Coastal Killers

Nutria are destroying our swamp lands, which gives hunters even more reason to take their kids out for a marsh-rat slaughter.

“There’s somebody back there!” Eddie hissed, spraying me with whiskey spittle as he pointed a gloved finger behind the duck blind. “I’ve been hearing them all morning.” His eyes were wild. His lips quivered. “SEE!….. Hear THAT?!”“NYAAAAAH”

“Sounds like they’re HURT too! Maybe we better……!”

Eddie grew up in South Louisiana, but never got out in the marsh much. He was always more of a “social” duck hunter and fisherman. And his fishing was mainly offshore. So this strange wailing behind us unnerved him.

“NYAAAAH!”

“Again! Heard him!” Eddie’s eyes looked like Sonny Corleone’s right before he blows away Police Chief McCluskey in that restaurant. They twitched and twirled crazily. The boy looked on the verge of a freak-out.

We’d gone to our blinds at Lafitte straight from Fat City and were all a little frazzled, but Eddie was worst off. He’d put a camo jumpsuit straight over his Metalflake bell-bottoms (the pockets crammed with bogus phone numbers) and the polyester collars of his purple starburst disco shirt poked from his neck like little wings. He was a sight.

“Sounds like it might be a little kid back there! Sounds like he might be caught in a trap or something!”

“Serves him right!” Pelayo said. “Jumping our lease like that.”

“Yeah right!” I snorted. “Like we got room to talk!”

“We better go see, man!” Eddie was adamant.

Three of us were in the blind that morning. Pelayo and I had been snickering to each other. Finally he nodded and rolled his eyes.

“That’s a NUTRIA, Ed!” Pelayo roared. “A freakin’ nutria! Ya mean ya ain’t never heard a damn nutria before?”

“Impossible!” Ed snorted. “That wasn’t no nutria. Those things don’t make any noise! I’m telling ya, it sounds like a kid!”

“YOU go see!” Pelayo rasped. “Me, I’m sitting right here….GET DOWN!” And suddenly he pointed to the right. Ah yes, a flock of dos gris, preparing to dive-bomb the dekes. Remember all the dos gris back in 1977?

Good ol’ Eddie Fleeks. The guy was always a trip. Take his wedding reception a few years later. The reception started normally. “Strokin’” came on, and the dance floor filled. Smiling fathers in tuxes danced with giggling daughters in frilly pink dresses. Blue-haired aunts and grandmaws smiled, clapped and swayed from the sidelines. Their little darlings were cuter than buttons. When Ed Sullivan forbade Mick Jagger from saying “Let’s spend the night together” in 1967, these ladies probably said, “Good for him! Enough with these degenerate songs!”

Now they smiled and clapped along to the following lyrics:

“I be strokin’! Have ya ever made love in the back seat of a car! I’m strokin’. That’s what I’m doing. I be strokin’! I stroke it to the east, and I stroke it to the west. I stroke it to the woman that I love the best!”

I always marvel at this. But it didn’t last long. Soon New York, New York had them swaying, which was nice. Then, alas, that dreaded “Wedding Song” came on: “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name, there is loooooooove.” And all the females started dabbing their eyes.

That was Eddie’s cue. He jumped on the stage and grabbed the mike. “Turn that crap OFF!” he raved, and stormed over to the DJ booth himself where he started fumbling with the tapes. Eddie was half-crocked when the limo picked us groomsmen up that morning. Hell, he was still crocked from the bachelor party the night before. Looked like he’d never completely sobered up.

He flipped some switch at the DJ booth, and the tell-tale organ notes emerged. Those who knew the song by heart looked at each other, trying to decide whether to laugh or storm out of the hall. Then the lyrics started: “You better watch what you say! You better watch what you do to me!”

Yes it was Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky, Babe.” Eddie grabbed the mike and was acting it out on stage, pointing at his poor bride while groaning out each word with a teeth-baring grimace, a la Petty himself. “Good love is HARD to find! Good love is HARD to find. You got LUCKY BABE! You got LUCKY BABE! When I FOUND YOU!”

Eddie’s lips were tight and his finger trembled as he pointed.

His poor bride tried to smile at first, awkwardly. Finally she burst into tears, running into the arms of her mother and bridesmaids. None of us where exactly “sentimental” types, but good Lord. The poor girl. Eddie was outdoing himself here. The marriage lasted all of two months.

