By Sheila Link,
Author’s note: At last issue’s press deadline we learned of the sad passing of Sheila Link, our first contributing editor, just a few months shy of her 95th birthday. I was able to get a few lines in tribute to her in my From the Editor column, but I thought it would be a fitting tribute to reprint this 2004 feature of hers. It combines many of the talents that made Sheila such a treasure and asset to Women & Guns—her love of hunting, her interest in new gear, an appreciate of her roots—and most of all—her tremendous gift of being able to communicate.
–Peggy Tartaro, Executive Editor
A flock of mallards, cupping their wings as they wheel around is a lovely sight. And who could be indifferent to a squadron of Canadas, honking conversationally as they search for a place to spend the night? Ducks and geese on the wing, more than any other creatures, arouse our awareness of wild places and a yearning to explore them.
Before moving to California fifteen years ago, I lived on New Jersey’s coast, a short day’s drive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which is world famous for its outstanding populations of native and seasonal waterfowl. I drove down often to enjoy the charming villages, colonial history and excellent restaurants. The main attraction, though, was the justly famous waterfowling and fishing available on, in and around Chesapeake Bay. Since living on the west coast, I’ve missed the charm of the Chesapeake. Recently, however, I got an unexpected opportunity to hunt there.
At the close of a Writer’s Shoot sponsored by Beretta, a drawing was held, and my name drawn, for an all-expense waterfowl hunt on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. When plans were finalized, and the itinerary sent, I was overjoyed to learn that we’d be staying at the “Tidewater Inn” in Easton. The Tidewater had been my preferred destination in Easton. That elegant establishment always served as headquarters for the famed “Waterfowl Festival” too, an annual gathering of people entranced by waterfowling. Hunters, of course, descend upon Easton for the festival, along with artists who create, and collectors who admire waterfowl painting, sculpture, decoy-carving and the fascinating history of this traditional sport.
As I gathered clothing, boots and gear for the trip, my mind was filled with memories of Easton, the Chesapeake, the Waterfowl Festival and the “Tidewater Inn.” Guests arriving at the Inn’s front door were always greeted by a white-jacketed porter, who opened the car door and said, “Welcome to the Tidewater, you-all just step inside, I’ll take care of your bags.”
The small, sedate wood paneled lobby was furnished with big soft leather chairs. Flames from everpresent burning logs in the worn brick fireplace highlighted colors in the large Oriental rugs and brought paintings on the walls to life. Rooms were small. Tiny, actually, for the inn dates from the 1800s, but comfortable and the dining room was memorable.
Excellent meals were beautifully served and the Inn’s renowned terrapin soup, with warm sherry poured on top as the plate was placed before you, was unforgettable. What I remember most poignantly, however, was the ‘hunter’s breakfast.’ During waterfowl· seasons that hearty repast began at 3:30 AM. Long buffet tables held pitchers of cold, frothy orange juice beside big bowls of fruit and platters of fragrantly steaming sausages, bacon and pancakes. Eggs were cooked to order, any way you liked them. There were wonderful cloud-like biscuits, too, with sweet butter, jams, honey or gravy, coffee, tea and hot cocoa.
As guests made their selections, a pleasant murmer of greetings, conversation and occasional laughter formed a subdued accompaniment. Shortly after breakfast, hunters passed through the lobby on their way to the shooting fields, their shotguns—mostly doubles—in hand or draped casually over their shoulders. The Tidewater was an eminently civilized, cultured, charming place. I could hardly wait to return!
Harry’s family weren’t gentlemen sportsmen. Not for them the slim, elegant English side-by-sides. No, their weapon of choice was a punt gun, a huge cannon of a shotgun, probably of 4-gauge or even 2- gauge diameter. And the shot they scuffed into the 8- or 10-foot barrels was a hodgepodge of metal: nuts, bolts, nails, screws, broken handles or whatever could be scraped together. The modus operandi was to scull the low, narrow boat as close as possible to a huge raft of ducks or geese. Just before the birds appeared ready to lift off, the men sat upright and the huge gun would be fired into the center of the flock as it sat on the water. This method of harvesting birds commercially was legal until 1909, when the Migratory Bird Act was passed. Harry was about ten when market gunning became illegal.
Harry looked back on his youth with more than a little nostalgia. The time spent with his father and uncle had been adventuresome. In part, I’d guess, because the new hunting regulations were neither appreciated nor observed. There was competition, too, among the now illicit market gunners. Since they were operating outside the law anyway, fighting over territory wasn’t governed by “Marquess Of Queensbury Rules.” The Chesapeake, it is commonly held, “was full of pirates.” Whether, or how much of it was true, I don’t know. I do know I enjoyed the area and was eager to return
My trip was hosted by several companies: Beretta, Realtree and Federal Cartridge. Jason Tropeano, a representative from Realtree met my flight into the Baltimore airport and we drove to the “Tidewater” to meet the rest of the group. My memory of the Tidewater Inn, had never dimmed, but was abruptly halted as soon as we pulled up to the front door. No one opened the car door. no one offered to “…take care off your bags.”
