Dr. Wayne Capooth was “blooded into” small game hunting while a young Tennessee boy, remembers later gaining permission from swamp angels to duck hunt nearby haunts. His landmark book The Golden Age of Waterfowling is a historical account of Midsouth duck hunting culture emanating from the Chickasaw Bluffs in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the story of bygone times, changing landscapes, emerging technologies, and especially people; of famous market hunters and wealthy sportsmen whose passionate conflicts resulted in fatal gun fights, biased local elections, and truth-stranger than-fiction political appointments near Big Lake, Arkansas; of legislated conservation edicts we modern duck hunters abide today. In discussing the profound duck hunting culture that exists more in the South than elsewhere in the United States, we can’t help but explore then-versus-now topics like hunting pressure. Has duck hunting changed since the mid-1800s? Have duck hunters? You decide.
Changes in the Last 60 Years of Duck Hunting
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, today, I am in downtown Memphis, Tennessee and you all ought to see the view from here, man. I am overlooking the Mississippi River out in the horizon I see Bass Pro shops, I’m sitting on what they call the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, very important to Memphis Tennessee’s history. Joining me today is Mr. Wayne Capooth who has written The Golden Age of Waterfowling and many other great books and we’re going to do a deep dive into the Golden Age of Waterfowl. I mean, the good old days, like you can’t even imagine. Wayne, how are you today?
Wayne Capooth: I’m doing fine, glad to have you here in Memphis.
Ramsey Russell: Now, I’m telling you, I have so looked forward to meeting you and to talking about this subject matter forever and we kicked it off, I knew you were my kind of guy when you invited me to lunch to eat barbecue.
Wayne Capooth: Yeah, we went to downtown and we filled our bellies with ribs and just a sandwich of barbecue.
Ramsey Russell: That was excellent. Wayne, what’s your story of – I want to know a little bit about your origins, who are you? Where are you from?
Wayne Capooth: Well, I was born and raised in Memphis, I was born in 1944, so that tells you that I’m 78 years old right now, I guess I’ve had 60 years of duck hunting and seen many changes during that time. But my dad and mom grew up in about 60 miles east of Memphis in a little town called Ramer in Tennessee, they were separated about 16 miles, but they grew up, they were nothing in the country, they were just cattle and hog farmers or traders, which means that, they’d go out and buy hogs and cattle and they’d keep them and feed them just long enough to sell them for a profit. Besides that daddy and his four brothers, they hunted for food. So they supplemented their crops with their food game for the food and they also were big fishermen, they would even do grabbing, hand grabbing, I don’t know, people know what that is, but they would go in and grab catfish with their hands and then come back up. But daddy was a big hunter and of course, he got me started and I’m like more most southern boys, I was blooded into the hunting fraternity at the age of 10, grew up rabbit, squirrel hunting, dove hunting and occasionally coon hunting. And from there I gravitated into quail hunting because I had a good friend who lived in Ramer, he was about 10 years older than me, but he took me under his wings and he had two quail dogs, a pointer and a setter usually. And so we quail hunted back in what’s called the Big Hill pond area, which is a now a state refuge, not a refuge, but the state park between Pocahontas, Tennessee and Ramer, so it’s about 60 miles east of Memphis. But the back then even this would have been, I guess if I’m 10 years old in 1954 for about four years, we would quail hunt very frequently back in those old hills and there were still wild quail back then with even Mexican quail mixed in with them and he just had some excellent bird dogs and we did real well.
Ramsey Russell: What do you call a Mexican quail?
Wayne Capooth: Mexican quail are a little bit different from our natural quail. And back in the 20s and 30s, they started importing some quails from Mexico and they’re a little bit different. Our quail tended to run more, Mexican quail would tend to not only run but they also they would fly and land in the bushes and trees and things.
Ramsey Russell: What did they look like?
Wayne Capooth: They were just a tad smaller now, I never could tell the difference. But Dale, who’s the friend I’m telling you about is 10 years older than me and had the dogs, he could say that those are Mexican quails, okay, they’re Mexican quail. But anyway, we would hunt back in there and we do pretty well now, it’s just a state refuge. But anyway, so about anywhere from when I’m 10 years old to 14, I’m quail hunting and there are still quite a few quail. I mean, in the morning we would go out and we’d jump maybe 4 and on a good day we’d jump 8, depending. And we would do for lunch what we call nooning because it’s noon time, we call it nooning and we’d hunt a little bit in the afternoon. And then we’d go to Hamms General Store. Sometimes if we didn’t eat, if we didn’t hunt in the afternoon after we hunt in the morning, we went to Hams General Store in Ramer and it’s like, a pot belly stove in the very back and there’s the old Codgers back there telling the stories and everything and playing Dominos. And we always get a bologna and cheese sandwich, hoop cheese sandwich and we got a moon pie for dessert and we got an RC to wash it all down in our belly. So we had a gut water, gut and belly wash. So anyway, one day we were quail hunting, I’m about 14 years old, we’re quail hunting and it had rained but not raining at that moment at the time. But there was a little bit of puddles out in the fields and in the edge of the woods and we’re running the dogs, the pointers and setters right around the edge of the tree line along the bean field that had been harvested, obviously, but we come around a little bend of the tree line and when we ran into the bend, there was a puddle of water from the tree line out into the field, maybe 30 yards wide and 40 yards long and we jumped two mallards a hen and a mallard. And I’m looking at those thing that bright sun shining down on that green head and I said, man, that is something else, boy and that sparked my interest. So then I started duck hunting, it was an old backwater which comes in just between Pocahontas and Ramer. And there’s a big old swamp area probably 200 acres of swamp land and part of that was the Big Hill Pond, which is now called the Big Hill Pond State Park. And so I started duck hunting back there and we build a blind, but it was owned by my great great uncle, the land was, Mr. John Howe, but he didn’t really have control of that land even though he owned it, The Swamp Angels who lived back in there own that land, they owned it by heritance, they were born into it, that’s where they own it. So to get permission, I didn’t have to get permission from John, I had to get permission from The Swamp Angel that lived back there and he was quite a character, he lived by hunting –
Swamp Angels & River Rats
Swamp Angels lived on the Tuscumbia River in houseboats and when they got to where they want to go, they set up shop and lived there, so there’s a difference, Swamp Angels.
Ramsey Russell: Swamp Angels sounds like it’d make a fascinating podcast in and of itself.
Wayne Capooth: Well, the Swamp Angels are the ones like over in Arkansas that lived on the river, okay. You had river rats and they had the Swamp Angel. River rats travel the river, they kept going, they stop least stay a while, fish and hunt and then travel to another spot. Swamp Angels lived on the Tuscumbia River in houseboats and when they got to where they want to go, they set up shop and lived there, so there’s a difference, Swamp Angels. And then you had the hillbillies, of course, that was the third one, they didn’t duck hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you talking about getting into duck hunting.
Wayne Capooth: But anyway, you had to get permission from the Swamp Angel that lived there with his wife and he was a character, he made his money just any way he could make money. I mean, he’s doing moonshine whiskey and everything. They’d come by his house at night, they’d shoot in his house and everything else, it was a rough neighborhood back there. But anyway, I grew up there and eventually gravitated over into Arkansas in 1955, I went to Stuttgart, a friend invited me to go with Stuttgart that was 1955, when I say 55 we’re talking about the 20th century, 1955, I’m not that old, wouldn’t be 1855. But anyways, so were in Stuttgart and we’re in waders, we’re about knee deep high and we’re not actually in the timber, but the timber is all around us, we’re in a big open water, probably 10 acres of open water and there’s ducks everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Now, 1955 and 1956 was a grand passage, they were back to back grand passages in 1955, 1956 season and then again in 1956 1957 season. So I’m hunting in Stuttgart on one of the grand passages in 1955. And there are ducks everywhere. Well, I’m hooked, it’s over with. I don’t quail hunt again, I don’t squirrel hunt again, I don’t rabbit hunt, I just duck hunt. So I had daddy taking me hunting and then backdoor neighbor duck hunt and he’d take me different places in Tennessee and in Arkansas, not so much Mississippi then, but mostly Arkansas and Mississippi. And then I got old enough and driving to start doing my own thing and buy my own thing, I mean, going on my own duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: What sent you down the rabbit trail of writing this book? And I know you’ve written a bunch of books. What are some of the titles of the book you’ve since written since The Golden Age of Waterfowling?
