Sandy Griswold. April 12, 1891. Omaha Sunday Bee 20(293): 18. Portion of column.
Hunting Geese and Ducks.
The Village of Clarks and Its Notable Citizens.
A Spring Morning on the Platte.
Shooting Honkers From an Ice Blind—The Trip to Prairie Creek and the Sport That Was Enjoyed There.
Wild fowl shooting is at last at its height in this vicinity and every out and incoming train bears its quota of gunners. True to the predictions made in these columns weeks ago, the season is proving a great one. There are birds everywhere, all the favorite feeding grounds are teeming with them; geese, canvass back, redhead, mallard, widgeon, pintail, bluebill, teal and merganzer, and the enthusiastic gunner is making hay while the sun shines.
I spent last week out on the legendary Platte, in the vicinity of Clarks—a famous old shooting ground—with those paragons of the field and stream, Dr. W.J. Gailbraith and Captain Ray of this city, Dr. E.A. Richardson of Clarks, and Dr. C.B. Little of Bloomfield.
But before entering upon the particulars of the chase, a few greasy lines descriptive of Clarks will be apropos. It is a small Union Pacific station of probably six hundred inhabitants, situated north of the track a mile or more from the shores of the river. Clarks has several distinguishable features, notable among which is the young ladies' brass band. There are a dozen members and from the rosy, buxom bunch it would be difficult to select the belle. They have had but a half dozen practice meetings thus far, but under the able directorship of Prof. Kocher have made most creditable progress and are now enabled to spiel with a rhythm and a melody that would put to shame many an older organization. The band includes Mable Deitz, first E flat; Daisy Hartwell, second E flat; Anna McPherson, first B flat; Laura Gilbert, second; Mary Spellman, first alto; Maud McLean, second; Nellie Morse, tenor; Mary Pratt, baritone; Louie Pratt, tuba; Maggie Butler, snare drum, and Lou Sears, bass.
Next to the band in a noteworthy way comes Joe Brindle, banker, real estate agent, duck hunter and all round square man. Dr. E.A. Richardson, the druggist, is another of the same sort. Uncle George West runs the hotel, and runs it well. He is a gentleman of the old school, but has undergone such a degree of modern retrogressions that his pristine individuality has been almost wholly obliterated. He is jolly, rotund and gray, with a tongue sharp as a two-edged sword, and can swear louder and put more fire-water under his belt than any man west of the Missouri river. Sam Richmond, his chief clerk, is a second edition of Uncle George, and when not occupied in juggling the spittoons and kicking the dogs out of the office, can be found on a bar in the river or in bed. Sam is a sure shot on Swedes. Jack Martin, lawyer, politician and newspaper correspondent, is a handsome, royal fellow who has no business in Clarks. he plays a "bob-tail" with the same espirit that marks his handling of a "straight" or a "full house." Jack is also a bad man with his [word n.l.], and should the spirit move him, would be able to make many a so-called champion jump over the ropes. Then there are Frank Dietz, the lumberman. Mr. Hartwell, the merchant, Charlie Hoyt, the goose killer, Dr. Robinson, and a score of other citizens whose names would show as well in print.
But enough of Clarks for the [word n.l.].
The first day out was a grand one, and the prospects were flattering for incomparable sport.
We put it in on the river, which gargled and rippled and rushed on its way as if under some spell of enchantment, with the soft, south breeze playing over its gloss, and the topaz sunlight kissing the ragged mass of floating ice and snow-covered bars in its radiant smiles.
Truly, the Platte, in the early vernal season, presents a beautiful picture as it flows, with a mighty impetuosity, onward and downward through a magnificent agricultural country, so lovely yet so romantic in its surrounding details, so impressively in its sweep of grandeur. Far to the east are the dim outlines of the barren uplands, with their lacustral borders, where the cottonwoods stand naked, but gleaming in the soft light; to the west innumerable tow-heads and islands, dark and gloomy in the shadows, but affording excellent "blinds" for the lying in wait for duck or goose. Stretching before you, through a net-work of moving ice and snow-laden floes, the savage Platte, a gleaming, glittering expanse of water, dim artery to all the vast country beyond, and everywhere offering a chosen home for the Canada and the mallard, the sandhill and the fishhawk.
