The Thrills of the Hunt
The joys of duck hunting extend beyond the blind to the conviviality of the camp, the addiction of gearing up and the paradoxical satisfaction of being a conservationist
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009
Duck hunting. Think of it as going on a blind date, for every hunt is full of uncertainty. And the greatest moment of anticipation is right before you are introduced, as on this mild December morning in the Louisiana marshes at 30 minutes before sunrise—legal shooting time.
We have slipped into our blind and loaded our shotguns, and are peering into darkness and listening for the whoosh of birds as they search out their first breakfast spot. Any number of factors can make a difference in our hunting: the direction of the wind relative to our blind (birds like to land into the wind); the weather (a bright sunny day can turn a camouflaged hunter into a blinking neon sign saying "stay away"); and the supply of ducks as well as their education levels. After being shot at as they wing their way from Canada, ducks acquire advanced degrees in hunter avoidance.
We are three hunters: my host, Chad Thielen; our trusty guide, Kirby Kingrey; and I. As we hunker down in the blind, wondering what this day will bring, three low-flying teal wheel in our direction, seemingly bent on lighting in the open water in front of us, although with bobbing and weaving teal, one never knows. I raise my gun quickly to my shoulder and sweep the barrel along the flight path I imagine one bird is taking. I use all three of my shots. Chad and Kirby blaze away as well. Three birds drop. One of them may be mine. If it is, it is a lucky shot in the near dark. But when the next group of teal comes in, I am on them and hit two.
Each day the rising sun paints a different picture against whatever clouds there are. This morning shades of lavender streak the horizon. As the sun moves higher still above the horizon, the marsh grass becomes bright gold. And with the light come bigger ducks, mallards, their iridescent green heads shining, as well as pintails and gray ducks, whose plumage is also colorful. Sometimes half an hour goes by without a bird in sight; we pass the time chatting, mostly about hunting. Then from out of nowhere a group appears and Kirby coaxes them in with his calling. By mid-morning, when ducks have settled in the marsh for the day, we have 17 down, one shy of the six-duck-per-hunter limit.
It is time to head for the camp and enjoy its own special allure.
In my decade of duck hunting, a midlife hobby to get me out of the halls of academe, where I am a journalism school dean, I have had a number of duck hunting experiences: sitting in snow-laden blinds on Wolfe Island, in the St. Lawrence Seaway, where the wind propels mallards along at breakneck speeds; lying in the freshly shorn, autumn-afternoon warm wheat fields of North Dakota; standing in long pit blinds, six hunters abreast, in Arkansas; and wasting my time in northern Mexico, where the accommodations were straight out of Night of the Living Dead and no one bothered to tell us ahead of time that flooding had driven all the ducks away.
One of the best hunts was the blindest date of all. On a summer vacation in Scandinavia, I wandered into a Helsinki sporting goods store. Before I had left, Kalle Hedberg, who managed the establishment, had invited me to return that fall to hunt with him on Åland, a Finnish island where, curiously, the locals speak Swedish. I hunted behind a low stone wall on the tip of a spit of land jutting into the Gulf of Bothnia. During lulls in the shooting, we drank schnapps.
All by itself, Louisiana offers plenty of variety. Down in Houma, you can wade into bayou timber and throw out a few decoys. Blinds along the shore of Lake Catahoula provide excellent opportunities for hunting relatively scarce canvasback ducks. Outside Krotz Springs, only an hour from my home in Baton Rouge, I regularly hunt from blinds built into levees at a rice farm, which is far more picturesque than it sounds. And thanks to a generous invitation, I am here at Lacassane, a camp with a colorful history.
The camp is located on 21,000 acres along the Mermentau River in southwest Louisiana. It belongs to the Lacassane Company, which is owned by a number of local families and has rice farming, timber and other agricultural interests. The company began early in the twentieth century with James W. Gardiner, an avid hunter. Gardiner had outfitted a mobile houseboat camp, whose guests included Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1920. One of Gardiner's guides was the fabled Florine "Pie" Champagne, sometimes called the greatest waterfowl hunter ever.
Pie was derived from a French Cajun endearment, petit piyace, or "little clown," a nickname derived from his chubby face, not his shooting. He began as a market hunter. In a day he might drop as many as 200 ducks, which were packed in barrels with ice and sent to the French Market in New Orleans. When the state began to curtail such hunting, Gardiner hired him as a full-time guide. It was said that Pie could shoot a duck with a rifle—and it may be true. Remington and Winchester hired him for exhibition shooting. In 1951, when Pie was in his mid-60s and crippled with arthritis, he won all three events in a Louisiana shooting contest while sitting on a stool. He also won the first international duck-calling championship in 1947.
You must be logged in to post a comment.