Sandy Griswold. December 8, 1901. [Fall duck shooting at the Lake Creek marshes.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(69): 23. Continues December 15, Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(69): 23.
Forest, Field and Stream
Another epoch in the life of the sportsman has closed, and now, as the long winter evenings are here, and the hammerless has been cleaned up and shelved for a three month's rest, what can be more enjoyable than to gather around the stove and again go over the scenes and excitements of the past? As has been my happy lot every fall, for the past ten years, I was at Reshaw's, on the far-famed Lake creek marshes in South Dakota again this fall. There was a big party of us, some nine ot ten in all, and we made our headquarters at the Indian mansion of the Reshaw's, and while we had poor shooting, we had a good time. The birds were there only in meager numbers, and, owing to summerish weather, they refused to do much flying, and, as a consequence, our kill was small. The best day's work was done by Tom Foley and myself, a bag of thirty-eight in one afternoon, in the "hole" below Reshaw's, mallards, widgeon, and bluebill.
As Tom and I crouched there in our tule blind, we couldn't help but recall our first experience on those same waters. That was back in the autumn of 1890, when but one or two gunners from Omaha had ever been there before. While shooting at Newberry's that fall, Old Anse told us of a wonderful marsh up on the reservation, some twenty-four or twenty-five miles to the northwest, and being in an adventurous mood, Tom and I determined to make trip, and we did, the first Omaha sportsmen, with the exception of the late A.C. Chifflin, to ever visit the region for the purpose of duck shooting. Anse Newberry hauled us up, and we found accommodations with the family of the late Louis Reshaw, and remained on the marsh one week.
Then Lake creek was a ducking grounds, indeed.
Along the tangled shores of the Little White river the blue flag had faded, and tints of scarlet and gold specked the low, scraggy oaks, the cottonwoods and drooping willows, the wild poppy was a shriveled disk amidst the spear grass and the leaves in flotillas of topaz and crimson came whirling down with each gush of the current. And the marsh, it was a broad expanse of browning tules, one furzy field of cat-o'-nine-tails and silvery-plumed rice, with splotches of gleaming water, the holes that punctuated the convolutions of the cold and crystal creek, which winds and curves and twists, like some fabulous serpent, in and out, around and through, all the dead and dying verdure of the marsh.
From the mucky borders the jacksnipe rose with his strident "skeape," and like a rosewood streak zigzagged off here and there and almost everywhere, over the spear-like points of the ocean of tules. Yellowlegs singly and in groups of dozens waded along the shallows, their orange shanks contrasting brightly with the green of the waters, and with their lustrous black eyes and gray mottled backs, adding untold beauty to the wild scene. Golden-backed plover swept over the sloping shores and sandpipers and killdeers whisked and piped and tinkled everywhere, not in spasmodic flights, but by the hundreds, in numbers really incredible. It was plain to be seen that there had been little shooting there and none at these small birds. And then we saw flock after flock of snowy avocets and bitterns, and herons and egrets flapped unconcernedly from the tall saw-grass, while great clouds of sandhill cranes were not infrequent, and their guttural cries, as they waded and fretted and fed in the inaccessible retreats of the marsh, were always in the air.
We arrived at Reshaw's late in the afternoon, and we soon realized that we were destined to have the time of our lives. The frosts that fall had evidently been early in their work in the great northern breeding grounds, and in the upper sky long lines of ducks and geese were cleaving their way toward the south, thousands passing on and out of sight, and thousands and thousands of others, plunging, falling and sliding down into the marsh. Quacking and splashing and fussying all over the marsh, rising, curling off over the tules or up into the air, then dropping down again, were mallards, bluebills, widgeon, teal, butterballs, redheads and other ducks, and the sensations Foley and I underwent as we stood on the knoll just south of Reshaw's corral and watched till darkness shut the scene from view the thrilling activity of the feathered hosts, was something electrifying.
It took Tom and I until 2 o'clock the next afternoon to get our quarters arranged for a week's stay and to plug up and patch our tin-lined wooden ducking boat, that had suffered considerably on the trip over.
We finally got started, however, in Charlie's big farm wagon, and about 3 o'clock reached a point on the northwest shores of the marsh, opposite which, the evening before, we saw myriads of birds pouring down into the reaches of open water beyond, like wheat into an elevator funnel. Birds were to be seen everywhere, on the water, where the tules permitted a view, and in the air, high up and low down, they came and went in countless numbers.
