Duck Restaurant

Want to increase your haul? Then set out a spread where waterfowl go to dine.

Pelayo knelt near the bow sweeping the Q-beam along the squiggly trenasse. I steered the little 9 1/2-horse outboard while trying to heed his frantic arm motions to turn this way, then suddenly THAT way. Then THIS way again, then THAT way!

Suddenly, his arm motions got even more frantic. I couldn’t make out the direction.

“What?” I yelled. “Where? Turn WHICH way?”

“Don’t turn!” he yelled while turning around to face me, his hand still flapping downward and the other swinging around the Q-beam, which nearly fried my retinas.

“Just slow down. Kill the motor in fact — look!”

He flashed the Q-beam back around along the water ahead of him. I didn’t see anything alarming. In fact, at the moment, I couldn’t see anything AT ALL! Imagine 100 flashbulbs going off an inch from your face.

“What?! I can’t see. You blinded me with that …!”

“Somebody’s been through here!” he growled. “Must be up ahead somewhere. Look!”

He kept flashing the beam in the water. I still had no idea what he was talking about.

“I don’t see anybody?”

“The bubbles, man, the BUBBLES — look”!

Pelayo’s eye for detail had always impressed me, as befits an accomplished deer and duck scouter. Finally, my retinas started semi-adjusting to normal, and I saw what alarmed him. A thin line of foam and bubbles indeed stretched ahead of us. Beneath it, the normally root-beer colored water was grey, cloudy and churned with detritus, the spoor of a boat somewhere ahead of us.

“Doc and Chris knew exactly where we were going,” Pelayo nodded. “They called us crazy for fighting our way in here.”

“Right,” I said. “They went to Doc’s blind. And Artie and Al went to their new blind, way over there.”

I pointed east toward the pink horizon.

“Ain’t no way it’s any of them.”

No way around it. The spoor belonged to trespassers.

Salt surge from Hurricane Rita hammered Doc’s lease horribly the year before. The little millfoil and widgeon grass that struggled to sprout in the ponds of this rapidly eroding marsh had vanished. The scant clumps of wild millet, peavine and smartweed were utterly exterminated.

Not that these developments mattered much to Doc, Artie and most of their guests. A couple ringnecks or dos gris (blackjacks in the local dialect) along with a couple teal per blind, mostly shot at dawn, sufficed for their brand of hunting.

On blustery days a couple of suicidal greys, widgeon or mottled ducks actually showed up in their bag, provoking much boasting and jubilation back at the camp.

After these quickie hunts, it was quickly back to the camp to cook, BS and whoop it up, followed by some afternoon fishing and more whooping it up at night. And there sure as heck ain’t nothing wrong with THAT!

But Pelayo and I have this odd penchant for actually hunting ducks, which doesn’t generally mesh well with the rigid schedules and permanent blinds at most traditional duck camps. But we do what we can.

Locating duck fodder (hence ducks) consists of much of our duck hunting. Food-plotting has made this endeavor irrelevant for many deer hunters, but the same used to apply to most deer hunting. Early bowseason, you sought out persimmon trees. When those ran dry, you might move to white oaks. When that choice mast expired, it was over to the red and water oaks or the honeysuckle.

Point is, deer food preferences changed as the season progressed.

Ditto for ducks. Take teal, for instance. They love shallow marsh, and like most puddle ducks, prefer feeding on seeds rather than underwater vegetation — not that they don’t gobble up widgeon grass. Just that they prefer seeds when available.

In September in the fresher coastal marshes (and especially in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya deltas), teal — and pintail and mottled ducks — find a culinary paradise: vast orchards of duck potato and three square grass along with thick stands of wild millet. The standing duck potato provides little bouquets of seeds along with those little white flowers.

By November, however, the duck potato plants have mostly wilted, and the pintail and greys flock to the same sites to root for the tubers in the mud.

In more brackish marshes, dabbling ducks (pintail, greys, widgeon, teal, mallards) also like it shallow, usually a foot or less, in order to reach the seeds, grasses and assorted plants from the bottom. Greys and widgeon, in particular, swarm into deeper ponds in the brackish marshes for the millfoil and widgeon grass. Some of these ponds are resting sites. The birds drop in late in the morning, sometimes near noon.

On Doc’s lease, however, Pelayo and I determined that such places were early morning feeding sites. No delta-type seed-bearing areas sprouted anywhere nearby, so the ducks had no choice but to feed on the underwater grasses — “secondary browse” you might call it in deer-hunting parlance.

Doc Fontaine’s family had added these new 100 acres to their ancestral Cocodrie-area duck-lease two years earlier, and had never bothered to hunt them. Access was a problem. No major bayous, canals or even ditches entered this expanse of shallow, weed-choked fresh to (increasingly) brackish marsh.

