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Bayou, Times Two

Lessons from Louisiana

Note: During the winter of 1995, Michigan writer Tom Huggler visited Louisiana as part of the research for his book, A Fall of Woodcock. Several years later, fueled in large part by what he had read by Huggler, Upland Almanac Editor Tom Carney convinced contributor Bob DeMott that they, too needed to head to Cajun Country. They made their journey in January 2023. We thought you might like to read two different presentations of the experience nearly 30 years apart. Huggler was gracious enough to rework his Louisiana chapter for UA’s readers. We hope you enjoy this little treat. To read part two, click here.

Swirls of snow wander like campfire smoke across Interstate 69 at the Indiana border. I no longer feel like running away from my Michigan home because I am already gone;however, the tether is elastic — it will pull me back but not before it is done drawing me ahead. If you also travel to hunt birds, you understand.

My shorthair, riding in the passenger seat of the old motorhome, shivers from the cold. I should have started the heater earlier when the thermometer was stuck at 17 degrees, and four inches of new snow had snuffed out the driveway. Two hours later, the motorhome still feels like a refrigerated meat truck, and I half expect to turn around and see sides of beef swaying in time to the expressway’s expansion joints. I should have tucked the shorthair away with the two setters in the insulated trailer kennel.

Author Tom Huggler and his setter Sherlock traveled to Louisiana in 1995 to conduct research for the book A Fall of Woodcock.

The old rig purrs along, and gas stations in Louisville and Nashville slake its raging thirst. When I am halfway through Tennessee, darkness thickens on this January day, but like a newly sprung convict I press on. With the lights of Birmingham looming ahead, I am 740 miles gone, but where are the campgrounds? My credit card is still warm from the last swipe, so why not? I reward myself by checking into the Crown Sterling Suites Hotel, park the stegosaurus in an empty lot and feed the dogs. The rib steak dinner is a bowling ball, a minor stomach discomfort when one is exhausted. …

I am supposed to call Leroy Shanks of Ferriday, Louisiana, but arrive at my room too late, and Leroy is out hunting woodcock when I awake at 9:30 next morning. I can’t text a message because it is 1995, and neither of us owns a cell phone yet. I’ll call tonight to arrange for tomorrow’s hunt. Heading west, I avoid the interstate to get a feel for the country, my first road trip to the Deep South.

The amount of forest is surprising, the landscape much like New England and the Midwest with barren trees creating a hardwood haze of muted grays and browns to the horizon. I wonder if woodcock live here, too. From a Northerner’s perspective the South was, and is, a society of haves and have-nots. Ranch homes with two-car garages and satellite dishes in the yards dot the roadway. The houses are separated by clusters of tenant-farmer shacks where blue

During a winter of typical weather, 75% of migrating woodcock end up in Louisiana.

woodsmoke curls above shabby roofs even though the temperature is in the sixties. Outside Eutaw, Alabama, a forestry crew thins trees along the roadway median. The entire work crew of 20 men in yellow hardhats is Black; their supervisors are white. The Western Alabama Stockyard, where auctions were held every Wednesday, is boarded up with weeds poking inside the warped gray planks. A mile farther on, I notice circling turkey vultures and then spot a half-dozen more trooping around the dining table, a bloated cow.

In Boligbee, two dead turkey vultures lie along the red gravel of the road shoulder. The evidence is indisputable: The buzzards were eating a roadkill when they, in turn, became highway smears. Their black funereal robes wave as I blow by at 65 mph.

Entering Mississippi, I observe that drivers of oncoming vehicles half raise a single finger off the steering wheel as we pass. I have seen this subtle sign of the lonely farmer/rancher along other rural backroads, most notably in Kansas and the Dakotas, where a man may spend 16 hours driving a combine and not see another person. Here, in Faulkner country, the bib overalls and stained seed-company caps suggest the drivers are farmers.

Chicken farmers. I motor past dozens of Rogers Poultry Company chicken farms, their long buildings resembling military barracks. And cotton farmers. Picked fields are littered with tufts of raw cotton sticking above stalks like the exploded heads of milkweed back home. The houses are worn and unkempt, surrounded by assorted junk and at least one burned-out car with sprung doors and a busted windshield. The cars are icons for the miniature landfill in nearly every yard. Wear it out. Drop it. Step over or walk around it. Endemic to poverty, the condition is not peculiar to Mississippi. I have seen similar neglect in Fairbanks neighborhoods, in innercity Detroit where I was born and in the Low Country of South Carolina.

