On North Carolina's Roanoke Island, Nick Sapone gives flight to canvas, wood, and wire
At the turn of the century, decoys were shaped from the fabric of hunters’ lives: sailcloth from a sharpie skiff, juniper planks, boat paint, copper wire scavenged from the old U.S. Life-Saving Service stations that once stood guard on the Outer Banks. Working with net hooks and drawknives, waterfowl hunters along these barrier islands perfected a peculiar ruse: the canvas-shelled decoy. With wooden bases and hand-carved heads, decoys with wire ribs and canvas bodies were tough enough for stormy weather, light on their feet, and able to pass muster under close scrutiny. They weren’t used everywhere, but they were loved wherever they found a place in the goose and duck hunter’s bag of tricks.
Nick Sapone has been making decoys this way for thirty years. He got his start after repairing a busted canvas decoy owned by an elderly family member, and he’s made thousands since, including Canada geese in any number of head positions—sentinels, sleepers, feeders, hissers. His life-size tundra swans are absolute showstoppers—vast sweeps of white canvas with graceful heads on impossibly long necks. He’s made canvas-bodied black ducks, bluebills, and redheads. Red-breasted mergansers, old-squaws, even an owl. “I have a lot of repeat customers,” he says, “and they’re always wanting to collect something new. A lot of folks will hunt with my decoys a season or two, get ’em aged up real good, and put them in their collection. But most of ’em go straight to the bookcase, I know.”
And it all happens in Sapone’s two-car-garage-cum-workshop in Wanchese, North Carolina. Wanchese is still small enough to call itself a village and still clings as stubbornly as a barnacle to its commercial fishing roots. It’s a world away from better-known Manteo, a charming but gentrified town that anchors the other end of Roanoke Island and through which a gazillion tourists churn on their way to the Outer Banks. You can buy a Nick Sapone canvas decoy in Kill Devil Hills, or Duck, or Currituck. But then you wouldn’t get to meet Nick Sapone and sit for a few minutes in his workshop and hear him tell you how canvas decoys seemed to crop up along the Outer Banks around 1900. A former tugboat engineer and Navy man, Sapone is lean and wiry and welcoming. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting in the shop,” he says, “and it’ll be cold and windy and I’ll be whittling heads and thinking: What else happened around here about then?” That what else, he says, was the Wright brothers, who showed up just a few miles away in Kitty Hawk in 1900, to start testing their fabric-covered airplanes. “There has to be a connection,” Sapone figures. It’s just a hunch, he’ll admit. “But I have to think that some of those local boys said: By golly, let’s make a decoy like that!”