We had a couple of sacks of decoys in the wagon, but concluded that they would not help us any, and, loading ourselves down with shells, we bade Charlie good by as he turned to drive back to the house, then started out into the marsh. We waded probably 200 yards from the shore before we selected our stands in the rice and halted. It was getting uncomfortably cold, and we were standing in over two feet of water.
We had hardly gotten located some forty yards apart when Tom cried:
"Mark! To the right!"
And there they came-a flock of half a hundred mallards, and they came swiftly on, so close that the burnished green of their necks and heads, the glistening bands of blue upon their wings and the delicate curls of shining green upon their rumps were as clear as the white marks on their tails. Our guns tracked together, the four barrels blending almost into one explosion, and amidst a flurry of flying feathers and a burst of affrighted cries, the grand column of birds broke in wild confusion, and, with swiftly beating wings, wheeled and broke away in all directions, merging together again in one body when out of range and returning on down the marsh until lost against the distant sandhills. They left but two behind, and one of these, a veteran old hen, was only wing-broken at that, and she gave FOley one of the most ludicrous chases I ever witnessed in my life. But it was our first shot, the birds got too close upon us, and we were over-eager and excited, but the poor result steadied us down, and what we didn't do to them during the next hour or so was a caution.
The wounded hen fell within a half dozen yards of Tom and before she could recover from the shock of running her wing into an ounce and an eighth of No. 6 shot, Tom was after her. The first thing he did was to make a snatch at her with his disengaged hand, but instead of landing successfully, he rammed his arm up to the shoulder down into the icy waters of the marsh, as the hen splashed and flopped her way out of reach. Foley, nothing daunted, however, dashed frantically after her. I yelled to him to reload and overshoot her, but he had his Irish up, and ignored my advice. Again he was within reaching distance, and poising himself for one fell swoop, he made another quick grab, but she was too clever for him and went down among the dead flags like a loon. Tom missing his footing and throwing his gun a dozen yards away from him where it sunk in three feet of water. There was no help for it. He had to go down and get his gun and in so ding drench himself pretty well all over. He was now thoroughly mad and looking about him he saw the old hen serenely sailing off through a narrow sluiceway leading to the big tule beds forty yards away. With the fury of a mad bull he dashed after her, but he hadn't covered a dozen feet, when she dove again, and he was compelled to halt and await her reappearance. While he did so he prudently slipped in a couple of those good old Peters shells, and with his gun half raised in readiness, he peered intently before him. Suddenly he caught sight of two little lines of waves rippling away, triangularly, from a small object in the open water intervening between him and the tule fields, and taking aim he blazed away. There was a commotion in the water, and then the bloody wings of the old hen appeared above the surface, then her whole body, and pulling himself together, Tom splashed out after her. She had rolled over on her back and when he picked her up, was stone-dead.
There was little exultation in Foley's demeanor as he waded ashore and as it occupied fully three-quarters of an hour for both of us to empty his boots and ring his saturated clothing. I forebore kidding him. Finally he was in some sort of shape again and we waded back to our blinds among the rice and wild cane and shot ducks until we were tired. In fact, with one exception, it was the greatest duck shoot I ever enjoyed; in fact, the greatest up to that time. In 1894, in March, Bill Simeral, the Barrister and I were out in Deuel county, guests at the hunters' sod hostelry run by Ed Hamilton, and on that occasion Hamilton and myself had an experience one afternoon that has seldom been the lot of sportsmen, latter day or old time. From 1 o'clock till sunset we kept up a constant fusillade upon the millions of birds that would crowd the air hole we were shooting over, and after we were through-run out of shells-we retrieved 169 head, and the Lord only knows how many we knocked down. When I assert that this enormous bags was all canvasbacks and redheads, I will make allowances for the incredulity of brother duck hunters. But it is the gospel truth. Not a single mallard, not a spoonbill, not a widgeon, bluebill, scaup or teal, nothing but canvasbacks and redheads, with fully two-thirds of them canvasbacks. I have always claimed that this was the finest killing of ducks ever made by an Omaha shooter without one single exception, not even barring John Petty, Henry Homan, John Collins, Billy Townsend, John hardin, or any of the old-time successful wild fowlers. I have heard a hundred times or more of the big kill made by John Petty and the late General Crook up at Horseshoe lake back in the early '70s-nearly 300 ducks in eight hours' shooting-but that was nothing. It was mixed birds they killed-mallard, redhead, pintail, widgeon, golden eye, blackjack, bluebill, butterball and teal, while Hamilton's and mine were exclusively canvasback and redhead.
