Following the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which outlawed commercial sale of wildlife, the American public’s demand for wild-harvested tablefare continued — and there were folks that were more than happy to feed this lucrative demand, supplying barrel- and boat-loads of wild ducks and geese through backwater channels. In the second of this 2-part series, historic author Robert K. Sawyer describes a transitioning America, especially as it pertains to Texas, grappling with wildlife food versus conservation and later, conservation versus something that might only be described as recreation. Law enforcement may have started slowly, but culminated in a series of headliner busts that finally got folks attention. Part 1 of this 2-part series aired Wednesday, October 19, 2022. Refer to Sawyer’s related links below for more information.
Big Business: Texas Market Hunting Outlaws
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere still down here at Spread Oak Ranch in Matagorda, Texas for part II of the Texas market hunting outlaws and game laws episode. Last week was real interesting, you all may remember we talked about the market periods of real market hunting down here, the canvasbacks were some of the exorbitant prices for not only meat but for the feathers, the plumes man. Can you imagine somebody walking into a ball wearing a coat made out of 600 hummingbird hides, I just can’t even imagine that. And some of the tools to kill, how they hunted, how the market worked and then, 3 people worked for 10 years, they showed up, they walked out to these wetlands and they realized they couldn’t kill the number of birds because the market hunters were killing them all and they were motivated not by conservation ethos necessarily, but by their own personal interest to begin to legislate. And Texas and other states, decade or more before federal government involvement began to try to regulate the harvest of birds and I found it very interesting. And we talked about those 3 guys, what were the 3 names, the 3 conservations, Rob?
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, Ramsey, it’s good to be here for part II, thanks for having me. The 3 guys, the gentlemen were Oscar Gosas from San Antonio, Mervin Davis from Waco and Henry Atwater and Atwater’s lives on in history with the prairie chicken named after him.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. And the first two were hunters themselves, Atwater wasn’t really a hunter but he wasn’t an anti-hunter, you found out.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s correct. Well, he actually contributed to Texas, as a naturalist identifying bird species and helping to provide input on the first genus species and the birds of Texas. They hadn’t ever really compiled that before and he was hired by a railroad company as a conservationist.
The Era of Sport Hunting & Conservation Laws
But it’s a very interesting part of American waterfowling history that I appreciate.
Ramsey Russell: Before we get too deep into the remainder of this podcast and it’s going to be the fun part because now, we’ve gone from market hunting, we’re going into that period of time that I think of as the good old days where there’s still a whole lot of birds up in the sky. Conservation laws are just coming in and that era of sport hunting has taken over and the bag limits are much more generous than they were today. And I’m not glorifying outlawing, but there’s something romantic about a guy sneaking around shooting a bunch of duck or the thought of it. Just like you talked about growing up across the river from Harry Walsh and reading that old outlaw gun story, there’s just something Robin Hood romantic about the notion of it. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, we ain’t got duck spare no more. But it’s a very interesting part of American waterfowling history that I appreciate. But before we get into it, let me thank you, this morning’s teal hunt was incredible.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it was. Glad we could do it together, we looked at the migration together and agreed that we’re at the peak right now and you said that the main reason, we’ve got so many birds now is that more hens are down and more juveniles are down.
Ramsey Russell: This is day 11, I’ve hunted or 12, I guess that would be more than that. Now, I mean, we have 3 days left in the season?
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, something like that. I’ll let you know when it ends.
Ramsey Russell: This is a day 13 of the teal season and I have been seeing 15% to 20% hatchier birds sometimes entirely, all adult males. But this morning for the first time, looking at our bag and aggregate, it was over 50% hatchier birds. And you told me the other day that you picked up a lot of new birds in the last few days and I wondered if, maybe it was just some of those adult birds that vanguard of the migration kind of transitioning west or if it were new birds. And today, I’m pretty certain it was a slug of new bird down somewhere because the amount of immature birds in the bag. But what a great way to hunt. You had your old dog, I have my young dog, you’d shoot a bird, I’d shoot a bird and just going back and forth like an atari screen and I love to have that kind of abundance and I love to have that kind of opportunity to just chip shot. I love that.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it was very relaxing.
Ramsey Russell: Very relaxing and very rewarding. I think everybody shoots better when you’re not trying to out shoot the guys next to you and you just have a good time. The habitat was just, it was utterly amazing. It was perfect blue wing teal habitat. So, thank you for that.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, sir, my pleasure, we’ll do it again next year.
Ramsey Russell: When they got to kicking off. Now, when on the time line are we talking? 1907, early 1900s that these gentlemen were able to get a model game law in place here in the state of Texas. But how did it go? How was it receive? What now? It was over?