The Platte river at this time of the year is a seemingly interminable stretch of watery wilderness, the whole country for miles appearing to be so swallowed up by its extended shores as to be absolutely indistinguishable from the river proper. The main channel, if there be such a thing, even to one familiar with the configuration of the landscape, cannot be told from the countless sluices, divides, cut-off and cul-de-sacs which fill its broad bed. It is seldom, if ever, at any point over a man's head, but there are channels deeper than others, deep holes and beds of quick sand, which make it hazardous, even for the most adventurous and skillful ducker to enter, yet in their high "waders" they boldly penetrate to the remotest bar, and cross and recross, here, there, in fact anywhere, without fear or disaster, but many an inexperienced spring shooter has met his death in its swift and treacherous current.
From time immemorial the Platte river has been one of the most celebrated resting and roosting places for wild geese there is in the world, and is still a haunt numerously visited every spring and autumn by both goose and duck. The birds fly off to the corn and stubble fields in the morning for food, returning for ablution and rest shortly before noon, then off again about the middle of the afternoon for supper, and back in the gloaming for rest and safety on the bars through the dreary night.
The morning in question rose fresh and radiant from her bath like Aphrodite from the sea. The pink tints of dawn faded, the distant bluffs warmed into purple and the cottonwood logs brightened into gold. A little while and the sun was kindling the grass and willows into yellow life and then picking out the sprouts and dark leaves until all was one broad illumination. The robin sang as blithsome as in May from a copse hard by and great wedge shape flocks of geese, and bunches of ducks were to be seen in all directions, as with a honking and a cackling they left the bars and flew off for the feeding grounds.
Dr. Galbraith and myself were but a few moments reaching a favorable bar, although it was with some trepidations we stemmed the powerful current, but mauger quicksands and floating ice we got there some considerable time before the morning flight was over.
It was the work of but a few moments to haul out a half dozen lake cakes of ice, and standing them on their edge in a semi-circle, our blind was complete and putting out our decoys we were ready for business.
We had scarcely got settled upon our knees when the monosyllable "mark!" came from the doctor and peering through an aperture in the ice, a bunch of geese, five speckled fronts and a veteran old Canada in the lead, was seen bearing down on us from the west. They were decoying nicely, and as they set their wings and came on straight toward us I whispered:
"I'll take the big fellow, Doc."
"All right," he responded.
The next moment they were within reach and we were on our feet. The noble old gander looked as big as the fabled Roc, and I gave him the first barrel full in the side, but with a startled honk he began to climb, and in my hurry and eagerness I made a clean miss with my second.
Crack! crack! went the doctor's Smith, and splash in the water and thump on the ice, a speckle front came down to each barrel.
I was horribly chagrinned, but I knew I had hit my bird hard the first shot and I cried:
"Oh, I hit him, Doc, I hit him! Did you see the feathers?"
"Yes," replied Galbraith, "I saw them, Sandy, but they were all fastened to the goose!"
That made me madder than ever, but I couldn't get back for the doctor was out after his [word n.l.] The The one in the channel was killed dead as a stone, and as he lodged but a few yards away against the jagged ice the doctor started for the one which fell on the ice, which was only winged. He was obliged to shoot it over, but it gave him a merry chase before he accomplished this.
Once more in the blind, we hadn't long to wait, when a flock of chattering snow geese flying high, came flying over. The doctor said they were too high, but I would have shot at them then, mad as I was, had they been out of sight. Imagine our surprise when a moment after I had poured both barrels into them, and they were well past the blind, when one let loose and came whirling and gyrating to the ice. It was a chance shot, but the bird was dead as a door nail when he bounced upon the bar.
"O so I can't shoot geese!" was my sarcastic ejaculation, as I ran to retrieve my bird.
"Mark!" It was a bunch of redheads and they came tearing down the wind like a house afire. I took the left and the doctor the right and we both downed our birds, mine the drake and the doctor's the hen. Mine was killed dead, but again his was wing-tipped and wobbling into the water, he had to follow it nearly a quarter of a mile before he succeeded in shooting it over. While he was out I got in another shot, a long one at a flock of Canadas, but while I heard the shot hurtle against the sides of the birds, they were hard citizens and continued on their way t'ard the north pole.
