Swan Song

It’s now or never for duck hunters who just can’t get enough of the thrill of committed birds diving into a meticulously set out spread.

If only Pelayo were as punctual as wood ducks. The exasperating two-winged creatures keep a rigid daily schedule, flying exactly five minutes before and five minutes after legal shooting time.

But with the exasperating two-legged creature scheduled to pick me up this morning, you never know.

“I was two miles onto the Causeway when I realized I still had the full-choke screwed in!” he sputtered on the cell phone as I answered it in the kitchen while microwaving some coffee. “Forgot I still had it in from that buckshot deer hunt last week. So I had to turn around at the first crossover, head back home and change to modified, even packed along the improved just in case. Be there in 15 minutes.”

“OK, but WHATCHIT!” I cautioned after a gulp of (too) hot coffee. “Don’t push it! That whole Highway 190 stretch north of the Causeway is absolutely lousy with cops,” I rasped with a scorched mouth. “Local cops, sherrif’s department and state troopers — the whole bit! And they cut NO SLACK to speeders! There’s so many cops up this way most are bored stiff — just dying for the slightest screw-up to pull you over for a little action, to strut their stuff. So don’t SPEED! The whole stretch from Causeway at Vets in Metairie to Covington is one huge speed trap!”

“I know, I KNOW, believe me,” Pelayo laughed. “Artie got pegged just last week. Says he almost got pistol-whipped and tazered when he reached for his wallet! ‘Get yer hands outta yer POCKET!’ the cop growled at him, while reaching for the tazer.

“‘How the hell can I get my driver’s license without reaching in my POCKET?!’ Artie says he asked the officious officer.”

Finally Pelayo snapped his phone shut.

“Will you PLEASE SHUT UP OUT THERE!” came an annoyed voice from the bedroom. My exhortations to Pelayo and guffaws at Artie’s (quite familiar) dilemma had been somewhat loud, it seemed, especially at 4:30 a.m.

As usual for a hunt, I’d sprung from bed and snapped on the light well before the alarm went off. Hunting excitement works that way. Shirley punched her pillow a time or two, snarled something or other and turned over. She seemed back asleep in seconds. I was thankful and relieved while tippy-tippy-tippy-toeing out to the kitchen.

Then the alarm went off.

I rushed in from the kitchen to turn it off, knocking over a half-full glass of milk in the process. But too late. Employing abrupt, jerky movements, she covered her head with the blanket and bellowed a somewhat muffled but clearly unladylike remark as I sped back into the kitchen.

Pelayo stormed in 10 minutes later, heavily booted in our wood-floored hallway and loud.

“Let’s go!” he bellowed while grabbing my gear in the front hallway. “We can still make it!”

No pillows or blankets muffled the scream from the bedroom this time. It came through loud and clear, reverberating down the hallway and blistering the paint off the walls. A message to make a rap singer blush. I imagined more abrupt jerky movements with the covers, the bedspreads flecked with spittle, her tousled hair, a few more punches into the pillow, flaring nostrils and the pretty crimson hue on her face. They look so sexy that way.

Too bad I was going hunting.

I closed the front door behind me, rather gently.

Shirley would never understand our frenzy, but one thing you don’t want to do on a wood duck hunt is be elegantly late. For real ducks (rather than these songbird woodies) around Venice, we might set up anywhere from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., whereupon my departure features only domestic bliss.

In the Hopedale/Delacroix area, we might set up as late at 8:30, especially late in the season when the greys start flying late.

But if you’re after wood ducks in the Bogue Chitto/Pearl River area — podnuh, you’d better be there already locked and loaded for when your watch finally ticks legal shooting time.

So I’d allowed a 15-minute cushion for Pelayo’s unpunctuality in the first place. Naturally, he used it, and now we still had a chance of getting set up for that crucial wood-duck morning flight that lasts — at most — half an hour after legal shooting time. But it’s usually a frantic half-hour of exciting shooting. With woodies it’s always short but sweet — at least for us. You can always count on a brief flurry of shots.

