Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. March 16, 1902. [Ducking Grounds Shooting on the Platte River and Duck Notes for Nebraska]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(167): 18.

Forest, Field and Stream.

Duck shooting is now at its height along the old Platte river and the season is proving one of the greatest known in this section of the country for years. The sport, however, is not confined to the Platte alone, but has opened up well on all the ducking grounds throughout the state, and there is scarcely an outgoing or incoming train but what carries its full quantum of enthusiastic gunners. As is generally the case in this locality the shooting begins along the Platte river before it does anywhere else, but after it once sets in here it speedily follows elsewhere. The reason that the river gets the first call is probably because it is the first of all the waters in the state to open up. The swift current gets in its work on the icy barriers while the slower running streams and still lakes are yet tightly locked in their congealed fetters, and its glistening reaches attract the first flight of the birds up from the south. It is indeed a great shooting ground, and has been from time immemorial, and so long as ducks and geese fly it will be the common resort of all local sportsmen.

And what a famous old river it is, and what is there to compare with a few days' outing on its legendary shores at this time of the year. What can be more thrilling, healthful or picturesque. The ice-choked stream rushes and gurgles on its way as if under the spell of enchantment, with the soft, south breezes playing over its glow and the yellow sunshine kissing the ragged masses of floating log, the gray bars and brown towheads into radiant smiles.

Truly this mystic old rivulet in the sweet vernal time presents a blood tingling picture, as it flows, with a mighty impetuosity, onward and downward through one of the most magnificent agricultural and grazing regions of the world, so entrancing and so romantic in its surrounding details, so majestic in its sweep of grandeur. In one direction are the outlines of the grass-covered uplands, tapering down into the broad valley, on whose borders are scattered, naked, white and spectral, ragged cottonwoods and slender willows, gleaming like topaz in the soft light, in another tortuous chain of islands and towheads, dark and gloomy in the shadows, but affording matchless hiding places for the man with the gun, for stretching away beyond the reach of the vision, through a network of moving ice and gleaming floes, is the savage Platte, a glistening serpent of dashing waters, dim artery to all that vast country, and always the home of the royal Canada, the mallard, pintail, canvasback, redhead and fish hawk.

The Platte is a peculiar stream at this season of the year, a seemingly interminable stretch of watery wilderness, the whole country for miles appearing to be so swallowed up by its extending shores as to make it next to impossible to distinguish the river proper from its countless tributary channels, sluices, cut-offs and cul-de-sacs. The main channel, if there is such a thing, even to one familiar with the configuration of the landscape, cannot be determined from the dozens of other dashing currents which fill its broad bed. A hundred miles west of the city, it is seldom, if ever, at any point, over a man's head, although from one to one and a quarter miles wide, but there are treacherous channels deeper than others, blind holes and beds of quicksand which make it hazardous, even for the most adventurous and skillful wild fowler or follower of the river to enter; yet, in their high waders, and matchless Banigan Pioneer ducking boots, the shooters boldly penetrate to the remotest bar, and cross and recross, here, there, in fact, everywhere, without fear of disaster. But there is always peril in shooting on the Platte during the spring breakup and many an unwary and inexperienced shooter has met his death in its swift, cold and perfidious currents. Hunters going on the Platte at this time of the year cannot be too careful, old or young, experienced or inexperienced.

From the days when the white-domed prairie schooners trundled along the shores of this famous stream, over the old trail, Oregon bound, it has been the most celebrated resting and shooting place for wild geese during their spring and autumn migrations there is in the world, barring possibly the great grain fields and low plateaus of California, and it is still a haunt very numerously visited in these seasons by both geese and ducks. The birds fly off to the corn, pasture and stubble fields in the morning for food, returning for ablution and rest shortly before noon, and then off again about the middle of the afternoon for their vesperian hash, and back in the gloaming for rest and safety on the long bars through the dreary hours of the night. Here they squat upon the cold sands in perfect security from conscienceless hunter or prowling coyote.