The History of Game Laws
Finally, in 1903 they got a model game law passed but everybody ignored it. There were no game wardens and as we’ll talk about turning the culture around the community culture and the culture of law enforcement, specifically, courts, made it a game law without any teeth
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s a great question and the truth is it was just beginning. So those 3 gentlemen worked for almost 30 years, they started legislating, trying to influence game laws back in 1877, it took them 15 years to get one law passed, then it took another decade. Finally, in 1903 they got a model game law passed but everybody ignored it. There were no game wardens and as we’ll talk about turning the culture around the community culture and the culture of law enforcement, specifically, courts, made it a game law without any teeth. 1907, everything came together and the most important thing was that Texas passed a game law, a game warden law. It was called the Torell Act and it came out of Waco by a legislature and now we had game wardens. So now came the job of game wardens trying to change a culture of market hunting, a culture of families that shot for the table and the real job began.
A Cultural Revolution
So, it wasn’t just law enforcement versus a commercial hunter, it was a cultural revolution.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a pretty important point you’re making there, Rob, because it’s not that people are just out there outlawing, it’s that everybody for the preceding century, maybe every household, every church, every community, everybody had been going to the market and buying waterfowl, which is pretty remarkable that back in that day they ate so many birds. And now all of a sudden a state is taking some kind of property ownership saying no, you can’t shoot as many, you can’t do like you were doing because another segment of society wants them for themselves. So, it wasn’t just law enforcement versus a commercial hunter, it was a cultural revolution.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it was the start of a cultural revolution. The most successful game wardens were ones that worked in the community and they simply didn’t write tickets, they educated, they taught and the fact that there could be a limit to a natural resource was unheard of in this country, but there was precedent. The passenger pigeon was extinct by then, the buffalo was thought to be extinct and found later. So people were becoming aware that, they could disappear. And that first 1907 law gave the first limit on ducks, it was 25 and they had no federal game wardens at the time, remember the federal government had no game wardens until 1918 when the Migratory Treaty bill was passed.
Ramsey Russell: Is this still a period of time that the state had laws, but they let the counties –
Robert K. Sawyer: At that time, the counties were no longer. So, you bring up a great point in the early days that they would pass a state law and counties could decide whether they wanted to amend them, use them at all or fulfill their obligation and they certainly didn’t. And with those first game wardens in 1907, they were paid $3 a day and they didn’t have problems finding game wardens, but a lot of them were kind of like the fox watching the henhouse, they were former market hunters themselves and in fact, to help them along because people were using trains and putting all their just barrels of birds on these trains for personal use, the Texas legislator gave train conductors a game warden badge and the power and the authority to, not so much to arrest but to indict, very interesting time period. And they also mandated a hunting license. The hunting license was supposed to provide revenue to the early precursor organization of Texas Parks and Wildlife as well as fines, but that didn’t go so good. The first year in 1907 after all the hundreds of thousands of gunners, only 75 sportsmen, volunteered to buy this new hunting license and there was only one arrest made that actually made it to court that first year.
Ramsey Russell: What was the nature of that do you think?
Robert K. Sawyer: That when they weren’t specific about it. They just said, only one case was prosecuted in 1907, that was in any way related to migratory birds and no doubt knowing the judicial system at the time they got off.
Ramsey Russell: What do you think the judges were like at that time?
Robert K. Sawyer: That turned out to be a very interesting concept for me because the game wardens got discouraged, some of them resigned, some of them quit, they just quit doing their job, they were getting no help from the court system, they simply would not uphold violations. And Eagle Lake was a Big Duck Center in those days before it ever became a big goose center and families would go out and men and Children and just pot shoot, they shoot across a flock of birds and pick up 80 birds with a volley. Well, when those dockets would come to court, the Eagle Lake highlight newspaper wrote that if any magistrate in one of our courts were to actually charge a culprit, well, he would never be re-elected, he’d be defeated at the polls.
Ramsey Russell: 75 people might vote for him, the one about hunting license, but nobody else would.
Wild vs Tame Ducks?
There was so little state enforcement and states were uneven, some states simply ignored even the concept of game laws and conservation, other states were trying, but they needed strong wording, they needed help.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s absolutely right. And it was tough for them. I think one of the first cases was a 1903, Fort Worth restaurant and he kept stuffed wild duck on his menu and when the game wardens came in to talk to him about it, he said, well, you can’t take me to court, these are tame ducks. Game wardens had to prove ducks were wild before any court would even hear the case. A lot of times particularly in Southeast Texas, they go to court and the defendants would say, well, we didn’t shoot these birds in Texas, we shot them in Louisiana, still perfectly legal in Louisiana to shoot over the limit, sell birds, but not in Texas. And once again, they get off. One of the things that, there was one gentleman who was arrested 3 times for selling birds and finally, on the third time they fined him $10, another gentleman shot about 134 and 140 ducks and that should have been $10 a bird or in today’s dollars, $43,000 game warden was disappointed when he was only fined $10.
Ramsey Russell: So had to prove the duck for a wild, that’s kind of a tough one when they’re sitting there whole picked. They could be tame ducks.
Robert K. Sawyer: And the courts were on the side of the people.
Ramsey Russell: Do you think that’s why the federal government became involved?
