Louisiana Sportsman Magazine Louisiana Sportsman featured stories Louisiana Sportsman Magazine
The Mayor of Cat Island
Cat Island National Refuge is loaded with deer. Listen to this long-time veteran hunter to up your chances of scoring this season.

BY ANDY CRAWFORD

Access to Cat Island is dependent upon the level of the Mississippi River. This camp, which belongs to Clay Harris and is 13 feet above the ground, had 9 inches of water during the last major flood.
Access to Cat Island is dependent upon the level of the Mississippi River. This camp, which belongs to Clay Harris and is 13 feet above the ground, had 9 inches of water during the last major flood.

J.W. Bennett sat at his camp table, looking at maps of what once was his domain.

“I’m the mayor of Cat Island,” Bennett chuckled.

It’s not an elected title; it’s one he’s earned through more than 40 years as an elder at the club.

And even though he’s one of three founding members remaining, everyone who hunts West Feliciana Hunting Club treats him with the respect of the office — or they face the consequences.

“I’ve had to send a few down the road,” Bennett said. “We sent 17 boys down the road one day. We gave them their money back, too.

“We treat people right.”

The respect for the man is such that even a young hunter kicked out of the club for breaking a club rule stopped and helped Bennett change a flat tire on the way off the island.

The area is called an island, but it’s not one really, at least not when the Mississippi River is within its banks. It’s actually a peninsula in a long, looping bend of the Mississippi west of St. Francisville.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 that the river began the annual cycle of flooding.

Bennett remembers when, in 1956, the West Feliciana Hunting Club was incorporated and he and 16 others each began paying $10.50 cents annually for the privilege of hunting 14,000 acres of the “island.”

“Back then, nobody could get back here,” Bennett said. “It would take all day to get here.”

And when the hunters reached the interior, they weren’t likely to find many deer.

“That first year, one deer was killed,” Bennett said. “It was an 8-point buck.”

It wasn’t long before the club enveloped the entire 35,000 acres of Cat Island, and the membership grew to 125 members.

Reaching their campground was a major ordeal, with the camp members building a road — or what passed for one, at least.

Old trucks equipped with tractor tires were the only real mode of transportation, and those sometimes had to be pulled out of the mud.

“We didn’t have any winches back then. We’d use come-alongs,” Bennett remembered.

When they were lucky, they could trade hunting rights with a contractor willing to bulldoze a road.

“When he would leave, we’d run (the bulldozer) all night,” the 69-year-old hunter laughed.

Traversing the island was a legendary mess because there was water on it almost all of the time.

“You didn’t have to run (the trucks),” Bennett said. “You’d get in those ruts, and it’d run itself.

“All you had to do was give it gas.”

Club rules were pretty simple: Everyone was expected to get along, and no one was allowed to shoot spikes or does.

“We didn’t shoot any does or spikes for the first 16 years,” Bennett said.

And the herd responded, multiplying and eventually providing some good hunting.

The members enjoyed the camp life, with a large central camp that held 90 hunters.

“I won’t tell you what it smelled like when you’d go in there in the morning,” Bennett said. “Wet socks and muddy clothes.”

But the sometimes-rank hunters would gather in the pre-dawn darkness to enjoy a full breakfast prepared by the camp cook and, sometimes, Bennett himself.

It was work to hunt back then, and while things gradually became a little bit easier as oil companies built roads into the island, hunting the property still isn’t easy.

“I don’t have to come down here to hunt, but I’m a swamp man,” Bennett said.

The work was well worth it, with many big-racked deer dragged through the muck, including a 26-incher that Bennett killed in 1962.

“There were a lot of blue deer in the herd,” Bennett said. “All those big deer were blue deer.”

This is what hunters should look for on Cat Island. If piles of deer feces are found beneath a producing oak tree, the odds are very good that deer will return to feed.
This is what hunters should look for on Cat Island. If piles of deer feces are found beneath a producing oak tree, the odds are very good that deer will return to feed.

Getting to these deer wasn’t a simple matter of slogging through the mucky roads, though. No, there was much more to it in those pre-ATV days.

“If you wanted to kill one of those big bucks, you had to take off all your clothes and swim across the sloughs,” Bennett said. “Then you would have to dry off and put your clothes back on.”

As the decades passed and deer hunting became more popular, the club’s acreage was reduced. Others would come in and lease land for more money, but West Feliciana Hunting Club remained one of the largest clubs on the peninsula.

