The Wild, Wacky World of Waterfowling

by Keith Sutton

My mind is a trash basket. Nearly all of my life, I've found enjoyment prowling the back alleys of knowledge in search of trivial bits of information others might discard as worthless. For the life of me, I couldn't tell you the date when the Magna Carta was signed (or even what it was), but I do know that the first pump-action shotgun was patented in 1882 and that a duck sent aloft in a hot air balloon in 1783 was one of first animal aviators.

Robert Ripley was responsible for my affliction. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to get my hands on one of his Believe It or Not! books where I could learn amazing things like how "the tail of the porcupine was used by the Crow Indians as a comb" and how a hen in the Marianas "sat on a live hand grenade for 26 days." Later I become a big fan of Jeopardy and learned to hold my own with anyone in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Somewhere along the way, I started stuffing a shoebox with scraps of trivia torn from the pages of newspapers and magazines. Later, I transferred this collection to a "Weird Stuff" card file, and more recently, much of it found its way into files on my computer. No limit was set on subject matter, but certain strong favorites emerged, including trivia related to hunting and fishing.

And so it is you get to enjoy the following compendium of stimulating information, queer coincidences and strange stories about the world of waterfowling. I've spent years collecting all these amazing facts and hope this avalanche of the irrelevant will surprise, bewilder, intrigue and entertain you as much as it has me. Whether this information has any use at all, I leave to you.

Hunters Who Really Quacked Us Up

Stuttgart, Arkansas, hosted the first World's Championship Duck Calling Contest in 1936. The winner was Thomas E. Walsh of Greenville, Mississippi, who used his voice, rather than a duck call, to imitate the sounds of a mallard hen. His prize for winning first place was a hunting coat valued at $6.60.

It's Raining Ducks!

And speaking of Arkansas, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission reported that workmen were preparing a mobile home for transport near Hot Springs in the fall of 2000 when a thunderstorm blew up. They all felt a mild shock when a lightning bolt lit up the sky, and a few seconds later, ducks began raining down all around them. Apparently the flock of 20 or so birds was struck in mid-air, a rare though not unheard of event.

Web Address Fowl-Up

When the Indiana Department of Natural Resources published its 2003-04 Indiana Hunting and Trapping Guide, it inadvertently directed readers to a website that wasn't what it was quacked up to be. The website was supposed to allow hunters to complete an on-line Harvest Information Program survey. But the correct site address, www.wetland.net, was mistakenly listed as www.wetlands.net. Adding the letter "s" to the URL led surfers to a pornography site with the headline, "The Wetlands, where wives get naked." Almost half a million copies of the booklet had been distributed when the mistake was discovered. Most were retrieved and sent to a women's prison where inmates covered the error using a black marker, a logical task for the Hoosier State's "department of corrections."

Before Labs

The retrieving dog of choice for nineteenth-century European waterfowl hunters wasn't the Labrador; it was the French poodle. "In Germany and France the market hunters use them extensively for retrieving," H.H. Hunnewell, Jr. wrote in 1894. "They have good noses, take to water readily, and are strong runners and beautiful jumpers." Poodles also were used extensively in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Russia and Great Britain.

Monstrous Mallard

To see the world's biggest mallard, you'll have to travel to the village of Andrew, Alberta, in Canada. Constructed in the Lion's Club Park at the corner of Highways 855 and 45 in 1992, this gigantic duck has a wingspan of 23 feet and weighs 2,000 pounds. It was built to pay tribute to a major resting area for ducks and geese on Whitford Lake a few miles from town.

Blackduck's Black Ducks

You're probably asking yourself now, "Where is the world's largest black duck?" Appropriately enough, that bird can be seen in Blackduck, Minnesota at Wayside Park. That's not the only giant black duck in Blackduck, however. A second statue, built in 1942, sits next to the downtown Fire Hall.

