Duck shooting has held its own better than any other kind of sport in
the States east of the Mississippi. Ruffed grouse have almost
disappeared, woodcock have grown scarcer and scarcer, English-snipe
visit us less abundantly, while the bay-birds have nearly ceased to be
in sections where they were once overwhelmingly abundant, but it is
possible still, on Lake Erie, along the coast, and at many inland places
to make a fair, if not, as often happens, an excellent bag, of ducks.
But the best place, one where the birds seem to exist in their original
abundance, and where magnificent shooting is still to be had, is on the
eastern shore of North-Carolina. Of this favored locality Currituck is
the most famous. So celebrated is this county that the entire marshes,
the duck-haunted lowlands, have been purchased, and to-day there is
absolutely no free shooting to be had. A stranger is as thoroughly
debarred as if he were in the most barren portion of our land. No one is
allowed to shoot from a battery unless he is a native, and to get a
chance to go out at all after the innumerable flocks of wild-fowl that
temptingly cover the water, the visitor must belong to one of the
numerous sporting clubs which have so wisely and assiduously secured all
the shooting grounds, and most of which are so particular that they
exclude invited guests.

But if you are one of the favored shareholders you can have a glorious
time. Fifty ducks a day to each gun is no unusual average, and while a
hundred is a large bag, a hundred and fifty is nothing uncommon, and as
many as two hundred and fifty have been killed by a sportsman and his
gunner in a single day. Moreover the birds are of the best possible
kind; there are canvas-backs in the open water, red-heads in still
greater abundance, and broad-bills or blue-bills so plenty that they are
rarely shot at, while in the pond holes black-ducks, mallards, and
widgeons abound. These are all well-fed and fat, and such a thing as a
poor duck is unknown. The law wisely forbids shooting before sunrise or
after sunset, and the club members are wise enough to keep the law,
knowing as they do that one gun fired after sunset is more injurious
than a dozen during the day, so that the ducks do not seem to diminish
but rather to increase and multiply, and as fine a day’s sport has been
had by the members of the club during the past few years as at any time
in the history of the country. A result partly due to breech-loaders
perhaps, while from a battery it is nothing unusual to kill a hundred
brace of red-heads or canvas-backs, and some times twice as many.

This favored spot is, as it ought to be, of no easy access. The
sportsmen must first go to Norfolk and thence take either the little
steamboat Cygnet, endeared to so many of us by the memory of pleasant
excursions in the past, or travel by a new railroad just finished which
passes twenty miles from the traveller’s destination, a place known from
the name of the enterprising widow lady who formerly owned it, as Van
Slyck’s Landing. By boat the entire day is spent in the journey, and by
rail it is not much shorter, but the boat arrives so late that it is not
always possible to make the trip across from the landing to the club
house the same night. Opposite Van Slyck’s are the two most famous and
successful sporting clubs in that section of the United States, the
Currituck and the Palmer’s Island clubs. They own or control immense
tracts of land, and below them to the southward the bay widens out so
that there is no chance to kill ducks to advantage. There are a few good
stands at Kitty Hawk Bay, thirty miles further south, and at the lower
end of Roanoke Island Raft ducks can be shot from batteries. Then again
along the eastern shore of Pamlico Sound, at Hatteras and Ocracoke
inlets and in the western part of Core Sound, to the south of Harker’s
Island, there is good duck, and in its season brant shooting, but these
places can only be reached by the fortunate sportsman who has his own
private conveyance. Therefore it may practically be said that the Palmer
Island marshes are the _ultima thule_ of duck shooting.

