Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. August 24, 1919. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 54(47): 14-E.

Recalling a Day With Nebraska's Greatest Duck Shot

Looking over my old scrap books Sunday afternoon last I ran across my notes of a duck shoot I had some ten or twelve years ago with Tom McCawley of Seneca, Neb., and one of the most congenial men, and one of the best posted, and the very best duck shot, of all the scores of well known sportsmen I have hunted with during the past thirty years.

Now, as the duck shooting season is again about upon us, I do not believe I could furnish a better lot of reading for myriads of men who like this sort of literature, better than any other, than by putting these notes into a story. So here goes.

We were on Swan lake, some thirty miles or more northwest of Seneca. It was early one glorious October morning, and we had hardly gotten our decoys out when a huge flock of birds came in. They were canvasbacks and admonished by Tom, I permitted them to slide in among our decoys without taking a shot.

For a moment the great flock, there were fully sixty or seventy birds in it, after they had lit, sat perfectly still.

Quickly, however, they began to move. It was with motion of a thistle down down upon the calm waters, first to this side and then to that, inspecting the wooden floats suspiciously all the time. Finally, as there seemed to be no occasion for alarm the whole flock converged slowly together, and then in massed formation slowly approached the decoys. Now they would halt and glide of to one side, then back again as if timid about getting too near.

Suddenly as they bunched well together, and looked as if they might jump at any moment, McCawley whispered:

"We might as well rise now, Sandy, and give it to them."

Together we stood erect, but instead of instantly flying, as we expected, the birds sat motionless on the water, craning their thick necks until we could see the flash of their deep, red eyes, evidently more astonished at us than they had been at the decoys. 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 we let them have it.

It seemed as if there was a rain of dead and wounded canvasbacks, for no less than seven birds fell at the reports of our Parkers. Think of that! Seven canvasbacks at one fell swoop, of four fell swoops, rather, for both Tom and I give them both barrels. More canvasbacks than many a wild fowler has killed, in this region, anyway, in a whole season.

This may not be a very edifying or creditable confession, but I do not believe that there is a sportsman in the land, not even excepting the immaculate, who would not pour both barrels of his gun into a bunch of canvasbacks leaping up into his very face, like these did before McCawley and me. This sentiment about the preservation of our game birds, is all right enough for discussion, but when it comes to refraining from such a chance as we were thus offered, why the man who could or would do it, isn't there, that's all.

After shooting over the crips-which must be done, at the quickest possible moment on these wild and wary birds-we crouched down into our blind again, for the air off the south now seemed fairly full of birds. They seemed to be moving aimlessly in all directions, and Tom said a storm was not far distant. There was no need of this warning. The damp crispness of the increasing winds told us that a change was about to occur. The distant hills were looking darker and darker in the misty air, and glimmering more and more indistinct, until they were entirely shaded in. Over the head of the lake ragged scuds were flying, and afar to the north we could see that the rain was already falling.

"Mark! Sandy, geese," again warned my vigilant companion, who had been standing to better his view of the oncoming storm.

There are two of them-a pair of Canadas; don't you see them there to the right, low over the water? They are coming straight in and you take the first one and I'll take the last."

Hardly had McCawley delivered these words of advice when the geese, a pair of big Canadas, came flopping nonchalantly in. Tom and I were all ready for them, of course, and when the great birds were close enough for us to see the gleam of their eyes, we jumped to our feet. There were two quick reports and two gray birds fell dead among our decoys.

Mark! down!" it was another bunch of canvasbacks, and they came hurtling down the wind with tremendous velocity. I took the lead, McCawley the rear, according to our position, and again we both downed our birds. Mine was a hen, while Tom's a big drake. I killed mine dead, however, but the drake was only wing-tipped. McCawley instantly overshot him, as he never gives a wounded canvasback any unnecessary time, and as the birds floated away towards the shore along behind the two Canadas, we again sank in our blind. We did not have time to more than exchange a remark or two when we saw another big flock coming in, but as they neared the decoys, they veered to the right and swung off almost out of range. We heard the shot rattle against their sides, but they were a lot of tough old birds, and continued on their way towards the hypoborean regions.

But this was one of the hunts of the good old days, and had little time for regret, when still another flock, embracing probably half a hundred birds, came rushing straight at us. They lowered beautifully and we waited until they dropped their lead-colored legs to alight among the decoys, before we arose, and, as in the first instance, then let them have all four barrels. Four birds fell, while a fifth, which had received some stray shot in the fusillade, swerved from the main bunch, as they tore straight away, and flying back of us, across the intervening water, went out over the shore, and fell on the hillside, fully a mile away.

"He's all right-we'll get him when we go in tonight," remarked McCawley with is customary confidence. "He's a dead bird, I know that from the way he fell. Down!

