On a sweltering night this past summer at the Tidewater Inn in Easton, Md. a group of drinking men were talking about gunning, a subject that is as much a part of life on the Eastern Shore as fishing and crabbing. Briefly stated, the conversation went like this:
"There we were, the wind howling, and ol' Bill, he was trying to handle that damn skiff and the two of us were rolling and hanging on to the gunnel with one hand and trying to dump that corn over with the other. Well, the boat was pitchin', and was it cold? My hands near froze. It was all we could do to corn that blind properly and not get swamped."
A second man, younger than the others and obviously a stranger in town, cut in.
"But isn't that baiting? I mean, putting all that corn out to bring the ducks in. It's illegal, isn't it?"
"Look," the shoreman replied, "I don't know where you gun, but if you go down here, you bait. Sure, it's illegal, and you got to watch for them federal boys snooping around. But at our club we got a eight-foot steel fence around the marsh and telephones in every blind connected to the guardhouse at the main gate. They have a hard time getting to us before we're back in the clubhouse playing cards. They can't touch us. Hell, you jest ain't getting your money's worth if you don't sweeten up your goose field or dump a few bushels of corn around your shore blind. That's what the birds want. The guy on your left is doing it, and the guy down the bay is doing it. If you don't do it, too, why you're gonna get no gunning at all."
As every waterfowl hunter in the U.S. knows, or should know, it is illegal, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to shoot or even attempt to shoot wild ducks and geese over any area that has been deliberately baited with corn, grain, soybeans, sliced yams, Fritos or any other feed that acts as an enticement to such birds. In other words, you may not spot-bait—dump a bushel of wheat in front of your duck blind or pile up ears of corn around your goose decoys in a cornfield. But it is perfectly legal to shoot in a standing corn crop or over a flooded rice field (SI, Oct. 3) or over any harvested crops, provided they are harvested in a "normal" manner and not manipulated with a disc harrow or a log dragged behind a tractor so an excess spillage is scattered around. If you can afford it, you can legally farm your land strictly for the birds, by planting natural waterfowl foods such as duck potato, sago, widgeon grass, browntop millet and wild rice and celery, flood the fields in the fall and bang away.
No other game law in the U.S. is as confusing or as widely flouted or as difficult to enforce. Roughly 90% of the country's wildfowlers shoot over some form of bait, legal or illegal, and the line between the two is often so fine that many hunters are never sure exactly which side they are shooting on. As one disgruntled hunter puts it, "We are hunting waterfowl under a double standard."
The law against baiting was added to the federal waterfowl regulations in 1935, when severe droughts and dwindling habitat had so diminished the supply of ducks and geese that many people advocated closed seasons for three or four years. But the late Ding Darling, then the chief of the Biological Survey (now the Fish and Wildlife Service) instead decided to shorten the season, reduce bag limits and abolish two hunting methods—live decoys and bait—that invariably resulted in overkill. Dr. Ira Gabrielson, a former chief of the Biological Survey who is now president of the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington, feels that the baiting law came just in time.
"There's really nothing so terribly immoral about spot-baiting," Gabrielson says. "It's just that it is too damn effective. The whole idea, of course, is to gang the birds up, to hold them with feed in one area and keep the shooting going hot and heavy. And it works. Corn is particularly effective because it is ideal cold-weather fuel. Ducks and geese will come from miles away to a pile of bait, passing up the best clumps of natural foods and standing or harvested crops on the way."
Aside from the fact that baiters are killing a great many birds illegally, the greatest danger is that heavily baited areas can hold the birds too long in one place. This means they are not migrating south to their normal wintering grounds on schedule and not giving other shooters in the flyway their fair share. Ducks and geese will stay anywhere as long as there is enough food and open water. But once the season is over, most baiters cut off the feed and the birds often get caught in blizzards, sleet storms or iced-over water and simply waste away. The waterfowl population fluctuates each year. This year it is up, but over the past 13 years it was down nearly 20%. Most hunters continue to bait despite the shortage because it is traditional—like hillbilly moonshine. It conjures up "those memorable old days," such as Richard Parks describes in Duck Shooting Along the Atlantic Tidewater: "It is unbelievable how...the ducks came in to these towers of Babel [baited booby blinds on Virginia's Eastern Shore]. When baited with corn, even the shrewd old Blackies would stool to them on most days. But then, as one old waterman once remarked, 'Yer kin bait a Black-duck up a concrete road'...half the fun was watching the pet quackers [live decoys] take little baths between flights of their wild brethren, when baiting was the proper way to localize ducks, when you naturally shot as long as you could see—sometimes when you couldn't—when you staggered home under weight of ducks enough to feed the neighborhood." Sometimes the toll was more than enough to feed an entire village.