By Will Brantley
There are places in the southern Mississippi Flyway where ducks are thick, competition is intense, and hunters are hardened. Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake and Arkansas' Bayou Meto come to mind, as does central Louisiana's Catahoula Lake. It takes tough hunters to stick with these places season after season, but those who do usually enjoy top-notch waterfowling. Most would be hard pressed to hunt anywhere else.
My first taste of Catahoula Lake's famed duck hunting comes during a two-day hunt in mid-December. I meet my hosts, veteran waterfowl guide Greg Andrus and fellow DU staff members Jimmy Emfinger and Jerry Holden, before dawn at a public boat ramp on the lake. I couldn't have picked a better group to introduce me to Catahoula's unique brand of waterfowling. Emfinger is director of land protection at DU's Southern Regional Office, and Holden serves as director of conservation programs for DU in Louisiana. Andrus has guided duck hunters on the lake for 34 years and hunts almost every day of the duck season.
I'm pumped about the prospect of bagging my first canvasback. The lake's shallow, seasonally flooded flats are rich in chufa tubers, a favorite canvasback food that attracts thousands of the birds to this 25,000-acre wetland during the winter.
Reaching Andrus's open-water blind—located in a proven area for canvasbacks—requires a lengthy ride in a johnboat powered by a mud motor. As we traverse the shallow water and flooded willows en route to the blind, several thousand ducks of various species take flight against a graying sky, while flocks of poule d'eau (coots) scramble to get out of our way.
Like many others on the lake, Andrus's hide is a simple stake blind brushed with pine branches. It has no floor and is designed to conceal the boat; hunters remain in the boat once inside the blind.
"There are roughly 800 blinds on the lake, and most are covered with pine brush," Andrus says. "A blind will stick out if you use a different kind of brush, like palmetto fronds. There are so many blinds and so much pine brush out here, you've got to look like the other blinds to blend in."
With no wind and the temperature in the mid-50s, the morning starts slowly. We hear little shooting from other blinds and see few ducks in the air. But by midmorning, a brisk wind rises from the southwest. As Andrus's mixed spread of several hundred decoys and painted 2-liter soda bottles begins bouncing and bobbing in the breeze, ducks start flying, and shots begin popping around us.
The first birds to approach our decoys are pintails. The flock warily circles our spread but never commits. Shortly after the pintails depart, Andrus hisses for us to get down again. More ducks are approaching from behind us. Hunkering down in the boat, I can't see that a dozen canvasbacks are feet-down just above the water off the opposite end of the blind. I'm completely surprised when Andrus calls the shot.
After a quick volley of well-placed shots, three drakes hit the water. Emfinger has killed two—his limit on canvasbacks—with as many shells, while Holden has folded a third in front of the blind. The rest of the flock roars out of range before I have a chance to shoot.
Over the next few hours, more flocks of pintails try our patience with seemingly endless circling. Finally, one long-sprigged drake strays too close to the blind, and Holden and I double up on it. Moments later, three more canvasbacks come barreling past my end of the boat. The drake in front seems an easy target. I lead him with a fluid swing and pull the trigger once, twice—then the bird crumples before I have a chance to fire again. Holden has filled his canvasback limit by cleanly folding the same bird I was shooting at.
"You're not going to get too many chances to miss with this group," Emfinger laughs. "Holden is pretty quick on the draw."
The morning flight slows to a trickle, and long after all the coffee and blind snacks are gone, Andrus says, "Let's give it another 15 minutes before we head in for lunch. Maybe we'll get two bull canvasbacks to fly in here before then." Or in other words, "I don't think Brantley will be killing a canvasback today."
But a sudden whistling of wings overhead brings new hope. Three canvasback drakes circle behind the blind and turn back toward the decoys. They skirt the edge of the spread but start to drift away. Then almost miraculously, a lone drake breaks from the others and turns back toward the blind. I rise to my feet, shoulder my autoloader, and miss in dramatic fashion. The big drake escapes unscathed, put off by all the shooting, harmless as it may be.
The chuckles from my hunting partners are poorly concealed as I case my empty shotgun, resigned to defeat. Andrus laughs and suggests that I leave the black shooting gloves at home the next time I hunt with him. I'm not quite sure if he is joking or not.
Catahoula Lake not only provides ideal habitat for canvasbacks and other divers but also has a wealth of good dabbling duck habitat. I get a good look at this aspect of the lake the next morning. A long, predawn boat ride with Andrus's guiding partner, Jason DeWitt, takes us to a pit blind nestled among flooded willows. Another impressive decoy spread surrounds the pit, but unlike the heavily hunted area surrounding Andrus's open-water blind, we have this pool to ourselves.
DeWitt advises us to get ready as teal have a tendency to appear out of nowhere at daylight. True to his word, swarms of the little ducks begin strafing the decoys just as legal shooting time arrives. My shooting percentage improves a little, and over the next few hours, we collect nice straps of green- and blue-winged teal, as well as a pintail, gadwall, and shoveler. With a good dabbling duck shoot under our belts, we decide to return to open water and try to round out our limits with a few more canvasbacks. Unfortunately, the big divers choose not to fly in the balmy, windless conditions. My first canvasback will have to wait.
For Andrus, DeWitt, and many other Louisiana waterfowlers, duck hunting on Catahoula Lake is a labor of love. And as long as the autumn flights return to this vast expanse of prime wetland habitat, these hunters will be there to greet them. I also plan to join them again soon and settle my personal score with those canvasbacks.
For more information about guided duck hunts with Greg Andrus or Jason DeWitt, visit duckhuntlouisiana.com.