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Return to Long Island Genealogy
Long Island is located on the eastern flyway for waterfowl. Many Long Island hunters supplemented their often-meager income by market gunning. Hunting ducks for fancy New York restaurants was just one way to survive. This took place from around 1840 until 1918 when the new conservation law went into effect preventing the practice of market gunning. At the turn of the nineteenth century, all first class hotels and restaurants served game dinners. From the 1840s until the law changed in 1918 market gunners supplied their tables with wild birds. Commercial hunting was always frowned on by the sportsmen of the day. After 1918 many of the market gunners became professional guides. The local duck farms in Eastport and Moriches used to shoo the wild ducks out of their domestic Pekin ducks and their feed. The sky would be black with thousands of black ducks taking wing.In the early days before the Civil War there were no laws and the resultant slaughter caused many laws to be enacted to preserve the duck population. The numbers killed were astounding. In the 1800s Captain Wilbur Corwin of Bellport and one other gunner killed 640 in one day according to his written log.
The earliest hunters on Long Island were the Indians. It wasn’t long before the Colonists learned how to shoot ducks and snipe as they had in Europe. The early settlers depended on hunting to survive.
People who are interested in a particular cause usually band together and form some sort of organization. Duck hunters formed gunning clubs and were able to buy or lease property on the bay to set up a gunning preserve. Early Sportsmen’s clubs were for the well-born and high achievers.
At the other end of the spectrum there were many small clubs sometimes sponsored by townships and open to residents.
The first such club was believed to be on Carmans River in old Brookhaven. Daniel Webster rented a piece of land there in 1823 soon after he caught the famous trout. He invited his friends, including Martin Van Buren [later to become our eighth President] to fish and hunt. This later developed into the Suffolk Club organized in 1858 in New York City. These owners built a lodge on the site. The property eventually became Suffolk county’s South Haven Park.
Many of the exclusive hunt clubs started in New York City. With the new Long Island Railroad, hunters could reach anywhere on Long Island easily.
In the Bellport area, the Brookhaven Gunners Association was formed in 1924. It later became the Pattersquash Gunners Association. They leased the gunning rights to Bellport Bay from Brookhaven Town. Other gunners in the area could only gun on Fiddleton Flats and Pattersquash Island. Headquarters was on Pelican Island at Old Inlet.
As the duck population shrank due to over hunting, the Federal government stepped in and imposed limits and rules. To help pay for the program during the depression, Federal duck stamps were and still are sold through the Post Office and were affixed to the required State Hunting License.
Gunning clubs leased or owned beach land and sometimes hired caretakers to live on the land to keep the poachers out. The ducks were baited with corn by their caretaker to insure a plentiful supply of targets for his employers. Hunters would employ live callers. These ducks had their wings clipped and couldn’t fly. They were tied and staked out amongst the decoys. They would attract ducks flying by their quacking. It was considered unsporting to shoot ducks swimming. Shooting into the stool would damage them and if live callers were used, it might kill them.
The law changed and live callers were done away with. Hunters turned them in to such places as the Quogue game preserve. My father turned his in at Quogue and many years later, when visiting, his tame goose would come to him. These birds were formerly kept all year long and sometimes became pets.
Some of the clubs were the Wyandanch Club, the Southside Sportsman’s club of West Sayville, the Wa-Wa-Yanda Club on Captree Island and the Flanders Club near Riverhead.
During the depression years a hunter, not doing too well, sometimes shot a sea coot, legal, but difficult to eat. The recipe given by old-timers was to skin the coot, parboil it overnight and place it on a shingle, bake for at least an hour, then throw the coot out and eat the shingle.
There are many local wild duck recipes. Some parboil them to remove the “fishy taste” before roasting them. Others just stuff an onion in them and roast with a hot oven. Of course before the cooking comes the hanging for a few days in a cool place, then plucking the feathers and eviscerating them.
There were many other shorebirds that were hunted complete with decoys. High fashion hats for women required feathers. Terns, sea gulls, herons, and egrets were hunted for their plumage. The Shea White Plumage Act of 1910 should have put an end to this slaughter, but in merely drove it underground. It took a long time for it to diminish.
The market gunners saved the duck and goose feathers and sold them by the pound to make feather beds when they plucked the fowl for market.
Geese used to be scarce, but anyone on Long Island knows there is no shortage of them or their excrement anywhere locally. Somehow the geese got patterned to stay here rather than continue on their southern trip. There’s now a special open season on Canadian geese in September. Jet skis sometimes end up in the line of fire. Summer play doesn’t mix too well with gunning season!
Some of the local decoy craftsmen were: Ben Hawkins 1800, Henry F. Osborne 1846, Wilbur R. Corwin 1876 all of Bellport. There was Thomas Gelston of Quogue, 1897, Charles Howell, Center Moriches, and George Robert of Mastic in the 1900s. The list is by E. Llewyllen Reeve, master decoy carver of East Moriches, L.I.