Long Island is located on the eastern flyway for waterfowl. Many Long Island hunters supplemented their often-meager income by market gunning. Hunting ducks for fancy New York restaurants was just one way to survive. This took place from around 1840 until 1918 when the new conservation law went into effect preventing the practice of market gunning. At the turn of the nineteenth century, all first class hotels and restaurants served game dinners. From the 1840s until the law changed in 1918 market gunners supplied their tables with wild birds. Commercial hunting was always frowned on by the sportsmen of the day. After 1918 many of the market gunners became professional guides. The local duck farms in Eastport and Moriches used to shoo the wild ducks out of their domestic Pekin ducks and their feed. The sky would be black with thousands of black ducks taking wing.
In the early days before the Civil War there were no laws and the resultant slaughter caused many laws to be enacted to preserve the duck population. The numbers killed were astounding. In the 1800s Captain Wilbur Corwin of Bellport and one other gunner killed 640 in one day according to his written log.
The earliest hunters on Long Island were the Indians. It wasn’t long before the Colonists learned how to shoot ducks and snipe as they had in Europe. The early settlers depended on hunting to survive.
People who are interested in a particular cause usually band together and form some sort of organization. Duck hunters formed gunning clubs and were able to buy or lease property on the bay to set up a gunning preserve. Early Sportsmen’s clubs were for the well-born and high achievers.
At the other end of the spectrum there were many small clubs sometimes sponsored by townships and open to residents.
The first such club was believed to be on Carmans River in old Brookhaven. Daniel Webster rented a piece of land there in 1823 soon after he caught the famous trout. He invited his friends, including Martin Van Buren [later to become our eighth President] to fish and hunt. This later developed into the Suffolk Club organized in 1858 in New York City. These owners built a lodge on the site. The property eventually became Suffolk county’s South Haven Park.
Many of the exclusive hunt clubs started in New York City. With the new Long Island Railroad, hunters could reach anywhere on Long Island easily.
In the Bellport area, the Brookhaven Gunners Association was formed in 1924. It later became the Pattersquash Gunners Association. They leased the gunning rights to Bellport Bay from Brookhaven Town. Other gunners in the area could only gun on Fiddleton Flats and Pattersquash Island. Headquarters was on Pelican Island at Old Inlet.
As the duck population shrank due to over hunting, the Federal government stepped in and imposed limits and rules. To help pay for the program during the depression, Federal duck stamps were and still are sold through the Post Office and were affixed to the required State Hunting License.
Gunning clubs leased or owned beach land and sometimes hired caretakers to live on the land to keep the poachers out. The ducks were baited with corn by their caretaker to insure a plentiful supply of targets for his employers. Hunters would employ live callers. These ducks had their wings clipped and couldn’t fly. They were tied and staked out amongst the decoys. They would attract ducks flying by their quacking. It was considered unsporting to shoot ducks swimming. Shooting into the stool would damage them and if live callers were used, it might kill them.
The law changed and live callers were done away with. Hunters turned them in to such places as the Quogue game preserve. My father turned his in at Quogue and many years later, when visiting, his tame goose would come to him. These birds were formerly kept all year long and sometimes became pets.
Some of the clubs were the Wyandanch Club, the Southside Sportsman’s club of West Sayville, the Wa-Wa-Yanda Club on Captree Island and the Flanders Club near Riverhead.
|| Inadvertently the people of Suffolk County owe these clubs a debt of gratitude for the public parks resulting from the county’s acquisition of some of their lands.
At the East End of Smith Point County Park is an area known as Great Gun beach. It is reached by boat down the Great Gun channel from the inter-coastal waterway at Moriches Bay buoy 14. In the late 1800s duck hunting boats were outfitted with what amounted to cannon. They were #4 deck mounted shotguns. A few shots with these “great guns” and the hunter had but to scoop up the hundreds of dead ducks to deliver to market.
Keeper “Rose” Gordon of the Moriches Lifesaving station used to supplement his income by arranging gunning parties near the station. He was close enough to be called in an emergency at the station.
Decoys or duck stool, as they were known were made in the home workshop. Heads could be purchased or carved. The eyes were often made of brass tacks. These heads were mounted on blackened cork shaped like a duck, brant or goose. The first cork is said to be from old cork lifejackets found washed ashore on the beach. A square stick called a shallow keel, was fastened to the bottom to hold a piece of lead and a hole through the keel to fasten the string to. The other end of the string went to a lead weight cast in some sand with another screw eye.
Gabe Pelletreau of East Moriches used to saw out decoy heads for 15 cents each. He kept the patterns the customer preferred on hand with their name on them.
Capt. Bill Payne of Paynesville (Mastic at Montauk Highway) was a noted duck hunter in the 1860s through the 80s. He used to gun at Smith’s Point west to Old Inlet. He made his own decoys using cedar. He mixed chimney soot and fish oil to make the black paint. For white he used white lead.
