WILD-FOWL SHOOTING

It is not proposed to give any extended account of wild-fowl shooting as
practised on the waters of Long Island, or in the neighborhood of the
great Northern cities; the unsportsmanlike modes of proceeding which are
there in vogue, and which, while contravening all true ideas of sport,
insult common sense by the ruthless injury they inflict, have been fully
set forth by other writers.

In stationing a battery–that imitation coffin, which should be a
veritable one, if justice had its way, to every man who enters it–and
in lying prone in it through the cold days of winter, the market-man may
find his pecuniary profit, but the gentleman can receive no pleasure;
while the permanent injury inflicted by driving away the ducks from
their feeding-grounds, and making them timorous of stopping at all in
waters from any and all portions of which unseen foes may arise, is ten
times as great as the temporary advantage gained; and as for calling
that sport, which is merely the wearisome endurance of cold and tedium
to obtain game that might be killed more handsomely, and in the long run
more abundantly, by other methods, is an entire misapplication of the
word.

So long as the shooter confines himself to points of land or sedge,
whether he uses decoys or awaits the accidental passage of the birds, he
not only permits himself a change of position and sufficient motion to
keep his blood in circulation, but he allows the frightened flocks that
have already lost several of their number in running the gauntlet, a
secure retreat in the open waters, and undisturbed rest at meal time.
And so long as this is granted them they will tarry, and trust to their
sharp eyes and quick ears to save their lives; but when they cannot feed
in peace, and when they can find no haven of safety in the broad expanse
of water, they will inevitably continue their migration, and seek more
hospitable quarters.

Wild-fowl shooting, as pursued at the West, or even at the South, is
glorious and exhilarating; there the sportsman has exercise, or the
assistance of his faithful and intelligent retriever, and is required to
bring into play the higher powers of his nature. He manages his own
boat, or he stands securely upon the firm ground, and if he has not a
canine companion, chases his crippled birds and retrieves the dead ones
by his own unaided efforts.

At the West, although the vast numbers do not collect that congregate in
the Chesapeake Bay and Currituck Inlet, there is an independence in the
mode of pursuit that has a peculiar charm; and from the facilities
afforded by the nature of the ground, the excellent cover furnished by
the high reeds, and the immense number of single shots, the average
success is as great as in the more open waters of the Southern coast.

The employment of retrievers is not general in our country, which is, by
the character of its marshes and growth of plants, better suited for the
full display of their capacities than any other. There are certain
objections to the use of a dog in wild-fowl shooting, which, although
entirely overbalanced in the writer’s opinion by the corresponding
advantages, are unquestionably serious. The season for duck-shooting is
mainly late and cold, when it is essential to the shooter’s comfort that
his boat should be dry; but the dog, with every retrieved bird, comes
back dripping with wet, and if he does not let it drain into the bottom
of the skiff, where it “swashes” about over clothes and boots, shakes
himself in a way to deluge with a mimic cataract every person and thing
within yards of him.

It is unreasonable to ask of the intelligent and devoted but shivering
creature, that he should remain standing in the freezing water or upon
the damp sedge; and if the master is as little of a brute as his
companion, and has a spare coat, the dog will have it for a bed,
regardless of the consequences.

Nor is this the only difficulty; for unless the animal has instinctive
judgment as well as careful training, he may in open water upset the
frail skiff, by either jumping out of it, or clambering into it
injudiciously. A thoughtful creature maybe taught to make his entry and
exit over the stern, but unfortunately, some of the most enthusiastic
and serviceable dogs have little discretion or forethought; and unless
he is trained to perfect quiet, and broken to entire immobility at the
most exciting moments, he is apt to interfere sadly with the sport.

In spite of these inconveniences, however, the loss of many of his
birds–amounting, amid the dense reeds of the western lakes, to nearly
one-half of the whole number–will satisfy the sportsman that the
retriever, with his devoted and wonderful sagacity, to say nothing of
his delightful companionship, is a most desirable acquisition. Where the
sportsman is forced to pursue his calling solitary and alone, so far as
human associates are concerned, he will find the presence of his
four-footed friend a great satisfaction, and, amid the solitary and
unemployed midday hours, a pleasant resource.

