Preceding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, waterfowl hunting was a huge industry in Texas and throughout the civilized United States. Everyday Americans went to the local market for wild-harvested tablefare. The finest restaurants fetched eye-popping prices for wildfowl. Business boomed. And wildfowl provided more than just meat! In the first of this special 2-part series, historian Robert K. Sawyer takes us on a deep dive into this interesting timeframe in American history, especially as it pertains to Texas. Tune in to Part 2 next Wednesday, October 26, and be sure to take a look at Sawyer’s related links below for more information.


Related Links:

Robert K Sawyer’s 100 Years Texas Waterfowl hunting and Other Books

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Outlaw Gunning: Texas Market Hunting Traditions

The first game law was passed in Texas in 1903 and all that did was make it a little more lucrative to continue to market hunt for the next half century.

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere deep down in South Texas, not too far from the Gulf at the beautiful Spread Oaks Ranch. What county are we in?

Robert K. Sawyer: You’re in Matagorda County.

Ramsey Russell: Matagorda County, beautiful. As you drive in beautiful pastures, absolutely incredible. Live oak marsh throughout the place and old Southern Mississippi looks like anything but duck country, but trust you all me duck country it is. Many of our long term listeners are familiar with today’s guest, Mr. Robert Sawyer, author of a lot of great must have books, not the least of which is 100 years of Texas Waterfowl Hunting, Texas Market Hunting, Images of the Hunt and a new book we’ll tell you about in a minute.  Today’s topic is one that is always popular, one that I can’t get enough of here and it goes back to the Texas market hunting to the outlaws before as the game laws were becoming established. Rob, how are you, buddy?

Robert K. Sawyer: I’m good, welcome back, Ramsey. It’s nice to see you again.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, I love it down here. And I can’t be no further from Canada where I’m heading to tomorrow, but I am not going to pass through Texas for this invite and not come here and see my buddy, Rob. You’re also the manager of this place in terms of waterfowl habitat and so I enjoy this visit at a lot of different levels.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yes, sir.

Ramsey Russell: Where do we start? Where do we start with the history of – where do we start with this topic here? Put me on a timeline and where do we go from here?

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, I’ll tell you how it started was, I lived across the river in Maryland from Harry Walsh and his family. Harry Walsh is the gentleman who wrote the seminal book Outlaw Gunner and on his little sandy beach front were things like battery guns and punt guns and the history of East Coast, market hunting and it always stuck with me. So, I moved to Florida, then Louisiana, then to Texas and I always wondered whether Texas had any sort of market hunting history at all. So I just started asking people and sure enough, there seemed to be a story there, it’s very different than the East coast, East coast commercial market hunting started early in Texas there was a golden period and really railroad was the driver. Railroads were beginning to connect Texas cities in the 1870s and 1880s. And when railroad came, followed by commercial ice, which was not available, demand on the East coast had grown to proportions greater than the local market hunters could fill and Texas filled that gap, and that little golden period wasn’t long, the legal market hunting period was 1880 to 1903. The first game law was passed in Texas in 1903 and all that did was make it a little more lucrative to continue to market hunt for the next half century. But most of that was as outlaw gunning.

Ramsey Russell: How long was that period of time again? And I think you just said it, we had about 23 years, 25 years, quarter century of market hunting to fill the void over on the east coast. And then what was the span of outlaw market hunting again?

Robert K. Sawyer: That one was half a century.

Ramsey Russell: Half a century, twice as long.

Robert K. Sawyer: And frankly, I’m being generous, it could have gone another 25 years and seems to have.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I previously couple of years ago, interviewed a gentleman in Louisiana that was selling ducks back in the 70s. I mean, and it may be happening right now, I don’t know. What was the demand? Go into that a little bit? What are we talking here when we talk about market hunting in Texas?

Market Hunting Songbirds

If it flew, it was eaten.

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, there were numerous buckets and I found it interesting, I guess you could sort of divide it into birds, waterfowl and plumage birds. So, one of the things that was most interesting to me was the consumption of, what we call songbirds. I was amazed by a market in robins, cardinals, barn swallows, they had recipes for owls and hummingbirds.

Ramsey Russell: If it flied, it died.

Robert K. Sawyer: If it flew, it was eaten. And I was really surprised by that one. There was one market hunter in Texas who got his records and he shot 120,000 birds on average, all robins for the Texas marketplace every year with his crew of market gunners.

Ramsey Russell: How long do you think it took him to kill 120,000 robins back in the early 1900s?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, this would have been 1890s to 1901, so by then they were looking at pump shotguns and technology brought efficiency. And if you figure they shot them every night for about three months, if you could do the arithmetic, it sounds like they’re doing about 1000 birds a night.

Ramsey Russell: Going out and shooting them in roost. Do you know whether or not they were just strife in the tree top with their shotgun?

Robert K. Sawyer: I don’t know. It’s very funny, it’s very difficult to get actual descriptions of that era and how birds were harvested and killed, I know a little bit more about passenger pigeons. Netting was a big way that they took passenger pigeons and they may very well have used the same application on robins, they put smoke under the roost and they drive the birds out into waiting nets.