We headed east on Highway 21 in Pelayo’s truck, minus boat trailer, minus even a ‘rogue. Not too many places where you can duck hunt — even wood duck hunt — without at least a pirogue or skiff. The Bogue Chitto NWR is one, specifically the extreme northern edge, just east of Lock 3 and across the Pearl River Navigation Canal. You hang a left at the appropriately-named “Lock 3 Road” from Highway 21 in Sun, park at the convenient boat launch at its end and either stroll through the gate and over the locks into the NWR or launch a skiff at the back-down ramp into the navigation canal and head south to the Bogue Chitto River itself, then hang a left into the interior.

But for minuscule woodie limits and the minuscule shooting period, too much fuss seems like … well, too much fuss. In our case, anyway. Especially when we can usually get easy limits by just strolling into what’s known on old maps as Devil’s Swamp, which lies no more than a quarter to a third of a mile east from where we parked Pelayo’s truck at the Lock 3 boat launch.

Did I say stroll?! Maybe before Katrina. But nowadays, the blowdowns and the attendant growth of brambles makes getting to the relatively open area of cypress and tupelo bordered by Chatam Creek on the west and Big Creek on the east rather more than a leisurely “stroll.”

On the upside, it’s a rather short (if yes, nowadays tangled and hectic) hike. Devil’s Swamp provides what looks like a few acres of the Maurepas Swamp in the Peal River Basin. It’s not much of an opening, but it may be the biggest till you get down almost to Highway 90 as tupelo-cypress gives way to marsh in the lower Pearl River WMA. And considering a wood duck’s speed, it’s nice to have have any kind of an opening as an advance warning as you hear that thrilling “oweeee-oweeee” whistle and, look up, finger the safety and prepare for some shots. Hard to get that advance warning in the more close-canopied swamp in most of the Pearl River Basin.

Alas, that canopy provides a wood duck’s favorite feast — acorns. Sure, like the mallards, widgeon and gadwalls that occasionally accompany them in the swamps, woodies will eat duckweed, smartgrass, pondweed, etc. But above everything else in a wood duck’s diet, acorns prevail.

And there’s plenty of them in the upper Pearl River Basin, especially the little willow oak and laurel oak acorns they so love and that drop in huge abundance into the sloughs and creeks in this area.

It took us 20 minutes to slog and weave our way to the edge of Chatam Creek and hence, Devils Swamp, after suffering only moderate lacerations. But we still had another good five-minute wait for the shooting to start.

A ploy for our woodie hunts its to try and pick days with a heavy cloud cover forecast. This means it stays a bit darker a bit later into the morning. But, of course, legal shooting time remains the same. So the woodies start their morning flight a tad later, right around the start of legal shooting time, and give us 15 to 20 more minutes of shooting as lagniappe. It also means we don’t stand there with those whistles and buzzing wings overhead in the dawn twilight that get us so cranked, that have us constantly checking our watches, trying desperately to speed them up! When wood-duck hunting in a national wildlife refuge, you want to make sure your watch is not even slightly fast, or slow during an evening hunt. The agents are very vigilant and efficient.

Woodies seem to like flying parallel to treelines and the contours of creeks, bayous and sloughs. We set up accordingly and sure-enough, like clockwork the morning flight started.

Oeeee! Oeeee! And swoosh overhead.

A gorgeous sight but by my watch (cell phone, actually), we still had three minutes to wait.

BLAM!–BLAM!!

“Uh-oh!” I thought. “Was that Pelayo?!”

No, he was slightly north, and signaled with his flashlight. Others were out here, with slightly fast watches, or less self-control. Again, unwise.

My cell phone finally said 6:19, and I slipped in three shells. Three minutes later, the silhouettes appeared over the treeline.

Blam! Blam!

This time it was Pelayo, and I saw one fold and drop.

“Yeah, you right!” I howled like an idiot, hoping he heard.

My bellow had just faded when a rush of wings jerked my head up, but too late, these little suckers are fast, and they were already well behind me. But, ah!, three more were coming. Easy overhead shots too. I raised the gun, swung the barrel ahead of his beak — BLAM! Thud!

Man, I love that sound! Especially as he hit a little patch of mud. I sloshed over, and it was a gorgeous drake! Then more swooshes overhead. Then more shots from Pelayo, then more shots from other hunters in the area. Finally, more shots from me.

Our limits came in 20 minutes. We’d lost none.

Soon we started slogging out. We had an absolute blast — but, as usual for this game, a true quickie.

