Looking to have success on marsh ducks in the mid-day hours? Then head to the salt marsh, where ducks go to spend some time on the roost.
The call of the wild. To Jack London, it meant wolf howls echoing through snowy valleys of the Alaska wilderness. To me, it sounds like geese — that distant honking that always jerks your gaze skyward and sets your neck craning around, searching for the source. To some this sounds crazy. In the Beltway, goose-honks are more characteristic of golf courses and office parks than any wilderness. In western Louisiana, from November through February, you hear them overhead while coming out of any Wag-A-Sac with your morning coffee and honey bun. In suburban Houston, you hear it when coming out of the Barnes & Noble, with a copy of The Hellpig Hunt. Out there, it’s more a suburban sound, a farmland sound.
But not in Southeast Louisiana. Down here, the sight and sound of geese still means wilderness. You won’t hear it anyplace you go to in a Lexus or SUV — or a Go-Devil or mudboat, either, much less a 4-wheeler.
The sound means you’re in roadless expanse of what passes for wilderness nowadays. It means you did some serious hauling, perhaps to the miserable mudflats and roseau islands at the Mississippi’s mouth, perhaps to the remote eastern edge of the Louisiana Marsh, out near Mud Grass, Bay Boudreau, Bay Eloi.
Outside of some strays on Lake Pontchartrain’s northshore, you won’t find many geese elsewhere in Southeast Louisiana.
Hence their appeal. Hence the haunting nature of those unmistakable honks high overhead.
Darkness fell two hours ago. We’re immobilized in portable chairs, dog-tired with muscles aching after struggling with push poles and waders against the Delta’s incomparable mud-flats.
We stare zombie-like into the flickering flames of a willow-driftwood fire. We sip feebly on brewskies that require what seems like an enormous effort to simply lift to our mud-smeared faces. We’re camped on a brushy spoilbank at Pass a Loutre when the soul-stirring notes descend from high overhead.
Instinctively, our heads jerk up. Our eyes widen. But all we see is the black void and the outline of some low scudding clouds.
Then came that night with the full moon.
“Forget the deer tomorrow,” Pelayo had just croaked as he popped open his Bud and reached for the sardines. “Let’s stick with the ducks.”
We looked up….. and — just this time — there they were! Gorgeously silhouetted against that huge luminous moon. It looked like a postcard, like something on a DU calendar. You don’t forget a sight like that — not if you’re a diehard waterfowler. These were blues and snows, breeding in the tundra, wintering on the mud flats. No farm fields or golf courses for these. No domestication. They demand wilderness. You gotta like that in a bird, as in a human. Call these geese the Jeremiah Johnsons of the avian clan. These are the ones I like to hunt — and HUNT it is, in the most genuine sense of the word.
But today the sounds descended on us as we huddled in a little clump of marsh alders near Bayou Marron in the eastern Biloxi Marsh.
The term “wild-goose chase” fit the trip to a tee. The boat trip took an hour from Breton Sound Marina, in the dark, in 36 degrees and buffeted by gale-force winds. Fortunately we’d been going with it most of the trip. Then we hit Lake Eugenie and turned north. A wave crashed over the bow, and the icy water smashed me square in the face. My hat flew off, and I motioned Pelayo to turn around.
“NO WAY!” Pelayo leaned forward and screamed at me. “We’ll turn OVER!”
The sun was coming up, and I could see his mouth contorted in a fierce grimace. His eyes were wide and wild.
“We’ll have to hug the shore!” And he angled back northwest and out of the whitecaps. I turned my back to the wind, took off my glasses and wiped them. But my watery eyes quickly drenched them again.
The sudden chill spooked me, and I started wimpin’ out.
“Forget it!” I screamed into Pelayo’s face. “Ain’t worth it! Turn around! We’ll go try to kick up some rabbits!”
In my mind I even started cursing the oyster fisherman who’d given us this “tip.”
We’d run into him at the Junction Food Store in St. Bernard (where things ain’t hard) the week before and bought a sack off his truck. And you talk about SALTY! Naturally, he let us taste one first.
He was a local, a full-blooded Isleno, and we got to talking Spanish with him. He got a kick out of that.
“Don’t get to practice my Spanish much anymore,” he grinned. “When I was a kid, I spoke it with my grandpaw … not much anymore.”
Well one thing led to another, and soon he’d divulged a few fishing and hunting hot-spots. He mentioned he’d seen tons of grey ducks and a few geese in the Bayou Domingo-Marron area, and that’s all it took.
“Sure they weren’t dos gris?” I snorted.