Ramsey Russell: Some of the birds on this list you provided just shocked me. Woodpeckers, sparrows, barn swallows, mockingbirds, tanager, cedar wax wings, cedar wax wings, I’d heard down to Louisiana, robins, I’d heard down Louisiana, but 120,000 and they were sold to local restaurants.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. So, I was fascinated by the fact that very few of the birds that were killed, actually went to what I call the export market, loaded on trains in ice and sent to the marketplace, pintails, mallards, every other species of duck stayed in Texas. They were sold to restaurants, local markets, but the birds that they exported were canvasbacks, redheads, curlews and plovers. And the other big export market was plumes for ladies hats.

The Big Money in Market Hunting

The plumage market was egrets, rosy and spoonbills and hoopoe and then Sandhill cranes, turns, ibis, herons, pelicans and the amount of money that they brought in the marketplace was startling.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of plumes?

Robert K. Sawyer: So the plume market was probably the big money in the game. The plumage market was egrets, rosy and spoonbills and hoopoe and then Sandhill cranes, turns, ibis, herons, pelicans and the amount of money that they brought in the marketplace was startling. The number one bird were called the long delicate plumes of the snowy egret and its name in conservation circles was the Bonnet martyr. Wiped them out, in fact, we almost lost all of our waiting colonial birds, it was dangerously that close. And market hunters for these plumes of the snowy egrets in today’s dollars, they average from $4,500 to $21,000 a pound, big money. So, you can imagine that these boys were going to take these birds because where else are you going to make that kind of money, if you’re not working for a New York banker.

Ramsey Russell: You told me a little while ago that the newspapers carried wild game recipes. Would that have been also for a lot of these songbirds we’re talking about? When you did your research, did you see those recipes?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yes, I did. They were written usually by women for women and they would describe how the women should pluck the birds, gut the birds and the recipes that they should use. And the ones that really fascinated me were the menus that they would advertise in various newspapers and the New York restaurants and they would try to copy them in the Houston restaurants and there was one that said, the only menu we’re serving in wintertime New York this year is Chesapeake Bay canvasback with roasted oysters and fried terrapin.

Ramsey Russell: That sounds delicious. I don’t know about terrapin now, red ear slider is what I call them. But the oysters and the canvasbacks sound delicious.

Robert K. Sawyer: And the Terrapins are great.

Ramsey Russell: Can you recall any recipes for mockingbirds or any of those songbirds? Like, how would they cook them? Whole pick them, roast them, make a gravy?

Robert K. Sawyer: Didn’t waste a thing and they were always roasted and they made a big deal out of stuffing. So, imagine how long it takes to stuff 15 Mockingbirds that are going in your oven.

Ramsey Russell: Makes me wonder what I’ve been missing. Now, I am a little curious, I got to admit, but I just don’t see those songbirds out there at feed in my backyard as being a meal.

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, they use things, they they’d say meadowlark tastes a lot like quail. So, do you use a quail recipe for meadowlark.

Ramsey Russell: They must have a white meat or light meat.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t know the answer to that.

Ramsey Russell: If you had to guess what was – were most market hunters targeting meat or plumes or was it a seasonal thing? I mean, did they hunt robins when they were down on the migration and then back off to the marshes to go shoot plumes? Is it how they did it?

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s a great question. And from what I can tell is, they were specialists. The plume hunter really knew how to hunt his rookeries and he targeted rookeries and he stayed in that business. The songbird hunter just happened to live in an area where he knew the big migration and he specialized. The waterfowl hunters would hunt both for the local market and for the export market, but very soon by 1890, if you were an export market hunter, you were a canvasback market hunter, that’s your big dollars. And you hired fence riders, you burned anybody’s boat, you shot anybody, not necessarily to kill them, but if you had canvasback grounds, you kept everybody out of – they sure think twice before they came back.

The Canvasback Craze

So, they favored birds from Texas because they made more money. 

Ramsey Russell: This sounds like a good time for you to retell the story about the canvasback wars. That was king, canvasback.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yes, it was. And being a Chesapeake Bay guy was kind of amused but there were two or three major canvasback grounds in Texas. And Chesapeake Bay got very protective, they were being undersold by Texas canvasbacks 1890 to 1903, they were coming out of just one area at about 30,000 and 40,000 canvasbacks per season. And the gentleman, the game merchants on the Chesapeake Bay and their distributors to markets all over were unhappy that they were being undercut and that the demand was being met by Texas. So they started this massive campaign to slander Texas canvasbacks and they’d say, oh, if you want a Texas canvasback, go ahead, it tastes like a redhead. Well, the truth of the matter is they were substituting a lot of redheads for canvasbacks anyway, it’s just what you do. And they created a vicious war in the newspapers and I think the only way it finally got resolved was they simply outlawed market hunting and that was the end of the story, at least the public story.

Ramsey Russell: It wasn’t just Texas because I’ve actually hunted a club in Utah called the Canvasback Club, it’s called the Chesapeake Club, it used to be called the Chesapeake Bay Club and that way they could stamp their crates Chesapeake Bay and equal out that unlevel playing field to get toehold into that market share.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. And in fact, one of the common thing was I know they did this in Curry Tuck Sound, they’d shipped their Curry Tuck Sound, canvasbacks up to Norfolk, Virginia and then they could stamp them Chesapeake Bay and that’s how they went to the market.