When I registered at the desk the clerk was pleasant and efficient but the gracious ambience I remembered so well and had expected, has given way- to well … Casual.
“Do you still serve the hunter’s early breakfast? I asked.
“Oh no,” the clerk replied, surprised. “Our dining room is open only on weekends, and only for dinner.
That shouldn’t have surprised me too much, having noticed other changes, but it was a bit of a blow anyway. My room was unchanged from the very small rooms for which the Inn was known, except that the firm mattress was a definite improvement over those I recalled.
Jason had dinner reservations at a restaurant nearby. Al Oriente, Beretta’s Northeast sales representative, greeted us there and said he was also sitting in for the Federal company. During dinner we were joined by another gentleman, who introduced himself as Sean Mann. He seemed particularly pleased to see me and explained that, as a boy he had hunted with me when his father was a Chesapeake waterfowl guide. Sean’s a championship duck caller whose company produces a line of very fine duck and goose calls.
“It’s great to see you again!” he said. “When I heard that you were coming, I arranged to be the guide and caller for your group.” He paused. “We may get some rain, but we’ll get birds, I assure you.”
It was nice to be with such pleasant company as Jason and Al and heartening to be greeted with Sean’s warm welcome. He remembered a lot more about our previous hunts than I, but his recollections quickly kindled my memory and we reminisced happily during a very good dinner of outstanding Maryland crab cakes. It was an auspicious beginning. Plans were made to meet for a late breakfast next morning and do a bit of sightseeing because the season’s opening wasn’t until the following day. That gave me a chance to become accustomed to the 3-hour time difference before having to rise at 3:30 to go hunting.
Our sightseeing jaunt was fun. Seeing the area after so long was a delight. We met for lunch with the boat captain who would be taking us out on the Bay. Gerry Haggerty, his partner Blair Balms and their assistant Greg Podyorniak, were waiting for us at “Chesapeake House,” since 1875 a famed eatery on Tilghman Island. Lunch was another gustatory pleasure―lovely fresh oysters on the half-shell and softshell crabs.
Next day we left the Tidewater well before dawn and drove to the dock to meet the boat. The temperature was about 25 degrees―quite a drop from the 83 degrees it had been when I left Palm Springs! Jason, bless him, had brought a Waterfowler’s Suit for me―a gift from Realtree. It features the company’s new Advantage MAX-4 camouflage. The outfit consists of a pair of “bibs” (patterned after bib overalls) and a hooded parka with a zip-out inner jacket. The entire suit is waterproof and wondrously warm. Out in the cold air, with a hefty breeze blowing, I was toastywarm, thanks to what is absolutely best cold weather/wet weather garments I’ve ever had.
In addition to advising me that I’d be supplied with hunting clothes, I was told that Beretta would have a shotgun available for my use. Al had brought several guns, for he wanted Sean and some of the others to try a new model Beretta was just introducing. Called the Xtrema 3.5, it was an autoloading 12-gauge, covered in camouflage and featuring both 3- 1/2” chambers and an innovative spring-mass recoil-absorbing mechanism incorporated in the butt-stock. Because of my size (5’ – 4”, 117 lbs.) and lingering weakness from recent shoulder surgery, Al had also brought along a Beretta Youth Model 20-gauge for my use. We learned quickly, with the first shot I attempted, that the 20- gauge lacked a firing pin. So, i
nstead, I got to shoot the new 12 gauge, with Federal’s super 3-1 /2” duck loads. Fortunately I was hunting with a group of very nice, very BIG men. Despite the wondrous recoil-absorbing gadgetry, I was hurled backwards as I fired at an incoming sea duck. Several of my companions managed to catch me after I pulled the trigger. While it’s too much gun for me, the new shotgun is a wonder of modern design. Every one of the men loved it.
We boarded Gerry’s 40-ft. charter boat. After running for about a half-hour, we came upon a huge raft of 145 decoys. Two of Gerry’s assistants were waiting in a small open boat. The drill was that half the group got into the small boat, went into the set of decoys, and shot incoming sea ducks from there until they got cold. They would then return to the big boat to change places with the others, who were warm and full of breakfast, cooked while the first group were shooting. The second group took its turn in the small boat until everyone had his limit, and his breakfast.
Sean and his compadres know what they are doing, and do it extremely well. They have first-rate equipment, know the area, and worked hard to get us into good shooting. And no birds were wasted. Even sea ducks—never considered a gourmet’s delight—were used. A local man smokes the ducks and makes jerky, which he shares and sells.
It was a fine day―good company, plenty of shooting and although cold, it was sunny and beautiful on the water. Driving back to the Inn to clean up and dress for dinner, I was tired, wind-blown and filled with the sense of well-being that always follows a good, long day outdoors.
“Tomorrow,” Sean said during dinner, “we’ll have to leave much earlier. We’re going over to Chestertown, where we’ll be hunting from a blind on stilts in the bay. You’ll love this blind―it’s nine feet deep and eighteen feet long. We’ll cook breakfast there in the blind.”
