To get extremely close to geese and ducks of the Chesapeake Bay, hunters of a bygone era had a solution: a sinkbox. The coffin-shaped box, wooden with an open top and wide upper rim, was floated in the marsh.
Specially weighted decoys were placed on the rim to submerge the box so that its opening was nearly flush with the water’s surface. The hunter would lower himself into the sinkbox and wait, well hidden. Passing waterfowl, attracted by the decoys, would land at close range.
Sinkboxes, along with commercial hunting and the infamous punt gun, were banned on the Chesapeake in the early 20th century — but a widespread love for Chesapeake waterfowl has preserved opportunities to view wintering waterfowl, learn about or participate in the region’s hunting heritage, and appreciate an abundance of art that the species have inspired.
Early European settlers were thrilled by the large flocks of waterfowl found along the Bay and its rivers. The birds were yet another source of food, along with fish and shellfish, provided by the estuarine environment. Waterfowling was primarily a fall and winter activity, when birds left their northern breeding grounds to spend winter along the Bay.
After the Civil War, waterfowl hunting began a transition from sustenance to sport. Wealthy Americans were enthused, and hunt clubs sprang up to serve them. The Upper Bay, with its wide expanse of underwater grasses on the Susquehanna Flats, was especially popular with industrialists from who traveled from Philadelphia and New York. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland visited Chesapeake hunt clubs, too.
“They were places for gentlemen to hunt,” said Pete Lesher, chief curator for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “They’d have a guide to set up blinds and lay out the decoys, and back at the clubhouse they’d have a steward to set up food.”
The guides were not allowed to shoot, except to put a quick end to an injured bird.
Commercial pressures were also intense. The punt gun, essentially a large shotgun, was meant to take down large numbers of birds with one shot.
“The punt gun was a boat gun, too big to put on your shoulder,” Lesher said. “One good shot would kill 20 to 30 ducks at a time. Stories circulate of 70, 80, or 100 ducks in one shot, but they might just be stories.”
This era also introduced conservation ethics to the sport. Both sport hunters and commercial hunters were concerned that the other group would take an unlimited catch, and limits were gradually put in place.
“Ultimately, the sporting side won out,” Lesher said. “A ban on commercial hunting went into effect in 1920 and pretty much took the commercial side off the table.”
Carved wooden decoys were floated on the water to entice passing ducks and geese to land. Carvers near Havre de Grace produced a lot of them to support hunters on the Flats, who would lay out hundreds of decoys at a time. They even began shipping them for sale up and down the East Coast. The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum is a showcase of this work and the history of waterfowling in the area.
Early decoys were mostly functional and less detailed. But some carvers were artists, and their work was impressive. Art collectors began taking notice in the 1920s and ’30s. Stephen and Lemuel Ward, brothers who lived in Crisfield, MD, began carving decoys in the 1920s and became well-known for their skills.
“They got orders from people who had no intention of hunting but just wanted a pair or two for their mantle,” Lesher said.
The Ward brothers used decoys to advance art as well as sport — allowing ducks and geese to swim near their decoys to study their shapes and color patterns.
The Ward Museum of Waterfowl Art in Salisbury, MD, displays the Wards’ decoys, and includes other exhibits on wildfowl art and its relationship to nature and culture.
The art of hunting waterfowl and waterfowl art are now often presented in pairs. The Waterfowl Festival in Easton, MD, blurs these lines at will. The 2017 festival takes place Nov. 10–12.
Margaret Enloe is the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, which organizes the festival and uses proceeds for projects that conserve waterfowl habitat.
“The festival is almost like a treasure hunt. Around every corner, there’s something new,” Enloe said.
Galleries and exhibits showcase a wide range of art, and classes are offered in photography, carving and painting. This year’s feature artist is David Turner, and the master carver is Thomas Horn.
Contestants in the duck– and goose-calling contests will amaze you. Dogs are a highlight, with a Dock Dogs competition and retriever demonstration. You’ll see live birds of prey, a fly-fishing demonstration, and nautical crafts and antiques. The “sportsman’s pavilion” will showcase waterfowling in the Bay region, including an exhibit by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
For festival information, visit waterfowlfestival.org or call 410-822-4567.