Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold and John Hardin. March 23, 1902. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(174): 18. Forest, Field and Stream column.

[Swapping Reminiscences at the Gunsmith Shop - Duck Shooting at Horseshoe Lake]

Queer, isn't it, what a peculiar lot of fellows the duck hunters are? Like the anglers they are muchly given to extravagant stories about their exploits on the marsh and it is no difference how big a one this man spins, the other man will tell a bigger one. Still I think the veracity of the shooter is not quite as elastic as that of the fisherman, and once in a while he actually relates facts, stripped absolutely of all hyperbole and fictitious embroidery. This is something the wielder of the line and rod seldom if ever does, with all due deference to the devotees of the gentle art, but their imaginary achievements are always harmless, and as you have probably observed, the biggest fish always gets away, and there is no chance to prove or disprove the authenticity of this or that wonderful struggle.

Over in John Petty's begrimed old gunsmith shop the other evening there were a number of us ardent wild fowlers gathered, and we put in a couple of hours most pleasantly swapping reminiscences of days with the ducks. I told, of course, of the wonderful kill of canvasback made by myself and Ed Hamilton out on Goose Lake in Deuel county back in March, 1894; of the hundred and twenty mallards George Scribner and I killed up on the Lake Creek marsh in the fall of '99, and the wondrous sights Tom Foley and I beheld in the same region a half score of years before Billy Townsend told incredible stories about the bluebill flight in Texas, and the shooting he had here when he first came to this state. Henry Homan was voluminous over what he has seen and done out on the Platte in the early days. John Hardin-who is here on a visit-dwelt eloquently on recent kills in the sandhills, and Billy Brewer, of course, recounted, in his usual choice diction, his battle with the redheads up the bottoms of the Boyer, when finally old John, who had been sitting in the anvil an attentive and amused listener, interrupted:

"Say, you fellows have all had great duck shooting, there's no denying that, and yet I am bold enough to say that you don't know what duck shooting is, do they, Jack?" and the old ranger of stubble and lowlands turned to Jack Knowles, and of course received the corroborative response looked for. "Let me see, when was it, '84 no '83, that was the year, for I recall it by the big storms we had that winter, I was up at Horseshoe lake fourteen miles north of here with General George Crook, and we made a kill of ducks that must sound like a dream to you fellows nowadays. I'll bet if you had been with us that day you'd forget all about the best day's shooting that you ever had, let it be here, down in Texas, back on the Illinois or where. How many did we kill? Well, sir, no lyin', we not only killed, but we retrieved 447 ducks in just five hours' shooting, and brought every feather of them down here to Omaha the same night, and what is more, fully two-thirds of them were canvasbacks, and if we hadn't run out of shells I honestly believe we would have made it a thousand," and the old hunter's honest gray eyes sparkled with the fires of by-gone days.

"But remember that was in the days when big bags were the only desideratum, when the birds were thicker'n the flying flakes in a snow storm, and it was thought the supply would never run out. We were not educated up to the point we are in these modern times, and were not restrained by any qualms of conscience about the fear of exterminating the game."

"That's true, John," interpolated Hardin, "I can recall those times myself, and while I have heard you tell about that shoot of yours and Crook's a dozen times, it is worth listening to again, so tell us all about it."

"That's right, Petty is only himself when elating old-time experiences in the fields, so go ahead, John, and give it to us," importunated Brewer.

"Well, I'll confess I never tire talkin' about that day myself, and I want to tell you General Crook never did get over it. Every time I met him, clear up to the time of his lamented death, he would say, 'Hey! John, do you recollect our shoot up on Horseshoe lake?' Then he would linger over the details like a boy rolling a sweet morsel under his tongue. It beat about everything the general had ever experienced, and as you all know, there were few men who ever knew better shooting on game of all kinds than Crook did."

"Seems to me that Billy Hughes was with you that time?" interrogatively mused Jack Knowles, who in the old days was a famous duck shot himself.

