The DU banquet was PACKED to suffocation.

Fighting the crowds to the keg would have taken forever. Fortunately our table was catered in fine professional form by Hooter's girls in camo bikinis. Artie saw to that. He'd recently mopped up at the ca-seee-na and was tipping like crazy.

Our smiling waitress had just arrived with another round and I notified Artie by pointing with my chin behind him.

Artie turned around from a sitting position and found his eyes and nose at a very awkward or advantageous position, depending on your viewpoint. We were on our third round so our viewpoint leaned toward the latter.

Sophia was her name, and she made Anna Nicole Smith look like Twiggy. For authenticity's sake, a duck call dangled around her neck. The lanyard was the precise length to where the call rested ...rested ....dangled.....dangled — oh let's just say it hung at Artie's nose level.

"Nice...nice...NICE duck call!" Artie stammered. "Ain't that a...a...a double... double... DOUBLE -reed?!"

"Heck if I know," Sophia chirped. "Now, scccuuse me," and she leaned over to put the beers on the table. The motion put Pelayo and me in harm's way.

"Certainly! Certainly!" we gasped while scooting our chairs back and making way. "Thank you! THANK YOU!!" Pelayo beamed.

Then Sophia took it upon herself to wipe some of the french bread crumbs off the table, cupping one hand at the edge of the table and sweeping briskly with the other, which set the duck call into a gentle swaying motion.

Her courteous comportment had us mesmerized. Her dauntless professionalism had our eyes bugging. No, friends, you just don't see this type of thing very often anymore, not in this age of shoddy service.

Our respect and appreciation was evident on every face. We didn't even have to say anything. After all, we're not frat-boys anymore. This wasn't a bachelor party. Sophia was a professional at work, and we were all mature adults discussing serious business while admiring her professional diligence.

"Yeah man, we leasin' a coupla blinds over by Reggio," Artie stuttered as Sophia sashayed off, and we finally started breathing again. "Wanna come in with us?"

"Coupla blinds?" Pelayo snorted. "Ya leasin' blinds? Or you got a big spread of marsh ya leasin' ?"

"Well, you see, Pablo...."

"It's PE-LA-YO!" Pelayo stressed every syllable while rolling his eyes ceilingward. "OK? Geezum! Can't be THAT hard! Your wife pronounces it perfectly."

Artie squinted suspiciously for a second.

"Yeah, well, she spent a summer in Europe when she went back to college. She came back thinking she's all sophisticated and stuff, pronouncing all them fancy names, buyin' all that expensive junk at dem yuppie food stores. Shoot man, it was costing us more for the snacks we was bringing to tailgate parties than goin' out to a fancy dinner in the kwaw-da!"

Pelayo and Artie had met at the LSU game only two months before. And what a meeting it was! No introductions needed for Pelayo and Artie's new wife, Priscilla, however.

She and Pelayo were "old friends." Pretty CLOSE friends, too, from what his neighbors at Tigerland remember. They recognized each other during the tailgate party and after a few awkward moments, you've never seen such hugging and cheek buzzing.

Artie looked a little bent during the episode. But then Artie and Priscilla had only been married three years. He'd never known Priscilla as "The Queen of the Mechanical Bull."

Good thing, too. She'd get on that thing at Zachary's, and the crowds would gather. The whooping and hollering was deafening. Got to where they even started advertising her name on the marquee every Friday night.

Remember Debra Winger's little riding-bull routine in Urban Cowboy? Compared to Priscilla, Winger had all the allure of Janet Reno. Priscilla and the bull became as one. Her eyes closed dreamily. Her golden hair shimmering under the smoky lights. Her voluptuous body undulating in exact sequence to the bull's motion. She was something to see.

But Baton Rouge nightspots close early (by New Orleans standards), so the party always moved to Tiger Plaza itself. And those apartment walls weren't all that thick, either. No, Priscilla's expert pronunciation of Pelayo's name had nothing to do with her recent European sojourn, believe me.

Artie knew Priscilla in a more recent role, the Video Poker Queen. Perched on her chair in front of the machine, her legs crossed and her tight jeans hugging her ample regions astern, her sequined Elvis shirt hugging the equally ample regions up near the bow, Crown on the rocks and a smoke in one hand, the other hand going from Draw to Deal almost too fast for the eye to follow. This was her classic pose, be it at Boomtown, Treasure Chest or the Queen Bee Lounge.

"Don't sweat it," I nodded at Pelayo. "Artie's not real good with names. I been knowing this clown for five years now, and he called me Horatio for the first two years and Humdago for the next three."