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. There was so little state enforcement and states were uneven, some states simply ignored even the concept of game laws and conservation, other states were trying, but they needed strong wording, they needed help. And the federal government stepped in numerous times first with the Lacy Act and the Torell Bill and then the 1911 Migratory Treaty Act. But the really sweet piece of legislation was the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that’s when the federal government and look at that time period. So, we look at the outlaw gunners from 1900 let’s say 1903 in this case, there were cultural mores were beginning to shift until the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a time period where people needed to eat and wildlife took the brunt of it. In Texas and probably many other states the game wardens looked the other way, they were not going to uphold laws when people were trying to eat. The sheriff of Port Lavaca, for example, the sheriff had a punt gun and scout Lavaca Bay in that area at night, shooting ducks not to sell, but to feed the community.
Ramsey Russell: When was the big drought?
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, it coincided with the Great Depression.
Ramsey Russell: It was, that era right there was a little bit after 1918, 10 years, more 10 years or so.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, that was a late 20s through 30s and it was the great dust bowl period. So, it’s a double whammy, people need waterfowl, they need wildlife to eat, but the bird numbers were crashing over a 5 to 6 year dust bowl in the breeding ground.
Ramsey Russell: But in 1918, when the federal government got involved, do you think that the public at large was becoming aware that duck numbers were severely declining both in waterfowl terms and in terms of some of these birds like the snowy egret or some of these other plume bird? Do you think they were just really noticing? Hey, we’re not saying them like we used to?
Robert K. Sawyer: No question about it. So, throughout North America, the message was getting across, the Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster commissioner at the time, William Tucker, made a comment, he said, we’re making an impression. People are beginning to understand that their actions and behaviors will impact the future, the future of a resource. They began to realize that wildlife and waterfowl were not an unlimited resource.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. They’ve seen the passenger pigeon. And then it’s kind of – this topic right now just really making me aware of a lot of stuff like, Rob, even this day and age the year of 2022, there are a lot of people around the world that are hunting for sustenance, the bush meat trade up in northern Africa, for example, parts of Asia, I’m certain they’re still eating, if it flies, it dies. And it’s not a sport, it’s not a recreation, it’s not a connection to nature, it’s not an experience collection, it’s survival. And it’s very interesting to me that the birds were declining because of market hunting and I’m sure some habitat loss in the interest of passenger pigeon. But at the same time, right about the time the federal government gets involved and think about it, I mean, those judges had connections to the community and were maybe biased in how they enforced the law in Texas or at the state level, but the federal government was above that, they didn’t have those community connections, they just came in and enforced the law. And right about the time, maybe it was starting to kick up in earnest, here comes a Depression and I don’t know what percent of America lost its job, but it was a bunch of them and now they just got to eat, what do they call, the gopher tortoises down in Florida? Hoover Ham. They ate them, they had to eat whatever protein they get on and never really thought of it from that perspective.
Robert K. Sawyer: Right. Whitetail deer were nearly wiped out, took 30 years where I grew up in Maryland for the white tail to rebound from depression. And so the federal government was strong at the time, it needed to be strong, depression and the increase in harvest and they call it the great duck depression. That’s when a lot of conservation organizations like DU were extraordinarily active and many others, many of them no longer exist, but they were important at the time. And that was in preserving, studying, educating, around the topic of summer breeding grounds and restoration of that habitat that was everything at the time.
The Outlaw Period in Texas
I’ve been selling duck, my daddy and granddad have been selling duck and on the other side of the equation, on the consumer side, we’ve been buying duck for generations.
Ramsey Russell: And you got to figure only 10 years later here we are in depression, I’ve got to eat, but maybe the collective American culture was still duck are for eating, wildlife is for eating, just like the old market hunting and that created, there must have still been a market for wildlife, therefore, you still had market hunters only now, I mean, they were illegal, they were outlaws.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. And so there’s kind of three periods of what I call the outlaw period in Texas, the first was the after 1907 until the depression where fantastic numbers of birds were taken for a national marketplace. The Depression fed mostly a local marketplace and then after depression it was, well, we’ll get to that, we’ll talk about the 1950s and kind of a different culture at that time.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s get back into some of this right about, between 1903, 1918, when the initial Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there was demand for this wildlife state law be damned. I’ve been selling duck, my daddy and granddad have been selling duck and on the other side of the equation, on the consumer side, we’ve been buying duck for generations.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s correct. What they had to do was they had to be more innovative and they were innovative. They were bringing ducks into the Galveston piers for example and then very quickly they put them in barrels, ice them and put the word fish or seafood on the barrels, get them to the railroad depot and get them out. And they learned to watch with the game warden on those piers and word went out. So they might have heard that thousands of ducks went out the previous few days, by the time they get there, they might have one person who didn’t hear the news and they’d end up with maybe 90, 100 ducks. The cold storage plant was another common place to hold birds out, they would try to time them to the marketplace to get maximum dollars and so some of the game wardens found tens of thousands of ducks across a couple of cold storage plants, there was a big outlaw ring in Bay City, which is just down the road from us here, I think that’s where you’re going to the FedEx dealer today. So, this outfit hired all young boys, 10 years old and younger. So when the game warden finally busted this big ring, he was shocked that he was dealing with young boys who were doing all the shooting. And he said, well, there’s nothing I can do, I can’t take him to court on account of their tender age.
