1935: The End of an Era

"Let's see, it was in 1903 when the state (Illinois) put a limit on ducks. You We were limited by law to 100 birds a day. They also set the seasons at that time. Duck season opened September 1 and closed the following spring an April 15. In 1904 the limit was reduced to 50 birds, in 1905 and 1906 to 35 and since then it has gradually dropped..." Ed Rafter, market hunter, Spring Valley Illinois c.1955.
By 1918 the limits had dropped to 25 and during the first seasons of the 1930's rumblings could be heard among the conservation groups like the American Game Breeders and More Game Birds in America Foundation. Something had to be done to protect the wild waterfowl populations. Increased hunting pressures, loss of breeding areas to farming and a serious drought in the Midwest prairies were reducing the natural flocks in alarming numbers. By 1930 new restrictions were place on waterfowling by the Federal government. Shooting times were set: Only shoulder held guns with gauges larger than 10 gauge were to be used in waterfowling. Conservationists were pushing the federal government to institute even more restrictions and a duck stamp to fund badly needed conservation programs. The October 1933 issue of Field & Stream gave the first hints of the force of the storm that was brewing in Washington:" ..ordinarily we have received the new (game) laws by the middle of July...as usual, the Advisory Board on Migratory Birds met on July 10 and made its recommendations. However the action seemed to stop there...We were assured that we would have the new 1933-34 laws in ample time for our October issue...As closing time drew near we wrote, phoned and wired Washington and received the same answer...'the new regulations have not been approved' ....Apparently someone is having a hard time making up their mind...We fear that in this case no news is bad news..."
November, 1933 Outdoor Life magazine's headlines read: "WILDFOWL SEASON TWO MONTHS; DUCK BAG LIMIT REDUCED TO 12". Among the fine print the hunter learned that there would be no open season on wood duck, ruddy duck or bufflehead because their numbers were so low the Federal Bureau of Biological Survey considered them endangered. Restrictions were also put on the use of live decoys and baiting. During the 1933-34 season no more than 25 live decoys could be used. Baiting was banned unless a permit was obtained from the Bureau of Biological Survey which demanded accurate record keeping by the recipients describing the numbers of hunters, kill sheets by species and details of baiting practices. Still the controversy raged on in Washington. The U.S. Biological Survey led by 'Ding' Darling and the United Migratory Bird Advisory Board presented alarming reports of a general scarcity of diving ducks and continued loss of breeding pairs among most species. The outdoor publications followed the waterfowling controversy closely trying to keep their readers up to date. After receiving official notification from Washington, Field & Stream ran the following note at the top of their editorial page.
"LAST MINUTE NEWS- The Federal Advisory Board has recommended a 30-day open season on waterfowl, state game departments to have the privilege of distributing the thirty days over fifteen weeks between October 1 and January 15, 1935." When announcements for the 1935-36 waterfowling season were expected, the gravity of the waterfowl populations again delayed official regulations: " No one in authority has told Field & Stream that there would be an open season this fall...we predict that there will be none of this hit-or-miss, shoot-today-and-not tomorrow business...you can gamble there will be heavy restrictions...bag limit cuts..baiting prohibited..decoys (live) cuts... the wildfowler may be required to blow three blasts on a police whistle or wave a red flag before he shoots. We wouldn't even hazard a guess on all the different restrictions." In the back pages of the same issue a headline screamed "THIRTY DAYS DUCK SHOOTING ! After the presses were running F & S received official news that every duck hunter has been waiting for. We stopped the presses...Here's the dope: .. Wildfowlers are forbidden to use live decoys. All baiting is prohibited.. Shooting permitted only between 7 A.M. and 4 P.M.... Bag Limits. 10 ducks in aggregate..no wood duck, ruddy duck, bufflehead..4 geese or brant in aggregate...Possession limit is the same as the daily bag limit."

These new game laws spelled the end of a wildfowling era when they banned the use of live decoys and baiting; a necessary end, but hunters would miss their live decoys. Hunters of the day felt using live decoys was a kin to today's waterfowling using a dog to retrieve his birds.Doctor John C. Phillips describes a method of live decoys use by the famous decoy carver Elmer Crowell in his "Wenham Camp Score Book" (Beverly, Massachusetts c.1900):