Back in 1977 when Eddie mistook the pleadings of a love-sick marsh rat for the agonized moans of a trapped hoodlum, nutria were hammered pretty hard by trappers. Fur prices were up back then, and Louisiana trappers whomped almost 1.5 million of them on the noggin every year. Then fur prices tumbled (thanks to animal-rightists, who get all moist and runny over wetlands too. Well, take your pick. Save the wetlands? Or save the furry animals? You can’t have both. Grow up. Face facts).

Anyway, by the mid-1980s, leather and synthetics largely replaced fur, and nutria populations exploded. These hideous rodents eat 25 percent of their weight a day in marsh grasses. They especially like the roots, which results in those bald patches, those “eat-outs” you see in the marsh. Soon nutria were munching through 100,000 acres of valuable Louisiana wetlands a year.

Hence the hunting (in addition to the normal trapping) season opened on them last year, which runs through Feb. 28th on state WMAs. Hence the $4 state bounty put (literally) on their tails this past November. And hence our trip to the Salvador WMA last February to blast a few, in preparation for a nutria sauce piquante on Mardi Gras Day at Doc Fontaine’s French Quarter bungalow.

Sure, it helps that drinks flow at this party pretty steadily. But I served the same nutria sauce piquante in more sedate and sober settings, and the response was equally ecstatic.

“YUMMMM! Great rabbit! Tastes like you used domestic rabbit for this one, Humberto! So tender and sweet!”

Hunks of French bread lapped up every last OUNCE. Bones were sucked for every smidgen of meat. True story. Just cook it like you would a chicken or rabbit.

We were walking the (semi) firm marsh (watch those flotants!) just behind the Louisiana Cypress Canal in the Northern Salvador WMA when I noticed Ryan Pelaez, age 8, suddenly hunker down and his face light up. Cats get this look too, when eyeing that cardinal at the bird feeder. He looked over and smiled wickedly. His hunting chum that day, Corey Keys, 13, returned the look. They were in rapture. Two predators closing on prey. Nothing gets the predatory juices flowing like stalking.

They were in their favorite role, the one nature designed them for – hunters, predators. We all like our meat warm, right? At least 98 degrees? You summon the waiter and send it back to the kitchen if it’s less. Because that’s what fresh meat tasted like before the discovery of fire. Warm, the temperature of the blood of a living mammal. That’s how our ancestors ate it for 99 percent of our stint as a species. Warm meat was fresh meat, hence safe meat to eat. No microbes. No putrefaction.

True predators, especially those lovable cuddly wolves, start ingesting prey while it’s still alive. They hamstring or disembowel the elk to bring it down, but dig in while it’s still moaning and writhing in agony. Sorry Cindy Crawford. Sorry Darryl Hannah. Sorry Kim Bassinger. But that’s what those big furry puppies are daydreaming about when you’re nuzzling with them for the cameras.

Ryan and Corey REVEL in nutria hunting — because it’s hunting in the genuine sense of the word. Most of what we call hunting in the South is actually waiting, sitting in a tree or blind for prey to bumble along. There’s no stalking involved. That’s an ambush. Fun alright, but stalking — closing on unsuspecting prey — is what really lights the predatory fire.

We lament that so few kids are taking to hunting nowadays. Hell, I’m amazed ANY kids take to hunting nowadays, when it means sitting in a box- stand bored to death for hours at a time. That’s not hunting. Kids need something more rambunctious, more action, more blasting, more killing. Both Ryan and Corey tried that deer hunting bit.

“No thanks,” they moped when asked to go again. “But nutria! You mean we’ll actually shoot something! You mean our guns will actually go off! You mean we can walk around doing stuff, looking at stuff, talking, having fun and actually stalk our prey! LET’S GO!”

They love it. It the perfect kid sport, especially hunting them in the fresher marshes like around Salvador WMA. In these marshes, most of the vegetation wilts by late winter. The nutrias stick out pretty easily. You don’t need dogs to flush them out of the brambles, or spotting scopes to spot them. You merely walk around looking for that little brown clump, or clumps.

Pelayo and I hung back watching the kids as they closed the distance on a group of three rats soaking up the midday sun at the base of the spoil bank. The boys crouched lower, lower, almost on hands and knees now, and taking advantage of a little clump of wax myrtles for cover as they closed the distance to their hapless, unsuspecting prey.

“Hunting is not a human fact, it is a zoological fact,” tells us Jose Ortega Y Gasset in Meditations on Hunting. “It is an imitation of the animal. In that mystical union with the beast, the hunter begins to behave like the game. He will instinctively shrink from being seen, he will avoid all noise, he will perceive all his surroundings from the point of view of the animal.”

Yeah, you right, Jose! Here we have it with bells on. The boys work as a team, Ryan with his scoped .22 and Corey with his steel shot-filled 20-gauge pump. They were about 30 yards out when Ryan kneeled and took aim. Corey stood at the ready behind him.

