August 24, 2010. HUNTERS ON KNOTTS ISLAND By Melinda Lukei
Hunting waterfowl was a way of life for the families that lived on Knotts Island. Hunters were divided into three categories: subsistence hunters to feed their families, guide hunters for recreation of wealthy hunters, and market hunters who killed hundreds of birds and shipped them off to northern markets.
Before 1828 the Currituck Sound was a salt-water sound with flushing occurring through the Old Currituck Inlet and then later through New Currituck Inlet. In 1728 Old Currituck Inlet closed and in 1828 New Currituck Inlet closed. The sound then became freshwater. Wild celery and other aquatic plants began to grow thick in the shallow, fresh waters on which the ducks fed. Ducks and geese came in large numbers to feed from October to February or March. The supply of waterfowl was plentiful and the hunters killed as many as they could and shipped them north to Norfolk, New York and Baltimore. This was a way to provide for the families in the winter when it was too cold to farm. The Chesapeake-Albemarle Canal was completed in 1859 and made it possible for the Knotts Island residents to get to Norfolk markets to sell their crops, fish and wildfowl.
Knotts Island was accessible only by boat before the construction of a road in the Great Marsh which led to the Virginia mainland. The men of the island cut a road through the swamp and marsh. They laid two tracks lengthwise then on top of that added 3 foot sections of tree. The road was called the “Corduroy Road”. It was only slightly better than no road at all but horse carts and early automobiles traveled it. Each man on the island between the ages of 18-50 devoted one day a month toward keeping this road and other roads on Knotts Island passable. Electricity did not come to Knotts Island until 1946. Before this time the only electricity was supplied by Delco Batteries. Most of the clubs, stores and churches used the batteries for lights. Most homes did not have batteries light. Ice was used for refrigeration.
Corn was used to lure wildfowl into shooting range and was the single most effective tool of the market hunter. Corn was shelled and loaded in burlap bags or buckets and carried to the marshes for scattering. An area would be baited for several days prior to shooting so the ducks and geese would become familiar with feeding in that spot. A day’s gunning over corn often produced large numbers of ducks and geese. Corn was also used in the field. The corn was usually left on the cob and loaded in a horsedrawn wagon. When the sound was froze in the late winter, ducks and geese would feed in the fields. Shooting was done in a pit or a low brush blind.” Black ducks, pintail, mallards, teal, redheads. shovelers, coots, ruddy ducks, swan, snow geese, and Canada geese frequented the Knotts Island marshes. Hunters would locate a suitable location throw out corn and hide and wait until enough ducks landed to make the best possible shot. Many hunters tell stories about the first shot killing 20 or more ducks, and 10 or so more were killed with the second shot. Using corn to attract wildfowl is now illegal and the Canada and Snow Geese are found in the fields eating the remains of the farmers crops.
A sink box or battery box was used by some gunners. It was a coffin-shaped box, only big enough for one or two persons to lie on their backs, so he could not be seen when the box was viewed from the side. His head was raised until the eyes were on a level with the rim of the box. It was painted a slate-gray which made it almost invisible from a short distance away. Sit-up batteries were also used (a box with seats in it). An anchor was attached to these sink boxes.
Before 1905 a sail was put on small boats so they could use the wind to help power their boats. Rowing or paddling was the other power source. In 1905 the gasoline engine came to Knotts Island. Hunters began towing boats with sink boxes and decoys behind their boats. Engines made it possible to spend more time killing wildfowl.
No duck or goose decoy could match the movements of a live bird and no hunter could duplicate the excited sounds of feeding waterfowl. Live birds were one of the best tools for the market hunters. A rig of live decoys consisted of a dozen or so geese and a few mallards. These birds were carried to the blind in wooden or wire coops. The live bird had a strap on its leg and it was attached to a pole that was driven into the marsh or field. A weight was put around the necks of the decoy to put enough pressure on the bird to tire him out. The live decoys were visible to passing fowl. When a flock of ducks or geese flew nearby, the hunter would throw a handful of corn into the water near the live decoys. The calling and feeding decoys attracted the flying flocks of wildfowl. At times one mate of a mated pair of geese would be left in the boat or tied out in the marsh so they would call back and forth to each other.
After the fowl were killed, they were usually sold in pairs and were packed in barrels for shipment to the northern markets. A common method of packing was to insert a stove pipe in a barrel and pack the fowl tightly around the pipe. The swans and geese were packed first and the smaller ducks were placed on top. Once the barrel was loaded, the stove pipe was filled with ice. Some of the hunters would load their boats with fowl and ice and sail into the North Landing River where they would wait to be hooked to a steam tug. The tug would tow several boats at once through the Chesapeake-Albemarle Canal to Norfolk. In 1878, side-wheelers and steamers Comet and Currituck (owned by the Bennett Line of Norfolk) began operation and came to Knotts Island. The Steamers were used for transporting produce, passengers and general cargo to the northern markets. Agents were often on the boats to buy the waterfowl from the hunters.