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Bayou, Times Two

Stuck in 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 one, click here.

Late January, winter in Louisiana. Most of the landscape and foliage wore a coat of muted, brownish gray. Unattractive and unappealing at this time of the year, the rivers, streams and bayous sat there, cold and dark, deep, uninviting. The morning sun whispered, “spring,” but by noon, in the bright, cloudless sky it sizzled, “summer!” Those seasons didn’t matter, though: We were there to chase autumn. More precisely, autumn on the wing — the American woodcock. Its feathers’ colors and patterns provide camouflage on the forest floors in fall, yet his tail sports daubs of white, lest he be overlooked completely.

Ever since I had first learned about it, most likely from Tom Huggler’s book, A Fall of Woodcock, I had carried the intent to pursue woodcock in the Bayou State in my hip pocket along with my other outdoor “wanna’ do’s.”

UA contributing writer Bob DeMott would be a likely partner in crime, given that he has hunted woodcock in his southeast Ohio area for decades and travels to Wisconsin and Michigan each fall for them. Moreover, he is currently at work creating a bibliography of all printed materials about woodcock: books, articles, essays, poems, portions of books that mention the bird. Suffice it to say, he’s got the fever. Heck, in October 2022, my mere, “Wanna’ go?” ignited his passion, and with that we were migrating to Massachusetts for a hunt.

We had, in fact, prepared for the Louisiana trip in 2021, but the uncertainty and risk injected into travel during an upsurge of COVID-19 dashed that notion.

(Photos, Bob DeMott)

Further inflaming our passions, a Facebook page dedicated to Louisiana woodcock hunting kept offering tempting photos of groups of three or four hunters who had limited out in an hour; or guys who had flushed a dozen birds, three rabbits and a feral pig in two hours’ time.

“Easy pickin’s” we led ourselves to believe. On top of that, the habitat in the background looked fairly wide open with, at most, a few thin branches to brush aside as we’d ease through the cover to get to Bob’s setter Katie on point. Ohhhh, yeah! Good stuff!

No … Great stuff!

The drive went exactly as planned. I headed south, and Bob, west, the meetup being the crossroads of two interstates in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. After a night’s rest and transferring my gear to his Toyota 4Runner, we were off. Our drive down I-57 then I-55 took us across the Mississippi River three times. In Louisiana, we made the hundred-mile drive from Monroe to Alexandria on a federal highway in complete darkness.

While the woods look fairly open from the road (left), a step or two into the palmettos will tell you otherwise. In the second photo, the hunter in orange is less than 20 yards into the woods. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

The one thing we did not plan on was the deluge during those hundred miles that, we later found out, had dumped three inches of rain on Alexandria. The rain pounded, dense and steady; the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. A few times, our tired, aged eyes convinced us that shadow-beasts had leaped across the road ahead of us.

Oh, I forgot. There were a couple other things we hadn’t anticipated.

At six different spots along the route, which basically paralleled the Mississippi, we counted huge, white crosses, standing sentinel, each like a solitary and motionless wind turbine on a calm, quiet Sunday afternoon. Salvation’s Cross, along I-20 near Rayville, Louisiana, made the most spectacular entrance,

In several spots along the Mississippi River, giant crosses, like this dramatically illuminated example in Rayville, Louisiana, act as reminders that you have now entered America’s Bible Belt. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

illuminated from below by a half dozen floodlights and contrasted from behind by deep, bluish-gray storm clouds lurking in the ever-darkening night sky.

The colossal cross in Batesville, Mississippi, is unique, for at the intersection of the crosspiece and the upright hangs a massive, stainless steel crown of thorns.

Thorns!

All was not, however, fire and brimstone along the road. In Benton, Illinois, there’s the “George Harrison Commemorative Mural,” basically a grouping of several, huge wooden cutouts of a 16-foot-tall Harrison and some fans. The mural honors the first visit to America of a Beatle, Harrison in 1963, as he and his brother popped in to see their sister and her family. Despite the fact that by then the Beatles were huge in England, they were still unknown in the States, and Harrison was able to walk around town like any other tourist with no one bothering him.

Other than those images on the landscapes, everything went as planned — except for the rest of the trip. Our first morning in Alexandria, Bob and I took our time, lounged around for a while, partook of some offerings from the motel’s complimentary breakfast buffet and then moseyed on over to the Dewey W. Wills Wildlife Management area, about 30 miles to the east. Why hurry? We knew where we were headed. A Louisiana wildlife biologist had recommended some woodcock spots for us to check out. Heck, once the biologist learned he was corresponding with a big-time outdoor writer, he even highlighted a specific spot on the map, literally. A big, yellow-highlighted parcel right along Hunt Road. A customized woodcock locator map, just for Bob and me.