The dog is the natural companion of the sportsman–the partaker of his
pleasures, the coadjutor of his triumphs; and whenever his peculiar
gifts can be used to advantage, it is a gratification to both to call
upon him. The knowledge that he will acquire in time is truly
marvellous. Not only does he possess the power of smell, but his
eyesight and hearing far surpass those of man; he will often discern a
flock long before it is visible to human eyes, and his motions will warn
his master of its approach.

His training can be carried on beyond limit; his knowledge increases
daily, and his devotion is unbounded. Of all the race, the retriever is
probably the most intelligent; as, in fact, intelligence is one of his
necessary qualifications. For this work no breed has the slightest value
unless the individuals possess rare sagacity and almost human judgment.
Some of the most valuable English dogs have been from an accidental
cross; and a pure cur with a heavy coat is often as good as any other.

There is in England a strain of dogs known as retrievers; they are
mostly used in connexion with upland shooting, as English pointers and
setters are not broken to fetch; but the favorite animals for wild-fowl
shooting, which have made their name notorious in connexion with this
specialty, have generally come from parents neither of which possesses
the true retriever blood.

In this country the best breed will have some of the Newfoundland
strain; the animal must be clothed with a dense coat of thick hair to
endure the severe exposure to which he is subjected, and must be endowed
with a natural aptitude and passion for swimming. The usual color is
dark, which, in the writer’s judgment, is a great mistake; and the only
really distinct breed of retrievers is known as that of Baltimore.

In the Southern States the dog, as an assistant in wild-fowl shooting,
has always been in far greater repute than at the North; although the
inland lakes of the latter, the extensive marshes closely grown up with
tall _zimosas_, matted wild oats, and thick weeds, make his services far
more desirable. At the South alone has any intelligent attention been
given to raising a superior strain of retrievers; and whether we seek
an animal that by his curious motions will toll ducks up to the stand,
or by his natural intelligence will aid the punt-shooter in recovering
his game, it is at the South alone that we can find any admitted
pedigree.

In the Northern States, however, the “native,” as he is called at the
West–probably from the fact that he is invariably a foreigner–selects
any promising pup, and by means of much flogging and steady work trains
him to a faint knowledge of his duties. A young dog loves to fetch, and
will take pleasure in chasing a ball thrown for him round the room, and
if he is a water-dog, naturally brings from the water a stick cast into
it, so that the routine part is easily impressed upon him; but an animal
with this proficiency alone is scarcely worth keeping.

A good dog must have intuitive quickness of thought and judgment; he
must know enough to lie perfectly motionless when a flock is
approaching; he must understand how to retrieve his birds judiciously,
bringing the cripples first; he must have perseverance, endurance, and
great personal vigor. A duck is cunning, and to outwit its many
artifices and evasions the retriever must have greater shrewdness; it
can skulk, and hide, and swim, and sneak, and he must have the patience
to follow it, and the strength to capture it. Wonderful stories are told
of the many exhibitions of what seems much like human reason, evinced by
some of the celebrated retrievers.

But probably the rarest quality for a dog or man to possess, and the
most necessary to both, if they would excel in field sports, is the
power of self-restraint. To ask an animal, trembling all over with
delirious excitement, to lie down and remain perfectly motionless during
those most trying moments when the ducks are approaching and being
killed, is to demand of him a self-control greater than would be often
found in his master. Yet upon this quality in the dog depends the entire
question of his value or worthlessness; if he makes the slightest
motion, the quick eyes of the birds are sure to discern it; and if he
bounces up at the first discharge, he will certainly destroy his
master’s chance of using his second barrel, and perhaps upset him over
the side of the boat.

It is to avoid the sharp eyes of the ducks that a black color for the
dog has been condemned. Amid the yellow and brown reeds of the marshes,
or upon the reflective surface of the open water, black, from its
capacity for absorbing the rays of light, is visible at an immense
distance. Yellow, brown, or grey are the best shades; and any color is
preferable to black. Red is selected by the Southerners for their
tolling dogs, but this is with the purpose of making them attractive.

