?” I don’t know.
Bob Keeney: Yeah. I understand where they’re coming from, because not everyone is going to restrain themselves to two black ducks, or one black duck. Whatever the limit is. They’re going to have four hundred pounds of corn and sit there for eight hours and take every duck out there. A select few will.
Ramsey Russell: Some will. A few bad apples.
Bob Keeney: And that’s what hurts us.
Ramsey Russell: Last question I’ve got is, you were showing me some real interesting research you had done before we started recording. You’re working on a book project. Tell me a little bit about this project.
Bob Keeney: I’m working on, basically, a picture history book of the Barnegat Bay gunning clubs of my area. Starting from Barnegat Inlet, all the way south to the mouth of the Mullica River. I’ve been doing the research for about four years. There’s been over a hundred duck hunting clubs in our area, which is only thirty miles long.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Well, what happened to all those camp houses? Tell me a little bit more about it.
Bob Keeny: There’s four of them left out of over a hundred. The reason for that is that they’re privately owned, but back in the 70’s, early 80’s, a great initiative came around. Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Management Area came, and they bought up all the marsh for protection. You can’t build on it anymore. But with that, you lost leases. These marshes, these gunning clubs, were on leased land from property owners. When the federal government came in, those leases expired. So either the gun clubs became dilapidated and run-down and just fell into the water—
Ramsey Russell: So Forsythe is a federal refuge.
Bob Keeney: Yes, it’s a federal refuge.
Ramsey Russell: National Wildlife Refuge. That’s crazy. It’s too bad. A lot of history.
Bob Keeney: Mm-hmm.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the interesting stories and stuff you’ve come across?
Bob Keeney: There is a really famous club right inside of Barnegat Inlet, called the Sedge Island Club, that is now owned by the state of New Jersey as a water research and wildlife research area. It’s the original clubhouse, still, which dated back to the early 1880’s. That had President Grover Cleveland as a regular guest, there, to go gunning. We have photos of Grover Cleveland at it. I can even look through the book. I probably have one, in here, of him standing. Then, coming closer to us here, there was Carvel Island Club in Surf City, New Jersey. That was a big hub for Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth loved gunning here with another famous baseball player that was from the area. His name was Doc Cramer. Doc Cramer played the same time Babe did and introduced Babe to gunning down here. There’s even one picture of Babe fishing with Doc and Lou Gehrig.
There’s one story that an old-timer—he’s 96 right now, I still sit in and talk with him sometimes—he was about 13 years old, at the Dinner Point club, and his dad had Babe as a guest. Well, Babe came up by boat in a big fur jacket. Come up to the clubhouse, and they started drinking at like 3:00 in the afternoon until 08:30 at night. In the morning, he was still a little three sheets to the wind. He ended up coming out, getting ready to go into a boat. Big fur jacket on, still. Falls into the mud. Well, Babe was a bigger guy at the time, he told me, and got stuck. Couldn’t get him out. Had to call another gunning guide, from another club, to help him get out of the marsh. His jacket was ruined, covered in bay mud smell. So the man’s dad told him, “You got to go take this jacket in the sneakbox, and you’ve got to row it around the bay to get all this marsh mud off of it.” So he ended up doing that. That same day, Babe’s in the pit blind, and he gets up to go to the bathroom. Drops his gun in the mud. Babe said he checked it, said it was all good. Clean. He shoots; barrel blows up right in his face. That gun is still around. It’s in a private collection in Manahawkin, Babe’s gun he used. There’s pictures of Babe that he wrote to the clubhouse, to the Carville Island Club, to thank them for gunning them. I should have it here.
Ramsey Russell: That’s an impressive collection you’ve got of some old photos and stories and stuff.
Bob Keeney: Like, when I say pit blind: the pit blind in the marsh. It’s dug right in there. But these are all of the history… Here we go.
Ramsey Russell: There it is. Yeah. Look at that.
Bob Keeney: That was a signed picture that Babe wrote to one of his gunning guides.
Ramsey Russell: That would get him into some good places to hunt, wouldn’t it?
Bob Keeney: Yeah, it would.
Ramsey Russell: That’s interesting. That’s very good. Well, Bob, I sure do appreciate you coming by. How can anybody listening connect with you on social media?
Bob Keeney: They could connect to me—I’m on it, but I don’t really post all the time—my Instagram, which is just @keeny_bobby. Then the same with Facebook. That’s about it.
Ramsey Russell: @keeny_bobby
Bob Keeney: keeny_bobby. All lowercase.
Ramsey Russell: There you go.
Bob Keeney: Yeah. That’s about it. Then Facebook. That’s all I’m on. Anyone can message me. Feel free to talk to anybody about gunning and the history of our area.
Ramsey Russell: I sure would like to come back to this area. Probably next year, I’d like to come back to this area and join you on an authentic, Barnegat Bay sneakbox duck hunt. I really want to do that. Since I’ve been here, I have got—from Michigan, Ohio, not New York yet, certainly from around here—I have got kind of a growing collection of decoys, black duck decoys, building. I’ll put my own spread out. I don’t have a seagull, but I’ll make one.
Bob Keeney: I can make that happen. I can make a seagull happen. I can make that happen for you, and, definitely, I’ll put you in a sneakbox. I got my own little museum. I got about nine or ten of them.
Ramsey Russell: Did you build them all?
Bob Keeney: No. I’ve restored a bunch, and that’s the only one I’ve built. I like collecting them. Not that they’re hard to come by in our area, but the ones I have, they are; they all pre-date the 1950’s. My oldest was made in Atlantic City by a boat builder, John Van Zandt. That’s a 1922 sneakbox. That is all row and sail, there’s nothing to it. It’s just straight cedar and cotton.
Ramsey Russell: I just remembered. You won an award. You won something for building…
Bob Keeney: Yes. Our area has what’s called the Ocean County Decoy & Gunning Club. It’s every September, at the end of the month. It just helps the tradition and shows people the same thing we’re talking about: the gunning history and decoy history of our area. They have a boat building competition of who builds a sneakbox, a Garvey, or a gunning Garvey—which is just a smaller version of a Garvey that’s twelve foot. Last year, I restored a 1960 Gus Gunther gunning Garvey that I was given. A good friend of mine gave it to me. He was a guide at the Hester Sedge Gunn Club out here in Tuckerton. It was his boat. He was given it by his longtime friend that owned Hester Sedge, Walt Johnson. It was built in 1960 out of cherry marine plywood and cedar slab sides. I got it. It was in rough shape, so I restored it using the exact plans that the builder put in Popular Mechanics magazine back in the 1960’s. I went off the exact specs, and I ended up getting first place for restoration. That was my first blue ribbon at the decoy show for boat restoration.
I’ve gotten a bunch of second place, third place. It was an honor to get the blue ribbon, but it’s not about ribbons to me. The one boat I bring every year to the show, I got third place on when I first started. The only reason they gave me third was because I made it into a sailing sneakbox. It wasn’t originally a sailer, it was just an inboard. I made it into a sailer, so they sort of said, “Eh, we can’t give you first even though it’s the nicest one here.” I said, “I understand. I just like showing people.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s part of it. Folks, y’all have been listening to Bob Keeny in Tuckerton, New Jersey. Very traditional duck hunting. Stay tuned for the next episode, and thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. If you like our podcast, be sure to rate it. Tell all your like-minded duck-killing friends about it. See you next time.