But there is great glory in a spring duck and goose shoot on the Platte. Haven't you ever been there—out at Sam Richmond's immortal canvas hostelry this side of Clarks? What worlds of rest and recreation there is in such an experience, what a health restorer, what a blood and mind purifier it all is. How strong and willing and vigorous you feel, when the morning, fresh and radiant, breaks like Aphrodite from her bath in the sea. The pinkish tints of dawn fade, the distant bluffs warm into purple and the willows and the cottonwoods brighten into purest gold. Soon the sun is kindling the grass and tangled underbrush into yellow life, picking out the sprouts, creeping vines, reddening tendrils and dank leaves until all is one broad illumination. The robin sings as blithesome as in May, the crow flaps lazily up and down the shores in quest of some dead duck the hunter overlooked in retrieving the evening before, a wandering breeze flutters over the teeming landscape, and great wedge-shaped or long lines of geese and bunches of ducks are to be seen in all directions, as with a tremendous auh-unking and raucous squawking they rise from the bars and wing their way off over the bluffs for the feeding grounds. The nerves which would not thrill at such a scene are surely dead.

  • "The stormy March has come at last,
  • With wind and cloud and changing skies."

And what a month it is, after all, to the sportsman, despite its variableness and rollicking bluster. Back and forth across the land, in swift and sudden alternation, Martius blows us days of bitter cold and genial warmth, now out of the eternal winter of the north, now from the endless summer of the south. Repeated thawing and freezing has given the show, where it lingers in the hidden crypts and shaded hillsides, a coarse grain. It is like a mass of fine hail stones and with no hint of December's soft and feathery flakes that wavered down like white blossoms shed from the unseen bloom of some far upper world and silently transformed the unseemliness of the verdure stripped earth into the beauty of immaculate purity.

One day, when the wind breathes from the south a continuous wave of warmth, the hunter's, with his Parker over his shoulder, rubbered foot sinks into these scattered drifts, as he trudges in early morn to the distant blind, with a grinding slump, as in loose, wet sand, so deep perhaps that his tracks are gray puddles, marking his toilsome way. As he wallows on, or perches for a moment's rest on a dry knoll among the smirched banks, he envies the crows faring so easily along their aerial paths above him. How pleasant are the voices of those returning exiles, not enemies now, but friendly messengers, bringing tidings of spring. The farmer does not begrudge them now even the meager feasts they find, the frozen apple, still hanging, brown and wrinkled, in the bare orchard, or the winter-killed youngling of flock or herd, cast forth upon the refuse pile, and which discovering, one generous vagabond calls all his black comrades to partake of the banquet. Watching them as they lag across the sky so much swifter than the white clouds drift above them, the gunner presently notes that they stand still so they may verify by their blue shadows on the scattered snow, lying motionless, with the palpitating reflections of the sable birds plunging into them on the side, then, lost, for an instant in the blue obscurity, then emerging on that side with the same untiring beat of shadowy wings. Then comes a puff of wind out of the north, then an angry gust and then a howling wintery blast that the crows stagger against in labored flight as they make for the shelter of the cottonwoods. Have you ever watched them out on the Platte. I have, many and many a time, and in them I have found one of the potent lessons of life.

And, the hunter, too, at such a time, is pretty sure to toil to the shelter of the tent and its fireside warmth. He does not like that razor-like wind no more than do the crows. But another day and the wind comes from the south and he gladly sallies forth again. The woods are astir with life. The fox squirrel is noisy and busy; the chickadees throng the low limbs and undergrowth, merrily sounding their brief, sweet song of three notes; the sapsuckers pipe their tiny trumpets in full orchestra, and the jays are clamoring their ordinary familiar cries with occasional notes you do not often hear, one of these is a soft, rapidly uttered cluck, the bird all the time dancing with his body, but not with his feet, to his own music, which is pleasant to the ear, especially when you remember it is a jay's music, which in the main I cannot recommend. He is evidently practicing allurements for the coming of April and the mating season. When you are out this spring and you have the opportunity watch an old cock jay for a quarter of an hour so, and I assure you will be well repaid. The ducks will come again, give them a momentary rest, and study the jay and the crow. Both can teach you things you do not know.

But truly, this is a great March for duck shooting, and the gunners are having almost unprecedented sport, all of which has been repeatedly predicted in these columns during the past six weeks. The conditions were never better and there was no going astray in prognosticating plenty of work for the gunner. Extraordinary good shooting is being enjoyed almost everywhere the birds usually congregate, from Waterloo to Ogallala, and many big bags have already been brought in. To kill the law's limit in a day has been no trick at all, and never before have the geese and ducks been in such excellent condition. The Platte has not gotten rid of all her ice and is gurgling and rippling in tune with all the sweet sounds of dawning spring, and dashing on her merry way like a thoroughbred race horse.

But here we are crouching in our blind on a bar in the river.


There comes a bunch of Canadas with apparently tired stroke of huge pinions, up the river's channel, with a noble old honker, almost as big as the fabled Roc, piloting the way and sounding his clarion trumpet that all is well as he cleaves the keen, ambient air.

