Years ago, people around the Chesapeake Bay baited ducks and geese to make sure they always got their limit when they went waterfowl hunting. Baiting has been illegal for decades but, until about 1966, when federal agents stepped in, the law was loosely enforced.
In the old days duck and goose hunters picked out a pond or the corner of a field and tossed out a few hundred pounds of corn. The birds came to the food like songbirds to a backyard bird feeder, and when it came time for a hunt, all the gunners had to do was march out and start shooting.
Anybody could do it and most did. The legal crackdown was designed to put an end to baiting. For the most part, it succeeded. In four years of hunting around the Chesapeake, I haven't seen any blatant signs of baiting. Then last week I was introduced to legal baiting -- rich man's baiting.
Jim Bugg, a retire real estate entrepreneur from the Washington area, called with a fantastic story about a farm on the lower Eastern Shore where everyone who goes duck hunting gets his limit every time out.
Bugg has a hunting place near the farm, which is south of Cambridge in Dorchester County. He was so impressed with the farm owner's techniques that he has begun the same program on his own 400-acre property.
The official name of the game is "habitat improvement." Since it's illegal to throw feed grain into a pond to lure waterfowl, Bugg and his mentor, a man named Al Ransome from Riverton, N.J., have changed farming tactics to create grain on the stalk all around their ponds. If they don't have natural freshwater ponds they build them with bulldozers. And since there aren't as many wild ducks around as they'd like, they raise and release tame mallard ducklings to flesh out the population.
The result is a duck farm loaded with food, cover, fresh water and birds.
Bugg's farm is only in the initial stages of this transformation. Yet already next to his hunting lodge, with its mounted heads of lions and moose and other big game on the walls, there are two man-made ponds that at times during every day are inundated with hundreds of ducks. "Those are my ducks," Bugg proudly said last week as flock after flock filtered down onto his ponds.
Bugg said that the motive behind his and Ransome's extensive, elaborate farming program is to provide habitat and food for the ducks, and not just to assure lots of shooting.
With that in mind, he does not hunt the ponds next to his lodge. But about 100 yard away he has had a crude blind constructed over a diked-off section right next to a corn field. The dike creates a pond and, throughout the pond and around the edges, milo and millet have been sown. These grains lure ducks by the hundreds, too, and he and his guests have had shooting aplenty over that pond.
As he walked me around that flooded field, Bugg scared a shot-crippled greenwing teal out of some bushes. The teal swam with its broken wing across the muddy water. "I wish I had my dog right now," said Bugg, "to catch that duck."
But Bugg's 400 acres just above Taylor's Island state Wildlife Management Area is nothing compared with the ducking dynasty Ransome has created. Ransome's business is Caterpillar tractors around the Philadelphia area. He owns about 1,300 acres near Bugg's place. On parts of that acreage, he has altered forever the lay of the land.
Bugg, spouting superlatives, provided a tour of the farm Ransome calls Tall Timbers. Indeed, there were ducks by the thousands, there, cramming the ponds and sloughs. Ransome and his tractors had dike off natural wetlands and scraped out ponds, surrounding them with unharvested grains.
Each of these carved-out ponds he had named in honor of some friend or shooting buddy. The names are engraved on wooden plaques. "Sheble's a sportsman of the field," said one. "J's Pothole, named for Julius Boros, a man amongst men." And "O.P.'s Pocket, named for O. Paul Frey, stalker of the goose."
All very poetic and nice. But the concept raises serious questions. Is it right, for example, to carve up nature to make it better for one species of animal? There are federal laws designed to keep people from bulldozing wetlands, which are vital bases for aquatic life. These wetland protective laws have in recent years been actively enforced.
Ransome said by phone from his Philadelphia office that he has had some trouble with wetlands laws in his 10-year program of habitat improvement. Now, he said, the state is "a lot more receptive to granting permits to dike off wetlands. The real problem is still with the federal agencies," he said.
Ransome and Bugg believe the best thing you can do to a tidal marsh is dike it off and turn it into freshwater ponds. Once the salt water is out, wigeon grass starts growing spontaneously, he said. An ducks love wigeon grass.
All the little beasts that favor salt marsh, on the other hand, are out of luck. There are those who would say that man has no business deciding what beasts should prosper and which shouldn't.
The duck-raising program raises questions. Detractors would say Ransome and Bugg are shooting tame ducks, and by introducing pen-reared birds raising the prospect of damaging the wild flocks by interbreeding.
Ransome says he is proud that some of his banded birds have been "harvested" as far away as Canada and Wisconsin.
Hunters who use the Taylor's Island management area, where public hunting is permitted, say Ransome and Bugg are denying them their right to hunt by attracting all the birds to the private farms with their unnaturally favorable food and cover.
And sportsmen maintain that the type of hunting Ransome and Bugg do, where the birds pour into the ponds in unnatural numbers and without fear or wariness, is not hunting at all, but killing.
The only way to determine whether a man is a sportsman is to hunt with him. did that with Bugg. Here is the story of our goose hunt.
He called his "man" on the Eastern Shore the night before our hunt and instructed him to pick appropriate blinds and put out the decoys. We drove to the farm the hired hand had selected before dawn and went to the marsh blinds by boat.
The geese did not move early, but it was clear that there were some birds scattered through the marsh. After an hour or so of waiting, Bugg left the blind, went back to his truck and drove up and down the road in search of geese.
Later, he sent his hired hand to stalk the areas where he had found geese and scare up the birds so they might fly over the blind and he and his guests, an ambassador and a bank president, could shoot.
It all came to naught when the geese flew the wrong way. Bugg later admitted he didn't really care for goose hunting, anyway, and that things would be better when duck season reopened.
In the afternoon, to appease his guests, he set up a pheasant hunt at Ransome's neighboring farm, using pen-reared birds. One of Ransome's hired hands put the birds out in a field and then led a Brittany spaniel around in search of them. They were found and shot to smithereens. Several couldn't even fly. The guide threw them into the air. Others were killed by the dogs.
This is not sportsmanship.
Now Ransome and Bugg have started a tax-exempt organization to spread the word about "habitat improvement." It's called Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage and its mission is to help farmers around the Bay to install ponds and milo and millet strips in areas they don't use, to help sustain wintering ducks.
They regard it as a conservation and sportsmanlike project.
Sen. Sam Ervin used to say, "When a man tells you he's just a plain, country lawyer it's time to lock up the smoke house."
And when a man tells you he's a sportsman and a conservationist, it might be a good time to make sure all your barnyard ducks are in the coop.