Along the shores of Cape Cod bays and ponds arose the famous Massachusetts goose and duck shooting stands. Some distance from the shooting stand resided a restraining pen containing about 50 utterly tame Canada geese. The pen was connected by telephone to the watch house. When a flock of geese were sighted, which passed not far away, the watch house at once notified the stand by telephone. The live decoys were released by a man stationed at the stand or nearby for the purpose. The decoys took wing, and, attaining a considerable height, flew honking noisily to join the wild flock. A garrulous greeting awaited them, and then, after paying their respects, they headed for the stand. The wild geese naturally trailed on behind, so that in a moment or two all splashed into the water. A few yards to one side of the stand, 20 feet or so back from the waterline, was the spot where the live decoys were always fed. What was more, grain was already lying there and scattered about. Without delay, the 50 so live decoys went ashore for the grain, while the leery wild birds remained behind as easy marks for the gunners.
It was a sport peculiar to eastern Massachusetts, particularly at the ponds of Norfolk, Plymouth, and Barnstable Counties. Overall, there were some “Great Ponds” (over ten acres), as they were called, in the state, most all lying near the coast, having been at one time or another occupied with shooting stands.
The best opportunities usually came when the birds had been driven off their course by heavy northeasterly storms of the fall and early winter, which sent them inland over the ponds. Wood block and slab decoys along with live decoys were the chief accomplices of the market gunners, who also served as gamekeepers or managers and guides for wealthy sports from the cities.
The area west of Boston was well supplied with ponds all the way to the Connecticut Valley, but west of the Connecticut River in the Berkshires large sheets of water and ponds were few. However, from the standpoint of the waterfowler, only those ponds in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state were of any particular interest. There were some 1,268 Great Ponds over ten acres in Massachusetts, which totaled over 101,000 acres.
Ponds lying near the coast were situated in the passage of birds traveling overland from Boston Bay and Quincy Bay to the south shore. More than that, the coast itself was for the most part low and sandy, and there were many huge areas of eelgrass, grass flats, shellfish beds, and extensive salt marshes where black ducks, goldeneye, scaup, scoters, eiders, ruddies, Canada geese and brant wintered. Very few of the ponds had really valuable food, and they were resorted to mostly by straggling migrants seeking fresh water or rest. However, for most of their hunts, some ponds in the olden days were baited with corn or they were shot during the night.
Shooting on these ponds consisted of hunting from a wooden blind or “stand,” where the “stand gunners” prayed for a big storm, which would drive the waterfowl from the sea inland. The typical Massachusetts stand consisted of a “camp” (also called a “hut” or “shanty”), large enough to sleep and feed six or eight hunters, usually built on the beach shore of a beautiful pond or freshwater lake about 15 feet directly back of the stand or “breastwork,” located some 20 feet from the water’s edge. The “stockade,” as it was called, extended often along the pond shore for some distance on both sides of the hut, and it was customary to keep the duck beach separated from the goose beach.
The hut, sometimes made of concrete, but mostly thatched, usually contained three rooms—a living room, a sleeping room fitted with spring bunks, “similar to those in the staterooms of a steamer,” and a kitchen with the end partitioned off for an ice chest and provision room. The roof and sides consisted of brush.
The stockade fence in front was usually five feet high and 100 or more feet long, built in a crescent shape, the convex side facing the pond, and this was trimmed on the pond side with pine boughs, the branches extending above the top of the stockade to shield a hunter’s head from view, yet open enough to afford observation from within.
The beach, which was sometimes artificially made, might have one or two considerable points. It was sand covered in most cases and used primarily to peg out the live decoys, so that they would show better from the pond. The beach also served to keep geese or ducks from getting too close for a shot during the night. It was also a kind of common meeting ground and washing-up place for all the live decoys and much care was lavished upon it. If no beach, then one was made by placing sand on a foundation of logs and planks.
Some 60 or 70 wooden decoys, or “blocks” as they were locally termed, were anchored about two gunshots from the beach, arranged in triangles, made by nailing three lathes together, and nailing a decoy to each; thus preventing them from swinging together, or assuming unnatural positions, by the action of the wind.
