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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
By John Hamilton | From 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.

Most duck hunters claim that half the fun of the sport is what happens back at the camps, each of which has its own personality. That certainly seems to be the case in Louisiana. At the Bayou Club, I am told, they sing "God Bless America" each morning, down a shot of whiskey and eat a hearty breakfast. At Oak Grove liveried waiters bring orange juice and shotgun shells to hunters' rooms in the morning. At the Section 14 Hunting Club, where I have spent enjoyable times, the big eating starts after the hunt and is followed by a big nap. In the 1920s and 1930s, according to lore, the Four-Square Club stood next to a brothel. Now, like many clubs, it is family oriented.

The lifestyle at the Lacassane Lodge is utterly informal. The white, wooden building, constructed during the Second World War, has grown willy-nilly with wings on either side of the original kitchen and living areas, the latter replete with mounted birds and a 12-foot alligator hide. Local women cook hearty food that hunters eat at a long table, whose bright green paint is chipped here and there. Some concessions have been made to modernity. Hunters no longer have to shoot from Cajun boats called pirogues that they must pole into the marshes. Indoor toilets appeared in the 1950s. But, says Chad Thielen, executive vice president of the Lacassane Company, "We don't want it any fancier than it is. Otherwise it isn't the old club anymore."

Our fellow hunters on the first evening include Billy Blake, president of the Lacassane Company and full of stories about the place; a cardiologist nicknamed Caveman, who announces that anyone who gets sick is in big trouble; and my friend Oliver "Rick" Richard, a former energy company CEO whose conservation activities have allied him with the Lacassane Company's environmental restoration efforts.

The evening ends, as so many do at camps across the state, with a last drink, a last cigar and a last story in front of the fire.

The acquisition of hunting equipment can be addictive. The range of hats, coats, boots, belts, socks, duck calls and shotgun shells is endlessly interesting. Every hunter casts a covetous eye on fellow hunters' kits. And there is much philosophizing on the virtues of this shotgun over that one, which may be lighter, have less of a kick or just shoot straighter.

But once in the blind, what counts most is the software of skill and experience. One of the very best shots I know, John Noland, hunts with an old pump shotgun his father gave him when he was a boy. One day, shortly after injuring himself in a fall, he shot better one-handed that I did with both.

The basic rules of shooting go something like this: remain very still in the blind—ducks, especially those wary ones with PhDs, are alert to the slightest movement. When it is time to shoot, the three-part mantra is aim, lead the duck and follow through after pulling the trigger. As obvious and simple as this sounds, in the heat of the moment, the mantra is easier to forget than to say. The most undemanding shot is when a duck "decoys in," which is to say, lowers itself into decoys in front of the blind. With its wings spread wide, the bird forms a big, slow-moving target. Passing shots are more difficult. It takes practice to judge how far to lead a fly-by duck. Calculations of speed and distance have to be made almost instinctively. Although a hunter knows it is important to follow through after shooting, the temptation to look up to see if a duck has dropped is at times irresistible, and eager hunters often start looking at the same time they start shooting. This also makes it less likely they will drop a second duck.

One of the most difficult shots appears on the surface to be the easiest. It begins with a wad of 75 to 100 teal appearing in the distance and, in a body, careening toward your blind. The spectacular sight is so overwhelming and exciting—the opportunities for shooting so great—that it is difficult to decide which duck to aim at. Although one would think that a blindfolded shooter could bring down a duck or two from this flying cornucopia, it often happens that a hunter ends up with none at all.

Similarly duck calling is a matter of timing and experience. A duck call can fetch ducks or scare them away. An important duck calling talent is to know when to do nothing. One of the veteran guides at Lacassane, Paul Johnson, is a pied piper on his duck and goose calls. For pintails he doesn't use anything other than his lips, which he flutters, something I have never seen anyone else do. His fellow guides call him Golden Throat without quite meaning it. "We all think we are the best callers," Chad notes.

