Blaine Harden's story and photos on woodcarver and former duck poacher Delbert (Cigar) Daisey of Chincoteague, Va. ["Killer of 30,000 Ducks, Woodcarver Recalls Years of Poaching," Metro, Aug. 11], brought back memories, 45 years old, of the vast wild duck slaughters and warfare with federal agents once prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay area.
In the early 1930s, most of the islanders and particularly those native to Smith and Tangier Islands, regarded the G-men (game Management Agents) of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (now the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service), as "agents of the Devil and tyrants," because they tried to curb the illegal and wanton destruction of wildfowl that sought refuge in the marshlands and adjacent waters.
The natives believed they had a divine right to kill and sell all the wildfowl that settled in their territory. "The Lord gave us ducks to do with as we choose," they declared, in their near Elizabethan twang. And they made it clear they would shoot anyone who prevented them from shooting ducks. They began by destroying U.S. government autos and scuttling government boats.
The illegal marketing of birds slaughtered in the Smith Tangier Island area continued in and around Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
On dark nights, a poacher would ease his low lying boat stealthily -- close up to a "raft" of ducks riding the bay waters. He would lie flat in the bottom of his skiff, peering over the bow that scarcely cleared the water. The muzzle of a giant swivel gun, fixed to the boat, was pointed at the great mat of unsuspecting ducks. The eight foot gun was loaded with gunpowder, bent nails, scrap metal, and broken glass -- anything that would maim or kill. Raising his head slightly, the poacher would peer along the gun barrel, press the trigger and scatter death throughout the flock. As many as 125 wildfowl were destroyed by one discharge from this muzzleloader, which was forged in England about 1785. Records kept by each generation of father son owners since the time of George Washington indicated that this old weapon had killed 47,362 birds. (This carnage represents almost twice the number of ducks destroyed by poacher Daisey in his 52 years of duck killing.)
The G-men were also familiar with the poachers' use of multi-muzzle types of battery guns. These were secured to a skiff, requiring that the boat be pointed directly at the massed ducks. After slowly and silently maneuvering his craft within range, the poacher would fire the three gun battery. The racket would boom like a 75-mm filed gun. The boat would toss and almost plunge underwater, whicle the bird butcher flattened himself on the skiff's bottom, listening for motorboats. Peeping around, the hunber could see only globs of dead and dying birds littering the nearby waves; the remainder of the flock had risen, screaming, into the night air, and disappeared.
When all was quiet, the poacher would hastily store his artillery ashore and return to collect his kill. Heaping the birds in his skiff, he would soon paddle them to individuals, hotels and inns -- or fill his own larder.
One enterprising G-man was determined to stop such slaughters. He arrived on Smith Island disguised as an ornithologist, with plenty of equipment and papers signed by a "university dean." The "professor" claimed to be searching for rare birds, even while the islanders were grilling him and searching his gear. Finally, they promised him a one way trip into Tangier Sound at the end of an anchor if he proved to be a fraud.
While trapping, skinning and scraping his specimens for the "university" back home, the G-man learned that one islander had been shot for refusing to attend church. The agent began attending church regularly, chanting hymns with the rest of the congregation. Months later, he possessed enough information to convict many of the folks among whom he had lived.
Returning to his headquarters in the Agriculture Department, the "professor" learned his cover was blown. Nonetheless, the agent made his way back to the minister of the Methodist church on the island and carefully explained to him the meaning of game conservation in general and the results of the duck destruction in particular. Only the minister's promise of safety saved him from an angry mob of betrayed islanders.
The following Sunday, the minister exhorted his flock to cease slaughtering the wildfowl with their assortment of ancient guns.
"Give up your guns now!" he thundered, with the agent standing beside him. "Or go to hell hereafter!"
That did it.
Game conservationists on the Maryland-Virginia mainlands, hearing of the incident, helped by offering donations to the church for each gun surrendered to the government.
For many years, the various birdbutchering arms were exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. They can now be inspected in the museum of the Department of Interior, at 19th and C Streets NW.