"Anyway, guys," Artie continued. "It's two ponds really. With a blind in each one. Dynamite area, the guy told us. Plenty feed. Easy to get to. No open water to cross. Short boat ride. The guy says they wore 'em out there last year. Good price too. And we got room for two more people if y'all want in?" He looked around with lips pursed. "Leases are gettin' few and far between down there. We'd be happy to let you guys....."

"Do we look like IDIOTS?" Pelayo snorted. He took a hearty gulp and slammed his cup down, splashing foam on Artie's sleeve. "We ain't throwing away our money, like you! And we sure as hell ain't throwing away our duck season on a RIP-OFF!" Pelayo snorted again and looked around smirking. "Ya see me? Ain't NO way I'm getting into a deal like that. Ain't no way.

"Sure you might have a good opening day," Pelayo continued as Artie started squinting again. "But big ducks get hip to permanent blinds, man. Then what? You sit there with your thumb up your butt all morning watching 'em veer off, that's what! Next week the tide comes up. And they're all landing in the flooded marsh behind you. Following week the fronts blow out all the wawda in your ponds. And you're stuck in the same place all season, that's what. No way, man. I ain't paying good money for a rip-off like that!"

"I'M a sap?!'' Artie shot back. "Easiest duck hunting you can imagine. Heck, I'm trying to do ya a favor, Pablo... or Paco or PLY-WOOD, or however the hell you pronounce ya name! YOU'RE the sap!"

Artie's face was rigid and reddening. No hint of a smile. He was pointing his finger 10 inches from Pelayo's face whose eyes were narrowing as he stared back. I could see his arm tensing and was waiting for him to smack Artie's hand away.

Things were tense, just like at the LSU game where Pelayo and Artie met. Chris looked over at me from across the table, and rolled his eyes. I nodded back. Then Sophia returned with another round, defusing the situation, thank goodness.

On duck hunting, Artie's one of these guys who sure talks a good one. Then try to pin him down on a particular hunt. Hah! His hunts are like Star Wars. They all must have taken place "a long time ago in a galaxy far away."

You know the type. DU banquets, duck calling contests — doesn't miss a one. Owns every trinket from mechanical decoys to a $50 duck call. Closet's crammed with six different types of marsh and cattail camo. You see him around Thanksgiving.

"Hey Artie, you been getting some ducks?"

"Naw, man. Ain't been cold enough to push 'em down. Waw-da's too high at my lease, anyway. Dem ducks is scattered all back up in the marsh. Gotta kill yourself tromping in to get 'em. I'm waiting for a few good fronts."

You see him around New Year's.

"Hey Artie, must be tearin' em up out at your lease NOW, huh?"

"Naw, man. My ponds ain't got no waw-da! Damn fronts blew it all out. Gotta kill yourself push-poling to get to the damn blinds. I'm gonna wait til it comes up a little."

Next year: "You been gettin' em, Artie?"

"Naw man, ain't been out yet. Ain't got no feed in my ponds. Salt waw-da from the hurricanes killed it all."

Now the following with no hurricanes:

"Plenty ducks this year huh, Artie?"

"Naw, man. Them big bays is all choked up with grass. So dem ducks staying out in the open waw-da. Ain't coming in my ponds."

I love listening to Artie, really.

But he's got a point. In tidal marshes ducks ARE notoriously nomadic and fickle. Sure, all ducks, regardless of habitat, respond to hunting pressure. On top of that, in the tidal marshes, we've got those fickle water levels that send ducks scooting away from, or swarming into, certain regions from week to week — heck from day to day!

We simply follow them. Our duck hunting strategy is simple. Go to them. Then wait for them to come back to you. We ride til we find them, spook them in the process of setting up, then wait for them to return. Many (if not most) always do, but not immediately.

We actually scout more for duck hunting than for deer hunting! But the scouting takes place — get this — the morning of the hunt! Sounds crazy, I know. But it's the only way to assure consistently good hunting in tidal marshes. "Gypsy hunting" we call it.

Dabbling ducks (pintail, greys, widgeon, teal, mallards) like it shallow, usually a foot or less of waw-da. Here they can tip up with their butts in the air to reach the seeds, grasses and assorted muck from the bottom.

In the southeast marshes, a five degree shift in the wind from north to just slightly northeast (or vice versa) can mean a 10-inch tidal change in two days. An area crammed with greys and teal during your scouting trip might have two mergansers and three dos gris when you come back. The high tides put the milfoil and widgeon grass out of beak range.

