Kenneth Kieser: Waterfowl hunting is a time-honored tradition

The Examiner
This is one of the few Market Hunter sink boxes left.

Waterfowl hunters have a passion for those who graced marshlands when harvesting ducks or geese meant survival. The history is rich and sometimes sad.

Prehistoric native men and women roasted or boiled fresh duck or goose meat in spring and fall, no doubt considering each bird a gift from the gods. Hunting weapons included bow and arrows, rocks, spears, nets, bolas or bird darts.

Much was learned by early hunters through observing nature. Legends say that tribes noticed geese would swim close to shore and give a barking fox an earful of scornful honks. The birds sometimes drifted too close to shore and a second hidden fox jumped out to nab one or two of the duped birds. Tribes watched this and started stretching fox skins over wood as decoys while making fox yelps with their mouths, occasionally bringing fowl in for easy kills.

A few clever hunters actually breathed through a hollow reed and slipped under the resting duck or goose, pulling it under to drown. Others dried out a goose or duck body to wear like a hat with their eyes and nose just above the water’s surface while moving toward resting flocks.

Decoys were a prehistoric tool used by hunters. Museum workers discovered a Paiute Indian storage pit in 1924 in a Nevada cave and found several 2,000-year-old decoys painted and feathered to resemble canvasback drakes. Conditions in the cave kept the decoys intact.

North American and Canadian Indians used mud, sticks, reeds, crude wooden blocks and sometimes cedar wood blackened by fire to create decoys. Hunters later nailed goose or duck skins to blocks of wood. Cree Indians in remote Saskatchewan areas still use these inexpensive but effective decoys.

According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl hunting with shotguns began in the 17th century using the matchlock shotgun. Later flintlock and percussion cap shotguns were used, loaded with black powder and lead shot through the muzzle in the 17th century to the late 19th century.”

Market hunters in the middle 1800s through 1920 made duck and goose hunting a business. Waterfowl were said to darken the sky before wholesale killing became profitable. A pair of canvasback ducks were the most sought after and would bring $10, a fair amount in those days when a dollar was still worth a dollar.

Lesser species of ducks might have only netted a quarter to $1 each. Enterprising men quickly decided to add more firepower to their market hunting operations.

Punt guns stretching over 9 feet long with 2-inch bores, weighed approximately 90 to 140 pounds. These large guns became the equivalent to small bow-mounted cannons. Punt guns were laid on sandbags and then laced down tightly by stout ropes, starting with 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.

Rugged types, often ex-Navy men, attached punt guns on the front of narrow sneak boats that laid low in the water, making it easier to slip up on a resting flock in total darkness.

A pound of shot was pushed in the muzzle with a pound of coarse grain black powder, creating quite an explosion that could be heard for miles over the water’s surface while dropping numerous ducks per shot.

Effective shots were taken at 30 to 35 yards. Loads may have been larger or smaller, depending on the punt guns’ capabilities. Some punt guns were several shotgun barrels across the boat’s bow, designed to shoot one at a time in rapid succession while throwing a generous swarth of lead shot.

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. Market hunters using large bore 8- and 10-gauge shotguns took notice and incorporated sink boxes into their operation. Numerous waterfowlers, including President Grover Cleveland hunted in sink boxes.

“Sink boxes, used from the 1840s to 1934, were shaped like coffins with wooden edges and lay perfectly flat with the water surface,” said C. John Sullivan, director of operations for the Havre De Grace Decoy Museum in Maryland. “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.”

Captains with sailboats or small ships took market hunters or sportsmen to distant shorelines where they were rowed or push-poled in with a guide well before daylight. By day's end the guide poled his small hunting skiff filled with hunters, waterfowl and equipment back to the larger vessel.

Many of these hunters shot 8- or 10-gauge shotguns, no doubt badly bruising their shooting shoulder after a long hunt. The hunter was wined and dined to celebrate a fine hunt while the guide plucked and cleaned his waterfowl for shipment home. Birds shipped to markets were not plucked or gutted, just packed in ice.

During this period hunters raised or trapped wild ducks and geese, called tollers, for hunting. Real ducks or geese call better than humans.

The birds would be 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 that ran 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 in the area.

Today we follow laws created to protect ducks and geese. Waterfowl are migratory birds protected by federal laws to ensure no overharvesting or illegal hunting tactics are practiced. Yet, the history of waterfowl hunting adds to the romance of this cherished sport that happily pulls many of us back to the marsh every fall.

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 kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser