DUCK-SHOOTING ON THE INLAND LAKES.

Out West–‘way out West–a long distance from our eastern cities in
miles, but now, thanks to steam and iron, a short one in hours, upon an
island lying in a bay that debouches into one of the great chain of
lakes, is situated a large, neat, white-painted and comfortable house,
where a club of sportsmen meet to celebrate the advent and presence of
the wild ducks. The mansion–for it deserves that name from its extent
and many conveniences–peeps out from amid the elms and hickories that
cover the point upon which it stands, almost concealed in summer by
their foliage, but in winter protected, as it were, by their bare, gaunt
limbs. From the piazza that extends along the front a plank pathway
leads to the wharf, which shelves into the water, like the levees on the
Mississippi, and down or up which each sportsman can, unaided, run his
light boat at his own sweet will. Adjoining the wharf is the out-house,
where the boats are stored in tiers, one above another, and are
protected summer and winter from the weather. Not far off stands that
most important building, a commodious ice-house, suggestive of the
luxuries and comforts that a better acquaintance with the ways of the
place will realize.

The island is not large, but wherever it is tillable, a garden, orchard,
and grapery have been planted, and furnish the household with delicious
fruit and vegetables. Quail have been introduced, and, being protected
by the regulations of the establishment, have increased and multiplied;
and wild turkeys occasionally commit upon the vines depredations which
are condignly punished. It is a lovely spot, far from other habitations,
and affords shelter during the fall months to as pleasant a set of
sportsmen as can be found the world over.

The President, with his short figure and grey hair, but sharp, clear
eye, was selected for his superior success as a marksman, and rarely
returns from a day’s excursion without a boat-load of game. The
Vice-President and Secretary are the only other officers, and upon their
fiat it depends whether any outsider shall trespass upon their inland
Paradise. Promiscuous invitations were once extended to the brethren of
the gun and rod, but so many spurious counterfeits presented themselves,
that a stringent rule had to be adopted to exclude all but the genuine
article.

The shooting lasts from the 1st of September till the chill breath of
winter closes the bay and drives the birds to more hospitable
localities. It is pursued in a small, light, flat-bottomed boat,
similar, on a larger pattern, to the rail-boats used on the Delaware.
Each boat is provided with a pair of oars working on pins that fit into
outriggers; and also with a long setting-pole, which has a bent wire,
like a tiny two-pronged pitchfork, on the end, to catch against the
reeds in poling. A place is made to rest the gun on upon one of the
thwarts; an ammunition-box, containing separate compartments for shot of
several sizes, wads, and caps, is stowed away in the bottom, and a heavy
loading-stick, in addition to the ramrod, is carried. Two guns are an
absolute necessity, unless the sportsman has a breech-loader; for many
birds are crippled and require a second shot before they escape into the
thick weeds, where they are hopelessly lost; and when the flight is
rapid, he requires, at least, four barrels, and would be thankful if he
could manage more.

The bay, which stretches in vast extent, is filled with high reeds and
wild rice, and rarely exceeds a few feet in depth except where open
passages mark the deeper channels. It is a matter of no little intricacy
for a stranger to find his way, and after nightfall the oldest
_habitué_, will often become bewildered, as the various bunches of
weeds, tufts of rice, or stretches of pond lilies look alike, and when a
southerly wind is blowing the water falls and leaves all but the deep
channels nearly or quite bare. If a man under such circumstances once
loses his course he may as well make up his mind to pass the night in
his boat; though he work himself almost to death trying to pole over
bare spots, he will but travel in a circle and grow momentarily more
bewildered.

I landed at the wharf in the middle of October, of a year ever famous
for the immense numbers of birds that were killed during it, and met
with a hearty greeting from a goodly company collected round the
groaning board of mine host of the white-flowing locks. There was our
worthy President, and our Secretary and Treasurer gracefully combined in
one; there our lucky man and the unlucky man, and there a famous
black-bass fisherman, and there my special friend, and others of lesser
note.

We sat down to tea with roasted canvas-backs at one end of the table,
broiled steaks at the other, and beautiful potatoes flanking each that
had been raised on our own premises and were tumbling to white
particles, as though they were trying to be flour; jolly, round, baked
apples sitting complacently in their own juice, vegetables of all sorts,
grapes from our grapery, and so many other inward comforts that one
hardly knew where to begin and never knew where to leave off. Our comely
hostess, who had prepared these good things, poured out the tea for us,
and put in sly remarks to her favorites; and, altogether, it was truly
pleasant.

After tea and adjournment to the sitting-room, while enjoying the
practical cigar or comfortable pipe, we discussed the varied fortunes of
the day and the probabilities of the morrow; compared views on the
habits of fish, flesh, or fowl, and related experiences of former
expeditions. But eager for the morning sun, we retired early and dreamed
of victory.

As soon as the lazy dawn streaked the east, dressing being done by
candle-light, we hastily disposed of our breakfast and prepared for the
start. Having selected our boats and arranged them on the wharf, we
stowed our guns, ammunition-boxes, over-clothes, a few decoys, and such
other articles as fancy suggested; and then taking two little tin pails,
we put a nice lunch of cold duck, steak, bread, pickles, cake, and fruit
in one, and into the other water with a large lump of ice bobbing around
in the centre; and thus equipped, each man slid his boat down the
inclined wharf, and shipping his oars, pulled for his favorite location.

My friend and myself joined forces, and made our first pause at a little
bunch of wild rice not far from the house, called Fort Ossawatomie.
Decoys are not generally used in this region, as they cannot be seen
from any considerable distance by the birds on account of the reeds; but
my friend had left his at this place over night, and they were still
“bobbing around”–pretending to swim and looking deceitfully
innocent–when we ensconced ourselves among the reeds near by, crowding
down into the bottom of our boats well out of view.

Several flocks were seen hovering over the horizon, or moving along in
the distance, scarcely discernible against the morning clouds; and
although occasionally they bade fair to approach, our hopes were
destined to disappointment, till a single bird turned and headed
directly towards us. When a bird is approaching head on, it is almost
impossible to tell whether he is not going directly from you; and at
times, except for his growing plainer every moment, we should have
doubted which way this bird was flying. Once he turned, from a change of
fancy or fearing danger, but perceiving some other cause of alarm he
again straightened his course towards us.

We were bent down, peering eagerly through the high reeds, as at last he
came by, within a long gunshot, on the side of my companion. The latter,
rising at the exact moment, wheeled round, brought up his gun, and fired
in an instant. It was just within range, but the bird turned over,
killed dead, and fell with a great splash into the water, sending the
spray six feet into the air. Seizing the pole, I pushed out to him, and
found that he was a blue-bill, one of the best birds of the Western
waters, and at this time in perfection.

We again concealed ourselves; but noticing that the birds shunned the
spot, I determined to leave it, and pushed out alone to one of the
principal landmarks, where the landscape presents so great a
uniformity–a large umbrella-like elm upon the distant shore. I did not
follow the regular channel; and at first the way was a difficult one,
being directly through a fringe of wild rice, where the water was
shallow and the stalks reached high above my heard, but beyond, an open
patch of water-lilies stretched for half a mile.

The broad, smooth leaves of this remarkable plant, far larger than those
of the pond-lilies of the Eastern States, lay in numbers upon, or half
buried in, the water; while standing up a few feet above its surface
with their straight stems, and gracefully waving in the wind, were the
cup-like pods that contain the seeds.

When the pods first form the seeds are entirely hidden from view, but as
they increase in size, holes form in the covering, through which they
peep as through a window. The seeds and pod are originally green, but
darken and turn blue, and then brown, as the season advances; and the
holes, which begin by being small, become larger till they open
sufficiently for the seeds to fall out. The seeds or berries are
elliptical in shape and of almost the size of a chestnut; in the green
state they are soft, and can be readily cut with a knife; but when ripe
and black, they are as hard as stone, and will turn the edge of a knife
like agate.

When about half ripe, or bluish in color, they are good to eat, and
after the removal of a little green sprout hidden in the centre, are
sweet, tasting much the same as a chestnut. As they ripen and their
covering recedes, their stems hold them upright; but the first heavy
frost breaks down the stems, and lets the seed fall out into the water,
where they lie till next year.

The working of nature is wonderful, as no one observes more frequently
than the sportsman; all this care is taken to preserve the seeds for
their appointed work. If they were permitted to fall out when green or
even half ripe, the action of the water would soften and destroy them;
extreme hardness is necessary to resist its action for so long a time;
while, on the other hand, if they were retained longer and exposed to
excessive cold, their germinating principle would be annihilated.

Wood-ducks are fond of them in their unripe state, and frequent the
marshes, especially in the early fall, to procure a supply. With a view
to nuts and grapes for dessert, I paused to gather a number of pods, and
was carelessly pushing along, when from out a bunch of weeds, with a
great clatter, sprang a couple of those birds. Dropping the
setting-pole, I threw myself forward to seize the gun; but for this
shooting, infinite practice and great aptitude are required; and
although well accustomed to kill rail from the floating cockle-shells on
the Delaware river, and able to take one end of a birch canoe with any
man, I was bunglingly in my own way, and, when at last one barrel was
discharged, a shameful miss was the only result. Anathematizing my
awkwardness, I was dropping the butt to reload, when, roused by the
report, another bird sprang not more than twenty yards off. In an
instant the gun was at my shoulder, and, when the fire streamed forth,
the bird doubled up, riddled with shot, and pitched forward into the
weeds. It was a drake, and, although young, the plumage was resplendent
with the green, brown, and mottle of the most beautiful denizen of our
waters–the elegant wood-duck.

Several more rose, far out of range, before the lilies were passed and
my destination in the open channel reached. Stopping on the brink of the
latter, to watch the flight of the birds, I noticed that they
frequently crossed a reedy island in the middle of the channel, and
consequently proceeded to conceal myself in what among our association
is called the Little Bunker. It was an admirable location; the channel
on each side did not exceed one hundred yards in width, and the weather
having become thick, with an easterly wind blowing and a slight rain
driving, the promise of sport was excellent.

Once fairly hidden, and my work commenced; bird after bird and flock
after flock approached, and although the boat, even while pressed in
among and steadied by the stiff reeds, was far from firm, a goodly
number was soon collected. How much more exhilarating is this noble
sport as it is pursued in the West than upon our Atlantic coast, where,
stretched upon his back in a coffin-like battery, the sportsman has to
lie for hours cooling his heels and exhausting his patience! There he is
not confined to one position; but, after shooting down a bird, has the
excitement of pushing after it, and, if it is only wounded, of following
it, perhaps in a long chase before it is retrieved; and then he must
make all haste to return to the hiding-place, over which the birds are
flying finely in his absence, and thus he keeps up a glow and fire of
activity and exercise.

It is a glorious sight to see a noble flock of ducks approach; to watch
them with trembling alternations of fear and hope as they waver in their
course, as they crowd together or separate, as they swing first one
flank of their array forward, then the other; as they draw nearer and
nearer, breathlessly to wait the proper time, and, with quick eye and
sure aim, select a pair, or perhaps more, with each barrel. It is still
more glorious to see them fall–doubled up if killed dead, turning over
and over if shot in the head, and slanting down if only wounded, driving
up the spray in mimic fountains as they strike; and glorious, too, the
chase after the wounded–with straining muscles to follow his rapid
wake, and, when he dives, catching the first glimpse of his reappearance
to plant the shot from an extra gun in a vital spot. Glorious to survey
the prizes, glorious to think over and relate the successful event, and
glorious to listen to the tales of others.

Sad, however, is it when the flock turns off and pushes far out to the
open water; sadder still when the aim is not true and the bird goes by
uninjured; sad when the chase is unsuccessful and the weeds hide the
prey, or he dives to grasp a root and never reappears; and saddest of
all to fall overboard out of your frail bark–a fate that sooner or
later awaits every one that shoots ducks from little boats.

I had had all these experiences except the last, and almost that–when
pushing through the weeds, my friend appeared, attracted by my rapid
firing, and after comparing our respective counts, ensconced himself in
one of the points opposite me on the channel. By this plan all birds
that came between us gave one or the other a shot, and each could mark
birds approaching the other from behind.

The morning passed rapidly away amid splendid shooting, and noon found
us united in my hiding-place to eat a sociable meal together. During the
middle of the day the birds repose, and the sportsman employs the time
in satisfying the cravings of hunger or even in a nap, interrupted
though he may be in either by an occasional whirr of wings, that, when
it is too late, informs him of lost opportunities.

We talked over matters. As the day had cleared off and become warm, the
prospect of sport for some hours at least was over, and my friend
suggested we should visit the snipe ground. To approve the suggestion,
to push out and to ship our oars, was the work of a moment, and we were
soon at Mud Creek bridge, a pull of about two miles through an open
lead, from which the ducks were continuously springing on our approach.
Having anchored our boats a short distance from shore, to prevent the
wild hogs paying us a visit, we waded to land, and substituting small
shot for the heavy charges in our guns, walked a few yards up the road
and crossed the fence.

I had brought my setter with me, and he had proved himself a model of
quietness in the boat, from the bottom of which he had raised his head
only once all day; when my first duck dropped he rose on his haunches,
and watching where it fell, sniffed at it as I pushed up, and then,
satisfied he had no part in such sport, lay down to sleep.

The moment he touched land his vigor returned; at a motion, he darted
out into the meadow of alternating broad slanks and high field grass
that lay before us, and ere he had traversed fifty yards, as he
approached an open spot, hesitated, drew cautiously, and finally paused
on a firm point. Stepping to him as fast as the impressible nature of
the ground permitted, we flushed three birds, rising as they are apt to
do one after the other, and killed two, one springing wide and escaping
unshot at.

While going to retrieve the dead birds we flushed two more, both of
which were bagged, one a long shot, wing-tipped, and not recovered till
some time afterwards; for, ere we reached him, we had sprung a dozen,
most of which were duly accounted for. The missed birds, after circling
round high in the air, returned to the neighborhood of their original
locality, and pitching down head-foremost, concealed themselves among
the high grass near enough to lure us to their pursuit.

The walking was terribly hard; the clayey mud uncommonly tenacious; the
day was already well advanced, and splendid as was the sport, we
resolved, after having pretty well exhausted ourselves and bagged
twenty-six birds, that we must hasten back to the rice swamp, or we
should lose the evening’s shooting.

We returned to our boats, and stowing the game, pulled with the utmost
vigor down the channel of Mud Creek, and in a short time were again
hidden among the high reeds, awaiting the ducks. This time my friend
selected a spot near a sort of semi-island, that was submerged or not,
according to the state of the water, and near which was a favorite
roosting-place.

The sun was leisurely dropping down the western sky, throwing his
slanting rays across the broad bay, and lighting up the distant
club-house as by a fire. The fringe of land, trees, and bushes, that
shut out the horizon and rose but little above the water level, was
growing dim and hazy of outline. The wind had died away; and stillness,
but for the quacking of the ducks, the splashing of the coots, or
so-called mud-hens, and the occasional report of a gun, reigned supreme.
A lethargy seemed to have fallen upon the birds; a distant flock alone
would at long intervals greet our eyes, and for some time our evening’s
sport bade fair to prove a failure.

However, as the sun was about to sink, the birds began to arrive, at
first one or two at a time, then more rapidly and in larger flocks, till
at last it was one steady stream and whirr of wings. Faster than we
could load, faster than we could shoot, or could have shot had we had
fifty guns, from all quarters and of all kinds they streamed past; now
the sharp whistle of the teal, then the rush of the mallard, sometimes
high over our heads, at others darting close beside us; by ones, by
twos, by dozens, by hundreds, crowded together in masses or stretched in
open lines, in all variety of ways, but in one uninterrupted flight.

Such shooting rarely blesses the fortunate sportsman; we drove down our
charges as best we could, sometimes having one barrel loaded or half
loaded, sometimes the other, oftener neither, when we were interrupted
with such glorious chances; our nerves, eyes, and muscles were on the
strain, and to this day we have only to regret that we did not then
possess a breech-loader.

The air was alive with birds; the rustle of their wings made one
continuous hum; the heavy flocks approached and passed us with a sound
like the gusty breeze of an autumn night rattling through the dying
leaves. When the sun fled and darkness seemed to spring up around us,
they appeared in the most unexpected and bewildering manner; at one time
from out of the glorious brilliancy of the western sky, then from the
deep gloom of the opposite quarter, darting across us or plunging down
into the weeds near by.

Our birds lay where they fell, and when the approaching night bade us
depart, we retrieved sixty-seven–the result of about one hour’s
shooting–doubtless losing numbers that were not noticed, or which,
being wounded, escaped. Had we not been awkward from a year’s idleness,
or had we shot as the professionals of Long Island and each used a
breech-loader, I could hardly say how many we might not have killed. As
it was, the sport was wonderful, and the result sufficient to satisfy
our ambition.

We lost no time in escaping from the weeds into the channel-ways,
whither the open-water ducks–the red-heads and canvas-backs–had
preceded us, and were still directing their flight; and then started for
the few dim trees that we knew surrounded the club-house, rousing in our
course immense flocks of the worthless American coot, _Fulica
Americana_, the mud-hen of the natives.

The wharf reached, the boats landed, supper over, the birds counted and
registered, the social pipe illumined, and we gathered in a circle round
the fire of our parlor for improving conversation.

“How many birds have we killed this year?” inquired a member.

“The record shows a goodly total of 2,351,” replied the Secretary,
turning to the register; “almost as many already as the entire return of
last season, during which we only killed 2,908.”

“And the better varieties seem this year to be more numerous.”

“In that particular there is surprising uniformity from year to year.
Last season the return is made up as follows: canvas-backs, 246;
red-heads, 122; blue-bills, 395; mallards, 540; dusky-ducks, 108;
wood-ducks, 601; blue-winged teal, 474; green-winged teal, 39; widgeons,
204; pin-tails, 50; gadwalls, 67; spoonbills, 11; ruddy-ducks, 2;
butter-balls, 7; geese, 2; quail, 14; cormorants, 2; turkeys, 3; great
hell-diver, 1; and this year the average is about the same.”

“But I think,” said the President, “the canvas-backs and red-heads are
earlier and better than usual.”

“They are rather earlier in making their appearance abundantly. The
variation is never great, however, and the birds appear in the following
order: the wood-ducks first, being plentiful early in September; the
blue-winged teal begin to surpass them about the 20th of that month, and
soon afterward the mallards arrive; widgeons are abundant by the middle
of October, and canvas-backs and red-heads are the latest.”

“Ah,” burst forth the unlucky man, enthusiastically, “the wood-duck
shooting is my favorite; when they rise from the lilies they are easier
to kill than when flying past at full speed; and you have a punter to
pole the boat and help mark the wounded birds.”

“October has my preference,” responded the President, with glowing eye;
“the large ducks–the mallards, canvas-backs, and red-heads–have then
arrived; the blue-bills and teal are numerous; and, when a single teal
flies past, a man has to know how to handle his gun to keel him over
handsomely.”

“But mallards dodge, when you rise to shoot, at the report of the first
barrel; and red-heads and canvas-backs, if not killed stone dead, dive
and swim off under water, or, catching the weeds in their bills, hold on
after death and never reappear. Have you noticed the large teeth, or
nicks, in the bills, especially of red-heads?”

“Yes. Those long, recurved teeth aid them in tearing up the wild celery,
on which they feed. I have had them serve me the trick you complain of
when they were at the last gasp–so nearly dead, that I have pushed out
and been on the point of picking them up. When not so badly hurt, they
will swim off with their bill only projecting above the surface, and if
there is the least wind this is entirely invisible. The trick is known
to others of the duck family; even the ingenuous wood-duck will have
recourse to the same mean subterfuge occasionally, as one that was but
slightly wounded proved to me to-day.”

“Is it true,” inquired the fisherman, “that other ducks steal from the
canvas-backs the wild celery that they have exhausted themselves in
procuring?”

“The widgeons have the credit of doing so; but I have never seen, and
somewhat doubt it. The canvas-back is too large and strong a duck to be
readily trifled with, and is by no means exhausted by diving to the
depth of a few feet after celery. This celery, as we call it–which has
a long, delicate leaf, resembling broad-grass, and bears the name of
_Zostera valisneria_ among the botanists–grows in water about five feet
deep, and its roots furnish the favorite and most fattening food of the
canvas-backs, red-heads, and, strange to say, mud-hens. The widgeon is
not a large nor powerful duck; can dive no further than to put its head
under water, while its tail stands perpendicularly above the surface;
and, although a terrible torment to the weak and gentle mud-hen, would
think twice before incensing the fierce and powerful canvas-back. Of a
calm day it is amusing to watch the flocks of noisy mud-hens, collected
in front of the club-house, diving for their food, and being robbed of
it by the widgeons. The latter swims rapidly among them, and no sooner
does he espy one coming to the surface, with his bill full of celery,
than he pounces upon and carries it off. He is watchful and voracious,
and quickly devours the food; while the injured mud-hen, with a resigned
look, takes a long breath and dives for another morsel.”

“Do they not combine to drive the robber away?”

“Occasionally; but he minds their blows as little as their scoldings,
and generally swims off with his prize. The canvas-back, however, would
soon teach him better manners.”

“Are the western canvas-backs as delicate and high-flavored as those of
the Chesapeake?”

“Fully so, as my friends in New York, who have been fortunate enough to
share my luck, have often testified. Of course, when they first come
they are thin and poor, but having the same food as is found in the
Chesapeake, and being less disturbed, they soon attain excellent
condition, and are entirely free from the slightest sedgy flavor.”

“That sedgy or fishy taste is confined mainly to birds shot on the salt
water, and is rarely found in any birds killed upon the inland lakes, so
that many–for instance the bay-snipe–that are barely passable when
shot along the coast, are excellent in the interior.”

“And yet the naturalists class the canvas-back among _fuligulæ_, or sea
ducks.”

“That arises from some scientific peculiarity, and is not universal. He
is certainly a fresh-water duck, and thousands are shot here yearly.”

“I lose a great many crippled birds,” said the unlucky man,
meditatively; “I wonder what becomes of them all?”

“Many die, a few recover, some are frozen in when the bay freezes over;
after the first hard frost large numbers can be picked up, but they are
so poor as only to be fit to send to the New York market. Most sportsmen
lose many ducks that they should recover; considerable practice is
required to mark well, but the search after a bird should be thorough,
and not lightly abandoned. The boat, when pushed into the reeds, must be
so placed that it can be easily shoved off, and the pole kept ready for
instant use. If, however, a mallard is only wounded, and falls into the
weeds, it is useless to go after him.

“On the other hand, if a canvas-back, but slightly touched, falls in
open water, he will be rarely recovered; the one hides in the weeds, the
other dives and swims under water prodigiously. The mallard and
canvas-back are the types of two classes–the former is a marsh duck,
the latter an open-water duck. The mallard lives on the pond-lily seeds,
and affects the shallow, muddy pond-holes; the canvas-back seeks the
broad channels, and devours the roots of plants; the one dodges at the
flash of the gun or sight of the sportsman, the other moves
majestically onward, regardless of the havoc that the heavy discharges
make in his ranks. Of nearly the same size, of unsurpassable delicacy on
the table, of equal vigor, they differ utterly in their habits.”

“Speaking of types,” said the unlucky man, recalling unpleasant
reminiscences of numerous misses, “you might call blue-bills types of
the fast-flying and dodging ducks. When they come down before a stiff
wind, and are making their best time, lightning is slow by comparison,
and shot does not seem to me to go quite fast enough.”

“They are the scaup or broad-bill of the East, _Fuligula Marila_, and
are aptly termed the bullet-winged duck. They are undoubtedly the most
difficult duck to kill that flies. I have known a thorough sportsman and
excellent shot on quail, shoot all day at them without killing one. You
must make great allowance for their speed.”

“And, moreover,” added the President, “you must load properly; there
must be powder enough behind the shot to send it clear through the bird;
one pellet driven in that way will kill a bird that would carry off a
dozen lodged beneath the skin or in the flesh.”

“Perhaps so, but I doubt its feasibility,” was the response; “no small
shot was ever, in my opinion, driven through the body of a duck with any
charge of powder at over thirty yards. I use light powder and plenty of
shot.”

This announcement was received with unanimous dissent, and the President
expressed the general feeling when he continued–

“Heavy shot will make a gun recoil painfully; but if the shot is light
the charge of powder may be large without producing unpleasant effects;
the shot will be driven quick and strong, and the bird deprived of life
instantaneously. Perhaps the pellets are not driven through the body,
but the blow is severer and the shock is more stunning. I use one ounce
of shot and three drachms of powder, and would prefer to increase rather
than diminish the powder. It is a mistake to suppose powder does not
burn because black particles fall to the ground if it is fired over snow
or white paper; these, I take it, are flakes of charcoal and not powder,
and some will fall, no matter how light may be the load.”

“For my part,” persisted the unlucky man, “I think the crippling of
birds arises from our inability to judge distances, and from our firing
at birds out of reasonable range. The patent breech was meant to remedy
the necessity for such heavy charges of powder as are used in the
old-fashioned flint-locks. Johnston, the author of an admirable treatise
on shooting, which is now out of print, is my authority, and he says
that an over-charge of powder makes a gun scatter prodigiously without
adding proportionately to the force.”

“That depends upon the character of the bore,” answered the Secretary;
“if it is relieved at the breech, and after narrowing above, made a
perfect cylinder towards the muzzle, the more the powder the better it
will shoot.”

Seeing that an interminable discussion was about to open, branching
off, in all likelihood, into the comparative qualities of powder and
manufacturers of guns, the President interposed.

“This is a dry, serious, and solemn conversation, and as every member
has already made up his mind on the subject, not very improving; who
will volunteer to tell a story or sing a song?”

“My friend here,” replied the unlucky, pointing to the lucky, man, “once
intimated to me that his first day’s duck-shooting was the best and
pleasantest he ever had, but would never give me the satisfaction of the
particulars.”

“The story, the story, let us have the story!” burst forth the chorus,
with delight.

“I will tell it on one condition,” responded the party addressed: “that
the gentleman who suggested it shall give a true account of his first
day’s trout-fishing.”

All hands shouted with delight at the prospect of two stories, scenting
a joke in the suggestion, but the unlucky man replied, pitifully, “I
will if I must, but there are more agreeable episodes in my existence.”

“Never mind that; if I confess, so must you.

“Many years ago, gentlemen, myself and a friend had driven down on Long
Island for a few days at the ducks. He was an old sportsman, and
promised to initiate me, who had acquired considerable facility with my
gun, but had never yet been in a battery on the bay.

“It is not necessary to say at what house we stopped; the island is
dotted with them–the best in the country–and as it was necessary to be
up at two o’clock in the morning in order to follow down the creek and
row out to the feeding grounds, we retired early. Strict injunctions
were left with the hostler to wake us at the appointed hour; but as
there was a grand ball going on in the hall adjoining the hotel, his
recollection was not to be depended upon.

“The beds were good; but, either disturbed by dreams of ducks or sounds
of revelry, my sleep was fitful. I was at last awakened by a loud noise,
which I took to be some one knocking at the door, and sleepily rising,
saw a light shining through the crack as it stood ajar. I woke my
companion, who responded with an unwilling grunt, and thinking the
hostler had left the candle for our accommodation, I stepped out to get
it.

“The night was cold, my dress was light and airy, the distant sounds of
expiring revelry were still faintly audible, and I hastened to get the
light that I might hurry on warmer clothes. To my surprise, on opening
the door, the candle appeared to be some yards off on the floor, in the
middle of what seemed to be an adjoining room. My eyes, dazzled by the
sudden change from total darkness, saw little as I stumbled forward; but
when I turned, light in hand, to regain my room, I came suddenly upon a
bed, and stopped as though shot.

“Gentlemen, a bed is nothing unusual or surprising in a country tavern,
but there is sometimes a great deal in it. In this particular instance
there was not even much in it, but that little was of the female sex.
Astonishment changed to admiration. She was very pretty, her rosy cheek
rested pillowed on one little hand, while the other arm was thrown
gracefully across her head, framing her innocent child-like face in a
cloud of white. She was lying on her side, and below her arm the
bed-clothes sank down to her waist and then rose in a magnificent swell.
Her hair in massive curls poured upon the pillow, and one strayed round
her throat and joined with the white drapery in protecting her neck.

“Admiration changed to curiosity. I stepped nearer, bringing the light
so that while it did not shine strongly on her eyes, it fell upon the
white drapery. Man is but a weak creature, liable to be swayed by evil
passions. Curiosity has always been my besetting sin, and sudden
temptations ought to be included among the other sudden dangers in the
prayer-book. In consequence of the position of her arm, the clothes had
fallen back from her shoulders, but that envious curl was cruelly
unsatisfying; the white drapery rose and fell with the long breathing of
her sleep. My first impulse was to retire noiselessly, but curiosity
conquered; she slept so sweetly, so gracefully, and so soundly.
Approaching nearer, stealthily, step by step, I carefully put forward
one hand, and gently touched the curl–she did not move–then quietly
gathering it up, I began slowly drawing it aside. It lifted and fell
with the marble neck beneath like a brown vein across it, but no other
motion testified that life pervaded her unconscious beauty.”

A pause; the chorus, excited–“What next? what next?”

“Gentlemen, it would have been a shameful act to take advantage of her
innocent sleep–a mean, unworthy, contemptible act. It is enough to say,
gentlemen, I did not commit it–for at that moment she moved.”

CHORUS–“Oh!”

“She moved, and was evidently about to wake.”

CHORUS–“What did you do then?”

“Modesty is another of my failings; it is no small matter to be found by
a lady in her bed-room, and you must recollect my dress was scanty.
Wishing, therefore, to spare her feelings as much as my own, I put out
the light, and standing still, listened. From the sound as she moved, it
was clear that she was awake and sitting up in bed. I kept as quiet as a
mouse, no longer daring to stir and hardly daring to breathe.

“‘Who is there?’ asked the sweetest little sleepy voice in the world; it
was evidently time for me to leave if the feelings of either side were
to be spared.

“‘Husband, is that you? How late you are, Oscar. I wish there were no
balls; you have let the light go out and will have to undress in the
dark, and you have been drinking; you do not answer, what are you
mumbling in that husky voice; you do not walk steady, you shuffle with
your feet; let me smell your breath, sir!’

“Another of my failings is inability to say no. A moment’s consideration
would have told me it was far from honorable to assume the place of
another person, and that person the husband of a pretty woman; but in my
state of hesitancy or virtuous indignation at being falsely accused of
drinking, or without really anticipating what would happen, I obeyed;
and bringing my face near hers, encountered the sweetest pair of lips in
Christendom.

“‘I am not quite sure,’ she said, ‘let me see again.’

“Now that was clearly her fault, and left me no excuse for refusing her
absolute satisfaction.

“‘Make haste, Oscar,’ she whispered, ‘how cold you are.’”

The lucky man paused, while the chorus breathlessly broke in with:

“Did you make haste?”

“Gentlemen, man is a contemptible creature in his treatment of woman;
she is infinitely his superior in every good quality, and he absolutely
takes advantage of his baser capacities to betray her superior nature.
He matches his cunning against her truthfulness, his selfishness against
her disinterestedness, his deceitfulness against her affection. Woman’s
nobleness of heart is a provision of nature to prevent the degeneration
of our species; were women as bad as men, our children would be brutes
or idiots. Traits of mind and heart are transmitted–”

CHORUS–“Never mind all that, did you make haste?”

“Gentlemen, with those feelings, I could not long remain in that room;
it was time to make haste; and mumbling some excuse, I escaped before a
noise, that seemed to be ascending the stairs, approached. My friend
wondered at the time I had been away, abused me for allowing the light
to go out, but was easily convinced that the time had been lengthened by
his dreams. Virtue is its own reward, and, gentlemen, I never shall
regret that night.”

CHORUS–“But you have not said a word of the duck-shooting.”

“Well, to tell the truth, I heard next day that Oscar was inquiring for
me, and concluded that the shooting would be better elsewhere.”

The shout of laughter that succeeded this answer died away, and the
unlucky man was called upon for his adventure.

UNLUCKY MAN.–“Gentlemen, I can give you no such entertaining history as
my friend. In all my life, I never saw a woman unless she was fully
dressed and prepared for it–much as I would like to–for I am not
endowed with one half of his virtuous sentiments. But my adventure also
occurred on Long Island, whither I had gone to learn trout-fishing. I
had a new rod of Conroy’s best and most expensive pattern, a book full
of flies, a basket, a bait-box, a net, a gaff, and all things
appurtenant, and was especially proud of my fishing suit, which a
brother of the angle had kindly selected for me. My boots came above my
knees, and were of yellow Russian leather, with which my brown pants
matched admirably, while a blue vest, a white flannel coat, red
neck-tie and crimson cap, combined all the colors that were least likely
to alarm the fish.

“The other anglers collected at the hotel kindly aided me with their
advice, for which I was truly grateful. They rigged out my leader with
flies, and convincingly proving that the more flies used the more fish
must be taken, fastened on thirteen. Conroy had hardly served me fairly
in selecting my assortment, for they were pronounced by all not to be
half large or bright enough. It was clear that the larger the fly the
easier the fish could see it, and the more surely it would catch; so
they loaned me a number, principally yellow, green, and blue, which was
the more generous of them, as they had but few of the same sort
themselves.

“They impressed upon me to be up early, because trout will not bite
after sunrise–besides, I knew from the proverb that worms were more
easily obtained early; and it was still dark when, having passed a
restless few hours, I awoke and dressed. The house was silent, not a
person to interfere with me, and having set up my rod the night before,
I crept cautiously down stairs. The tip would slash about and knock at
the doors and on the walls as I passed, and gave me great trouble in
turning the corners of the stairs, but I reached the hall door safely
and stepped out upon the piazza.

“I had hardly congratulated myself, when, hearing a suspicious growl,
and recollecting that the tavern-keeper had a cross mastiff, I turned,
and saw him in the dim light making straight for me. Running was never
my forte, but, gentlemen, my speed round that house with that mastiff
after me has rarely been equalled; he kept it up well, however, and if
he could have turned a corner readily, would have caught me. Recovering
my presence of mind in the third round, I darted through the hall door,
and slamming it to behind me, heard my enemy bounce against it, and
after a growl and a sniff or two, turn away in disgust.

“Upon regaining my breath, I ascended to my room, and loading the
revolver which I always carry on dangerous journeys, returned to the
attack, determined on revenge. Strange to say, however, the cowardly
beast, the moment the pistol was presented at him, uttered a low whine
and shrank away. Disgusted with his cowardice, I seized up my rod, which
had been dropped in my first flight, and pursuing him howling piteously
three times round the house, laid it on him soundly.

“It must have been poor stuff, for the tip broke. Conroy mended it
afterwards, without charge, when I told him the circumstances. But I put
in a spare one, and having dug my box full of worms, went to the shed
where my horse was left standing, ready harnessed, from the night
before. There is nothing like attention to these little matters in time;
for, if the hostler had had to harness him, he might have detained me
many precious minutes.

“A half-hour’s drive soon brought me to the pond, and, after hitching
the animal to the fence–for it was necessary to turn into the field
from the main road–I walked down to the bank and jumped into a boat.
Unfortunately, it was chained to a staple and padlocked; the inn-keeper
had forgotten to give me the key. They were all the same but one, lying
on the shore and turned bottom up, that did not seem to be sound. No
time, however, was to be lost; the streaks in the east were beginning to
turn red–an indication that the sun was rising–and the hour for
fishing would soon be over. I launched the boat, such as it was, and
pushed off.

“Casting the fly is difficult, but casting thirteen flies is almost
impossible. The boat was leaky; the fish did not rise, and the water
did. I bailed as well as I could with one hand, and fished with the
other, till at last, almost exhausted, I saw the sun rise. As a
desperate resource, however, the bait-box came into play. I removed the
flies and substituted a hook and worm; but while thus employed, and
unable to bail, the water gained on me rapidly. Hardly had the bait
touched the water before a fine fish seized it. I tried my best to pull
him out, but he would not come–the rod was such a miserable, weak
affair that it bent like a switch. The trout swam about in every
direction, and tried to get under stamps and weeds and to break my line;
but I held him fast and reeled in–for my friends had explained to me
what the reel was for–and was about to lay down my rod and fish him out
with the landing-net, when–the boat sank.”

CHORUS–“Could you swim?”

“No; but the water was only up to my arm-pits, and I was about to wade
ashore, when a colored gentleman, who had arrived and been sitting on
the bank for the last few minutes, shouted to me that it was his boat
and I must bring it with me. I answered, savagely, that I would do
nothing of the sort, when he began to abuse me and call me thief, and
say I had stolen his boat, and he would have me arrested. So I thought I
had better comply, and waded along, dragging it after me. The bottom was
muddy, and I slipped once or twice and went all under. It was probably
then that the fish got off; but my colored friend took pity on me, and
pointed out to me the best places to walk.

“I was nearly ashore, and had clambered upon a bog, as the gentleman
advised, and, by his direction, I jumped to a piece of nice-looking
green grass. I have always thought he deceived me in this, for it turned
out to be a quagmire, and I sank at once above my waist in solid, sticky
mud. The matter now became serious; my weight is no trifle, and every
motion sank me deeper and deeper. I implored the colored man to help me
out; to wade in to me, and let me climb on his back; I offered him money
profusely; and–would you believe it?–he laughed, he roared, he
shouted, he rolled over in an agony of mirth. He asked me whether I was
afraid to die–that only cowards were afraid to die. I did not dare to
say no, lest he should take me at my word, and was ashamed to say yes;
but, as I kept on sinking, I had to own up that I was afraid, and then
he only laughed louder than ever.

“My feelings were beyond description–fury does not adequately describe
my rage; but fear so tempered it, that I seemed to change suddenly from
the extreme of heat to the extreme of cold. I would begin by swearing at
him, and end by imploring; I begged, cursed, prayed, and raved. Overcome
by his unrestrained delight, at last I threatened–pouring out upon him
the vilest abuse, and dire menaces of what I would do when I did get
out. The prospect of that, however, rapidly diminished–the nasty, slimy
mud rose by perceptible degrees–and then he made me take back all my
threats and apologize to him. In the agony of my returning terror, he
actually made me beg his pardon.

“When, however, hope was nearly over with me, he slowly, with maddening
deliberation, took a rail from the nearest fence, and, interspersing the
operation with much improving advice, began to pry me out. As I rose
towards the upper world my courage returned, and my revenge was merely
waiting till my body touched _terra firma_ to take ample amends. Even
that satisfaction was destined to disappointment; for when I was so far
out, that with the aid of the rail I could help myself, he dropped it,
and, suspecting my intention, he scuttled off as fast as his black legs
would carry him.

“What an object I presented after effecting my escape–from head to foot
one mass of mud; my handsome clothes, my hands and face, all blacker
than my ebony friend, and stiff and heavy with the noisome
conglomeration. After resting for a few minutes, I gathered up my rod
and started for the wagon, when what should I see in the other end of
the lot but a bull. A single glance showed me what I had to expect; no
bull could stand such an object as I was. I ran and he ran. I made for
the wagon and he after me. Such a picture as I must have presented,
flying from an infuriate bull, may seem funny to you, gentlemen, but was
not to me. We both reached the wagon and both went into it together–I
into the seat, he into the body; the result being that I went flying out
again, on the other side, over the fence. The horse, which at that
moment must have been dreaming, or sleeping the sleep he did not have
the night before, aroused by the crash, cast one look behind and burst
his bonds and fled.

“It was a long walk home; people looked strangely at me on the way, and
some unfeeling ones laughed. My wagon was broken, my horse was ruined,
my clothes were spoiled; and the only consolation I had, was that my
brother anglers at the hotel felt and expressed such intense sympathy
for my sufferings.”

The resigned tones and manner of the speaker were inimitable, and his
story was received with great satisfaction and closed the evening’s
amusements. All parties having resolved upon an early start, retired
early, and enjoyed a rest such as the sportsman only knows.

One of the attachés of our club-house, without whom it would be deprived
of many pleasant features, and who is a remarkable and eccentric
character, is called Henry–a Canadian Frenchman. He possesses the
lightheartedness, the honesty and trustworthiness of that peculiar
class, with the strongest prejudices against mean and underhanded
actions and those who are guilty of them; he is, in his own obstinate
way, devoted to the service of those who enjoy his esteem. Animated with
strong dislikes, he is barely polite to those who have excited his
distrust, while he will do anything for his favorites. He is a good
shot, and thoroughly acquainted with the marsh and the habits of the
birds, but on no terms will he make any suggestions as to the most
promising localities. To the question, no matter how casually or
confidingly littered:

“Well, Henry, where had I better go, to-day?” He will respond, looking
you calmly in the face, and in a slightly admonitory tone:

“You know I never give advice, sir.”

His greatest favorites can obtain no more satisfactory answer, and in
fact not much information of any kind, from him in relation to the
flight or haunts of the birds. He appears to have discovered that
knowledge worth having is worth working for, and is resolved that every
man shall be his own schoolmaster. He has quite an insight into
character, and appreciates the members of the club and their
peculiarities.

One day a party, including a number who were not members, had been
snipe-shooting, and some of the latter indulged the habit of pushing on
before their neighbor to shoot any bird they may have seen alight, or
had reason to believe was upon his beat. Afterwards Henry remarked, as a
sort of soliloquy, “He was a poor man–did not have much education, and
supposed he did not know; but he did not think it right for one
sportsman to run in ahead of another in order to shoot a bird before
him. Probably he was wrong; but that was the way he felt, and could not
help it.”

It was this curious individual who waked us the next morning at an hour
before daylight, and enjoyed heartily the satisfaction of rousing us up
at that unseemly time. We were no way loth, however, and hastily
swallowing our breakfasts and launching our boats, pushed out under
cover of the darkness for our respective points. As yet the water and
land were scarcely distinguishable, and localities could only be
determined by intuition. Night was still brooding with outstretched
wings on the earth; the sky seemed to be close overhead, and the clouds
could not be distinguished from the open heavens. Slowly, however, the
outlines of the horizon became apparent; then the heavy masses of
lowering cloud that hung in the eastern sky, and left a narrow,
transparent strip of light between themselves and the horizon, came out
in strong relief; the stars faded and turned dim; trees, bushes, and
distant elevations–the minutiæ of the landscape–appeared; long lines
of sedge-grass and reeds sprang up from the water; the eastern sky, and
especially the bright strip beneath the cloud, became lighter; a roseate
tinge spread itself over the meadows, deepening to intensity in the
east, and at last the sun peeped over the horizon.

Occasionally ducks will move at the first break of dawn; but frequently,
as in the present instance, they do not fly till about sunrise; then the
canvas-backs commenced coming in from the open water; the red-heads
accompanied them; and the mallards, aroused from safe beds among the
reeds, flew with loud quackings overhead. Later, the rapid blue-bills
and teal darted past, the pin-tails moved majestically in stately lines,
and the diminutive butter-balls hurried by. The rising sun dissipated
the clouds, and the increasing wind announced a glorious ducking-day.

To enjoy this sport thoroughly, or to make the most of the chances
offered, requires long practice and peculiar skill; but, when this skill
has been acquired, no specialty in sportmanship can be carried to higher
perfection, or confer more intense delight. To observe quickly and note
the direction of flight of the distant flock; to catch sight of the
single bird just topping the reeds; to hide well from the sharp eyes of
the approaching ducks; to keep a steady footing, yielding to the
treacherous motions of the unsteady boat without losing self-command; to
measure the distance accurately from birds passing high in air; to
select the proper moment to fire, and to determine correctly the speed
of the moving object; to do all these things at once, without hesitation
or failure in any particular, requires in a man the highest qualities of
a sportsman. The wonder is that success is so often attained; for there
are many men who will kill almost every bird that comes fairly within
range, and who will tell you before they shoot whether they are sure of
killing or not.

Unfortunately our party, although tolerably proficient, were far from
perfect. Many were the fair shots missed, or only half hit, and more
still were the impossible shots that were wasted. The wind drove the
birds upon the long neck of reeds called Grassy Point, where several of
us had located ourselves, and the river-scows, or small boats,
occasionally passing kept them in motion.

During the morning several flocks of swans were seen, looking, when they
passed in front of a dark cloud, like flying snow-flakes. Although
somewhat resembling the appearance of geese, at a distance, the beat of
their wrings and their trumpet-voiced cry are altogether different. They
were very shy, keeping far out of range; but excited our nerves at the
mere thought of what glory would be conferred if they should happen to
come within the proper distance.

One of our party, however, acquired but little credit by a shot which he
made at a flock of geese that passed within twenty yards of him. He was
of Milesian descent, and explained the occurrence afterwards as
follows:

“You see, I was watching them come closer and closer, and making my
calculation to pick out two fine ones. I knew the fellow at the head was
an old gander, and tough; but right behind him came two tender, juicy
youngsters–altogether the fattest and best in the whole flock. Well, it
took me some time to make this selection, and, letting the old one go
by, I was just about preparing to knock over the two others right and
left–and done it I should have, because I intended to, you know. Well,
I put up my gun, and was about taking aim, and was waiting for them to
get just in the right position–for I was as cool as I am this moment;
an old hunter like me is not easily flurried. Well, they were almost
ready, and I was on the point of cutting them down, when somebody
else–bad luck to him–about a hundred yards off, fired into the flock.
Of course they flirted in every direction, and darted about so, that I
lost sight of those I selected; and how could you expect me to kill any
others when I had made up my mind to have those? You need not laugh
because I missed with both barrels; I wouldn’t have missed if the birds
had been in their proper places, where I was pointing my gun.”

So it was that we obtained no geese. But the canvas-backs and mallards,
in the early morning, made up for the deficiency; and when, towards
midday, they ceased flying, some of our party resolved to pole for
wood-ducks.