Another maneuver which helped greatly to bring in the cautious waterfowl was the working of 15 to 20 “runners,” especially if they alighted among or near them. Runners were small ropes or lines arranged like endless chains. A stake was driven down in the pond, and a line run under water, through a pulley attracted to a buoy to the shore, and then under the stockade fence of the stand at a distance of a hundred and fifty yards or so. To this line was fastened wooden decoys, which might be pulled in or out by working the ropes. However, some live decoys were sometimes attached to a runner.
The ropes inside the blind were pulled quietly, so that the wooden decoys moved in a very natural way towards the danger line, or the blocks were pulled back and forth for short distances as if the birds were feeding. At a signal, all the gunners in the blind fired at once upon the unsuspecting birds on the water, and the execution, often at close range, was very great. The survivors, if any there be, received the contents of second barrels and of other guns at hand as they sprung into the air.
A little less than gunshot from the shore were wooden “stoppers,” or cork floats, 50 feet apart, that extended the length of the beach. This defined the shooting distance or “dead line,” anywhere inside of which a duck or goose was within killing distance. Thus, nothing was left to guess work.
Within two feet of the beach, about ten feet apart and running the length of the shore, were anchored some live decoys, a perfect picket line, each with three feet of anchor so they could move about some. Inside the stockade fence, arranged along its entire length, except a space here and there to stand in, slatted pens were built where 50 or more live birds were kept to be used as decoys, callers, or “flyers.”
When geese were spied by the professional gunner with binoculars in the watch house, he notified the hunters and attended to the fliers. At some stands, special platforms, located back of the stands, were built to fly them from. A cord ran down to the stand and when the wild geese were seen the cord was pulled by the professional gunner and the front of the trap dropped down, forming a platform from which the live decoys flew out over the water. In a few camps, electric devices were used to open the pen doors. In this way, the professional gunner could get his flyers out over the water in a few seconds after he had located a flock of geese in the air.
Most of the flyers were only first season birds, but they worked just as well at two years of age and occasionally at three or four years. Each was “stradded” that is, a teathered throng was fastened to one leg or both to distinguish them from the wild geese when they got mixed up in a flock. Variation in the design or color of the strads marked the separate broods, and made it easier to get the goslings back into their proper pen after flying. Great care was necessary to keep track of the relationships, for the gosling let loose had to have a parent tethered on the beach to make the flying effective and to insure the return of the goslings to the pen.
Once in the air, they observed the wild geese overhead and flew up to join them, both flocks calling loudly to each other. About this time, the geese staked on the beach, called the “stake team,” began to honk. As they were the parent birds and the fliers were the goslings, the birds that had just left the pen hear the call and began to circle back to the parent birds, with the wild geese following the decoy fliers, which have joined their parents, so that the wild birds land and were then shot. The gosling fliers were enticed back to their pens by a trail of corn.
If the wild ones landed near the stand no more fliers were flown, but the decoys on lines already out were counted on to bring them closer in for gunshot, if necessary. It often happened, however, that the wild ones lighted at a distance, which taxed all the ingenuity of the professional gunner to bring them in. These gunners knew, however, which parent bird should or should not be on the beach, and which brood, if any, he should fly. The birds tethered to pulley lines were pulled back into the stand through what were called “goose holes” in the bottom of the stand. By means of these holes and lines, the decoys could be taken in and pulled out without attracting any attention and exchanged for ones that could secure the right note at the critical moment to get the wild ones to come on in, where they were shot on the water. Natives employed as “cripple hunters” went out in boats to shoot the cripples and to retrieve them.
In the old days, before 1900, a team of 15 or 20 live geese decoys was considered large. After that, 50 to 100 was the usual number, and at Widgeon Point on Silver Lake, 300 to 400 were in use . It was a marvelous sight to see them put 50 or 60 flyers into the air at one time.
For many years, Plymouth County had the notoriety of having the greatest number of shooting stands and of having the greatest number of waterfowl killed at these stands when compared with any other locality in Massachusetts.