Ramsey Russell: But in all your research, did you ever see – if I were a consumer or maybe a wholesaler, how much did I pay for Chesapeake canvasback? And how much would a Mississippi canvasback get?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, great question. And the Northern wholesalers were selling canvasbacks for about – Chesapeake Bay good first class canvasbacks at $7 a pair, that’s $225 today’s dollar. So that was the marketplace. So these Texas boys were bringing them in at $2 to $5 a pair and the wholesalers in the marketplace made a much larger margin off the Texas birds than and other locations, that was a big margin. So, they favored birds from Texas because they made more money. I think the highest price I saw was when they would ship what they call Chesapeake Bay canvasbacks, but they were coming from Texas in England. Well, England didn’t know any difference and they were selling those birds for $25 a pair, which is over $800 a pair today. And we’re talking 1890, that’s a lot of money.

Ramsey Russell: I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some Chesapeake Bay wholesalers buying Texas birds on the cheap stamping them Chesapeake Bay and sell them to New York restaurants.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s what I would have done.

Ramsey Russell: Maximize their profits, that’s the way that business was. A lot of your research, whether we were looking at songbirds or waterfowl, curlew, clovers or plumes, was there any mindset whatsoever about sustained use or conservation? I mean, I’ve got a roost over here and boy, it’s making me a ton on lady hat plumes. Do I take a little bit and milk it forever or do I just get it now?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. The answer was, get it. The change in culture really came predominantly out of New York, the sustainability, the conservation of a natural resource, but it’s awfully hard to tell someone who’s trying to make a living for their family that they have to follow some rule. Well, if I don’t shoot this roost, somebody else is going to come in right behind me.

Ramsey Russell: $225 for a pair of canvasbacks today in a day and age that I don’t have bag limits, that’s not just making a living, that’s hitting a lick right there.

Market Hunting Consortiums

…and he would hold tens of thousands of birds from around the nation for the marketplace and he would hire local market gunners that would shoot his birds for him.

Robert K. Sawyer: Excellent point. But it’s always about a pecking order to, there were scores of market men who barely just got by if you were going to control a canvasback ground where the big bucks were, if you were going to have a plume rookery where the big bucks were, you had to fight and claw your way in. These were the 1% to 10% at the very top of the pile. So the average market man was, the boy and his family, his point of sons and they hunted near the house and never had the money to invest in and to get those really prime areas.

Ramsey Russell: Well, that brings up another question to put it in like Jeremiah Johnson type terms. You had a Jeremiah Johnson out there at solitary, scratching by trapping animals. And then you had the Hudson Bay Fur Company. Were there consortiums like that in this market hunting era?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yes, they were. And they were huge consortiums. They were national entities that had great large funding, they’d come into areas like Louisiana, Texas, they were not –

Ramsey Russell: So, they weren’t necessarily from here, they were national.

Robert K. Sawyer: Oh, yes. Yeah, you were shooting for the – you were a hired hand, let’s say, out of – a number of the stories I got were in particular was a gentleman by the name of Nat Wetzel, who was a national game distributor, he would put birds into cold storage and he would time their release to the most demand, but the least amount of supply so he could, and he would hold tens of thousands of birds from around the nation for the marketplace and he would hire local market gunners that would shoot his birds for him.

Ramsey Russell: Were they American companies?

Robert K. Sawyer: Always.

Ramsey Russell: There weren’t any French or English or Spanish companies at all?

Robert K. Sawyer: And the Chinese hadn’t come yet.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a good thing, we wouldn’t have any ducks left. Where do we go from here? Lake Surprise. Where is that?

Ramsey Russell: That is in Anahuac area of the southeast part of Texas, Chambers County. You were just north when you were talking to Gene Campbell at Lake Surprise by about probably less than 5 miles. 

Ramsey Russell: And that was the best canvasback hunting gunning water.

Robert K. Sawyer: In probably all of the Gulf coast.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about that a little bit.

Robert K. Sawyer: Lake Surprise was a natural water body that had all the right chemistry, if you will, Ph, salinity, it was one of the 3 to 5 spots in Texas that wild celery grew. And a gentleman by the name of Colonel Moody who had the cotton industry and the banking industry of Galveston wrapped up, loved to sport hunt, but he was tight, he didn’t want to just spend money to shoot, he wanted to make money while he was shooting and he hired market gunners to shoot Lake Surprise on a kind of daily basis after Thanksgiving and he brought in the best market gunners from Chicago to shoot for the Chicago market and it was big numbers.

Ramsey Russell: How big?

Robert K. Sawyer: I think, one market man in one winter shot over 5000 at its peak in 1901, they shipped 30,000 in a season. Neat story by a gentleman by the name of Forrest McNair who was a market gunner there. He said, he fired 300 black powder shells in 45 minutes and he shot, 200 canvasbacks worth $835 in the New York market for the Christmas holidays and 835 times 32, I can’t do the arithmetic, but that’s a lot of money.

Ramsey Russell: And I’m just recalling the conversations there’s no doubt in my mind that these men were exceptional shots by modern standards, but I never forget having a conversation with a modern market hunter two part series back in the day where he described listening to his grandkids era today out in the field behind him, shooting, he said and they’re doing it wrong. I said what you mean? He said, well, you hear them boom, volleying and you might hear pop, pop, he said, you hear a market hunter do it, you hear boom or you hear boom, boom, then you hear shooting wing break, he said, they let him get in tight, it’s all about efficiency.

Robert K. Sawyer: It was. Some of the canvasback shooters would shoot them on the wing. But in the case of Forrest McNair, who was the Lake Surprise market gunner, he was on the US trap team, he was on an Olympic shooting team. Well, okay, when he fired, that was maximum efficiency, if it was me shooting them on the wing, I’d have been fired. But the most common way to do it was exactly as you say, they get them on bait, they get them concentrated and then they’d make some sound, usually a whistle, get the heads up, fire across the top.