Ramsey Russell: What could you do? 9 and 10 year old kids.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s absolutely right. Another common rules was other parts of the country until 1918 was still legal to sell birds, that was the market they were trying to reach because they’d make good money when they got them across state lines. And there was one big commission group that would have the sailboats go out 3 miles out of the Texas jurisdictional waters and all their ducks were picked up with an oceangoing vessel. Now, think about the magnitude of that commitment, that’s a big money operation with a lot of moving parts, but that’s what they did in Texas. One of my favorite stories was, there was a federal game wardens in 1918, there’s only 20 in all of the United States of America, that’s a very small number. In fact, places you and I have hunted 20 would be just barely enough to contain the local crowd. So one of the first federal game wardens that came to Texas, he carried a title of both state and federal game warden and he arrested a hunter who was shipping sandhill cranes to zoos all across the US and the way he was procuring them was wing tipping them. He’d shoot the top of the wing, race out to chase the bird. Obviously, if he wasn’t a good wing tip shot, he had a good dinner, but he’d nurse him back to health and ship them to zoos across the US.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the other ways they were getting birds out there? And it’s almost with all the law enforcement stuff going on, they’ve got to be a lot like bootleggers. What are some of the other ways? Tell me some more stories, Rob?
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, there was one Chicago consignment firm and what the group did was they specially built large sailboats for their market hunters in Texas. They eventually had an entire fleet of sailing boats and they fitted each one with an ice box that looked like the seats of the vessel and they could pack 1000 ducks in those seats.
Ramsey Russell: That’s almost exactly like, trying to smuggle narcotics across the Mexican border. That’s crazy. Were there any big bust out in those days? I mean, I’m assuming the federal government’s involved now, not just the States. Did you ever double cross on how the feds were trying to make cases?
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. So, before we get the fed, we’ll just quickly step back on one of my favorite outlaw areas was East Texas Cattle Lake. Cattle Lake had an enormous outlaw marketplace and I go into a lot of the stories and how they hunted them in Cattle lake. But the community there was evenly divided, if you will. There was part of the community that understood the culture of outlawing and birds and part of the community that’s saying we get it. Well, that part of the community in 1912, petitioned, the Texas legislature to send game wardens to them, they offered to pay their salary. They gave them a big house, it was called the State House, bought them a boat. So here comes two state game wardens into Cattle Lake, Texas and they weren’t particularly warmly received. One of the more famous of the outlawed duck hunters saw game warden snooping around his property, he leaned his gun out the window and he shot him, he didn’t kill him, which is good because we’ve lost some great game wardens in the line of duty and there’s nothing amusing about it, but he shot him with bird shot at a distance and I don’t know whether he had to face a judge over that or not. But his justification was, well, he’ll think twice before trespassing on my land and then two weeks later they stole their boats. So, you raised an interesting point, which is, what did the fed do? Well, it was very different. When the fed came, what they did was they came in and covertly undercover. So, the very first hand of the federal government was actually early in Texas, 1938. So we’re just leaving the depression at that point, we’re just getting ready for World War II and here comes the fed and what they did was, they targeted, I guess based on information Dallas and Fort Worth and it was a bunch of restaurants that were not just selling ducks, doves, plovers and quail, they weren’t just selling them in their restaurants, but they were shipping them north and there were 10 restaurant that were charged by the federal government and one of them spent 13 months in the Leavenworth penitentiary.
The 1938 Waterfowl Sting
Ramsey Russell: Tell me, did you get any details about that story? Did they just crash the doors of the restaurant, go back in the kitchen where all the ducks were stored? I mean, don’t you wonder how they put that together? Did they just come in like Elliot and Ness machine guns wielding or did they just paddled around for a few weeks and put it all together and surprise them? You know what I’m saying?
Robert K. Sawyer: They put it together over a long period of time, so they had all their evidence and then they came in and crashed the doors. So I got hold of some of the old, not a lot but some of the old federal records and the photographs of the Gingham in which was a gentleman by the name of Jack Horner and I guess he was sort of the ringleader of the group they would say and it was fun to see the old photos of the evidence that they collected.
Ramsey Russell: Briscoe told me the other day, there were three big stings in the state of Texas and this would have been one of them. This had been the 1938 sting.
Robert K. Sawyer: This was the first one. It was designed to send a message and I guess the fed didn’t figure that we got the message in Texas. So their next big operation started undercover with just one gentleman 1954, spent 2 years and he posed as a jewelry salesman and a part time trader in the sale of wild game. Well, his covert operation was under the auspices of the US Fish and Wildlife Service by them. And what the fed had heard was that as many as 200,000 birds have been killed and sold and shipped out of mostly Chambers County, Anahuac area, High Island, Southeast Texas.