An outgrowth of duck hunting is the fine art of decoy carving. What is considered the first real decoy show was held in 1923 in Bellport, L.I. sponsored by the Howell’s Point Anti-Duskers Society. It eventually died out and in 1964 the Great South Bay Waterfowlers Association revived the show which has become the National Decoy Show. These intricately carved decoys can get as much as $320,000 at auction.
During the depression years a hunter, not doing too well, sometimes shot a sea coot, legal, but difficult to eat. The recipe given by old-timers was to skin the coot, parboil it overnight and place it on a shingle, bake for at least an hour, then throw the coot out and eat the shingle.
There are many local wild duck recipes. Some parboil them to remove the “fishy taste” before roasting them. Others just stuff an onion in them and roast with a hot oven. Of course before the cooking comes the hanging for a few days in a cool place, then plucking the feathers and eviscerating them.
There were many other shorebirds that were hunted complete with decoys. High fashion hats for women required feathers. Terns, sea gulls, herons, and egrets were hunted for their plumage. The Shea White Plumage Act of 1910 should have put an end to this slaughter, but in merely drove it underground. It took a long time for it to diminish.
The market gunners saved the duck and goose feathers and sold them by the pound to make feather beds when they plucked the fowl for market.
| When I was in high school, my father would take me gunning. Opening day was a must! One year after he had moved out of the prime hunting area of East Quogue in Shinnecock Bay to Blue Point, a first day expedition was undertaken as usual from the boat. By this time my younger brother was old enough to hold a shotgun. Ignoring weather warnings we took off early in the morning in a wind and rainstorm to look for a place to gun from. In the “old” days a place would have been staked out with a gunning box in place and permission from the landowner. A likely spot was found off of East Patchogue and the gunning sharpie and duck stool was arranged. We settled in to await the ducks. It was blowing so hard it was amazing a duck could fly in such weather. After a few hours of this we decided to pick up and move. I was out gathering the stool when a duck decided to come in. My brother decided to shoot at it, showering me with spent shot.
After that we picked up decoys and attempted to return home via boat. Unfortunately the wind had blown most of the water out of the bay and the boat was sitting in mud. I was elected to go back ashore and call for my stepmother to rescue us by car. I found a house and knocked. Surprisingly the lady let me in, dripping with mud and seaweed. I made the call and we were rescued. My father came back when the water came back in the bay and got the boat home. When we got home we discovered that we had been in a September hurricane! That was my LAST duck hunting expedition!
In early times gunners could find themselves witness to a shipwreck while gunning on the beach. Horace Raynor, his brother and a friend were on a gunning trip to Narrow Bay off of Mastic, L.I. Nov. 28, 1893 when the LOUISE H. RANDALL hit the bar near them. The ten men and the Captain’s wife took to the rigging. Horace was a part time reporter for one of the New York papers and scooped the rest with his report. The complete story can be found in WRECKS & RESCUES on LONG ISLAND by the author starting on page 91.
One of the ways to hunt duck is called Battery Gunning. The idea was to get out into the bay in the flyway. The battery was a deep box with four wings of wood and canvas laying flat on all four sides. The stool was spread out around the rig and the box was weighted down with as much a 1000 pounds of pig iron, to get it low in the water. Gunners had to have others in duck boats standing off to chase the dead birds and get the gunners in and out. It was towed out into the bay. It also stood a good chance of sinking in the freezing water if the weather got bad.
Duck hunting today is accomplished much the way it has been for a great many years. The hunter needs some sort of cover to keep from spooking the flying ducks, and something to invite them to drop in. Duck boats have remained popular. These small covered boats have rails or racks to hold meadow grass to camouflage them. There is room on the stern to carry the duck stool (decoys). Hunting boxes are usually used when they can be staked out and left for the season. They are also covered with grass. The duck stool is arranged in a natural pattern and the hunter may choose to use a duck caller or he may be talented enough to imitate a duck. Of course different kinds of duck make different sounds. The time of day the season is open and the bag is all spelled out in the State’s Conservation laws. The speed of a black duck in flight can be 60 mph so it requires some skill to bring one down.
Geese used to be scarce, but anyone on Long Island knows there is no shortage of them or their excrement anywhere locally. Somehow the geese got patterned to stay here rather than continue on their southern trip. There’s now a special open season on Canadian geese in September. Jet skis sometimes end up in the line of fire. Summer play doesn’t mix too well with gunning season!
Some of the local decoy craftsmen were: Ben Hawkins 1800, Henry F. Osborne 1846, Wilbur R. Corwin 1876 all of Bellport. There was Thomas Gelston of Quogue, 1897, Charles Howell, Center Moriches, and George Robert of Mastic in the 1900s. The list is by E. Llewyllen Reeve, master decoy carver of East Moriches, L.I.