To do this, as has been heretofore intimated, requires more practice
than even shooting from “points”–exacting from the sportsman not merely
readiness in handling the gun, but activity of motion and accuracy of
balance. The gun, at full cock, is laid in its rack across the thwart;
or, as I prefer, from one thwart to another, with the triggers up; the
sportsman, standing erect on the stern, wields his pole with care,
avoiding noise, and never by any chance touching the side of the boat
with it, for nothing alarms the birds so much as rapping on the side of
the boat, although it is not easy to avoid doing so. He faces forward,
raises the pole carefully, and replacing it without a splash or a blow
on the crackling stems or leaves of the lilies, uses his body as a
fulcrum as often as he wishes to alter the direction of the boat. He
works his way against the wind as much as possible, and, casting his
eyes in every direction, is always on the alert. Suddenly, with a roar
like distant thunder, a wood-duck, generally the male, starts from the
weeds, and with a curious cry, like that of a wailing infant, makes the
best of his way from the approaching danger; instantly the sportsman
drops the pole, wherever it may be–in mid air or deep in the mud, just
planted or at its full reach–and springing to his gun, raises it with
rapidity but deliberation, and, if the bird has not already gained a
safe distance, discharges it with the best effect he is able to command.
Frequently, at the report, another bird will start, and offer a fair and
generally successful shot.

To one accustomed to kill quail, this shooting, after the awkwardness
arising from the motion of the boat is overcome, is not difficult; but
the knack of dropping the pole at once is almost unattainable. Most
persons, at first, frantically endeavor to deposit the pole in the boat,
and cannot drop it instantly; others give it an energetic push. The
former allow the birds time to escape, while the latter increase the
unsteadiness of the boat.

The birds usually rise well, attaining the height of twenty feet before
they move directly away, and hence present a good shot. If they are
missed, they may be marked down, pursued, and started again; and as they
are frequently very numerous, and rise at unexpected moments, they keep
the sportsman excited, until, worn out with the excessive and
unaccustomed labor, he has to stop and rest. If the water is low the
poling is hard work, and at the most favorable times will be found
sufficiently exhausting. The birds principally frequent the lily beds,
which stretch out in broad patches where the water is moderately deep;
but they are also found in open spots among the high reeds, and
occasionally among the deer tongue.

There are several kinds of weeds growing in the shallows of the bay, and
restricted in their extent by its depth. The reeds, which in the fall
resemble a ripe field of grain, have crimson stems, and narrow yellow
leaves, almost inclosing the stems at their base and streaming
gracefully in the wind at the top; they thrive in shallow water, and,
attaining a height of twelve feet, form the hiding-places of the
sportsman. The wild rice has a greenish-yellow stem, with longer joints
and without leaves; it branches at the end into the seed-receptacles,
and is not found in such large patches. The deer-tongue grows in deeper
water, and retains its green hue till the weather intimates that winter
is present. It has a leaf like a dull spear-head, that projects but a
few inches above the surface; and its stout sterns, springing up close
together, constitute a serious obstacle to the advancing boat. There are
also scattered patches of weeds, usually called grass because they are
green, but with a round, hollow, tapering stem, or leaf, that has no
resemblance whatever to grass.

Early in the season, when there are few birds flying over the points,
and the young, tender, and gentle wood-ducks crowd the marshes and will
permit an easy approach, it is customary to employ a punter, who poles
the boat while the sportsman sits on the forward thwart, gun in hand,
ready in a moment to cut down the feeble birds. But if any of the
shooting is to be done from the points, the punter will be found in the
way, increasing the unsteadiness of the boat and augmenting the danger,
already sufficiently great. Although by no means proficient, I always
prefer poling myself, and will never permit any guns in the boat but my
own.

On the day more particularly referred to in this chapter, we found the
birds plentiful, although rather wild, and had grand sport, starting the
crying wood-ducks and the quacking mallards from their hiding-places,
and killing a goodly number in spite of their sharp ears and strong
wings.

Of the particular shots, the numerous misses, the various mishaps, it
were vain to tell. A baptism in the shallow bay-water is regarded as a
necessary initiation, and not being dangerous, the ceremony is
frequently repeated. Good shots are rarer than bad ones, even with the
best marksmen, and perhaps the author would have to vindicate truth by
telling some awkward blunders of his own, and thus forfeit the reader’s
respect for ever. It is sufficient for the reader to recall the best
day’s sport at ducks he ever had, to imagine his own shooting
considerably improved, his strength and activity augmented, and his
promptest deliberation surpassed; and he will have a faint idea of our
performance. It is enough to say the birds were there, and we were
there.

Towards night we occupied a series of points above the Gap, as it is
called–an opening between the island where the house is situated and
the land beyond–and waited for the evening flight. The wind had died
away, and as the sun was setting, the mallards came in from the lake to
pass the night. Innumerable flocks, one after another, appeared from
behind the trees, and passing overhead, settled down into the reeds. By
twos, threes, or hundreds in a flock, in straight, even lines of battle,
or bent like the two sides of a triangle, or in long single file, their
wings whistling in the still air, or producing reports like pop-guns as
they flirted or touched one another–immense numbers moved over us.

Having ascertained by several ineffectual shots that they were far out
of range, we watched them with delight and curiosity, wondering whence
they could all come, and whither they were going. There was no abatement
or pause till the increasing darkness shut them out from our sight. Had
we been prepared with Ely’s wire cartridge we could have rained
destruction among them, but as it was we only killed a few chance birds;
and then reassembling our party where the open lead joined the bay, we
returned to the club-house together.

The next day being clear and still, it was devoted to fishing and
exploring. A Kentuckian who was among our numbers, having no fishing in
his own State, and knowing nothing of salmon or striped-bass, and little
of trout, was devoted to black-bass fishing. Persuading the writer to go
in the boat with him, while two friends accompanied us in another, we
crossed the bay, and having fastened large Buel’s spoons to the end of
stout hand-lines, proceeded to troll in the most primitive manner.

The bass were plentiful, and rushing from their lairs in the weeds close
to the shore, darted out after the boat had passed, and devoured our
baits. Although quite large, they gave feeble play, turning over and
over in the water, and rarely jumping with the vigor of fish brought up
in cooler latitudes; in fact, the river and lake bass differ so greatly
as to seem almost to belong to different species. The river fish, which
lie in the discolored water where long weeds grow from a bottom of deep
mud, are yellow in color, have a large head, and a yellow iris to the
eye. The lake fish, which prefer the clearer element near rocky shoals,
have a small head and reddish eye, are dark-sided and vigorous, have a
large forked tail, and are infinitely preferable on the table.

One of our friends in the other boat was a practical joker, and of a
lively turn of mind. He at first amused himself by jerking the line of
his companion who sat nearer the bow, to induce him to think it was a
bite; then he landed all the fish that were taken on either hook; and
finally, having accidentally caught his hook into his companion’s and
drawn it in without the latter’s knowledge, he hung it on the gunwale
and had the fishing to himself. As the portion of the line, or bight as
sailors call it, which still towed overboard kept up the ordinary
strain, his associate was in great wonderment at his bad luck, and did
not discover the reason till the fishing was over.

Having absolutely filled our boats with bass that weighed from two to
four pounds, and having ordered a good dinner at the club-house to
entertain some strangers, we returned, rather disgusted with such tame
sport.

We caught, besides the bass, a few pickerel and a small pike-perch,
_lucioperca Americana_; and found the most successful bait was a red and
tin spoon, with a white feather on the hook. The natives call the
pickerel a grass-pike, and the pike-perch a pickerel. Those curious
nondescripts–half fish, half reptile–bill or gar-fish, _lepidosteus_,
relics of antediluvian ages, were seen in the water, but are only taken
in the net.

The weather had been clear, mild, and still; it continued so for several
days, and as storm and wind are necessary to duck-shooting, our sport,
although pleasant, was greatly diminished. Consequently we rose at
reasonable hours, ate comfortable breakfasts, and smoked our pipes
before we left the house. One morning, as I was about departing, the
Kentucky fisherman, who had found the weather admirable for his sport,
offered to bet ten of the largest fish he would catch against the
largest bird I should shoot, that I would not kill a dozen ducks. Of
course I accepted the wager.