When the river began to flood the island in the ’70s, canals were dug to drain the property, and everything changed.

“All the ridges were high, but all the sloughs were full of water,” Bennett said.

After Main and Lateral canals were dredged, the sloughs began going dry during much of the year, but hunting seasons were generally sloppy, and the hunting didn’t seem to suffer.

And then, the announcement came that the club’s land would be bought by the Nature Conservancy, which would then sell the property tract by tract to the federal government to form Cat Island National Refuge.

Today, most of West Feliciana Hunting Club’s property is already open to the public, and Bennett finds his territory greatly reduced.

But he’s not bitter; he’s happy.

“We were all for doing everything we could so everybody can come down here and see how beautiful it is,” Bennett said.

The locals were so supportive of the new refuge that Bennett’s younger brother, Charles “Choo Choo” Bennett, and fellow club member Clay Harris serve on the board of Friends of Cat Island.

So the elder Bennett and Harris agreed to share their knowledge of how to find success on the land that used to be theirs exclusively.

The island is a hardwoods paradise, hosting varied species of oaks that cast off acorns almost without fail.

“I’ve been up here 12 years, and I haven’t seen a bad crop yet,” Harris said.

Bennett agreed, although he pointed out that cyclical oaks like overcup still produce every other year.

“There’s all kinds of species, so there are other acorns when the overcups aren’t producing,” he said.

Ironically, the amount of mast on the ground can actually cause problems.

When the refuge land was in private hands, Bennett said the deer would desert corn feeders, food plots and even agricultural bean fields to vacuum acorns from the forest floor.

This year, the overcups are in, and the woods were carpeted with acorns in mid November.

Cat Island is flush with acorns this year, but veteran hunter Clay Harris said that’s not unusual for the St. Francisville-area peninsula.
Cat Island is flush with acorns this year, but veteran hunter Clay Harris said that’s not unusual for the St. Francisville-area peninsula.

But Bennett and Harris recommended against just picking an oak tree that’s producing acorns and setting up — the deer are so spread out that the odds aren’t very good that one will come feed under your tree.

“Most all of the ridges have acorn trees on them,” Bennett said.

That’s particularly the case since the refuge is bowhunting-only during most of the year. The only two gun hunts, which were by lottery only, were held in November.

Harris said he would put some time in on the ground, scouting for signs of a hot tree.

These signs include tracks, munched acorns (be sure to differentiate between those chewed by deer and those cut by squirrels) and feces.

“If I find a tree with a lot of (feces) under it, I’m going to set up on it,” Harris said.

He said finding active feed trees just takes a little leg power.

“What you do is get off the road, cross a slough and follow that slough, and you’ll find all the feed trees you want,” Harris said.

Bennett said he concentrated on those active feed trees he found in conjunction with a nearby cutover.

“That’s where those big bucks walk is in the thickets,” he said. “They don’t like to get far from those.”

Their love of acorns, however, will draw them out of the thickets to feed.

“I don’t ever put up a stand unless it’s around a bunch of feed trees,” Bennett said.

A casual look at the forests of Cat Island might lead one to believe that it would be very difficult to find such thickets, but Bennett and Harris said they are scattered about.

“When the timber companies started cutting trees down here, they would cut 500 acres, and expect it to come back. They wouldn’t because when the river came up, every tree planted would get swept away,” Bennett said. “So they started cutting 40-acre blocks.”

There are a few of these thick areas right along the main access road of the refuge, but Bennett and Harris said they expected those cutovers to be inundated with hunters.

“Those deer aren’t stupid; they’re going to go where there’s not as much human traffic,” Harris said.

So he suggests pushing away from the roads and ATV trails and looking for isolated thickets.

Finding the cutovers and active feed trees along the ridges just takes a little leg power.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple on Cat Island.

“It’s muddy,” Bennett said in an understatement.

The real problems are the numerous sloughs.

“There’s a ridge and a slough, a ridge and a slough, a ridge and a slough,” Bennett said. “They’re going to have to shoot them with a bow and arrow, and you can’t go in on a four-wheeler and drive everywhere.

“You’ve got to pack it and walk. It isn’t easy,”

Some of the sloughs can be crossed, but knee boots won’t cut it.

“You better have a pair of waders, and I’m not going to tell you you’re not going to bog down,” Harris said.

But some of the sloughs are very deep.

That’s where inside knowledge will help those who have prowled the woods for years.

