by Matt Young
Waves pound against the bow of the 16-foot johnboat as we run the main channel of the Mississippi River before dawn. A towboat pushing a huge barge just roared past us in the darkness, plowing high waves that jostle our craft like a piece of driftwood. There are certain times, I muse, that you have to trust others with your personal safety. One such time is when you are a passenger on an airplane. Another is when you are taken in a small boat on North America's largest river in January.
Fortunately, in this instance, I'm in good hands. Manning the outboard is Tim Byrd, chief waterfowl guide for Tara Wildlife, Inc. In the bow, Sidney Montgomery, Tara's marketing director, is directing a spotlight, searching the roiling waters ahead of us for downed trees and other floating debris. For obvious reasons, we've all donned life preservers. Both of my companions have spent countless hours hunting, fishing, and touring the more than 20 miles of river bordering Tara's extensive landholdings.
Owned by Magalen O. (Maggie) Bryant and her son John C. O. Bryant, Tara encompasses more than 20,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest and swamp along the river north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Bryants have recently donated conservation easements to Ducks Unlimited that will permanently protect the ecological health of the land, which has been in their family since the early 1800s.
We launched the boat a few miles upstream on Chotard Lake, a tranquil, cypress-lined oxbow adjoining the river, where, the previous morning, Tim and I enjoyed a classic flooded timber duck hunt on Tara's Willow Point property. Our destination on this unseasonably warm morning is a small, unnamed island in a historically significant stretch of river known as Millikens Bend.
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.
The tearing sound of air rushing through pinions startles us as a formation of more than a dozen mallards sails overhead. They turn to our pleading calls and follow a flight path almost identical to the previous flock's. Beaten down by the wind, the birds make their final approach right against the shoreline. This time, all three of us come up shooting as they pitch into the rig. Sidney, who is a bit outgunned with his 20-gauge double, cleanly takes a drake mallard over the decoys, while Tim and I claim two more that are flaring upward against the sky.
The mallards keep coming, and it soon becomes apparent that we are in one of those perfect spots that duck hunters dream about. The side channel, surrounded on either side by tall timber, acts as a funnel for flocks working upstream against the wind. Any birds that turn to our calls and come up the channel are ours.
Throughout the morning, waves of giant Canada geese trade along the river, their melodic calls echoing off the surrounding timber. More than 50 years ago, thousands of migratory Canada geese wintered along the lower Mississippi River. Today, these birds rarely venture beyond southern Illinois, but growing flocks of resident Canadas are helping to revive the grand sandbar goose hunting that Nash Buckingham wrote about so many years ago.
A low, guttural honk betrays the approach of a pair of giant Canadas cruising down the channel with the wind at their tails. Tim hits them with a series of double clucks, and they make a wide, looping turn directly toward us. As they hover to land outside the decoys, we swat them down with a barrage of steel 2s. Belle gets a workout retrieving the big geese drifting in the middle of the channel. Weighing more than 12 pounds each, they make impressive additions to our large bag of mallards. We round out the day's shooting with an errant drake bluebill that bombs into the rig before we can shoulder our guns. When the diver flushes from the water, Sidney instinctively snap shoots the bird, displaying his quail hunting roots.
As I have the good fortune to see firsthand, Tara supports great numbers of wintering waterfowl and a rich diversity of other bird life. This past summer, participants in a birding tour hosted by Tara counted more than 115 species. The main attractions were a resident pair of nesting bald eagles, and several thousand wood storks, white ibis, and roseate spoonbills that migrate north from the tropics to spend the summer on the property.
Tara also is home to small but growing numbers of Louisiana black bears-a rare subspecies native to the lower Mississippi River Valley. Historically, the region boasted the highest population density of black bears in North America. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the region, where, along with local planters, he hunted bears in the river bottoms just north of Tara. After several days of fruitless hunting, the hounds finally treed a bear cub, which the guides captured and tied to a tree.
The President's hosts suggested that he shoot the young bear so he wouldn't have to return to Washington empty-handed. Roosevelt, being a true sportsman, angrily refused. The incident, which was immortalized in a famous Washington Post cartoon, gave rise to the ever popular children's toy, the Teddy Bear. In 2001, more than 40 bear sightings were recorded at Tara, and wildlife biologists are optimistic that a viable breeding population may soon become reestablished in the area.
After our hunt, I have the pleasure of speaking with Tara's founder, Maggie Bryant, in the lodge. A long-standing board member and former chairman of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, she is among the nation's most influential and committed conservationists. She also lends considerable support to many international conservation initiatives, including efforts to preserve South American rainforests and to restore elephants and other wildlife in tribal areas of Africa. In recognition of her immense contribution to wildlife and the environment, she has been awarded the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award and, from Mississippi, the Governor's Award for Conservation.
"My interest in conservation began here after my husband died," Bryant recalls. "We had this property that had been in the family for 200 years. We didn't want to sell it, but needed to find ways for the land to pay for itself. That's how we started Tara, and everything evolved from that point forward."
In keeping with Bryant's conservation philosophy, Tara is managed for the sustainable use of a broad spectrum of natural resources. Nearly all of the former croplands on the property have been taken out of production and restored to bottomland hardwood silviculture. Timber is selectively harvested on an 80-year rotation to replicate natural forest conditions and to maintain a diversity of habitats.
The rich alluvial soil and abundance of natural foods make the Mississippi River bottoms incredibly productive for white-tailed deer. Tara began managing its deer herd for hunting by a private club, and later began offering guided deer hunting for bowhunters. Today, Tara is legendary among archers, who come from throughout North America and beyond to hunt its trophy bucks. Since 1995, bowhunters at Tara have taken more than 200 Pope and Young whitetails.
For bird hunting enthusiasts, Tara offers guided turkey hunts in the spring and dove and quail hunting in the fall. During the summer, Tara sponsors youth camps designed to help educate young people about outdoor skills, wildlife management, and conservation. And, its spacious lodge and conference facilities are used for corporate retreats, conferences, family reunions, and weddings. Tara has generously hosted many important conservation conferences and symposia, including a conservation easement workshop for private landowners conducted by Ducks Unlimited.
Although her conservation interests now take her around the world, Bryant clearly feels a special connection to the land at Tara. "We come back here every three or four months for a long weekend," she says. "I enjoy riding along the levee at daybreak and watching the birds and other wildlife. This is a place with great energy."
Bryant firmly believes that wildlife conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive. In this regard, she hopes Tara will serve as an example that other landowners will follow. "Private lands conservation is critical because the government can't do the job alone. They can make the rules, but it is the private landowners who make the changes."
For more information about planning a trip to Tara, call 601-279-4261, or visit the website at www.tarawildlife.com.
Rebirth of the Bottomlands
The Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) once consisted of a vast, seasonally flooded bottomland forest spanning 24 million acres in seven states, from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. During the latter half of the last century, however, the construction of elaborate flood-control networks and the subsequent expansion of agriculture took a heavy toll on the MAV's environment. Of the region's original hardwood forest, only 4.5 million acres-or roughly 20 percent-remain today.
For more than a decade, Ducks Unlimited has been at the forefront of wetland conservation in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. The Restoring the Delta initiative, launched in 1999, is dedicated to creating healthier landscapes across this seven-state region for waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. DU is partnering with government agencies, corporations, organizations, foundations, and thousands of private landowners to flood harvested croplands during the winter months, enhance moist-soil and forested wetlands, and restore bottomland hardwood trees.
DU also is permanently protecting thousands of acres of existing habitat by accepting conservation easements donated by private landowners. These efforts not only provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, they also help reduce flooding and improve water quality throughout the Mississippi River watershed.