The Big Lake

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           The big lake had never been something we hunted much. Since being cut off from the river, long before my time, it had come to be mostly a fishing spot. You would see the occasional raft of divers out in the open water and of course coots. But by and large we ignored it as a duck hole. Although in his day my father and his family had killed good numbers of mallards and other puddle ducks along with plenty of divers on its waters.

            The lake is an old oxbow of the Mississippi River, nearly twelve miles from end to end and two miles wide. It forms a near perfect horseshoe. Our old camp sat at the apex of the bend facing the widest point of the lake on the far bank were the shallow, cypress studded flats of the old float road, a man made cut used in the age of steam powered river boats to move log rafts and lay aside barges.

            I had started hunting it when I was in my early teens. But even then it was just a place I could hunt ducks a few weeks earlier than usual.

            Our bank of the river was Mississippi, the far bank Louisiana although it had long since been cut off from the river, pinned in by levees and seen the last of its great paddle wheelers. And though it technically sat within the border of Mississippi the inside of the lake’s bend was still the property of the state of Louisiana, and they opened their duck season a few weeks ahead of my home state in those days.

            The camp on the lake served mostly as our fishing camp for most of my life. Our duck hunting took place farther inland in the delta and a bit farther north. But we also went there for holidays and the traditional opening of deer season.

            Though my father had long since given up his passion for antlers for the pursuit of waterfowl he still kept a membership in an old deer camp he had had a hand in forming many decades before. The deer camp was just a few miles down the road from the lake house and so when thanksgiving rolled around we usually spent the holiday at the lake house with the whole family, and then some. We would deer hunt once or twice and always had a few good meals and poker games at the deer camp but none of the hunters in my family really cared much about anything but ducks.

            My first trip hunting ducks on the lake was little more than a whim. I was at the lakehouse with my family and a large group of friends for the Thanksgiving Holiday. While deer season was open, I had sat on a stand twice already and didn’t much care to do it again. It hadn’t helped that while waiting for deer that never showed up I had heard and seen a few ducks cruising the old bayou near my stand.

            When I had told my father about the ducks he mentioned that the season was open in Louisiana but that the chute at the deer camp was too low to get to across the state line. But he said I could go try across the lake if I wanted.

            He helped me clean out the small john boat and scrounge up a handful of decoys and a tattered, mildewed piece of burlap camouflage netting and sent me on my way.

            I had NO idea where to hunt. All I know was I had to be on the other side of the lake and that there was pretty good cover along the island on the outer side of the float road. Cypress trees and button willow ran along the island and made great cover for fishing spawning crappie in the spring so I knew the general area and habitat.

            The small six horse motor eased me across the smooth midafternoon waters of the lake. It was warmer than I would have wanted but at least without a chill the boat ride was not unpleasant.

            Once across the main channel I lifted the outboard to shallow water run and eased my way west toward the island. As usual a fair number of divers and plenty of coots loafed and rafted in the shallows of the flats. The ducks stirred and rose into the air as I motored, the coots just swam a safe distance from the boat and kept on doing their thing.

            As I neared the island I turned parallel to the shore and searched for a good spot to blind up. There was no shortage of cover but the first few places I tried proved to be too shallow even for my small boat. I finally settled on a spot between two giant cypress trees with low hanging braches I could use to hang the heavy, stinking netting, tied off the bow and stern, pitched out the raggedy half dozen or so decoys, hung my camouflage net and settled in for the hunt.

            I can’t say as I recall the whole hunt but certain specifics stand out to me as clearly today as they must have then. I remember wishing I had brought a fishing rod with me as I scanned ducksless skies. I remember the sounds the coots made as they puttered around in the shallows diving for food and creating the only ripples in the still, shallow waters near me. I remember the sound the diving ducks made when they would, for reasons I still do not know, all together decide that they needed to be a short distance away and en mass take to running across the surface of the water, only briefly catching flight before settling back to their bobbing raft. I remember the red orange color of cypress needles as they drifted on the black water in which my decoys sat nearly motionless. And I remember the bold, stark contrast of color and motion over them as a mallard greenhead out of nowhere banked once, set his wings and tried to land among the poor plastic imitations of his beautiful species.

            With one quick motion I raised my gun, fired and folded the drake. He fell within a few feet of my boat and without thinking about the fact that the water might be over my knee high rubber boots I swung my legs over the gunwale and sloshed out to retrieve him.

            Save for the ride back, the setting sun turning the lake red orange like the cypress needles and the mallards legs, I don’t recall the rest of the hunt. Records my father kept tell me I killed two more greenheads that day.

            What stands out to me most in my memory is the pride in my father’s face when I slogged up the hill from the boat ramp, wet to my knees carrying three fat greenheads. The pride on his face that day show just as strong now as I look back through the yellowing pages of his field notes. “Brad hunted the Float Road today and killed 3 Greenheads BY HIMSELF!!!”

            Until now I had not remembered, somehow in the thirty five years I have been chasing ducks and geese that aspect of that day had faded. I had truly come into my own as a waterfowler. Leave it to my father, dead now these many years, to reach back through time and remind me of a near sacred moment for myself and the man who taught me.

Thanks Papa. Had you lived to this day and beyond there could never be enough words of gratitude for teaching me the ways of a waterfowler. Until we all meet again, keep your gloves dry and give Yella a pet on the head for me. I miss you both more than my heart can stand.

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