Three weeks into the duck season and a nice cold front had beautifully coincided with their first opportunity to hunt since opening weekend. This lease was living up to the hype (and price), and they were fired up thinking back on the previous afternoon's mudboat ride through the marsh. Inspection of the ponds indicated that it was still full of feed, and plenty of birds were jumped from the designated resting areas.
The wind was gusting straight out of the north, making it hard but not impossible to hear the life in the surrounding marsh. They hustled onto their seats on the bench and loaded up, eager to take in the show.
Though there wasn't a cloud to be seen on the horizon or overhead, the birds began to show as soon as the sun gave itself away on the featureless horizon.
A bundle of roseau cane was hurriedly deployed into the gaps that exposed the weathered 2x4s. One of the hunters mumbled that he couldn't believe how much they'd underestimated the blind's need for a touch-up.
Those concerns were quickly erased with a check of the watch and a look to the sky. Action came fast as a quartet of greys dive-bombed the spread of decoys, which included the latest in "flapping wing" technology.
One of the hunters spotted them as they were on their way down with cupped wings and foolishly gave a hail call, but it didn't matter. These birds had their minds made up as soon as they saw the spread. Five shots resulted in a clean kill and a lone cripple on the fast-descending and even faster exiting birds.
The hunters couldn't come close to suppressing their smiles as they surveyed the scene in front of them and debated as to who would go after the cripple. Ducks were everywhere. Mottled ducks wisely flew wide of the pond, while an exhilarating array of gadwall, pintail, teal and even a few wood ducks flitted about, looking for a place to feed.
Decisions on shooting lanes and how many teal were to be taken as part of the limit were discussed rapid fire, without eye contact and between turns on the call.
This resulted in a bad note by one hunter as they observed what seemed like 20 groups of birds examining the spread. Hushed profanities and a steely glare by the non-offending party were soon a memory when a pair of grays decided they just had to see what the battery operated attractant was so impressed with.
Neither bird saw the hunters rise and fire at them, and after a few more shots on the wounded drake, there were three confirmed kills on the water and legal sunrise was still 10 minutes away. High fives and giddy giggles were exchanged, and the decision was made to go after the wounded bird. This took about 10 minutes and spoiled some opportunities for the hunter left in the blind, but the end result was another bird in the bag, and still plenty of time to fill out the straps.
There were still plenty of birds working as the sun began to rise in earnest, but they were suddenly acting very differently. There were far too many birds and far too much food for them to simply dismiss the pond altogether, but it was nothing like the predawn action.
On top of that, the parade of "could be's" prevented the hunters from taking steps to remedy the now obviously lacking blind. Action from this point on would be an exaggeration, unless you were into bird watching. The consistent barrage of gunfire throughout the marsh did nothing to sweeten the tension simmering in the blind. The most the hunters got the rest of the morning was a pair of spoonbills, which were disgustedly considered for a place deep in the mud before the young hunter's consciences took over.
Three days later, a solitary hunter took his seat in his sunken hiding place and took a few minutes to add to the blind's ample cover. It was getting light, and teal were already buzzing the place as he shook his head in amazement that he had passed the blind twice in the pirogue even though he had been hunting the same tract of land for three years now.
Conditions were far from ideal, and the mosquitoes took full advantage of the dewy stillness on the small pond for an early snack. The birds were not flying as well as they had during the weekend, when this spot had produced a quick limit despite its limitations. But the seasoned veteran soaked up every sighting of ducks, and was able to pick through the undesirables and select only the birds he preferred.
The hunt was made with a pair of teal and a drake wigeon worthy of a mount in the bag when a wary mottled duck circled the small pond's perimeter three times, its white "armpits" catching the midmorning sun as it cleared the small willow tree on the pond's western shore. A clean kill as the duck hovered over the half dozen decoys wonderfully put a cap on the hunt, and the two remaining birds allowed by law were given their reprieve.
The difference in the two hunts is obviously the quality of arguably the most important factor of duck hunting — the blind.
Many people seem to forget what a blind is there for. Hunter comfort, convenience and ease in construction unfortunately come before the blind's intended purpose — to hide hunters from the ducks.
"Everything is a balance. Every hunter has to figure out for himself where the need for a good shooting platform blends with the ability to be concealed," says New Orleans duck hunting enthusiast Jeff Dye.
Dye has one of those jobs that is the envy of most duck hunters. An attorney in private practice, he works out of his home, doing mainly environmental work, and kicks his work schedule into high gear in the months prior to duck season so that he can make the most out of the 60-day Louisiana season in addition to hunting Mississippi, Arkansas and — this year — Tennessee as many times as possible.
