A Deed for Ducks

When the state accepted the gift of the White Lake area, Louisisana duck hunters had no idea how good they’d have it.

As far back as 1929, men, who sipped the best bourbon around tables with white-linen cloths, wrote deeds. They sought to own the land for the mineral rights to the black gold deep in the soil below. If only they knew, for White Lake, it was only for the right to become her caretaker. The minerals were simply just one of her gifts to them.

I must have had a stupid look on my face while sitting there next to my sons, as the tractor slowly pulled our wagonload of hunters out of the rice fields. We had just blazed away in what might have been the most spectacular waterfowl hunt I had ever been on in my life — and on public land to boot.

When legal-shooting light arrived, my mouth dropped open so wide I’m sure I felt it hit the steel pit-blind’s floor. No doubt, the smile I had on my face at that moment must have looked out of alignment.

Whatever the look was, it caused a hunter from Baton Rouge, sitting across from me and next to his friends, to stare at me. As my eyes caught his, he smiled and asked, “Was this your first time hunting White Lake?”

I paused to collect my thoughts. If I hadn’t, the first words out of my mouth would have started, “humina-humina-humina,” or something to that nature.

“Err, ah, yeah! This is our first time,” I sheepishly replied.

I purposely said “our” to include my two sons and help deflect some of my obvious goofiness. I hadn’t fought my voice squeaking and stammering like that since puberty.

There is a certain illness all waterfowl hunters share. It’s a form of dementia that befuddles most psychiatric journals and diagnostic discussions. Just ask any afflicted waterfowl hunter’s wife — they’ll tell you: There is no treatment for it.

“Last year for the marsh lottery hunt, we had 468 applications,” said Phil Bowman, chief of Fur and Refuge for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “For the rice fields, we had 791, and then we also had 200 applications for the early teal season hunt in September.”

My Baton Rouge acquaintance explained how he and his buddies had come to hunt there.

“We all put in for the White Lake lottery hunts together so we have a better chance of drawing out,” he said. “We don’t tell anyone else about it either — it’s too good!”

His statement ended with a chuckle that crescendoed into a “ha-ha-ha-ha” laughter that we all did in unison together. It reminded me of one of those mafia movies where we thought we had it over on someone.

Gazing over the expanse, I suddenly realized I was thinking the same thing. I felt the same way. I somehow wanted to keep the rubies of this Mississippi Flyway land called “White Lake” to myself.

Like the Greek mythological character Odysseus, who was tied to a mast to prevent him from succumbing to the melodies of the Sirens, the yodels of white-fronted geese and the whistles of pintails had smitten me. These were not the sounds of Sirens, but of White Lake.

Hunters applying for White Lake lottery hunts are allowed to submit five applications for rice-field hunts and three for the marsh hunts. Successful applicants are entitled to one morning hunt.

The odds of drawing out are extremely good for hunters who submit the maximum number of applications allowable. When you consider the number of dates and multiple blinds made available for these public hunts, this is one chance that duck hunters shouldn’t pass up.

Rice-field lottery hunts are basically semi-guided. Successful applicants meet at the White Lake boathouse located at the end of Highway 91 in Gueydan. From there, they are taken to the field by tractor-drawn cart, and dropped off before daylight.

All rice field hunters shoot from brushed pit-blinds buried in a levee that separates two fields. The front side of the blind faces a flooded field, and the backside faces a semi-wet field.

Hunters will find speckle-belly decoys set up in the traditional manner for them on the semi-wet field behind the blind, and duck decoys in the flooded field in front of them.

Lucky rice field hunters are allowed to bring two other hunting companions with them. Additionally, they may bring their retrievers. Rice-field hunters also will have to do their own calling, which may or may not be a good thing. Whatever the case, they’ll find White Lake very forgiving.

Successful marsh hunt applicants also meet at the boathouse, where they are taken by boat across the Intracoastal Waterway, via the Florence Canal, to the White Lake Lodge.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to draw out for both the rice-field and marsh hunts. At the lodge, we met our assigned guides, and were then taken by mud-boat through the water-control structure and into the 17,000-acre marsh hunting area.

These vintage mud-boats, with names like Wild Cat, Sting Ray, Road Runner and Gator, were built in 1951 and 1971, and are maintained in original condition. Uniquely and specifically designed for passing through White Lake’s water-control structure, their all-wood construction reveals the exquisite craftsmanship that Acadiana boat builders have handed down for generations.

After a less-than-10-minute ride, the mud-boat was parked at a small remote dock surrounded by roseau cane, several hundred yards from where the blind was located. We transferred our gear to a flat-bottomed blind boat, and rode it up a semi-submerged ramp into the blind.

Though I wouldn’t recommend it, hunters could literally wear their bedroom slippers to and from the blind.

Marsh-hunt lottery winners will find the hunt truly a gentleman’s affair for discriminating sportsmen. These hunts are fully guided, where the guides cater to your every need.