Guides spend considerable time keeping up blinds, which have their own distinct identities. On our first morning we were in Lloyd's Blind, named after Lloyd Broussard. Broussard, who built the blind in the 1950s, retired from the company last year at age 83, after nearly half a century building levies and canals on the property. He is still considered "the greatest levy builder in southwest Louisiana," Chad says admiringly. Although Lloyd's Blind sits on a nondescript small grassy island, it is legendary as a "mallard pothole." By duck hunting standards, the accommodations deserve four stars. Our boat fit snuggly in a small grass-covered slip. Hunters stepped onto a wooden walkway along which lay dry fiberglass cubicles, one to a hunter. "Everybody," says Chad, "wants to go to Lloyd's."

The marsh is one of the prettiest settings for hunting because of the fauna as well as the flora. Pink-tinted roseate spoonbills, egrets, red-tailed hawks and white ibis are plentiful. On the predawn boat ride to our blind, the beady red eyes of alligators gleamed along the narrow waterway hacked out of the marsh. It is not unusual to scare up deer, bobcats, otters and muskrats.

On the second day my son, Maxwell, and I hunt with Paul Johnson in Lee's Box, a blind named after head guide Lee Suire. It looks across a broad expanse of water toward the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge. (This spelling of Lacassine is correct; the slightly different one for the Lacassane Company derives from a mistake on its decades-old incorporation papers.) While hoping for a few ducks, our main quarry is geese, which from time to time fly in waves out of the refuge and fan out across the water. The geese are heading for the muddy rice fields behind us. The objective is to call some in our direction and, when they seem close enough, open fire. This is tricky. Because of their big size, geese seem closer than they are. It also takes more than a BB or two from a shell to bring them down. At the end of the day, we have three, plus a pintail. Not much of a hunt and a reminder how waterfowl hunting cannot be taken for granted.

In the days of Jim Gardiner and Pie Champagne, hunters thought nothing of shooting a case or two of shells. In after-hunt photographs, they stood with strings of ducks festooned behind them. Even without limits on the number of ducks one could shoot, hunts this size are no longer possible.

The Louisiana coastal prairie is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States and one of the most endangered. Its 1,000 or so native plants have evocative names like compass plants, whose leaves point east and west, and button snakeroot, which supply nectar to insects. Because of natural erosion and rising sea levels, the state is losing about 50 acres a day of this richness—or "about an acre in the time it takes to enjoy a good cigar"—estimates Charles Wilson, a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University and a frequent duck hunting companion. "It is still a catastrophic loss of biologically productive wetland and critical hurricane protection for coastal communities."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 washed away many duck camps. Lacassane Lodge, which is 51 miles inland, sits on foot-and-a-half concrete piers. The water rose to within four inches of the floor. It took 45 days to pump the water from that part of the property.

Henry Hardtner, the grandfather of Lacassane Company president Billy Blake, is considered the father of reforestation in the South. Before him, timber companies gave no thought to replanting. The Lacassane Company has carried on Hardtner's tradition. Through a "credit" program, it restores and preserves coastal wetlands and longleaf pine savannas to compensate for environmental destruction elsewhere. Its Louisiana Native Seed Company reintroduces indigenous grasses and others plants lost when coastal land was put into rice production. The company also is restoring the "Green House," built on the property in the 1830s. The home, whose bousillage walls are made out of mud, Spanish moss and lime, is one of the oldest known Acadian structures in the Vermillion region, where Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia settled in the mid-1700s.

At the end of our goose hunt, we trudge to Paul's truck and throw our game and guns into the back. His Labrador retriever, Alley, which barked nonstop on the drive to our hunt, dutifully climbs into its wire kennel and is silent as we start the drive to the lodge. As we talk to Paul about the hunting and what may happen in the future, we see out of the window a marshy area so loaded with ducks they can scarcely move without bumping into each other. When we drive by, they don't even get up to fly off.

The sight bucks me up. I plan to ask Chad if we can have a date near this paradise next time.

John Maxwell Hamilton is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.