To find “the best woodcock hunting” in Louisiana’s Dewey W. Wills WMA, just head to the secret spot a biologist has identified on the maps he gives out to inquiring hunters. It’s the place highlighted in yellow that lies within the blue circle near the center of the map.
A welcome sign greets visitors to the Dewey W. Wills WMA along Louisiana Highway 28. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

The drive from our motel to the Wills WMA along Louisiana Highway 28 took us past Dailey’s habitual stopping spot just east of Pineville, Guillory’s Specialty Meats. While I was trying to figure out the significance of the King cakes on display there, he picked up a bag of tasty cracklins. Back in the truck, first he gave me a quick lesson on the King cake. Then, he returned to the matter at hand.

Does that sound like destiny or what? We brimmed with such confidence and drove with such certainty that we just ignored the three other vehicles parked along the road not far from the highlighted area: We were going to the exact spot to find birds because the biologist had given us some secret intel.

We ended up driving to the parking area on the east side of the road at the self-clearing permit station, one of several scattered throughout Dewey Wills.

Louisiana maintains over 1.6 million acres of land and waterways as wildlife management areas, refuges and conservation areas. The state manages these areas not only to conserve the resources but also to offer to the public recreational opportunities from hunting and fishing to canoeing, hiking, ATV riding and birding. Anyone who enters one of these areas needs to check both in and out through the use of a free, “Self-Clearing Permit.” That’s just to have access to the property, although people just passing through don’t need to fill out a permit as long as they take the most direct route possible without stopping or participating in any activities. Hunters also need to purchase their hunting licenses and a WMA access permit, either for five days or the entire season.

We filled out our vehicle permit, and as we were switching into our knee-high rubber boots — you know, just in case we stumbled upon some of that bayou action Credence Clearwater Revival sang about when we were all young — one of the vehicles we had seen up the road approached, and a younger man stopped to chat us up.

“You do any good here?”

We allowed that we hadn’t yet been in the woods to which he replied, “This is my first time here. I wanted to try this spot. I heard it’s really good. I was hoping no one else had gotten here.”

Our inner smugness glowed as we congratulated ourselves on being first to the perfect spot.

The young man spoke again.

“Yeah, I checked with (the aforementioned wildlife biologist) and he recommended this spot.”

We said nothing, only gave each other a side glance. We bid him farewell and took our first steps in the woods.

Then came the vines and thorns.

Thorns!

What had looked like thin, innocent, little pushawayable clutter in the Facebook photos were the pants-snagging, forearm-shredding, clingy, insistent, miserable tendrils and thorns of greenbrier. I had first encountered such flora on a woodcock trip to Bob’s Ohio haunts in the foothills of the Appalachians. At the time, he loaned me a pair of pruning shears in case I needed help clearing a pathway.

“Ha ha, right!” I scoffed but immediately needed to put them to good and proper use. Upon returning home, I ordered my own. And they came along to Louisiana, just in case.

Well, “just in case” occurred with the gashing I took on my second step into the woods and the slicing and stabbing that came with the third, fourth and beyond. Bob never voiced a complaint.

Louisiana requires people who wish to use wildlife management areas, like Dewey W. Wills, to fill out these free permits both upon arriving at and departing the areas. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

When I wasn’t preoccupied with trying to plot a pruner-assisted course for slogging through that cover or with the ever-increasing heat that was about to blow my gasket, my mind fogged over from thoughts of the recent deaths of both of my bird dogs and with concern over our beloved high school football coach who had been placed in hospice back home the night before. So, you will understand when I tell you that by the time I realized that it had, indeed, been a woodcock whose flush had startled me into the now, a second one had also flushed and quickly reached “out-of-range-bythe- time-you-mount-your-gun” speed.

After about 45 minutes, Bob and I left the woods, birdless, and were soon greeted by the passengers in the other two parked vehicles we had seen. Turns out this was also their first time at Dewey Wills. Each of the three hunters had reached his three-woodcock limit in little more than an hour, just up the road where we had seen them parked.

“Yeah, that was a great hunt,” the most experienced bird hunter in the group gushed. And then, of course he just had to add, “Sure glad we checked with (that biologist) about where to hunt. This is the best area in the WMA to hunt woodcock.”

Katie the English setter relaxes after a day spent grinding through the thick stuff in search of woodcock. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

At this point, something other than my punctured arms, pricked thighs, overheated internal radiator and sorrow grabbed my attention: despair. Why had that biologist played us so false, I wondered. Giving us the same spots he gives to all the commoners when he knew we were going to write about our grand adventure in Louisiana and make the Dewey W. Wills WMA famous.

“He tells everybody to go to the same places,” laughed Cliff Dailey the next day. A 14-year veteran of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF), Daily is also a WMA biologist. He had previously agreed to show us some hunting spots at Dewey Wills.

A fairly recent convert to the pursuit of this game bird, for so many years Dailey had focused on waterfowl. But one year, once the duck season wound down, he and his father found themselves looking for something else to do to keep them occupied during midwinter. They started researching woodcock and one day, across from Dailey’s in-laws’ place and hunting with a Labrador retriever, they flushed six and shot two. That sealed the deal.

“Dad and I decided to get a pointer.”