Ramsey Russell: A lot of guys had quotas. They weren’t just out there bringing in what they could, they had quotas, it was performance based stuff. Did you ever read or dig on any of the quotas? What some of the quotas were? Like this gentleman that shot 5000 canvasbacks in 1893, 1894, what was his quota, I wonder.

Robert K. Sawyer: In the case of Lake Surprise, it was really dollar based with Colonel Moody, his was very little incentive but it was dollar based. In the case of the commission hunters, the big national outfits, they had to shoot 25 ducks a day minimum just to keep their job.

Ramsey Russell: My goodness, run over the prices, just give me a highlight of what these prices were like back during the heyday and I guess we’re still talking preceding 1903, right? We’re still in that era of real market hunting.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. So, it took me a while, I kept wondering why there was no passenger pigeons on any of the game menus, the game listings. Well, they call them wild pigeons and passenger pigeons extinct now, snipe, they were about a dollar a dozen and that would be about $32 a dozen today. Pintail, mallards, black ducks were sold locally and they brought in usually about a dollar a pair. And then the canvasbacks, of course, we talked about those dollars, that was the big dollar, the market hunter was paid $8 a dozen, as an average, which is equivalent to about $260 a today and that was for a dozen birds. So that was your high $8 a dozen. The Sandhill cranes brought a couple dollars more, it was interesting because the hooping crane was sold in the marketplace right up to about 1890 and all of a sudden it disappeared, like the passenger pigeon just disappeared from game lists.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, you start talking $35 a dozen, we’re talking expensive beef prices today more than good quality wagyu beef.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s an excellent point. Of course, if you look at the average person who shoots snipe today, they’re spending a lot more money on shotgun shells than that.

Ramsey Russell: Probably so. And Texas canvasbacks over in England, a pair in today’s dollars in 1890 it was $814. What about other ducks? What about green wing teal? What about Shovelers? I mean, back in your first podcast you talked about, back in the day, there wasn’t a big demand for snow geese because they were rank birds that lived off in the marsh back preceding rice. What would birds like that bring? What poor folks like me eat? We probably ate beef or chicken. But I mean, $814 for a pair of canvasbacks.

The Culture of Fine Dining Back in the Day

This cuisine was prepared in the fanciest restaurants and the fanciest hotels for fancy prices. It was a culture of very fine dining.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, I remember one quote that said, Texas canvasbacks are not for Texans, they’re only for the wealthy in the northeast we Texans can’t afford them. This was during the canvasback media war, the newspaper back and forth. And they called the white geese, white brant, they called a Canada goose and a specklebelly, they called them a gray goose and those sold usually about a dollar for a pair, that just blows my mind.

Ramsey Russell: That just blows my mind and I really don’t have a basis of comparison, like what farmed venison cost relative to beef now?

Robert K. Sawyer: Excellent point.

Ramsey Russell: Have to be a little more expensive.

Robert K. Sawyer: The culture of America, there was really twofold, wild game was what all Americans ate that were rural. But in the cities, wild game was just given a very lofty status like modern day caviar is probably the best example. This cuisine was prepared in the fanciest restaurants and the fanciest hotels for fancy prices. It was a culture of very fine dining.

Ramsey Russell: And we’re talking about, if you put it on a timeline, late 1800s, that’s the industrial revolution. I mean, that generational names like the Dupont – Rockefeller, all of them.

Robert K. Sawyer: Their dinner parties would feature things like tender buffleheads from Lake Erie. There would be Texas snipe and I mean, they went to great lengths to import these different species of birds to put on your plate. And I remember, I think it was about $10,000 in 1890 money to put on that, a Vanderbilt dinner in a New York Astoria or New York fancy name hotel.

Ramsey Russell: And the only thing that comes to mind is the fact that a lot of Americans “don’t like duck” and a lot of duck hunters when you say buffleheads, they’re like, oh, I don’t eat them trash ducks. It just blows my mind.

Robert K. Sawyer: It’s all in the hands of the chef as best I can tell. One of the things that surprised me when I looked at in Harry Walsh’s book, they had a listing, didn’t have the date, but I’m going to assume late 1800s, number one duck on this particular game listing was the ruddy, under it was the canvasback. I said, okay, I got to test this hypothesis. So shot a few redheads, I mean, ruddy ducks plucked the breast, soaked them, put them on the barbecue, they were spectacular. And that’s not a duck that a lot of people think of finally, when they think of cooking the duck dinner.

Ramsey Russell: I believe they were called dollar ducks back in the day.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, they were.

Ramsey Russell: You got to figure they got a lot of fat and I wonder how much waterfowl diets, especially the divers and sea ducks, how much their diet has changed in the last 100-150 years.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. I mean, wild celery that the canvasback – 

Ramsey Russell: I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen it.

Robert K. Sawyer: I’m planting it out here next year, you’ll have to come back. And it’s just an experiment,

Ramsey Russell: Deeper water for divers?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. And apparently as they would say, the wild celery imparts a delicate flavor on canvasback ducks and any epicurian worth their salt can taste a canvasback, that is not on a celery diet, meaning Texas canvasbacks –

Ramsey Russell: I like canvasback today, I’ve never eaten one that I don’t like and I refuse to eat them given a choice without the fat, go down river in Louisiana canvasback, whole pluck cooked in a pot are fine, they’re excellent, they’re beyond fine. Go in a little bit more detail about some of the the plumage birds you were talking about. Because we both got notes we’re looking at and it’s just same as we talk about bufflehead and grebe, some of the birds on the plumes list are just astounding, I mean, it’s crazy.

