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Tara's Treasures

Sound management and a commitment to conservation have turned a Mississippi River Estate into a world-class wildlife area
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In 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant landed his army in this area before marching on Vicksburg. Many years later, during the Great Flood of 1927, water crested the mainline levee on the western side of Millikens Bend, forming a gaping crevasse more than 1,000 feet wide. The river poured through the breach and effectively changed its course as a massive tidal wave of floodwater swept south and west down the Atchafalaya Basin. The event saved New Orleans, but inundated much of central and southern Louisiana, claiming dozens of lives and leaving thousands homeless.

Tim cuts the throttle as we leave the swift current and pull into a side channel-roughly as wide as a football field-that separates the island from the steep riverbank. We beach the boat on the island and quickly go to work placing mallard decoys in the shallow water along the shoreline. Shining a flashlight on the damp sand, I can see the webbed footprints left by large numbers of ducks and geese. "When the river is falling, waterfowl like to loaf on the edges of sandbars and islands along the main channel," Byrd says, unwrapping a decoy weight. "The ducks typically feed in flooded oak flats or grainfields, then fly back to the river to rest where they won't be disturbed."

The decoys in place, Tim departs to hide the boat on the other end of the island, leaving Sidney and me to savor the last few minutes before dawn. As the sound of the outboard fades, the gabble of thousands of Canada and snow geese rises from their roosts on surrounding sandbars. Several hen mallards chime in somewhere in the watery darkness, and the howls of a rowdy band of barred owls erupt from the adjacent forest. Across the backwater, the pale light of dawn filters through the heavy timber while dark, ragged clouds roll overhead, pushed by the strong south wind.

Tim returns with his yellow Lab, Belle, at heel just as shooting time arrives. We hurriedly take up positions in the tangled cottonwoods near the water's edge and prepare for the morning flight. Almost immediately, flocks of mallards begin to arrive. Tim and I wail on our duck calls as a trio of mallards flash past the island. Turning at the sound of our greeting, they cut back over the timber and disappear behind us. "Get ready," Tim warns, "They're coming back around."

Sure enough, the mallards swing around the end of the island, fighting the wind up the shoreline toward our decoys. At 30 yards, they cup their wings and make a long, slow glide into our spread. I swing on the nearest mallard fluttering over the decoys and pull the trigger. Centered, the bird folds in a puff of feathers and hits the water with a heavy splash. Tim also has a greenhead down, while Sidney held his fire. Belle makes short work of the retrieves, and we admire the gorgeous drakes for a moment before taking cover. Already, more birds are in the air.

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