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Sunday, April 07, 1996

Hunters flock to Solano County for ducks

Kristin Delaplane

The marshlands in Solano County have been a haven for wild ducks and geese for more than 4,000 years. The Suisun marshlands in particular have the most abundant growth of tall tules and is rich with good duck food. So it was natural that Indians were the first to become adept at hunting this wild game.

When white people came to this area, it was noted that the winter skies were choked with migrating ducks, and at times hundreds of acres were covered with geese. By the time the area was well-settled, this had become a favorite area for sport hunting. The bird life was so great that during the season the legal limit was as many as 50 ducks per day, the open season running from September to March.

Many of the best restaurants in San Francisco featured these tasty birds, and it was up to the market hunters to supply the restaurants. For their trouble they might get $1 for a dozen birds, sometimes $1.50.

It was hard work and the business had its overhead. There was the cost of leasing hunting rights on someone’s property. The cost of the boat, which was required to navigate around the waterways. The expense of guns and ammunition. In addition, you had to be tough physically. In those days they used four- and six-gauge shotguns. It takes a strong person to withstand the kick of a four-gauge.

Early records do not indicate that the market hunters had dogs, but it is imagined that they did use dogs to ferret out the dropped birds and those that were only wounded. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Labrador was introduced to America, so in early times water spaniels were popular bird dogs, as were the curly coated retrievers.

Another way the market hunters earned money was to invite people up as day shooters, charging them $5 a day. The day hunters would spend their nights on the market hunters’ barge. Today there is a barge from that era that underlies one of the duck clubs.

This soon became a well-favored area for duck and geese hunting. People from San Francisco journeyed by boat to bag their limit. It was a good day’s travel from San Francisco up to the Suisun Slough or one of the other sloughs.

In 1879, duck hunting in this area was to go through a sudden and great change. It was in that year the railroad was built from Benicia to Suisun City. The rail bed was constructed on almost 11 miles of marsh and tule land and, while it was an engineer’s nightmare, it became a duck hunter’s dream come true.

Duck clubs almost immediately sprang up along the line, creating stops at Goodyear and Joice Island. Though the tracks became infamous for the fact that they would sink periodically, this did nothing to daunt the enthusiastic duck hunter.

The Cordelia Duck Club has been credited with being the first duck club, but this has now been found to be not the case. Anthony Arnold, in researching material about the duck clubs for his upcoming book, uncovered the fact that the first club was the Hardland, which was formed in 1879.

In the 1880s, the select clubs frequented by some of San Francisco society’s finest were the Cordelia, the Ibis (formally the Hardland), the Teal and the Tule Belle; later, Roos from Roos Brothers built an elaborate club that was considered the most elegant of the lot. It featured stained glass windows and was surrounded by fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

The main targets for these hunters were the canvasback, mallard, pintail and teal. Geese were also targeted and remained good game until about 20 to 30 years ago. Now few geese visit this area.

Though the Suisun marshlands are considered prime hunting, other areas in Solano County were corralled by hunters. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were three prominent market hunters in Elmira. They hunted in the Maine Prairie, which at the time was the winter home for 90 percent of the honkers.

As the tide came up, big ponds were created over the farmland that was best for growing wheat. The market hunters would travel in spring wagons pulled by horses. In one wagon they would take their canvas decoys and shovels for digging in. The other wagon was for their geese. When they had their kill, they would travel up to the Dixon depot to ship the birds fresh to the San Francisco market.

The marshland around Vallejo was also choice hunting. In the 1880s, Cal Evans was a noted market hunter who had a duck cabin in that area.

As time went on, hunting became more organized. In 1895, a law was passed that you couldn’t use a gun bigger than a 10-gauge for duck hunting. At this time, the season was open at midnight. In 1903, the legal shooting time was a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset.

In the 1920s there were a large number of duck clubs in Solano County. The limit was 25 ducks and it was reported that most had their limit by noon.

When Dr. Charlie McGettigan, grandson of Dr. Platon Vallejo, formed his duck club in Vallejo, he purchased 500 acres for $2,000. Memberships to the West End Gun Club were $5,000 and he was able to sell four memberships almost immediately.

It took a year to build a pier and the clubhouse. The ponds were made to specifications; 18 inches deep, the depth necessary for the cock spring to feed off the bottom. They also baited the ponds with feed, something you cannot do today. When they were in business, they had a gamekeeper, a cook and a housemaid employed on the premises.

Today it’s illegal to sell a wild duck for commercial purposes, so the San Francisco restaurants long ago stopped featuring it on their menus. You can, however, bring your own wild duck to some restaurants, such as Perry’s in San Francisco, and they will cook the duck to your specifications.

Anthony Arnold’s father, George Stanley Arnold, started a duck club in 1912. It is now called Arnold Ranch. Today, Anthony is part-owner of the Teal Club. Anthony passed on his favorite recipe, which he declares is the best way to enjoy a duck repast. “Cook them like steak is done. Place them in a very hot oven and cook them to rare. Serve plain with wild rice and a green vegetable.”

Many plates are filled with duck from the Suisun marsh. Today there are more than 150 duck clubs there. If you take a drive out to Grizzly Island, you will see why this area is so favored by the bird population.