2 posts tagged gunning
It’s not unusual, this time of year, to wake up to a cool Chesapeake morning that is pealing with the cracks of gunshots. So routine as to be background noise and so seasonal as to be synonymous with heavy frosts and the crimson stars of sweet gum leaves, the gunshots represent one of the great feathered influxes of fall fauna- it’s waterfowl time. For thousands of years, winged visitors from the sloughs of Saskatchewan and even farther north have moved in great v-shaped drifts to the Chesapeake’s verdant waterways as the cold weather descended. And for at least that long, people in the Chesapeake have eagerly anticipated their arrival and the full cookpots and bellies that flying feast represented.
Initially, the populations of the waterfowl that wintered in the Chesapeake were so prodigious that it was almost inconceivable that humans could ever alter the strength of their numbers. Colonist Robert Evelyn, exploring near the head of the Bay in the mid-1600s, saw a flight of ducks and estimated it at a mile across and 7 miles long, with the “rushing and vibration” of their wings sounding like a storm coming through trees. Creative methods were employed by winter hunters for generations to harvest this bounty. In the days predating the Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918, when limits and regulations were established, gunners could shoot as many waterfowl as they wished, and so many of the early techniques and tools focus on sheer quantity in a way that is foreign to most sport hunters today.
One of the most ingenious watercraft designed for market gunning is the sinkbox- a coffin-shaped depression in the water surrounded by a low platform, weighted with lead decoys to float at level with the waterline. Meant to provide camouflage in the wide open waters of the Susquehanna flats, the sinkbox was almost imperceptible from above. Ringed with canvasback and redhead decoys, the sinkbox, with reclining market hunter inside, merged seamlessly with silver water, wispy fog, and grey sky to paint a perfectly Chesapeake (and perfectly deadly) trompe l’oeil. Recounting his days market hunting the Flats in 1878, Bennett Keen recalled, “Our kill out of a sinkbox often ran to well over 100 ducks in a morning… We’d get maybe as much as $1.25 for a pair of canvas and as little as 25 cents for a pair of blackheads.”
Hunting transitioned in the late 19th century to include the first generations of recreational gunners. A trend that mirrored the larger national craze for all things outdoors (the Boy Scouts, bicycles, and national parks all had their origins at the tail end of the 1800’s, too), hunting was a way for prosperous, middle and upper-class residents of Philadelphia and Baltimore to spend time along the Chesapeake connecting to their latent survival skills. Under the direction of a skilled guide, weekday office workers in natty new tweeds and stiff oiled canvas would track the canvasbacks waffling in with their shotguns poised, ready to reestablish their position on the top of the food chain with a single shot.
Towns with access to the Susquehanna Flat’s superior gunning grounds, like Havre de Grace, swelled with city folk anxious to bag some birds come the opening of hunting season. Sinkboxes were favored above all other methods for their efficiency and success rate- although the sport gunners from out of town were a little soft to stay in them too long, recalled Keen: ” For many years I capitalized on the desire of sportmen to shoot the celebrated flats in a sinkbox… I remember once my brother took out Grover Cleveland, and another time J. Pierpont Morgan. The hunters on the boat took turns in the box. If it was very cold they could only take an hour or so of it at a time; then they’d hold up their gun, a signal that they ‘wanted out,’ and to bring another hunter.”
The downfall of the sinkbox was the Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918, which limited hunters to a sustainable, population-protecting rate of a few birds per day- far below the records of 200 to 300 canvasbacks or redheads a day during the height of the market hunting boom. Sinkboxes were notoriously cumbersome to set up- with rigs including hundreds of lead and floating decoys, corn and other bait, and sometimes even live birds to add an element of realism- and for only three or four ducks per day, it was a lot of work for a little reward. By the time they were outlawed in 1935, sinkboxes had already become a rare sight on the wide open water of the Flats- almost as rare as the canvasbacks themselves, which suffered a precipitous decline as their main food, aquatic Bay grasses, were buried under layers of silt as agriculture expanded in the 20th century Chesapeake.
Sinkboxes in the collections of the Upper Bay Museum.
Today, the only sinkboxes that remain are housed in private collections or museums like ours, where they represent the by-gone hunting traditions of the Chesapeake. But on a cold October morning, when the sun slips just over the edge of the horizon and the Chesapeake comes aflame with light, the fusillade of shotgun reports remind us that although the sinkboxes are gone forever, the hunting experience continues as fresh and timely as the day is young.
It’s the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland this weekend, and it’s got me thinking about sport hunting. For many of our visitors at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, it’s not only a foreign topic, it’s one that is often perceived as controversial or troubling. Simply put, newcomers to this pastime tend to think of it as ‘killing for fun.’ When compared to the other reasons for hunting (for food and to sell, known as ‘market’ hunting), it can be hard to see the point behind sport hunting, in an age of conveniently pre-packaged, pre-cleaned, and pre-cut chicken parts at available every supermarket. We don’t “need” to hunt now. So why do we still do it?