Ramsey Russell: Back where that big bay was where all those famous canvasbacks came from back in the day.
Robert K. Sawyer: Same region. And after two years, it’s still a high number, but after two years, Anthony Stefano had only managed to purchase 2400 ducks and about 500 geese. So, was it as big an operation as they were being told? Probably, but we’ll never know. Some people thought that the low number was representative of it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Ramsey Russell: You get off in some of these local areas, locals are clicky, especially if they’re doing something they don’t want public knowledge. It just blows my mind that somebody with a name Anthony Stefano, a fed and with a name like Anthony Stefano back in the 50s, I’m imagining him having a Bronx accent shows up and that’s still a very country place and down around Anahuac, little remote, fishing, hunters, I just can’t imagine an outsider showing up with a Bronx like accent and making headway to build a valuable case. Did you ever run across any stories or details of how he did it and how he managed it or how he was able to dupe the community and become accepted and into their fold?
Robert K. Sawyer: It was because he wasn’t the exception. If these boys were going to stay in business and that was their weak link, they had to find buyers.
Ramsey Russell: They had to deal with outsiders anyway from the north.
Robert K. Sawyer: Somewhere within Texas, but they had to deal with a fairly large number of buyers and so he was just another buyer. Yeah, they were suspicious of him several times and he –
Ramsey Russell: They were probably suspicious of everybody, anyway.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, they were. And that Ramsey turned out to be a really big bust. It was the largest operation that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had ever engaged in, at the time. 100 law enforcement officials from 8 states poured into Texas and they had warrants for 56 Texans. And this was such a big deal that was written up in sports illustrated magazine, you can still find it, you can find articles in the newspapers, outdoor life magazine. This was a big deal. And it showed that here we are a half a century later than the Texas 1907 law and some 32 years after, the Migratory Treaty Act that market gunning was still alive and well. And the names – so I often think of my day when I thought of market hunters, outlaw gunners, it was the lone wolf all by himself in a marsh and this was very different, the market hunters in Texas at the time that this particular sting netted, they were businessmen, they were ranchers, hunting guides, but even law enforcement officials, justice of the piece of High Island was one of them. A couple of Beaumont policemen and my favorite was, Ike Franks, he’s been a deputy constable since 1940, he ran for reelection from federal prison and won handily.
Ramsey Russell: While he was serving time pursuant to this bust. He ran for office and got reelected. It just goes to prove in that time they still, those locals still took a Robin Hood like ownership and that natural resource.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, they did. And I was fortunate on the 56 sting to go down to that area and talk to people, there were still two or three people living who were involved in it. And every one of them said the same thing, we knew we were breaking the law, we knew we would pay a price if we were caught. But it was extremely hard to make a living for a family in that era and we did it to feed our families and to provide for our families. Is that an excuse? No, it really isn’t. But unless you’ve lived it, you can’t really understand the importance and the magnitude.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. And it’s not like they were hired hit men, they were going out and shooting ducks and I mean, I guess, I’m not going to say I agree with it, but I guess I’m a little more sympathetic and can understand, especially given the mindset back then, of that bygone era.
Robert K. Sawyer: They had very few paved roads. It was extremely rural, extremely remote and some of the United States best wintering habitat for waterfowl. The skies were black, it was endless available resource.
Ramsey Russell: Some of these men may have been in their 30s and 40s, but in the 1950s, but they could remember their dads and certainly their granddads plying those waters and legally lawfully feeding their families and supporting their communities through legal trade and wildlife.
Robert K. Sawyer: Absolutely right. They were simply the next generation.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. It’s just so interesting to me that and maybe there was a report of 200,000 or quarter million birds being illegally killed and sold and maybe they only found 2500, 2600 birds. But that’s a lot of ducks, that’s a lot of wildlife being taken, it’s a lot of violation.
Robert K. Sawyer: It is. One of the gentlemen I spoke to, he said, all this whole thing was poorly executed that the fed only got the small ones. The ones who were maybe, who would trust Anthony Stefano, maybe the more foolish of them. What they told me was “they missed all the big wigs”. The two different people told me that the day after the bust, the High Island dump was covered in tens of thousands of mostly mallards. Mallard was the big duck during that particular era that they sent north and tens of thousands of mallards were put into the High Island dump. So they didn’t catch the others or the bigger ones, but most outlaws always tell that story, well, somebody else was worse.
The Infamous Outlaws of Hunting
I do not want my family and friends to think back on something I did almost at that point, half a century now.
Ramsey Russell: So by this time there were some articles and news because I know you did a lot of your research reading, but you were able to actually go and visit with some of these people.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I know you can’t say their names and I don’t need to know the name. But what were they like as a human being?