Wayne Capooth: Well, I got into writing, I guess it was probably in 1993 or so. Capooth is such an unusual last name, people would that come up and ask me, well, what kind of name is that? And I didn’t really know and I asked mom and dad and they didn’t really know and my cousins didn’t know, my Capooth cousins didn’t know. So I said, ok, well, I’m just going to research it and I really wasn’t into genealogy, but I said, I’m going to research it. So, while I was doing the Capooth family going to courthouses, libraries, archives and newspapers and all that stuff, I said I might as well do my mother’s side, which is Millsap and so I started collecting stuff on Millsap too. And in doing that, I came across a lady that was the secretary at one time of the Millsap South Family Association, which was active in the 50s and 60s and she was living in Memphis. Of course, this was about 1990 when I started doing the research and the Millsap’s Old Family Association had closed down because it was only active 50s and in the 60s. So but they had sent out questionnaires to all the Millsaps they could locate in the country and gathering family group sheets of father, mother, grandmother as much as they could find out and they collected those sheets, they had the purpose, they were going to write a book. Well, they never wrote the book but she kept all those files, so this is about 1990 when I started made contact with her and she agreed to let me use the files, so I got the files and anyway, I ended up from that right in the Millsaps. The Family History of the Millsaps is my first book. So from that I said, okay, nobody has really ever written the history of the mid-South Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas, yes. Nash Buckingham wrote a lot of stories and he got some history imbedding in those stories. But his is mostly a long tales of the Black Paddlers and the Guides and the club members and all, but the actual history from going back as far as you could go and bringing it forward as far as you go has never been told, I said, well, I’m going to research and I’m going to see what I can do. Well, I got into it going to the Memphis public library, going through all the old Commercial Appeal and the old newspaper and the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the other newspapers before that were very good at recording the history of hunting. Of course, they wasn’t doing the history, they were recording it at the time. So I had –
Ramsey Russell: Like, what would be some example of how they were recording history at the time?
Wayne Capooth: Well, they did things like on Big Lake like the warfare on Big Lake, there was a 15 year affair of hostility between the market hunters and the sportsmen, club members. But they’d have things on duck clubs and just the regular sportsman and just the regular run of the mill Joe Blow, they didn’t have the money but he’s still ducking now, they’d have stories about that.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s what I was kind of getting at is back in the day a lot of small town newspapers, a lot of newspapers reported on Little Johnny getting his eagles badge on community happenings and the fact that they were reporting so much hunting back in that day, hunting was a very acceptable normal thing.
Golden Age of Waterfowling
So, from that I started researching, I started collecting all this material and I had enough material that I could do the Golden Age of Waterfowling, which was my first duck hunting book and it covered the States of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Bootheel, Missouri.
Wayne Capooth: Yeah. The Commercial Appeal especially was very good and even the other earlier newspapers in it were very good in this area. So, from that I started researching, I started collecting all this material and I had enough material that I could do the Golden Age of Waterfowling, which was my first duck hunting book and it covered the States of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Bootheel, Missouri. Why the Bootheel, Missouri? Because that was part of the suck land, which was so big in the northeastern part of Arkansas. So, while I’m at the museums, libraries and archives and newspapers and all that stuff, I said, well, might as well collect stuff on just general hunting and not waterfowling such as raccoons and panthers and bears and which used to be in this area and quail and all that stuff –
Ramsey Russell: That was a huge part of Deep South culture, hunting culture just those critters you’re talking about besides ducks was a huge part of the Deep South hunting culture.
Wayne Capooth: No doubt about it. I mean, if you grew up in the South, you basically grew up squirrel and rabbit hunting and coon hunting, occasional coon hunting, but definitely rabbits and squirrels.
Ramsey Russell: You even talked about, you kicked off, a lot of your foundations were formed on wild Bob White quail, which that’s a bygone era here in the Deep South. But back in the day, guys from your generation, they all quail hunted, that was huge here in Mississippi.
Wayne Capooth: Like I said, it’s still quite a few number of wild quail back in the 50s and in the early 60s, very early 60s. But boy, things started changing. I mean, there was no cooties in this area then, there was no, what do you call those hard shell things you see so much down in Texas, no armadillos, no coyotes and the coyotes started coming in and of course, they’d work on the eggs of quail too.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody talks about trying – I know going through life 20 years ago, fire ants, pesticides, herbicides, road crop agriculture, I mean, but it was a different time, it’s like, really and truly in the era that Bob White quail was so plentiful in Deep South, it was like a lot of that historic habitat, wooded habitat was being cleared, put into agriculture or put into to 40 acres and two mules kind of a dirty agriculture, it was just perfect quail habitat and now we got a lot of road crop, lolly pine plantations and heavy stem density, not as much wildfire, there’s a lot of different reasons that there may not be as many Bob White, but what a glorious time to grow up when Bob White were so plentiful.
Wayne Capooth: Well, as far as quail I think, I probably was in the last few days when there really was enough to hunt, at least in that area where I was okay.
Ramsey Russell: Get back on the track of the golden age of waterfowl hunting. You’re interested in hunting and you started researching on your family book, then you fell off in a rabbit hole, the Golden Age of Waterfowling and of hunting, you did it primarily going through the Commercial Appeal or going –
Wayne Capooth: I went to archives in Atlanta, National Archives in Atlanta and the Dallas Fort Worth area, then I even went to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they’ve got a huge museum, our library and right outside of as you cross Washington DC and go west right across the line into West Virginia, they got a big headquarters there where they do their training for their federal agents. And I went up there and the guy named David Madison who runs that -actually the archives, part of it, that’s a story within itself, was very nice to me when I told him what I was doing. He said, yeah, you’re welcome to it. And how I sort of hooked up knowing what was up there, there used to be a federal game warden in this area called David Hall, he was in Mississippi, he’s even Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, but he collected stuff too. So I contacted with him, so I got a lot of information from him. But then when he died, he donated all of his stuff to that museum up there. And I went up there, this was in the winter time and I’m driving and I get within about 30 miles of the museum, the little town, I can’t think of the name of the town, but it starts snowing. And before I get to the place where the museum is and the archives and the library, it’s about four inches of snow on the thing, so I call him on the way because it’s getting even tough to drive and I said, David, I says, I’m about 15 minutes away, he says, well, we’re closing down, this is about one o’clock, he says, we’re closing down, he says, I know you’re coming up here to do research, but we’re all leaving. He says, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, he says, I’m going to tell the guard at the gate that you’re coming and he’s going to let you in and he’s going to take you to the archives, he’s going to open the archives for you and you can go through the files and I’ll meet you again in the morning and I’m going to take you to another warehouse where a lot of other stuff is. So anyway, I go through that whole archive from about one to, I stay there at about 06:00 and I mean, he got a lot of stuff. And so he calls me the next morning, he says, man, we can’t get to work, I still arranged for the security guard to take you over to the – said you come on to the front gate, if you made to the front gate, then I’ll have him take you to the warehouse where there’s more stuff. So anyway, I spent an afternoon and the next morning in their archives and got a lot of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you walk in and there’s just file cabinets and boxes full of papers and reports, you just start pulling one out and reading it and just going through them all.
Wayne Capooth: Where his archives was, yeah. He said this file, files were labeled, so you had a good idea what was in them and in them was a lot of tech stuff and then there was a lot of photographs. And David Hall, the Federal Agent, he had a lot of photographs. But I just went to like state archives in Nashville, before the state archives, I went to archives in 4 or 5 different states and I went to local libraries and then I did interviews with people like David Hall and what few old hunters were still alive and there’s no real old hunters, now that go back to – you’re going to find very few now go back to 1940 or so and earlier. So most of the old timers that can really go back and give you some history at the turn of the century, they’re not here anymore.
Ramsey Russell: And a lot of them didn’t keep just like journals and records and –
Wayne Capooth: No, I don’t have one photograph of me and my daddy hunting and that’s sad. That’s one of the saddest.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I don’t either now, that you just mentioned it.
Wayne Capooth: The thing about it, man. Now, so when I started hunting with my two boys, I kept a journal and photographs, but it’s one of the saddest things to me is I don’t have any photographs. And dad and I, when we got much older and I was through med school and settled a little bit, I was living in Topeka, Kansas then for the Air Force by way in 1980, I got there in Topeka in 1971 by the United States Air Force, I was a flight surgeon for 48 technical Air squadron there and we pheasant hunted a lot. To find many pheasants around Topeka because we’d have to go about 3 or 4 hours out to the central park and pheasant hunt. But I had my dad come out and pheasant hunt and we do drives because it’d be about anywhere from 13 to 15 guys, I don’t know if you know what driving is. But anyway, we’d put him at the blockers at the end, so he didn’t have to do much walk, but he absolutely loved. That was my last hunt with my dad, that was about 1976 or so.
Ramsey Russell: Did he duck hunt?
Wayne Capooth: He did not duck hunt. So, he did not one time did he go duck hunting with me.
Remembering First Duck Hunts
And so that was my first duck, I’ve seen that flame come out of that barrel.
Ramsey Russell: I forgot to ask you when you talk about going over to Stuttgart in 1955 part of the grand passage. Do you remember your first duck?
