Updated Friday, 3:30 pm *
A man with a baseball cap on backward stood at the edge of the marsh screaming at me on Saturday morning. Red face. Eyes wide open. Angry.
I didn’t know him or what I had done to make him really mad.
“What the f___ are you doing?” he demanded. Given the circumstances and my appearance — my face was painted black and green, I was wearing a camouflage coat and holding a 12-gauge Browning — it seemed to me a rhetorical question.
Early in the week, anticipating that Saturday would be the last day of the eight-day early duck-hunting season, I had made plans to meet Alley Moore and his Labrador Otis to hunt a small cove where the Tiasquam meets Tisbury Great Pond, behind the home of George and Joan Thomas.
“The weather report is for high wind and rain, music to a duck hunter’s ears,” I said to George in a Friday morning call. “Are we able to invade your backyard?”
George responded cheerfully: “We look forward to 12-gauge wake-up calls tomorrow.”
I smiled at the thought of George and his wife Joan, and their embrace of the Island’s waterfowling tradition. George explained that he and Joan had grown up near hunting destinations — Joan on the eastern shore of North Carolina, and he on the Texas Gulf Coast. George said that he did “a fair amount of duck hunting” with his father and brother when he was a teenager, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I never got seriously involved in hunting as an adult,” he said, “but by allowing you and your friends to hunt here, we know that someone is taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity. After all, there are very few people who can enjoy waking up to shotgun blasts and looking out their bedroom window to see geese falling into the river, never again to pollute it. What a thrill!”
In September, Brian Welch and I shot geese over the cove at sunrise. George emerged from the house in a golf shirt and shorts, and offered to help pick up the dead geese floating in the cove from his custom-made Gannon and Benjamin wooden skiff, tied nearby to a small dock.
The sight of Brian, an Oak Bluffs contractor in his camo jacket, and George, a retired corporate lawyer, in his golf club finery, picking up geese and bringing them back to the dock epitomized for me a prized and historic aspect of the Vineyard’s rural character — I mean the bonds that are easily formed between seasonal residents and Islanders of disparate backgrounds.
More than a century ago, that scene — Islander and seasonal resident in a handmade skiff, fetching geese — would not have been unusual. Many places along the Island salt ponds, once favored for duck blinds, now feature luxurious homes owned by folks who are not mindful of the Island’s rich waterfowling traditions, rooted in another era of national wealth more than a century ago.
Then, it was enough to have a simple camp, a good dog, and “a flight stupendous.”
In the early part of the 20th century, wealthy industrialists set up hunting clubs along the Island’s south shore. The Watcha Club, set up in 1903, was the first in the Long Point area, followed by the Tisbury Pond Club in 1912, with the club’s initial purchase of 470 acres. By 1930, the entire area between Tisbury Great Pond and Oyster Pond was owned or controlled by hunting clubs.
You will find the history of the Tisbury Pond Club in a journal bought from Hooper, Lewis & Co., stationers on Federal Street in Boston, and embossed, “Tisbury Pond Club, 1912, Martha’s Vineyard.” The first handwritten entry on a now yellowing page reports, “The formation of the club was first considered in the spring of 1912, and after the property was purchased, John K. Burgess was put in charge of fitting and furnishing, and made a number of trips to Tisbury for those purposes.”
It is also noted that, “The first use of the clubhouse by a party of members was on Sept. 24. G.T. Rice, T.F. Baxter, J. Crane and the latter’s two guests, W.S. Crane and Emery Crane, went down on the 1.25 train, arrived at the club just after dark, due to going to Oak Bluffs instead of Vineyard Haven. Mrs. Joshua Slocum and Capt. Cleveland welcomed us. Few black ducks about and a few shore birds. Cleveland had shot three blacks, which were cooked for supper. Wind strong easterly, cloudy.”
The clubhouse, decoys, and the blinds the members shot from were maintained by a series of Island caretakers with familiar Island names.
Social distinctions were both clear and accepted when the Vineyard first came into its own as a vacation retreat from the city. But there was nevertheless an obvious affection and friendship among the club members and the Islanders they depended on for their needs.
In 1979, Frederick Blodgett, Carl Gilbert, and William Rogers, the three remaining members of the Tisbury Pond Club, donated the Long Point property enjoyed by thousands of Island residents and visitors each year to The Trustees of Reservations.
In a conversation before he died in 1999, Mr. Blodgett, then 95 years old, told me that despite offers of a great deal of money, he and the remaining club members wanted to ensure that the property would be “forever for the public and would never be developed.”
In the early years of the hunt clubs, live geese were often kept as decoys. When the practice was outlawed, their offspring decided there was no reason to migrate. Decades later, the offspring of those nonmigratory flocks are the bane of athletic field managers and farmers, and the target of hunters.
On Saturday, I sat hidden in the bulrushes on a glorious misty October morning waiting for Alley to arrive after he dropped his daughter at the boat. My focus was on several geese that appeared ready to fly my way when I was interrupted by that rhetorical question hanging in the air.
I had taken two shots at a passing mallard. That roused the man who confronted me, who, unknown to me and to the Thomases, was spending the weekend with his children in the house he owned nearby.
By law, I was required to be 500-feet from an occupied dwelling unless I had the permission of the landowner.
He wanted to know what I was doing and who I was. Every sentence was punctuated with profanity. He said I scared his kids — “I’m a f______ duck hunter too, and I own this damn property.”
I told him that I had permission to be where I was, that I was not on his land, that I did not know anyone was in his nearby house — and if I had I would not have been there — and there was no reason to speak to me that way. I had no idea to whom I was speaking. The conversation, such as it was, ended when I suggested he call the police if he thought I was trespassing.
Soon after, Alley arrived with his dog. George was outside greeting Alley, and I described my encounter with his neighbor. George said had he known his new neighbor was on the property, he would have told him we would be duck hunting. George suggested we hunt to the north of his dock. Ally was focused on ducks, and I was replaying the encounter.
The notion of this man relying on profanities to get his point across to an Island duck hunter irked me, and I discounted his claim to being a fellow duck hunter. Had that been true, he would have taken one look at all the ducks and geese flying by the point and built a blind one day after his closing, or asked to join me in the bulrushes.
My morning and concentration ruined, I made one stop before I left. I knocked on the man’s door.
“You owe me an apology,” I said. But, I’d made a mistake.
Within earshot of his children sitting on a couch just inside the house he responded with an angry tirade laced with more profanity. I suppose he is not the sort who apologizes.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Brian Welch as Walsh. *Several biographical details were removed from this story upon consideration by the publisher that they were not necessary.