Near Jackson, I take the Natchez Trace Pathway, a slow, beautiful drive through hardwoods and pine, all the way to Natchez where I cross the Mississippi into Louisiana. Arriving in Ferriday about 6 p.m., I cruise the town of 2,000 people to get a fix on directions and spot the only motel before swinging into a service station for a taste of Exxon. The station is managed by a hefty woman with bad teeth. Yellow socks and no shoes match a lemon T-shirt. The ATM is slow.

“Cool socks,” I say by way of easing the wait.

Frown lines quickly reverse the sliver of smile.

“I cut my foot and can’t stand all day with shoes.”

She stares at me until heat flushes my face.

From the pay phone I call Leroy whose wife Corinne answers with, “Where have you been? We’ve been worried to death about you!”

I like Corinne already. When Leroy comes on the line, I tell him I’ll call from the motel after I check in and feed the dogs.

Retired Michigan DNR wildlife biologist Al Stewart continues to hunt woodcock and confirms that most migrants spend winters in Louisiana and sometimes other states of the Deep South.

Shortly there is a pounding on my door and the affable Southerner greets me in a loud voice that precedes the slight, stoop-shouldered man himself. Leroy speaks slowly in a drawl I have never heard. Most of us stammer a bit and say uh between words but Leroy punctuates sentences with owww.

A 28-gauge double gun is tailor-made for woodcock hunting, given the bird’s small size and the quick mount and follow-through the lightweight gun offers. On the left is a custom-built AyA No. 2 model

Example: “Corinne’s sister out of Baton, owww, Rouge, makes the best dadgum gumbo, owww, out of anything that walks, crawls or flies.”

Leroy takes me to a truck-stop diner where the food might be good but where the health department has not visited since the Carter administration. In the men’s room I decide my hands are cleaner than the washbasin and decide to clean up at the motel. We get acquainted over a dining booth, Leroy sipping black coffee while I devour two bowls of tasty gumbo, set afire with Tabasco.

At the Shanks’ home, I am greeted by Corinne, a strikingly lovely woman with a full head of wavy silver hair. She offers a robust hug, and I know I am home, at least for a while. The house is old and cluttered, the furnishings worn, but these are warm, cheerful people who know how to make a stranger feel welcome. An immediate concern is two yapping Pomeranians (are there any other kind?). Looking like furred mitts, they remind me that I didn’t clean the windshield at the gas station.

Son Bobby, age 39, and grandson Maxwell, a 12-year-old “gifted” twin according to Corinne, arrive after driving a half hour to meet me, The Celebrity. I’m uncomfortable, feeling that I must now measure up somehow. To Corinne, I am a scholar because I have written books. To Leroy and Bobby, I am a bird hunting expert. I have no idea what Maxwell thinksbecause he doesn’t say a word. No one suspects my ignorance about Louisiana woodcock. Already this hunting season, which began Nov. 27 and ends Jan. 30, the Shanks have pouched 135 woodcock for 459 flushes, an admirable 30% kill-to-flush ratio. Leroy’s best day was Dec.12 when his party shot 22 birds for 64 flushes. The worst was one for two on opening day, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

In most hunting families it is fathers who introduce sons or daughters to the sport, but the Shanks reversed this order. Bobby’s older brother, Sam, first went woodcock hunting with an uncle a decade earlier. The experience fascinated Sam, even though he killed only one bird for 52 shots.

“Dammit, Homer,” he told his uncle, “I don’t think I can afford to do this again!” Sam introduced Bobby, and eventually Leroy, who tagged along when he was 60 years old.

“I was dead with old age,” Leroy explains. “and wouldn’t sit in the same room when those boys talked about woodcock. Till I went and found out what I was missing, it was all deer and ’coon and rabbits and quail.”

Bobby and his father have buried years of bad blood between them — related mostly to Bobby’s “drugging” years when he smoked weed daily.

“If it wasn’t for woodcock,” Bobby insists, “me and Daddy still wouldn’t be speaking.”