"Elmer Crowell of Cape Cod officiated at this camp for many years and introduced us into all the niceties of live decoy lore. He showed us how to build a proper duck coop, how to rig a 'runner' far out into the pond that always worked, and how to train a duck to catch corn in its bill as cleverly as a dog catches a biscuit. And he could shoot too, could Elmer shoot. I can see him now dodging about the stand and pitching ducks into the air with amazing dexterity, never for a moment taking his eyes off the circling flock of wild ones. Then when the shy birds finally 'took the water‘, the first thing Elmer did was to tear off his coat in a sort of crouching position, but eyes to the front always. The rest of us would often get flurried and want to shoot too soon, But not Elmer..." The Songless Aviary, The World of Elmer Crowell, Brian Cullity, The Patriot Press, Hyannis Massachusetts. Pg. 15

Andy Bierbrodt of Spring Valley often reminisced about his friend "Micki", the pet duck at the West End Gun CLub duck club. When he was a child, he often spent the day with his father and uncles hunting at the duck club on Turner Lake just south of Spring Valley, Illinois. In his over sized rubber boots he would follow the men into their blind and watch quietly as they tossed out their decoys and released the tethered live decoys among their wooden decoys that floated in the flooded timber near their hunting blind. A mallard hen was secured behind the blind out of sight of the other live decoys causing her to quack loudly. Her calls and the answering quacking by the other decoys would hopefully draw the wild ducks to the men's duck hole. But Andy said his favorite time of the day was after the hunt when he could hold "Micki" on his lap in his Uncle's car as they drove out the club lane. When they reached the highway, he would toss "Micki" out the window so she could fly back to the clubhouse on her own. Through a basement window fitted with a swinging metal flap she would climb to reach a shotgun crate where she made her nest next to the potbellied stove in the clubhouseand incubate the eggs.

Such stories are not uncommon. Waterfowl especially mallards and geese were trained fairly easily if a hunter could find a clutch of wild waterfowl eggs in the spring The newly hatched birds would imprint to their trainer considering him to be their mother hen. Some professional decoy trainers believed the best live decoys were cross breed with domestic ducks, but care had to be taken to avoid over breeding the domestic strain into the wild species. The smaller English calling duck has a similar appearance to the wild mallard and was favored as a cross breeder because of its near identical coloration. Even wild mallards and blackducks were easily domesticated once their wings were clipped. The first step in training was to cultivate the birds' confidence and over come their natural fear of man using feed. It didn't take young ducks long to decide they had nothing to fear from those who fed them regularly especially if there were other older thoroughly trained birds in the same pen. A decoy trainer would always signal his approach with a feeding call or a sharp rap on the side of a boat, feeding box or bucket causing the trained ducks to answer with their own quacking. Shortly all the ducks would begin quacking at the sound of the trainer's feeding call and gathering fearlessly around their attendant to eat. With a little patience the birds would soon learn to be hand feed and allowed themselves to be handled.

Once the birds became accustomed to this feeding activity, the trainer would lay a trail of corn kennels leading to a boat and open the bird pen's gate. The hungry ducks would follow the trail as surely as a beagle on a rabbit's scent. This stage of their training was complete when the ducks would respond to the trainer's feeding call and an open gate by heading directly to the boat quacking loudly all the way. They would waddle as quickly as they could and hop into the boat where they had become accustom to finding their dinner. Once they had overcome their fear of the boat, the live decoys would first look for corn in the boat whenever they were freed from their pen. They would readily accept the boat as a safe dry haven after a day on the water outside the duck blind. With continued reassurance and food rewards these domesticated ducks and geese could be taught almost anything even to answer to individual names. Because a hen's calling would keep the other decoys working, she was often taught to call on command. The trainer would have a string the Attached to her foot and running to the blind so he could stir her to call by pulling the string.

Dr. Phillips wrote this poem to lament such an occasion that happened to Crowell in 1903:

"Crowell's Lament

She was the best of all the flock

And no she's stiff and stark.

No more you'll hear her "wirey" quack

off Wenham Camp, "just dark.'

A staying pellet from my gun

Had lain the victim low

It almost makes me weeps to think

that I have dealt the blow.

Full many a wary Black duck

She's lured within my shot

and now a cold and clammy grave

Has got to be her lot.

We'll give her decent burial

and hope that in the sky

She'll meet with other Duck Decoys

in the sweet Bye and Bye"

The Songless Aviary, The World of Elmer Crowell, Brian Cullity, The Patriot Press, Hyannis Massachusetts. Pg. 18

The use of live decoys in a hunting situation was governed by the natural habits of the wild birds in the area. The drakes were often left to swim freely among the wooden decoys. Although the drakes would sometimes circle or take short flights into the air, which helped attract passing wild ducks, they would rarely leave the female live decoys. Usually the hens were tethered with a weighted line. Hunters learned that tying cords directly to a bird's leg was ineffective. If the cord was tied tight enough to hold, it would cause pain, swelling, lameness and even permanent damage. Obviously securing a live decoy around the neck with only a cord would not work. Several different styles of decoy holders were developed utilizing the same basic principle, a necklace or anklet attached to a swivel that allowed movement, yet prevented the live decoy from leaving the hunting hole by staking or weighing the bird down.

