20 August 2012

Maryland Duck Shooting on the Susquehanna Flats

Judge Gildersleeve, who is perhaps even better known as a rifle shot and sportsman than a jurist, has done recently some good shooting on the waters of Chesapeake Bay, where yearly immense numbers of wild fowl congregate. Sitting in his office the Judge described it.

"There is no better place for duck shooting," he said, "than the Susquehanna flats, near Havre de Grace, on the upper waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There the wild celery grows in abundance. This is the favorite food of the canvas back ducks, and it imparts a delightful flavor to their flesh. Consequently the canvas backs of that region are the very best. So, too, are the red heads that abound in that locality. These birds bring a higher price in the market than those shot in any other place that I know of. Now, as you probably know very well, duck shooting in Maryland is strictly protected by law, which provides that no shooting shall take place in the fall until November 1. Then it begins, but it is confined to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. After January 1 the shooting is extended to Saturdays. But this added day doesn't amount to much usually, for by the holiday's the flats are generally frozen over, and the duck shooting comes to an end.

"And now a word about the modus operandi," the Judge continued. The best way to shoot ducks on the flats then is from a box, or a battery as it is called. This is simply a coffin-shaped, water-tight box, so weighted that when the hunter gets in its sides are nearly level with the surface of the water. On each side is a canvas-colored frame-work called a wing. These wings extend out over the water, and are intended to keep the waves from washing over the battery. When, however, there is a stiff wind blowing they not infrequently prove insufficient to keep the water out of the box. Then a strip of sheet iron four or six inches wide which is attached to the box is turned up, and it proves a sufficient barrier. In this box lies the hunter with his gun in his hands. Very often these boxes are placed in pairs, and two hunters occupy them. The laws of the State further demand that for each battery a license of $25 shall be paid. There is another license for $10, issued to what are called 'bushwhackers.' These are the men too poor to own a battery and outfit, and cruise around the flats and kill what they can. The first week in November is the most desirable for shooting, as you readily see, for then the birds are tamest and most plentiful, and then of course the batteries bring the highest prices. The first Monday morning in November found our party, which consisted of Col. E. Harrison Sanford, R.R. Haines, Arthur T. Sullivan and myself, sleeping soundly on the scow of Capt. George R. Carver, one of the best known and most successful duck hunters of Maryland. Capt. Carver has one of the most complete outfits in that section. It consists of a scow, batteries, decoys and small boats. The scow is a large flat-bottomed schooner-rigged craft, drawing little water. Forward is a kitchen complete, and aft is the cabin or dining saloon. There are comfortable bunks and everything is shipshape and right snug. The scow lay all night outside the lines. There are lines prescribed by law inside of which the scows and boats cannot go until after 3 o'clock on shooting days. Of course, on dark, stormy mornings some daring skipper will run it; but it is risky business. But at 3 o'clock the scows, many of which are lying all around the lines, hoist sail and make for the grounds. They choose the most likely spots, get far enough apart not to interfere with one another, anchor the batteries and put out the decoys. At about 5 o'clock the sportsmen are called, breakfast is served, and as soon as it is light enough to see they are rowed out to the batteries, where they take their places, and wait for the ducks.

"On that Monday morning we used a double battery, and two of us took our places. About us were 450 decoy red head and canvas back ducks. They were made of iron, and looked very natural. When we were in our places the men rowed back, the scow was anchored off at a good distance, and we waited. The morning dawned beautiful and clear. Soon we began to hear the popping of guns all around us, and very soon ducks came our way, and we began to do some popping ourselves. The day was perfect. The sun shoe warmly, and there was just breeze enough to make the ducks fly well. A battery is always placed so that the shooter lies with his head to windward and his feet to leeward. Ducks, when possible, fly up in the face of the wind when about to light. If a flock is flying right with the wind and decides to light, it makes a curve, swoops around, and comes up sharp in the face of the wind, so that a good duck shooting day should be rather windy. There we lay in our coffins, surrounded by decoys, and every few minutes we'd see over us, or to our right of left, a flock of ducks swerving around to join our decoys, which danced on the little waves in a very lifelike way. The time to shoot is just as the birds are about to light, or just as they see you and decide not to light. Under favorable conditions they come within fifteen or twenty yards. Then is the time to sit up in the box and bang away. New beginners make the mistake usually of firing at the flock, not at single birds. The result is poor execution. You must select your bird and kill him, and then go for another. Colonel Sanford and I tried the experiment several times of blazing away at the flock, but we usually missed all. This year, for the first time, I tried the experiment of using two guns, and succeeded several times in getting three birds, one with each barrel of my first gun, and the third with the first barrel of my second gun. This requires quick work. Sometimes we got two birds with one barrel, when they lapped each other as they flew."

"Is the trip expensive?"

"No. We take the train here at 4 in the afternoon arriving the afternoon for Havre de Grace, get there at 8:12 in the evening, go right aboard the sloop for all arrangements have been made, do our shooting, and get back here Thursday morning. For the use of the batteries we paid $150. That included everything, except about $1 for provisions. So you see, dividing the expense among four makes them quite reasonable. We could have paid all our expenses with the ducks we shot, and had something over. The first part of the season the best batteries bring $50 a day. That's what we paid. Later they come down to $40, but rarely less than that, for the owners can make that usually by shooting ducks for the market. I consider the time and money well spent, for it is rare sport."

November 23, 1880. Maryland duck shooting. Judge Gildersleeve's experience on the Susquehanna Flats. Chester Daily Times 9(1303): 2. From the New York Sun.