Bowman fondly shared a story, where one youngster who participated in a lottery youth hunt held at White Lake referred to the lodge as a “high-class” place, and how he needed to go out and get some new duds to hunt in.

When my gun failed to fire a second round on a couple of occasions, my guide, Roger Cormier, who also happened to be the full-time caretaker of White Lake’s lodge, asked me if he could see my gun.

Opening the breech of my Remington 11-87, he pulled out a can of WD-40 and sprayed the firing pin and various mechanisms, while working the action back and forth a few times, then handed it back to me.

“Here, try that,” he said. “Sometimes moisture and dirt get in there and slows things up a bit.”

Prior to White Lake being donated to the state in 2002 by British Petroleum, it was owned by Amoco, Stanolind Oil & Gas and Yount Lee Oil Company.

One politician who visited there was the 36th president of the United States.

“I’ve been told that Lyndon Johnson has been there,” Bowman said. “Now, who all else has been there, I don’t know, but Johnson has been there. They actually have a bedroom they call the Johnson bedroom. I’ve been told that Dick Cheney has been there too. Whether or not it was before he was vice president, I can’t say.”

Another notable name is Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, or the Shah of Iran. The infamous despot was the last monarch to rule the oil-rich nation.

What makes this conservation area so attractive to waterfowl is the way it has been maintained over the years. South of the hunting area is a 5,000-acre tract that, according to Bowman, is set aside as reserve.

“We have a series of pumps that, basically, de-waters that area every spring and over the summer,” he explained. “It allows the annual grasses to grow and produce the seeds ducks really like. In the fall, the reserve is flooded again, and that’s what makes it so important to waterfowl.”

Saw grass, rattlebox and Walter’s millet are a few of the seed-producing plants on the reserve that grow over the summer months.

By contrast, the hunting area is not pumped dry. It is passively managed, where water height is maintained through control structures to encourage the growth of sub-aquatic vegetation.

Aquatic plants such as water shield, white water lily and arrowhead, whose tubers are highly prized by ducks, thrive in these conditions, enhancing quality duck hunting each fall.

Managers of White Lake are also aware that unfettered hunting pressure will cause ducks to leave a region. Therefore, the conservation area is not hunted every day, and hunters are brought in from morning hunts at approximately 9:30, thus ensuring participants leave with a positive experience.

White Lake Conservation Area also supports itself.

There are costs to be considered in maintaining a 71,000-acre piece of property in its pristine condition. Where lottery hunts are priced, essentially, to recoup costs, all-inclusive weekend group-hunt packages offered to the public help generate funds to operate annually.

“It was something we looked at — just about what it cost to operate and tried not to make money on it, but break even,” Bowman said. “And, of course, we acquired some revenue off the big-group hunts, because they are $25,000 for you and 11 of your friends to come in for the weekend.”

White Lake also operates off revenues generated from other resources the property maintains, such as agriculture leases and some hunting leases in place prior to transfer of the property to the state. Other operating funds are generated from the sale of alligator eggs to farms and annual wild alligator harvest. All revenues derived from the property go into the White Lake fund.

Group hunters receive red-carpet treatment and access to all amenities the lodge offers, such as transportation to and from airports located in Jennings or Lake Charles, all food and beverages, professional hunting and fishing guides, hunting and fishing licenses, afternoon skeet and sporting-clay shooting, bird and fish cleaning and fishing gear.

Additionally, for group hunters traveling from abroad who don’t wish to fly with firearms for security or convenience reasons, company firearms are made available. Name brands include Beretta, Browning, Franchi and Remington, and come in semi-auto and over and under actions.

Waterfowl hunters know, more than anything else, weather impacts duck populations, travel habits and feeding patterns. They also know what type of hunting they can expect during hot, bluebird days without a breath of air. Such was the case during my marsh duck hunt.

By legal shooting light, nary a duck was flying with the exception of what looked to be a few ringnecks we spotted heading toward us.

“Get ready,” my guide said.

I squatted low in the blind to hide myself, and waited for him to tell me to take them. When Cormier positively identified them, he said, “Blackjacks. We don’t want to shoot them; I don’t want to put those in my blind.”

It was quality that he was after, and he knew with patience, even in the worst conditions, White Lake would produce the desired results.

Lowering my gun, I nodded and said one of those silent prayers to myself that waterfowl hunters are known for.

Not to be denied, I managed a limit of quality ducks consisting of gadwall, mallards and teal, plus a bonus specklebelly that had so many black bars on its breast, it was almost black.

While leaving the rice field on that tractor-pulled cart, I realized that with the donation of White Lake to the state, the citizens of Louisiana have become her caretaker, and her worth truly is far more than rubies.

Out of the bosom of her marshes, she gave me her bounty and for that, like the woman in Proverbs, she should be praised in public.