Robert K. Sawyer: They were like you and me. One gentleman I talked to, he absolutely took offense when I called him up and said, I’d like to talk to him about the 1956 sting. Big long pause on the phone and he said, I don’t want to talk to you about it. He’s a grandfather by then, he says, I’m a deacon in the church, I’m a successful businessman, I’m a supporter of my community, I do not want my family and friends to think back on something I did almost at that point, half a century now. He said, I don’t want you to bring it up.
Ramsey Russell: They didn’t want to impugn their reputation based on things they did when they were young and rash and times were different.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, that’s correct.
Ramsey Russell: So you may have interviewed a lot of these guys anonymously, how much of the nuts and bolts and the details, would they or did they get into telling you?
Robert K. Sawyer: So when we spoke earlier, we talked about, what were they selling them for and what was the infrastructure? How did they do it? So I talked to groups in Port Lavaca, Port Aransas and the Anahuac area. And even to this day, there were two things they never talked about who the connections were and how much they were paid. I did get one story out of Port Aransas that all the parties and market gunners would not meet the sellers. One representative from the group would – and it was always the same older gentleman would meet with the buyers. And it was still to this day it’s still unspoken how they were sold, what they sold for and who the buyers were.
Ramsey Russell: Speaks a lot to the illegality of it all.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it’s very secretive. And I probably had been probed and recognized pretty quickly that I was overstepping my bounds that they still had those names and they were going to the grave with them.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, I guarantee you. I just can’t help, but maybe I watch too much television. But did you ever get a sense that maybe the individuals you met with who have changed in the last half century are good people just making ends meet. But did you ever get a sense that maybe some of the distribution market was organized, like, organized crime? Because they’ve had their hands in a lot of stuff like fishing and hunting. Did you ever gain a sense of that, that maybe some Mafioso was trading in this stuff? They certainly had the resources to get it up north to the market.
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, I wouldn’t point the finger at any one.
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever just get a sense of that?
Robert K. Sawyer: It was terribly well organized. In fact, it always was in the very beginning. So what we saw mostly in Texas were the procurers, but it was from other places predominantly to put together these massive covert networks that were buying birds from across the United States.
Ramsey Russell: That’s organized crime. If you were talking about cocaine or heroin or some bootleg moonshine that’s organized crime to have that kind of network and that kind of system to move this stuff from way down here on the Gulf to way up here in New York City.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it was. Now, there’s still the local, there’s still that overprints of the local outlaw market and that was a probably volumetrically, more shooters. But all I have to do is get these into Galveston and I’ll quietly sell them to the restaurant kitchen. But the fed busts and the fed interests were in those big networks.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I thought about organized crime was back when you were saying and that initial big sting dealing with a lot of restaurants, it’d be one thing if they were just selling it on their tables, but they weren’t. They were part of a bigger system that was also sending it off to an illegal market.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s correct. And some of the state game warden stories during that time period in the local marketplaces was kind of amusing. There was a politician that held a big dinner in Houston Hotel and one of his guests was a game warden, when the game warden recognizes his dinner, his redhead, canvasback or a mallard just quietly gets up from the table, he goes into the restaurant’s walk in and finds barrels of ducks the restaurant serving marked the seafood. And there’s lots of local stories like that.
The 1988 Hunting Sportsmen Sting
But they didn’t have a lot of respect for what they were killing and some of the transcripts, show a complete disregard for what they were killing.
Ramsey Russell: The next big sting was about 30 years later. And from what I gather, it’s still a lot of sensitivity from the 1988 big sting. And this was again orchestrated by a federal agent.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah. So I included 1988 kind of the closing of the Market Hunting book, the second book that I wrote. Because it still sticks in the craw of so many hunters that are still living here in Texas. But for me, when you look at the charges, what it told me was there was a shift by the 80s, much less away from procuring birds for the restaurant for the table and more towards the greed of the sportsman. So 1988 was a large covert federal operation and out of all the charges, the charges were aimed almost entirely at sportsmen. So, it was a 3 year investigation on mostly day hunting outfits where the fed posed as hunters, customers, artists, taxidermists and that ended, December 12th, 1988 when 100 US Fish and Wildlife servants, agents came rolling into Texas and they had half a dozen, in contrast to Anthony Stefano and 5-6 working alone, they had half a dozen special agents working this operation undercover. By the time it was over, there were 1300 violations listed against 200 club owners, guides and clients, it was big.
Ramsey Russell: Go into what you can, let’s talk about 1300 violations. Talk about what we’re talking about here because it’s not just some guy going out and not stopping at 6 or whatever the limit was at 10 or 15, it was bigger than that, it was more than that and did it just involve waterfowl?
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, that’s a great point. I guess, you and I might call it entrapment, but if we start at the beginning, most modern sportsmen, most conservationist would absolutely applaud the first couple of outlaws that they started with. One was, LaBove shooting resort in just south of Port Arthur in the Sabine Marsh and this was pretty egregious, they killed 13 shooters killed a 140 geese above the legal limit on one shoot, for example.