Robert K. Sawyer: It was, Ramsey. It was going down an avenue of learning, I knew they stuck plumes in women’s hats, but I didn’t know the degree that, again, like a fancy dining, you showed the world your social status by how many feathers and the uniqueness of the feathers that you had on your outfit.

Ramsey Russell: And talk about a feather in your cap.

Robert K. Sawyer: Amen. There was one I was stunned by, it was the gown of a London woman who was talked about all over London, because hers was made of 600 Brazilian hummingbirds. Now, first off skinning 600 Brazilian hummingbirds, that’s going to take me days to do that. There was one evening dress of a young girl with 50 canaries and now, we have a lot of these wonderful grebe here and they would make these muffs for their ears out of grebe breast feathers, but the hats, Ramsey, those hats were out of control. And it was interesting because as conservation began to appear on the horizon again, starting off in mostly New York by the wealthy who had the time the money, the interest to see what was happening to America’s wildlife species. How do you put a dent in demand? What they finally did was they had a writer for 2 Ladies Magazine, one I think was good housekeeping and started writing about the slaughter of the birds for their outfits within 5 short years, women completely cut demand for the Milner’s trade in plumage birds, that’s what worked.

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to look back 600 Brazilian hummingbirds the other day, I was sitting at Gene Campbell’s, I told this in the form of podcast it’s already aired and he said you got to go out there and just go stand by the corner of the house and I was a foot, 2ft from a hummingbird feeder with about 30 or 40 hummingbirds crashing into each other like bumper cars getting, I mean, you have ever seen a water cooler, the bubbles, they were drinking so much fluid, it was bubbling. But what got me besides the sounds of those hummingbirds was just they were literally in that late sunlight like sparkling jewels. I would hope that lady’s gown is still in a museum, I cannot imagine her walking under lights, it must have looked like a shiny jewel to see that, can you imagine?

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, that’s a really good visual. I thought about it from the side of putting that gown together and skinning all those birds. But you’re absolutely right and think of all the neotropical birds and whether it’s feathers or outfits, these women in society wanted to shine like jewels and once they were educated, once they knew the slaughter behind what was creating their redolent outfits, they were quick apparently to do the right thing.

Ramsey Russell: It seems to me that the plume market was just maybe even more lucrative than the actual meat market.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it appears that it was.

Tools of the Market Hunter’s Trade

What were the tools of trade for a market hunter back in these days?

Ramsey Russell: That’s just nuts. Did they hunt? Are we talking punt guns mostly or shotguns? What were the tools of trade for a market hunter back in these days?

Robert K. Sawyer: So, the tool of the trade, it depends really on the time period that we’re discussing and as technology evolved and really again, around 1880 the tools of the trade got to be more efficient and cheaper and they could kill a whole lot more. So, in Texas, the swivel gun was the big gun, not so much the punt, the punt really doesn’t loan itself to muddy areas, the punt loans itself to –

Ramsey Russell: What is a swivel gun?

Robert K. Sawyer: Swivel is a smaller gun, usually a 4 to 8 gauge long barrel, it’s like a small punt gun except you can rest it on a bow of a boat, rest it on a fence and easier to reload in a boat, you wouldn’t have to go beach it like you would a punt gun. I mean, it would take you an hour to load that punt gun. Swivels were just like a kind of a giant single shotgun, best way to describe it, that was used a lot. Night hunting was –

Ramsey Russell: Where did the swivel come in? And I asked that question because I recently learned, listening to another podcast heard about a cannon that the Coronado Expedition used, but it wasn’t mounted on a carriage type system with wheels. Like, I think of a civil war cannon, it had a big hook on the barrel and I think they said it was 4 gauge about that 4 gauge, 6 gauge. And it was too big to shoulder without breaking it in half, so they would throw it over a limb or a fence or a rock or other side of a wall and it would grab, the limb would absorb the recoil. And that’s what I’m thinking swivel might be, was it mounted on the gun, on the boat?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah or a fence post. In the forearm, there was a way to insert a swivel and it was like a T-post. So it allowed you the luxury if you put it in your boat to swing at some 40 degrees off center, left and right. Same with a fence post, same with the hide or a duck blind, they called them hides in those days. So it was not as versatile as a weapon to the shoulder but not as stationary as a punt gun, you can imagine that you’re skulling into a group of canvasbacks and they move to your right and you’re going, oh, shit, I can’t turn my gun, I turn my whole boat.

Innovative Ways of Maximizing the Shoot

Some of the more innovative of the baiters in Texas was as early as 1870s, they would soak their corn in opium and alcohol.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. And how did they hunt? Where did they hunt? When?

Robert K. Sawyer: So night time was a big deal in Texas, I guess it was in any place at all. Where they had birds, pumps and automatic shotguns came in, particularly around 1900 that Remington Model 11 with the magazine extender that was really big weapon. We also did steer shooting once we started using weapons to the shoulder, which was fascinating to me because I hadn’t come across that anywhere else, I think it may have been largely, unique to Texas, they would use a trained oxen and they train it to not get jumpy at the shot and the hunters would simply walk into resting waterfowl and then there was a wonderful man named Lyle Jordan whose family had a hunting steer and his story was, there’s nothing that has a more surprised look on its face than a duck when a man steps out from behind that steer. So we used that one a lot on potholes in Texas that was the most efficient method for maximizing the shoot.

