There are still plenty of young geese to be had in Southwest Louisiana’s ultra-productive rice fields.
“THE ROAD!” Anthony shouted as we nearly careened into a ditch along I-10.“Sorry about that guys, but did you see them?” I replied.
It was a case of the worst kind of road-scouting: 70 mph down the interstate with 18-wheelers flying past us doing 80. In my inability to keep an eye on the road, I nearly brought our westward pilgrimage to an immediate halt.
But how could I help myself?
As we cruised down I-10 west between Rayne and Welsh, it was every waterfowl fanatic’s dream playing out on each side of the interstate. Flock after flock of birds worked the various agricultural fields. This incredible display seemed fittingly set to music as Wayne Toups blared from the Suburban’s speakers, part of our Cajun theme to go along with the trip.
I nearly turned my head 360 degrees as I was eyeing a nice group of specks settle into a turned-over field on the right. I got an instant jolt when AJ whooped from the back seat — “Teal!! All over along the left side! Looks like bluewings.” — as he scanned the fields with binoculars I had brought along solely for this purpose.
I quickly swung my line of sight back across the road to the south side, where teal were buzzing all up and down a levee in numbers not many of us had ever witnessed. It seemed like every teal we had ever seen was in one field. This was exactly what we’d hoped for, and all signs were already pointing to it playing out right on cue.
The four of us were no strangers to Louisiana duck blinds, but it was our primary location that hindered us from taking these types of birds in any numbers. We were accustomed to the tidal marshes of Southeast Louisiana, where pirogues, mud boats and boat blinds are the norm.
We typically kill a variety of ducks, but none as consistently as our beloved gray duck. And a wayward snow goose has fallen over our ponds a time or two, but most of us had never seen geese like this before.
We had all the right gear as recommended by our guide for the trip. The four of us had packed only our knee boots and hip boots in place of our usual chest waders. We left all our paddles and push-poles behind for plans of swapping a pirogue for an ATV as our transportation to the blind.
This was to be a sunset stroll down the Mandeville lakefront compared to our usual 3:30 a.m. boat launch followed by a rigorous workout. Our trip to the blind typically included paddling little and poling often as we navigated unseen mudflats, shedding coats as we worked up a sweat no matter how cold the pre-dawn darkness. This was a vacation for us when all too often our marsh hunts could hardly be described as a vacation with all the work involved.
The four of us finally arrived at the lodge of Capt. Erik Rue’s Calcasieu Charter Service despite plenty of near-miss driving events along the way. The rest of our group had arrived shortly before us, including my old buddy Johnny and his son Cody. Johnny is a seasoned marsh hunting veteran, and Cody is just getting into our beloved sport.
As I leapt out of the driver’s seat to greet Johnny, my eager words got to him first: “Did you see that?!?”
“See what?” he replied.
“Those mallards locking into the pond just up the road!! How could you miss them??” I asked.
“Well, I was driving. I thought you were too!?”
Introductions were made on the tailgate of Johnny’s pickup as the faint cackles of snow geese echoed high above. This sound would continue late into the night as we lounged around the lodge swapping stories between those in our party and another group of guys staying with us that night. And like any good evening spent at the duck camp, a great meal was followed by flowing beer as tall tales got taller with every twist-off cap.
A knock came at the door at wake-up time, the pre-determined 4:30 a.m., though I hardly startled as I was nearly completely dressed having had a restless night of anticipation. Anthony slowly lifted his head as the pinging from the night’s beers continued their after-effects.
Before he could crawl out of bed, I was chatting it up with Rue and the other guides, a few of whom were already busy throwing together a first-rate breakfast, to get some insight on the morning’s plan.
According to Rue, the hunting had been steady with decent bags of specks and a few ducks thrown in. Of course I was hoping to hear of yesterday’s grand slam on the birds, but I had to bear in mind we were starting to get into the latter part of the season.
By this time, the birds had graduated from the Bachelor’s degree they received in decoy studies from Minnesota to Arkansas, and now were near full-blown doctoral candidates after evading shotgun blasts for so long. Here we were in late December, when the young and dumb birds of the year’s hatch had begun to thin out significantly. Even so, I held hope in our guide’s ability to lure late-season birds into easy shotgun range.
Not long after departing the lodge, the four of us were in Hayes to meet with the rest of the hunting parties for the day. It was here that Anthony and I were assigned to hunt with Jake Longenbaugh; Tony and AJ joining another of Rue’s guides.
Minutes later, we were at the field with the three of us loading onto Longenbaugh’s ATV. His black lab Shyla led the way on the edge of our headlights as we paralleled the edge of a large, turned-over field. We traversed the muddy field on the ATV in order to preserve the natural cover found on the levee systems.
This is critical to their late-season success when ducks and, especially, slow-flying geese, begin to notice anything covering a sunken pit blind that looks to be askew. To further facilitate this, we carefully handed our gear down into the pit via one small hole in the cover so as to not disturb the natural and artificial brush covering the rest of the blind.
Longenbaugh had hardly settled into the blind before a pair of teal nearly burned a hole in the top of his well-worn camo hat. It was only minutes before shooting time, and the predawn light barely allowed us to catch a glimpse of the two as they zigged and zagged on down the levees.