Silver Lake was situated in Plymouth County and was originally called Jones River Pond. The Old Colony Railroad passed close by. Its waters were extremely deep, measuring over 60 feet in some places. Its length was about three miles, while its width varied from one-half to three-fourths of a mile. Owing to its size and depth, it never froze until late, forming a resting and watering place for ducks and geese. At various places at Silver Lake, generally points, gunners erected elaborate small stands, which in the fall were dressed over and covered with pine boughs.
Larger stands at Silver Lake required large sums of capital to manage. In the first place, a set of wooden decoys for geese and one for ducks were procured, with some of the geese being three times as large as a common goose and about the size of a flour barrel, which did not bother the migrating Canada geese at all. These were anchored near the center of the pond and were for the purpose of attracting the notice of any passing flock.
It took from 100 to 200 of these to make any kind of a show, and then the stand had to be supplied with live geese decoys, of which it took from ten to 15 to do any good. Then about the stand in front, there were placed 20 or 30 live decoy ducks on the gently sloping sand beach, and one or two hidden boats were behind the blind to pick up the dead and to shoot the cripples.
The bush-covered shutters on the stand were drawn up, while upon a little knoll a man sat concealed, ready to release the shutter, and by so doing release the “flyers” or “scalers” as they were sometimes called, which were taught to fly or “scale” off for some distance, circle around, alight in the water and finally swim towards their home, where they were assured of companionship, food, and safety. As fast as these flyers were released, the live decoys on the beach and in pens set up a loud honking and, if managed rightly, seldom failed to induce a flock to alight. Where there was only one stand, this worked well, but when two or more stands at a lake or large pond were all trying to draw one flock the strongest team and most skillful handler took the prize.
In the 1850s and 1860s, at some stands, the fleet of wooden or canvas-covered blocks or “goose-woods” were anchored out in the pond at some distance from the stand. The Canada geese would alight nearby and take a view of their surroundings. It was then that the decoys attached to a string were drawn in toward the shooting stand and the wild geese would hopefully follow, as the live decoys fastened at the water’s edge gave them a warm reception by calling and flapping their wings. Sometimes, it took hours for them to work within range of the shotguns. Often times, the hunters often used a trick called “toling in” or “the ball game.” This consisted in having a small hole made at the bottom of the stand and rolling a ball toward the edge of the pond for a little spaniel dog trained to follow and bring it in. Their curiosity excited, they swam in to see more of what was going on and usually ended up within twenty yards of the shooting stand where they were met with a fusillade of shots. Two guns were always used; one barrel to shoot while sitting and the other barrel as they flew away, while a second gun was used for cripples.
The oversized decoys were called “leaders.” They were “slat geese” made out of four-foot laths tacked to a frame and covered with a piece of canvas. They were about three feet long. A couple of these were placed way out in the pond, which attracted the high flyers.
Most goose hunters made their own wooden and silhouette decoys, just for themselves, because most didn’t have the money to buy them. Employees of the shooting stands and others made decoys and sold to the gunning clubs. Some of the wealthy gunners fell in love with the sport and wanted to take a decoy home and put it on the mantle to remind them of their hunting days. Then it went a step beyond that in the 1870s when they went into detailing and feathering, which became a contemporary art form and took ten times as many hours to construct as a working decoy.
As mentioned, there was a considerable investment made in stands, taking into account land leases or ownership, camping equipment, coal for heating, coops, fences, live geese, live ducks, and canvas-covered or wooden decoys. Besides what I just mentioned, the camp employed a caretaker or manager with some times a cook hired for the season, and there was the expense of caring for old geese, the raising of goslings for another year, and keeping all the equipment in shape.
Furthermore, a professional gunner was kept on watch 24 hours a day at many of the large camps during the season when hunters were in camp. He notified the hunters at the stand by a bell, one ring for geese in sight, two for geese incoming, and three rings meant to prepare for shooting. Some had a telephone at the watch house in which to notify the hunters at the hut. If the professional gunner was the only one at the camp, he shot the birds himself, and in this way there were very few flocks that left the pond without paying a toll in greater or lesser amount to the treacherous shooting stand.
