Rat Race — Nutria hunts provide a great way to extend the shooting season

Take a break from today’s hectic pace to chase down some of the Louisiana coastline’s mortal enemies — the lowly nutria. They’re a blast to shoot, and they taste good, too.

Revelry raged around him, but Artie looked morose. Doc’s uptown bungalow rocked with the traditional St. Patrick’s Day lunacy, but Artie remained oddly oblivious to the festivities.

Not even the stroll to Parasol’s helped.

“What a difference two months make,” Pelayo laughed, while pointing at his pouting friend. “New Year’s Artie was the life of da paaawty. Now look at him.”

“On New Year’s we were ALL buzzing with cheer,” Eddie reminded us . “Both Da Saints and LSU looked championship bound. But boy — what a difference two weeks made!”

“Artie ain’t pouting about football,” Pelayo interrupted. “He’s bummed out over his favorite nephew, Kyle. Remember Artie bought him a .243 for Christmas? Took him out to da deer-camp a couple times?”

“I remember alright,” Eddie snorted. “The kid was pouting worse than Artie is now — and for the entire weekend it seemed.”

“Artie spent weeks shopping for that rifle, making sure everything was right.” Pelayo nodded. “He was pumped. He was proud. He was gonna turn his favorite nephew into a deer-hunting buddy with that nifty little rifle. Well, Artie he just informed me that he found one exactly like it on E-Bay — and for half the price!”

“So what?” Eddie laughed. “Is it THAT big a deal?”

“Let me finish,” Pelayo pointed. “So naturally THAT bummed him out right there. But then Artie comes to find out — that the gun for sale was KYLE’S.”

“What?” we all frowned.

“Yeah,” Pelayo continued. “Kyle had put it up for sale. Said he had no use for it. Said he hated going to the Da Deer Camp.”

“Let’s have a word with the boy. He’s over by the serving table wolfing down what little’s left of the button-buck fajitas.”

And over we went.

“Only place I got to shoot it was at the range,” Kyle whined, as he snorked down the prized appetizer. “Heck, that was the only place I got to shoot anything! I wanted to hunt squirrels and Uncle Artie tells me I can’t ’cause the bow hunters didn’t want shooting in the woods in October. Then I wanted to hunt wood ducks, and Uncle Artie told me I couldn’t ’cause the deer hunters didn’t want all that shooting spooking the deer. Then I wanted to shoot the crows and rice birds, and Uncle Artie tells me the same thing!

“And I never saw a freaking deer all three times I was in the stand! Dude — that deer hunting is SOOOOOO BORING! So, dude, what do I want that doggone rifle for?

“Sure riding the four-wheeler around is fun, and throwing firecrackers into the fire at night and watching y’all get drunk and scream at each other around the Bourre’ table and all that — but I don’t need a rifle for that.”

These choppers damage 80,000 acres of our precious wetlands annually.

It’s unnerving to be slam-dunked in an argument by 13-year-old. But Kyle’s logic seemed airtight, at least to Pelayo, Eddie and me.

After all, if sitting immobile and bored to death in a box stand waiting (mostly in vain) for an essentially nocturnal creature to screw up for a few minutes on his normal schedule is how “hunting” had been defined when we were Kyle’s rambunctious age — who knows? We’d a probably grown up to be golfers.

Think about it: How many of us deer hunted as kids — much less from a stand? To keep me in one would have taken a straightjacket and shackles. No way.

We hunted squirrels, rabbits, beer cans, doves, ducks, hubcaps, poul d’eau, armadillos, bleach bottles, nutrias, blackbirds, Coke bottles, grackles, raccoons, junked washing machines, etc.

Point is, we went roaming around blasting anything and everything that moved — and many things that didn’t. That night we recounted the carnage while watching Morgus the Magnificent.

Things were different 40, 30, even 20 years ago. Nowadays, what’s a kid supposed to do with his Christmas .22 rim-fire or crack-barrel 20-gauge, or even his pump pellet gun? He can’t just find the first stretch of woods, barge in and start blasting, reloading, blasting, reloading, peppering the dryer with a full magazine from the .22, refilling it and shattering the windows and stitching the fins on the junked Plymouth.

“Ever shoot your uncle’s .22 semi-auto?” Pelayo asked Kyle. “You know the one pop-pop-pop-pop! As fast as you can pull the trigger?”

“YEAH!” Kyle whooped. “But I almost never get to shoot it at the deer camp.”

“We’ll bring it Saturday, and you can shoot it on a nutria hunt to Uncle Doc’s duck lease — that gun along with your shotgun. Bring plenty shells. This AIN’T like deer hunting; bet you’ll like it. Your cousin Neil’s coming, too.”

“Cool!” he replied.

Doc’s duck lease in mid-Terrebonne Parish with its late-winter, wilted fresh marshes crawls with nutria, so our choice was an easy one.

Note: The nutria season on most WMAs ends with the rabbit season on Feb. 28. But this year, in keeping with the LDWF’s policy of getting serious about “nuisance” creatures like hogs and nutria —along with providing more recreation for hunters — the Salvador, Timken, Point-aux-Chenes, Atchafalaya Delta and Pass-a-Loutre WMAs (the best for nutria hunting) have extended their nutria hunting season (for those with a trappers license) until the end of March. A great move!

And these fresher marshes — like the ones in upper Terrebonne, St. Charles, Lafourche, St. Mary in the Salvador area, etc. — make for the best nutria hunting. By February and March, most of the higher shrubs are shriveled and flat.