“Amigo,” he nodded at me. “I grew up out here. I know my ducks. Dey was greys, a few weee-jon too and big flocks of teal.”
Now here we were, risking a slow and hideous death in a god-forsaken watery wasteland for the chance at a few shots at the geese. Duck season had closed the week before, but our lust for hunting the marsh had not closed.
“Hunting perverts the soul,” wrote Robert Ruark. “No waterfowler is sane. He smokes an opium all his own.”
Here was perfect proof. And the opium that motivates us is nothing but a mental picture: a three-pound bird turning to our beckon from a little plastic whistle, slowing his wingbeat, cupping his wings and slowly cascading toward some molded plastic shapes bobbing in the water before us. Perverse, indeed. Crazy, indeed. But for the afflicted, there is no cure.
“We’re almost there!” Pelayo’s scream jolted me from my reverie. His face was red from the biting wind. “Fifteen more minutes!”
He leaned forward, and pointed ahead. Just then we entered the (relatively) sheltered waters of Redfish Bayou, and I released the death grip I had on the bow rope.
Another 15 minutes, and we beached the boat. The oyster fisherman had been right. A big section of burned marsh loomed ahead of us. But he sure BS’d us on the ducks, I was thinking. We didn’t see a one. Hadn’t jumped a one. The skies were barren. So maybe, he BS’ d us on the geese too. A wild goose chase INDEED!
Well, we’re already out here, I thought. Might as well go through the motions. The wind carried the smell of burnt marsh grass as we trudged out setting up a dozen shell decoys. For some reason, the marsh is firm out here. Setting them out was a breeze, especially compared to setting them out off South or Main Pass! Let me tell ya!
An hour later, and the skies were still barren. No geese whatsoever. No BIG surprise, since you don’t get HUGE flocks out here anyway. Small, scattered bands is about all. But this makes them decoy all the better, in our experience anyway.
You don’t have 10,000 real geese in an adjoining field to compete with, as in normal “goose country.” You don’t see many out here, but you tend to blast a much higher percentage of the few you do see.
And now, finally, that “call of the wild,” very faint but unmistakable. My pulse rate kicked up. Pelayo started looking around, finally he pointed. Yep, there they were. My pulse rate REALLY kicked up now, when I saw how low they were flying. Must be this wind, I thought. It was a small band, seven geese in a small V, a white one riding point. They passed on the left, and we let fly with the calls. With all the wind, it didn’t seem possible they’d hear … but damned if they didn’t start banking!
Probably, they were headed here anyway. We’d noticed rootings and what looked like goose tracks while setting out the dekes. I was no longer cursing the oyster fisherman.
Their wingbeat was slowing now … my heart was in my throat as I ducked and dug myself deeper into the brush. Pelayo looked over wide-eyed, and we had to stifle a guffaw. Too much excitement here. We stopped calling when they made the first pass.
That’s the thing about geese — even worse than with ducks. The crucial question: “Will they make another circle?” You ask yourself this as they drift over. Now they’re circling again, and this pass j-u-s-t m-i-g-h-t put them in range.
But maybe not? Maybe we’ll get up, sky bust and blow the chance? And here they came again b-a-r-e-l-y in range on this second go-round. Will they consummate and actually decoy? Or should we take overhead shots on this next pass? It’s a nerve-wracking decision — nerve wracking enough when it’s a flock of greys on a duck hunt. Imagine with geese, where it might be the only flock the whole day!
I couldn’t even breathe. As I turned my face ever so s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y skyward to get a glimpse … and THERE THY WERE! RIGHT OVERHEAD!
Pelayo was up and shooting first — BLAM! A blue spun backwards in mid-air. His wingbeat halted in mid-flap. I swung in front of the white one … BLAM! He tumbled forward then backward, then started regaining his balance … BLAM!” Now his neck sags.
BLAM! Pelayo somehow gets a second blue with a going-away shot. My hands were shaking. We looked at each other like idiots — beaming. Then started howling like lunatics while running out to retrieve the three kills.
Two hours later, we’d only seen a few distant bands, no more shots. But what the hell. We were ecstatic as we started picking up the decoys.
“Check ’em out.”
Suddenly Pelayo pointed up.
“Looks like … greys?”
He cocked his head. My duck call was attached to my goose call, and I let fly.
The ducks wing-wagged as if startled, then started circling. Then I noticed another flock above them, and following suit, descending rapidly. Off to the left, Pelayo was pointing at some more. Hmmm, I thought. The oyster fisherman was right again!
“You in a hurry?” Pelayo looked over and asked.
“Not me,” I nodded back.