McCawley's ever restless eyes had discovered a fine bunch of birds circling over the wapato beds across the lake to the north. He brought his called into requisition, and after a moment's shrill squacking, succeeded in attracting their attention and they started to come over. They were not long in getting their eyes on the decoys, but shied past just as we thought they were going to come in, and deflected to the left. They made a circle of a mile or more, then came bearing down upon us again. As they approached, Tom gave a running, clucking call; the birds turned and came swiftly on, unsuspectingly toward us. We saw they were extremely timid, however, and agreed to take a long chance. Sure enough, when within, possibly fifty-five yards of our blind, they "dished," with a sibilant swish, and began to go up at a rate of a mile a half minute, and, feeling that they were off and this was our only opportunity, we jumped to our feet and again emptied our guns. To our astonishment, two birds fell, both killed clean.

There was quite a little lull, now, but it didn't last long and finally the same old electrifying admonition fell front McCawley's lips, and we squatted.

"It's a pair of mallards, Sandy," said he, and down the lake I saw them coming abreast. The wind was assisting them considerably, and it required but a few moments to bring them in. As they caught sight of the decoys their natural wariness and caution returned to them, and they began to beat upward as if for a better view. Everything seemed satisfactory, and down they came, plump in our faces, the old drake, with green head and velvety neck far outstretched, leading his mottled consort by a foot or two.

"It's an easy double, Sandy," said Tom, "You take them and show me what you can do!"

"All right," I responded, "I'll show you how I always do it," and as the two birds were cupping their wings and dropping their orange pillars, I rose quickly for the shot.

The drake was suspiciously suspicious-did you ever see one that wasn't?-and in an almost perfectly upright position he was hovering almost stationary over the decoys, with his glossy breastplate and ashen-belly, staring me in the face, while the hen was timorously fluttering just behind.

With the most supreme confidence in my own ability to turn the trick, I banged away without hardly aiming, and thinking, of course, that the drake was as good as a dead bird, I swung off and onto the hen, who had wheeled, as if on a pivot, and with distraught squawks, was cutting her way through space with all the energy of her sturdy pinions. Bang! went the other barrel, and to my inexpressible disgust and humiliation, I saw both birds making good their escape, the old drake spitefully emitting that aggravating "mamph! mamph! mamph!" as he dove around and joined his mate in her mad flight across the lake.

A downy feather or two was being buffeted hither and thither by the stiffening wind out in front of us, but that was all they left behind as evidence of my vaunted skill.

I had scored a beautiful double-miss!

But McCawley, as usual, was more than considerate. He smiled faintly of course, but as a surcease for my chagrin, said:

"Well, sir, Sandy, if I have done that once in my life time, I have done it 1,000 times. The best shot on earth don't know just when he is going to drop a tough old mallard. They seem to get out of the most impossible situations at times, and you miss, when you think they are dead easy. The fact is, in your case just now, you were too anxious to make a double, so you got neither. You shot under both birds, I could see that plainly, but at that a few pellets whistled through the old drake's tail feathers, but I'll bet you wouldn't repeat in a hundred trials."

I hadn't a word to say. I simply slipped in a couple more shells in a perfunctory sort of way, and squatted down in the blind, which I mentally wished, just then, was a few hundred feet deeper.

"Canvasback!" it was the same old startling warning from my watchful comrade.

The birds were coming down the lake from the east, an immense horde of them, and McCawley advised me to be ready for the first chance. A moment later, though, as the birds suddenly lowered, he said in a whisper, "they're going to light; don't shoot!"

The birds had now dropped low over the water, and were slowing up preparatory to sliding into its cooling depths. In another moment they would have settled. What a flock! the like of which I had never seen before, not even in the old days down at fabled Currituck. Every nerve was tingling; every muscle, every fiber quivering with the keenest delight, such as only the old ducker experiences under similar circumstances.

Tom and I crouched like images hewn from stone. Moveless as death, we were waiting until the advance couriers of the approaching myriad had breasted the crest of the rest less lake, which they were doing, when suddenly we were startled by two thunderous reports from a shotgun in the hands of some fiend in human shape, off the near shore. It was the work of a bumpkin trapper of the lower sandhills, who was after muskrats in the shallow waters among the nearer tules on the south shore, and his blunderbuss and black powder had well done their nefarious work.

The big flock broke, as into a thousand whizzing fragments, and as they darted, like streaks into the upper currents, McCawley and I looked on only in the must utterable disgust never attempting to get in a shot-we were too exasperated for that. However, we had all the birds we cared about that morning, and a few moments later we were on our way to camp, just before one of the fiercest storms I had ever witnessed.