Three days later found Pelayo, Chris and me rounding some bends in a winding bayou between Lake Eugenie and Bobs Lakes in the Biloxi Marsh. This salt-to-brackish area has never held much of what we normally call duck food, as in milfoil or widgeon grass. So the hurricane surge hasn’t affected it one way or other.

But legendary duck-caller/guide Mike Smith, the man many consider the dean of Southeast Louisiana marsh hunting, turned me onto it years ago.

“No grass out there at all,” Smith laughed,”but on some occasions, especially late in the season, we’ve had some great hunts out there, for greys, widgeon and teal mainly.”

Indeed, the name of his service, “Louisiana Marsh Guide Service,” originated from the goose and duck hunts he’d guide in this area, known by some as the “Louisiana Marsh.”

Some of these deeper ponds and lagoons are resting sites. The ducks (mostly greys) drop in late in the morning, sometimes near noon — and again, especially in late season when the constant cold-fronts have turned much of the interior marsh to mud flats. We’ve seen this same pattern while winter fishing in the Lake Machias and even Lake Campo area out from Delacroix.

We came around a sharp one and a huge flock of ducks erupted from a lagoon on our left. It looked like everything from greys to teal to some late-rising (and running) dos gris and mergansers.

What a sight. We howled like lunatics, pointing, high-fiving and slapping each other on the back. Characteristically, the greys lifted straight up and started breaking up into ragged groups. A big flock of teal buzzed erratically over the water until the others were specks in the crimson sky. Then they blazed right over us. Little greenwings. Tiny packets of propulsion. And what a ball when a flock of 20 barrel into the decoys.

Yep, we’d found our spot for the hunt.

“Looks good enough for me!” Chris howled.

It was 8:15 by the time we’d set out all the decoys and obscured the ‘rogue with 10 Palmetto leaves and 10 fluffy bamboo stalks. This doesn’t take five minutes to set up, and this type of cover doesn’t take up nearly as much room or weigh nearly as much as the bundles of roseau it would require to provide the same cover.

The three of us then sat comfortably in the portable bench we bring along and set lengthwise in the ‘rogue. We huddled there as a stiff northwest breeze swished the bamboo around us. Here’s another advantage: This leafy stuff blows around, it looks natural — unlike that stiff, unnatural edifice that roseau creates.

Pelayo nudged me.

“Teal!” he hissed while pointing with his chin as a flock of about 15 ducks splashed into the spread not 15 yards in front of us.

We rose and shouldered the guns. They were actually greys, and they were flapping off in every direction. Yep, we’d set up were they wanted to land. A wild flurry of furiously flapping wings and startled quacks filled the sky.

BLAM!

A big-headed drake crumpled to Chris’ first shot.

BLAM!

Another on my left as Pelayo cut loose.

BLAM!

Another one staggered on the perimeter of the decoys while a few feathers flew from his tail.

BLAM, BLAM!

Both Chris and I zeroed in on it for the kill shot.

BLAM!

Still another folded at a 30-yard going-away shot. He landed with a mighty splash and a puff of feathers. Amazingly, a slow one still lingered overhead. He was flapping hard against the wind for some reason, and the angle of his flight put him right overhead. I swung and led him about a foot, hit the trigger — BLAM! — and kept swinging. He crumpled, missing us by 5 feet as he thumped on the cordgrass behind the ‘rogue.

We sat there wide-eyed, shaking with idiot grins. Then the whoops and high-fives started —until we spotted another flock low and banking in from the right. These were dos gris, a blast to shoot, the mainstay of our teen years of duck hunting.

As usual, they set their course for the dekes and didn’t waver.

Blam! Blam! Blam!

We cut down three. A glorious morning, which ended short of our limits by six ducks. Glorious nonetheless. We even got a nice drake pintail, unusual out here, but mainly a late-season occurrence, after many of them have migrated slightly north from the now-barren delta mudflats.

Along our coast, dos gris feed primarily on little clams and crustaceans. By the way, Jack Bohannan, manager of Delta NWR, informed me that the highly esteemed pintail’s top food source in late winter consists of snails (those little ones you see on the mud flats in the delta. And indeed I’ve often found them in pintails’ craw).

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