Ramsey Russell: There was year ago, it wasn’t too long ago, 10 years ago, I can remember, I may have even seen a decoy but there were people that would fashion a cow.

Robert K. Sawyer: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: Out of ply board and walk up on snow geese drop the decoy and start laying them and there I was thinking they were being creative, they were just steer shooting.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. And that was big business in Texas, both for the sportsmen and in the sporting era, which started, I guess steer hunting was outlawed in Texas in 1941. So, I would see letters that were written as part of the research and collection. At 1920 these northern sportsmen would come down and I went steer hunting and we killed all these ducks and describe the whole process, a very unique way of shooting. Ducks were netted, they were trapped, which to me is most unsporting, but certainly efficient and bait as you know, you’ve talked about it in your podcast, bait was simply crucial to bringing ducks, keeping ducks and getting them grouped together. Some of the more innovative of the baiters in Texas was as early as 1870s, they would soak their corn in opium and alcohol.

Ramsey Russell: You’re kidding. Saved bullets that way.

Robert K. Sawyer: No kidding. They didn’t shoot, they simply walked around, grabbed their geese, this was mostly done for geese, wrung their necks and it was a huge hole. There was one group in 1886 I believe it was, they soaked their barrel of corn and opium for two weeks and they sold $128,000 worth of opiate geese in today’s dollars.

Ramsey Russell: That reminds me of a story I heard, years ago somebody had to said, sugar can’t be good for these humming birds, so we put a little wine and he found three hummingbirds outside his window, they’d gotten drunk and flown into it, so he scratched that idea, he went back sugar. And I cannot believe they were alcohol and opium and they were baited, they were baited with corn, sorghum, barley, wheat, rice, I understand all that, tomato seeds?

Robert K. Sawyer: Practicality.

Ramsey Russell: Where in the hell were they getting tomato seeds enough to – I’ve never heard of such.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, that and sugar beet pulp, I guess I can see that because we grew a lot of sugar cane. But the tomato seeds, I guess you can picture this massive area of tomato crop and they had no marketplace, so they were just practical.

Methods of Transporting the Trade

How do I get it to my local market? Who’s buying it?

Ramsey Russell: That’s unbelievable. I mean, the pound of tomato seeds, as small as tomato seed is, you would need to attract ducks or anything to fill up a bird feeder with tomato seeds, holy cow. Stir, what you got? Use what you got. Holy cow. That’s unbelievable. Trains were instrumental in getting and we have talked about this every time I’ve met with you and it’s unbelievable that the old train that has now been relegated to hardly nothing, at one time it was the internet of the day, the cutting technology of the day that I believe killed, I mean, when those trains started piercing in the wilderness, the wilderness was dead because we could all of a sudden start accessing it. But that was the primary way that they got these birds to the market, wasn’t it? Go into detail and tell me about the transportation? And also I’m curious as to what the market itself was like. Okay, I’m a market hunter and I’m out there baiting something with tomato seeds or opium laced tomato seeds and netting them up, but what was I doing with them? I come in, I come home with a boat full of opium laced geese, now what? How does that work? How do I get it to my local market? Who’s buying it? The market all divvied up and then how am I getting them to New York and then what? I mean, how did that market work?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, excellent question. So, every small town had a marketplace and it was housewise that went to the marketplace and it was kind of a Saturday marketplace. And so each town that had a newspaper advertised what was in the market at that time. So you’d see if there was just a whole lot of pintails, you’d watch the pintail prices drop in the market advertisements and they would get them by wagon to the local marketplace. There’d be a wagon full of swans and somebody at the meat market would put a price tag on them. And that was the easiest market. The harder market required more logistics. So if you were hunting, let’s say Harbor Island, which was a beautiful island and I think they’re turning it into a refinery port now. But it was a beautiful island in Aransas Pass and that was a big redhead and canvasbacks center. Rail made it to the nearest town which was Port Lavaca, so your market gunners would shoot and proficiency at its peak, there would be bayou boats, there would be a whole fleet in Galveston, it was called the Mosquito Fleet, it was 1000 boats. And they fished, they hunted, but they were also bayou boats. So you could raise a flag and bayou boat would come in, you’d paddle out, you’d sell your piece of paper, it says, okay, they’re worth this much, this bayou boat would take your birds, you go back and you keep shooting. Bayou boats would come into harbour ducks were unloaded and they were put in barrels with ice and on the next express train. So, what a marketplace you had things like, forwarding agents, you had, express trains, those are the ones you wanted because they would have very few stops, they go right to Chicago, right to Washington and whole railroad cars filled with barrels of seafood, barrels of waterfowl.

Ramsey Russell: Did you ever run across the transactional prices? What the boat sell it to the bayou boat for the bayou boat, sell it to the wholesaler for? Because then when you start talking about shipping, especially if it’s either a time function preceding ice or maybe even rail or it is a cost function because we all take ice for granted today. Every duck camp you go to has got an ice machine, but ice was a big freaking deal back in 1800 and 1900. Well, I mean, if Northern wholesalers are selling them for $7 a pair, what were they buying them for?

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, it always varied.