The three of us all gave each other the same smirk, knowing darn well that had it been shooting time with guns in hand, none of us would have had a prayer of even getting a shot off at those two rockets.
It wasn’t long before we could see goose silhouettes starting to make their way off the resting grounds they enjoyed all night, and prepared to greet the new day at a buffet line that stretched for miles. But before we could focus on working the geese, Longenbaugh had pointed out some ducks working our small spread of about eight mallard decoys.
Though lighting conditions and the distance of the birds prevented easy identification for us newcomers, Longenbaugh knew the mallards had been using these fields in recent weeks. The birds were high above as he wailed away on a mallard call commonly found dangling on many a lanyard of this region, a Haydel’s DRS-88 Cajun Squeal.
This call had the squeak of a rice-feeding mallard hen built into it so as to be more of a region-specific tool. It looked nearly identical to my old standby DR-85, but it had a distinctly different sound at the end of each note — a Cajun accent, you could say.
I couldn’t argue with the ability of both the caller and the call as a group of four swung overhead at marginal range at best. On their next pass, we opened the top, but the howling wind quickly had the birds whisked out of realistic range before any of us had fired a shot.
However, a single drake was soon back in our area as Longenbaugh laid on the lonely-hen calling, and the bird responded well. The shot was called as Anthony and I both unloaded, dropping the bird in the decoys. Shyla retrieved a beautiful greenhead. The bird’s colorful plumage accented nicely with the dull background of the muddy pond.
Though other ducks made brief appearances in our field, these late-season birds just didn’t seem convinced to the point of making a suicidal commitment to our plastic party.
Our sights soon changed from the early morning duck flight to the increased goose activity beginning to filter over our set-up. Longenbaugh greeted the specks a long way out with a series of fast-paced notes either by mouth or on his Chien Caille Speck call in order to get the birds on line with our spread.
As they got closer, he engaged them in what sounded like elaborate conversations. For some, it turned out to be their last as they were ultimately deceived by their “friends” in the small group strategically positioned 15 yards upwind of our blind.
“In a stiff wind like this, I’ll call a little more aggressively in order to keep the birds’ attention,” Longenbaugh said. “If you aren’t adamant with your calling, they often lose interest quickly as the wind carries them by.”
The birds would work out in front of us and swing back our way in their approach to the decoy setup. Each bucked the stiff breeze the entire way, making them easy targets as they hovered overhead.
The first group was a trio of specks that likewise hit the field with a trio of thumps and splashes. I was shooting 3 1/2-inch No. 2s out of an improved cylinder choke, but my single-shot .410 would have performed near as well for this type of shooting.
A second group of birds also found themselves vulnerably hung up in the wind when the shot was called. A couple of shots left both birds out for the count with Shyla on the retrieve.
Snows and blues would pass by with little interest in our setup, which was mainly geared toward specklebellies in that we had six highly detailed goose dekes out instead of 600, which would be more on the magnitude of an attractive flock of feeding snows.
Longenbaugh believes fewer but more-realistic decoys are key to their late-season specklebelly success. This tactic proved very effective, even on an overly windy morning, which can sometimes make the birds even more skittish.
As the morning wore on, it became apparent that the birds were avoiding decoys at all cost in favor of empty fields. One suicidal gray duck did work our spread beautifully, and was promptly welcomed to our hefty strap.
Most specks would light out in the middle of a field far away from any levees, which had come to be associated with shotgun fire and falling friends. Longenbaugh pointed out how difficult it could be to hunt them in the middle of the fields, which is why they take such care in maintaining their blind cover all season long.
As we packed up, all efforts were made to leave the blind amply brushed and ready to hunt again. Longenbaugh also made sure to carefully hide the speck decoys from the prying eyes of passing geese sure to visit the field upon our departure.
The ATV ride back to the trucks had specks lighting in fields not 80 yards from us. Some settled into the next field over from the ones we were hunting. Longenbaugh was not amused with the rudeness these birds had shown as they passed on our setup for an identical field not a hundred yards away.
“They know,” he added as we passed another group of four specks feeding in a field nearly in shotgun range from our path. “By the time we get to late December and January, we’ll get some late pushes of birds that will be workable, but those that have been here a while have us figured out pretty well.”
Longenbaugh indicated that, as an operation that hunts day in and day out, every step is taken to even the odds on these late-season birds, but on some days it’s still not enough.
Anthony and I were very pleased with our take given we were one bird shy of our blind’s limit of specks, not to mention the wealth of knowledge we’d take home with us. Tony and AJ arrived at the trucks shortly after us having taken three very mature specks proudly displaying the telltale bars across their plump chests.
“We should have had at least one or two more,” Tony added.
Just as we had experienced, their group likewise found the birds to be particularly wary of decoys.
We left the fields that day with many lessons learned and even more stories to tell on the drive home and the next day in the blind back home in our marshes. Stories about the one, two or three that got away due to crooked barrels and salt-filled shotshells, which is a commonality all waterfowl hunters can relate to on those days when everything just seems off.
We were already planning to return next year, earlier in the season, to capitalize on the young and dumb fresh off the breeding grounds.
For now, it was back to the marshes that we’d left for our change of scenery.
For more information on hunting with Capt. Erik Rue’s Calcasieu Charter Service, call (337) 598-4700.