Many persons conceive that a dark coat is warmer for an animal than
white, an idea that is carried into practice in the ordinary winter
dress of human beings; but it is refuted not only by the simplest
principles of science, but by the natural covering of the animals that
inhabit the cold climes of the north. The polar bear is clothed in
white, while the southern bear is of a deep black; and many of the
animals and some birds that pass the winter in the arctic regions,
change their dress in winter from dark to grey or pure white.

Undoubtedly with a retriever the first point is to consider his
protection against cold; plunging as he does at short intervals into
water at a low temperature, and exposed when emerging to the still
colder blasts of Æolus, he must be rendered comfortable as far as
possible at the sacrifice of every other consideration. This is attained
by the thickness more than the color of his coat; and the writer has
always fancied, whether correctly or not, that curly hair is warmer than
straight hair.

The matted coat of the Newfoundland dogs–the smaller breed being
preferable by reason of size–is extremely warm, and where its color is
modified by judicious crossing, is all that can be desired; while the
instinctive intelligence, the devotion, faithfulness, docility, and
interest in the sport, of these admirable animals, fit them in an
extraordinary degree for wild-fowl shooting. Coming from the north and
accustomed to playing in the water, they can, without danger, face the
element in its coldest state; and whether it be to chase a stick thrown
into the waves by their youthful human playmates, or to recover ducks
shot by their sporting owner, they take naturally to all aquatic
amusements.

Nevertheless, as has been heretofore remarked, although it is well to
have a slight strain of the Newfoundland, no distinct breed is necessary
to make a good retriever. Our ordinary setters are sometimes
unsurpassable for the purpose; and any tractable dog, if well trained,
will answer in a measure.

How different it is to stand in the narrow skiff among the tall reeds at
early dawn, with the eager and expectant, though humble, associate,
crouched in the bottom upon his especial mat, and there in the
increasing light that paints the east with many changing hues, to single
out the best chances from the passing flocks, and have your skill doubly
enhanced by the intelligent coöperation of your companion; than to lie,
cramped, cold, and suffering, all through the weary hours, stretched at
full length upon your back with eyes staring up to Heaven and straining
to catch a glimpse of the horizon over your beard or forehead; and
occasionally to rise to an equally constrained posture that is neither
sitting nor lying, and do your best to discharge your gun with some
judgment at a passing flock of fowl! Who can hesitate in selecting the
mode in which he will pursue the sport of wild-fowl shooting? Most of
the favorite varieties of ducks, including many that are known among
ornithologists as sea-ducks, _fuligulæ_, are found in the many scattered
ponds, the shallow marshes, or the extensive inland seas of the great
west; while the swans and geese are shot, the former along the larger
rivers and lakes, and the latter in the corn-fields. It is true that the
enormous flocks that collect in the lagoons and bays of the South are
rarely seen; but the flight of small bodies or single birds is more
continuous, and probably the total number even larger.

It is impossible to particularize localities as pre-eminent for this
sport where so many are good; and the innumerable streams, lakelets,
drowned lands, swamps, rivers, lakes, cultivated fields, and even open
prairies of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and the Western States
generally, abound in their seasons with various descriptions of
wild-fowl; and for a statement of the mode of their pursuit, and the
views of their pursuers, no better course can be taken than to give an
account of a few days in one of the numerous tributary bays of Lake
Erie.

Although the use of a light skiff is always desirable and adds
enormously to the comfort of the shooter, circumstances will often arise
that will deprive him of its use; and in such case he has no better
resource than to don his long wading boots, and tramp through the
shallow water until he comes to a favorable spot, perhaps the deserted
house of a family of beavers; and there, perched upon its summit and
concealed by the surrounding reeds, to resign himself to the inevitable
inconveniences of his position. When his feet grow cold in spite of
their india-rubber casing, and his muscles weary for want of rest, he
will long for the dry skiff; and when he comes to “back” his load of
game–consisting, if he is successful, of geese, canvas-backs,
red-heads, mallards, blue-bills, widgeons, and perhaps a swan–across
the muddy flats a mile or two to dry land, he will long for it still
more intensely.