Hence our attraction to it. Pelayo and I had pored over the aerial photos where the different colors gave away the different forms of vegetation. Then we went on a little aerial survey ourselves. Our chum, Bob “Top Gun” Stern flew us over in a little rented Cessna as we surveyed and marked the promising hotspots below.

Serious business accomplished, Bob started strutting his stuff. Pontchartrain Beach’s old Zephyr and Wild Maus had nothing on this flight. To say Bob’s aerial acrobatics left us breathless is one way of putting it. Speechless too. And almost lunchless. Pelayo and I de-planed at Lakefront Airport still speechless and on legs of rubber. Quite the prankster, that Bob.

We finally neared the pond we’d marked on the maps, and started push-poling. The sun was halfway over the horizon now. A sudden roar turned our heads, and the sight quickly shifted us from the trespasser hunt back to the duck hunt. The panorama — for any waterfowler — was exhilarating. A flurry of flapping wings and startled quacks surrounded us. Words were unnecessary. We could only gape.

Long wings propelled the gadwall frantically upward. Some more exploded into flight behind them, and even more behind them.

Then some mottled ducks started leaping and flapping. Then a flock of teal roared overhead. We stopped push-poling to take in the stupendous panorama.

“No way that boat passed though here,” Pelayo said.

He was right. They’d have certainly spooked these ducks.

“The hoodlums musta turned on that little slough behind us,” Pelayo surmised.

“Yep” I nodded while a mottled duck erupted from 30 yards away, quacking his raspy alarm.

We chunked out our 23 dekes, hid the skiff and were soon huddled in the palmetto- and bamboo-shrouded ’rogue.

As usual, teal appeared first. Musta been 30 of them, twisting around like overgrown pigeons. Down they went behind some marsh alders. Did they land? I stood to look.

“Oops, here they come again!”

“Down!” Pelayo tugged my elbow, and we hunkered down as the massive flock closed on the dekes — only to turn at 100 yards.

“Damn!” Pelayo hissed through his teeth.

Then they turned back, almost like they heard him.

At 80 yards, they veered again. We quacked, hailed and whistled frantically, both of us tooting on calls and whistles, pleading and beckoning. Here they come! I was already tapping the safety when — Blam- Blam-Blam!

But the shots came from up ahead, and the teal skyrocketed skyward barely 70 yards ahead of us.

“The hoodlums!” Pelayo snarled.

I myself was shaking and stuttering from a combination of excitement from the teal’s approach and burning rage from their quick departure.

But I could see many other ducks on the horizon. Pelayo looked over grimacing. I knew what he was thinking.

“Forget it!” I told him. “Look around. We’ll get more. Let’s wait. No point in spoiling the hunt. They’re flying good in this wind. We’ll nab the hoodlums later.”

“DOWN!” Pelayo suddenly hissed.

These came from behind, right over some stunted roseaus, and banked 100 yards out. I gave a toot on the widgeon whistle as Pelayo chuckled on his hail call. They turned sharply toward us. It was heavenly. They turned to face the sun, every feather glistening, the wings slowing down, then picking up again as we tooted and quacked some more. Seventy yards and closing, about a dozen of them — gadwall, mostly drakes. I dropped the call and fingered the safety.

They were huge, gorgeous. Their legs started dangling — NOW!

BLAAAAM!! Our two shots went off as one and two big greys crumpled. Another was flapping crazily to the left, and I put the bead under his beak … BLAM! BLAM!

Pelayo had done the same, and both our shots smacked him and sent him cartwheeling into the dekes to join the two others. Not a bad start.

The thrill had barely worn off when I caught movement on the left, and rasped out a four-note hail, the way ducks do it — not mariachi trumpeters or duck call contestants.

The pair turned on a dime and started gliding in. Boy, they were pretty. They cupped and swung in, widgeon in their gorgeous winter plumage. It was TOO easy. I like the way the rock back and forth as they glide down … BLAAAM! Again, we shot almost in unison, and again both crumpled, splashing into the edge of the dekes.

Limits came startlingly quickly (for Doc’s lease). our bag consisted of teal, greys, those two widgeon and one distracted mottled duck, even with the hoodlums’ shooting flaring off every second flock that approached us. So now it was time to settle scores with the trespassers. We back-tracked down the trenasse, and turned into their slough.

Up ahead, a clump of brush looked suspiciously like a makeshift blind. We motored toward it, and sure enough, a few dead palmettos and some wax myrtles contrasted against the surrounding maidencane and three-square grass.

Pelayo leaped from the bow, stumbled in the muck and started plodding toward it.

