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Cool Things from Collections- the Poacher’s Decoy


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


It’s all just camouflage


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.”