Dailey enjoys three special qualities of woodcock hunting in Louisiana.

“You don’t have to wake up early. It’s a social hunt; you can talk and carry on. And at the time we started, no one else here was doing it. There was no need to alter my plan: I never encountered another truck where I wanted to go.”

Yeah, well, we did.

No surprise there, he said.

“There’s definitely been an uptick in local interest in woodcock hunting, for sure. It’s not booming, but there’s been an increase. Out-of-state hunter numbers have stayed about the same.”

The drive from our motel to the Wills WMA along Louisiana Highway 28 took us past Dailey’s habitual stopping spot just east of Pineville, Guillory’s Specialty Meats. While I was trying to figure out the significance of the King cakes on display there, he picked up a bag of tasty cracklins. Back in the truck, first he gave me a quick lesson on the King cake. Then, he returned to the matter at hand.

Hunters Bob DeMott (left) and Cliff Dailey examine the primary feathers of one of the woodcock they shot at the Dewey W. Wills Wildlife Management Area. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

Turns out Dailey and the “other” biologist are the only DWF guys in the area who hunt woodcock. The “other” was just protecting his favorite hunting coverts when he gave us that map. Fair enough. Except I had traveled over a thousand miles and had lost probably a gallon of blood to the briars in order to hunt a highlighted cover that for over a year I had thought was our little secret hotspot, wink, wink.

Dailey didn’t share such a concern about protecting his areas. He took us to a 10-year-old clearcut accessible only after a quarter-mile hike down a designated ATV trail.

Unlike what hunters are used to in the northern Great Lakes states where clear-cuts produce stands of new growth aspen, at Dewey Wills the growth is mostly “stump growth” and “regenerative sprouting” from the leftovers after a cut.

And those cuts come few and far between.

“It’s rare that we get a good timber harvest,” Dailey said. “Either it’s a low market or wet conditions. That’s not a good recipe for creating a lot of habitat.”

The place we hiked to contained mostly oak, sweetgum, hawthorn and greenbrier.

Dailey also mentioned “Chinese privet hedge,” which the Ag Center at Louisiana State University says was introduced as an ornamental shrub but has become “a biological invader.”

Well, I don’t know about all those fancy plants, but once again the greenbrier and hawthorn welcomed me with open and clinging arms. Imagine the stem density of an aspen stand about four years old, where you have to adjust your course with almost every step in order to maintain a path between the staggered saplings. Now imagine that instead of aspens you face young hawthorns, which present themselves as hawTHORNS.

Imagine the branches of those hawthorns beginning to spread out about at waist level instead of higher. The thorns are at a perfect height to prick and slash your arms and upper body. Now, imagine those closely growing trees connected by a network of merciless greenbrier vines that just won’t let go while their own thorns get to work. This is what met us in Louisiana with every single step. At one point, the handy pruning shears had to make seven snips in order to free my legs to move a single step forward. And whereas the vines swarmed over me like zombies in a feeding frenzy, Bob and Dailey strolled through the woods unmolested, as if coated in Teflon.

“How come you guys get to move through so easily, but I get jabbed and tangled all the time?”

Any serious woodcock hunter, like wildlife biologist Cliff Dailey here, will tell you the same thing: Woodcock feathers wind up in places you’d never expect them to be. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

Dailey offered a simple, logical, unimpeachable explanation: “Because you are a head taller and three times wider than we are.” Ouch! Did I just get body-shamed?

During the two-hour hunt, we flushed six woodcock, five of which Katie pointed. Bob and Dailey each shot one. On each point, I struggled to get close to Katie, first by corkscrewing through the vines and then by corkscrewing through the vines while laid low by the intensifying, oppressive heat. Dailey’s woodcock, while I was otherwise engaged in a fruitless pas de deux with some greenbrier, flew straight at me, veering only when it was about a foot away from the pruner I brandished in self-defense.

Back at the vehicles, Dailey pointed out a few more places on the Dewey Wills map that we might want to try the next, our final hunting day in Louisiana. We thanked him, said our goodbyes and discussed the next day’s plan as we drove back past Guillory’s, through Pineville and to our motel.

Mother Nature, however, had a plan of her own.

The next day, torrential downpours streamed across the lower part of the U.S. Rains harder and heavier than what we had driven through on Saturday. Not long into the morning, we rooster tailed out of town before we would need to paddle. Rain. Rain. Rain. Sheets of rain. Pallets of rain. Boxcars of rain. All along our route. And thunder.

In Mississippi, just as were approaching Batesville, a thunderclap shook the 4Runner. To the right, lightning flashed quite near the giant cross and illuminated the crown of thorns.

Thorns!

My shredded forearms shuddered.

The snatching and snagging barbs of greenbrier and hawthorn can leave a lasting reminder of one’s visit to the woodcock woods of Louisiana. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

Tom Carney

Editor
About author
UA Editor Tom Carney has won over 100 awards for his journalism, books and photography in a career that has spanned more than 40 years. He lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife Maureen and their English setter Jack.