Wayne Capooth: I remember my first duck, it was on basically on that – Well, I know it wasn’t on that trip because I killed ducks. When I hunted the – like I said, I started about 14 in the old swamps between Ramer and Pocahontas back in the big hill pond area, which was about a 200 acre, 300 acre swamp, there was flood water off of the Tuscumbia River. It was a roosting place, okay. But that didn’t matter us boys, we’d get out there at 5 o’clock in the blind, we’d build, we’d stay all day for the roost. And it’d be pitch dark when they’d come in and you’re seeing that flame coming out of the barrel about a foot long. And so that was my first duck, I’ve seen that flame come out of that barrel. And I might as well get into an interesting story. So later on, I’m still duck hunting there a number of years, so in 1966 I was 22 years old and there was a young lady living in Memphis, Tennessee named Sybil Shepherd and she was 16 years old and my good friend in med school, I’m getting ready to go in med school, my good friend who’s going to go to med school with me at the same in 1968 when we actually go in, but this is 1966 he introduces me to Sybil Shepherd he was friends with the family. And so we date and I said, would you like to go duck hunting with me? And she said, yeah, so we ended up here at this roost plate. But we’re up there early in the morning, I drive up there, I’m 22, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to tell you, she was one good looking woman and she was 16. And we’re sitting in this blind and the blind is not very well camouflage, it’s got a front porch on and then it’s got a borough thing in front of it comes up about 3.5ft and then the rest of it’s open out front and then it’s got a side door which is completely open. But then it’s probably about 8 o’clock now and we’re smooching a little bit and the swamp angel I told you about earlier, we’re smooching a little bit here, real close, right together on that seat and that blind and next thing you know, in the doorway a sound comes, doesn’t look to me like you all much duck hunting. And I mean, it took us about 3 minutes for us to respond and he got his old white lightning in a glass jar. He says, you all like a little swig of this? And what could we say? Okay. So we took a little swig, that’s my first swig of white lighting, I mean, it burned all the way down and he must have chitchatted for 20 minutes, and I leave. Anyway, that was the end of that duck hunt pretty much.
Ramsey Russell: You ain’t killing no ducks that day?
Wayne Capooth: Wasn’t worried about no ducks.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good story.
Wayne Capooth: I got you off track, I think.
Ramsey Russell: No, you did not, that was a great story. I got a question for you –
Wayne Capooth: And let me just say, on that year she had won Memphis Teenage America, in 1966, she went on to win Miss Teenage America.
Ramsey Russell: She went on a bigger and better thing after that too.
Wayne Capooth: She found bigger and better, I’m talking in more than one thing here.
Why is Memphis, Tennessee Important to Duck Hunting?
And from there, the next big hunting club was called the Prairie Hunting Club that was in 1873.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, she sure did. All right, I’m going to ask you a question. Why is Memphis, Tennessee so important to duck hunting and also to southern duck hunting culture? That’s a two part question I know.
Wayne Capooth: Well, it’s a little bit, a long story, so if it gets too long, you just have to cut me off.
Ramsey Russell: We ain’t got nothing but time.
Wayne Capooth: Before there was a Memphis on this bluff, we’re on the fourth Chickasaw bluff and by the way, the first bluff starts up in north of here on the eastern part of the river, everything on the west side of the river was flat lands, farmlands of Arkansas. So in between each bluff was a river that came through in Tennessee and so you have four bluffs, we’re on the last bluff, they call it the fourth and it was also nicknamed the Chickasaw bluffs. Why? Because the Chickasaw Indians controlled this part of their torture. Now, their villages was in the northeastern part of Mississippi and northwestern Alabama, but they love this. This was West Tennessee in this area was considered part of their hunting ground as was Western Kentucky and northwestern Mississippi. So they love this area here because this is where they crossed the river coming from the west, probably from Mexico when they came through in probably 1500s before they went to settle in their villages in Northeastern Mississippi. But anyway, they would come back, they’d hunt here and they would also cross the river and hunt in Arkansas and mostly deer, they get the hides and the fur and they bring him back to Memphis. Memphis was the collection point and the distribution center just like fedex is now, well, this was the Chickasaw Distribution Center. So the deer hides and the furs would come back to Memphis out of Arkansas, Northwestern Mississippi and Western Tennessee and Western Kentucky, it’d be collected here and then they either buy pack mule train or horse train. They would pack them out of Memphis, once Charleston, South Carolina got established in 1685 or so, out of Memphis on the old buffalo trails, which is now – well, they had two routes really from Memphis to their villages is in through Charleston. But anyway, the old Buffalo trails, which actually became the old Cherokee trail of tears, which as you look out this window is about up at the top of that park there is where the old Chickasaw trails across the river. And they crossed in 1838 on their way to Oklahoma and that was quite a site. But anyway, so the Chickasaw were big hunters and when the traders and the first white people came here, it was basically traders too. So they would trade with the Indians, they trade for their fur. So, a lot of the fur didn’t make it all the way the traders would carry it back by mule trains, but anyway, that got instilled to the family members. So Memphis was already a big hunting and the federal government established 13 federal trading posts up and down the river and Memphis happened to be one of the trading posts that was about 1813 when they got established. So it was a big from the very get go a hunting site. Well, after the civil – and then of course, Memphis started being the cotton capital of the world, so all that cotton would come up to Memphis by steamboat and you had to be a pretty rich guy to be a factor, what’s called a factor in cotton where you dealing in cotton you buying and you’re trading it and selling it. So those are rich people, so the very rich people had money and they could afford to really get into hunting, but it wasn’t necessarily the rich, it was more just the middle class and the lower class, I mean, they had to hunt, they had to hunt for food. So Memphis, even between the Chickasaw Indians after they left in the civil war with big time hunters and Memphis started really getting into the hunting about the late 1840s and early 50s, but I say that because that’s when some of the sporting goods stores started coming in. There were no hunting clubs in and you could go right outside of Memphis from where we’re downtown Memphis on the river, you could go six miles outside of Memphis and you’re in quail country. And it’s basically stayed out of way up through the 1880s, you could still get quail just right outside. But then after the civil war, Memphis fell very early in the civil war. I think, we fell in 1862 or 1863 very early and we wouldn’t torn up by destruction by the Yankees, so we didn’t suffer that much. So after the civil war the old confederate generals, colonels and all of that stuff came back to Memphis and they came from pretty well to do families and they were able to really get into hunting. And so actually the first probably hunting club established in Memphis was pretty early, it was 1868. So that’s 3 years after the civil war ended in 1865 and that was called Fur, Fins and Feathers. And they even got into a little bit of conservation trying actually really to try to protect the quail at that time. And from there, the next big hunting club was called the Prairie Hunting Club that was in 1873. And they would take the steamboat out of Memphis and go down the river and come up the White River to what’s called Crocket Bluff, which is on the west side of the White River at the very southern end of the Grand Prairie. Why, Crocket Bluffs? Well, that was where the grandson of Davy Crockett settled. So, he lived on a bluff also like we are on now, but it’s on the White River. But if once we got out on the west side, after you got off to the bluff there, you’re in the Grand Prairie, nothing but prairie chickens, quail, deer, ducks everywhere in that thing. And so that was the Prairie Hunting and Fishing Club that was 1874 and they went for about 10 years. And actually the first waterfowling club, I don’t count that strictly as a waterfowling club, although they did a lot of waterfowling and a lot of the big time old timers that’s where Arthur Guido Wheatley was a member of it. He happened to be Nash Buckingham’s tutelage. He’s much older than Nash and this guy was – usually when they used to write English and writing, they did it in a classical style where they did all that fancy Greek stuff. Anyway, although Nash’s father Miles was a big hunter and Nash had a very good figure to look up to Guido Wheatley took him under his wing, but a Guido was a member of that Perry Wings Hunting club. So a lot of those members ended up being the forerunners members of these hunting club. The first two actual hunting clubs, duck hunting clubs in Memphis was out of Memphis and that was Osceola Ducking and Trolling Club in Beaverdam, the Osceola Ducking and Trolling Club was in Osceola, Arkansas which is up the river here in Arkansas about probably 70 miles from here. And they would take the steamboat out of Memphis to Osceola, offload all of their gear and then cross the river, I’m sorry, they’re all here in Arkansas and then take a wagon and go to Big Lake and hunt that was 1882 and the Beavedam got started, that’s down in Mississippi near Tupelo, near Tunica and I won’t go in there too much because I think you’ve covered it pretty well. But that guy started in 1882, but some of the same guys and then from there it just exploded one the club right after the other all the way through really 1940, I’m talking about duck clubs now, not deer clubs, just Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and the Bootheel Missouri. And what’s fascinating, I’m giving you a little bit of history why Memphis is so important and I call it the hub of the mid-south because Memphis was – when you take Little Rock, which is just a short distance from Little Rock to Stuttgart, Memphis to Stuttgart is more distance wise. But Little Rock is not near as important when you stay west of Crawley’s Ridge, which is about 45 minutes, you know what it is Crawley? Memphis is much more important in Little Rock and that’s hard to really quite understand because they were really closer to more, especially after the rice came in. It was more important or closer than Memphis was, but yet Memphis was very important as far as Stuttgart, which is about 120 miles away. And so Memphis was the hub.
Ramsey Russell: It has to do with his Mississippi River laying out there on their feet.
Wayne Capooth: Listen the flyway, let’s go before rice.
Ramsey Russell: I was going to say, before rice and before the clubs there were big lake there were sunken land, there was market hunting, I mean, yeah, there’s a gap in there.
Wayne Capooth: So there was a fair number of sportsmen in the 1870s and then clubs pretty much in the 1880s, but prior to that, the market hunters and the local farmers and they had it all to themselves. And then, I lost my train of thought here a little bit.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you were talking about rice, I didn’t mean to pull you off.
Wayne Capooth: And you said the Mississippi River. Well, before rice, the Mississippi River was the flyway. That didn’t mean they didn’t venture off across Crowley’s Ridge and get over around the potholes in Stuttgart or Grand Prairie. The Grand Prairie before rice was not near, like the number of ducks like it was, after it had rice planted. But there’s still plenty of potholes from buffalo wallow where the buffalo, it used to be big herds of buffalo and they’d mass together and they’d wallow in the mud and everything, they’d wallow out in the potholes.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a heck of a pothole.