“You boys are in a world of trouble NOW!” he thundered. “Private property here! Criminal trespassing!”

I pulled the skiff onto the marsh and stumbled along behind Pelayo. But it was hard working up dander while laughing. The scene bemused me. I’ve never quite gotten used to being on this side of these confrontations — not after the duck hunts of our misspent high-school and college years. True, things were different then, posting not as widespread or as rigidly enforced. But now the prospect of a role as the chaser rather than chasee had me cackling. Now we swaggered like lifetime landmen, with deputy badges and taser guns to boot.

“The sheriff’s gonna be out here!!” Pelayo yelled. “You can bet on THAT! You boys had BETTER……!!”

Pelayo was yelling when three figures suddenly popped from the brushblind and faced us, choking off Pelayo’s blood-curdling threats in mid sentence and halting us in mid stride. We stood there in a standoff of sorts. And try as I might, I could not detect a hint of guilt, remorse or nervousness in the poses or demeanor of the gentlemen who stared resolutely at us from no more than 20 feet away.

What I could detect were arms, chests and shoulders that — even through the layer of army surplus camo — displayed the fruits of a probable lifetime roustabouting, lugging oilfield casing and swinging oyster sacks. The one on the left sporting the welders cap and black stubble finally smiled. But this was not the smile you see on Andy Griffith taking little Opie fishing.

For added effect, the burly trespasser squinted, nodded and snickered. His taller companion took a long drag from his cig and snickered himself, slowly nodding while blowing out a cloud of smoke. Through it all, they never took their eyes off us.

The brute with the bushhat on the far left had his duck-call lanyard wrapped awkwardly around the brim, and he suddenly yanked it off. He untangled it, and started snapping the lanyard tight between his two burly fists. Luca Brazzi came quickly to mind, on his way to “sleep with the fishes,” that is. I could already see Pelayo’s eyeballs and tongue popping from his face as the bush-hatted brute tightened the lanyard around his neck.

“Look, ummm, guys … you know …” Pelayo finally cleared his throat and started explaining legal maxims as they applied to private property — but in a markedly different tone of voice now. He no longer sounded like Sergeant Carter addressing Gomer Pyle. He now sounded like a head waiter discoursing on the day’s specials.

Me, I could only think of Cher, her song, actually: “If I could turn back time.” If only we could, we’d have forsaken this little errand and been back in Doc’s camp, slurping gumbo, sipping a cold one and with scant prospects of several weeks’ food being delivered intravenously with our jaws wired shut while encased in body casts from neck to toes.

Let Doc worry about any trespassers on his lease, I kept berating myself.

Finally the one with the welder cap blurted, “Dey’s some trespassers here alright.” Then he bulled through the brush and approached us. He wore overalls with suspenders, and with that face stubble another movie scene flashed to mind — one featuring banjo music: “Aintree?! This here river don’t go nowhere near Aintree. You boys done took the wrong turn. You boys is lost, ain’t ya?”

How Ned Beatty missed a Best Actor plus a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for that performance qualifies as the biggest injustice in the annals of moviemaking. Burt Reynolds and John Voight deserved special Oscars also — for avoiding hernias from laughing during the shooting.

The accent here was wrong, but everything else in the tense scene fit perfectly.

“Fontaine said you could hunt here?” the brute rasped.

“You’re damned right!” Pelayo shouted. He….!”

“Artie too?” his bushhatted friend asked.

“Well sure, I mean…?”

“Artie’s my cousin,” he snickered. “We know Doc, too. Y’all are coming over to our place for dinner tonight. I suggest you guys go back and check with your friends. How’s that? We’ll probably see you tonight.”

We were dumfounded, but oddly, the guy seemed sincere. Hmmmm?

Artie and Doc could hardly stop laughing when we got back to the camp.

“You guys met Buzzy, Artie’s cousin,” Doc roared. “But he’s a third cousins we think. We ran into those guys out here last year right after we leased the new property. They were picking up their boat. They explained they’d been hunting that section for 20-30 years, and didn’t know it had been leased up.

“Well, they shared some oysters with us, and we got to talking, and found out one was related to Artie’s uncle. Well, we kinda made a deal not to bother each other, and when we planned on hunting out there to inform them. I think the oysters and shrimp and homemade boudin they’ve brought over since then has paid for the lease twice over. No harm done.”

“No harm done!?” Pelayo huffed. “Hell, we almost got our heads ripped off! Wish you woulda told us!”

And sure enough, we went to their “place” that evening (whether camp or a home, we never determined). Between the fresh, cold, salty-salty oysters, the equally cold beer, the fried shrimp — well, to say we “passed a good time” is masterful understatement.

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