"Look! They see the decoys and have actually set their wings and are drifting in. Don't stir, don't wink even. I'll take the leader after he passes you, but will wait for you to kill your bird!"

The next minute the sailing flock are within reach and we are upon our feet. I hear the crack! crack! of your old Parker, then I cut loose and pour the contents of my first barrel into the old pilot, who is thumping his big wings madly and climbing fast, and in my excitement to check his ascent I make a clean miss with my second barrel, shoot under him and he gets away. But I hear the thump, thump, on the bar succeeding your two shots and I know we will have goose for dinner and I am content.

In the bag of birds Wilber Fawcett and Ed. Stout brought in from the Platte river a few days ago was a rare avis indeed, a black mallard, a bird but rarely met with in this section of the world. The proper name of this particular member of the wild fowl family is Anas Obscura, but it is commonly known as the dusky duck or black mallard. While dull colored, the dusky is by no means a dull bird. He is little known here but it is a common visitor to the eastern provinces of the United States and British America, where he is called black duck exclusively. It comes to the rivers and meadows of Delaware and Maryland in large numbers early in the autumn and stays until spring when most of them depart. I have met with them occasionally back in Ohio and along the Illinois, but the Fawcett-Stout bird—they both claim they killed it—is the first one that I have ever seen here, although they have been killed here before. Some of these birds used to nest in the lower valley of the Delaware, from the head of the tidewater to the bay. As a game bird it takes a deserved high rank and as an article for the table cannot be beaten. They breed largely, however, in New Brunswick, and a well ordered specimen will weigh about three and a half pounds. They are a perfect prototype of the common mallard, with the exception that the whole plumage is very dark, almost black, with the iridescent blue-green bar on the wing, also a deep sombre hue. The bill is greenish and the legs a much paler yellow than that of Anas Boschas. Although its nest, as a rule, is built on the ground, it occasionally builds in the crotch of a low tree, like the wood duck. The American shelldrake, hooded, and Barrow's goldeneye, the buffle-headed duck, and that prince of beauties, the wood duck, all nestle in trees, but not invariably. The voice of the black mallard is a widgeon-like quack, but it utters also, under certain circumstances, a pretty clear whistle. They are preferably crepuscular in their habits, but often feed and are usually wide awake from sunrise to sunset. The bird in question has been neatly mounted by Taxidermist Wallace and Wilber Fawcett is very proud of it, notwithstanding Judge Stout swears he killed it.

Talk about your duck shooting. A young man by the name of Clement Giddley, residing at Malmo, made a bag of twenty-two pintails at six shots a couple of weeks since in his father's cornfield north of the town. A big flock of these birds settled in the field and the boy made a sneak on them, getting within easy range, and with a Winchester pump made the above kill. He put one load into the birds as they were feeding on the ground, then pumped four more into them after they had risen. He said, in relating the incident afterward, that for a moment he thought it was raining ducks. There was snow on the ground, and after gathering up twenty dead, he followed two "crips" by their tracks and secured both, one nearly a half mile away from the scene of the shooting. This almost equals George Tschuck's famous kill of thirty-five bluewing teal with two barrels, up at Honey creek lake eight or ten years ago.

The killing of the black mallard by Wilber Fawcett and Ed Stout out at Clarks last week reminds me that every once in a while the practical eye of the duck hunter recognizes a stranger in a flock, and when he does he generally centers his attention upon that particular bird. A year ago last fall, while shooting with Tom Foley one chilly afternoon on the "hole" up below Reshaw's on the Pine Ridge reservation, a flock of ruddies came into our decoys, with a pure white one among them. They lit too far out of range, and finally, when Foley took a shot at a passing widgeon, they arose and flew away, only to return, however, and again settle in the water still farther away from our blind. We were anxious to secure this particular bird, as an albino is rare, indeed, in the wild duck family, and , determined to make a try, we rigged up our boat with tules, like a floating battery and Foley sculled me down upon the flock. It was great luck, but I got the white one, when the bunch rose at long range. So it is, that some rare and unusual specimens, for these waters have thus been secured, for it is not infrequently that a stray specimen of some species that does not habitually wander so far away from their usual haunts is thus brought to bag. On a shelf down at Wallace's taxidermist shop used to be a fine drake mallard which undoubtedly once belonged to a domesticated flock, but had been persuaded to join some vagrant flock of its wild relatives, and paid the penalty of his folly by being singled out by some sportsman, owing to its unusual proportions, and slain. Such specimens are ordinarily called "crosse," but some farmer living along the flight of the ducks on their way hither, might, if consulted, relieve the bird from any such reflection upon its ancestry. The bird in question, I think, was killed by Dr. Galbraith, and mounted by Lawrence Skow, who formerly run the shop now owned by Wallace.