As a general thing, there is attached to every sporting club some old
experienced gunner full of wild-fowl lore and quaint and curious
phrases, who is a mine of interesting information to him who will
explore the vein. Such a one belonged to the Palmer Island club, in the
person of William S. Foster, a resident of Long Island, who had followed
Shinnecock Bay for many years, knew the ways and habits of the birds as
well as if he were one of them, and was as fond of shooting as the most
inveterate sportsman. Honest to a farthing, faithful, anxious to give
the person he was with the best sport he could, he was ready to take any
amount of trouble, endure any labor for a good day among the ducks, the
members of the club looked on him, rather as a friend than a paid
employee. Many is the hour I have spent with him on the Currituck
marshes, many a day of splendid shooting have I had, many the big bag
have I made with his aid. One of his peculiarities was that he never was
in a hurry. No matter how thick the birds were, how easy it seemed to
choose a point, he would stand quietly in the bow of the boat with the
sea-glass in his hand scanning the movements of the flocks and
deliberately selecting the best place. I would often grow impatient and
fear he was losing valuable time, but the result rarely failed to
justify his judgment and vindicate his deliberation.

The first and most important object, as he explained it under such
circumstances, was to so arrange the stools that the ducks would “come
right,” that is would approach without fear and would offer the
sportsman a fair shot. This is a matter of the greatest moment and is
not understood by men who consider themselves expert wild-fowlers.
First, there is the question of the wind to take note of, then the
position of the sun, next the cover, and last, but by no means least,
the nature of the species of ducks that are flying. It will not do to
string out the decoys dead to lee-ward of a point as is so often seen,
except perhaps when canvas-backs and red-heads are alone expected,
mallards, sprigtails, and especially the wary black-duck will never or
rarely approach a point. If a point, with the wind blowing directly off
from it has to be chosen, it is better to stretch the decoys around to
one side of it so that the wind “will catch the birds under the wing” as
he expressed it and swing them in farther than they expected. Points
projecting far out into the open water are the favorites of tyro
gunners, but they are especially unsuited for any of the marsh ducks,
the black-ducks, mallards, sprigtails, and even the widgeons, all of
which give a wide berth to such spots, especially after they have been
shot at a few times, and most of which prefer to alight close under the
lee of a bank, in the “slick” as it is called.

There are two great divisions of ducks, the deep water, diving or raft
ducks, and the shoal water or marsh ducks, which reach down for their
food and can never feed in water more than two feet deep. The habits of
these two varieties are remarkably dissimilar. The open-water birds,
fearless of ambush, are less timid than their pond-loving brethren, who
dread an enemy in every tuft of grass or bunch of reeds, when
canvas-backs once make up their minds to come to the stools, they come
straight on regardless of deficiences in the gunner’s blind, and very
frequently pass completely over the stools. On the other hand, a
black-duck in approaching the stand is a model of caution, he is all
eyes and ears, the slightest movement by the sportsman, the least
evidence of danger will arouse his suspicions, and he will veer suddenly
off. Black-ducks and mallards rarely cross the stools to alight at the
head of them, but if they reach them at all, drop in at the lower end,
or more often stop short and alight at a distance just tantalizingly out
of shot, where they remain to lure off every fresh arrival unless they
are driven away. Their noses are especially keen, and care must be taken
to so arrange the stand that the wind will not carry the scent of the
gunner across the water to the lee-ward of the decoys, and the birds get
it before they reach them. If they come in contact with such a warning
they jump into the air as if they had been shot at, and flee with all
the speed that terror can lend to their usually vigorous wings. It is
desirable to set the stools under the lee of a bank of reeds or rushes,
for none of this class of ducks likes the open water, and the most
convenient plan is to place the stools to one side of the stand,
quartering as it were across the wind, so that even if the birds alight
before actually reaching them, they may be within gun-shot.