Almost on cue we walked back to our little clump of marsh alders and hunkered down. The greys were aiming for a lagoon behind us, which we now noticed was peppered with little dots? None had been there when we’d set up? Hummm? It was now 10:20 … and here came another flock!
We sat there, and for an hour watched flock after flock, band after band, of gadwall light in that lagoon and in another pond about a quarter mile to our east.
We were mesmerized and a little dumfounded. What on earth were all these puddle ducks doing in this outlying area of brackish to salt marsh? No milfoil or widgeon grass out here; that’s all in the western edge and interior of the Biloxi Marsh. Were these ducks eating clams and oysters?
Not gadwall. They’re as devout a vegetarian as any creature I sat across from on Politically Incorrect. Unlike mallards, mottled ducks and teal, greys won’t even SNACK on minnows or shellfish.
By noon, we’d had our share of duck-watching and set off for a day of scouting. Hey, the duck season was only 10 months away! We took Bayou LaLoutre all the way to its mouth at Bay Eloi, lifting flock after flock of greys almost the entire way. Every time we went off into an adjoining pond or lagoon, they lifted in glorious multitudes. On one we spotted a flock of birds perched atop an exposed oyster reef.
Shorebirds, I reckoned. Then we got closer they lifted and careened over us — GREENWING TEAL! Dozens of them!
On the ride home, I started pondering the situation, and remembered a story by legendary outdoor author Robert Ruark. He hunted lions, tigers and bears — and kudu and elephant and eland. Yet he always had a special place in his heart for ducks. And these he hunted in South Louisiana.
I remembered in one story he mentioned eating oysters from his duck-blind in lower Terrebonne Parish.
“Oysters,” I thought? And this was in 1951. Plenty fresh marsh back then. Why would he be hunting salt marsh?
Ruark went on to mention how by late in the morning, huge flocks of puddle ducks would wing south into the brackish-salt marsh to rest, after feeding in the fresh marshes to the north.
Well, the same thing applies all along our coast. We were witnessing the St. Bernard version at Biloxi. And for whatever reason (probably because of low tides from fronts), we notice MORE ducks in the outlying marsh LATE season.
Much like deer — indeed, like all birds — ducks have their feeding and their resting (roosting areas). Think about it. Rice field hunting is typically early morning stuff, crack of dawn stuff, the ducks buzzing all around even before legal shooting hours. Ditto for the hunting in fresh marshes like Lake Salvador, La Branche, upper Lafitte, Reggio, Spanish Lake. These are all freshwater feeding areas.
Up in the Midwest, duck hunters know that ducks feed in the crop fields early morning then fly into the reservoirs, lakes and flooded timber later on to rest. Here’s where they ambush them.
On late-winter fishing trips down Oak River to Bay Gardene or down Red and Tante Phine passes to the Sandy Point rigs, we used to wonder: “Hey? What happened to all the ducks that were here last time?”
Then on the way back in we’ll lift them by the hundreds. Then we remember: It was on the way BACK that we lifted them the last time. Again, these were resting ducks, dropping in late.
The year after the goose hunt/duck-scout trip, we motored down Crooked Bayou toward the very edge of Lake Eugenie, putting up a grand total of 10 mergansers and half a dozen dos gris.
“Don’t look good,” Pelayo snorted as we set out the decoys in a barren pond.
You could see the shells on the bottom through the clear weedless water. Sure, we remembered that the ducks were supposed to appear late — but still, 30 years of duck-hunting tradition dies hard. You want to SEE ducks around you as you’re setting up, which we were doing at 7:30.
By 9:45 we had one teal and one spoonie in the ’rogue. I was contemplating blasting a clapper rail prancing on the mud on the edge of the pond when a roar of wings jerked my head forward. Six greys were almost on us.
Two crumpled and splashed near our CLOSEST dekes.
BLAM! Another folded as he flapped desperately overhead. By 10:30, we had our limits. And no grass stuck on our decoy weights as we picked up.
Legendary waterfowl caller and guide Mike Smith tells me some of his most memorable duck hunts came in the eastern Biloxi Marsh too. He’d get most of his shooting late in the morning too.
“Those ducks were coming to rest,” he confirmed.
Humberto Fontova’s new book, The Hellpig Hunt, is now available at a discounted price on louisianasportsman.com or by calling (800) 538-4355.
Publisher’s Weekly calls it “forceful and compelling, fascinating and fun.” Ted Nugent calls it “a worthy adventure for body and spirit.” Todd Masson says: “If Helldiver’s was a hit, Hellpig is a towering moon shot.”
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