Feeling Trapped

And since we're on the topic of black ducks, here's an interesting story. One black duck drake was captured 18 times during a nine-year span in the waterfowl banding traps of the Michigan Department of Conservation. An adult when first trapped and banded in 1949, the duck successfully eluded hunters and wildlife predators for 10 years. Caught in a trap on January 31, 1958, the bird's original leg band, which was worn thin with age, was replaced.

Man's Best Friend, Huh?

It's not always the hunters who do the shooting on a waterfowl hunt. Sometimes dogs get in on the act, with disastrous results.

Consider the case of Michael Boyle of East Wenatchee, Washington. Boyle and a friend were hunting from a boat on the Columbia River in October 2001 when Boyle leaned over the side to pull in a goose they had shot. Deputies said that's when a Labrador retriever belonging to Boyle's friend stepped on a 12-gauge shotgun in the boat, firing it into Boyle's leg.

Three years later, Matthew Harper of Klamath Falls, Oregon, was shot in the arm when his friend's hunting dog stepped on a loaded shotgun as Harper was pulling their boat to shore
Both men eventually recovered from their injuries, but when they got shot, they probably thought their goose was cooked.

Wide World of Ducks

On December 23, 1956, four million viewers of NBC's "Wide Wide World," hosted by Dave Garroway, watched one of the most amazing hunting shows ever broadcast on live television. An estimated 300,000 mallards were sitting on Claypool Reservoir in northeast Arkansas when the broadcast started at 3:14 p.m.—40 acres completely covered with birds that were cleverly maneuvered into place by wildlife officers in boats. To add to the excitement, a rocket holding three blocks of TNT was fired over the ducks and exploded in mid air. Then there was another explosion as more than a quarter million ducks leaped into the air. Wallace Claypool, owner of the reservoir, then called in ducks for 12-year-old Lynn Parsons to shoot with his new shotgun. Garroway closed the 7.5-minute segment by saying, "Now if you will brush the duck feathers off your sofa, we'll go on with the rest of the program."

Pricey Decoys

Wondering what those old decoys in the barn might be worth? Don't be too hasty to sell them.
On January 23, 2000, bidders flocked to Sotheby's in New York City to compete at the auction of the finest private collection of American waterfowl decoys in the world. In a standing-room-only salesroom, hundreds of passionate collectors witnessed the sale of the distinguished Collection of Dr. James M. McCleery, which became the world's highest grossing auction of decoys with a staggering total of $10,965,935. The two-day event set a world record for the most expensive decoy ever sold at auction when a sleeping Canada goose by renowned carver Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts, c. 1917, went for a staggering $684,500. A wood duck drake by the Mason Decoy Factory fetched $354,500.

Heavy Duty Decoys

No one would make duck decoys out of cast iron, right? Wrong. The idea seems preposterous, yet hunters of the past often used them. These flat-bottomed birds, each weighing as much as 30 pounds, were set on the wings of sink boxes to provide stability and to keep the boxes flush with the water's surface.

Sievers' Folly

In 1897, Nebraskan John Sievers Jr. was issued a patent for a hunting decoy—a full-sized cow. The patent specifications indicated that the decoy was to be of a flexible shell of hide, canvas or similar material and be painted like a cow. A system of braces held the hollow body upright and was supported by two hunters inside the cow, one fore and one aft. The decoy's legs held the legs of the men. The idea was to walk the decoy near waterfowl. Then at the right time, the hinged neck portion dropped down to enable the forward man to "discharge his fowling piece." The rear man shot from a side window. The specifications did not mention precautions to be taken by hunters in the presence of a bull.

Long Distance Travelers

How far will a migrating duck fly? Here's one example. A blue-winged teal banded on Canada's St. Lawrence River was captured in Guyana, South America, 27 days and 3,300 miles later. If that bird traveled in a straight line, it flew 122 miles a day.