But pardon this digression. It is like some precious dream to close my eyes and look back through the mists of increasing years to the glories of that day.
Foley and I had hardly gotten well stationed again before his warning "Mark" greeted me.
A big, old, mallard drake was coming our way with lazy stroke of wing, wagging his long, green neck and head up and down as if looking for a favorable place to light.
He was on my side, and so big and plump and easy of flight, that when I glanced along my gun I saw the light dance on his burnished hood so plainly that I thought it useless to aim ahead; so, covering him, I pulled the trigger. Had the marsh turned upside dow I could have hardly been more dumfounded than I was to see that old cock bound skyward with thumping wings instead of falling to the ground.
But there was little time for idle speculation for Foley's keen eyes had detected an approaching flock, and, with the precautionary admonition, we both bent low before the rice.
They are redheads, Sandy, redheads," excitedly called Tom as the identity of the approaching birds was revealed to him. "Now, don't go crazy; take your time-yes, they are redheads. Look out now, they'll come down like arrows from a bow, sweep past, then let them have it just when they get opposite to us." And true enough, the whole flock of white and slate-colored racers, each one apparently striving to reach us first, came straight ahead to their doom.
It was a blood-tingling moment and exceedingly trying on the nerves.
S-s-s-swish! They are upon us, and four barrels are poured up into their flashing ranks simultaneously, and seven birds, some dead, other badly wounded, come fluttering and dropping into the flaggy waters before us. The flock shoot up off into space as if bound for the rosy zenith. But they are not. They have mistaken the falling dead and dying for alighting birds, and they make a sweeping detour in he air, then come back with that same wild rush of wing and gleaming red of iris. The mixologist and I hold our breath. We are anxious to make a kill of redhead, for these birds are seldom numerous on Lake creek. Before we can hardly credit our senses fully two-thirds of the bunch slide gracefully into the crystal water, just beyond where the dead ones float, like so many feathered apparitions. The remainder of the flock, as if by some strange intuition of peril, do not come back, but keep on their way down the marsh, and are soon lost to view amidst the thousands of other circling birds which constantly fill the air down towards Green's and Williams'.
"Give it to 'em," called Tom, and together we stood erect, but instead of leaping into the air instantly as we expected, the birds sat still a moment on the waters, craning their lavender necks, until we could see the flash of the deep yellowish, red eyes, evidently more astonished than ever. They did not dally long, however, to satisfy any useless curiosity, but with a loud splashing and a few spasmodic squeaks, arose in a body, and again we sent the charges of our more of those matchless Peters shells into them.
It seemed as if there was a cloudburst of dead and wounded ducks, for no less than seven more fell at the reports of our guns.
Think of that-fourteen redheads in eight shots. A day's sport, a day's compensation, in three or four minutes.
This may not be a very edifying confession, this wholesale slaughter of the ducks, but I do not believe there is a single sportsman in the country, not excepting even the ex-president of the United States, or even any of the old veterans of the Omaha Gun club, life-long wild fowl shooters that they are, would have done aught else than Tom and I did, under similar circumstances. This lofty sentiment about the preservation of game birds is all right enough for discussion, now that they are mainly gone, but when it comes to practicing the same amidst a scurrying flight of such incomparable birds as these, it is an entirely different matter, and the man doesn't live who could or would forbear! And remember, that was eleven yeas ago.
But the telling of this afternoon's shoot is stretching itself out too long, and with the reader's indulgence, I will await another week to relate the close of the wonderful sights we that day beheld ere darkness closed on the world.
Somewhere along about 4 o'clock Tom and I realized that we were losing about three out of every five birds we knocked down and joining each other we canvassed the matter hurriedly and came to the conclusion that we could go out on the shore and do better than we could out in the marsh. The birds were simply swarming the sky in all directions and while we felt we could not get as many shots on the shore as we could where we were we knew that we could retrieve what we did get down. "Why," remarked Tom as we turned about to go into shore. "I've knocked down at least fifteen birds in the last half hour and have retrieved only six. It is simply impossible to get a wounded bird unless you over shoot it and out here in the weeds and rice, you don't get a chance to overshoot one crip in ten. When they once get down under this smart weed it is just like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is a shame to kill and wound these grand birds and leave them here to the mercy of the hawks and coyotes.
Of course I agreed with Tom, for I had had the same experience that he had, although my blind was not in quite as deep water as his and I had gathered a few more of my kills than he had been able to do.