The location of the stand is most important. I remember once when I was
shooting from what is known in the club as “Kidder’s Point,” that I was
particularly impressed with this fact. The day had been dull and rather
quiet, with but a few birds stirring all through the morning; a haze lay
upon the marshes, not dense enough to prevent the ducks flying if they
had been so minded, which they did not seem to be, the wind scarcely
stirred the reeds or rippled the surface of the bay, which was spread
out before me. I was making a poor bag and hardly expected to do better,
when about midday there came a change over the spirit of the earth and
air, the clouds began to condense, the wind commenced to blow, the air
became rapidly colder, a thin steak of gray faintly marked the sky in
the northwest, while in the south the clouds grew blacker and denser.
Then the rain fell in spits and flurries viciously. The atmosphere
intimated a decided change in the weather, which the ducks were the
first to recognize and regulate their proceedings by. Evidently a vast
mass of widgeons were bedded to the lee-ward of us. They commenced to
fly not in their individual capacity, but as the part of a great
movement, as if suddenly they had made up their minds all to go. In
whisps of threes, fours, tens, twenties, in large flocks, or solitary
and alone, they came heading towards me directly across the marsh and
visible for miles. Then it was that I learned that I was not in exactly
the right place, that the birds for some reason best known to themselves
did not care to cross that spot in their migration. Most of them,
especially the largest flocks, passed outside of me and just beyond the
range of my gun. I was in the wrong place, I knew it, but I had no time
to move, the ducks

[Illustration: FLORIDA “CRACKER.”]

were flying too fast and too many of them came within range as it was
for me to lose the time necessary for a change. The rain that was
falling, although not heavy, interfered, and would have wet our guns and
clothes which were pretty well protected so long as we remained still.
So we stayed where we were, and as it was the sport was splendid. The
entire mass of widgeons had determined to change their feeding grounds,
and that at once, there was no moment when some of them were not visible
in the air, they came from one quarter and flew in one direction. I had
learned to whistle for widgeon as well as a professional, and did my
best with the aid of William Foster to inveigle them within range. Very
often we were successful, and it was an afternoon of excitement. Not a
minute passed that we did not have the prospect of a shot, and although
the larger flocks mostly kept on their course outside of us, the smaller
whisps and the single ones came in freely.

“Why is it that the birds seem to be all moving at once?” I asked of
William during the first moment of partial leisure that we had, “and why
are they all going in the same direction?”

“It is a question of food with them,” he replied, “as is the case with
most other animals. Widgeon can only get their food by reaching down for
it, so they must keep where the water is not over their heads; that is
so that they can touch bottom with their bills by tipping up, as you
have often seen tame ducks do. Now in these shallow marshes a change of
wind means a change of depth of water, it is shallower to windward, the
water being piled up to lee-ward and the ducks, knowing this, fly
against the wind, all the shoal feeding birds do so. The canvas-backs,
red-heads, and broad-bills make little account of the wind.”

“But,” I answered, “this wind cannot as yet have affected the depth of

“No, but the birds know that it soon will, and they are getting ready
for to-morrow. There will probably be a greater change than we expect,
wild animals know much more about the weather than man can ever learn,
they have a sort of instinct that is given to them for their protection.
I have always observed that the ducks sought the windward side of the
marshes. If the wind is blowing from the south, I make it a rule to go
to the southward to choose a stand, if from the west I look through the
western marshes and so on. Of course I am not always right.”

“No,” I interrupted him to remark, “but we have observed that the member
who goes out with you generally brings in the most birds, so the results
tend to demonstrate the theory.”

“Well, I have studied these marshes as thoroughly as I could; there is
not a tree that I have not climbed, nor an island that I have not

“Can you see much from the trees when you do climb them?” I asked.

“Yes. A little elevation will enable you to see over the entire marsh,
and many a pond hole have I found in that way that is not known to most
of the gunners, and not always to the natives.”

“Keep still,” I remarked at this point of our conversation, “there comes
a magnificent flock of ducks, if they would only turn this way what a
shot they would give us.”

