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.
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,
“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
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
“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
“We didn’t have any winches back then. We’d use come-alongs,”
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,”
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,”
The work was well worth it, with many big-racked deer dragged
through the muck, including a 26-incher that Bennett killed in
“There were a lot of blue deer in the herd,” Bennett said. “All
those big deer were blue deer.”
|Photo by ANDY CRAWFORD
|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
“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
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,”
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
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.
|Photo by ANDY CRAWFORD
|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
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
“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
“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
“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
Those paths will take some time for hunters new to the area
to learn, since Harris and Bennett were understandably mum on
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
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.
But Harris said it’s a very long drive from the check-in station
“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
“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
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
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
That’s not a big issue now, however, since the refuge operates
under state law, which doesn’t include any rack-based harvest
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
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.”