For shooting ducks the best weather is dark, or even rainy, as at such
times the birds fly closer to the earth, being unable to follow their
course, and do not perceive the sportsman so readily. But as a natural
consequence, the sportsman’s ammunition becomes damp and his clothes
wet, while the old-fogy owner of the muzzle-loader will unjustly
anathematize Eley’s water-proof caps when his gun misses fire, instead
of blaming his own stupidity. The insides of barrels will foul and the
outsides rust; the loading-stick will become dirty and the sportsman’s
hands and face grimy; and then the happy possessor of the breech-loader,
when he handles his clean cartridges, although one occasionally may
stick, will thank his good fortune and bless Lefaucheaux.

A strong wind forces the birds out of their safe course, up and down the
open “leads,” upon the various points where the fowler, selecting the
most favorable by watching the flight, takes his stand; and, when they
are heading against it, reduces their speed from the lightning rate of
ninety miles an hour to reasonable deliberation; but when they are
travelling with it, renders the art of killing them one of no easy
acquisition.

In shooting wild-fowl, or in fact any rapid flying birds, it is
necessary to aim ahead of them–not that the gun is actually fired ahead
of them, but to allow for the time, hardly perceptible to man, but
noticeable in the changed position of the birds, necessary to discharge
the piece; and the distance allowed must depend not only on the rapidity
of their flight, but on the customary quickness of the marksman. The
great fault of sportsmen is, that they shoot below and behind their
birds; and this is particularly apt to be the case where the game, as
with wild-fowl, appears to move more slowly than it really does.

To the novice in this peculiar sport, the second difficulty to overcome
will be the inability to judge distances. Not only do objects appear
over the water nearer than they really are, but there is no neighboring
object that will aid the judgment in coming to a correct conclusion; and
by changes in the weather birds in the air will seem to be nearer or
further off, and their plumage will be more or less distinctly visible,
according to circumstances. After several days’ experience in dark,
cloudy weather, the greatest proficient will, on the first ensuing day
of bright sunshine, throw away many useless shots at impracticable
distances.

There is no criterion to determine the distance of any bird high above
the horizon, and any recommendation to wait till the eyes can be
seen–the book-maker’s rule–is worse than useless; it is a matter of
experience and judgment.

There is no better time to kill ducks than when they are coming head on,
the commonly promulgated idea that their feathers will turn the heavy
shot being simply absurd; and all the marksman has to do is to cover his
bird, pitch his gun a trifle upwards, and pull the trigger.

In the matter of ammunition, the high numbers of shot and the light
charges of powder of old times have changed by general consent; and for
ducks, one ounce and a quarter of No. 4 or 5, and perhaps No. 3 late in
the season, and of No. 1 or 2 for geese, driven out of the ordinary
field-gun by three and a half drachms of powder, will be found
preferable. I say a field-gun, because, although the heavy duck-gun,
with its enormous charge of six drachms of powder and three ounces of
shot, is undoubtedly more killing when discharged into large flocks, the
waste of ammunition would be immense were it used at the scattering
flight of the western country.

Many kinds of wild-fowl will, like bay-snipe, be attracted by an
imitation of their cry; and, when decoys are used, the mastery of these
calls is necessary to the proficiency of the bayman. But at the West,
where the use of decoys is not customary, and where the nature of the
ground prevents full advantage being obtained from these devices, a
knowledge of the art is not so necessary. Nevertheless, there is
something thrilling in the “honk” of the wild goose; when it is heard,
the sportsman is earnest in his efforts to imitate it, and if
successful–which he often is, for the bird responds readily–is not
only proud of the result, but amply rewarded for his skill.

In shooting from any species of cover, when ducks are approaching, it is
more important not to move than to be well hid; the slightest motion
startles and alarms the birds, that would possibly have approached the
sportsman in full view if he had remained motionless. If they are
suddenly perceived near at hand while the sportsman is standing erect,
let him remain so without stirring a muscle, and not attempt to dodge
down into the blind. The ducks may not notice him–especially if his
dress is of a suitable color–among the reeds, but will inevitably catch
sight of the least movement.

So much for general suggestions and advice, which will be regarded or
disregarded by the gentlemen for whom this work is written, much
according to their previously conceived ideas; and which may or may not
be correct according to the opportunities of judging, and the skill of
turning them to account, of the writer; and now we will record a few
personal experiences, in the hope, if not of further elucidating and
supporting the views herein expressed, of furnishing the reader with
more interesting matter.

You may also like