We were silent except for whistling, which we did with the finest
touches and the utmost skill. The flock, spread out against the distant
sky in an angle-pointed line, was headed directly for our hiding place.
We had crouched down on their first appearance, and grasping our guns
and watched them, waiting with increasing impatience and anxiety. Nearer
and nearer they came, over the distant marsh undisturbed by any other
gunner, and unattracted by other decoys until they were directly in
front of us and not more than three hundred yards distant. It was a
moment of intense excitement, for if we could once get our four barrels
into those serried ranks, there was no telling how many we might not

On they came still nearer, we whistled more softly and they answered
with undiminished confidence. Now they were over the meadow just beyond
our stools, a few minutes more of the same course and they would be in
our power. But alas, just as they struck the open water they deflected
their course a little, not much, but enough to carry them beyond fair
reach of our guns, so that when we fired we were only rewarded with
three birds that plunged from the flock headlong into the water. As they
were being retrieved by our four legged companion, William sagely

“I have observed that generally there is some misfortune connected with
what would make the finest shots, and that at such times something is
sure to go wrong; either the birds do not come in right, or a twig or
reed gets in front of you, the gun misses fire, or something else
happens, so that the best chances usually prove the worst.”

“There is an awful deal in luck,” I replied, “after all is said,
Napoleon’s star was not an imaginary planet by any means. I never was a
lucky sportsman, and have had to earn my game by the sweat of my brow.”

“Did you ever know a sportsman who would admit that he was lucky?”
inquired William, calmly.

“I can’t say that I ever did; but if you will keep still and not fluster
me with unnecessary generalizations, I will kill that pair of widgeons
that are coming over the marsh, luck or no luck.”

After uttering that boast, I had to make my words good, and though I
detected a twinkle in my companion’s eye, as if he would not mind should
I happen to miss just that once, I took care to aim straight, not the
sort of excessive care that invariably results in a miss, but the rapid
and confident deliberation that first holds the gun right and then pulls
it off when it is right, without waiting until it gets wrong.

“Good,” said William, _sotto voce_, in his quiet way, as the two ducks,
doubled up by the full charge of shot came down splash into the mud,
close to our stand, “I have seen a good many misses when a man was most
sure of hitting; I hardly expected that you would kill them both so

The sport kept up. It is useless to describe each individual shot that
we made. There is endless variety in every one that is fired, for no two
birds come to the decoys precisely alike. There are never the same
conditions of wind, sun, position, readiness, and what not, so that each
is more or less of a surprise. These the sportsman enjoys at the time,
they constitute the great charm of shooting; but they would tire in the
repetition in the cold blood of white paper and black ink. It is enough
that we had a magnificent day’s sport; “magnificent” is not
hyperbolical; we had sport that will be a memory through life, and until
the age-weakened arms can no longer wield the faithful fowling piece,
nor the time-dimmed eyes note the birds approach. Our store of game lay
in a pile uncounted; we knew there was a goodly number, and when at last
the tired sun had performed his allotted task and gone to bed, we were
not surprised to add up nearly a hundred of what is one of the finest of
all the ducks, the handsome little widgeon. Few of our gunners, even the
oldest of them, know that there was a time when the widgeon was valued
more highly than the canvas-back, when in fact in firing a sitting shot
the market gunner would “shew” the latter out of the way, in order that
he might have a better chance at the former. Had we been in exactly the
right spot, there is no doubt that I would then have reached the bag of
two hundred, which it has been the ambition of my life to attain.