Ramsey Russell: Lot of cost in that $816 pair of canvasback, now that I think about it in England because it had to be taken care of, come from the marsh down in Texas, clear over to England and still be edible.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s right. And of course, that’s when the cold storage, refrigerator plant, so ice and then the ability to build a cold storage house, all of those occurred, the trains coming to Texas, the invention if you will of commercial ice and then the invention of cold storage, very compressed time frame. So it’s kind of the perfect storm and it’s an overused term. But that plus the browning, the Remington 11 automatic everything came together at that time period. But it’s interesting if you look at ice, it started in Galveston and it slowly made its way south down the Texas coastline. Ice, commercial volumes ice. So what you’d see is Port Lavaca before it got its first commercial ice making facility. Birds were only sold local, didn’t go on the train, no money involved as soon as they got their first, in fact, I think they ended up with three ice making cold storage units, suddenly they’re in business, everybody’s making big bucks again. Meanwhile, down in Brownsville, Brownsville never got ice, so picture what they had to do, no railroad, no ice and Brownsville is down by the Rio Grande near the Mexican border, they could never really enter the big money period of hunting because they had to salt them, which you didn’t really couldn’t take salted birds to the marketplace very easily. So they pray for cold weather, put them on a schooner sail like mad for Port Lavaca or Galveston, so they could get to the game dealers, the forwarding agents and get these birds iced and in the marketplace they lost way more than they ever made.

Ramsey Russell: How much volume are we talking about? What are some of the volumes? I mean, how big was the business in terms of volume?

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, I started off just finding these little bits that impressed me. There was one game dealer that had his very first cold storage plant in and that was 1889 and he was storing 1200 canvasbacks, 30,000 plovers, 15,000 snipe and 4000 prairie chickens, so that’s a series of numbers, it’s just one snapshot in time, but it gives you a feel that’s a whole lot of dead animals. And a decade later, there was a group of Texas market men that were working with the New York merchant and they were storing for the Christmas market. 10,000 ducks and 80,000 geese, big numbers. So I was trying to get a sense of just how many ducks were killed for the marketplace and I was able to find some real numbers for a couple towns Corpus Christi and Rockport about 1901, 1902. I got the numbers annually for canvasbacks in a few areas and I just played with the numbers and I think at the peak we were probably shipping about 600,000 to 700,000 ducks to the marketplace and that’s just the export market. Now, let’s take every Texas town with a market square, let’s take every Texas city with restaurants. Your numbers honestly have to be somewhere around a couple million.

Ramsey Russell: That’s amazing, that’s a lot of money.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s a lot of birds.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that’s a lot in today’s prices. Multimillions. There’s some rich folk flying around in the duck market, I believe.

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, it wasn’t as you know and you alluded to it. It wasn’t the duck hunters, it was the commission man, the forwarding agents, the guy with the restaurant, that was big money if they did it right.

Ramsey Russell: When did whooping cranes and passenger pigeons, late 1800s, they were pretty much gone, weren’t they?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, I think the passenger was about turn of the century and that was in a zoo. So, certainly 1890s, they were on the decline. Whooping cranes went fast probably late 1880s.

Ramsey Russell: Could you see based on the number of birds being exported done. When in American history with all this going on did to market hunters, I’m guessing or the public sitting in a restaurant wondering where the ducks were or the American public begin to see, whoa, where are the ducks?

Robert K. Sawyer: Great question. So on the east coast, it occurred early. New York, one of the biggest places to hunt for market hunters was Long Island. Oops, the city sort of messed that up. Went to the Chesapeake. Chesapeake was starting to see a decline, there’s more experts out there than me, but certainly 1880s, they were seeing a decline. Curry Tuck sound started picking up some of the Chesapeake canvasbacks, but they started shooting that out. Interesting thing about Texas is you’d see newspaper headlines in Texas is the new gunning frontier. Texas in 1880 through 1900 kind of looked like the Chesapeake Bay at its prime, we were late to get railroad, the sportsmen weren’t coming in until we got the railroad and in Texas, I would tell you that other than the passenger pigeon and the whooping crane, never saw a decline.

Ramsey Russell: And I read your book one day or you told me the story about there were some coastal cities that started as hunting mecca. The sports, it wasn’t just the Texas sportsmen, but it was people coming on a rail from New York City to come hunt that playground you’re talking about.

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. And it was railroad that brought them, so I kind of word it like those railroads were bringing sportsmen down one direction and then turning around and taking back barrels of ducks the other direction.

Fade Out Market Hunting, Fade In Sport Hunting

Those small Texas towns were just like today they like to attract industry in those days, they like to attract sportsmen.

Ramsey Russell: Because kind of getting into around that area, around that era, around that timeline, market hunting began to fade out, sport hunting began to emerge. When you saw those headlines, did you ever get the feeling that it was the Texas tourism promoting those headlines to attract foreign sport hunters?

Robert K. Sawyer: You bet it was. Those small Texas towns were just like today they like to attract industry in those days, they like to attract sportsmen.

Ramsey Russell: People come spend money, there it is.