As the daughter of an avid Eastern Shore sportsman, I feel particularly well informed to discuss sport hunting and its tradition as the Chesapeake’s newest iteration of a long and respected relationship with migrating birds of all kinds. I grew up in a household where venison or goose was a much more frequent feature on my plate than beef or chicken. My father loved to hunt, but for him, it was never really about the kill- it was about the friendship and camaraderie of the guys in the blind, it was about watching the sun rise over a frigid, frost-furred marsh, it was about the subtle art of arranging a decoy rig just so, or a plaintive intonation on a goose call. We ate what he brought home, but for him, that was just a bonus of the entire process.
As I teach it here at CBMM, so much of the appeal of sport hunting lies in that delicate art of camouflage- whether visual, aural, or locational. Before sport hunting was developed in response to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, market hunting was the traditional approach towards harvesting waterfowl in the Chesapeake. Since there was no regulation up until that point, hunters were free to bag as many birds as they cared to shoot- and then profit by subsequently selling the birds to restaurants, steamboats, and individual consumers. Shooting was done with the birds on the water, rather than in the air, and used tools like punt guns or battery guns, which were developed to allow a hunter to dispatch the maximum number of waterfowl as quickly as possible. Often the gunning was done at night, while the geese, ducks, and swans slept in the water. This was not a method of finesse, rather one of efficiency and mass harvest.
We have several of these guns at the Museum, and they are almost fascinatingly ogre-scaled. The sixth grade boys particularly love them.
One thing to keep in mind regarding market hunting is that the Chesapeake’s waterfowling population was certainly not the only place where this attitude prevailed. The New World from the time of European first contact had seemed a place of endless bounty. For many of these settlers, especially those with a Christian mindset, it was understood that these wide open spaces, clear rivers, and forests were abounding with life for them. Now, we call it ‘manifest destiny’. Then, it was just the birds, fish and animals god provided for sustenance. And what a bounty it was - early accounts from colonists are brimming with breathless descriptions of birds and beasts in populations never seen or even imagined. William Strachey described the Bay in 1610 as “covered with flocks of waterfowl…in such abundance as are not in all the world to be equalled.” George Alsop estimated in the mid-17th century that one flock of ducks at the head of the Bay was a mile wide and seven miles long.
Frankly put, no one could imagine any type of hunting could really make a dent.
But by the early 20th century, it was clear through the plummeting numbers of migratory geese, ducks and swans, that yes, indeed, overharvesting could have a seriously negative impact. The need for regulation was clear. The following Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, dramatically changed the approach towards hunting in the Chesapeake. With the sale of migratory birds outlawed, and subsequent legislation limiting the amount of birds each hunter could harvest and also mandating that birds could only be shot on the wing, hunters had to radically alter how and why they waterfowled. Now gunners had to create a setting, complete with sound, bird replicas, and a hiding spot, that birds had to be lured into. Hunters were challenged to familiarize themselves with the habits, calls, and preferences of the individual birds they sought. For example, in the wide-open, shallow waters of the Susquehanna Flats, where millions of migrating canvasbacks descended to plunder the verdant underwater meadows that grow there, hunters had to develop a way of concealing themselves in the middle of a wide open Bay. The response? Sinkboxes: partially submerged floating vessels, with wide rims for supporting canvasback decoys, often painted the color of the water. (See the sinkbox on the left in the photo below.)
Along with canvasback calls and box weighted and floating decoys, the ‘rig’ of a canvasback hunter mimicked the sounds, sights and location that the ducks preferred. To hunt successfully, this was now the challenge- every hunter had to know the subtle art of camouflage, and through that, also had to intimately acquaint themselves with the birds they hunted. The birds and the style of hunting depended on the natural inclinations of the waterfowl- whether canvasbacks, mergansers, geese, or wood ducks. Hunters can now be found in blinds, in pits in farm fields, on boats, and in corn fields, each hunting a particular bird with a certain call, decoy rig, and schedule.
This merganser decoy, photo courtesy of Dave Harp, represents the local, species-specific kind of tool hunters developed after 1918.
The habitat, life cycle, food preferences, calls, and movement of individual species has become part of the learning process. Through this appreciative observation, along with strategy and the development of bird-specific skill, sport hunting became the activity it is now- one that often creates ardent hunters that consider themselves passionate conservationists. Ducks Unlimited, for example, founded by sportsmen, is the leader in wetland and waterfowl conservation with a simple premise: you protect the birds and their habit, you have more birds to hunt without negatively impacting the population.
So, when I’ve got those visitors at the Museum who say, “But isn’t sport hunting all about killing for fun?” I say, “The fun isn’t in the kill. For most sport hunters, it’s all in the camouflage.”