We drove, next morning, through rain that shifted gears from light showers to mist, to a slashing downpour, to a steady, slanting drizzle, in random order. When we reached the landing where Sean’s large johnboat was moored, we loaded our gear into the boat, climbed in beside it, and headed out onto the bay through the rain and misty darkness.
The blind was all Sean had promised and more. We eased behind it, into a slip. Like the blind itself, the slip was covered with chicken wire into which boughs of cedar were laced, effectively camouflaging both blind and boat.
Low tide made it a bit tricky to climb from the boat’s gunwale onto the blind’s floor, a distance of about 4 feet. We all managed it, however, with a lot of help from one another, and settled in for the morning’s shoot. It wasn’t yet daylight and rain was still falling. As the sky lightened I could see, out in front of the blind, another huge raft of decoys, even bigger than was used the day before. Sean’s partners had gotten there hours before we showed up, to set out the decoys. “You can’t leave ‘em,” Blair explained, “they’d be stolen.”
As we waited for ducks to notice the decoys, Greg got the Coleman stove fired up. He put a coffeepot on one burner and a frying pan full of bacon on the other. There is no fragrance in the world as thoroughly intoxicating as coffee and bacon on the early morning air―unless it’s when they are joined by the scent of a wood fire. I snuggled into the warm outfit Jason had given me and marveled at how comfortable I was, even while sitting a few feet above the icy cold waters of the Chesapeake. I’d been thoroughly rained-upon as I helped load, and then rode in the open johnboat. And although we were in a very nice blind, it wasn’t a watertight, insulated building. But the bib and parka kept me as warm and dry as though I were at home. Soon ducks began showing up, lured by the bobbing decoys and the insistent welcoming, importuning, or urgent calls made by my companions. I hadn’t brought any of my own calls and wouldn’t have used them if I had, for I was in the company of experts. My contribution was to keep my head down when incomers were spotted, and to rise up and shoot when they were close.
During a lull in the action, Sean, Gerry and the local men discussed plans to add a ladder and grab-rail to the blind’s entrance from the boat-slip.
“You know,” Sean, reminded them, “we could have lost ol’ Jimmy last year when he was trying to jump up, and his hand slipped…. “
“Yeah, I’ll never forget it,” Blair added.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It was low tide, like when we got here today,” Sean replied, “Jimmy was standing on the forward bowcover, holding onto the platform―ready to jump up just as we did―when he lost his grip on the slippery wet platform and went straight down, out of sight, into the bay―in chest waders! In a moment his head appeared, but he went down again. I was closest, and leaned over to grab him if he came to the surface again. When he did, I got ahold of his jacket and Gerry, on the platform, grabbed hold, too. Jim got a grip on the gunwale and we managed to pull him back into the boat―which was hard because by then ol’ Jim wouldn’t let go of the gunwale. We pried his hands loose, though, covered him with everybody’s jackets, and headed for shore.”
Sean paused, then said, “It was colder that day than today, and it’s forty-five minutes to the landing. I was really worried about Jim―his face was white and he was shivering pretty bad. I always keep heavy sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt in my Suburban and, as soon as we got in, we pulled his wet things off and helped Jim get into the dry clothes. Then we drove to a nearby diner for hot coffee.”
Accidents such as Sean described are always a possibility during the pursuit of outdoor sport. A similar occurrence was barely averted two years ago on a duck shoot in Pamlico Sound, NC. Our host Fred Bonner, my son-in-law, Charlie Mountain, and I had motored out to a stilt-blind and were about to climb into it from the boat. The day was bitterly cold, 17 degrees with a stiff wind. The boat was sheathed in ice, the bay was rough and choppy and, when we reached it, the blind appeared to be made of ice. I was to be first, and stood, preparing to pull myself up into the blind when, for perhaps the first time in my life, I was struck by a moment of sheer intelligence. I turned to my companions.
“You know, this is stupid!” I said. “If I, or any one of us, falls into the water it will not only ruin the shoot for everyone―but one or more of us might not make it.” I sat down.
Fred and Charlie appeared surprised, but only for an instant. Then, and I’ll swear to this―they each looked relieved. The decision hadn’t come from either of the guys, but from a female. They were off the hook―and could return to shore, to a warm restaurant and a cup of hot coffee, without question of their manhood, courage, daring or sportsmanship. At the same time, I felt proud—proud of having the courage to say, “No, thanks!”
By the time we had gotten our limit of ducks and gathered our gear to return to the landing, the tide had come in. It was an easy step down into the johnboat. But no one listening to Sean’s recollection of the near-tragedy of a year ago had questioned the need for safety improvements on the blind. There were instant promises to get and bring 2x4s for the additions, as well as offers to assist and suggestions about how and where to place the steps and railing. “Next time you come to shoot with us, Sheila,” Gerry said, we may even have a couple of easy chairs in the blind!”
An easy chair isn’t necessary for me to enjoy a duck shoot. All it takes for a successful day of shooting is good companions, some birds in the sky, and a fine gun in my hands. If I’m on the Chesapeake, it’s even better!