Wayne Capooth: Yeah, it’d be big. Well, there was a lot of buffalo. I mean, it took a while for, couple of years to get it wallowed out. But before rice, there was still a fair amount of duck hunting in the Grand Prairie, but not near like after rice. So anyway, after the main flyway was along this river because it was corn more along the river and all that stuff and pin oak acorns, everything timber wasn’t cut like it is now. But when rice started coming in the first thing in Arkansas because it was already in Louisiana and we can get into that in a little bit if you want to. But anyway, first of all, it came in and in Arkansas in 1904 and then really going in 1907, it just kept spreading out of that area around Stuttgart, Gillett and DeWitt and now it’s always up in the southeastern part of Missouri. But so anyway, when rice came in the ducks that mainly I’m talking about the main group, not that they didn’t split off and spread out, stayed around that Mississippi River because of all the Oxbow lakes from the old river, Mississippi River, they get all the pin oak acorns they want, the corns, the grass seeds and all that stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Coontail moss, all that good stuff.
Crawley’s Ridge is nothing more than a small hill, a group of hills, it’s not over probably 20, 30 miles wide and it runs all the way from the bootheel of Missouri down all the way to Arkansas and everything between
Wayne Capooth: Then the rice came in and up until about 1930, before up between 1904, let’s say 1907 because that’s when rice really started spreading a little bit between 1907 and 1930 rice really took over and changed the fly away. So now it’s really main east of Crawley’s Ridge. Am I confusing people about saying Crawley’s Ridge?
Ramsey Russell: Describe Crawley’s Ridge in case they don’t know, describe it.
Wayne Capooth: Crawley’s Ridge is nothing more than a small hill, a group of hills, it’s not over probably 20, 30 miles wide and it runs all the way from the bootheel of Missouri down all the way to Arkansas and everything between. Crawley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River is Arkansas Delta. So anyway, it shifted over to west of Crawley’s Ridge into the rice country. And up until about 1930 the ducks would roost in the white river bottom, which was at the sort of the southern end of – and a huge forested area. Now, it’s a national wildlife refuge, became a national wildlife refuge in 1925 I think, it was. But they would go in there to roost at night, fly out to the rice fields in the daytime. Well, they started building the reservoirs and the first reservoir was built by Art and Vern he built it in 1926. So it was ready a little bit of water for 1926 and 1927. But anyway, for Art and Vern Reservoir, it’s a little bit southeast of Stuttgart and it’s still going pretty strong. Reservoirs started spreading everywhere. So once about between 1930 and 1933 there’s quite a few reservoirs. So, the duck sort of changed out of using the White River for resting pot at night, they started using the reservoirs and of course, that made some fantastic duck hunting on the reservoirs and more duck clubs at Arkansas.
Ramsey Russell: One of the most interesting things I’ve read in the Golden Age of Waterfowling and I really don’t remember the timeline, I’m sure we just talked all around it. It had to do with that area, the big lake area and I’m going to ask you why it was important, why it is important. But even back in that day, I just remember reading a story, a lot of the hunters that had big, really good duck land, they may have been local, they may have been here from Memphis, but there were people coming from Chicago, there were people coming from around the country as I recall coming to hunt this part of the world. And I remember a passage of a story in your book about someone, I thought he was from Chicago and he showed up to his property and it’s like he killed 200 something ducks one day. I mean, do you remember some of those kind of stories or some of those kind of facts? Where the people were coming from, the bag number they were killed in Pre-Migratory Bird Treaty Act stuff like that.
Wayne Capooth: Well, Big Lake has a fairly long history and is pretty involved as far as – across the United States in the 1800s, let’s say, after 1870 after everything got settled down from the civil war and people got a little money in their pockets in 1870 duck clubs really took off from that point on and they did very well in their local areas. But when you take in the eastern shores of Long Island and Chesapeake Bay and Barnegat Bay, the hunting pressure was so big on them from the market hunters and even from the sportsman and the sportsman’s clubs that they even started looking for places to hunt.
Hunting Pressure in the 1800s
Of all the market hunters, I call him the king.
Ramsey Russell: Hunting pressure back in the 1800s.
Wayne Capooth: Even by 1870 on the eastern shore. Because they had a much earlier start because that’s where the population when they came from Europe settled much. So it got the first pressure before it started population started expanding westward. It took Chicago, which sort of became a city in 1830, it didn’t take it too long to get going into Callum marsh and the Illinois River. But anyway, they started even the Chicago, people in Chicago, Saint Louis, Lexicon, Kentucky, Indianapolis and all that stuff, they started looking for other places to hunt and Big Lake started getting its reputation. Even in the 1850s, Big Lake already had their market hunters. As far as I know there were about 10 local market hunters, know what I call professional market hunters and I call them professional market hunter, one is travel from another state and just sort of follows the ducks or he might be hired by one of these game dealers employed actually by the game dealer to go out to a certain area and ship all these ducks, those two types of professional market hunters. But in 1850 there were local market hunters. And let’s just take the sunk lands around Big Lake, the sunk lands runs from northeast, I’m sorry, southeastern Missouri down to around Marked Tree and Truman Arkansas. So it’s about, I don’t know what we say about 100 miles sunk lands. And the reason it’s called sunk lands as we call it, it sunk, land actually sunk from the earthquake of late 1811 and 1812. Now, when I say earthquake, it was a series of earthquakes over that period of time and it was about 4 earthquakes during that time that registered a verse, of course, they didn’t have Richter scale back then, but they’re able to measure it somehow. Now they registered above 7, so a major earthquake and that’s what created Reelfoot Lake permanently. It created Big Lake on certain times of the year, there were times when big lake would go dry before they built the dam on the south end, it would go dry so they could run cattle, but the little river still ran through it, that’s what fed Big lake and then the overflow of the Mississippi River, but it was flooded most of the time, not so necessarily in the summer time. So word started getting out about how many of the local marker hunting was killing about 20 years later, so from 1850 about 1870 when the Illinois river started being over hunted because that was one of the main, when you take a river, that was a biggie Illinois river. It’s big because of the number of ducks killed, type of ducks they kill, the number of ducks they killed, the duck call invention, the decoy makers and all of that stuff. So it’s going on pretty good in the 1870s Illinois River, well, by 1890 a lot of that farm ground had been drained and the ducks were being shot at. So here comes the professional market hunters out of Illinois into the Bootheel of Missouri and the sunk lands of northeastern Arkansas. I’m talking about guys, if any kind of historian waterfowling, these are big hitters, they would be the Babe Ruth of waterfowlers. That would be Abe, who was a Chicago guy market hunter, he hunted a place just south of Chicago called Calame Lake and when he got through there, he would travel south, he’d make it to Southeast Missouri in the sunk lands there, in Northeastern Arkansas, the sunk lands around Big Lake. You had Billy Griggs, he was from around the middle part of Illinois, I can’t think of the name of the town, but on the Illinois River and I call him the king of the market hunters.
Ramsey Russell: Why?
Wayne Capooth: Of all the market hunters, I call him the king. Why not call him the king? Because he would start up the Canadian border and follow them all the way down. And when I say all the way down, I mean, to Louisiana Coast, Texas coast and then went away to get through with the ducks, he’d go to Central America, Mexico and South America plume hunting. So he did that in the fall, he hunted in the Louisiana egrets for their plume in the summer time, that’s when they’re nesting. They’re on the nest and they got their young chicks and they’d go out there, you’re talking about a sad story, they’d go out there and shoot them with 22 shoot the mama off the nest and the mama had the most full more than the male, full plumage. And of course, when the mama’s died and she’s on the ground for it’s been picked up, the chicks fall out of the nest, they can’t fly yet and they’re down there, just sad story. But anyway, they made a lot of money.
Ramsey Russell: About what time?
Wayne Capooth: That’s about 1880. Plume hunting went on big time between 1880 even in through the 1920s. Then the society and theological society, other things got on them pretty bad and then they passed the Migratory Bird Act in 1913 and that pretty much put an end to it although it continued a few years after that.
Ramsey Russell: Do you ever run across any pictures of Billy Griggs, any photo?
Wayne Capooth: Just an illustration, not an actual photo but an illustration. I’ve got two books out now, The Waterfowling Vignette, which is, it’s a large book, soft cover. It covers the entire United States. Now, obviously not every state is covered because not every state has a lot of history to collect like Vermont, New Hampshire, New Mexico and places like that. But it has something like 40 probably 42 states across the United States. Now I’ve lost my train, where were we going?
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know. My mind races, you start telling stories about people like Billy Griggs and my imagination starts running wild.
Wayne Capooth: Yeah, I mean, so anyway, I got the two books The Waterfowling Vignette, I’ve got stories all across the country. So I feel like I’ve got a pretty good feel of market huntings. You’ll never get the complete feel of the market hunting because they kept things to themselves, they didn’t want it to get out. So it’s just a fortunate we know enough about them as we do. But anyway, he is the king as far as I’m concerned.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve met with several historians such as yourself down in Texas, Utah and one thing it has in common is the train, the modern technology, the internet of the day, the train, transporting people into wilderness, I’m sure Mr. Billy Griggs rode a train, a lot of the sportsmen were coming out of Memphis rode train, heck Nash Buckingham rode a train just 30, 40 miles south here stepped off and went to Beaverdam Camp House. I mean, the train was very important in letting humanity penetrate these places is you got –
Wayne Capooth: It’s all innovation.
