It may not come as a surprise to anyone, but there are some duck hunters out there who don't exactly hunt by the law.
This is largely a function of the prehistoric way in which duck hunting laws are administered.
Look, they're already talking about this on the New Jersey Turnpike. At the first tool booth, you get a ticket that says where and when you entered. When you get off, the ticket gets stamped again, and if you got there too fast, a speeding fine is automatically added to your toll.
Very simple, very easy and totally impersonal. No hard feelings.
Meanwhile, duck hunters still are slinking through the marshes with an extra duck stuffed down their pants. It's not even sanitary.
Obviously, computerized duck hunting is long overdue.
It's complicated but it could work. First a little background on why duck hunters shoot over the limit.
Duck hunting is a primitive sporting form in which part of the achievement is to overcome hardship. Usually, this entails getting really dirty and wet and cold.
Duck hunters get up at about 4 o'clock in the morning, drive dangerous little boats through the sleet to crude huts in malodorous mud marshes, wade around in the freezing water setting decoys and then wait, shivering for the ducks to come by.
Duck hunters consider it worthwhile because they have a chance to get some shooting. Fifty years ago, the government decided somebody was going to have to tell the hunters when to stop shooting or else there wouldn't be any ducks left. The laws have been getting tighter ever since.
Most states now have a "points" system. Ducks are assigned point values and a hunter is allowed 100 points a day. This is great if you happen to get into a bunch of goldeneyes or teal, which are only 10 points apiece in a lot of places. But it's murder if you run into some black ducks or redheads or wood ducks, which go for 70 or more points apiece.
Recently, I went ducking with a fellow who liked to hunt so much he paid somebody $50 to work his shift at the factory that day. We got on the river before dawn and, shortly, some ducks came in. He shot twice, two ducks fell, he went out and picked them up and that was it. Two wood ducks, 70 points apiece, put him over the 100-point limit.
(It should be noted that he was within the law, which states that one must stop shooting after killing the duck that puts him over 100 points).
The fellow popped the shells out of his gun and put it in the case so he wouldn't be tempted to shoot again. It was a gesture so noble I was briefly flabbergasted, until he explained that he'd been caught shooting over his limit so many times he couldn't afford to get caught again. "They might take away my hunting license," he said.
That, of course, is the wrong example to cite. More commonly, a hunter who had gone to the trouble this fellow had would grumble something like, "Well, there's yesterday's limit for when I got skunked. Now let's see about gettin' today's," and reload.
At first, when I thought about computerized duck hunting I figured the best system would be to make sure every duck got stamped with an identifying code as it came south from the nesting grounds for the winter hunting season in the southern climates.
There's a lot of confusion over which duck is what and how many points it's worth, since different states have different point values for the same duck.
For example, one hunting pal had a good day in a South Carolina rice marsh but he killed one duck he didn't recognize. When he got back to camp, a warden was passing by so the fellow showed him the duck. "What is it?" he asked.
"That there's a redhead hen," said the warden (redheads being a protected species at the time), "and you're in a heap of trouble, boy."
Now if you stamped every duck with an identifying code and gave every hunter a little deciphering computer, you could avoid embarassments like that. Say you shot a brown duck. You get the number -- T237 -- off the code stamped on its foot and run it through the pocket computer: The computer says "hen mallard," then the hunter punches his state code and the computer answers, "Maryland, 70 points, one more and you're done.
The only problem with this plan is that it doesn't have any enforcement potential. The guy could still say, "Well, that's yesterday's limit," and keep on shooting until he got caught.
Stamping the ducks as they come south is a good idea but it's not enough. All water fowl hunters already are required to buy federal water fowl permits. aI believe the federal government ought to issue federal water fowl guns with the permits, to be returned at the end of the season.
These guns -- normal 12-guage shotguns -- would be equipped with built-in scanners mounted along the side near the shell-ejection chamber.
When a duck came into range, the hunter would just aim normally. The scanner would read the computerized identification code affixed like those supermarket labels to the duck's underside and there would be an instant readout: "WIGEON, HEN, 25 POINTS, SHOOT."
Or, it might say: "WILSON'S PLOVER, NOT A GAME BIRD, HOLD YOUR FIRE."
Or: "GOODYEAR BLIMP, YOU MORON."
Once the hunter had achieved his daily limit, the gun would automatically unload itself and replace itself in its case. If the hunter coerced shells into the chamber and ignored the scanner's "DON'T SHOOT" instructions, the firing-pin end of the chamber would retract and the hunter would blow his own fool head off.
I have talked with Dr. Barry Commoner, the Citizen's Party candidate for president, about this plan and he has agreed, if details can be worked out, to include it in his four-year program after the election.
Of course, it is only a temporary move. Eventually, the government will find a way to simply prepackage nuclear-powered ducks for hunting sport.
This year, the cost of a federal water fowl stamp rose from $5 to 7.50. Calculating that rate of increase over the next few decades, it won't be long before a duck stamp will cost $10,000, for which the hunter will be entitled to this:
He will receive his stamp and gun at the post office and be awarded his personal duck-hunting telescreen, which he will be allowed to use during normal hunting hours. Nuclear-powered ducks always will be there in profusion at the appropriate hours. His gun scanner will identify each species as it flies by and he may select any combination for his daily limit. The screen will black out when he has his limit.
At day's end, an equivalent number of game-farm-reared ducks will be gutted, plucked, wrapped in plastic and delivered to his home freezer.
This should provide sport and also ease the qualms of some nonhunters who believe that the ducks they buy in the supermarket never have feathers and never went quack.
Come to think of it maybe they're right.