“Some of the local boys around here, Donald Asher, Donald Mergler, Slim Price, Toots Poplar, Johnnie Hines and Elmer Simpers, started a new sport called ‘body booting,’ which has taken up where sinkbox shooting left off when it was banned in the 1930s. These fellows put on the body-boots the fishermen wear hauling seine so that they can stay dry in water four feet deep. A ‘layboat’ sets them out to stand on a bar and surrounds them with decoys, just like the old sinkbox days, and then pulls off half a mile or more. When ducks come, the hunter hides as well as he can behind a large goose or swan decoy, and then rises up to shoot.”
Body booting derived its name from the coverall boots worn by the hunter. Back in the early 1930s before sinkbox shooting was banned, several youths from Havre de Grace evolved a variation of that sport by wearing high seine-haulers’ boots and standing in the stool of decoys instead of lying in the sinkbox. Two of the first to do it were Elmer Simpers and Johnnie Hines. They body booted ever since except during World War II. The sport appealed to them for various reasons. The main one being that the hunter was even more hidden than in sinkbox shooting. It was perhaps the toughest sport in Maryland.
As an old timer said, “As for ‘body booting,’ it requires climbing into a long ‘boot’ which comes up to the arm pits. Then you wade out into the water, stand amidst the decoys, sometimes two miles offshore, and hope the live ducks will think you’re a stump. You need to be young or have a lot of vim and vigor. Susquehanna Flats was about the only place it was practiced.”
The typical booting boots was a one-piece suit of heavy rubber that usually came up to the armpits. If one used instead a surplus navy body suit, it covered the whole body and had a hood to go over the head. Inside the body boot, the hunter wore as many pairs of thermal underwear and wool pants as he could get into. The boots were either seine-hauler’s gear or surplus navy body suits. The gunner would then cover with a canvas hood painted the color of the water. As many as four men would usually go out on the layboat to shoot. Only one shooter, jumping into the water from the layboat, would be in the water at one time with the 100-plus silhouette decoy rig along with a stand. The stand was a slightly oversized decoy, bolted to the end of a six- or eight-foot stake. The back side of the decoy had a shelf for the gun and shells.
Body booting took time and a great deal of expense, but it could be very effective. Some 100 or more silhouette decoys were needed, along with a stand. To hunt, water depth was crucial since it had to be shallow enough for the hunter to stand erect with his head and shoulders out, while bending down behind the silhouette when the birds were in sight. Because of the tide, the first man usually stood well out of the water, while the last shooter sometimes had to rise on his tiptoes to keep the waves from coming over his shoulders. The body-boot hunters had a big boat with a large cabin to locate the proper site and rig decoys.
The other hunters waited their turn 300-400 yards away in the cabin boat downwind and to one side ready to use the layboat to pick up cripples or to pick up the gunner upon signal. Once in the water, the gunner would stand, as stated, partially hidden by a large sized goose or swan silhouette decoy.
When waterfowl were sighted, the hunter crouched behind his tiny blind and used his teeth to remove the mitten on his right hand, freeing up the trigger finger. The hunter rose up when the birds came into range, shouldered his gun and fired. Body booting was big prior to World War II, and was the primary method of hunting ducks. Eventually, its use was confined to goose hunting in the Upper Bay of the Chesapeake.
A typical day of body booting started at the Havre de Grace Yacht Basin at 5:30 A.M., rain, snow, fog. sleet or ice, and no alarm clock excuses either! Simpers’s boat, acting as a base camp, was a long, narrow working craft, about 30 feet in length, with two cabins, one for the hunters, the other for guides.
“She’s just right for booting,” Simpers said of his boat. “Draws only 18 inches and is ironclad for icebreaking.”
A high-sterned rowboat ladened with 100 or more decoys was towed behind the layboat. Jonnie Hines, Simpers’ partner, invariably went with Simpers in the roles of second guide and participant in the day’s sport. Another companion was Millard “Grip” Tollenger. If the tide was not at the flood, they went to the neighborhood south of Carpenters Point at the mouth of the Northeast River. As they neared the desired location, Hines took out a depth stick and took soundings, calling out, “Four feet, four feet six, four feet three eighths . . .”
When the water depth was right. Simpers cut the motor, and the anchor was thrown out. Then the guides threw out the decoys. Around the spot where the body booter would stand, goose decoys were often placed predominantly, because their size gave the hunter a greater degree of concealment as he stood head and shoulders above the water to start out. When all the decoys were put out and riding high, a stake was pushed into the bottom and a box with a short pipe underneath was placed upon it so that the pipe fit over the stake. The hunter’s shells were kept in the box.
“That’s the question we’re asked most,” Simpers said. “How do you keep your shells dry?’ Obviously, a man standing in water four feet deep can’t keep his shells in his pocket; so we figured this method out.”
“If the tide is at the flood, the first man to go overboard is the tallest. A man 6 feet tall can hunt in water over four feet deep. As the waters abate, the shorter hunters take their turns. Each man’s stint is as long as he can take it,” according to Simpers.
A good long time in the water is an hour; the average is about 40 minutes. “The weather has a good deal to say about how long a man can stand out there,” Hines said, “when ice floes are hitting you in the back, you’ll want out in twenty minutes.”
“The method of getting overboard is easy; the body booter just jumps. Then he reaches back for a box of shells, breaks it open into the metal box on the stake, and takes his gun from an arm outstretched from the mother boat. The stage is set for the shooting. The layboat drifts downwind about 300 yards and anchors, ready to retrieve dead birds. A constant watch, often through high-powered glasses, is kept on the booter, so that the mother boat can race to him if something untoward happens, if he should suffer cramps, or if he should step in a pothole.”
As years passed by, there were few real body booters in Maryland, that is, men who continue the sport after their first humiliation of the flesh. Around Havre de Grace others besides Simpers and Hines were Donald Asher. Donald Mergler, Milford Wyatt, Roscoe Packard, Bill Maulden, and Bob Wilson. (Baltimore Sun, January 11, 1953.)
By the 1960s, body booting for Canadian geese was popular at Havre de Grace and the little town of North East, Maryland at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. If goose hunting, decoys were floated on lathe strips and were usually set out in groups of three on a single anchor. By the time all the decoys had been set out, everyone had worked up a good sweat and it was almost time to hunt. Each gunner took with him a special goose decoy on a long metal stake. The silhouette decoy had two clips on the back side to hold the shotgun and a bracket or box to hold shells. They were sometimes swiveled on a metal pole anchored to the bottom, allowing hunters to always keep the silhouettes broadside to approaching waterfowl.
Working in among the decoys, each gunner set up his gunning decoy, placed his shotgun in the brackets and crouched as low in the icy water as he could without slopping water down into the suit. The upper regions of the famed Susquehanna Flats were fresh water. You can imagine how cold that water was during late January. A warmed shift of gunners replaced their ice-coated confederates every hour or sooner if the gunner raised his hand, notifying the cabin boat they were ready to be picked up.
Until the freeze came, limit kills were the rule rather than the exception. Naturally, stormy days and above normal tides cut down on the number of days each body booter could indulge in their chosen sport.
By 1987, body booting was rare