Ramsey Russell: The innovation, it put people all of a sudden conveniently into very wild places.
Wayne Capooth: Well, I’m going to start way back even back in the colonial days and up even to the 1820s was the stage coach we take people who have money, they take stage coach to wherever they want to go or they could travel, what’s the Indian highways, which were the rivers and streams by boat. Then the steamboat came in in 1812, I think and it took off and when the steamboat came in, that was a biggie because now you could travel that Mississippi River and the other big rivers by steamboat. So you could cover a lot of ground to hunt. And the other big innovation back then this would have been, let’s say 1860s, 1870s was a telegraph, communication was a biggie because now your caretaker at your duck club in boondock, he could telegraph you in Memphis, we got ducks and here goes 100 of them. So that was a biggie then obviously you got the telephone. But anyway, back to the steamboat, that was a biggie, I suppose the railroad, you can’t take cars out of the factor, but before cars, the railroads were the biggie because you could make time on those babies and they went to a lot more places and they went to a lot more places that the steamboats couldn’t go. So, yeah, that was the biggie.
Market Hunter Exploits
They went back and we need help, we bought this paradise and these damn market hunters are shooting it all out.
Ramsey Russell: Wayne, somewhere in your book, I read it cover to cover it took me, it took me a while, but I loved it, absolutely loved The Golden Age of Waterfowling. And I just remember, somewhere in that book reading that some of the people you talked about earlier going out to Big Lake, going to their woods, coming in, they got the telegraph, hey, the ducks are in, they’d show up and whereas they might have shot 250 ducks in a single day the preceding year they showed up and the woods were empty because the market hunter had come in and made their living and did what they did. And it just as I continued reading about some of the sound, I seem to remember a few gun fights between caretakers and market hunters, it was very notorious activity and it seemed to and I’ve heard the same thing with the canvasback down in Texas, they began to do what people with political nexus did. They went back and we need help, we bought this paradise and these damn market hunters are shooting it all out. And they began to legislate market hunting out of control and it ushered in a new era of American thinking of more sport hunting, especially as you got after World War II in the middle class and it comes a new era of sport hunting versus market hunting when I think of the days back in the 1860s and 1870s and a lot of these clubs you’re talking about historically and the market hunters and stuff still when I look out over the city of Memphis here, I think that probably most of these people were busy working and making a living and then going to the market or getting duck from somebody, buying duck, they really weren’t, it’s not like that all of humanity was sport hunting. Like we think of duck hunting today, but your book more than any other really bore out the conflict between the market hunters and the sport hunters as being the kind of do it to what we perceive as hunting today and conservation as far as that goes.
Wayne Capooth: Well, as I said, I wrote Waterfowl Vignette which covered about 42 states and across the country and there was a lot of areas that had conflict between market hunters and club members and even just general sportsmen, even in Chesapeake Bay, Texas coast, like you’re talking about Lake Surprise and Lake Stevenson in that area around Galveston Bay, a lot of turmoil between the market hunters and actually club members. But by far the biggest probably was a 15 year affair at Big Lake in the sunk lands of northeastern Arkansas.
Ramsey Russell: I want to hear about that.
Wayne Capooth: As I mentioned earlier, Big Lake was a tons of ducks from market hunters poured out of there. In 1893 in 1894, a 150,000 ducks went to the market from there. They’d go to Memphis to markets, Saint Louis, Chicago and from Chicago they would go on to New York. 1894 season, 1895 the same scenario, thousands of ducks. Well, it didn’t take long for word of mouth to get out and eventually it got out and what sort of really changed the thing also was railroads, which we just mentioned. The sportsmen found out there was going to be a railroad built across the southern end of Big Lake that was in 1900, they found out about it. So in 1900 a group out of Nashville of all places got wind of it and they drifted over to Big Lake and they got carried along some Memphis guys with them. And how did those two connect? Because Joseph Acklin, which I’m going to get to was living in Nashville was well connected, he was an attorney, he also was an attorney in Memphis for a while. So he knew a lot of the Memphis guys. So, couple of 4 or 5 of them went to Big Lake in early 1900s and they realized what was going on there with all the market hunters, you coming in every day or after a night shooting, they didn’t do a lot of knife shooting and they did a lot of plume hunting too. But they’d come in with whatever, a dugout canoe, I suppose everybody knows what a dugout canoe it’s made out of one tree. Well, they call them swamp buggies, the Swamp angels did and a swamp and a swamp buggy would hold anywhere between 100 and 125 ducks and that was basically a general limit, that didn’t mean they stopped there, but you might consider that a limit back then, but it didn’t take long. So they went down there in 1900 they saw the benefits of that place and it was owned by a lumber company, all that Big Lake area, basically, one lumber company out of Chicago. And they contacted that lumber company and said, we’re thinking about doing a club here, what’s it looks like with us hunting there? So they go back to Nashville and the other one went back to Memphis, they organized the club in 1900. The railroad started being built in 1901, completed in 1902 through the southern end. 1903, turmoil started, it started a little before that. Because I mentioned earlier when the first duck club, one of the first two duck clubs they both got established in 1882 was the Osceola Ducking and Trolling club. And I mentioned how the Osceola Ducking and Trolling Club took steamboat from Memphis Osceola and then the wagons took all their equipment to the Big Lake area and they hunted it. So they started their club over there and they built a clubhouse, had the clubhouse built in 1883, it was burned down in 1883 by the market hunters.
Ramsey Russell: Were the market hunters just trespassing?
Wayne Capooth: You didn’t have to trespass then.
Ramsey Russell: You didn’t have to.
Wayne Capooth: Well, you could go anywhere. There was a few private land that was posted and stuff like that, but you could basically just go anywhere. So anyway, they burned Osceola Club in 1883. So Osceola Club decided, well, we’re not going to rebuild a clubhouse, we just do tents. So, the next year in 1884 they had a bunch of tents, about 20 tents and about two thirds of that group had already gone home, they’ve been there four days hunting and they left and went back to Memphis and Nashville and even a few members at that time from Saint Louis, Saint Louis was a big lake too. So one night, some bodies plural showed up and started shooting rifle bullets through the tents, they still had all the tents up, 5 hadn’t taken all the tents down, so they only had about 5 tents occupied because there’s only about 4 or 5 of them left, fortunately, they didn’t kill anybody, but the other tents were all shot up. So they said we’re leaving this place. So in 1885 they left Big Lake and went down to the suck lands around Marked Tree and set up the Osceola Ducking and Trolley club down there. So anyway, from that turmoil the next time and everything was pretty quiet during 1884, 1885 until 1900, pretty quiet. And then this club comes in and sets up in 1900, then another clubs comes in called the Mound Club, the local market hunters call them the Rats Club. But it’s also known as a moniker was the Boston Club because they were out of Boston, Massachusetts. And their clubhouse didn’t get burned, but they ran the members out of there after about two years and they took over the clubhouse, so that was one of their meeting places that was in 1902. Well, another club came in in 1902 and set up on the eastern side of Big Lake. The Big Lake Shooting Club, which was the first in 1900, it was on the southern end of Big Lake, Mount was on the west side of Big Lake. But anyway, so the third club came in and it didn’t last but two years before they burned down that club. And then, so that was all. So all was left was the Big Lake Shooting Club. And from 1903 until 1915, I say finally ended, it was constant turmoil warfare between the market hunters and the sports club members. And when I say turmoil, well to do club members would get the Arkansas legislatures to pass laws which were detrimental to the market hunters –
Ramsey Russell: Plug shotguns, possession limits, trespassing.
Wayne Capooth: Shooting over the limit and all that stuff. So they would have him arrested by the game warden. And now the shooting club, The Big Lake Shooting club was able to get their own game wardens because they petitioned the governor of Arkansas to let them hire their own game warden. So they got the main game warden and they hired two deputy game wars, so they had three. So, their game wardens would go out and patrol it and they had a night watchman also to stay at the clubhouse all the time around the – which they had stay at the grounds there but had their own places. And then the market hunters would get the local county governments to pass ordinances that wasn’t complimentary to the club members. So they’d have the club members up to sometimes 50 club members, there were about 50 members, sometimes they had almost every one of them under arrest.
Ramsey Russell: It’s almost like duck hunt was driving local politics.
Wayne Capooth: Now, this is not a onetime deal, this went on from 1903 to 1912, they’re arrested every year almost either the market hunters or both of them or all of them.
Hunting in the 1900s
How many ducks were there? What was the hunting like?
Ramsey Russell: Wait, let me ask you a question. Is there any record of what the duck hunting was like, what were the members killing in a day? How many ducks were there? What was the hunting like? What were they fighting over?
Wayne Capooth: The members wouldn’t shoot. Well, you’re talking about a club member, like I said, they counted 100, anything under 100 is a bad day. The club members, they would maybe do 50, that’s about it, I guess that would be considered a sportsman and it was.
Ramsey Russell: Well, Pre-Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there were no bag limits, so they self-imposed themselves.