Then another front barrels through and the greys pour back in. It's unreal. This on top of the regular daily tidal ranges. Nowadays I find myself checking Louisiana Sportsman's tide guides as fanatically for duck hunting as for fishing!

It used to baffle us. How can the greys go on a flying and feeding frenzy during a vicious front when we're hunting outta Lafitte, Hopedale or Delacroix while disappearing form the skies over the duck potato flats in the Delta? Then they go into a similar frenzy in the Delta with those balmy southeast gales three days after a front?

Tides, that's why. The tidal fluctuations in the Delta marshes (Mississippi and Atchafalaya) are simply a fast-forward version of what happens throughout the brackish tidal marshes. High tides and the puddlers swarm into the flooded shallows to feed. It's the perfect depth. Low tide, and they raft out on the open deeper water.

The Saaah-dy after the DU banquet found Pelayo, Chris and me rounding some bends in a winding bayou near Lake Eugenie in the Biloxi WMA. We came around a sharp one, and a HUGE flock of ducks erupted from a shallow lagoon on our left.

What a sight. We howled like lunatics, pointing, high-fiving and slapping each other on the back. Grown men here, too. The greys lifted straight up and started breaking up into ragged groups. Mottled ducks, always in pairs, sprung from the surrounding potholes. And a huge, nervous flock of teal buzzed erratically over the water until the others were specks in the crimson sky. Then they blazed right over us. Little greenwings. Tiny packets of propulsion. And what a ball when a flock of 20 barrels into the decoys. Yep, we'd found our spot for the hunt.

"Looks good enough for me!" Chris howled.

It was 8:15 by the time we'd set out all the decoys and obscured the 'rogue with 10 palmetto leaves and 10 fluffy bamboo stalks. We don't leave home without them — not on a duck hunt. If we hunt three times in one week, even in the same area — well, we bring this cover all three times.

Since we never know what the cover's gonna look like where we elect to set up that morning — because of wind direction, tidal range, presence of ducks — bringing this very makeshift blind is essential.

Heck, it doesn't take five minutes to set up. And this type of cover doesn't take up nearly as much room or weigh nearly as much as the bundles of roseau it would require to provide the same cover.

The three of us then sat comfortably in the portable bench we bring along and set lengthwise in the 'rogue. We huddled there as a stiff northwest breeze swished the bamboo around us. Here's another advantage. This leafy stuff blows around, it looks natural — unlike that stiff, unnatural edifice that roseau creates.

Pelayo nudged me. "Teal!" he hissed while pointing with his chin as a flock of about 15 ducks splashed into the spread not 15 yards in front of us.

"Pretty big teal," I was thinking. Then, "Teal my *ss!!" I hissed as we rose and shouldered the guns.

They were greys flapping off in every direction! Usually when that many ducks land that close, they're either teal or dos gris. Not here. Not when you're set up where they want to land.

A wild flurry of furiously flapping wings and startled quacks filled the sky...BLAM! A big-headed drake crumpled to Chris' first shot. Blam! Another on my left as Pelayo cut loose. "Shu-wuck" went his pump — BLAM! and another one staggered on the perimeter of the decoys while a few feathers flew from his tail. BLAM—BLAM! Both Chris and I zeroed in on it for the kill shot.

BLAM! Still another folded after a 30-yard going-away shot. He landed with a mighty splash and a puff of feathers. Amazingly, a slow one still lingered overhead. He was flapping hard against the wind for some reason and the angle of his flight put him right overhead. I swung and lead him about a foot, hit the trigger — BLAM! — and kept swinging. He crumpled, missing us by 5 feet as he thumped on the cord grass behind the 'rogue.

We sat there wide-eyed, shaking with idiot grins. Then the whoops and high-fives started — until we spotted another flock banking in from the right. A glorious morning. Three-man limits of greys and teal within two hours.

Last day of the season found us at the marina at 7 a.m. We were launching, the bundle of bamboo and palmetto poking out from under the 'rogue. Some fisherman walked over with confused looks.

"Y'all going out NOW?" They smirked while pointing at their watches. "And y'all building a blind TODAY?" They smirked again.

"Freakin' aaay, " Pelayo smirked back.

 

Humberto Fontova's new book, The Hellpig Hunt is now available. Publisher's Weekly calls it "forceful and compelling ... fascinating and fun!" Ted Nugent calls it "a worthy adventure for body and spirit!"