Tales of Knotts Island
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Be aware that the information in these tales is dated and, as expected, may not be as socially, politically, or racially sensitive as current writings.

by Henry Beasley Ansell

from 1907 to 1912


The most efficient and persevering gunners seventy or more years ago on this Island--I mean those that followed it for a livelihood--were Wilson Cooper, Thomas Bowden, Timothy Bowden, aforesaid, Zechy Simpson, Rol Grimstead, Leven Ballance, Fred Davis, Edmund and Jereman Litchfield, two or three Ansell trained by Cooper through family relationship, John Dudley and likely some others.

Of course there were scores of others that followed fowling but none so constantly as these.

Don't make as mistake and get mixed by taking the Wilson Cooper and Timothy Bowden who are famous gunners on the Island now, for the former were the respective parents of the latter two.

In those days the mode of duck shooting was not as now. Ducks were shot sitting and at the rise. The crawling practice in vogue. Go into the marsh with noiseless care; look over the coves, creeks and ponds; see if any of the feathered tribe have ventured near enough to shore for a shot; if so, down on hands and knees, often in mud and water; crawl to the water's edge; peep through the marginal marsh or galls; see where ducks were thickest. Ready--aim--bang. Fuss and feathers, what clatter and scramble: There might be three or four or a score of dead and crippled ducks. In went the hunter attending to cripples first, often chasing a wing-break a great distance. He would then gather up his trophy, return to the shore wet from waist down.

When two hunters were together, often one would shoot at the sitting the other at the rise or flirt.

If the flock were sprigtails, which feed with tails up, heads down, the most of those left after a shot would be cripples. To avoid this, it was custom to give a keen whistle so that the old duck policeman, sitting off a good distance, keeping watch over its flock, would give the warning quack and flirt: immediately heads up--bang, bang at the flirt.

The guns used then were English and French muskets, about as large as the modern No. 10, and were of the flint-and-steel, cock-and-pan make.

These guns often missed fire, especially in damp weather. The steel being dampened the flint would fail to knock fire in the pan; and if it did, the powder in the pan might be moist or corroded about the touchhole, then there would be a missfire--"a flash in the pan" as it was called. If this occurred when a good bunch of ducks was in front likely some cuss words against gun and powder would be uttered by some, mumbled by others.

To be sure the next time, the dry part of the woolen coat tail or the under part of the sleeve was applied to the steel till it glittered; the flint ragged with jackknife; touchhole opened; dry powder put into the pan with dry tow thereon and clamped down; then gun lock under coat-tail and arms, the hunter was off for better luck.

The marshes were interspersed with coves, ponds and creeks, where if permitted, ducks frequented nights, to feed and rest; these furnished other of duck hunting: On the east side of pond or cove before night; build a blind so that the reflection of the departing sun glazed a path to the west; lie down and wait the coming. Whir,--down-flat;--pish-shu-u. If near dark and the ducks swam across this glazed path,--bang. This went on from sun-down till dark. A chance shot from an expert might kill in the dark. Those who followed this mode seldom went home without a mess of ducks.

Wild geese tamed or raised and also ducks raised on the premises were used in those days for decoys; and in strong westerly winds and a high tide, with these geese decoys, two persons would often kill a hundred geese in one day at the margin of the sand-beach or on some conspicuous shoal nearby. With tame decoy ducks near marshy Islands or points they often did well. This was before the modern wooden decoys were known.


The old man Zechy Simpson made one of the most notable shots ever made on the Island, and it is doubtful if it was ever surpassed anywhere with a common shoulder gun. He lived on a point of land that jutted into the bay. In a certain hard freeze there was an air-hole near his house; the ducks were so thick in that open space there was not room for the hundreds that, failing to get in, still hovered around. He charged his old musket, went down, and drew a bead on them, and killed forty seven malard ducks that he got, while some others dropped on the ice which he failed to get.

This air-hole ran from the shore outward, and while he was gathering up his forty-seven ducks some criples went ashore, and a boy by the name of Henry Bright, who lived with Mr. Jesse White near by, went directly afterward and got five more that had come ashore, making fifty-two in all from that one shot. It was said there were a few black ducks among them, if so, they didn't lessen the magnitude of the shot for both blacks and malards are very large ducks.

This is no fiction, but a true story.

Ducks and geese in those days were in solid rafts. One bitter cold Sunday, the writer with others, was on the bayside up in Jones's wind-mill; the wind was blowing a galefrom west; the ducks and geese ran from the fence locks out for a hundreds of yards, wedged so closely together that scarcely any water could be seen among them; but not one man among the half dozen present would dare shoot them on the Sabbath, although there were guns in the miller's house. How would it be now.

I have seen many larger rafts than the one spoken of above, in Knotts Island Bay and its adjacent shoals and Swan Island (once called Crow Island) waters. When they were distrurbed and arose the noise made was like distant rumbling thunder.