Undoubtedly, someone hitched a wild gander on the shore of one of these Massachusetts ponds to call down the wild flocks, till some genius, taking advantage of the pairing instinct of wild geese and the great length of time that the goslings kept with the parent birds, conceived the idea of using flying decoys. From that point forward, the breeding of decoys for the shooting stands became a regular local industry, followed principally by the stand manager or professional gunner who was an important person appointed to his position on account of his judgment and skill in handling the decoys, as well as for his shooting ability, which, of course, had to be first rate.
Unquestionably, the first goose stands got their start from the shoemaking industry. They were gunned by groups of cobblers, who took their work with them to the pond-side camps and shot geese when they could to help pay for the expense of running the stand. The shooting stand became a veritable fort—each loophole supplied with a gun, and all screened and hidden by trees or bushes, weeds and brush, so placed as to disguise its purpose and construction. The men ate, slept, lived and worked in it during the shooting season. Finally, shoe machinery took away the cobbler’s occupation.
The shoe belt of Bridgewater, Rockland, and neighboring towns probably developed the first goose stands, and from this, as a center, the use of live-decoy rigs on a large scale spread eastward to the outer cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, and north to Essex County and southern New Hampshire, as did decoy carving.
The earliest written description in America comes from the first volume of Sir Charles Lyell’s Second Visit to the United States. On that journey in October 1845, he stopped at a pond in East Weymouth and described it in this fashion:
On our way back from Plymouth to Boston, we passed near the village of East Weymouth, by a decoy pond, where eight wild geese, called Canada geese had been shot since the morning. Swimming in the middle of a sheet of water was a tame goose, having one leg tied by a string to a small leaden weight; and near it were a row of wooden imitations of geese, the sight of which, and the cries of the tame goose, attract the wild birds. As soon as they fly down, they are shot by sportsmen of a true New England stamp, industrious cobblers, each sitting all day at his own door, with his loaded gun lying by his side, his hands occupied in stitching “russet brogans” or boots to be sold at the rate of twenty cents, or ten pence a pair. After working an hour or two, he seizes his gun and down comes a goose, which may fetch in the Boston market, in full season, two and a half dollars–the price of a dozen pair of brogans.
It is very unlikely that a large goose stand such as this was using only one live decoy. It is interesting also to note that the one decoy was tethered in the water, something that was never done later on.
The earliest stands, from about the 1830s and 1840s, were duck stands, mainly for hunting black ducks and to a lesser extent mallards, scaups, and scoters. Then they began to use a few geese on the beach, but for a long time no one was bold enough to attempt flying hand-reared goslings. Goose flying stands were not common until about the late 1870s or early 1880s.
The Great Salt Marsh that stretched from Seabrook, New Hampshire south to Gloucester, Massachusetts was a rich repository of bird and marine life. It was the largest salt marsh in New England and included over 20,000 acres of marsh, barrier beach, tidal river, estuary, mudflat, and upland islands. Waterfowlers took full advantage of the waterfowl hunting that existed in the nearby marshes and ponds of Ipswich, Rowley, Beverly, and Essex counties.
The last glacial period most emphatically set its stamp on Essex County, as in all post glacial regions, small lakes and ponds resided, and they were scattered throughout the counties just mentioned. There were about 60 of these ponds varying in size from a few acres up to the largest, which were one or two miles in length. The principal of these were Wenham Lake in Wenham, Chebacco Lake in Essex, Kimball’s Pond in Amesbury, Johnson’s Pond in Groveland, Lake Cochickewick in North Andover, Haggett’s and Foster’s Ponds in Andover, Billings Pond in Lynnfield, and a series of ponds in and near the Lynn Woods. All were excellent ponds for black ducks.
Only after stormy weather did Canada geese fly into some of these ponds, and that was true for most of the ponds in the Cambridge region. However, a striking account of the number of Canada geese which occurred near Boston in early Colonial days was given by Thomas Morton who said, “I have had often 1000 before the mouth of my gun,” adding “the feathers of the Geese that I have killed in a short time, have paid for all the powder and shot, I have spent in a year. This all happened between 1625 and 1630, at Merrymount, only a few miles south of the Cambridge region.”
Other ponds for Canada goose shooting were Duxbury Bay, Accord Pond at South Hingham, Silver Lake, Weymouth Pond, Robbins Pond at East Bridgewater, Great South Pond at Plymouth, Monponsett Pond at Halifax, and Ponkapoag Pond. The ponds southeast of Plymouth, such as Long Pond, Halfway Pond, White Island Pond, and Billington’s sea, were never famous as good goose ponds. Most were known for black duck shooting.