Robert K. Sawyer: And they killed phenomenal amount. It’s interesting because all the bad press that the market man was getting, these wealthy sportsmen were killing numbers that often far exceeded the market hunter. But of course, that’s different. But the two coexisted for a critical period about 1885 through about 1903, you had the market men gunning the same waterways as these Texas sportsmen and that’s what caused the big clash in Texas mostly, wasn’t so much the northern sportsmen but the local Texas sportsmen. So you take all these wealthy gentlemen in San Antonio in particular in Texas and Austin, Waco, they like to have big shoots and when they would travel on a train, go to a town, go for a duck shoot and not have big shoots, the reason was usually because they followed about 5 days after, market and hunters have been there for weeks. So in Texas, I like to think of – I would have liked to have thought that conservation and our early game laws which preceded federal game laws by 15 some years was about conservation and recognition, it wasn’t, it was because the most powerful businessmen and legislators, politicians, judges in Texas were killing the kind of numbers they were used to, blamed it on the market hunter, they were more interested in protecting their sport than conservation.

Ramsey Russell: Their recreational pass time.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s right. Mighty big duck hunters and that’s what led to the first Texas game laws.

Ramsey Russell: When on a timeline are we talking about? And I’m aware that at that time, it was mostly left up to the state. The federal government didn’t play just a crazy role in that initially, did they?

The Emergence of Game Laws

I looked at early game laws and it was interesting because indeed it was the States, the first waterfowl game law was passed by Virginia in 1832.

Robert K. Sawyer: No, they couldn’t because in America, wildlife belonged to the people, that belong to the government, that’s kind of the European model. So for the fed to get involved, required some tricky wording in the language to get it across because it was a resource for the people. I looked at early game laws and it was interesting because indeed it was the States, the first waterfowl game law was passed by Virginia in 1832. I mean, we’re talking 30 years before the civil war for these guys to pass a game law and it was designed to cut down on the use of punt guns and night shooting. Now, I don’t know what prompted that, but that was interesting in Texas, not only did they, we have the state, but we allow counties to alter game laws opt out of any game law that they found was obnoxious, that’s probably not the best way to write a law. So it was a bitter battle in Texas, there were 3 names in Texas that were really men who carried the mantle forward. Oscar Guasas, San Antonio Marvin Davis out of Waco and the famous Henry Atwater, the gentleman who predicted that the prairie chicken would one day be overshot like quail and they named the Atwater Prairie Chicken after him. And they worked for 15 years trying to get the first protective law for wildlife and in this case, it actually helped with plumage birds, but then it took them another decade to get anything else passed and newspapers just laughed at the laws. They said, your 1891 law here covering plumage birds, not one single prosecution has ever been made and part of that was because there was no game wardens. The other part of it was 56 counties said, we don’t like the game law, we’re not going to abide by it and they didn’t have to, it wasn’t until 1893 that the first language to protect waterfowl was ever even got to our legislators and it was defeated by 7 votes. Then it took another decade and in this case, the Texans were relying on some really good work that was being done out in New York, the Game Protective League and Theodore Roosevelt with Boon and Crockett and the gentlemen up north were providing language to states that wanted to try to protect waterfowl. And so Texas adopted, some of that available language and that was our first, at that point in time, we instituted a limit of 25 ducks that you could shoot a day.

Ramsey Russell: Preceding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for over a decade, these 3 gentlemen were able to stick with it. Do you know from researching any of them, were they hunters themselves?

Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: So they weren’t anti hunters, they weren’t modern day Democrat types, they were hunters that were sincerely concerned about the conservation of wildlife, of game birds.

Robert K. Sawyer: Well, we should credit them that way, but the bottom line was two of them were really more interested in why they weren’t having great duck shoots. Why they couldn’t go to Lake Surprise and kill 1000 canvasbacks in 2 days? It was self-centered. I’d like to say something nicer about it, but I’ll just accept that what they did was good for us, even if their motivation was necessary best.

Ramsey Russell: We’re stuck with a lot of it and we’re the benefactor of being stuck with it, that’s a very good point, that’s something I guess I never realized is that states had initiated those laws preceding the federal government. I learned something new today, Rob. That’s good stuff, man.

Robert K. Sawyer: But the problem with our 1903 model of game laws is, we forgot something called game wardens and they were called different things in the day –

Ramsey Russell: So I had a law but I had no enforcement.

Robert K. Sawyer: That’s right. So all it succeeded in doing was raising the prices of waterfowl because now it was still legal in most of the states in America to purchase it. But in Texas, you couldn’t kill it and sell it, so that’s what started our era of the outlaw gunner. We finally got game wardens in 1907.

Ramsey Russell: We’re out of time for this episode and we’re getting to the best part. I mean, because it’s this time frame. When you think of the really golden age of waterfowling, that’s what I think of. I think of this transition between most Americans getting up and going to work in a city and going to the grocery or going to the corner store to get the wild harvested ducks and those guys that were out there, punt gunning and opium lace and tomato seeds and all that good stuff. But in comes the guys like these 3 gentlemen that for self-interest wanted more birds. And that to me is where things get real interesting. Income sport hunting and not just sport hunting like we know of it today, but sport hunting where 25, 50, 100 birds and we’ve had some people on here recently, Rob that, Mr. Brian Cheramie described his grandfather’s bygone era down in South Louisiana where entire parishes, every sport duck hunter who was feeding himself, feeding his family, feeding his neighbors, they could not conceive that anybody would take ownership and duck that were on their property.

Robert K. Sawyer: Correct. And there in is where the story gets very interesting and we may have to do another podcast sometime.

Ramsey Russell: Folk, you all been listening to Rob Sawyer tune in next week for Part II of a great continuation to a great podcast. See you next time.

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