The honk of geese, the clatter of ducks mixed with the sonorous tune of the swan, all quickened by fright, made a deafening din. The large raft would go and join another and this would be repeated every time they were disturbed.

It is amusing to hear some people at this day say, there are as many ducks frequenting our waters now as ever in years past. Now the writer will say right here, that during any winter now there cannot be over twenty-five per cent of the fowl that frequented our waters seventy years ago. There may be as many killed now as then, more money realized, but this does not prove that there are as many ducks now as then. Seventy years ago our country was thinly populated: our gunners used the old flint-and-steel muskets to kill ducks; crawling, killing and wading waist deep after them was the mode the kind of duck then sought for family use and to supply a small near by market was what is now called common The few killed for sale then were dragged through mud and mire with team and cart miles away, and for a small price. The ducks in those days had only to watch the margin of coves, creeks, ponds, bays and other shore lines for the shooters.

Now let us see why the millions of wild fowl that once swarmed our waters have wonderfully decreased--all but disappeared.

There are fast lines of steamers and railroads that care little for distance; these and most all commercial houses have refrigerators to keep ducks from taint; with the product of the ice plant ducks can now, if needed, be kept for months as hard as a rock.

The population of the United States has immensely increased; hamlets and villages have grown to large cities; the then cities have grown in population till some have passed the million mark; the whole country has increased about in the same proportion.

So there is a market for everything; a person living away back in the country may order a mess of ducks from these market cities and have them conveyed to him in a jiffy.

Now, as to the latter-day mode of slaughtering the fowl that still venture to visit us in winter: They scarcely have the privilege of flying within one hundred yards of the surface of the water. There are numerous boxes, called "batteries," sunk even with the surface of the water, with floating wings water-colored, riding the billows; the gunner crouched in box, surrounded by hundreds of wooden decoys, with few iron ones perched on box for ballast as well as to deceive. Here comes a flock of deceived birds and if they approach within one hundred yards in air, a part of this flock is likely to come down after several explosions from that box. If this box does not sweep them all there are fifty other boxes and blinds in their path to hammer the life out of this little venturesome flock. I have frequently been informed by gunners that wild fowl, finding no resting place on the feeding grounds in the day time, have to betake themselves to the Atlantic Ocean and sit there resting on its swells till night, when they venture back, to stop hunger: even then they are killed by some fire-lighting dare-devils.

This mode of killing fowl in Currituck prevails throughout this land of ours where wild fowl abound.

Now, let me give the unvarnished truth why wild fowl in Currituck as well as elsewhere are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

This country has six times the population that it had when the writer was born. There are millions of wealthy people of speculative habits roaming the country, some for pleasure, some for both pleasure and lucre. Among these are many sportsmen with gun and tacklings, hundreds of thousands of them. These hunters hail from everywhere, and go where ever wild birds or beasts are found, especially so, in the United States and the British Possessions. They not only kill these birds, but go North in the frozen zone during Summer where these birds lay their eggs, encamping themselves for the season, and live on their flesh. While many make it a lucreative business by securing the feathers, others stuff and preserve the feathered skins to sell to curiosity seekers; others, still, collect millions of eggs, preserve them by modern processes, and sell them in the markets when cold weather comes.

Then why should there be as many now as then? There is every reason to the contrary. In his youth the writer could see in two miles square, more ducks then than can now be seen in going from Vanslyck's to the Virginia line. If these brooding places North are not protected, soon there will be neither ducks nor other like birds to visit us. As I have said before the ducks sought in those days were what are now called "common," such as sprigtail, black, creek, mallard, ball-pate, blue-wing, teal and some others.

In those days little notice was taken of the canvasback and red-head (then often called "bull-necks"); and as to the booby, now grown so famous, a raft at hand would not have enticed a shot; they were considered a nuisance; once in a while the boys would take a shot at them for fun, to see them dive at the flash.

The canvas-back and red-head were not very plentiful in the shallow waters frequented mostly by oldtime gunners, but they would be found in large numbers in the deep water of the sound and on its margin; also, in the deep, muddy waters of Bellow's Bay and Back Creek. It did not pay to seek these now famous ducks, which involved in shooting them at long range and wading to the armpits after them; there were plenty of the common ones to be had with far less trouble. Furthermore, these two notables could dive at the flash, as well as the booby. These famous Bull-necks were always sold in Norfolk; one dollar was the maximum price for the canvas-back, about one half to three quarters of that price for red-heads, and usually from twenty-five to fifty cents for a pair of the common ones. So it did not pay to hunt for a pair of bull-necks when perhaps a dozen pairs of the common ones could be had with much less trouble.

But few of the old-time hunters purchased powder and shot by the keg and bag; some like Cooper, Bowden, Simpson I and some others may have done so; but the majority sent to Norfolk for ammunition in small quantities, when it could not be had at the Island shops.

Those shops could often furnish the majority of small gunners with ammunition. The call would invariably be: Half pound powder, two pounds shot. By a peak in my makeup, I hear that call yet.


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