The red sun had now lowered himself dangerously near the hazy line of the western sandhills and the air over the marsh seemed fairly alive with aimlessly flying birds. We knelt down in the tall yellow grass and had just gotten comfortably fixed when Foley, who is one of the best lookout's in a ducking blind I ever shot with, exclaimed:
"Redheads! back of you!"
I turned and saw them coming, an immense horde of them, over the low hills to the north, birds that had evidently just arrived, as they were coming overland. We faced about upon our knees and then had but precious little time to wait.
The flight of the redhead duck (Aythya Americana) is something always to be marveled at. But very few representatives of the wild fowl family slice the keen fall air with one-half his velocity. Not forgetting even the speedy canvasback. I have always looked upon the redhead as the true racer of the skies. On any sort of an errand he shoots through space at a rate anywhere from eighty to 100 miles an hour, and if his mission is an urgent one I actually believe he is capable of putting at least two miles a minute in his rear, and he don't seem to exert himself at that. If you have your doubts wait until next spring and when you are out on the sprawling Platte, or upon the roaring Niobrara, wait until a flock of these feathered meteors come along, just about sundown, on a business errand, and form your own ideas. You don't have to take my word for it. Shoot at the leader. Shot you know travels a pretty fast gait, and if you are fortunate enough to knock a bird out of the slate colored streak flashing by and over you, I'll buy you a cold bottle if you don't and that it drops out of the hindermost ranks, say anywhere from ten to fifteen yards back of the bird you aimed at. To kill the leader of a bunch of redheads, which is generally a royally hooded old drake, you must swing the muzzle of your gun ahead at least six or eight yards, and even then, if you cut him out, he will not fall from the flock like a cumbersome mallard, but so great is the momentum at which they usually go, that it will carry him on maybe 100 yards or more, when he will descend slantingly and hit the ground with a violence that will burst his plump breast open. A drake, however, is not always found in the pilot position of a flock of redheads, as the above remark might lead you to believe, but they generally do where the drakes are in a majority in the flock. If there are more females than drakes, then you will invariably find the matter reversed, and a wise old rufous colored mother will be found showing the way.
But I am digressing. In scarcely no time at all the splendid battalion of white and gray to which Tom's excited exclamation had called my attention charged the sloping brow of the long roll in the prairie and were chasing on down upon us anxious to plunge into the broad expanse of waters glistening among the arrowy rushes out in the marsh.
What a whirring mass there were-a hundred or more, I do believe. Tom and I raised our couchant figures a bit. Every nerve was tingling, every muscle, every fibre quivering with the keenest and most thrilling excitement-in wildest anticipation-such as only the inveterate duck hunter feels under a similar situation. Waiting in perdu along the mountain trail of the formidable grizzly does not cause the hunter's blood to bound with any greater alacrity than does the approach of a swishing and sibilating band of redheads send it seething through the wild-fowler's veins. We knelt like images carved from stone, and scarcely breathed as the advance couriers of the swiftly coming myriad had breasted the last slight knoll in front of us, when I cried:
"Give it to them, Tom!"
As we leaped erect to shoot there was sparkling mixture of gray bars on ash-colored wings, glistening heads of sheeny chestnut, shining white breasts, with black cravats, ebony banded tails, bluish legs and beaded eyes, splintered out in all directions like the fragments of a bursting shell, and whirling upwards in wildest terror and dismay.
But swift as the redhead is he wasn't equal to the present occasion, for a veritable shower of dead and wounded birds responded to the merciless volley we poured into them.
Scarcely had we reloaded when like the charge of a line of cavalry in gleaming uniform, with long green heads and necks glistening like the flash of newly burnished sabers, a flock of mallards came streaming over the northern slope in front of us. Though I could see four of five heads in line when I pulled the trigger, but one duck fell; and as the rest, unharmed, climbed the air with throbbing wings. Foley let go at the leader, a splendid big fellow in the full blazonry of winter plumage, and he parted from the flock with wavering flight. Then he hung high in the air for a second, but only for a second, for in the next he folded his wings and descended to the grassy plain with a loud thud.
And then the thrilling work went on for another hour, the birds were coming in by the million and we kept up the fusillade until it was so dark we couldn't see the birds fall, but the dull wop that followed almost every crack of our pieces was music to our ears indeed.
