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Cool Things from Collections- the Poacher’s Decoy

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Just a few of our 10,000 treasures in our Collections Building at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

One of the most magical places here on our campus at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is the Collections Building. Tidily arranged on sterile-looking white shelves are a pirate’s horde of Chesapeake treasure: ship models and oyster cans, one-of-a-kind Bay boats from over 100 years ago, sail maker’s benches, steamboat menus, cork life jackets, the first Evinrude outboard motors, antique eel pots, and that’s just on the first row. Each object tells the story of some aspect of Chesapeake life or work, a talisman of a past Bay where the water represented sustenance, stability, and income.

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A red-breasted merganser drake decoy, by Alvin Meekins, 1955. CBMM Collections.

Some of the the most interesting things in our collection are the most unexpected. As a maritime museum in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, it makes sense that our collections would include decoys, as waterfowling is a big part of the Chesapeake’s unique heritage. Generally these are grimy, battered working decoys used for sport hunting, but there are a few decorative ones as well by big names like the Ward Brothers. Within that comprehensive collection of decoys there are a few surprises- like the merganser pictured above. These are working decoys, too, but these are special- created for use in the off season, or for birds that were illegal to shoot. They are examples of poacher’s decoys.

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The bottom of the merganser, with a torn detail label.

This merganser drake decoy, made by Alvin Meekins of Hooper’s Island, Maryland, was confiscated at an illegal spring shoot in Dorchester County in the 1950’s, and both the decoy and its use are full of information about the Chesapeake’s environmental history. It was created during a ‘golden era’ of Chesapeake decoy carving, after the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 created limited seasons and shooting methods for waterfowl hunting.

Prior to that time period, there were very few limits to hunting at all, and those regulations that did exist were a patchwork of different limits, seasons, and rules that changed depending on which Chesapeake county you hunted in. Birds could also be baited, trapped, and shot on the water. There was no great need for decoys, which are primarily used in on-the-wing sport shooting.

With the new regulations in 1918, restrictions were federally placed on hunting, regulating seasons, limits, techniques, and locations. On-the-water shooting was eliminated, which suddenly made concealment and camouflage a necessity for anyone who hoped to get a shot at a bird in flight- and opened wide the market for decoys as key element of a waterfowler’s “gunning rig”.

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Red-breasted Merganser detail- note the crest.

Decoys varied from river to river, reflecting the migratory birds that sought refuge in different parts of the Chesapeake. The northern Bay, the celery-grass-rich Susquehanna Flats in particular, were famous for canvasbacks, while the southern Bay was the winter home for a large variety of diving ducks.

Dorchester County, Maryland,  where the merganser decoy was created, historically offered migrating waterfowl shelter in its expanses of salt water marshland and its reedy shallows, which teemed with small finfish. The mergansers, along with other fish-eating diving ducks, congregated by the millions in these open southern Bay tributaries. 

But the drawback with mergansers is that they are what they eat- though filling, their flesh reeks of fish. This was no deterrent for the highly practical waterfowlers in Dorchester County, however, who merely piled the fishy duck on top of the muskrat and woodpecker that already filled their plate and had at it.

Similarly undeterred was the poacher who used this decoy for a spring shoot, several months outside of the winter hunting season.  For many years after the waterfowling regulations went into practice, wardens had their hands full and their ears pricked for the sound of gunshots as they attempted to control the waterfowler’s longing to return to the limitless good ol’ days.

Delbert “Cigar” Daisey recalled poaching mergansers and avoiding wardens, “The bulk of the money I made back then was from trapping ducks. You just had to worry about the wardens. Hell, they knew all your traps and who you were selling to. I’d shoot mergansers, sometimes twenty-five to thirty-five a day from February to April, and then sell them to the people who worked in the oyster shucking houses. The good birds, black ducks and pintails, I’d sell to the other professional people during the week.”

As creative as poachers could be in attempting to skirt the law using decoys, baits, traps, or big guns(their backfiring homemade guns were truly works of eyebrow-scorching art), wardens were just as artful at catching them, as our out-of-season merganser proves. Wardens used boats, airplanes, dogs, and ingenuity to catch poachers, and our collections and exhibits have proof of their success, in decoy, gun, and photograph form.

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It’s a lot of history in just one decoy, and its just one decoy in a row of hundreds in the CBMM collections, packed carefully away until their story gets a chance to be shared.

 

Sink, Sank, Sunk

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.