Wayne Capooth: Well, they didn’t come in effect then. So you got to consider the historical time period here, this is a time when we judge everything by what we see now what Nash Buckingham called the ceiling volume, what I see up in the ceiling of the sky. But we don’t have that, we don’t have one of the ducks they had back then. So 50 ducks don’t bad mouth them for that. But anyway, when I say turmoil and warfare, I’m talking more about more than just a risk. So, over that 13 year period of time, they had a caretaker shot 13 times, I’m sorry, ambushed 13 times. He was wounded four times, sometimes seriously, never killed and basically, they had two caretakers, but one of them would always go by, I’m thinking, man, and the game warden had one game warden killed, the market hunters had one killed. So this got really nasty. And then about 1912 refuges was starting national refuges. Because money was being set aside by federal government and they were going around, basically refuges started up in north here. So 1912, Missouri was looking for refuge down in the Bootheel and they couldn’t really find a place cause drainage that Missouri government had drained that area so much, it wasn’t near as many ducks as it used to be. So, Missouri sort of started looking at Arkansas and so Big Lake became a prime destination. So by 1913, the Migratory Bird Act got passed, it’s also known as the Weeks-McLean because those were the two congressmen and senators that pushed that bill through to get it passed. And that was a big bill as far as conservation and it put a lot of control under the federal government, it took away state’s right. Well, that didn’t say work with the state’s rights people in the States. So it was a question whether it could stand up constitutionally. When it got passed in 1913, they were going to establish, they already had what’s called Lacey Act game inspectors, which were wardens from the 1900 Act, which took away a lot of the importation of game from different states and everything. But it didn’t do enough. So they’re already in 1930 had the Lacey Act inspectors or wardens, but they needed more warden to go all across the United States in 1913. So they needed a chief game warden over all of them, he’d be based out of Washington DC. The big backer of Big Lake in 1900 one of the guys out of Nashville that went to Big Lake to get it going was Colonel Joseph Ackland and he got the colonel’s name from the Louisiana, Militia and how did he get up with Louisiana? His family, both his mother, the grandfather and father and then his mother who inherited the grandfather, father, his mother inherited a million dollars at that time, you can imagine what that would be now of land, land in Tennessee, land in Texas and 18,000 acres in Louisiana. And Colonel Joseph Ackland would go down to Louisiana to run the plantation down there and he was a big time sniping duck hunter, big time, I’m talking about Snipes 132 one outing, ducks the same way. So, Joseph Ackland was the president of Big Lake Shooting Club and he had a lot of connections. In 1913 when the Migratory Bird Act was passed, so who do you think got chosen by President Woodrow Wilson to be the chief game warden or commissioner? Who do you think? Joseph Ackland. So, the constitutionality of the thing came up after 1930 because you had the states’ rights people which believe it unconstitutional, you had a lot of the other people probably more in the majority that it was constitutional. So it lingered around, it was in effect, but it lingered around and really wasn’t enforced too much until they came up with the ones that thought it was constitutional that it was needed to be found Galway Supreme Court and decided to be constitutional. So they thought they would – So in 1960 they passed what’s called Migratory Bird Treaty Act and if you put it under a treaty, like if you go between the United States and Canada and then even later, Mexico, if you make it a treaty, it’s not reviewable by the US Supreme Court, it is in, it is law. So they came up with that idea in 1916 of making because market hunting continued in a Big Lake, after 1930 it went on into the 1920s. So they came up with, let’s make it a treaty between us and Canada. So I think Wilson was still the president. So they got with Canada, Canada is all in agreement, Wilson was a little hesitant but he finally signed that bill, it went into effect actually 1918 when it got ratified by Canada, so it really went into effect in 1918. And in 1915, so between 1913 and 1915, President Woodrow Wilson made Big Lake a National Wildlife Refuge, which it remains today. And who do you think they made one of the main game wardens, federal game wardens for Big Lake? From 1913 to about 1916? A guy named Lev Bryan. Lev Bryan was the son-in-law of, who was that famous duck call maker from Big Lake, I’m going brand in. Anyway, he was big market hunter and Lev Bryan was one of the main market hunters on Big Lake, he was getting ducks from the other market hunters and shipping them out of Manila, Arkansas, which is right next to all the way to Memphis, Chicago and on. But he was one of the first game warden of the wildlife refuge. Let me say also –
Ramsey Russell: History is stranger than fiction.
Wayne Capooth: Before 1900, before Big Lake shooting club in the 1890s, Big Lake was such a big market hunting, killing so many ducks, they had a steamboat running out of Hornersville, which is on the north part of in Missouri, which is in the north part of Big Lake that would pack 1000lbs of ice in the wintertime, go down the western side of Big Lake south and stop at three landings, Tim’s point, the northern point, the middle point was Feathers point and the very south end where the clubhouse was eventually built was scar point. That steamboat would drop off, they had three, what do you call the ice houses? Anyway, they had 3 ice houses and each had landing and the ice house landing was 20 by 20 about 10ft tall and the roof was made out of saw dust and the height was built about halfway in the ground. And then inside, they had layers of saw dust on the floor and then ice, saw dust, ice. And so he would come down and a lot of the market hunters on the western side of Big Lake would also go to the ice house and have the ducks ready in barrels with ice and in the barrels, ice and ducks. But anyway, he would drop off ice, more ice and he’d pick up the ducks. So he’d go to each point to the south and he got to the Garhole when he got to the Garhole on the western side, they need help up north eastward to the middle and the eastern side of the lake to visit all of the hunting camps, pick up ducks, drop off ice. And I’ve got a map of this, got all the camps and they lived in tents, a lot of them live in the house boat, some lived in tents and then he’d go back to Hornersville and then they’d be dispersed from there. But that continued even on into 1903 after the club got started, but eventually was done away with after the club. But that’s how many ducks were going out of there, you really can’t imagine it.
Ramsey Russell: Not by today’s standards.
Wayne Capooth: And then one minute I’m telling you they were so secreted, there’s not a whole lot of pictures of that area of the market.
Ramsey Russell: Well, it sounds like a pretty competitive business.
Wayne Capooth: Yeah. So Big Lake in the scheme of things was a big market hunting area, big club area and really big in the history of national because like I said, it was started in the 1950s as a National Wildlife Refuge.
The Progression of Duck Hunting Pressure
How do you think hunting pressure was then versus the 60s, versus now?
Ramsey Russell: You said something at lunch that struck me, there I was with a mouth full of great barbecue ribs, we were just talking. I learned just a minute ago, your first big duck hunt that set you off on a course that we all get on 1955 over at Stuttgart and well, while we were eating barbecue, you said, something about the fact that I think you said somewhere around 1966 and mid or late 60s, hunting pressure had gotten so bad in Arkansas that you started looking at private land, buying a few little properties, joining some clubs down in Mississippi Delta and that just struck me. I was born in 1966, Wayne and I think that today there’s a lot of hunting pressure, but back then you saw a lot of hunting pressure in Arkansas and you went to Tallahatchie County and it was different than it is now. And so I’m going to bring up the question of hunting pressure where I’m getting at long ways around. But I think of those guys going into the big lake area and just shooting ducks, the sport hunters going in, the club members going in and limiting themselves to 50 ducks. Nash Buckingham down at Beaverdam Pre-Migratory Bird Treaty Act their club imposed a gentlemanly limit of 50 ducks. And I’m thinking my gosh, the hunting pressure they must have put on it. How do you think hunting pressure was then versus the 60s, versus now?