Ramsey Russell: And how did they do that? Creeping? Baiting?
Robert K. Sawyer: No, and they didn’t bait. They shot their birds legal, it’s called the oleander blind 13, 14 people could sit in a big gritting bar in the black marsh that, he had passed away by this point.
Ramsey Russell: He was still doing grit, it’s legal.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, sir. And they wait for the geese to pile up on this grit and they’d fire across the top. But they didn’t have a lot of respect for what they were killing and some of the transcripts, show a complete disregard for what they were killing. And they said, well, come on and video this and so the undercover agents are videoing, the guides bragging about how many birds they killed.
Ramsey Russell: So, they just let all the geese land and start eating grit and then stand up 1, 2, 3 them. And when you say disregard, you mean disregard in terms of limits or species or cripples?
Robert K. Sawyer: Disregard for when you and I hunted this morning, every bird we shot, it was shot with respect, it’s going to the table with respect, this was just piles of dead birds, that’s what I mean by disregard and it worked against them. That shooting resort faced 9 felonies, 15 misdemeanors and if you totaled up, their fines could have totaled $4.5 million.
Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty serious stuff right there. So that wasn’t terrible long ago. Seemed like a long time back when Miami Vice was there on television. But it’s really not that long ago.
Robert K. Sawyer: That seems like yesterday to me, but you’re absolutely right. So, there were some outfitters who deserved what they got. Now, there was a couple others not nearly as big as LaBove’s but there were also some, let’s say, bending of what’s right. And one of the 2 or 3 people were arrested because as artists, they were saying, well, would you procure me an owl? Would you get me a hawk? Would you get me a songbird and a couple of them fell for it and supplied these birds and so now they’re breaking more laws but these are laws, they not necessarily would have embarked on or broken if they hadn’t been asked to do so. But they fell for it, an awful lot of the listed names were men who particularly as they went down the coast, I think they finally stopped somewhere south of Rockport or Baffin Bay. But if you took your air boat out and you said, okay, you’ve got your limit, everybody put your guns down, you go get the airboat, you bring it back, the game warden shoots, the undercover federal officer shoots one time shoots one redhead, what happened? Why did you shoot this bird? I’m over the limit. Oh, this was the perfect duck, I need to get it stuffed, I need it for my painting, I’ll give you 100 extra dollars just bring it in for. There must have been 20-30 indictments for that and on the way in, if they jumped a flock of birds, well, now they’re rallying birds. So, a lot of people will tell you that during this operation was bimodal that the fed came in and shut down some of these operations that everybody knew were giving us a bad name, but they carried it too far. And folks that run a normal outfitting operation were treated in a manner they didn’t deserve to be treated in. So, still controversial. A lot of my interviews were some of these people and I wouldn’t have really appreciated their standpoint if I actually hadn’t seen the transcripts of the indictments. And in fact, in the very end it, most of the federal prosecutors dropped, they dropped like 75%-85% of the charges. But the damage had been done and of course –
Ramsey Russell: It still left red finger marks across faces, it got people’s attention. I’m guessing.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, I went out with one outfitter in Harbor Island and I’m posing as a book writer –
Ramsey Russell: Because you are a book writer.
Robert K. Sawyer: Right, but they’ve been through it and not one person there would hunt with me. They always dropped me off and then I’d take out, all I was doing was interviewing the family for the book and the best way to do that where I come from is in a duck blind, but they would talk to me back at the camp but wouldn’t hunt with me and before I stepped in that air boat, someone else stepped out, checked all my birds, then put them in, they’d ask me questions. Like, do you have birds in your bag and your coat, your waders? When I finally put the book out, they started hunting with me.
Ramsey Russell: Rob, you just dead gum, you reminded me of someone. I was in a part of the Atlantic Flyway one time hunting as the guest of somebody probably listening and I wanted to interview some of those old timers, about old time hunting? Nope, he ain’t going to talk to me, his buddy ain’t going to talk to me, nobody’s going to talk to me. Never occurred to me that he just didn’t want to talk about or didn’t have time, never occurred to me.
Robert K. Sawyer: Actually the community was periodically suspicious when I’m running up and down the coast talking to people. If I didn’t have a, what I call a handler, some communities were hard to break into. I remember calling up, some folks in Brazoria County. Oh, I’ve heard about you, you’re posing as a book writer, but you’re really here to represent the federal government to take more of our land for the National Wildlife system, nobody would talk to me, not one person in Brazoria County, very short chapter. And the 1988 sting had the same impact on several others.
Ramsey Russell: That’s too bad. So, that’s how the book kind of ended, here we are to the modern day.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s how the second book ended. What I thought was that, I interviewed one of the federal agents who was actually in charge of the operation and I said, sir, this is how I’m going to write it up, are you going to be uncomfortable with this? And he said, no, that’s a fair portrayal, it was controversial then, it’s controversial now. And so when the second book, the Market Hunting book ended, I said, well, somewhere between 1956 and 1988 the era of the market hunter has ended.