It was unpromising weather, still and warm, and there was absolutely no
flight either during the morning or evening; but by chance two
cormorants came close to my stand. Without waiting to distinguish what
they were I fired, killing one dead, and dropping the other some
distance off in the open water. My disgust on picking up the one
nearest, and observing the thick legs, ugly shape, and crooked yellow
bill, was only diminished by the recollection of my bet. I lost, failing
in the end to bring home the dozen birds–although I shot more than that
number, but was unable to recover several that fell in the weeds–and on
my return, using that fact as an excuse, endeavored to beg off. The
Kentuckian was delighted; imagining from my conversation that I had shot
a canvas-back, and anticipating an amusing triumph, he insisted upon the
letter of the law.

Our discussion, as was intended on my part, attracted the attention and
interest of all the members, and my opponent waited with a victorious
air till I should bring him my largest bird. At last, after much
procrastination, it was produced amid such shouts as rarely rang through
the old club-house. In vain did my Kentucky friend attempt to disclaim
his acquisition or propose to waive his rights; “he would have the bird,
and he must take him; it was a remarkably fine one of the kind, and a
good specimen.” At last he burst forth:

“Oh, get out with your cormorant; take him away; do, and I’ll never make
another bet with you as long as I live.”

To this day, in that section of the West, a man who is too exacting
occasionally wins a cormorant.

The time that circumstances permitted me to devote to pleasure was
drawing to a close, and the last morning that was to be appropriated to
the ducks had arrived, when, as I was about loading my boat, Henry stood
before me, and with great earnestness remarked:

“I am going to shoot with you to-day, sir.”

If he had said, “I am going to shoot you,” he could not have spoken with
more firmness and solemnity; or, if he had anticipated the most violent
contradiction, he could not have assumed a more convincing manner. The
proposal, as it suggested an augmented bag for my last day, was,
however, cordially welcome; and, as soon as he was ready, I inquired in
an unconcerned manner:

“Well, which way shall we go?”

The effrontery of the question fairly took him aback, and, pausing in
apparent irresolution as to whether he was not in danger of being caught
at last, he seemed for a moment half inclined to run for it.
Incoherently he commenced his usual response about not giving advice;
paused, and then, in a sadly reproachful tone, remonstrated as follows:

“You know if I were to give advice to gentlemen, and they were to have
bad luck, they would blame me; and how can I know all the time where the
ducks are flying?”

“But, Henry, as we are going together, I must certainly be told where
the place is to be.”

This appeared to surprise him; for, after a moment’s deliberation, he
jumped into his boat, and, seizing his paddle, said, “I am going to
Grassy Point,” and made off as fast as he could.

“Well, Henry, I suppose I shall have to go with you, instead of you with
me; but the difference is not very great.”

He seemed confused, and in doubt whether he had not compromised himself,
and paddled with such speed that I could scarcely keep up with him.
Seated with his face towards the bow of the boat, his guns lying ready
for instant use in front of him, he plied his double paddle–that is to
say, a long paddle with a blade at both ends, which are dipped
alternately–with a vigor that would have distanced, for a short
stretch, the most expert rower. Like the other natives, he preferred
the double paddle to the oars. “While using it he could make an accurate
course–an important consideration in the intricate channels; could
watch for a chance shot ahead of him, or chase a wounded duck
advantageously; at a moderate speed, could travel a long journey; and,
for a spurt, could surpass the same boat propelled by oars; and was not
annoyed by catching the blades in the innumerable weeds. So great was
the respect that I acquired for the double paddle, from his manner of
wielding it, that I thereupon resolved to have one and learn to use it,
even if I did suffer somewhat in the attempt.

We proceeded in unbroken silence, and, reaching the point, located
ourselves well upon it, not far apart, and awaited the ducks. Henry was
an excellent shot, and set me an example that I did my best to follow;
but as the birds did not fly well, we left at the expiration of a couple
of hours, and crossed Mud Creek into the main swamp, called Lattimer
Marsh. On the way, happening to pass an old muskrat house, my curiosity
was excited, and I inquired:

“Are there any animals in that house now?”

“I don’t know whether there are any animals, sir; there might be some
sort of animals, but there are not any rats.”

“Where are the rats, then?”

“They all disappear in summer; they leave their houses, and in the fall
build new ones. I can’t tell what becomes of them; but they have queer
ways. They build a big house–a sort of family house, as I call
it–where a number of them dwell; and around it, about fifty rods off,
smaller ones, where each rat appears to feed or go when he wants to be
alone. There are generally two entrances, one above and the other under
water, so that when the bay is frozen over they can get in.”

“How do you catch them?”

“We set spring-traps of iron, but without teeth, so as not to hurt the
skin, near their houses, and where we think they will be apt to step
into them. The time to catch them is from the 1st of March till the 10th
of April.”

“Can anybody trap them?”

“Oh no, sir; that wouldn’t do at all; a person has to own the land, or
have the right to trap. The land isn’t worth much, though–only about a
dollar an acre.”

“The Indian name of muskrat is said to be musksquash?”

“I don’t know how that is; but I have heard people call them so. There
are a good many in the marsh, and we sometimes make three or four
hundred dollars a year from them.”

“But, as the swamp fills up and the land makes, won’t they disappear?”

“No, sir; the swamp isn’t filling up; but the land is sinking, or the
water rising–either one or the other; for the swamp is growing larger.
The trees on the island are being killed by the water–some are dead
already; and every year more high land becomes meadow, and the meadow
turns into swamp.”

“I thought the Western lakes were growing shallow, and receding yearly.”

“Not here, sir. Why, that long spit of reeds beyond Grassy Point was dry
land once, so that you could drive a team clear over to Squaw Island;
there were large trees on it, but they are all dead, and the channel
between it and the island is six feet deep.”

“All the better for us sportsmen. Have you any other valuable animals
besides the rats?”

“A few otter; but not many. No, sir; the ducks are the most valuable
things we have.”

“They will soon be killed off.”

“No, sir; as there is no shooting allowed in the spring they are
becoming more plentiful. They are tamer, too; and some stay here all
summer and breed. It was the spring shooting, when they were poor and
thin, that killed them off or drove them away.”

“How many birds can a good shot average daily the season through?”

“I think I can kill forty a day, but perhaps there are some men who can
shoot better. But now, sir, if you will choose your stand, I will go a
little way below.”

I ensconced myself in a bunch of high weeds surrounded by a pond of open
water, and killed a few mallards. The birds did not fly well, however,
and we moved from place to place in the hope of better luck, and with a
restlessness that showed increasing dissatisfaction on the part of
Henry; so that I was not surprised when, early in the afternoon, he told
me that he must return to the club-house. I remained for some hours
where he left me; but hearing rapid shooting near the Gap, I poled my
way there through a broad field of lilies, known as the Pond Lily
Channel, and there, to my surprise, found Henry.

Whether it was the desire to be alone, for his peculiarity of preferring
to shoot by himself has been mentioned, or whether he was tempted by a
favorable flight of birds, I never knew; when I appeared, he paddled
hastily away as though ashamed, and made no answer to my inquiries as to
what detained him, or how they could manage without him at the house.
Unceremoniously occupying his place, I completed the evening, and the
allotted hours of my stay, with some excellent shooting at flocks of
mallards, widgeons, and blue-bills, that poured through the Gap in
endless flights, till after dark.

Then, for the last time, I rowed through the darkness towards the
well-known point; for the last time sat down at the groaning board which
our kind-hearted landlady had furnished so liberally; played my last
game with the euchre-loving son of Kentucky; smoked a farewell pipe of
Killikinnick in the sociable circle around the air-tight; slept for the
last time in the comfortable bed under the hospitable roof of the
club-house; and next morning, having seen my associates depart, each in
his little boat, and bid them all farewell, I set out, with my birds
packed in ice, for the City of New York. My friends welcomed me and my
birds gladly. Reader, had you been my friend, you would also have
welcomed us both.