But it would doubtless become monotonous to the reader, a detailed recountal of all the wonderful shots we got that day and of all the little incidents and scenes we met with. How we saw a great flock of Canada geese wind slowly out of the sapphire sky over the golden rim of the sandhills in front of us and descend until very near the tops of tall, sentinel yucca plants, and then with silent pinion, and every musical throat suddenly hushed, drift softly along a few feet above the waving grass right straight for the spot where the Val Blatz man and I so eagerly awaited them until we could hear the soft sussuration of their sailing wings and see their doe-like eyes sparkling diamond fires upon us. And as we rose like specters from the grass, and glanced along our guns, such a pounding of sheering wings, such a confusion of white collars on black necks, of gray wings and swarthy feet, crowded upon our frenzied vision in a way that was worth hours and hours of waiting to behold. How along early in the evening when most of the birds were flying high, there came a sudden swish of descending wings, when all of the upper space had seemed clear around us. How Tom gat a shell stuck in his gun, and how eloquently he elocuted, simply because a score of canvasback, came whizzing, from where the good lord only knows, right by our ears. Of the wild few moments we enjoyed just as Phoebus was dropping behind the purpling hills, shooting golden lances clear up among the gilded masses of floating vapor at the zenith, and when the ducks seemed to fill the air like the infusoria in heated July make the atmosphere over the marsh dance to their mournful hum. Most of the birds were evidently new arrivals, but there were hundreds flying this way and that, that had been born and bred here, thousands that had been feeding off the fields and shallow pools, all comingling together in one vat and confused horde, and making a spectacle few sportsmen ever witnessed, and fewer still will ever see again. Line after line, mallards principally, but interspersed with bunches of canvas and redheads, wisps of teal and jacksnipe, "purrutting" sandhills and auh-unking Canadas, come marching down the evening sky. Long streams come widening out and sliding down, and out of the very prairie depths rose flocks and flocks, passing for a moment against the blazing western sky-slope, then bearing down upon and over us and into the darksome tangle of the marsh. Over the bluffs to the west, and down toward Green's, where the land rolled into the vast expanse of prairie ocean they continually came, not in ones and twos and bunches of six or eight, but in companies, regiments, battalions, divisions, armies, and swifter than the keen October wind itself thousands came riding in on the last beams of the sunken sun. The high sky above was dotted with converging strings, dotted constellations or wedged shaped masses, from which fell the notes of the white geese and the clamorous cackle of the speckled brant. And in all directions, single ducks, ducks in pairs and small bunches, teal, butterball, ruddy, bluebill and merganzer were darting, whizzing and wheeling. Jacksnipe and yellowlegs were pitching about in tortuous gyrations, killdeer drifted along with tender cries, while night herons, bittern and thunderpumps, with long necks doubled back like a letter S and long legs outstretched behind, flapped solemn over the low flags and cattails, while darting knight hawks and bull bats filled in the openings.
A wild and wondrous scene, indeed, was that evening flight on Lake Creek below Reshaw's, that October day so long ago a wild and wondrous sight that two men at least will never forget so long as their lives do last, a wild and wondrous sight that must now be incredible to the sportsman who reads and who knows of nothing that could ever compare to it, but a truth which tells of the countless numbers of wild fowl that once thronged at nightfall this choice bit of marsh land in the far northwest.
Foley and I, in our paroxysm of excitement, forgot all about the intensifying cold, for the thermometer fell to within 4 degrees of zero before 10 o'clock that night, and we shot until long after dark, long after we could see the birds. We would descry them approaching from against the pale western sky, then bang away up into them when the whir of wings told us they had reached about the right spot. We lay down on our backs in the tall grass to protect ourselves from the keen northwest wind, and shot from this position at the passing swarms above. We knew we had killed a bird only be that wop on the prairie turf I told you of before, and we never made a move to retrieve until finally the wild babble of voices ceased and the whir of wings died away over the marsh. Then Charlie Reshaw, who had been waiting for us, watching the flash of our guns, from his seat in the wagon on the distant hillside, drove up and we got ready to go home. We were cold now, and I wanted to leave the retrieving until morning, but Charlie said that would never do, that the coyotes and badgers would lug off every bird. So by the aid ot his dim old emigrant lantern we proceeded with our work. It was hard work, too, and required careful searching, but we finally got through, and the pile of birds we had was something wonderful How many? Well they came within a few inches of filling the wagon box, anyway.
That was nearly a dozen years ago-a little lifetime, but I can close my eyes now and looking back again behold on the evening sky the light shattered into a million tints, with everything above the horizon in clear outline, while over all below rested a pallid glow that intensified brilliant colors, but threw a weird gloom over the somber shades, just as I did on that long-gone October evening.
And with the thousands and thousands of weaving birds, what a scene it was!