"Oh, no, he wasn't," quickly cut in John, "it was the general and I alone, but the good Lord knows I wish Billy had been along," and, taking off his specs and wiping the moisture from his eyes, Petty threw the other leg across the anvil and went on: "I'll never forget that day if I live to be as old as Methuselah's grandfather, an' sometimes I think he will. But as I was a-sayin', I'll never forget it. The general dropped into my shop that morning unusually early, I should say along about half past 8, and it was a blowin' and roarin' and snowin' outdoors like all snooks, and he sez, sez he 'Say, John, this is awfully ducky; how're you feeling and what do you say to a trip up to Horseshoe?"

"'Oh, don't mention it, general. Don't you see I've got this gun to bore out, and if I don't git it done by noon Judge Kennedy'll lay an egg, and then just see what's goin' on outdoors-why! it's a regular blizzard'-only we didn't call 'em blizzards in those days."

"'To -;'-you know what the general said: if you don't, I'll just add that it wasn't New York-'with the judge and the storm, too, for that matter,' sez the general, sez he, 'why, I've seen more ducks flyin' over this morning, early, as I came in town, than I've seen in a dozen years; they've been crossing in clouds ever since it was light enough to see, and I'll bet Horseshoe is a roarin' caldron of ducks. The weather-well, sir, if you are the hunter you claim to be you'll say you never saw it better; in fact, it can't be beat. But come on, we're only losing time; you know you can't resist. Soo off with that apron, and I'll tell Henry to bring the ambulance around. Hurry now, we haven't any time to spare-if it's a mile to Horseshoe, it's fifteen.'

"Did I go? Well, now you know I did. I could no more resist a crack at the ducks in those days than I could miss church o' Sundays now. So up went Kennedy's gun into the repair rack an' we made ready. That didn't take long, an' we were soon off. Henry was a good driver, an' bad as the roads were-they were really something fierce-we reached the lake by noon, and as early as 1 o'clock we had our blind built, decoys out an' were workin' our Parkers like harvest hands.

"The storm was still ragin' and the snow, in great damp flakes, was so thick that you could hardly see out to the decoys, and the wind, well it fairly took your breath! But we didn't know nothin' 'bout wind or snow, or anything else for that matter, for the birds they came in by regiments, battalions and divisions, an' all we did was just squat and shoot and stand up and load an' shoot, until I thought my head would bust. Black powder, you know, in those days-boom! an' back went your shoulder a mile. We soon realized that we didn't need no blind, an' we just stood out boldly on the shore in the flyin' snow among the broken sunflower stalks and popped away until every danged shell we had with us was exploded and we stood there gazin' at each other like a couple of cigar signs! My! I can hear those old ten-bore Parkers' a barkin' yet, an' at every crack there was a splash in the water that told that another canvasback or mallard or bluebill had bit the dust, only there wasn't any dust aflyin' about there just them but they bit it all the same.

"Why, at times our gun barrels got so hot that we would have to run out into the lake and shove them, muzzle first, down into the water to cool 'em off, and the little time I shot without any gloves on, my hands got so all-fired blistered that they didn't get over it fur a week. Old King lived on the lake in those days and when we got out of shells we got him and his two sons to help us retrieve, and by cracky. I'd like to have you seen the five piles of birds we built upon the shore under those old cottonwoods; actually I thought there was a million of 'em!"

"And you say over two-thirds of them were canvasback?" queried Brewer, taking an extra long pull on his Perfecto.

"Well, Billy, I do know there was a thunderin' mess o' canvas and redheads, but two-thirds-well, that may be a little strong. There was certainly a good many pintails and bluebills, some mallard, some butterballs, and a few golden eyes, but I really believe the bulk of them were canvas and redhead."

"Yes, yes, that was a famous old day's shoot, John," added Billy with a long drawn sigh, "but those days have gone now, and so has your old partner-blessed be his memory-never to return. It makes me blue to hear you tell of them, but come fellows look, it is almost 11 o'clock; lets go into Tut's an' take a nightcap, then I must go."