Putting Together the Hunting Story of Texas
Ramsey Russell: That’s it. I want to talk, I want to end on this note right here, Rob, you’ve written some great books, I’ve got them all in my personal collection, a 100 years of Texas waterfowl hunting, we’ve covered that in the podcast, Texas Market Hunting that was a great story, really. I learned a lot and I like hearing things a put together stuff that I really didn’t understand. You’ve got a great book, images of the hunt. How did you put together those images?
Robert K. Sawyer: So when I was running up and down the coastline, interviewing people, it was the modern age, the age of a laptop, age of a good quality scanner. So I’d ask people to bring out their photograph collections and ask them if I could digitize them for use of a couple of photos in the book and then I would give them a stick of all of their scanned images for posterity, they start to deteriorate after a great amount of time. So I’m sitting there finished with two books, took a long break, needed to 7-8 years and I wanted to get those images out for Texas history. I had something like 580 images and I think I selected about 450 of those and put together the story of Texas waterfowl hunting in pictures. So it’s a coffee table book and it represents all I could find after about 10 years of scouring.
Ramsey Russell: And my buddy Joe Briscoe tells me you’re working on a new book.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, it’s a little bit different than the others. The other 3 are about Texas Waterfowling History and a great friend of mine who helped me with a lot of the images called me up and he said, I want to do a book on the Tarpon Club. Tarpon Club was a private club in Saint Joseph’s Island that’s down around Aransas Pass. And he said, I think there’s a book there, I think it’s just interesting as it could be and I’d love for you to write as much as you could. So I started with the duck hunting part of the book and then moved to this great new sport that was raging across the United States, which was Tarpon fishing. So this book is called the Tarpon –
Ramsey Russell: When would that have been? What period of time did it take in place?
Robert K. Sawyer: So the Tarpon Club era, the era of the Tarpon Club in Texas was very short, 1897 to 1904. And I think the shortest way to describe kind of what this book is about, this book is about –
Ramsey Russell: Give me the Rye Ball version.
Robert K. Sawyer: This is the story of a one legged son of the richest woman in the world, he was a prostitute loving duck hunter and Tarpon fisherman that started the world’s most –
Ramsey Russell: The rest of the time it just wasted.
Robert K. Sawyer: That’s right. And he started what was at the time, the world’s most exclusive expensive club.
Ramsey Russell: Patronized by who? Who were the club members?
Robert K. Sawyer: Like the original list, it was called the 300 Millionaires of North America. And the list included some of the greatest industrialists of the time. It turns out that Eddie Green, who was the promoter of the club, the owner of the club, one of his best friends was the star of was with John Ringling and Ringling Brothers circus and he taught him how to be a showman. So, when EHR Green puts out the first promotion for his club, he says, join the most exclusive club in the world along with two presidents and names off others, 2 presidents caught a lot of people’s eyes. Well, the truth of matter is there were no two presidents in the club. I mean, it’s in my first book, 2 presidents remember? I bought into that hyperbole, he just did that as a showman. William McKinley was supposed to be one of the presidential members and Eddie Greenwood, he’d say things like, well, President McKinley is coming to the club this spring, he get press all over the United States about McKinley’s visit, well, McKinley had no intention of going, but nonetheless, it was an extravagant exclusive time period and it’s a great read, it’s got politics in it and the kind of politics that you love, the rough and tumble Texas politics, Eddie Green wanted to be governor and the trouble was, it was kind of a Baptist State at the time and one of the reasons that he didn’t make the governorship was that, he had too many redheads and too many blondes and the preachers would simply were not going to support that man for governor’s position.
Ramsey Russell: Who was his mother? You said she was the richest woman in the world.
Robert K. Sawyer: Yeah, sir. That was Hetty Green, her nickname was the Witch of Wall Street, she was as wealthy as the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Rockefellers and she was the only woman in the United States of America that had her own spot on Wall Street. So, writing this story was absolutely hilarious, it would go in all different turns and twists, but a big part of it is duck hunting at the time and Tarpon fishing at the time.
Ramsey Russell: When will this book be out? And where can we purchase all of your books?
Robert K. Sawyer: Well, the first three books, they’re on a website www.robertksawyer.com and the 4th book, the one that’s coming out November 1st, the Tarpon Club is being sold by my friend Jim Maloney out of Corpus Christi and that one can be purchased at Nueces Press.
Ramsey Russell: There you go. Folks, you all been listening to my buddy Rob Sawyer. Rob, thank you for your time. Thank you always, I love to come down and meet with you. I love to – you’re just such a treasure trove of history. Next time I meet with you, I want to hear about this Tarpon Club.
Robert K. Sawyer: We’ll have fun with that one, Ramsey. We’ll have fun. I appreciate it, I love it when you come down, we always have a really good time.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, if you’ve not yet done, so please go rate us on Apple and Spotify and share this episode or your favorite ones with your best friends. See you next time.