“Come on, son!” Pelayo hissed behind me. “Shoot!”

But Ryan’s a meticulous young chap. He was making sure. He insists on head shots. Finally —POP! And one nutria keeled over, his legs twitching in the air. The other two bolted off, and that’s when Corey sprung into action, running up a few feet, raising the shotgun — BLAM! Shaw-uck went the little pump — BLAM!! Another nutria flipped. And BLAM! The third nutria slowed down as the shot raked his back.

POP! Ryan finished him off with a bullet through the boiler room. Now they were running over, stumbling in their hip-boots.

“ALRIGHT!” Ryan hoisted his prey by the tail and looked back. Corey reached his and hoisted it too, smiling from ear to ear. They were ecstatic. This was the hunting they liked. Here was hunting to wrench a kid from the most action-packed video game!

Ten minutes later, they jumped two more from a patch of elephant ears near the shore of a pond. The nutrias immediately hit the water and dove.

“Let’s wait a bit guys,” I suggested. “Those nutrias might come back.” And we sat on a log for drinks, sandwiches and chips.

In about five minutes Corey pointed. “Hey! Is that….?”

Sure was. They’d popped up about 80 yards from shore and were starting to swim back. We hunkered down again in the surrounding bushes. In they came…in…closer…closer. I looked over and had to stifle a laugh. Those faces again — those alert, excited predator faces. In three minutes, the nutrias had swum in to about 20 yards from shore. POP! Ryan picked one off.

BLAM! Corey shot a split-second later. Both nutria’s were now floating, lifeless.

“YAAAAY!” The boys high-fived. And wouldn’t you know the wind was perfect too. They floated right in, and we added them to the bulging bag.

Nothing to this type of hunting, my friends — nothing but fun that is. At least in this type of marsh. Over in more brackish marshes, the hunting’s a bit more difficult since the nutrias hide out in the standing wire grass. You can walk them up, but they’ll scurry through those tunnels, and it’s hard to get a clear shot. They rarely run through a clearing. In such places, it’s easier to hunt from a boat, a pirogue especially, and catch them as they swim around during early morning and late evening. The boys love that too.

That nutria hunt took Pelayo, Chris and me back to 1968, when we stalked them at night in the West Esplanade Canal.

“Look! Under the culvert, is that one?”

“My turn!” Pelayo rasps.

“Bull! It’s mine! You got the last two. You hold the flashlight this time!”

“Alright, but better pump it up a couple more times. This looks like a big sucker. Hurry, he’s moving!”

“Hold the light on him dammit. There….SFLAT!….got him! Shoot him again, hurry!”

Sev..en pu…mps, eight pumps…n.i..n.e..pu..m..p..s. There! Hold the light on him… SFLAT!…Got him again. That oughta do it. That’s five tonight, and we’ve seen 11!”

Their skins made a handsome trophy for a 13-year-old’s wall. And the meat saved us from collecting bottles (three cents each) to pay for chicken necks at the Swagaman’s. Nutria meat was hell in crab nets along the rocky Metairie lakeshore. And I’m talking fat lake crabs, my friends, buckets of them, hauled home on banana handlebars.

It’s interesting that McIllhenny imported his nutrias to Avery Island because the beasts were in danger of extinction in South America early in this century. Seems that old Ed was an environmentalist before environmentalism was cool.

Europe (Germany in particular) had a hearty appetite for nutria hides and meat back then. Seventy years ago, nutria farms were touted by hucksters as a sure-thing, get-rich project. Nutria farms sprouted from California to New Jersey. In fact, McIllhenny’s original nutrias actually came from a New Jersey farm, not Argentina.

But nutrias hate cages. They hate domestication. They’ve escaped from cages all over the world, but only in Louisiana did the creatures take hold, and proliferate…and proliferate.

And why not? Here was a place practically identical to their homeland. The climate was equally horrendous. The roads just as potholed. They opened a phone book and saw names like Romero and Segura, Nunez and Humberto. They opened the paper and read of a Caudillo named “Kingfish” who inflamed crowds from a balcony, built great monuments, kept a private army then died in a hail of gunfire “with his boots on,” as the saying went in the old country.

The nutrias grew positively misty-eyed with memories of home. Looking around they noticed Catholic churches on every corner. There was a carnival season. Many people went home for a siesta. “Home!” it wailed. “Home at last!” and it settled down to the important business of eating and mating.

Seems to me a creature whose main concerns in life are eating and mating found the perfect home in Louisiana.

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