The Bay’s Own Breed

The moment before release is the most magnificent. Their entire body trembles with intent and purpose, thick muscles vibrate with contained energy crawling down the barrel chest to wet, muddy hocks shivering with instinct. Each quick breath a steamy dragon waft, puffing out in white bursts that linger in the frigid morning air. Their blonde eyes pulse from owner to bird and back again, watching, waiting in delicious and terrible anticipation. They were made for this. They are Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

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Bred as a ‘gunning dog’ for use in market hunting in the 19th century, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, or “chessies” as they are commonly called, are thick-coated, strong swimmers with stamina, drive, and soft mouths. They will retrieve tirelessly and with the singular purpose that only a working dog, developed for its particular task, will do. Loyal companions, joyful in their job, and fiercely intelligent, chessies have become as essential to a gunner’s rig as his shotgun, his call, or his waders.

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Historically speaking, the origin of the breed is unique in that primary documentation exists to verify the actual catastrophe that precipitated their arrival in the watershed. In 1807, two Newfoundland pups were being transported on an English brig, bound for the British coast, that foundered in a gale. Loaded with codfish and sailors (that were also loaded, but not with codfish), the vessel began to sink, when it was serendipitously intercepted by the ship Canton. From the 1845 account of George Law, who wrote of witnessing the event:

"In the fall of 1807 I was on board of the ship Canton, belonging to my uncle, the late Hugh Thompson, of Baltimore, when we fell in, at sea, near the termination of a very heavy equinoctial gale, with an English brig in a sinking condition, and took off the crew. …I boarded her, in command of a boat from the Canton, which was sent to take off the English crew, the brig’s own boats having been all swept away. …I found onboard of her two Newfoundland pups, male and female, which I saved, and subsequently, on our landing the English crew at Norfolk, our own destination being Baltimore, I purchased these two pups of the English captain for a guinea apiece. Being bound again to sea, I gave the (male) pup, which was called Sailor, to Mr. John Mercer, of West River; and (the female) pup, which was called Canton, to Doctor James Stewart, of Sparrow’s Point. 

Both attained great reputation as water-dogs. They were most sagacious in every thing, particularly so in all duties connected with duck-shooting. The (female) remained at Sparrows Point till her death, and her progeny were and are still well known, through Patapsco Neck, on the Gunpowder, and up the bay, amongst the duck-shooters, as unsurpassed for their purposes.”

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Two cast-iron statues of Canton and Sailor flanking the entrance to Koppers Co. in Baltimore in the late 19th century. A version of this statue now resides at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

It is the rare myth whose roots are supported by good documentation. And so we know that in 1807, the ancestor of the classic Bay water dog was introduced to its new hunting grounds. Of course, the 19th century Chesapeake retriever would have served a very different purpose than today’s web-footed companion. Prior to the Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918, market hunting was legal, which meant that the amount of downed birds a chessie would need to retrieve could be multiplied four-fold or more as compared to today’s limits. (To learn more about this legislation and how it changed watefowling, click through here: http://bit.ly/w22sVn) When hunting ducks and geese was an endeavor of bulk efficiency and there were no restrictions on the amount of birds bagged in a day, 30 to 40 canvasbacks, swans, or mallards were considered a good haul.

Sold to steamboats and restaurants that would serve the wild birds in savory brandy and cream sauce on porcelain plates, wildfowl were not a sport; rather, a way to make a living come winter. Chesapeake Bay retrievers were an essential element to this occupation. With one blast from the great punt guns, sleeping fowl would be scattered like dropped jacks across the creek or inlet by the shot. Gathering up all the dead and wounded birds was time-consuming work, especially in places where the water was so low or the mud so thick that making your way by boat or foot was tricky. Enter the Chesapeake Bay retriever, whose physiognomy couldn’t be more perfectly suited for the task. Wide webbed feet push water aside efficiently, and provide stable maneuverability through the marsh tumps. Thick, oily fur to repels the cold water, even on the most ice-glazed winter days. A powerful physique lends athleticism, and a wide, jowly ‘soft’ mouth means no teeth marks in your market-ready wood duck. Their ability and comfort in the Bay environment is clear to anyone who has ever watched a chessie retrieve, and their exuberance in the water is so effusive it can be hard to get them out of it.

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                    A chessie and water go together like scrapple and eggs.

Even as the regulations for hunting have changed to manage the population of waterfowl, and therefore changed gunning itself to a sport of finesse and skill, Chesapeake Bay retrievers are one element that has remained consistently valued. You might even say that waterfowlers are as loyal to the breed as their individual companions are to them. In their two hundred years of buoyant, barking service, Chessies have become an iconic figure in the history and heritage of the Bay. They also have the distinction of being the only Chesapeake icon that can sleep comfortably the foot of your bed, legs akimbo and twitching with dreams of the next morning’s tidewater adventures.

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                The author’s father and his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Boozer.