Burton on the Bay:
The Chesapeake Century
When the Bay Knew Gudgeon and Punt Guns


As the 20th century winds down, how different things are on the Chesapeake than when the 1900s arrived 99 years and a bit more than four months ago.

Rockfish, sea trout, hardheads, Norfolk spot, flounder, shad, gudgeon and bluefish abounded, not to mention crabs, oysters and clams. So did fowl, such as the canvasbacks and railbirds, on the open waters' marshes.

In those days, much of the bounty of the Bay was harvested for commercial interests rather than for the family table. Other than watermen and the gentry, there were few who had the time and opportunity to catch the fish and shoot the fowl.

The fish and fowl of the Chesapeake were well-known and in great demand. Railroads carried oysters, canvasbacks, shad, crabs and other delicacies of the day packed in barrels of ice to Philadelphia, New York, even Chicago and other distant cities, where they were featured on the menus of the most elite clubs and restaurants.

The same fancy foods that brought fancy prices on the tables of fancy eateries many miles away were everyday fare in the homes of those who lived in Tidewater Maryland. Probably, many didn't know or appreciate how good things were.


Big or Small, They Ate It All

Those were the free-wheeling days. While fish and fowl were abundant, laws and regulations were minimal. It was a time when the by-word was catch, shoot and trap as many as you can: A resilient Mother Nature replenishes stocks. She did that well into the 20th century.

Canvasbacks were so plentiful that flocks on the wing at sunrise and sunset blotted out the sun. When they rested on water, it, too, was obscured. The observer saw only the whites of their backs.

Punt guns were legal; many a skiff was rigged with one, and at night, the market hunters would ease silently close to resting flocks of fowl then fire away. They'd load the boat with the kill floating in the water. No laws to stop them, no reason to think it wouldn't stay that way. God and Mother Nature would turn out hatches to replace the harvested fowl, even those taken in traps - another popular and efficient method of the times.

For those who preferred more traditional shooting, there was the corn raised on the Tidewater farms, enough to liberally bait enough shooting sites, sporting or commercial. A good bag was virtually assured in waters where the water glistened gold from the kernels dumped overboard to attract birds.

The markets in the distant cities were always there. So were the trains to deliver the goods. Whether fish or fowl, a label on a barrel indicating Chesapeake Bay points of origin guaranteed a good price.

Migrating railbirds were so thick on the marshes, especially those on the upper Patuxent, that the gentry, guided in flat-bottom skiffs by their pushers in their long stovepipe hats, shot hundreds of railbirds and gallinules a day and had them plucked for a penny each after their heralded shoots.

Railbirds, like jacksnipe and woodcock, were small but oh so tasty, especially when sautéed in butter or roasted. The bogs, swamps, and marshes were wet and lush. What better place to stop for such birds as they headed south in the fall?

The chase for these miniature birds was largely a sport of the gentry. The price of shotgun shells hardly warranted shooting at them for those seeking food for their own tables. It wasn't cost effective. Even the flesh of a bobwhite quail wasn't worth to the average guy what it cost to buy the ammunition.


What Man Took, Nature Replenished

The marshes teemed with muskrats, the woodlands with raccoons and nature's insulation, natural furs and pelts, were in vogue, so there was always a demand. The nutria, which 50 years later would be imported from South America to eat and destroy marshland vegetation - was unheard of, as was any suggestion that humane extremists would take to the streets to campaign, surprisingly successfully, against the wearing of natural furs.

The waters of the Chesapeake were relatively clean and pure; vegetation was lush and of the type that produced the best food and cover for its inhabitants. In springtime, white and hickory shad, also herring, came into the Bay in astonishing numbers.

The country folk of Pennsylvania would arrive by horse and wagon to dipnet them by the thousands. The roads home were littered with entrails as they cleaned their catch in route to salt it down once there.

The large roe of Chesapeake white shad was a delicacy in restaurants of faraway cities. The rockfish was perhaps the favorite finfish in the distant markets, but locally the hardhead gave it a good run in popularity and in numbers. Within 60 years after the turn of the century, the hardhead would be virtually absent from Maryland's share of the Chesapeake and remain so for decades, before it suddenly and unexpectedly returned. And no one can explain why (or where) it went - or why it came back.

No one heard of acid rain in the early and mid-days of this century, and yellow perch literally clogged streams in their spring runs as these fish returned to spawn in the fresh waters of most Bay tributaries. It was the same with tiny gudgeon in stream such as the Gunpowder in Baltimore County.

Most gudgeon were about three inches long, maybe four. It took a lot of them to make an entree on the table, but when fried, they were coveted. A quick slice allowed removal of the stomach contents, and a handful of sand rubbed on the body removed the scales. Then a rinse job had them ready for the pan.

As the century winds down, most contemporary fishermen have never heard of the gudgeon, let alone know that it was one of the best baits going for rockfish - whether it was fished alive below a bobber rig or added to a bucktail or spoon when trolling. I haven't heard of one of these small black fish caught on rod and reel in two decades, though in the '50s, young and old alike lined streams to dunk maybe a quarter of an inch of worm on a tiny hook swung from shore on bamboo rods.

At the turn of the century, a ride to the Eastern Shore involved a ferry or steamboat. Many Baltimoreans never traveled there in their lifetimes, and most who did traveled by steamboat. The turning point came midway in the century when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed, only a two-lane affair though big enough to make the Shore easily accessible, not just for visitors but also for daily commuters.

The character of the Eastern Shore changed soon thereafter. Hoards of people added more pressure to the Bay and its tributaries - and its fish and fowl and inhabitants. We haven't done so well on this side of the Chesapeake either, as commuters take over communities large and small as well as the farms of the Western Shore.

Care to guess what things will be like when 2100 arrives?

| Issue 37 |

Volume VII Number 37
September 16-22, 1999
New Bay Times

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