Ah, those good old lawless days are gone forever. Or are they?
Anthony Stefano, former chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service's undercover operations, recently estimated that at least 500,000 migratory birds are killed illegally every year in the U.S. There are no figures available on how many of them are shot over bait. Federal and state game wardens last year brought more than 500 cases of waterfowl baiting to state and federal courts. The federal courts have ruled consistently that the government does not have to prove intent or knowledge on the part of the hunter. "In other words," says a government man, "the birds are just as dead, one way or another." The government naturally will not even hazard a guess as to how many hunters were not caught, but in the states where baiting is most flagrant—Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Delaware and New Jersey—there is good reason to believe that 50% or more of all the ducks and geese taken during the season are shot over illegal bait. Baiting is so commonplace that only the most prominent gunners make the papers. Among those caught and fined during the 1965-66 hunting season:
?Senators Eugene J. McCarthy (D., Minn.) and Edmund S. Muskie (D., Maine), on a friend's Eastern Shore farm. Forfeited $27.50 each, plus court costs.
?Robert M. Carpenter Jr., owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, and his son, Robert III, on their farm on Maryland's Choptank River. Fined $100 each—they were second offenders.
?Congressman Charles A. Halleck (R., Ind.), at a private club near Morehead City, N.C. Fined $34.40. Presented with the evidence (wardens found rows of corn three or four feet across within 20 or 30 feet of the blinds), Halleck said: "The warden scratched around and found a few kernels of corn."
Not surprisingly, the government is well aware of the inequities in the baiting regulations. Says Allan T. Studholme, chief of enforcement and management for the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife: "To most people, the very idea of shooting or trapping ducks for the market is repugnant, but putting out a little bait—or a lot—doesn't seem so bad. Yet they are both federal offenses, and they should be. Sure, the man who can afford to belong to a private duck club gets far superior shooting most of the time. But you must remember that most clubs—and refuges—provide room and board for the birds. What some hunters do not seem to understand is the important difference between shooting over legal crops—standing, harvested or flooded—and over spot bait. Ducks and geese will not necessarily come anywhere near a blind in a flooded corn field. The feed is too widely dispersed. But you sweeten up a field with concentrated feed—fresh, yellow shelled corn piled around your goose decoys—or dump a bushel or two in the water around a point blind, and the birds will pour right into it, plain and simple."
One decided advantage to the baiting law is that it helps keep the annual harvest of birds down. If universal baiting were permitted, several million hunters could take several million full bags of ducks and geese several times a season. To compensate for such high hunter success, the government would have to cut the seasons and bag limits. But the entire continental waterfowl resource might well be wiped out, and by then any such cutback would be academic.
In 1953, after a rash of raids in Maryland by federal agents, influential gunners and politicians tried to pressure the government into legalizing baiting. When that failed, they simply pushed a ruling through the state legislature making it legal to put out bait, as long as it was 200 yards from any blind.
Finally, in 1959, at Governor McKeldin's urging, the state law was amended to conform with the federal regulation. Baiting violations have decreased somewhat, but many baymen refuse to conform, and they have become more ingenious at circumventing the law.
There are some 4,400 state game wardens in the U.S. and, for the most part, when they are not tied up supervising native game seasons they are encouraged to work freely with the 155 federal agents who patrol every state but Hawaii. Even in those states where the political strings are taut and encumbering, there are a few who will always tip the Feds whenever a baiting operation is spotted. Still, a surprising number of hard-core baiters go undetected, or at least manage to avoid being caught year after year. In Assawoman Bay on Maryland's Atlantic coast, hunters stand small trees up in the shallow water and bait them with corn before the season. By the time the season opens, the ducks are flocking in to feed. The night before opening day the trees are moved to within shotgun range of the blinds. No more bait has to be put out. The birds will continue to home in on these "watermarks" for several days or more.