Wayne Capooth: I’m going to start, it’s actually in the 80s where -but anyway, I’m going to start a little bit at Stuttgart in 1955 and go forward if I get off track and get me back on track, the difference. As I said, I went to Stuttgart as a guest in 1955 and that was the year of grand passion there, it’s just ducks everywhere. But I hunted mostly, like I said in that swamp in western Tennessee and would venture into Arkansas every so often. And I went in the Air Force in 1971 and only had to serve two years, that was during Vietnam, but I never went to Vietnam, I stayed stateside. And at that time, I’d hunted on the Kansas river right below Lake Perry, which is just east of Topeka. And although there weren’t as many ducks, then it was 90% were mallards and we usually ended up getting our limit because it was good hunting. And I’m going to tell you the central flyway if I was duck hunting down and even if I was in Memphis, I’d be going to the peanut and the reservoirs in our in Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. But anyway, so I got out of the Air Force and married my wife in Topeka and we came back to Memphis where I was basically born and raised and still living and we came back in 1981 and I hunted Arkansas in the season of 1981 and 1982 in the season of 1982, so two seasons and I’m hunting on public land and I just got so fed up with the hunting pressure, the sky bus thing going on and things like that, I said I’m leaving Arkansas so I didn’t even know where I was going to go, that doesn’t mean that were ducks everywhere, I’m just talking about basically a few local spots, but I’m hunting in a fair amount of spots in Arkansas because I had my hunting buddies were good duck hunters too, my age and good duck callers. So I didn’t know where I was going and I lived in Germantown, which is a suburb of Memphis during that time, about 1983. So it was early spring of 1983 and I’m chit chatting with my backdoor neighbor across the fence, he’s got his head over the fence and I got my head over the fence and he’s telling me I’m going to go down to Mississippi and look at the duck club, I’m going to maybe join it. He said, would you like to go with me? I said, yeah, I’ll go with you. So it was a club down in Tallahatchie County, like you just said, about 8 miles south of Charleston, which is the county seat of Tallahatchie County. And this was summer time, so I mean, there’s not going to be any ducks down there, but the club was having about 1600 acres of land in the club and it was off field land except for 160 acres of woods and we lease them what’s called school land, every section 16 in Mississippi is set aside for school’s districts. So we had one school section 16 land which was unbelievable. But anyway, I went down there and the guy who’s running it, setting it up was a gentleman named Hodges Junior and Hodges was a former senator from the state of Arkansas. I’m thinking to myself, this guy’s from Arkansas, what in the heck is he doing down here in Mississippi? Well, anyway, he was organizing the club, he was a big attorney and he well to do, I mean, he was the attorneys for Walmart, he knew all of the, who you call those guys that own the Walmart people. Anyway, he was an attorney for the Walton, so he knew them all so he could hunt just about anywhere in Arkansas. And his main hunting place was Leonard Sisters, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Sister’s place. If you want to see ducks like those days, go to Leonard Sister’s Woods. But anyway, he was running the club and he showed us around I liked it, so I joined in 1983. So the season opened and it was warm and I remember December the 18th I’m a little run and a little pirogue and it’s warm, I see a dead gum water moccasin. Well, after that day it turned, what cold we’re in cold and it stayed that way, we had about 13 days below 0, 0 or below and I mean, everything flooded fields froze up, for us, the Tallahatchie River was flooded and it was keeping open a lot of that land around it. And at that time, in 1983 we had the club land, but you could go anywhere, it didn’t matter, you didn’t have to ask permission, you could go anywhere just obviously, you couldn’t go anywhere. But let me just say I never got contested, so I was going to different counties because I would scout in the afternoon, you didn’t have to hunt to maybe an hour in the morning when you found open water. So I would scout in the afternoon and I knew where to go and I would set up and just ducks everywhere. And it was like that all season from that point on when it started freezing up. So I was hooked on that and from 1983 I stayed in that club, it was called Wild Wings and anybody who knows that area down there right below Charleston maybe eight miles is three clubs and they’re joining each other Wild Wings, Delta Marsh and Lone Cypress and they were just all Gangbusters. But from 1983, I got out of that club in 1998, why did I get out in 1998? Because I got tired of basically going to the same hunting pits and I don’t get why I sort of had to go to the same hunting pits, so I wanted to get out and start venturing around and meeting different people and things like that. So the reason I got out in 1998 between 1983 and 1998 when I went in there in 1983 every year, it’s Mississippi was changing. So then all the locals were mainly deer hunters, hog hunters, turkey hunters because there were still some turkeys at that time, they didn’t really do duck hunting. So that’s the reason I could basically go anywhere because I wasn’t interfering with anybody. When I sat there and watched Mississippi changed just like I watched Arkansas change from 1955 to 1981, 1982, 1983 seasons and what I mean by that, more and more hunters, more and more pump land fields used to be never pump fields in that area, more and more duck clubs and I just sat there and watched our Mississippi change and it has really changed over the years with the weather warming like it is now Mississippi, I think is in some pretty serious troubles. I don’t know because I ain’t hunted down there really, since I did go to Beaverdam and hunted, but it’s changing, everything is changing. Where was I going with this? Yeah, how did it change. I can tell you let’s take the colonial periods when the pilgrims on all of the colonists were coming over and selling it around the big cities, New York and Boston, they even started complaining about the lack of game because all the hunting was done nearby. So it started early on, but obviously not like it did once. Once it started spreading off of the eastern sea board and start spreading westward and westward and you start getting the railroads, then the trains then breach loaders, then all the fancy ammunition, it’s just changing. If you put so much pressure on them, they can’t take all of that pressure. A duck understands two things, he’s got to have feed and he’s got to have time away from pressure, otherwise it’s going to find one of those two, but you eventually reach a place where they ain’t going to find a place to rest and find food. And I don’t know if we’re heading down that road or not.
Ramsey Russell: Kind of where I was getting out by asking that question, you kind of just spelled it out. You go back to the 1800s, not just there but here everywhere and the bag limits were astounding, but there really wasn’t the relative hunting pressure that there is now because there was more habitat, there was less civilization, there was less agriculture, there was more wildness, there were still places ducks could go and just not be disturbed. If they were getting pounded at Big Lake, they were going somewhere, they weren’t getting pounded and coming to Big Lake. And is that what the distinction is between now and the golden age is just less habitat, more hunting pressure, do you think?
Less Habitat, More Hunting Pressure?
Wayne Capooth: Well, there’s a lot of changes that has led us to where we are now, we’ve mentioned a bunch of them, I’m not going to get into climate change, I’m not one of these climate changers that thinks man has made that much difference because we had the glaciers since 18,000 years ago, the glaciers, it’s been warming.
Ramsey Russell: 20,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert with a tropical rain forest.
Wayne Capooth: And in between the 5 and 6 glacier periods, we had, what do we have? We had in between those glacial periods, which would go back to hundreds of millions of years ago, what’s called the interglacial period where things were warming up, so we’re in an interglacial period and we ain’t at the end of it and the scientists don’t know and I don’t know.
Ramsey Russell: We’re powerless against the universe.
Wayne Capooth: We’re powerless. So let’s just forget the climate. I’m going to skip the wetlands drainage and all that stuff because I shouldn’t be skipping it because that’s huge, but let me get down to how the flyways sort of changed in the numbers. Like I just said that talking about Mississippi flyway, the Mississippi flyway, the river itself used to be the fly away, then shifted over the rice. Well, before the rice in Arkansas, the ducks used to come down and they’d stop over a little bit in the white river bottoms because of so many acorns and the potholes in the Grand Prairie. But basically they’re over flying Arkansas and they’re going to Louisiana, they’re getting that rice because that rice got started down there in 1880. What happened there? Rice started spreading out of Louisiana northward from 1800 on until it got into Arkansas in 1904, then it kept spreading northward through Arkansas and now got into South Eastern Missouri. So probably Southeast Missouri is a good place to go. Although it’s getting the pressure too now. So the hunting pressure and then you come into the soybeans, my daddy used to load us up because we had grandma who lived in Oregon and he load us up and we’d take us out to Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, there was no beans out there, then it was all wheat. So the beans started spreading out of the south and going up to now there are beans in North Dakota. So the ducks have got all the food they want, they got all the water they want basically, they don’t have to come south and they ain’t coming south unless they have to. So they ain’t coming south, whatever number they throw out there, they’re going to stay up there as long as they can, so that’s one way of changing. And I’m going to mention Robo just a little bit and then remind me to get back to 60 days. Far as more of current time we had Robo come out and the best I remember it came out in 1996 in California, the inventor and it got going in there in 1996. I’m at Wild Wings in Tallahatchie County in Mississippi at the club, Wild Wings, this is in the first day of the start of the 1996 season, we’re in the still in the 1996 season and we’re sitting at the clubhouse and one of the club members has a guest from California and we’ve finished our meal and we’re sitting around having a little Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, whatever you want to do. And he’s got to tell him about this spinning wing things in California and how effective it was and this is 1996, that’s that first year, he said it’s ungodly. And I’m thinking to myself, this guy is looney, the next season, we’re 10 days in the season and the Wild Wings have one 720 acre rice field we could pop up and we had a divided into two fields, 360 acres. And each 360 acre, we had three pits, north, middle and south. And I happened to draw my group at four in the middle pit on the west 360 and a guy named of all names named Jeff Duck has his two boys in the north pit sunny day and we’re shooting, usually we’re out of there by 10 o’clock with a limit and we’re struggling a little bit that more shooting and that pit up north is just boom boom and I’m thinking, well, I’m thinking to myself, I think it’s just because he’s got his two boys and he’s let him shoot it, well, it kept going. So I stuck my head up out of that blind and I look up over there, here’s this thing spinning around and people who are listening and I’m flapping my arms, it’s flapping around, I’m saying what in the crap is that? I get out of that blind, I go over to my four wheeler, I drive up into his spinning wings thing. I said, Jeff, what is this thing? He said, this is Robo Duck. I said, where do I get one? He says you can’t. He said, I called every sporting good in the country and finally had to end up calling the factory, they were selling for $150, start out selling for $120 sell them for $150. I said, I’m sending you $200, will you take that? Send the $200. So he had his Robo about 10 days after the season. I drive from there to the clubhouse and then to Memphis, I don’t stay because I plan on staying, but I call every sporting goods store in Memphis, they ain’t heard of them, I called all across the country that I could find a number, can’t find a sporting goods store, finally found a sporting good store in State of Washington, we got one left, how much? $140, here’s my credit card FedEx it. So I have it in two days, I’m hunting with that sucker in 1997 and I’m about into the 15th day now of the season and I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve ever seen anything like it the way it attracted ducks and everything. But even then, when we get ducks down here, the juveniles are a lot gone, they’ve been killed. So we’re dealing with mature mallards here, they’ve seen it all heard at all. So even about with 10 days left in the season, I could start telling the difference in the ducks, they would come down, circle down like they do, usually they’d come right in on that sucker, sometimes you didn’t have to put that decoys, you could just put out Robo and they’d come right down on that sucker. But I just started and they’d come down about 50 yards and they’d hover and then they pick up and a lot of them would go, now, I’m still talking about a lot of ducks coming in, but I could just tell there’s a change already. And every year there was a change in Robo and it was really got to be detrimental. Why? Because more ducks were being killed, more ducks being killed by people who probably couldn’t kill as many.