“It was woodcock brought us together,” Leroy agrees.

“We had 30 years of catching up to do,” Bobby adds. “Ain’t never been a cross word between us since we started hunting woodcock.”

Maxwell, Bobby’s son, silently watches this verbal ping-pong with intense interest.

Back at the motel, my telephone rings. It’s the receptionist, a Hispanic woman with dark-eyed children, telling me to shut down my dogs, which I had the foresight to lock in their trailer.

“They bark for hours and do not stop!” she complains. “People are calling me, and you must make them be quiet.”

The shorthair Boudreaux (“Boo”) was right at home in Louisiana.

My mind flashes to the ubiquitous signs: “No dogs in the room.”… “Cash only!” … “Check-out is 10:00 a.m. sharp!” … “Absolutely no cooking!” — demands the owner of the town’s only motel can make. I also recall Leroy’s offer that I park in his driveway and sleep in the house.

“Fine,” I tell the woman. “I’ll be up to get my refund and leave.”

This startling bit of news brings sudden silence. “Oh, no. I cannot do that,” she finally says. “No refunds.”

“Then I can’t guarantee my dogs won’t bark.”

We leave it at that, but I sneak my veteran setter Fagin, who lives in an outdoor kennel at home, into the room, mostly because his barking will keep me awake. Next morning I wonder if he further soiled the dirty carpet in the twenty-nine-dollar room and conclude it possible. …

“Dammit, Corinne, Tom and I are trying to hunt woodcock in here,” Leroy humors his wife who urges us to clean up the heaping platter of side pork and pancakes the next morning.

Corinne’s rich black coffee, cut with chicory, is strong but not bitter because it is fresh, and she had double-filtered it. In two days, when I leave Ferriday, two bags of Community Roast coffee will accompany me, along with a huge sack of shucked pecans.

“From our tree right there in the front yard,” Leroy will beam with pride.

It always seems that the less some people have, the more they try to give away. What little Leroy owns has gone through the wringer. His hunting beater, a 1981 four-cylinder Datsun, set him back six-hundred dollars when he bought it used and now boasts 200,000 miles. The dashboard of cracked vinyl looks like the web of a drunken spider. Mounds of gear roost in the back seat and suffocate under dust. Leroy’s dogs are 50-dollar bargains — a Brittany/setter mix named Dot, another named Pete, a pair of year-old pointers, setters Betty and his favorite, BoJay’s Gal. Leroy picks three from the kennel and loads them to one side of his homemade trailer. My dogs unwillingly go in the other side. Immediately, Leroy falls in love with my shorthair.

“Her name’s Boo,” I offer, “short for Boudreaux.”

“That’s a coonass dog, Tom.” Leroy laughs and nuzzles the liver-colored shorthair. “Half the dogs in Loos-ee-anner are named Boudreaux” — he tacks an er to proper nouns ending in the letter a. Florida, for example, is Florider. “Give you 50 dollars for her.”

Flush rates, measured in birds moved per hour, are more important to woodcock devotees than number of kills. Some hunters even practice an ethic that says they won’t shoot birds that, like this one, they have initially spotted on the ground.

Two hours later, Leroy and I hunt the Central Brake, a seam of heavy woods and brush flanked by cotton and bean fields. BoJay’s Gal strikes a handsome point in a tangle of nearly impenetrable brush, and a woodcock batters out the other side. Leroy downs it with a single shot, but the cover is so thick I am unable to mark the fall. Leroy does and retrieves his kill, a fat hen.

Wherever I have found woodcock, three habitat conditions occur. One is heavy stem density from an overstory to 30 feet in height and whose crowns provide canopy protection. In Louisiana sweet gum, hackberry and locust are common overstories along with switch cane and an odd-looking weed called devil’s walking stick — picture giant ragweed with straight, paired thorns a half-inch long. The second feature is an understory of brush, forbs or other plants dead or alive. Examples are honeysuckle, blackberry, gnarly masses of low-growing buck vine and red haw or water privet, a plant that sports red berries and is remindful of Michigan holly. The third condition is ground open enough for woodcock to see and to run through. The best of these parklike openings is moist and rich with earthworms.