On another occasion I had the same misfortune, although from a different
cause. I was with Jesse that time, Jesse who, or Jesse what, I cannot
tell. So faithful and trustworthy a fellow must have another name, a
full name; but often as I have availed myself of his care in the marshes
of Currituck, I am ashamed to confess that I have forgotten it. Every
one calls him simply “Jesse,” out of kindly feeling no doubt, for a
better fellow never set out a stand of decoys; so as simply Jesse he
must go down to the immortality that this book will give him. He is
devoted to the pleasure of his employer, and never more delighted than
when the latter brings home a fine bag of birds; but he is not quite so
skillful as his older associate, William Foster. He had observed, when
out the day previous, that the birds had a favorite feeding place in a
little bay near what in club nomenclature is designated as “the
horse-shoe.” To this place we wended our way as soon as we could cross
the intervening three miles of distance. The bay was not large, and at
its mouth was contracted into two narrow points which were hardly a
hundred yards apart. I had never shot at this particular point, and
Jesse did not think of the effect of the sun when he made his selection.
One point was probably as favorable as the other, with that exception,
but the one he selected brought the birds directly between me and that
luminary when he shot his burning and blinding rays from mid-heaven.
The result was, that before the day was over, reeds and ducks and spots
swam before my eyes in prismatic hues. The heavens become alive with
them, mixed up with grasses and flowers, the gorgeous colors of
condensed sunlight. Scarlet ducks, golden ducks, fiery ducks floated
before my bewildered vision, interwoven with such flaming reeds and
rushes as were never seen by mortal eye before. To say that under the
circumstances I could not shoot with my accustomed skill, is
unnecessary; I could not help occasionally mistaking the flaming bird
for the natural one, and no doubt would have killed him, had he only
been real enough to kill. This was the second occasion when I might have
reached my stint of two hundred, if I had only been so fortunate as to
locate properly in the first place, or even had had the courage to
change when I found out that I was wrong.

There are myriads of wild geese and swans in Currituck Sound and its
adjoining waters. The swans are hard to kill, and it rarely falls to the
fortune of any sportsman to bag more than two or three of these
beautiful birds in a season, but the geese are shot in immense numbers
on favorable days–“goosing days,” as they are called. Such days are
made by a southwesterly wind blowing hard enough to constitute a gale,
and the harder the better, which causes the water to rise and enables
the geese to reach the beaches where they go to sand. For this shooting
a “stand,” as it is called, of tamed wild geese are required. The
sportsman hides himself in a large, water-tight box, which has been sunk
in the sand at the spot which the birds frequent, and the “stand” of
living decoys are tethered in front by stout strings fastened to their
legs and pinned to the ground. The geese come to the stools in flocks,
and the slaughter at times is enormous, as many as two hundred being no
unusual bag, and that is often rounded out with forty or fifty ducks. It
is customary on such occasions to put a live swan or two with the geese
decoys, if the sportsman happens to be so fortunate as to possess them,
and I never shall forget seeing four swans come to a stand which was
located some distance from my own, but in full view from it. I have
always believed that birds could converse and had a language of their
own, and on this occasion my theory received confirmation strong as holy
writ. When I have sat listening hour after hour to the unceasing
conversational cacklings of geese, who appear to be the most talkative
of birds, I fancied that I could almost make out the words they uttered,
and which were certainly understood by the fowls themselves, as the
dullest observer would be convinced by their actions. Their expressions
of comfort, their mild observations about the weather may not have been
quite comprehensible, but their cries of alarm, their notes of warning,
no one could mistake. Ignorant hearers not versed in goose language, and
a very pretty tongue I have no doubt it is, may call it contemptuously
“gabble,” but so is the language of any foreigner “gabble” to those who
do not understand it.

In the instance that I am about to mention with the swans, there could
be no difficulty in understanding every word. There were four of them,
the wise father, the inquisitive mother, and two pretty, innocent,
dove-colored cygnets. They were sailing along far up in the heavens,
away out of danger, when the attention of the young ones was attracted
to a nice, gentle old swan seated happily among a body of geese that
were evidently having a good time and abundant food. In all the
innocence of their uncorrupted hearts they uttered a shout of joy and
started to join him, the mother who was curious to understand the
meaning of so happy a combination, following eagerly behind them. In
vain the cautious father warned them to “go slow.” They would not stop
to listen or to heed. On they flew or swam after alighting on the water,
giving free expression to their feelings of pleasure. Louder and louder
grew the warning notes of the head of the house, who hung back and tried
to keep the others back, but his efforts were useless, the young were
guileless, and the foolish wife inquisitive. He was too devoted to leave
his family, although the danger into which they were running was
apparent to him. Soon his worst fears were realized. He was out of
gunshot, but his wife and children were within the fatal reach of the
deadly gun. Several loud reports followed one another, and all was over.
In an instant he was childless and wifeless. The two cygnets were killed
dead, but the mother was able to fly a hundred yards, and it was pitiful
to see him go to her, braving all danger, and to hear his cries of
lamentation. He could not save her, however, and when the boat
approached with a gunner to complete the deadly work, the poor old swan
had to leave her. Still he kept circling round for some time and filling
the air with his bitter lamentations.

