16 August 2013

Autumnal Sports - Artist's Experience Reed Bird Shooting

Wading in the Marshes

Four Hours' Wretched Experience and Four Birds as the Result

Reed bird and rail shooting is at its height now, and the Eastern Branch, from back of the jail to Bladensburg, presents an animated appearance. The old veteran of the war might derive genuine pleasure from a trip through these marshes in a skiff since the incessant bang! bang!! would recall some of his army experience without its necessary accompanying danger. True, he might find it necessary to stop and pick a load of bird shot out of his system occasionally, but this would, of course, only add zest to that which otherwise prove tame sport.

The Critic artist thought he'd like to try reed bird shooting. It must prove a diversion to one used to shooting the Elephantus Africanus and other large game. Therefore he laid in a plentiful supply of loaded cartridges (No. 6 shot) and depositing five cents with the driver of a Columbia line car soon found himself at Miller's at the eastern end of Bennings bridge.

Over the marsh in every direction the gunners banged away, every shot intensifying the artist's desire to join the skirmish. Several skiffs passed under the bridge as he crossed it. They were picturesque objects with the gunner standing erect in the bow of the skiff, while the "shover" standing in the stern with his long pole, pushed the skiff among the reeds with such skill that scarcely a ripple was raised upon the water. Over the tops of the thicket of reeds for miles could be seen the heads of gunners and shovers. The bang! bang!! of those nearest sounded decidedly warlike, while the tiny clouds of white smoke puffing out of the reeds in the distance told of the destruction going on among the birds in that quarter. Flocks of birds would string out above the marsh after each shot, then suddenly swoop down again upon the reeds only to meet with another fusilade from a dozen double-barreled shotguns.

At Miller's the artist obtained a skiff and the services of an expert "shover" at so much per shove. Then he stood up ready for business. Scarcely had the skiff gotten under way before there was a whirr overhead.

Bang bang!!

Now whether those cartridges were too heavily loaded, or whether the skiff gave a lurch, or whether it struck a rock, or whether —, but no matter, it happened! The artist, after rising from the marshy deep, pulled the mud from his mouth, shook the water from his ears, blew the debris from his nose and managed to regain the skiff. His ardor, small clothes and ammunition were considerably dampened, but he had killed a bird that repaid him for all the discomfort attending the bath. After tying his hat to the bird so he could find it again, (for reed birds are smaller than wild swans), he ordered his shover to shove. Bang! went a gun further over in the marsh. A stinging sensation about the artist's ears followed. Whether the artist was mistaken for an ortolan or reed bird, or whether it was an accident he didn't take time to consider, for there arose a great flock of birds. Both barrels of his gun went off at once and to his surprise, instead of fifty or a hundred bird falling, one solitary bird dropped into the water ahead. Then the artist stopped long enough to pull a load of shot from his ear and cheeks. After an exciting hunt of half an hour the bird was found among the spatter-dock leaves, where it had washed, and the hunt was resumed.

An hour was consumed in pushing among the reeds. Flocks of birds passed, but out of range. Then the shover suddenly remembered that the tide was going out and he'd have to return or get left in the mud. He turned with difficulty, for the water was already low. Then another flock of birds arose, and two more loads of shot went whistling after them. A half-hour's search and the artist was rewarded with two birds. He had now been out four hours and had four reed birds. Then the artist figured up and found that it requires precisely 5.333 1/3 shots to kill a reed bird. And after he is killed there isn't enough of him to find in the skillet unless you've got several dozens of him.

But "tide and time wait for no man," and in attempting to turn the shover found he was stuck in the mud and informed the artist he'd have to wade it for shore.

If the reader never waded leg deep through a marsh, then the situation of the artist cannot be fully appreciated. There's a sensation that is nowhere else to be found when you strike out and find yourself sinking in the mud. There's a peculiar slushy sound as you go down that is startling. Then you never know when you're going to stop sinking. And when you pull one foot out the other goes deeper into the mire. Then the water runs down your boots and sends a cold chill creeping up your vertebrae. It makes your boots slippery and slimy inside as though you were stepping on a nest of wriggling snakes. To keep you balance while pulling one leg out of the mud, too, requires the strictest attention to business. Meanwhile you have been so engrossed with the difficulties of the situation that you find you've been wading further into the marsh instead of toward shore. Another long hour's work and you are upon dry land.

This was the artist's experience in the so-called "sport" of reed bird shooting, and after getting home and having a couple of old fashioned Wabash chills, he sat him up in an arm chair and with a mustard plaster on his chest, his feet in a tub of scalding water, and a glass of onion juice and sugar near at hand, and figured up the day's profit and loss. It didn't take any time to settle on the exact amount of the former, but the latter he is still engaged upon with a fair prospect of running short of figures.

September 9, 1885. Washington Critic 18 (5329): 1.