"I get out around 25 to 30 times per season. I hunt pretty much whenever I possibly can," said Dye.
About half of those hunts take place in the marsh around Hopedale in St. Bernard Parish. Though he admits his first love will always be freelancing for ducks, he now shares a lease with a partner who has several permanent blinds on the property. The kind of blinds they hunt take on several of the principles he's used for many years when he was on his own.
Like many veteran hunters, he can't figure out why some hunters insist on the large, box-shaped blinds laced with roseau cane for cover.
"I can't take credit for the blinds, but they do the job very well," said Dye. "It wouldn't be truthful to say they're brushed with natural vegetation, because they aren't brushed at all. The grass simply grows around the blind."
The pit blinds are simply dug into the marsh, and are supported on all sides by scrap wood, including the construction of bench seats within the structure. It's not that Dye and his partner are particularly frugal, they just haven't found a compelling reason to do it any other way, especially when the structure is contained on all sides by mud.
The natural vegetation is allowed to grow around the structure so that the blind doesn't require brushing. High water or excessive rainwater in the blind is solved by wearing waders.
Dye's affinity for his old freelancing days comes out when he talks about some of the different things he's picked up through research in the field as well as in book form and off the Internet. He's acquired many techniques for supplementing the grassy cover needed on most blinds, and has found the zip-tie has an invaluable place in waterfowling.
"There are some guys I know who take gas-powered weedeaters out to the marsh and use them to gather spartina to be bundled with zip-ties (to supplement their blinds). The fastgrass-type products are great, but they're expensive," says Dye. "You can make grass panels that do a great job with a bunch of spartina and zip-ties.
"Another trick is bundling them at the top of foot-long stakes with zip-ties. The stakes can be driven however deep around a blind as needed."
Ronnie Doucet, general manager of the Calcasieu Cardinal Club — formerly Black Lake Marsh — puts a lot of thought into his blinds relative to how they are seen not only from the ground, but from a duck's eye view.
"I think we get birds an average of 15 yards closer than most people," said Doucet. "That makes a big difference, a difference of two or three ducks per blind."
Doucet says that the past few years have drastically raised the stakes regarding being as hidden as possible from the birds.
"As you know, we had several bad hatches in a row up north. This means that we've got a lot of old birds in the air. If they haven't made a mistake in the years before, there's not a very good chance they'll make one now. It makes being hidden all the more important."
Doucet says that while having blinds with good cover is important, having his customers able to see what is going on is right up there with pulling the trigger. With that in mind, he arranges the blind so that the shooter is at mid-chest height while standing (and shooting) and at around eye level while sitting (and watching).
All of the Cardinal Club's blinds are of the same general design, one that was passed down from Richard Timpa, who runs a corporate hunting lodge in the area.
Rafters are constructed of ¾-inch marine plywood in the front and back of the blind, and are placed at an angle so that the blind, which measures 12 feet long, takes on a bell or a pyramid form instead of the traditional rectangular shape. The rafters are held in place by lag screws, allowing for an easy adjustment should the customer be taller or shorter than normal. The adjustment — even with the harsh climate — is an easy deal, taking the guide no more than one or two minutes.
The pirogue slips neatly underneath the seat, and the guide's dog is hidden by a closed curtain on the platform, making it an amazingly self-contained, low profile unit. A bench for shells and such is placed at approximately the same level as the seat so that it can double as a seat when the wind turns unfavorable.
The ends of each side of the blind is made up of 2-inch by 2-inch wire fencing material, in which fastgrass and bundles of native grass are weaved. Doucet likes the fastgrass synthetic vegetation as a base and the real thing to fill in.
Doucet says the biggest problem he sees people making is taking the easy way out when brushing blinds. Though Doucet does use roseau cane, it is only because it so closely imitates the cattails that make up much of the marsh cover.
"We go to great lengths to only use indigenous vegetation (in providing the main cover on the rafters). I like the fastgrass for providing a base, but matching the surrounding grass is crucial. We even go as far as pulling up cattails and planting them in front of the blind."
This is especially important considering the fact that all of Doucet's blinds are situated offshore, making them available to hunt in most any wind.
"The problem with putting a blind on a point or anywhere on the bank is that wind from the wrong direction can eliminate it," said Doucet, adding that he only maintains 12 blinds a season, hunting a maximum of six per day. "With our blinds being only 50 or so yards offshore — about as far as we want people to shoot — we are able to turn around and still be able to hunt."
Doucet says the real test is how it looks from a distance.
"You shouldn't be able to look at the location from a quarter mile and tell if it's a blind."
Calcasieu Cardinal Club (337-762-3135) and Black Lake Lodge (337-478-8964) offer guided duck hunts.