So the nutria stick out pretty easily.

A scoped 22 for some, a shotgun for running shots — either way nutria hunting means plenty of action!

Normally, we merely walk the ridges and levees (all the camaraderie of a duck blind, but with motion and exercise), shooting the bull, reminiscing (lying) about our Tiger Town conquests in amour while looking for those little brown clumps — whereupon the stalk or the aiming commences.

A Louisiana trappers license — only $25, and available at all regular hunting- and fishing-license outlets — extends this season of uninhibited slaughter on private land until March 30.

Even better, on private land, the landowner and his lessees and chums can now use “any means” to take nutria from the end of February till then end of August. We’re talking bull-eyeing; we’re talking blasting them from moving boats — from airboats, mudboats, surface drives, you name it! Seems like the least you could do to reward the “young-uns” who put up (however briefly) with deer season is to treat them to a couple of these! Here’s a hunting video-game they can STAR in!

As often reported, these creatures munch through 80,000 of our fragile wetlands annually. Last year the state’s Nutria Control program brought in 338,512 nutria tails (which the participants cut off and bring in to collect the $5 bounty), and lately the wetland damage has been reduced to about 20,000 acres annually.

But more needs to be done. So do YOUR part! Lend a hand (and have a blast in the process.)

As an added treat to our “youth hunt,” Doc’s friend provided an airboat for the kids’ first nutria hunt. Shoulda seen their faces when they climbed in, clutched their guns and the prop started revving! No excitement even remotely like this was evident at Da Deer Camp.

And it didn’t take long for the blasting to start. Blazing out over the winter-wilted fresh marsh, and especially the open, shallow ponds, those little brown clumps soon started appearing — and the boys started pointing at them and looking back at their elders with wide eyes and grins like we’d NEVER seen at Da Deer Camp.

In minutes, we closed on the running prey and the blasting started, Neil tumbled a running one on his right, SHAW-WUCKED another round into his 20-gauge pump and raked another one that flipped like a head-shot rabbit.

His cousin got one from this bunch, then evened the score with the next scurrying bunch that appeared not five minutes after the initial blasting.

The boys were in heaven. Yelling and whooping and fist-pumping and high-fiving. And so it went until they had piled up 10 nutria in front of the boat — in what they described as the “funnest hunt of their lives!”

Alas! the airboat was only available for that one day, so the next day we succumbed to walking the levees and ridges, stalking and shooting. This involved a bit more “hunting” and a bit less “action,” but the boys didn’t raise a peep of protest.

Compared to deer hunting it was still a frenzy of action.

Fresh marshes where the vegetation remains wilted in early spring provide the easiest nutria hunting.

We were walking the (semi) firm marsh (watch those flotants!) when Kyle suddenly hunkered down and his face lit up. Cats get this look, too, when eyeing that cardinal at the bird feeder. He looked over and smiled wickedly. His cousin Neil returned the look. They were in rapture. Two predators closing on prey. Nothing gets the predatory juices flowing like stalking.

Closing on unsuspecting prey is what really lights the predatory fire. The glow was all over Kyle and Neil’s faces. And it was contagious. Pelayo and I were catching it — shades of our own (genuine) “youth hunts!” Not sitting in some blind or stand — but roaming and blasting, roaming and blasting.

Sweet memories, indeed!

We 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.

The boys worked as a team, Kyle now with his uncle’s scoped .22 semi-auto and Neil with his 20-gauge pump (steel shot required).

They were about 30 yards out when Kyle kneeled and took aim. Neil stood at the ready behind him.

“Come on!” Pelayo hissed. “Shoot!”

Finally — POP! And one nutria keeled over, his legs twitching in the air. The other two bolted off, and that’s when Neil sprung into action, running up a few feet over the flotant, raising the shotgun — BLAM! Shaw-Wuck went the little pump — BLAM!

Nutria flipped.

And BLAM! The third nutria slowed down as the shot racked his back.

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

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

Over in more brackish marshes, the hunting’s a bit more difficult since the nutrias hide out in the standing spartina and cord 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.

Many people find nutria meat actually milder than swamp rabbit. It’s great in a traditional Sauce Piquante.

As anyone who’s skinned one (or looked on the shoulder of our south Louisiana roads and highways) well knows, a nutria’s mostly guts. This (and its ugly rat tail) turns off many people from even sampling the delicious meat, or even considering it as table fare.

Too bad. Because they’re missing out on a pink meat actually milder than most swamp rabbits. We’ve proven it time after time at our gatherings. When told it’s “rabbit sauce piquante” guests line up to snork it down, suck the last smidgeon of meat from the bones — then comment on how it has “no wild flavor.”

In our experience, it’s always proven best — especially for the female guests — to wait until their third glass of wine before lowering the boom on the true identity of what they just defined as a delicacy. After all, they also notice what’s lying on those road shoulders and swimming through Kenner’s drainage canals.

Dramatic effects of this disclosure can be seen on a YouTube video for a forthcoming Reality TV show.

To avoid all those guts, I don’t bother gutting nutria. I simply lay them belly down on the cleaning table and cut the skin down from the neck along the backbone to the tail. Then I peel the skin open, pull out the front legs and clip them off with heavy garden shears at the feet and shoulder.

Then I fillet off the backstrap and continue to the back legs, where I again pull them away from the skin, clip at the feet and clip at the pelvis. Nothing to it. (Note: I recently demonstrated this method of easy butchery on the Discovery Channel’s “Roasted River Rat” episode of their Hairy Biker’s series.)

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