Duck Hunting on the Susquehanna River

"the early years"

 

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As I write this article, it is the first week of March, the weather is sunny and 50 degrees.  Since the past weeks were cold with temperatures in the teens.  The Susquehanna River was frozen from shore to shore. 

During this cold period hawks were seen and heard as they flew over local farm fields and wood lands looking for food.  In the past 10 days the temperature has warned and the melting snow and rain has moved much of the ice from the Washington Boro shoreline.  As I work in my office the air is filled with sounds of Canadian and Snow Geese as well as the Tundra Swans flying from the river to farm fields.  Later in the day they will return to spend their night on an island in the Susquehanna River.  The annual migration of waterfowl has begun.  Soon thousands of waterfowl will temporarily rest at night on the islands.  They can be heard through the night into early morning, sounding much like a Native American ceremonial dance.

 

The First Hunters

This migration has taken place for thousands of years.  One can only guess the thoughts of  Native Americans as they marveled at millions of waterfowl migrating northward on the Susquehanna River.  Perhaps the Native Americans would have filled the air with sounds of ceremony as the first hunters prepared to embark to a nearby island on the Susquehanna River for The Hunt.

The Native Americans hunted waterfowl as they rested on the river at night.  They used
bow and arrow, clubs, spears, and nets made of fiber made from wild plants.  Undoubtedly the use of snare traps were also included in their hunting methods.

  

Market Hunting

 European settlers found the same bountiful supply of waterfowl and the food source readily available to feed their families.  The early settlers living near the banks of the Susquehanna River found an abundance of fish including shad, sturgeon, and bass, as well as waterfowl and other wildlife attracted to the river.

As the area population grew farther from the Susquehanna River, the settlers realized that they could harvest fish and wildlife, including waterfowl and sell them to this growing population.  The shad fishing industry exploded and harvests of more than 60,000 shad caught within one  six week period in the Washington Boro and Columbia area had been recorded.  The fertile islands of the Susquehanna River, first farmed by the Native Americans later were farmed by the European settlers.  The rich soil of the floodplains yielded an abundant harvest of corn, squash, beans and tobacco.

Another industry soon developed along the shores of the Washington Boro area, an industry known as MARKET HUNTING.  There was nothing sporting about this industry and with the absence of regulations it can be termed in many ways "slaughter."  Regardless of this fact, it provided a means to earn money to feed a hungry family.  The practice of early market hunters was not pretty, then again neither is the slaughter of livestock today, but, it is a necessary practice.

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Marketing Hunting Methods
 

The market hunter used several methods and various tools for the harvest of ducks. The best time of day to kill ducks was during the early morning hours before dawn.  Market hunters         often worked through the day, but just before dusk was another productive time.

As time progressed, more regulations were put in place to protect future populations of ducks, and many methods became illegal or restricted.

 

Punt Gun

 The goal of a market hunter was to kill as many ducks as possible in the shortest period of time.  Undoubtedly one the least sporting method was the use of a firearm referred to as the
Punt GunThe punt gun was a large firearm that used a single barrel, but it was not uncommon to use a multi-barreled weapon.  The Punt Gun was up to 10 foot in length, usually loaded from the muzzle with approximately 5 ounces of powder, in some cases 3-5 pounds of shot or metal scrap.

The gun was too heavy to carry, and was secured to a sneak boat, also referred to as a Punt Boat after the weapon was loaded.  Different methods of cushioning to absorb the recoil where utilized, including pine needles.  The Punt Gun was aimed slightly above the horizon and in some cases camouflaged by painting both the boat and gun white so it would not cast a silhouette in moonlight.

 The Punt Boat was usually accompanied by a second boat.  The hunter pushed the Punt Boat slowly and quietly through the water until he reached a flock of ducks sleeping on the water.  He fired his weapon often killing dozens of ducks at a time.  The hunter then paddled around the area picking up the harvest.  In some areas ducks were then put on ice and taken to market in large cities.

  

Baiting

 The baiting of fields and streams was another practice used by market hunters.  The practice of planting or seeding an area with grain such as corn, wheat or barley was used to attract ducks to an area.  This method was very productive in attracting ducks but, as with many methods, regulations were put in place so that baiting was outlawed.

 

Live Decoys

 Another method used by market hunters in the late 18th century was the use of live decoys.  These were live ducks tethered near a duck blind.  Passing ducks were attracted to the hunter's live decoys.  As the ducks came in for a landing the hunter took his harvest being careful
not to shoot near the water for fear of accidentally shooting his live decoys.

The practice of tethering a duck was accomplished by attaching a lead weight which anchored the duck in shallow water.  On the other end were two leads which were attached to the duck's feet and a swivel on each lead which kept the duck from getting tangled.  This allowed the duck freedom to swim in any direction.

Live decoys were usually raised from ducklings and most desired were the “loudest” and most active ducks.  Two or three females set jn an area just out of sight each other, was common practice.  As the ducks began to call to each other, ducks flying overhead were attracted
to the live decoys.

Federal Regulations

Federal regulations eventually outlawed use of the Punt Gun and baiting.  Federal regulations evolved to limit the number of live decoys a hunter could use, but three years later the practice of using live decoys were made illegal.  From then on, the market hunter used carved decoys and duck calls.

 


Additional links

 

Punt Gun Punt Gun Detail

Tom Knapp
The Outdoor Channel
"Benelli's American Birdhunter"

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Washington Boro Society for Susquehanna River Heritage  
 P.O. Box  6    
 Washington Boro, PA 17582

email: WBSSRH@aol.com

 

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