November 08, 2023
If you want to find the locations of all of the country’s historic duck hunting spots then just follow the money. Some areas were popularized by guide services or by decoy carvers. Others gained their stellar reputations during the market hunting era. Then there were the regions made famous through private clubs that hosted presidents and captains of industry. There are hundreds of historic duck hunting locations around the country and here are three of them. Feel free to add yours to the list.
Nauset Marsh, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Hunting eider and scoter in the shadows of the Nauset Beach life-saving station isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a different story when hunting the 5,000 acres of tidal estuary, salt pond, and salt pannes inside the barrier beach and dune fields. Today, I find no shortage of black ducks in Nauset Marsh, as well as the usual suspects of sea, diver, and puddle ducks that migrate along the Eastern Flyway. Eider, scoter and oldsquaw, bufflehead, goldeneyes, and scaup, black ducks, mallards and woodies all call Nauset Marsh their seasonal home. Canada geese and brant do as well.
When I launch my layout for a morning hunt, I think about the two words that made Nauset Marsh famous: Elmer Crowell. Crowell farmed cranberries for much of the year, but when the weather turned cold he guided hunts for wealthy Boston Brahmins and New York Knickerbockers. He used a mixed spread of live decoys and early carved blocks and was highly successful. Crowell’s blocks were known for working as well as a live stool. Pedestrian models cost 25 cents, mid-level grades sold for a buck, and best grade dekes commanded a robust 2 dollars. Crowell welcomed trade deals where he’d often swap a block for a bushel of quahogs.
By 1912, Crowell converted an old chicken coop into a workshop and called it his ‘songless aviary.’ Carving turned out to be a great plan as his income wasn’t interrupted by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act that abolished market hunting. After the MBTA took effect Crowell said, “The shooting was great, but we could not sell them in the markets as the law cut it out. Soon the law cut out the live decoys and that was the end of good shooting there.”
The demand for Crowell’s decoys was high and he carved up until 1943, stopping only when rheumatism forced an early retirement. Throughout the years he carved over 15,000 decoys, many of which are in private collections. In 2003, his preening drake pintail as well as a sleeping Canada goose decoy commanded a whopping world record $1.13 million at auction…each. Everyone loved his work, much of which was inspired in Nauset Marsh. In fact, the United States Post Office featured two of his decoys in postage stamps, one in 1974 and the second in 1988.
The historic gunning camps of Nauset Marsh are no longer, and today’s waterfowl numbers don’t compare with the past. But I still hunt Nauset, for it’s close to my home. And oddly enough, every time I listen to the slap of tide against the gunnel of my layout I wonder this; if I had a Crowell decoy would add it to my spread? I’m not sure about that one, but we’ll see. Maybe I’ll find one I can afford at a yard sale…
There were so many outstanding places to hunt ducks along the Mid-Atlantic that it’s tough to pick one. There is Shang Wheeler’s Long Island Sound, there are geese feeding on winter rye planted in the Western Long Island potato fields that now are McMansions, and there are a few duck blinds on stilts on the South Shore’s Great South Bay. Over 560,000 people currently live in Barnegat Bay, the home of the famous Barnegat Bay sneak box, and down in North Carolina the former Whalehead Club, a 21,000 square-foot waterfowl club on Currituck Sound, now hosts wedding receptions. But if you want a historic place in which to hunt ducks then try the 170 nautical miles that form Chesapeake Bay. There are a lot of landing strips for ducks and geese.
Flowing into the bay are 48 tributaries which have over 100 branches that range from 2 to 50 miles in length. There are marshes, guts, ponds, fields and sloughs, some of which have a variety of pondweeds as well as oats and rice. Year ‘round ducks were woodies, teal and blacks, and the bulk of migratory ducks arrived between October and the middle of November. Diversity made the Chesapeake Bay such a hotspot, and the in-season species of ducks seemed unlimited: mallards, ringnecks, cans, pins, gadwall, scaup, oldsquaw, buffleheads, and more. Gunners from away that sampled Chesapeake Bay were likely to return.
