After all these years, waterfowling still


Weeks before the November 18 arrival of the Vineyard’s waterfowl hunting season, I was checking out my shotguns and decoys, refurbishing duck blinds and testing cold weather waders and hip boots for leaks. Now, I am awash in poignant recollections of my early waterfowling days, which began more than 75 years ago, rejoicing that I can still huddle on the edge of a salt marsh under dark, gale-driven clouds waiting for ducks to arrive, and planning a hunt for Thanksgiving afternoon.

Areas on the Vineyard where one may legally hunt have dwindled as dwellings replace bayberries and wind-twisted oaks on the edges of wetlands and salt ponds, and no-trespassing signs proliferate. Anti-hunting sentiment is growing.

One of the most bizarre, albeit succinct, anti-hunting letters I ever received came from a woman whose ire was triggered by one of my New York Times Outdoors columns that dealt with me duck-hunting on Tisbury Great Pond with my son, Jeff.

“We don’t need people like you on the Vineyard,” she wrote, then closed by noting that although she was not a Vineyarder or a Vineyard landowner, she did have Vineyard friends whom she often visited.

I wrote her an equally terse reply, the gist of which was that I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932, as a boy of 9 with my parents, began duck-hunting a few years later, and had no plans to leave the Island or to stop waterfowling.

My Vineyard duck-hunting had its genesis in a piano crate given me by an aunt, Mrs. Arthur Simmons, who lived next door to my parents’ home in West Tisbury.

With the late Albion Alley Jr. (better known as Little Beany), who had introduced me to Mill Brook and its trout fishing soon after I arrived in West Tisbury, I dragged the crate along the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road, down New Lane, across Etta Luce’s field in a wagon and located it on her land on the eastern edge of Tisbury Great Pond’s upper Town Cove, opposite the Mill Brook marsh.

Beany and I — we were 10 years old — made a door, a sliding window, a bench, and a table for the crate and that fall and winter sat in it with our BB guns waiting for ducks to come to the three or four decoys we had placed out front. The BB guns — suitable only for shooting mice and rats or tin cans — were symbolic fowling pieces. Often, when it got dark we would light a kerosene lantern and play cards.

Obviously, we bagged no ducks from our piano crate, but we did get to see how they responded to the decoys and also learned how wind and weather affected their movements, and often we could hear the distant guns of grown-up gunners to the south of us.

Two years later on Christmas Day, I was given my first shotgun, a 20-gauge, single-barreled hammer gun, and a box of shells for it. That afternoon I pulled on my hip boots, took my new gun and walked to where the collapsed remains of our piano crate blind were still visible. The day was bright and there was no wind and I knew that few ducks would be flying, but I had to try.

I crossed the cove over to the marsh, sat on a mounded house of cattails that muskrats had built and looked down the pond toward the ocean.

An hour later a lone black duck came flying toward me low over the water. I didn’t move until it was about 30 yards away, then stood and fired. Its wings folded and it fell on its back a few feet from me, legs paddling slowly in the air.

I bore it home triumphantly, showed it to my parents, then took it out behind the backyard fence to the table where I cleaned fish and picked chickens, and learned that picking a wild duck requires a lot more effort than doing the same to barnyard fowl.

In that era, a boy walking down the road or across the fields with shotgun in hand caused no consternation among adults. Duck-hunting was an accepted aspect of the fall and winter scene.

One year I even had a duck blind in the swamp at the head of the Mill Pond in West Tisbury. No one complained, and sometimes when I left that blind late in the day I would walk to the general store, now known as Alley’s, lean my fowling piece against the porch wall and go inside to listen to the old-timers gathered around the wood-burning, pot-bellied iron stove.

I soon learned the limits of my little 20-gauge, and also learned to pass up difficult shots.

I eventually got so that I could count on one duck for every two shells expended. Economics prompted this. In summers I worked on Carl Magnuson’s farm hoeing corn for ten cents an hour, and I recall that 20-gauge shells cost about a nickel each in that era. I gave half of my earnings to mother, so my spending money was scarce.

At that time, Little Beany’s father, Albion Alley Sr., or Big Beany, was head clerk at Charlie Turner’s general store in West Tisbury, and, a few years later, the owner. He was kind enough to “break” boxes of shells for me, selling me two, three or four rounds at a time.

Sometimes when I ran out of money, mother would give me a quarter to buy ammunition, and it was understood that food for the table — whether duck, Canada goose, rabbit, or even an occasional quail — would be brought home.

Since then, I have pursued waterfowl as far north as James Bay and as far south as the Yucatán Peninsula, but my happiest hunting hours are spent with my son Jeff or my companion Ruth Kirchmeier on a Vineyard salt marsh, scanning the skies for ducks, as the surf moans on the distant barrier beach.

Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury was for almost 40 years the outdoor columnist for The New York Times. As a young man, he participated in the D-Day invasion with the 82nd Airborne. Later he became managing editor of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, New Hampshire and then a dockbuilder on the Vineyard, before beginning a career as a columnist that would take him around the world and back again to the Vineyard. Island Life will appear in The Times from time to time.