Could be. What’s sure enough true is that early-twentieth-century gunners along the North Carolina coast didn’t need large decoy spreads, not when a barrel of corn and a dozen live decoys were still legal means of attracting fowl. But the laws that followed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned those traditions, so larger decoy rigs became necessary, and hauling five dozen heavy wooden decoys back and forth from a blind, especially in a sail-driven skiff, was a hardship savvy decoy makers worked around. Canvas decoys float higher than heavier wooden counterparts and dance more lightly in a wind. The flat bottom board has so much surface area that the decoys hold to the water and don’t pitch and roll in heavy chop. Canvas decoys crop up in a few other regions—in Maine, they’re framed with wood slats, not unlike a lobster pot. In the Midwest, they’re not framed at all, just stuffed with kapok and corn shucks like an old pillow. But the wire-ribbed canvas decoy has emerged as an icon of Outer Banks waterfowling, a regional style recognized by the Smithsonian Institution.
Sapone builds his birds from the inside out. Leaning forward in a rusty metal chair, he works the rib wires with the palms of his hands like a potter shaping clay. He lightly hammers the thin ribs into the sides of an oval-shaped plank of juniper wood, then ties them into place with tendons of butcher string. Next comes the canvas skin, centered over the body, tacked down at the tail, folded and stretched to form a creaseless, taut body, like a sail full of wind. The result is an articulated silhouette whose skeletal structure seems to lend life to the ruse. It draws the eye, even from a distance. Which is the point.
Long ago, Sapone says, when he was winning decoy contest blue ribbons by the barrelful, he figured out “that I could sell a boatload of decoys if I opened up a shop in Manteo or out on the beach. But I can’t make ’em by the boatload the way I want to make ’em. So here I am.” Most of his customers come to him. It’s a pretty drive down Roanoke Island, past the Wanchese post office, taking a right at the only brick church around. “All I have up is a little sign in the yard,” Sapone says. “It’s kind of nice—we can see the trawlers and fish houses right there at Mill Landing.”
Suits him fine, he says, for folks to just show up.