Ramsey Russell: It was a crutch for hard earned skill set. But my whole take on spinning wing decoys, it does what a decoy is supposed to do, it calls and from a great distance Terry Denmon says they see spinning wings from over a mile away. And I think a lot of them ducks come in high and look, they had no intention of coming where you are, but they pulled them from a mile away just to take a look.
Wayne Capooth: I’m sitting with Hodges in a pit over in Marked Tree, Arkansas south of the sunk lands it’s in the sunk land, but I’m hunting on some insurance company, land travelers insurance. We’re in a pit on a levee and they got rice field out in front of, we got Robo and about 20 ducks and we’d already got our limit by 8 o’clock. So I said, let’s just sit here and watch the ducks. So, I’m sitting there in a pit with my head neck as far back as it go and I’m looking as far up in the sky and look, all I see is a pin prick and all of a sudden that pin prick gets bigger and here comes that duck and lands, it pulled them out of the sky. Now, can I talk about the 60 days?
Ramsey Russell: Well, we’ve talked about hunting pressure, so I think we should talk about that.
Wayne Capooth: So I can’t exactly remember when 60 days, was it 19 –
Ramsey Russell: 20 years ago, at least. I think next year it’s going to be the 21st or 22nd consecutive year of that liberal framework, 1990, 1991.
Wayne Capooth: I think I was going to say, I think it’s somewhere in the early 90s. We started 60 days and 6 ducks and hunting all day. We really didn’t change because we always hunted all days except for a few state refuges and place like that. But I just got to see and changes, I’m hunting basically at least 50 days out of the 60 day season. And there’s a lot to go with experience and things like that, I could just start seeing the numbers and the way the ducks acted and all of that stuff, we’re just putting too much pressure because we’re putting pressure, it used to be in the old days, mallard would come down in October. Now, they don’t come down that early because of the weather unless there’s something going on real severe in the early part of November, but they’ll come back down and the first part of the season in Arkansas is not too whippy. So we’re putting pressure on them from the minute they get here to the minute they leave, we’re 6 ducks, we’re in the field longer to try to get our 6 ducks, so we’re putting pressure on them a longer period of time, each day.
Ramsey Russell: And days kill ducks, not bag limits, that’s what the biologists say. It’s like I get we were in the longest streak, a two decade wet streak, high productivity, lots of duck, so their numbers and math allow for that. But the downside of it is, we put so much pressure on those birds, they’re harder to kill. So, our quality might decrease a little bit if you measure quality by bag limit, I I’d rather go out fewer times and shoot 3 or 4 or 5 ducks than more times, shoot one or two ducks myself.
Wayne Capooth: So I know I’m not preaching to the choir here because I know when you say let’s cut 60 days to 40 it used to be a time, I don’t know if you remember when we had 45 days and I don’t know if you remember when we had 30 days back in the first 5 years of the 60. But to me, we’re putting too much pressure on them really for the number of ducks that we have, to me, I think they inflate the number of ducks and I know nothing’s going to ever change with 60 days in 6 ducks because you’re fighting these big organizations –
Ramsey Russell: I’m not arguing, because I like everybody’s opinion but I really think that for the first time in 2 or 3 years they’re counting ducks up north and they did catch a late rain in Saskatchewan and the Dakotas that may have bailed them out. But I’m going to tell you, last two years in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba had been a horrific drought and they haven’t been able to count those duck for a couple of years when they count those duck and those numbers go down, I believe in the next few years we’re going to see a constriction based on adaptive harvest management. And that scares me, Wayne because you’ve got my son’s generation that for their entire lifetime is been conditioned to 6o and 6, what’s going to happen if they have to go back to 30 and 3 or 45 and 4? I don’t know.
Wayne Capooth: Well, you’re fighting the big ammunition people, gun people, they ain’t going to go for that. But to me, I’m just trying to think, if there is a future for our kids and grandchildren, I’m not sure it’s there with 60 days.
Conservation for Future Generations of Duck Hunters
We’ve had this topic of conversation a lot and I do agree with you that at some point in time we hunters and the entire industry is going to have to reconcile quantity and quality.
Ramsey Russell: We’ve had this topic of conversation a lot and I do agree with you that at some point in time we hunters and the entire industry is going to have to reconcile quantity and quality. What do we want? What’s going to incentivize us to keep participating, what’s going to incentivize the future generation? And I don’t think going out and shooting one duck, is it.
Wayne Capooth: No, I’m more of a 45 day 4 duck person and I think it wouldn’t bother me if they cut off hunting at one. Another thing that’s affected hunting the ducks and things, it used to not be any deer in this area in Arkansas either and then they started putting a deer out in the West Tennessee where I hunted ducks and quail, they put the deer out there, there was no deer, I didn’t ever see a deer back in those hills, my daddy never saw a deer, he was born in 1911, they’d all been killed, never saw a turkey. So they came in West Tennessee and put 13 deer out in that big hill pond where I quail and squirrel hunted and from that, it’s just a spread and they did that in different areas. But anyway, now you have deer hunters out there, they’re roaming around hunting in the afternoons and they’re running their ducks off places with their 4 wheelers and 4 wheel drives and so there’s a lot of complications in here and the snow geese is just out of control. But anyway, I think, I’m old enough to remember 45 days and 4 ducks and I enjoyed myself just as much in as I did with 60 days and 6 ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Real quick and I want to just say that, you have the distinction of having the second longest podcast in Duck Season Somewhere history, I found this topic.
Wayne Capooth: I just got started.
Ramsey Russell: I found this topic immensely interesting and I’ll tell you why. I’ve got a friend, Kevin Booth, big time listener, good friend of mine up in Utah, they’ve got an immense, unbelievable duck hunting at times, even though the Great Salt Lake is wrestling with some problems due to drought. And Kevin says something to me and I mean, these are ardent hunters, these are gosh, what amazing hunting they’ve got in Utah. But Kevin says something to me one time, he says, yeah, we got serious duck hunters up here, Ramsey, but we lack the duck hunting culture that you all do down the Deep South. And I had to think about that for a while, but it’s the truth when you get out of this region, how you were talking about Memphis and talking about the clubs and talking about all the stuff we’ve talked about, it is a different mindset approach to duck hunting than just avid duck hunting elsewhere in the United States. And I was going to ask this question, you’ve written a lot of books and in The Waterfowl Vignette, last question, Wayne, Waterfowling Vignette, you looked at a lot of different states, is that a fair assessment that the Deep South has a culture more profound than everywhere else you looked at in that book?
Wayne Capooth: I hate to make a statement like that, but there is a difference.
Ramsey Russell: Why? Why do you think that is?
Wayne Capooth: Because the Southern people were basically, obviously – the northern people were industrial. We were born with guns, basically, a shotgun in our hands –
Ramsey Russell: Hand to mouth with nature maybe.
Wayne Capooth: And if you’re a duck hunter, you were born with web feet, web toes. You were born into it, we were blooded into it. The old people used to have to hunt to supplement their crops food that they ate.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that’s the big difference. Real quickly, Wayne, tell the listeners besides the Golden Age of Waterfowling, the Golden Age of Hunting, run down real quickly the book – just name the titles of your book that you’ve written in this topic.
Wayne Capooth: Well, my waterfowling books are the – the first one was The Golden Age of Waterfowling. The second one was the trilogy, which is three books and it covers the whole United States and it covers different topics across the United States such as punt guns, sink boxes, body booting, decoy makers, duck call makers and all of that stuff, so it is really an interesting book. And I’ll just say here real quickly, when I did all this research for the whole United States, I found California to really be a unique waterfowling. And you mentioned Wyoming, but I’m going to just say if you want a nice hunt where there’s still a lot of ducks, Montana and those places are really good places to go. And then so out of the trilogy with the two or three books I wrote, the Mississippi Flyway, Arkansas Duck Hunting, I’m missing one here. But anyway, my two latest books and these are the two only still in print of The Waterfowling Vignette. And then the new book which I just came out, the newest book is Historic Waterfowling Images and it’s basically 200 pages on glossy 100lbs paper of all just history, historical images of duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I’m sitting here looking at a copy and it’s amazing. Boy, I tell you what, I don’t know how you found all these pictures and put it between hard covers, but it’s something every duck hunter should own. Folks, you all been listening to Doctor Wayne Capooth, The Golden Age of Waterfowling. All of these books are listed on his website waterfowling.net. I encourage you to go take a look, here’s the downside, a lot of the books like Golden Age of Waterfowling, go buy a print, you got to find it elsewhere. You got to find it on eBay or start shopping through somewhere to find it. No, I’m not going to sell you my copy. Waterfowling.net is Wayne’s private website, you can see all these books and read a little bit about them. You still get a couple of his most recent books. Again, you all been listening to my friend, Doctor Wayne Capooth, The Golden Age of Waterfowling. Thank you all for listening extra long to this episode, I hope you all found it as intriguing as I did, see you next time.