At Duxberry Bay, considered one of the best goose shooting stands from 1900 to the 1930s, the stand there was 70 feet long and was manned by a professional hunter who kept out during the season 140 live goose and 50 duck decoys, and 125 wooden blocks. The other outstanding goose shooting stand was at Silver Lake.
As one approached Cape Cod, the flight of Canada geese was scattered and irregular. At Pleasant Lake, Harwich, Cliff Pond, Brewster, Eastham Pond, and Gull Pond, occasionally these places had geese, but it was not dependable. It was the same at Martha’s Vineyard. Therefore, the flight of geese across Massachusetts was mainly inland from the coast, and south of the state it bent eastward toward Montauk Point of Long Island.
Flights across and to Massachusetts was the greatest with absence of wind or with a light winds blowing from the N.W. or the north. Such was the case November 22, 1911, when shooting from the Snipituit gunning stand near Middleboro, a single volley from the hunters killed 45 Canadas when they swam close to the decoys.
Some of the shooting stand history comes from John C. Phillips, Shooting-Stands of Eastern Massachusetts, published in 1929. Here he describes the shooting on Long Point on the east shore in Pembroke:
In 1925, they shot 107 geese and 125 ducks, using live goose decoys and a large rig of live ducks and blocks. In 1926, 76 geese and 60 ducks. This last was accounted a very poor season–“Not many geese seen. Plenty of duck in the Bay, but did not show up here.”
Another bit of history John C. Phillips got from Lawrence Horton, of Canton, who gunned so long for Talbot Aldrich at Ponkapoag. He found only two years’ records for Horton otgHwith his shooting at Reservoir Pond. In 1889, he shot 219 ducks and geese, and in 1890, 155. In 1891, Joe Revere told him that they shot 325 birds, which was considered a large bag. Three hundred and fifty was about high line for this stand and 50 geese about the average.
Other reports came from the state’s game commission. The total for all goose stands averaged about 4,200 geese for a season, for a poor year, 2,500-3,000, and a very good year, 8,500. A poor season usually occurred when the area froze up early due to severe cold weather. The kill of black ducks for all stands stood at about 10,000 during the 1920s and on a good year like 1921, 16,000. Black ducks were taken in October to early November before the freeze up.
From 1921 until 1926, there were about 190 stands in existence. It was estimated there were about 5,000 to 6,000 live goose decoys in use during the 1920s and 5,000 live duck decoys. More geese were taken during fall migration than spring, but at some ponds, it was just the reverse, while baiting with corn didn’t come into vogue until about 1900. At some of the stands, geese were sold to game markets with most of the shooting done at setting birds after they had landed and sometimes a second shot was taken as they flew away.
The autumn of 1920 was the last great Canada goose season for the ponds. They started arriving in large flocks the first of October. There were very few days, from October to early January, that flocks were not seen between Weymouth and Duxbury.
Eventually, however, the finest ponds were completely drained and ruined, with many being converted to cranberry farms. Metropolitan development expanded out of the old centers and enveloped the ponds with thousands of gaudy and formless camps, thrown up for the most part without a thought for their appearance either from within or without. Old stands were gradually pushed out, and except where a few owners could afford to hold large stretches of shoreline they were replaced eventually by summer homes or cottages. Huge boulevards cut in close to many of the best ponds and carried a constant stream of cars and noisy trucks. Everywhere, there was an increase in electric lights and a general extension of city conditions into the country along these new highways. Gasoline filling stations and highways crept in where once the goose and duck reigned supreme and summer homes and cottages took over. Soon it was all over.
Stand shooting developed in Massachusetts because flight shooting for the better kind of waterfowl was only available in a few places like Martha’s Vineyard, which was about the only place where real flight shooting occurred. Therefore, the development of stand shooting was a kind of natural outgrowth of rather unusual conditions and was similar to “hut shooting” that was done in France. Therefore, stand shooting was peculiar to New England and hence of some interest to the history of American waterfowl shooting.