On these spring days along the more remote shores of Puget Sound you can sometimes hear a drowsy, contented, mumbling and chuckling sound coming in with the tide. It is produced by a raft of black brant, feeding on eelgrass somewhere offshore before they take off for their nesting grounds in the delta between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in Alaska. Some experts say the sound is a cronk and others describe it as more of a grrr, but they agree that it is mellow, good-natured, pleasing and altogether unlike the sound produced by any other goose.
Sportsmen recently have come to consider the black brant the most important goose in the Sound region, which is something of a waterfowl paradise. A good part of this importance stems from the fact that little is known about the bird. There were never very many of them, even before the coming of the white man. This spring there are only 157,000 known to exist in the whole world. Hunters are still allowed to shoot them, but few are killed. The best-known black-brant hunter is Joshua Green, the dean of Seattle bankers, a venerated oldtimer in the Northwest, who epitomizes this tenacious, persistent, single-minded and dedicated hunting clan.
Not long ago Mr. Green was shooting at a duck club on Padilla Bay some 50 miles north of Seattle. There prevailing winds come down from the snowy Olympic Mountains in the west, kick up sizable waves and swoop up the snow-covered slopes of the Cascades, which you can see as a maze of alabaster peaks a few miles away in the east. Mr. Green made a perfect kill. His chauffeur rowed out after the bird. Then he had to fight the wind and waves for half an hour to get back to shore. Joshua Green downed another black brant and rowed out into the waves himself.
This would be fairly routine brant-shooting experience, except that Joshua Green is 96 years old. He has been hunting black brant on Puget Sound every year for 80 years. He goes to his office every morning at the People's National Bank on Fourth Avenue in Seattle, plays 18 holes of golf every week during the summer and is looking forward to taking his 28-gauge Schilling and going out when the black brant come back next fall. He is a ruddy-cheeked, long-featured man with thin white hair who speaks with a slight southern accent—he was born in Mississippi in 1869—and wears neatly tailored suits and high stand-up collars such as one sees in pictures of Charles G. Dawes. He makes you think of the characters Nash Buckingham wrote about in Game Bag or Mark Right or De Shootin'est Gent'man, and in fact Nash Buckingham is an old friend of his.
He is a little embarrassed about rowing for half an hour to bring in a black brant he shot. "A gentleman doesn't retrieve his own birds," he said, smiling, "but with the swell that rolls there, sometimes a dog just can't go in. And we have all kinds of dogs, of course. If it's a day when a dog can't go out, we use a flat-bottom skiff. Generally, if you go out, it's after a wounded bird. When you row out, you drift with the wind and then have to row against the wind to get back, and all this without a chance to rest. It can be a real strain."
When the committed black-brant hunters in the Pacific Northwest gather in their driftwood blinds they include judges, bankers, the presidents of colleges, the heads of department stores, many of the community benefactors who head fund-raising drives for worthy causes and many of Seattle's elder statesmen. Probably no bird in history has ever been shot at so exclusively by distinguished men in the upper-income brackets. The season runs into February and provides the only waterfowl hunting until the next fall. The black-brant hunters assemble with dignified heartiness at such places as the Swinomish Duck Club near Swinomish Slough or the San Juan Farm Association Duck Club at Dungeness Spit on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If a flight of black brant does come in, every shot fired may come from someone in The Directory of Directors.
Not that they shoot very many. Last year the prominent sportsmen of the San Juan Farm Association Duck Club shot only nine black brant, though they accounted for 261 ducks. (In the past 15 years they have shot a total of 309 black brant, while they got 6,437 ducks in the same period.) Alert and suspicious when crossing land, the brant come in fast and low on quiet wings, giving no warning of their approach. They can fly faster than any other geese and have been clocked at speeds at 62 miles an hour. They are relished by gourmets, who have relatively few opportunities to savor the excellent flavor. The chance to hunt them serves as a sort of a day off for civic leaders from the burden of being respected, successful and distinguished.
Conversely, however, if anything happens to a black-brant hunting party it may take on the proportions of a community disaster. "You forget," said Joshua Green. "Part of the beauty of sport and the spontaneity of sport is in the self-forgetfulness that comes with it. It's a common thing to wing-chip a China pheasant and have it run and unconsciously run after it. I've seen many a man running along after a China pheasant, trying to keep up. They can run faster than you can. It is the same with brant. There's the excitement and the exercise, the excitement of the shot in itself and then your desire to get your bird, and it may all lead you to try to do more than you should do."
What was it like to hunt black brant on Puget Sound 80 years ago? Joshua grew somewhat pensive, as if he considered the question at a tangent from the real issues involved. He began hunting bobwhite quail with an old muzzle-loading scatter-gun in the ruined plantations around Jackson, Miss. after the Civil War. "When a boy finished with marbles, tops and kites," he said, "he began to shoot quail. It's the sport-ingest little bird in the world. Few birds will lie as close to a dog as a bobwhite quail."
Joshua Green's father moved to Seattle for the least likely reason: the rains in the Northwest. He was a pioneer advocate of hydroelectric power and believed there would always be abundant waterpower there. At 17 young Joshua got a job as a purser on the Henry Bailey, a shallow-draft stern-wheeler. "I don't like to say too much about what it was like in the old days," he said. "It might give a wrong impression. But we were after meat." The Henry Bailey was especially built to go up the shallow, narrow sloughs to get loads of hay and oats from the farmers. "I had a 10-gauge Bonehill," Green said, "a breechloader, and I kept it in my room. We had to wait for the tide to get into the sloughs. If a wind was blowing, we had to wait before we could come out. In a hard wind we would stay in a slough all day through nearly a whole tide. And I would go down behind the dike and come up over the dike and shoot enough ducks to last our crew for several days. I don't like to say how many I shot. I don't think I ever shot more than 50 at any one time."