Friday, February 8, 2013

Punting, But Not Football

Vernon Zenser punting a hunter and his son at Magee Marsh, Benton Twp. Ottawa County, Ohio, ca. 1944
Courtesy of Sandra L. Zenser

Until much of Lake Erie's marshlands became federal and state property, local residents earned an income by transporting private hunt club members through the marshes. Thanks to lifelong Ottawa County resident Sandra L. Zenser for sharing the following story and picture of her father punting a hunter and his son at Magee Marsh.

Punting means something different than kicking a football through a set of goal posts. Punting dates back to England from about the mid to late 1800s when it referred to punting or poling of punt boats used for fowling and angling on England’s many shallow streams. In the marshes bordering Lake Erie, punt boats similar to those in England, were used to transport hunters down the shallow channels or cuts of the local marshes which were also called punting.

Local wooden punt boats had flat bottoms that drew only a few inches even when loaded. These punt boats were pointed at both the bow (front) and the stern (rear). Surprisingly, these boats were very stable and suitable for both passengers and cargo. They were steered manually by what was called a punter.

A punter was similar to a gondolier, a Venetian boatman who guides a gondola with an oar; except punters pole in much shallower water while standing stationary at the rear (stern) of the punt boat. Typically the pole or punt paddle had a cross piece at the top of a 8-10 foot long pole, used for setting the paddle end directly into the waterway’s bed to propel the boat forward.

Punt boats were used at local private hunt clubs, where at least one club member would be assigned to a boat usually with a guest or possibly another club member along with their shotguns and gear. In addition, the boat would be loaded with bulky decoys used to lure in flocks of ducks and sometimes a retriever dog or two. With all this, the punt boat was often quite weighted down with barely a few inches of free board above the water.

A much larger gas boat towed a string of punt boats down the marsh’s main channel before sunrise, sometimes breaking ice as they putted along. At appropriate intervals, each punt boat would be unhooked from the towline at which time the punter took over manually punting (poling) to the designated hunting area. The hunting area consisted of some open water where the decoys would be placed in front of a camouflaged blind that also had a shielded area alongside to conceal the punt boat. At the end of a day’s hunt, the punter manually poled the boat and its occupants back to the main club house, sometimes this was a great distance and in frigid temperatures.

Vernon Zenser (pictured) of Oak Harbor was a punter in the mid 1940s into the 1950s. He worked for several private hunt clubs until they became government owned as part of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Magee Marsh. As a punter, he remembers having to be at work at 6 a.m., which was well before sunrise and receiving fifty dollars a day no matter how many hours worked. Often the member’s guest would tip the punter ten or twenty dollars extra which was always appreciated.

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