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GOOD OLD HUNTING
James B. Trefethen
January 17, 1955
This generation of wildfowlers missed out on the greatest shooting New England ever saw. This is how it used to be
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January 17, 1955

Good Old Hunting

This generation of wildfowlers missed out on the greatest shooting New England ever saw. This is how it used to be

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Along the North Atlantic coast the modern goose shooter, a champion at ignoring discomfort, often bemoans his modern bag limit of two birds. Crouched in the cold, he dreams of days of more liberal hunting. To complete his misery, he may also dream of the fantastically comfortable shooting setups which flourished in southern New England for nearly a century, then died abruptly in 1934 when shooting over live decoys was banned.

COBBLERS ORIGINATED THE SYSTEM

The origin of "stand" shooting, as it was called, was typically American. Around 1840 several cobblers near Brockton, Mass. took tools and guns to the bank of a nearby pond, tethered a live goose in the water before a crude blind, and proceeded to mix business with pleasure. When no geese dropped in, they worked at their lasts; when geese were flying, they shot—and a single plump gander brought more at the market than three pairs of shoes. Wealthy sportsmen and limited-membership clubs adopted and elaborated upon the scheme until by 1900 stands had been constructed on practically every large pond along the New England coast from Merrymeeting Bay in Maine to Connecticut. From beginning to end, southeastern Massachusetts was the center; by 1930 it had nearly 400 licensed shooting stands.

Each of these stands had three essentials: a decoy beach, a blind and a camp to house the hunters—the size and elegance of all reflecting the prosperity of the owner. A typical establishment had an artificial beach of clean white sand that gave sharp focus to the strong blacks and browns of the live decoys. At a small stand there might be 20 live geese tethered on the beach; the largest had beaches more than 100 feet long and used up to 300 live decoys. In the water off the beach were arranged an equivalent number of artificials.

The blind, running the full length of the beach, was a wall of rough pine slabs or green-painted planks, camouflaged on the water side with fresh-cut boughs of oak and pine. Peepholes and shooting ports were cut along it at regular intervals. There usually was a lean-to shelter in the blind for the protection of the shooters and several pens for "call" ducks whose mates were tethered on the beach to stimulate domestic conversation.

The shooting camp, well screened by trees and camouflaged with boughs, lay behind the blind. This was generally a small but comfortable tar-paper-covered cottage, furnished with bunk beds, a stove, table and chairs. The more elaborate could easily be used for year-round residences. Connecting blind and camp was a sunken path, often thatched or partially roofed to form a tunnel.

The hunters spent most of their time in the camp, playing cards, reading or drinking. When a distant V of geese was sighted, a watcher in the blind signaled the camp with an electric buzzer, whereupon the hunters raced through the tunnel to the blind and took up their positions along the wall. By this time the decoys on the beach would be in full cry, tolling their own kind to death with almost satanic glee. If the wild birds still showed no sign of interest, the gunner worked a lever which released from five to 50 young birds kept in pens behind the lodge or camp. These "fliers" flew from their pens, circled over the water and swam to the beach to join their companions and to feed. This deception usually worked.

Wild geese rarely dropped directly into the decoys. Usually they lit far out in open water and swam warily in toward the beach. In spite of the great investment in equipment that the larger stands represented, none of the stand shooters enjoyed goose shooting every day, since eastern New England lies too far off the main flight lines of the geese. But when a flock of Canadas did move into range, the hunters made the best of their opportunity. After the kill had been retrieved, the hunters usually retired to the warmth of the stove, to the cards and the coffee while the gunner rounded up and penned the fliers and resumed his lone vigil in the blind.

LIVE DECOYS WERE DEADLY

It was a slaughter when the geese arrived, and public opinion finally forced abandonment of stand shooting. Yet, in its day there was some justification for it. Usually there were long waits, sometimes of days on end, before geese came within sight, and nothing else would bring them in but live decoys. In 1932 there were 357 licensed shooting stands in Massachusetts, using 6,616 live goose and 5,445 live duck decoys. Their reported kill that year was 5,669 geese and 18,755 black ducks. By contrast in 1934, when live decoys first were banned, only 106 geese and 610 ducks were killed at the 64 stands that opened. Few remained in operation after 1935.

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