Sandusky Bay’s Duck-Hunting Legacy

When you think of Sandusky Bay, you might envision the towering silhouette of Cedar Point or remember a picturesque ferry ride over to Put-in-Bay and the Lake Erie islands. Perhaps you acknowledge the historical significance of the area with Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie and understand the importance of Johnson’s Island, which housed more than 10,000 Confederate prisoners at any given time during the Civil War.

Sandusky Bay lies 65 miles to Cleveland’s west, and every summer, countless visitors travel to the region for the local parks, resorts, island hopping, boating, and fishing. To the sport fishing community, Port Clinton is the “Walleye Capital of the World,” and the local economy depends on all of these activities to support its seasonal restaurants and businesses.

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When the day trips become less frequent and the vacationers return home at the season’s end, the region is handed back to its residents. Many in the community switch gears when the leaves begin to change color and the cold wind off the lake hints of something special yet to come—duck hunting.

In my experience, duck hunting is more than just a sport. It is a lifestyle and an obsession. Any responsible hunter will tell you that hunting is more than just harvesting an animal, and to me, it means much more than that. Some of my most memorable hunts include those when I have walked away empty-handed. My brother introduced me to duck hunting, and often sharing time with him and my friends in the outdoors means more than birds for the table. I hunt for the challenge, experience, and tradition—a tradition handed down by generations, fueled by the memories of great hunts and storied destinations—destinations like the Sandusky Bay.

When you travel along State Route 2 and cross the Thomas Edison Bridge over Sandusky Bay, you enter into one of our nation’s greatest wildlife conservation success stories. The communities that surround Sandusky Bay bear a devout sporting tradition and rich history that boasts handcrafted decoys, custom acrylic calls, champion retrievers, and world-class duck hunting. During the fall, it seems as if everyone here hunts or is involved with some aspect of the sport. It is a challenge when driving to not see a truck that isn’t trailering a duck boat or has a truck bed full of decoys with a Lab riding shotgun.

The Sandusky Bay Duck Club consists of more than 250 privately managed acres of marsh and flooded cornfields along the north shore of the bay, just south of Port Clinton. The club is at the end of a narrow, gravel private drive that is surrounded by walls of phragmite. The tall, aggressive marsh grass towers both sides of the drive and gives the appearance of driving through the marsh itself. At first, the property looks like any other farm you would see in Ohio. As you get to the end of the drive, a fleet of farm machines greets you. Tractors, corn planters, fertilizers, and other essential equipment shares space with duck boats, portable blinds, and six-passenger ATVs. The shop is the last structure before marsh and water take over, and dominates the landscape until it is absorbed by the bay itself.

Jeff Nehls and Matt Bush own the Sandusky Bay Duck Club and are driven by a different definition of agricultural yield. Their farm focuses on cultivating the outdoor experience and preserving tradition, although the input is the same as an agricultural farm. Herbicide, seed cost, fertilizer, operational and equipment costs are present, but instead of harvesting for profit, the yield is usually eaten by ducks, geese, and other wildlife.

The club’s lodge is a large brown house that faces south toward the bay. An American flag is flown directly in front indicating the wind direction. A large elk mount greets you as you enter the lodge, and the décor jumps out of the pages of Field & Stream. Along with the elk, mounts of duck, deer, turkey, and bear adorn the interior. The focal point is a large stone fireplace. The mantle holds a double-barreled shotgun with a barrel blown out, which serves as a reminder to always to make sure to be safe while hunting. The lodge is a gathering place for members, friends, and family. To an outdoorsman, this place is special.

Matt and Jeff are experienced and successful duck hunters who have taken the time to teach me how to set up decoys, read body language, and call ducks effectively. Duck hunting is a challenging sport that sometimes evolves into a chess match against an opponent that has the distinct advantages of nature, like survival instincts and predatory cues.

John Simpson is an avid duck hunter and has lived just north of Sandusky Bay in Port Clinton for more than 10 years. He understands the importance of the sport of duck hunting to the area.