Another report indicates a pintail banded in September 1940, in Athabasca County, Alberta eluded hazards until January 1954 when it was shot near Naucuspana, Tabasco, Mexico. Considering the 3,000 miles between band site and death, and assuming the bird made the two-way migration each year for 13 years, the pintail would have logged nearly 80,000 migration miles during its lifetime.

Duck Guns or Cannons?

Some of the most awesome firearms ever used by hunters were the punt guns used by market hunters to kill waterfowl. As much as 10 feet long and weighing 150 pounds or more, the punt gun was laid upon the bow of a boat, never shouldered. It fired 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of shot using a quarter pound of black powder. The resulting blast might kill more than 100 ducks and send the boat back 10 yards.

For Whom the Dog Tolls

Dogs called "tollers" once were used to lure ducks into shooting range. For some unexplained reason, ducks feeding offshore would approach a dog as it bounced playfully back and forth on shore. Hunters hidden in a blind would throw a ball or stick for the dog to retrieve, and this would go on until the waterfowl swam close enough for the hunters to shoot. The Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever is a breed developed for this use.

Tolling Ducks

Live ducks and geese called tollers also were used at one time to toll, or lure, their wild counterparts into shooting range. Their use became illegal in the 1930s, but prior to that, many hunters maintained large pens of tolling fowl that were sold throughout the country. The birds were trained to call and to tolerate a leash. A strip of leather was sewn about the leg in a figure-eight fashion to facilitate handling. The ones that were slow to cooperate soon found their way into the soup pot.

Champion of Champions

Only one person has won all five major competitions held at Stuttgart, Arkansas' World's Championship Duck Calling Contest. That lady, Pat Peacock, was also the first woman to serve on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. In 1950, at age 12, Peacock won the Junior World title. In 1951, she took the first of five straight Women's World Titles. In 1955, Peacock won the Arkansas title and the first of two straight World's Championships, and in 1960, she capped her duck calling career with the Champion of Champions crown. (In 1956, Peacock also won the first ever Queen Mallard beauty contest!)

Diving Champ

When it comes to diving, no other waterfowl can hold a candle to the long-tailed duck, or oldsquaw, which is known to dive as deep as 200 feet. The long-tailed duck also spends the most time underwater relative to time on the surface. When foraging, it is submerged three to four times as much as it is on top of the water.

The One and Only State Duck

In 1974, the wood duck was designated the State Waterfowl of Mississippi. No other state has chosen a duck as its official state bird.

Sounds Fishy

According to a 1957 issue of Ducks Unlimited Quarterly, a trout tagged by Wyoming fish and game department personnel, and a merganser banded in the same state, turned up together in a most unusual situation. A California biologist making a wildlife food study obtained the merganser after it had been shot by a hunter. In the bird's stomach was a tag from one of the Wyoming trout.

Against All Odds

Dr. Stan Chace of Alturas, California, seemingly defied all odds way back in the fall of 1962. Chace bagged a banded Canada goose in October, and shot another banded Canada in December. When he compared the bands, Chace found them to be consecutively numbered—the first 518-31661 and the second 518-31662. The birds were banded three years earlier at Goose Lake.

Legal Briefs

And finally, no compendium of waterfowling trivia would be complete without sharing the story of Rogers, Arkansas attorney Ben Lipscomb who went duck hunting in January 2005 and got lost in flooded Arkansas backwoods. According to the Associated Press, the Arkansas State Police sent out a helicopter to search for him. Lipscomb saw his would-be rescuers fly over a couple times. Although he tried to attract their attention, his waving was ineffective. Covered head-to-toe in camouflage clothing, Lipscomb was equally invisible to ducks and aerial searchers. Clearly, the desirability of blending into the scenery needed rethinking.

Soon after this thought occurred to the lost man, the crew of the helicopter saw something white fluttering in the woods. Lipscomb was rescued after he swallowed his pride, removed his white underwear, tied the briefs to his shotgun barrel and waved them at the pilots.