From the highway, these Southern woodcock haunts appear similar to those in Northern covers — a furze of hardwoods skirted by a brushy understory. The critical difference is that Southern habitats demand rubber footwear, chaps and gloves. At home I often look at the few scratches and cuts on legs and the backs of my hands as prideful stitch marks of experience. In Louisiana, the unprotected hunter will look at his lacerated and punctured body with remorse and feel pain.

Fagin pins a woodcock in a blowdown guarded by a wicked tangle of thorns. Just as I decide on an angle to penetrate, the bird catapults up and away, down a tunnel-like opening between trees. I shoot, he crumples, Fagin retrieves.

Leroy shouts, “Welcome to Lose-ee-anner!”

That morning, we flush six woodcock in all and shoot four. Later that afternoon, Leroy kills the only bird we flush.

“I thought if we threw a dog in there, we’d find lots of birds, but the weather’s too warm,” he apologizes. “I think most of them have moved out.”

During cold snaps it is not uncommon to find woodcock in the last fringes of upland habitat above the Gulf of Mexico because they have nowhere else to go. I have heard stories of woodcock starving to death during infrequent times when portions of the Deep South freeze over. But a woodcock is mobile, and his wings take him to where food is abundant. When winters are warm, many shortstop in Missourior Kentucky. A cold snap sends them to the next tier of states — Arkansas and Tennessee — and eventually Louisiana, where thousands spill into the Atchafalaya basin and other swamps. …

The next day, Bobby and a landowner named Francis join us on a hunt near Crowville. Over a leisurely stroll we flush seven woodcock and kill two.

“We leave it up to the dogs,” Leroy explains when I ask why the slow pace. “We don’t tell them where to go or how fast to get there. Down here in summer we do everything slower to survive the heat and humidity, and it naturally carries over into winter.”

During rest stops the subject is always woodcock. The Shanks constantly test their own theories and those about which they hear and read. For example, they rely on no. 6 shot in their 20-gauge Churchill double barrels, cut down to 23 inches and bored skeet and skeet. The reason, claims Bobby who reloads, is better knockdown power.

“We don’t strain our shot through leaves like y’all do. We shoot through brush and timber.” Switching from using no. 9 shot to no. 8, then 7 ½ and now 6 has resulted in fewer cripples.

Bobby recently investigated a local farmer’s report of woodcock flying up from a field of cotton he was cutting at night and hitting his tractor windshield. Powerful mag lights showed woodcock, their eyes glowing red, strutting down picked rows and hunting for worms.

“It’s something else to see,” the animated Bobby says, pausing to drop head to shoulder. “They stop, cock their heads and take a step, like a pitcher coming off the mound. Pow! They stab that worm so fast you can’t hardly see it, like a fastball going by in a blur.”

Some of Bobby’s stories raise eyebrows, such as the one about a game warden he knows who watched a woodcock circle a tree trunk while gripping the bark with its toes. Theory: When timber floods, worms climb trees to avoid drowning.

And one that readily retrieves, such as the author’s shorthair Boo, is always appreciated.

“Don’t that beat all?” Bobby insists. Another tale: “I believe a woodcock can crack ache-erns. I saw a bird fly off with one in his bill. I shot the bird, and it died with the nut in its mouth. See, there’s a tiny worm in them ache-erns.”

While hunting with his Uncle Homer one day, Bobby was berating Dot, the half-breed Brittany, for retrieving a box terrapin turtle.

“Don’t do that,” Homer warned. “The dog don’t know the difference. A box terrapin smells exactly like a woodcock.”

Bobby piles it on. “Ever wonder why dead birds are harder to find than live ones? “It’s because dead woodcock don’t breathe. A dog can smell a live bird’s breath.”

How does Bobby know?

“Because Uncle Homer says so.”

Woodcock, including those Northern birds I missed last fall, had brought me to Louisiana. Leroy tells the story of another Michigander who ventured here to hunt with him. One day Leroy came upon his guest, a Lupus sufferer, sitting down and staring at a 500-year-old cypress.

“What’s wrong?” a nervous Leroy wondered.

“Nothing. I was just thanking God for letting me live long enough to come down here and see this magnificent tree.”

I understand. Oh, I do.

Tom Huggler

About author
Tom Huggler is a freelance writer from Michigan whose books on hunting quail, grouse and woodcock remain popular and are still available.