You can talk about your duck hunting and your chicken hunting. I once heard George Hoagland remark: "But there is nothing in the world I like so well as deer hunting. I have had a great experience in the field and killed as many ducks and geese, quail, chickens, plover and jacksnipe as any man, but there is nothing that stirs me like a deer hunt. Why, even a fresh track sets my nerves all a-tingle, and I'd rather stalk one deer than kill a dozen other animals. I wouldn't give a counterfeit picayune to kill an elk, but a deer, an old Virginia white tail, or a black tail for that matter, is my game of all time.

There was a little knot of sportsmen gathered in Billy Townsend's the other evening, discussing the remarkable predominancy of drake mallards over hens so noticeable this spring, when "Splatter" Wiseman butted in after his own peculiar fashion and said: "I don't think you fellows k-k-k-know what y-y-you-your talkin' about. There hain't a-a-a-an-any more roo-roo-roo-roosters than there is h-h-hens, so f-far as I kin see. I was up at Cut-Off l-l-lake the other morn-mor-morning and as I w-was sit-sittin' in m-my bl-blind I seen a fl-flock o' d-ducks com-comin' round the bend. There was thir-thirteen of 'em. They were o-on a line an-an' I wa-waited ti-till th-they was jis op-op op-oppo-posite me an' I gi-give it to 'em. I killed ev-every mother's so-son of them, an-an' you kin be-believe it or n-not, but every on-one of them was a h-hen. The next eve-evenin', no 'twas that sa-same evenin' I was in that sa-same blind ag-again an' I see thir-thirteen more d-ducks a-com-comin' round the sa-same b-bend in a-a line. I waited un-un-til they were right opposite me an' I g-give it to 'em a-again, an-an' as luck would have it, I kill-killed 'em all; if I did-didn't I'm the-the bi-big-biggest liar in Newbraska, an-an' wha-what d'ye think, every b-blast one of the-them was a-a drake."

My old friend, the Doctor, of Council Bluffs, wants me to tell him what a pot hunter is, and I must confess that I don't really know unless it is simply a hunter who provides for the pot, I know what I mean when I write about pot hunters, but as to the correct definition or the origin of the expression, I give it up. But when sportsmen call a fellow a pot hunter they mean to brand him as some unscrupulous individual who slays irrespective of open or close season for the market. Yet many such men are real hunters and real men and and as enthusiastic as what is known as the "true sportsman" in his tastes. He loves sport, he dotes on yours, and he enjoys the auh-honk of the goose or the quack of the mallard, just like Judge Munger, a Judge Ogden, Henry Homan, George Hoagland, Charlie Metz, Fred Goodrich or any other man, but the steelyards and the meat market are the stumbling blocks to his professional dignity, whereas his escutcheon is marred with the heraldic device of the commission house, like a darkening shadow athwart the family arms. No ordinary treatment or commonplace logic need ever expect to raise his moral standard on a par with that of the patrician sportsman. Nothing short, perhaps, of a nice fat bank bill served to him on a clean plate like a drastic purge can ever accomplish this feat and scour him through and through. Yet, looking at him from an unprejudiced standpoint wherein does he differ from the bon ton sportsman, the man of silk threads and scrolled hammers. But I give it up, and hope the doctor, who is a deucedly learned fellow, will give us his version of the pot hunter.

Omaha duck hunters and duck hunters generally throughout this section of the west will regret to learn that Anse Newberry has sold out his ranch six miles north of Cody, and that the gentleman who has come into possession of the ranch has little use for sportsmen and will not entertain them at his place.

The Dickey Bird Club is certainly a promising organization. Less than three months old, it has a membership of something like a half hundred and expects to double this before the summer months arrive. The shooting grounds just east of Krug's park are as complete as any in the city, with a commodious and well equipped club house, shooting platform, electric pull traps and all modern paraphernalia and conveniences. Their inaugural trap tournament will be held in September under the management of John Schmeizer, of the Schmeizer Sporting Goods company, who has been unanimously selected for this purpose. The club holds regular shoots on Saturday and Sunday, but parties can use the park any day of the week by notifying Ground Keeper Toozer in advance.