“I would hate to call it a religion, but it certainly seems like that’s what it is here,” he said. Simpson explains that duck hunting is a big part of the culture, and that there are a lot of people heavily invested in the conservation aspect and certainly the sporting side as well.

“It is a pretty unique culture of tradition here in Port Clinton and the Sandusky Bay area,” he said. “There aren’t too many areas in the country where you will find waterfowl hunting so ingrained in the local community, except maybe along the Chesapeake Bay or down in Louisiana.”

Simpson understands and celebrates the traditions of duck hunting, not just because he lives and hunts here, but because he is also the manager for the oldest and most prestigious duck club in the country—Winous Point Shooting Club—which is located on the north shore of Sandusky Bay in Port Clinton. Established in 1856, Winous Point was the first private duck club in the United States. Early members included Jay Cooke, who financed President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War efforts, and John Hay, Secretary of State for Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

“Everyone involved with Winous has a deep respect for the tradition of hunting. We try to stay true to the old ways of hunting on the Sandusky Bay as it was when the club was established in 1856,” Simpson said. “We respect the tradition and culture. We use handcrafted, wooden boats to get to the blinds just like the founding members did in 1856.” Members have established the Winous Point Marsh Conservancy, which focuses on research, funds graduate students, and conducts habitat management and conservation efforts on coastal wetlands in southwestern Lake Erie.

“With the tradition of Winous Point and what we do for conservation is a pretty unique model for a duck hunting club,” Simpson said. “That is why it is a special place.”

Today, there are more than 20 duck-hunting clubs along the shores and marshes of Sandusky Bay, including four that were established in the 1800s—appropriately named the 1800 Clubs. These private duck clubs combined with the public marshes managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife, provide habitat for migrating waterfowl and are open for public hunting.

Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area is located on the southwestern shore of Sandusky Bay and is the largest of several public hunting areas on the bay. Pickerel Creek offers more than 3,000 acres of managed waterfowl habitat open to the public through a weekly lottery drawing system.

Jim Schott has been the Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area manager for 10 years. He attributes the environmental factors and conservation management to the significant duck population that resides or migrates through the Sandusky Bay area.

“The Sandusky Bay, with its surrounding wetlands and marshes, is literally Ground Zero for the largest population of ducks in Ohio,” he said. “The number of ducks, the tradition behind the sport, and the history of the duck clubs here truly make Port Clinton and Sandusky a duck hunter’s mecca.”

Schott explains that the area is a major migration stop for ducks and geese along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. “We get a lot of people in the fall who point their truck north and migrate up here to hunt, not only because of the massive number of ducks, but to experience the rich tradition of hunting up here alongside the historic duck-hunting clubs of Sandusky Bay, including the oldest duck club in America,” he said.

The loss of habitat due to the clearing of wetlands for agriculture, oil and gas development, and market hunting devastated the duck population in Sandusky Bay from the 1840s through 1900. The area lost about 90% of the original wetlands, including essential aquatic vegetation like wild celery, which was the main forage for the migrating ducks. Market hunters made their living by providing restaurants in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and markets on the East Coast with ducks and geese. Market hunting usually consisted of using large-bore shotguns capable of killing up to 100 ducks with a single shot.

“Market hunters would literally fill up entire freight cars of species of ducks that are rare to be found on the bay today, like canvasbacks and redheads,” Schott said.

Many of the original duck clubs on the bay initiated self-imposed bag limits on ducks and restricted hunting seasons before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created waterfowl seasons and daily bag limits. They also lobbied to end market hunting on the bay to restore the once-flourishing duck and geese populations that used Sandusky Bay as a rest stop during the long migration south. “Waterfowl management and waterfowl habitat conservation were born here,” Schott said.

Although duck hunting may not be the best-kept secret in the area, it is undoubtedly the best-kept tradition—a tradition driven by culture, conservation, and most of all, a fervent passion for local history.