Then there was a long wait; most of the birds had left the bars and would not be back until nearly noon, and we were debating the question of going ashore, when a flock of mallards were descried circling over the open water across the river. The doctor brought his caller into requisition and after considerable effort attracted the birds and they started across. They quickly detected the geese decoys, but shied just as we thought they were going to come in, and swerved off to the left. They made a circle of a mile, then came bearing down upon us again. The doctor gave a running call and the birds shying a trifle, at length turned and came slowly and suspiciously down toward us. We knew they were extremely fearful and tacitly agreed on taking a long chance. Sure enough, when within probably fifty yards of the blind, they "dished" and began to climb, and knowing that was our only chance, we jumped to our feet and let them have all four barrels. To our astonishment four birds fell. This good luck infused us with a renewal of enthusiasm and we remained on the spot until 1 o'clock, but to our disappointment the geese did not return only in sparse and spasmodic flocks, unerringly presaging a change in the weather. In the meantime, however, we succeeded in bagging several more redheads and two mallards and two pintails.
In the afternoon we pulled up stakes and returned to Clarks deciding to transport the camp and entire outfit on the morrow to the Prairie creek country, in which direction we had noted all through the morning the birds, both ducks and geese, were flying.
The next morning broke cold and tempestuous, but nothing daunted we loaded up the wagons and in the teeth of a piercing wind pulled out for the north. It was a long and cold ride, over one of the most execrable roads, owning to the most impassable snow drifts man ever passed over. But we reached our destination early in the afternoon and the myriads of ducks and geese jumped in the vicinity had a most electrifying effect upon us, and we soon forgot the discomforts of the trip.
Under Captain Ray's supervision the test was soon up and the next half hour the lonely spot was afire with culinary operations, and the sound of the coffee pot and griddle quickly joined that of wind and ripple.
Just across Prairie creek on the open prairie and extending almost to the base of the bluffs, were thousands and thousands of snow geese, with here and there a bunch of Canadas and Hutchins, sitting solemnly on the ground, and filling the air with their plaintive cries, while in the air, in all directions could be seen hundreds more, and ducks, principally mallards and sprigtails, until you couldn't rest, and struggling flocks of sandhills kept the wintry atmosphere vibrant with their peculiar and penetrating per-rut! per-rut! per-rut.
This was an exhilarating sight that no sportsmen could withstand and after gorging ourselves with ham and eggs, boiled potatoes, fried onions and strong coffee, the entire outfit sallied forth to locate their blinds and get to work.
Captain Ray and I built our blind at the edge of the back-water, not a thousand yards from the tent. It was a difficult matter to construct a suitable blind in a country where brush or willows are unknown, the only available material being a rank weed, belonging to the rag family, and which only grows in straggling patches in the moist places along the creek. With the aid of a half dozen lath, carried from the camp, and a ball of twine, the captain and I succeeded in contriving a pretty descent hide. We drove the lath in the soft ground to the depth of a foot, then strung the twine from one to another, on the order of a wire fence, and intertwined with this an armful of the weeds mentioned, with sundry tufts of spear grass and wisps of hay. In an hour's time we had our decoys out and everything in readiness, and without further ado took our positions on bended knees behind this hastily improvised screen.
We had but precious few moments to wait before a flock of pintails came in with a rush that almost upset all calculations. The pintail is a bird that does not decoy very readily in the spring, but on this occasion they worked like a charm, and a half hour after getting our decoys out we brought no less than nineteen to bag.
The doctors, too, who were located about a mile west of us, were soon popping away, and it was morally certain that a big killing was to mark the afternoon's work.
About 4 o'clock the wind died away to a whisper, and this came as gentle as the breath of a babe from the south. To the wand of sunbeam, the leaden curtain which had hung over us all day, lifted, and there was an instantaneous glitter all about. From this hour on until darkness began to settle down over river and plain, the scene was beautiful and revivifying, and with fair shooting, the afternoon proved one that will last as long as memory does.
It would be tiresome to the reader to go into details of the evening shoot, as interesting as it was to us, and I will wind up with the statement that the result of the five guns was forty-seven ducks—mallards and pintails, with one widgeon and a brace of redheads—and twenty-one geese—eight Canadas, nine speckled fronts and four snows.
The song of the coyotes at night, prairie dog town, the Dr's. swan, and the haps and mishaps of five days' camp life, with the incidents on river and marsh, would furnish material for columns more, but space is valuable, and, gentle reader, you must allow imagination to fill the hiatus.