THIS GALLERY of waterfowling photos, taken from the 1920s through 1967, gives us a fascinating look back at the waterfowl hunting our grandparents and great-grandparents knew.
The French like to say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Certainly, many of these pictures evoke feelings and memories that are instantly familiar—even if the clothing and gear aren’t what we’re accustomed to. On the other hand, sometimes the more things change, the more different everything becomes. These photos also show a world without mud motors, ATVs, breathable waders, spinning-wing decoys, or 18-foot trailers packed with full-bodies. And sometimes they show an era of 25-duck limits and an abundance of birds we can’t begin to imagine.
If these pictures seem somewhat randomly chosen, it’s because Field & Stream photography director, John Toolan, discovered this treasure trove in the F&S archives in New Jersey recently, then scanned them and and sent them to me. Some of them have full captions typed on the front or back, others have only a scrawled word or two, and some are blank, leaving us to figure out the rest as we take a look back at waterfowling from another time.
Sinkboxing for Brant
“Brant shooting off Wishart Point, Miramachi Bay in New Brunswick, 1930,” reads the caption. These hunters are shooting brant from a floating sinkbox. Hiding down below water level in the box, the shooter is cold, wet, and invisible to low-flying birds. The “wings” of the sinkbox are ballasted with weighted decoys that are sometimes made of iron, which has been illegal in the United States since 1918 but remains legal in eastern Canada still today. “Curtain blinds,” which are fixed pits dug in sandbars with adjustable tops (curtains) that can be raised or lowered with the tide, are very similar to sinkboxes, but they remain legal here.
A Fine Day for “Sea Coots“
“Frank Deyette (left) and Pete Choteau (right) with the day’s bag of fourteen coot. The law allows seven coot a day per person, with an open season lasting from September 17 to December 17.” This 1950 picture makes more sense if you know that scoters, which is what these two have been shooting, are sometimes called sea coots. Frank, decked out in his cool U.S.N.-surplus overalls, shoots a Browning Auto 5 with the old-style trigger-guard safety, which was switched to the crossbolt style in 1951. Pete holds the notorious Winchester SL 1911 “widow maker,” so called because it had no bolt handle (these had been patented by John Browning). You opened the action by grabbing the barrel by the knurled portion beneath Pete’s hand and pushing down hard, which often caused fatal misfires.
“Death on Ducks“
“The lady and her 20-gauge. Death on ducks.” The picture is dated 1927. The limit on ducks from 1916 to 1931 was 25 ducks, and if this hunter doesn’t have a full limit on her strap, she’s close to one. The 20-gauge in this picture looks like a Parker, and while it is not news today that 20-gauges can kill ducks, back then it may have been more of a novelty. Ammunition had just begun a period of dramatic improvement in the early 1920s. Winchester’s Super-X loads led the way, with hard, copper-plated shot and new powders that made 12- and 20-gauges much more effective.
A boy and his dad, shotguns, and a canoe. This picture is dated 1938, but with a few changes in guns and gear, it could have been taken this season. Some of these images are timeless.
The Hunter With No Name
Dated 1925, this picture is a mystery to me. Someone helpfully labeled it “horse geese” and, yes, there is a horse and there are geese in the picture, but it’s hard to imagine the actual hunt. However, the beach setting and the lesser snow geese are a good reminder that snows originally wintered on the coast and fed on aquatic plants. Rice farming changed their habits, causing them to move inland to winter as far north as Missouri.
Your tax dollars are working hard in this very staged Bureau of Reclamation photo taken in 1967. The Bureau is trying to sell you on the hunting opportunities found on the reservoirs created by the Boise Project. Begun in the teens, the Boise Project comprises at least six dams and reservoirs and still provides irrigation water in Idaho today. The caption on the back reads: “Duck hunting, Bureau of Reclamation Boise Project, Idaho. A hunter and his dog, a golden Labrador retriever, await anxiously in their blind as they watch a flock of ducks on the distant horizon.”
The Ultimate Budget Hunt
Now, you can buy fancy, dedicated camo float tubes for duck hunting, but this New Mexico hunter, circa 1949, did just fine floating a river in a plain inner tube. Note, too, that sometimes southwestern waterfowling takes place in weather warm enough it can be shirt-optional. There’s a reason you don’t hear much about duck hunting in the southwest. The locals keep their mouths shut to keep it a secret.
A Flooded-Timber Mastermind
This 1949 picture taken in the flooded timber near Stuttgart, Arkansas, reads: “It’s easy to shoot only drakes in Arkansas because the ducks are so numerous.” The caption also identifies the hunter on the right as Otis McCollum. He was one of the pioneers of commercial hunting in the area. Shortly after World War II, McCollum leased several thousand acres and built 15 miles of levees in the Bayou Meto–Big Ditch area so he wouldn’t be dependent on nature to seasonally flood the woods. He began selling hunts to cover his lease costs, and the rest is duck hunting history. His levees still hold water today.
The Original Outboard
This 1930 picture shows a hunter poling a marsh boat by himself, and while some people still hunt that way, back in the day, almost everyone got to where they were going by hand, and like this guy, they did it in hip boots that likely rotted and leaked within a season or two. I don’t necessarily think our grandfathers were tougher than we are, I just think they suffered more.
The Duck Doctor
As this 1949 picture shows, back in the day you didn’t have “upland clothes” and “waterfowling clothes” and “deer hunting clothes.” You had hunting clothes, period. This sea duck hunter looks as if he has been outfitted head to toe at L.L. Bean. He is shooting a Winchester Model 12 and is therefore ready for anything. Check out the leather doctor bag he’s using as a blind bag, too.
Black Labs and Black Ducks
The caption reads: “The author of this tale and his hunting companion, Ibbie Day, with their bag of Ohio River ducks. The Labradors pose prettily.” This picture was taken near Batavia, Ohio, and I have been told that when the river gets out of its banks, the hunting can still be spectacular as it was on this day in the ’30s. Note that there are more than a few black ducks in their hands, and the limit today is two.
This one is dated 1938, Ogden, Utah, and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on here unless these three are picking up live decoys. Live decoys, like unplugged shotguns, remained legal until 1935. Like any decoy, live ones were often tethered to a weight, although they could be tethered to a wooden block or little stool on a stake, which is where the terms blocks for decoys and stool for a spread of decoys come from.
What a Honker!
There is no date or place written on the back of this picture of a hunter marveling at the sheer size of a Canada goose, but it could have come from anywhere and any time before Canada populations exploded across the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s. Prior to the modern era, if you wanted to shoot a goose, you either hunted around a refuge or, like this hunter, you set decoys on a sandbar where geese might come to loaf. Note the silhouette decoys too. They go in and out of style—they’re back in now—and every time they become popular again, people are amazed that 2D decoys can fool 3D geese.
If you hunt ducks, you know exactly how this hunter feels. Who among us hasn’t dragged ourselves out of bed and gotten going by promising themselves, “I’ll sleep in the field.”
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