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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
B.W. Mitchell
Rail Shooting on the Maurice River Marshes

It was Friday, and we three had almost persuaded ourselves that we were wretchedly overworked and in need of a change of air, scene and occupation—for a day. The recuperative effect of even half a. day back of a gun double discounts all your tonics and cordials. An opportune telegram settled the matter. It was from our old chum, the sporting Sheriff, and it read : "Come. High boat to-day, 107."


We boarded the last afternoon train for Port Elizabeth, a bit of a village spread over some acres of Jersey sand. Its redeeming features are the "Sportsmen's Villa" and the rail grounds to which we were bound.


These latter, a dense tangle of reedy marsh, accessible to push-boats only at high tide,- and stretching away between the Maurice River, of ostreal fame, and Manumuskin Creek, are reputed to be among the best on the Atlantic border. They fairly swarm with rail and reed birds—but these delicious little flying butter-pats are a side issue on this trip. Four species of rail are shot here. The first comer on the annual flight is the common rail (Porzana Carolina}; in a few days scattered individuals of the red rail I Kail us rirginianiis) and blue rail (Gallmulagalcata) arrive; then the king rail (Ral/ns elegans) appears, to give dignity to the crowd, and as the weeks fly on toward November, these swamps become a veritable cosmopolitan rail pile, the like of which I have never shot over.


Your Maurice River "pusher,'' also, and his boat deserve a word. The light push-boat affords about the ricketiest foothold known to man, comparable to the roof of a freight-car on a curve in icy weather. And the gunner must, perforce, stand in it. Sitting or kneeling, the tall reeds obstruct the sight. When the seeds and broken fragments of the reeds cover the rounded bottom and are trodden into a pasty mass, just imagine the stability! The pusher is a marvel of skill. His labor is severe, for he must take his boat, by main strength of arm and .pole, through, or often over, the dense bending reeds, call out the flushing birds for his gunner, mark the dead, and be ready to throw himself headlong into the marsh if a bird perversely flies back.


"Mark, back!" A splash; a clear field; a shot; and he clambers, drippibick into the boat. What is more, he has marked your bird, if—but of course you've hit him. The skill of these men in marking and recovering dead and wounded birds is nothing short of marvelous. The gunner sees a monotonous uniform expanse of millions of nodding, bowing, waving reeds. Even the sense of general direction is often confused for him, and he cannot tell, for the life of him, where he entered the marsh or by what route to get out of it. Yet every stalk in this jungle has, for the pusher, a separate individuality, and he will guide the boat unerringly to thekill, often saying as he nears the spot, touching a tall reed with his pushingpole : "You'll find him at the foot of this one." "This one" is just like its neighbor, just like all its neighbors ; but you'll find your bird there, floating on the tide. Your pusher enters into the spirit of the thing with enthusiasm; he is as eager to be "high boat" as you are. He possesses an unswerving fidelity to his duty, an unfailing good humor and an unquenchable thirst. Verily, he earns every cent of his three dollars a day. I take off my hat to him. I salute him.


"P't-Liz'b'th!" yells the brakeman in the most approved railway patois. Weighted down with guns, ammunition and grip, we leave the car and enter the dilapidated and paintless 'bus and go squeaking down the sandy street, accompanied at a dog-trot by a procession of small boys, passing highly entertaining criticisms on the "city sports."


But here, at last, is the Sportsmen's Villa, nestling among towering maples; a sportsmen's Valhalla, in very truth. The Sheriff bids us a hearty welcome as we tumble out of the 'bus, and tells us in a breath that the tide is at 9:30 the next morning, and is expected to be a good one, owing to prevailing easterly winds, and that he has arranged everything for our comfort, even to engaging the boats and pushers. A sphere looms up on the piazza : the northern hemisphere is a vast expanse of snowy linen ; the southern, buff crash, longitudinally bifurcated. They meet in an enormous equator. It is mine host, the rotund Doctor, who has long since forsworn the mixing of pill and betaken himself unto the mixing of potion. He takes us to his hospitable bosom — metaphorically; we eat the food of epicures, sleep the sleep of the just and righteous, and rejoice to be alive.


Saturday dawns in a dense fog, prophetic of "clear heat upon herbs," sunburn to come, and a temperature too high for the best shooting. There is much bustle and hustle on the piazza as the time approaches,'the pushers meeting their gunners, and every one of them swearing by the stone tomahawk of Nimrod that he'll bring in high boat. Buckets of ice are brought forth, heavy wooden buckets with covers, and in the ice lie sundry bottles of becr--I have already alluded to the pushers' thirst.


Mine host, panting and ooziny, is ubiquitous, giving the final touches and urging haste. Off we drive to the wharf, by courtesy so called, where the youth and beauty of the village are aligned to cheer the start. The daily "tide" is the one daily event of their quiet existence. There is much bailing and wiping of boats, much wiping, too, of brows, much friendly banter, and we are off.


A few hundred yards of rowing brings my boat out of the open water of the creek far into one of the narrow lanes that traverse the marsh in a widemeshed network, the main pathways of the tide. Here we lie a while, waiting for tide enough to get into the push. At last my Jersey man rises, scans the marsh, and exchanges oars for his twenty-foot pushing-pole.