In wild fowl shooting it is essential to learn the various calls of the
different species of ducks and of the geese and swans. These it is
impossible to reproduce on paper, and about all that can be said is that
the raft ducks make various modifications of the word “pritt,” if it can
be called a word; that the widgeons whistle, the geese honk, and the
mallards and black-ducks quack. Jesse had a curious way of calling the
shoal-water ducks by uttering in rapid succession the word “Kek-kekkek,
kek-kek-kek-kek;” and he seemed to attract them as well as the patent
duck-call which I had purchased in the gun store for a dollar. For
black-ducks, however, I prefer the manufactured duck-call, and in going
out for them, I cannot too strongly impress upon the reader the
necessity for the utmost caution and the most careful hiding. When
shooting at some small pond hole in the middle of the marshes, it is
better to only use one or two decoys and to be covered entirely, except
for a single opening in front, just large enough to fire through,
overlooking the stools. A single tamed wild duck for this kind of sport
is worth all the wooden decoys in the world, and his quack is better
than Jesse’s “kek” or my “squawk.” Some gunners can set up the birds
they have killed so as to be almost as natural as the living bird, and
to deceive even the elect, but it is not an easy knack to acquire.
Usually such imitation stools look so fearfully and abnormally dead,
that they would drive any duck, with the fear of ghosts before his mind,
out of the country. It is only the most experienced gunner that can take
such liberties with the dead.

At the North, where the winters are colder than they are at Currituck,
it is customary to shoot in the ice. No waters that ducks frequent are
ever entirely frozen over; there are always what are called “breathing
holes,” where the gunner can place his stools, and which the ducks
frequent for food. He dresses himself in white linen over his other
clothes, so as to be as near the color of the ice as possible, and he
uses a light skiff provided with iron runners underneath. This he shoves
rapidly over the ice without much labor, carrying his dozen or so of
stools aboard, and using an iron-pointed pole to propel himself with. He
has his oars stowed under the narrow deck, so that he can row across
open water, and is safe in case his skiff should break through the ice.
When he has reached the open hole that he has selected, he throws out
his stools and cuts a place in the ice at the edge of the hole, to hide
himself and his boat, piling the cakes that he takes out alongside of
him, to further assist in hiding him. The decoys he uses are black-ducks
and whistlers, which will stool to one another indiscriminately. He must
then lie down on his back in the skiff, and no matter how cold he may
be, he must not move or stir. Though his blood chills and the marrow of
his bones freezes, he must bear it, for there is no telling at what
instant the birds may dart down upon him from the heavens, as they have
a way of doing without giving the sportsman the least warning. Shooting
in the ice has sent many a healthy man to a consumptive’s grave.

In closing this article, let me give a final bit of wisdom in the words
of William Foster. It is well known to every wild-fowler, but his way of
putting it covers in a few words the whole ground: “Remember, that as a
general rule, the shoal-water ducks go with the shoal-water ducks, and
the diving ducks go with the diving ducks, so they will pretty well
stool in the same way. Each prefers his own kind a little the best, I
think, but not enough to make a decided difference, provided the stools
are of the same class. Widgeon like widgeon, and canvas-backs will only
stool to canvas-backs or red-heads, but broad-bills will come to
canvas-back stools almost as well as they will come to broad-bill
stools. Black-ducks prefer black-duck stools, but sprigtails and
mallards will come to black-duck stools nearly as readily as they will
to their own. Don’t, however, use canvas-back stools for black-ducks,
nor, above all, black-duck stools for canvas-backs.”