“There are ways to get get through there, but you have to know where they are,” Harris said. “You might have a way through that’s only 50 feet wide, and if you miss that, you’re not getting back there.”

Those paths will take some time for hunters new to the area to learn, since Harris and Bennett were understandably mum on that topic.

Harris did say that another strategy is to set up where ridges come together to form a funnel.

“If you can figure out where the sloughs come to a head, or those ridges come to a head, they’re coming through there,” he said.

He and Bennett pointed out that the sloughs run roughly with the river, meaning mainly west to east, although there are some that run northwest to southeast.

Access to the far reaches of the refuge is pretty slim, since there are only two ATV trails thus far. One is at the second parking lot, and is known as the Black Fork trail. The second is at the end of the refuge’s main access road, and it extends back toward the western-most reaches of the property.

There is one route to a corridor of land on the far western end of the refuge. This road comes off of Angola Road and runs around the perimeter of the island all the way to West Feliciana Hunting Club’s campground.

Access can be a problem when the rains muddy up the island. This is one of the trucks that J.W. Bennett and his buddies had to use in the 1960s to get on and off the property. Notice the tractor tires, which held the truck high enough for it to drive over most of the ruts. A come-along had to be used often, however.
Access can be a problem when the rains muddy up the island. This is one of the trucks that J.W. Bennett and his buddies had to use in the 1960s to get on and off the property. Notice the tractor tires, which held the truck high enough for it to drive over most of the ruts. A come-along had to be used often, however.

But Harris said it’s a very long drive from the check-in station around.

“If the road’s just been graded, you can make it in about 30 minutes, but they only grade it once or twice a year,” he said. “It would take you at least an hour to get all the way around there when the road’s in bad shape.”

Bennett recommended setting up a stand very high when a site is chosen.

“The best thing to is get off the ground,” he said. “I use a 30-foot ladder. That way they can’t smell you.”

This month, hunting will mainly be for feeding deer, since the rut doesn’t normally begin until the end of December.

But counting on being able to hunt the refuge during the rut is an iffy proposition.

“That’s where the problem is — the rut starts late,” Bennett said. “That’s normally when the river comes up.”

So there are two things going on if the river pops out of its banks, he said.

“That’s when those bucks start rutting, but they’ll be leaving out, too.”

What Bennett was referring to is the migration of deer from the lowlands of the peninsula to the hills to the north and east.

A review of records by refuge manager Virginia Rettig revealed that the island begins to go under when the Baton Rouge river stage reads 21 feet.

At this point, portions of the road might go under and become impassable, but Rettig said small boats could be pushed into ditches off the road so ridges that haven’t been flooded can be reached.

“When it gets to 25 feet or so, the gate will be closed,” Rettig said.

But the refuge will not be closed down; only vehicular traffic will be shut down.

And here’s the importance of that distinction — the front part of the island goes under before the western end.

That means there will remain huntable land for those willing to really work.

There are a couple of different possibilities.

First, a pirogue or small boat could, theoretically be pulled off a truck at the main gate.

But Rettig recommended against that.

“There isn’t any parking, and it would be a long way to the water from there,” she said. Eventually, she hopes to have a series of gates and parking lots that will allow hunters to get closer to the water.

The other possibility is to launch a boat into the Mississippi River and access the property that way.

There are three possibilities — beaching a boat on the north/south corridor on the western end of the property, beaching it on the northwest/southeast corridor on the extreme western end of the property or running up Main Canal.

The last of those options might not be a good idea for two reasons — first, the canal is private and second, there’s a bridge that crosses it and makes it impassable between 26 feet and 31 feet.

But as the water continues to come up, the deer that are left on the island complete their retreat to Tunica Hills.

Bennett said that has been the most difficult part of hunting Cat Island after the river began flooding it.

West Feliciana Hunting Club has been on a strict 6-point rule for years, but clubs bordering the eastern end of the peninsula weren’t that picky.

“When (the deer) hit those hills, those boys are waiting,” Bennett said.

That’s not a big issue now, however, since the refuge operates under state law, which doesn’t include any rack-based harvest restrictions.

The amazing thing about this migrant herd is that when the waters recede, the deer return and resume using the same travel patterns.

“There are stands we kill big deer off of every year,” Bennett said.

So all a hunter needs are the determination to learn a new area and the willingness to work to get to the big bucks.

“There’s some places that if you know how to get back there, and to do it, you have to go through some effort,” Harris said. “But if you do, you can kill a nice deer.”