The market hunting era that started in the early 1800s was big business for the Chesapeake Bay region of Maryland. Hunting waterfowl became the answer for many trying to make a living and this region offered plenty of geese, ducks, Atlantic brant, sea ducks and other species.
Chesapeake is a bottleneck on the Atlantic Flyway. Annual fall migrations bring ducks and geese from northern nesting grounds through this famous bay. The entire Chesapeake is a shallow body of water where waterfowl can easily feed on wild celery, widgeon grass and other favorite aquatic foods.
Market hunters were tough men, many ex-navy, who braved icy cold waters and cramped conditions to kill the most ducks or geese possible. They packed their fowl in iced down barrels, feathers and all, to be shipped by rail to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities.
“Once customers tasted canvasback duck for the first time, this succulent flesh was at the top of each menu,” C. John Sullivan, director of operations for the Havre De, Grace Decoy Museum said. “Market hunters could sell every duck harvested, but canvasbacks were preferred in all markets.”
Legislators finally ended market hunting for fear of decreasing duck, goose and swan numbers. Sport hunters hated this nighttime intrusion on fowl they hunted during the day and tended to have more money than market hunters to afford legal actions towards ending this dangerous livelihood.
This sad chapter is part of our waterfowl hunting history, so here are the market hunter’s unique but dangerous tools:
Sink boxes: The most unique trademark of market hunting is the sink box. Sink boxes originated in Long Island, New York, and migrated south to Maryland with sport gunners. The market hunters took notice and incorporated sink boxes into their operation. Numerous hunters, including President Grover Cleveland hunted in sink boxes.
“Sink boxes, used from the 1840’s to 1934, were shaped like coffins with wooden edges and lay perfectly flat with the water surface,” Sullivan said. “The edges were weighted down with 20- to 25-pound cast iron decoys that matched the carved wooden versions. A 200-pound gunner might have six decoys to sink the platform down to water level while a 150-pound man might need eight or 10. Not unusual for sink box hunters to shoot 150 to 250 ducks daily.”
Ducks flying toward either layout could only see a big brace of ducks stretched out until it was too late when hunters sat up to shoot. A chase boat picked up dead or crippled fowl and occasionally rescued hunters when the sink box filled with water and started to sink. This method was outlawed in 1934.
Shotguns: The first market hunters used big bore shotguns from “0” to 10-gauges and later graduated to punt guns to kill more ducks with one shot. The 4-, 6- and 8-gauge shotguns were big, heavy and awkward to swing and shoot.
Market hunters took a hit when a Maryland law in 1832 eliminated the use of large bore shotguns larger than 10 gauges, notably 4, 6 or 8 gauges. Later it was decreed that this only applied to guns that could be fired from the shoulder, leaving punt guns still legal.
Punt Guns: Punt guns built over nine feet long with 2-inch bores and weighing approximately 90 to 140 pounds were the equivalent to small-bow-mounted cannons. Most were laid on sandbags and then laced down tightly by stout ropes, starting from a hole drilled in the stock to keep the expensive guns from flipping back on the hunter when discharged or rolling overboard in rough water.
A pound of shot was loaded with a pound of coarse grain black powder, creating quite an explosion over the water’s surface and dropping numerous ducks per shot, mostly canvasbacks, redheads and scaup. Most effective shots were taken at 30 to 35 yards. Loads may have been larger or smaller, depending on the punt guns capabilities.
“Punt guns were fine killing machines and either homemade or built by gunsmiths,” Sullivan said. “Blacksmiths made several too. A number of gun shops in Baltimore specialized in importing guns from Belgium and Great Britain.”
Homemade versions were not as fancy. Two-inch lead pipe was used for barrels on homemade versions and old muzzleloader actions were fitted to the lead pipes. Occasionally the barrel exploded in the shooter’s face when the powder was touched off.
“I heard about guys blowing off the front end of their boat,” said Paul W. Shertz, of the Upper Bay Museum. “Another fellow had a misfire, reloaded and parts of the gun blew up in his face on the second shot. He died instantly.”
Punt guns eventually became illegal in 1918 and many were confiscated. Some hunters buried their oil-cloth wrapped punt guns in sand or drilled a hole in the stock and hung them from ropes down well shafts to continue this type of hunting.
Batteries: A battery was several blackpowder barrels welded together forming a battery. A trough of blackpowder was lit to set off all barrels at once. The average battery gun would shoot a 10-foot wide pattern at 30 yards.
Batteries held three to eight blackpowder barrels a quarter-inch apart and spread out a wider pattern. The powder was lit when the percussion lock caused a spark and each gun would shoot almost simultaneously.
Market hunting boats
• Sneak Skiff: Special boats were required for slipping hunter and heavy guns into a kill position low on the water’s surface. The double-ended sneak skiff was approximately 16 to 18 feet long and 3 to 4 feet in diameter. The little boat was 18 inches off the surface and easy to paddle with short hand paddles. The entire bow was aimed at the ducks or geese. Both ends were pointed to accommodate the incredible recoil from a punt gun. This was the most dangerous aspect of market hunting.
• Live Decoys: Opportunists raised wild ducks and geese, called tollers, for hunting or they trapped migrating birds. Hunters knew that ducks or geese called better than humans trying to imitate them. Conservation agents were always on the hunt for poachers raiding wild goose or duck nests for eggs to be hatched. Some actually shot nets from cannons to capture wild fowl.
The birds would be cared for and used as live decoys with cords attached to their necks or legs. Most were anchored off the bottom by a weight while others had a cord back to the blind. A still or quiet duck or goose might receive a jerk on the line to wake them up when wild birds were close by.
• Hand-Carved Wooden Decoys: “Many of the most famous decoy makers were actually watermen and market hunters from Havre de Grace and Charlestown,” said Jeff Pelayo, waterfowl biologist. “John Brown, John “Daddy” Holly, the Ward Brothers and the Dye Family made beautiful decoys that are well sought after today.”
Decoys used for hunting are valuable to collectors and generally quite pricy. Most were repainted each season and still have several coats of paint. A few will have holes cut from lead shot fired at waterfowl, occasionally adding to their value, depending on the collector’s taste.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.