Because there were so many ducks, Chesapeake Bay became renowned as a market-hunting hotspot. R.K. Sawyer’s book Texas Market Hunting details 5,000 ducks being shot in one day on Chesapeake Bay’s Susquehanna Flats. The railroad connected baymen with upscale restaurants in major cities such as Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Market hunting offered watermen another season of income, and when it went away they replaced it with guide services. The Chesapeake Baymen were gunkholers, and their focus on netting, clamming, oystering, crabbing and hunting required special, shallow draft boats that were balanced enough to serve multiple purposes. As these boats were built before the days of outboards their hull designs were innovative so as to make for easy rowing, poling or sailing. The simplicity of these beamy, stable boats connects us with the rich fabric of our waterfowl heritage.
If you’re a fan of waterfowl history then swing by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in Saint Michael’s, Maryland. Pete Lesher, the museum’s chief curator has collected a sample of the historically common waterfowl fleet. “A number of the boats used by watermen are still used today,” he said. “As watermen made a living doing a variety of seasonal jobs, their practical, functional, and durable boats were used for a wide variety of activities. Some watermen ran pound net fisheries for striped bass and shad, while others clammed and oystered in the winter and crabbed in the summer. After the market gunning days ended, watermen offered guide services that filled a seasonal niche. So boat design was important, and it largely came from their handling and maintenance skills with an eye towards making their already hard work easier. The commonality was that they all needed to getting into shallow water be it for ducks, geese, crabs, or oysters.” Double-ended skiffs, Bushwhack boats, sneakboxes, Patuxent Railbird Skiffs, Delaware Duckers and others were popular and are on display at the museum.
It’s with good reason that Arkansas lands on every waterfowler’s bucket list and has earned its reputation for being one of the best states for duck hunting, if not some of the best duck hunting in the world. Throughout the fall, ducks and geese trade the frozen reaches of the Central Flyway in favor of the flooded timber and fields located in between the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. It’s warm, there’s a buffet of food to eat, and plenty of water as well. Arkansas is well known for its waterfowling heritage and historic clubs, one of which is open to the public. Kim Freeman, the Duck Diva, helps preserve her family’s hunting heritage at The Elms, a tradition that began in 1866.
The Elms is located in the Arkansas Delta in the town of Altheimer. “We’re towards the bottom of the Central Flyway and in between the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers,” she said. “We have over 4,000 acres of sloughs, bayous, rivers, fields and some flooded timber to hunt. During the year we focus on our agricultural businesses which include row crops like rice, beans, corn, millet, and milo. When the weather turns cold and the ducks and geese arrive they’ve got plenty of food. When I started hunting as a kid my older brother and I couldn’t believe how many ducks we’d see. These days I focus on conservation and habitat to ensure that we’ve got abundant numbers of birds not only for our current hunters but also for their children and grandchildren.”
Hunters who want to experience what a historical waterfowl hunt must have been like can do so at The Elms. The tall white columns and veranda of the manor house is unique to Arkansas, but the rest is period original: tin-paneled ceilings, solid walnut staircases, sporting art, candlestands, and marble-topped hutches and corner tables. “Most hunters like the wood-paneled game room which features mounts harvested by family members,” Freeman said. “The whitetail and mallards are from our property, the moose was harvested in 1949 and in Alaska and the caribou in 1957. There are many others, and combined they make for a perfect spot to enjoy a post-hunt bourbon.” The Elms is where the past meets the present while preparing for the future. After a hunt be sure to thank the Duck Diva for that.
Throughout history, every generation has used a variation of the following phrases: the common, “It’s not like it used to be,” and its counterpart “The good old days,” and we can't forget the classic, “You should have been here yesterday”. Today’s hunting is what it is, and thankfully the past has created a solid foundation. How do we go forward? Well, isn’t that up to us?