"Guess you can get ready now, sir; and look out for stumps," says he. Now the work begins. I stand in the bow, left leg advanced and right far back, gun in readiness and boxes of shells before me on a thwart. It is killing to the tense tendons of the legs as the boat slides over the reeds with uneasy wabble, responding to every movement of the skillfully plied pole as a ship responds to her helm.


"Mark, right!" The boat stops as by magic. I whirl to right and see a little brown bird rise above the reeds in queer, fluffy, owl-like flight. With suicidal care he inspects the ground he flies over and acts as if he were merely possessed of a blase annoyance at being flushed, and didn't care how soon he was dropped. Poor little fellow! He flies so helplessly, so flabbily, that I pity him. But I am not here for pity nor yet for his health; he drops. The pusher so extravagantly compliments the easy shot that I am all but persuaded it was difficult.


Now to find him. The pusher goes yards away from where I think the bird fell ; but there he is, sitting on the water, winged. Just as our fingers are on him, he isn't there. A kick of little feet, a swirl, and—Ilium fnif. How he can swim and dive so superlatively well without webbed feet is a mystery.


Keep perfectly still; the cunning little diver must breathe. "There he is ;" and I vainly strive to see a sharp bill protruding from the water; at least my pusher says it is. A quick swipe of the bird net proves his point, and off we go again. The tide comes in slowly, the heat is intense, and the birds slow to rise under the adverse conditions. I sec them scamper off on the water in all directions, fairly running upon the surface,dodging in and out among the reeds with serpentine agility. They run as though unimpeded by the tangle, finding a footing on submerged or broken reeds, or else propelling themselves by a vigorous push of their limber toes just where the standing reeds emerge from the water. It is exasperating to the gunner to see them wiggle off to safe retreats, but one cannot help admiring the graceful swiftness of their escape. If they would only rely on this trick exclusively, how safe they would be! But as the tide rises they place a fatal reliance in wings.


"Say, sir ; don't you think we could take a drink to better luck?"


"Of course I think so, if you do."


I really pity the poor fellow, almost exhausted with the labor, flushed and dripping. The cool beer seems to refresh him ; and after a brief rest he resumes his pole and I my position, which is telling severely on the leg muscles. Any considerate gunner, furthermore, is able, by judiciously throwing weight forward, to carry the boat over many a hard place. It helps the pusher wonderfully, and he is always grateful ; but it adds to the leg strain.


Up jumps a rail. I do not give him time enough, and we pick up a pulpy mass of blood and feathers. However, he counts. Out of the tall reeds now and into a little patch of more open water dotted with lily pads. Two birds flush before the boat straight away. One drops to each barrel. I throw out the empty shells as the boat turns to retrieve and two more go to right and left at right angles to the boat. I hastily jam two cartridges into the chambers and execute another double. It is the only difficult shot of the day, and my man breaks into profuse compliments.


It seems to be part of the business to "spread it on thick." But the most remarkable thing about it is that all four birds are found by this marvel of quick and accurate vision. Then, in heartyaccord with the sentiments of the Carolina executives, he eagerly exclaims : "We must drink to that shot, sir."


His thirst assuaged, away we voyage, this time to a portion of the marsh that clearly shows a very recent geologic subsidence, for gaunt, dead cedars lift their skeleton arms above the tide, often crowned with the rude nests of the osprey. "Mark, left!" A puff of feathers floats off on the breeze; the boat swings swiftly to pick up. What happened? I am kneeling on the bottom in several positions at once, grabbing the gunwale, and my pusher is picking himself spluttering out of the marsh. It was only a submerged stump, and they are legion here. An extra pair of "sea-legs" would be a blessing now, for those tendons are suffering under the prolonged strain.


"Mark, hold !" I do not shoot, and a rival pusher, invisible to me, but seen by mine from his higher position, receives a stern rebuke for lowering his pole while gathering a kill.
"Don't ye know no better, Dave? Goll dern ye, d'ye want to get yer man shot?"


It is unwritten law that the pole must always be kept in sight to avoid accidents, for the marsh is alive with boats and they cross and recross each other's trails continually. A bird rises with a much more businesslike flight, and when picked up proves to be a handsome specimen of the red rail, the only one killed that day. The tide is at its height and the fun is fast and furious. The firing is like that of a skirmish line. A few minutes more, and the marsh lies quiet under the blazing sun. The tide has begun to ebb and not a bird will rise on an ebbing tide. Curious instinct, and I have never heard an explanation even attempted.


Half an hour sees a merry, red-hot crowd at the wharf again, comparing notes. I am not high boat, but fortytwo rail do not make a bad string, especially as I have a couple of dozen reed birds picked off extra. But they don't count for high boat, however much they may count on the broiler. Happy, too, as clams at high tide were our respective wives. Bless them ! I forgot to say we had brought them along, and I beg their pardon. Mine exhibits, with much pride, a bunch of half a dozen rail and a few " reedies," her own killing and her first.


"Did you shoot 'em on the wing, Nip?''


But she haughtily replies : "I refuse to be interviewed."