During the 1920's and 30's there were numerous small companies producing decoy holders that sold for two to three dollars per dozen. The Pratt Decoy Co., Joliet, Il. offered the Perfect Live Decoy Halter made of heavy cotton cord clamped by a brass clasp to a brass swivel. A movable brass slide made the halter adjustable for use on the neck or leg of a duck or goose. The Cook Live Decoy Holder was made the same way with variations in the brass hardware. Another company in the live decoy holder business that the collector will recognize was P.S. Olt Mfg. In 1930 they advertised a Superior Live Decoy Set which consisted of a 84 ft. line with twelve cross line box swivels every six feet to which twelve sturgeon decoy fasteners were attached. Advertisements in the V.L.& A. Sporting Goods catalog illustrated a duck held by the Samuel's Duck Fastener Company which was formed out of flat 1/4" brass strips into a two piece hinged collar.

Ed Rafter, a market hunter from Spring Valley, Illinois made his own style metal collar by twisting a single piece of heavy copper wire through a wooden mold.

The Patent Decoy Duck Collar Company offered duck and goose-sized collars in two slightly different styles. Each had spring wire collars padded with rubber tubing to prevent chaffing, but the swivels were different. Other companies produced miniature leather collars complete with tiny metal buckles and a heavy metal ring for attaching a leash. Many of the same decoy halter companies also offered leg holding devises that were of the same design as their necklaces but smaller. These were attached between the hock and ankle so they would not injury the bird's foot. The W. A. Gibbs & Sons who produced two trigger games traps out of Chester Pa. offered a metal anchor attachment which snapped on to a metal ring which actually pierced through the webbing of the bird's foot. A few of these companies had their decoy tethers patented including the Patent Decoy Duck Collar, patent #971392 and Bill Darton's Merrymeeting Bay Duck and Goose Strap, patented Aug. 19, 1924. The Merrymeeting duck strap was a slotted leather strap with an eyelet riveted in the opposite end where a rustproof swivel was attached..
Some hunters preferred using collars because they could be put on the decoys while they were penned. This allowed the birds to become accustomed to the collar thus reducing their tendency to fight their restraints when they are first released. The common practice was to transport several decoys in a wooden crate to the hunting site, quickly attach a weighted line to the halter and toss the live bird into the water. The hunter had to watch his decoys to prevent any harm. Their weighted harnesses made it impossible for the ducks to ride the rough waters freely so they were always in danger of drowning. The free flying drakes were marked with brightly colored ribbons tied to their legs to avoid being shot.
Hunting over live goose decoys required a slightly different approach. Both feet were shackled with a cross cord that allowed plenty of play for the feet but farther restricted the powerful bird. Although geese were easily trained, it was hard to control them if they were able to rid themselves of their harnesses. A good hunt could be ruined by a hunter trying to chase down a loose goose in his spread. When field shooting, harnesses were attached to a wooden stake which was then driven into the ground. Live goose decoys were especially effective: "That first call of the decoy was the beginning of Bedlam. Now he was at it in earnest. Running his head along the ground like a snake, he talked low and enticing like. Then he would shoot that long neck of his up into the air and tell those approaching geese just how good that green rye tasted. The Flock answered him as it began to climb higher to look things over. First one goose honked a time or two and then it sounded as though each one was doing its best to drown out the others." ("The Good Old Days", M. Coffey, Field & Stream, Nov., 1934)

Although live decoys were very effective, they required a lot of care besides their training. The average sportsman found they weren't worth the bother of tending all year round. Yet for some sportsmen, their decoys were a matter of pride. They often would lease their trained birds to local clubs for the season with guarantee that the club would properly tend to the decoys and replace any decoy that might be lost. Several game breeders advertised regularly in the outdoor magazines offering trained duck and geese for sale.

Even though the use of live decoys was responsible for the unsporting destruction of waterfowl, (The average annual kill per club dropped from 611 in 1933 to 396 in 1935 and to 219 to 1936 after the ban.) they have provided the decoy collector with related items of interest to supplement their collections. The bird harnesses and corn decoy are just one more segment of the rich heritage of waterfowling that we share.