By Wade Bourne
Guide Zeke Wainwright is piloting his mud boat down a narrow canal in a marsh in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. It's an hour before dawn on a very black, steamy night. Zeke's boat sounds and moves like a souped-up '57 Chevy—loud and fast. As we rocket through the thin channel, roseau cane and sawgrass slap across our backs and caps.
"You might want to ride backwards so you don't get mosquitoes in your eyes!" yells "Mr. Ted" Beaullieu (pronounced Bowl-ya). "Or a pouldeau (coot) might fly up and smack you in the face."
That is not a pleasant thought. Following his example, I swivel my body so that I'm also facing backward. From this vantage, I study Zeke's dark form silhouetted against the lighter sky. He is unflinching, focused on what lies ahead in the bright beams of the mud boat's headlights.
"How fast will this boat run?" I shout toward Zeke.
"Forty-eight," he answers. It feels like we're pushing that envelope.
We're in a marsh leased by Big Pecan Lodge, heading toward a pond and a duck blind in the epicenter of this state's coastal marsh country. It's the third day of the September teal season, and Ted is my gunning partner. An early cool spell has pushed an abundance of bluewings down the flyway. This morning we expect a rousing shoot.
A resident of nearby Lafayette, Ted is 84 years young—perhaps the fittest, sharpest, most enthusiastic octogenarian I've ever met. He lives to spend time with his family, to hunt and fish, and to celebrate the joie de vivre—joy of living—that epitomizes this region's Cajun residents. Good fellowship, good sport, and good food are highly valued in these parts, and Ted is a connoisseur of them all.
This hunt has been some time in the making. Two years ago I penned an article for this magazine titled "Waterfowling in Retirement," which described how Ted and three others continued their sporting adventures in their senior years. When the story appeared, Ted, ever the gentleman, called to invite me to join him at Big Pecan Lodge the following September for a teal hunt. A schedule conflict prevented me from accepting his invitation.
The next year I received another call, this time from Ted's son Pat. "This September I'm hosting a teal hunt at the Grosse Savanne lodge near Lake Charles," he said. "Could you join us for the first two days of the season? Then we'll rendezvous with Dad for a hunt at Big Pecan on the third day."
This time I couldn't say yes fast enough.
Louisiana certainly lives up to its billing as a sportsman's paradise. Its marshes, bayous, and backwoods teem with wildlife and fish. And no place in North America holds more wintering waterfowl. In the fall, millions of ducks and geese funnel into this state, where they are pursued by some 90,000 license-buying hunters celebrating generations-old waterfowling traditions.
The blue-winged teal are the first to show up here. These early migrants leave their northern nesting grounds at the first hint of cold weather, usually in late August or early September, and hustle down the flyways toward wintering grounds that range from the Gulf Coast into South America. Because most of these small ducks are long gone by the time general waterfowl seasons open later in the fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers a special early teal season in many mid- and southern-latitude states, Louisiana included.
Teal hunting in September is a big deal in these parts, perhaps second only to LSU football in popularity. The 16-day special season provides bonus time afield and a chance to tune up the shooting eye and the barbeque grill before the regular season comes in. The opening of teal season typically draws a large, enthusiastic crowd, and Pat Beaullieu is usually among them.
Pat travels a good distance to get here. Though he now lives in Colorado, he returns frequently to Acadiana—the region of the Cajuns—to hunt and fish and maintain ties with family and friends, which shortens the miles between these two states. "Being in the outdoors is in my blood," he says. "And coming back here keeps me close to so many people . . . and the traditions that I treasure."
This weekend Pat has reserved the Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge (grossesavanne.com), and he's invited 17 family members and friends to join him. The two days will be jam-packed with teal and dove hunting, redfish and flounder fishing, Cajun cooking, sports talking, beer drinking, and the joy and laughter that emanate from such a fertile combination of fun.
Cajun Blast and Cast
Wayne "Mac" McElveen has guided at Grosse Savanne lodge for 15 years. He and Pat have hunted teal together on opening day for several seasons. Mac has been trapping alligators over the past three days, but this morning his focus is on getting Pat and me into the ducks.
"I'm a little worried," Mac confides as we drive toward our hunting spot in the predawn dark. "We had a bunch of teal last week, but a tropical depression blew through with a lot of rain, and now the birds are scattered. Still, there should be enough around for a pretty good shoot."
Expectations are relative to what you're used to. I've hunted teal in Louisiana before, and I know that a slow shoot in the locals' eyes can be a barnburner to hunters from other parts of the country. For that reason, I'm not discouraged by Mac's assessment of our possibilities.
After a 15-minute trip, Mac stops at a remote crossroads and unloads his four-wheeler. Then he ferries Pat and me into a nearby flooded rice field. Our blind—a two-by-four framework covered in wax myrtle—is situated on a levee, facing west. Pat and I uncase our shotguns while Mac tosses out two dozen decoys, sets up a wing-spinner, and drives the ATV out of the field. Pat and I swat bugs and watch for the first flight of "rocket ducks." It's now five minutes before shooting time.
As Mac rejoins us in the blind, a volley of shotgun fire erupts in the distance. Another volley quickly rumbles, and another. The flat landscape reverberates with gunfire all around us. Pat and I scan the skies with our shotguns at the ready. Suddenly Mac raises a call to his lips. Caaack-caack-cack. The notes are raspy and high-pitched. "Get ready," he warns. "Coming from the right."
I hear a wind-rushing sound, and I look just in time to see 20 or more small ducks barreling toward our spread. "Shoot 'em!" Mac commands, and Pat and I come up firing. He knocks down two . . . and I scratch.
"I do my own reloading," I say. "Must have forgotten to put shot in my shells." It's the only excuse I can muster.
Soon another flight comes, and Pat and I each fold a bluewing. In a few more minutes a single buzzes by, and Pat nimbly downs this bird to complete his limit. He unloads his over/under and becomes a spectator. It takes me a little longer (and a classified number of misses) but I finally catch up, and we strap our birds and head back to Grosse Savanne.
A quick check at the lodge reveals that all the hunters have filled their bag limits, and then there's a call to the dining room. We gather to attack heaping platters of eggs, bacon, and biscuits, and bowls of grits and fruit. Soon the platters and bowls are empty.
Pat clinks on his water glass to gain our attention. "We need to know who's going dove hunting this afternoon and who's going fishing," he announces.
Tough decision. But I finally opt for fishing in the marsh just west of the lodge, toward Calcasieu Lake. By early afternoon I'm motoring out with guide Thomas Alleman for the "cast" portion of the famed coastal Louisiana blast and cast. This too lives up to its billing, as we boat limits of redfish and flounder.
While fishing, I study a system of manmade terraces that zigzag through the marsh. When I ask Thomas about them, he says that these structures are meant to reduce wave-caused erosion and to foster the growth of submersed aquatic plants in what were formerly barren expanses of open water.
I get the full skinny later, back at Grosse Savanne, where land manager Doug Miller explains that these terraces were built by Ducks Unlimited as part of its coastal marsh restoration program in southwest Louisiana. The terraces are improving habitat and water quality for wildlife and fish. "Without these terraces, these ponds would be big aquatic deserts," Doug says. "But with them, the ponds are reverting back to the rich habitat they once were, and they're providing the food and sheltered sanctuaries that the ducks need to make it through the winter in good shape."
A Double Play on Teal
On the second morning, I'm gunning with Pat's brother, Ted Beaullieu Jr. Guided by Thomas, my previous day's fishing guide, we head to another rice field and enjoy a replay of the first morning's action. Bluewings are plentiful, though they're still flying faster than I can swing my shotgun barrel. Ted Jr. deftly downs his four birds while I dine on a combination of honey bun and humble pie.
Between flights, Ted Jr. talks about his father. "You're going to enjoy hunting with Dad tomorrow," he says. "He's quite a guy. He played football at Notre Dame.
He was in the Merchant Marine in World War II. He's hunted and fished in south Louisiana all his life, and he's got an endless supply of stories to tell."
Ted Jr. grows animated as he recalls his father introducing him to duck hunting long ago. "He started taking me hunting when I was nine years old. Back then the marsh around Pecan Island had clouds of ducks. One morning they all got up together and literally darkened the sky. My dad said, ‘Remember this, son. You might not ever see it again.' I still have that picture imprinted on my mind."
Ted Jr. chuckles at the memory of his dad's boat, named "Mud Hog," throwing a huge rooster tail. "I enjoyed the boat ride as much as the hunting," he says. "Dad was a good caller. Pat, Paul [their other brother], and I watched and learned from him. He'd let us paddle a pirogue out to retrieve our ducks. Those were good days, and I'm so thankful we're still enjoying them with him."
After another unforgettable breakfast at Grosse Savanne, we pack up and drive south and east—through Creole, over the Intracoastal Waterway, and through Grand Chenier and the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge. Soon we arrive in the community of Pecan Island, home to the Big Pecan Lodge, one of the storied sportsmen's clubs in south Louisiana. The lodge is built on tall steel pilings designed to withstand storm tides and destructive hurricane-force winds.
As we ascend the steps to the front deck, we are met by a tall, silver-haired man with an erect posture and a warm smile. "You must be Wade," he says, extending his hand. "Welcome. I'm Ted Beaullieu."
Grand Days in the Marsh
We rise too early after a night that was all too short. But it was a night I would wish for anyone who loves the lore and history of duck hunting. The festivities began with a gourmet meal of teal, oyster gumbo, and blackened redfish. Next came a storytelling session with Ted; Big Pecan Lodge owner Gary Salmon; Beaullieu brothers Pat, Ted Jr., and Paul; renowned chef Ken Veron; and others.
Ted reminisced about his father's first hunting camp, established in 1935, on Vermilion Bay. "We had to row across the Intracoastal canal and then follow cow trails through the woods to get there," he said. "We made decoys from newspapers, twisting the necks up. The hunting back then was fabulous—beyond imagination!"
The men shared tales of grand days in the marsh, other hunting clubs, legendary guides and retrievers, wingshots good and bad, and storms with ladies' names and mean dispositions. The stories—some evoking raucous laughter and others quiet reflection—rolled on for a couple of hours. It was just what a night in a duck camp should be, a band of brothers in the true sense sharing all the things that make their time together extraordinary.
Finally, Ted rose from his chair and announced, "You all can stay up all night if you want to. I'm going to bed."
Now we're all wide awake as Zeke throttles his mud boat back and steers it into a narrow ditch off the main channel. We idle several more yards through a tunnel of vegetation, and then break into an open pond some five acres in size. A pink glimmer is spreading across the eastern sky. A sultry breeze is stirring the air. Zeke points his boat toward a line of sawgrass where the blind is hidden.
"Y'all be careful when you get out," he warns us. "There's a big bull gator hanging around here. Yesterday he started coming for Oscar [Zeke's yellow Lab] when he was retrieving a teal. We had to shoot near him to scare him off."
Ted springs to the front of the boat with a younger man's agility. "Let me check the blind for snakes and alligators," he says to me. "Then I'll help you in."
In the next two hours we shoot teal and swap more yarns and revel in our new friendship. The athleticism of Ted's youth is still evident in his keen shooting ability. And the years have done little to dampen his enthusiasm for being in the blind. "I'm still mad at the ducks," he laughs, and I understand what he means—not really mad but passionate about hunting them. Their call to him is as strong today as it was years ago. "When one season ends, I start looking forward to the next one," he explains. "That helps me keep going. That and being able to hunt with my boys and my grandchildren. I'm fortunate to be able to do that at my age."
Ted has one more real longing in life—to share a hunt with his great-grandson, Hayes, who is four years old. "Maybe we can do that next year," he says. "We might let him take a BB gun. I'd like to make that memory for him and for me."
I look out across our decoys and make a silent plea to the Creator of this marsh and all things in it. "Please," I ask, "please grant this good man's wish."