Canvasbacks of Lake Catahoula

April 2, 2009 by  

By PJ Maguire

Theres more than canvasback hunting on Lake Catahoula

There's more than canvasback hunting on Lake Catahoula

The Internet is a beautiful thing. It has given me hunting opportunities I only dreamed of as a young boy paging through outdoor magazines wishing to hunt ducks in the exotic places featured in the stories. So… when I got the chance to hunt waterfowl on Louisiana’s Lake Catahoula how could I say no?

My good friend Matt Jones has been in contact with a great man, a true waterfowl hunter known only in this article as “Duckster”, for many years on various hunting websites. Duckster and his hunting buddies have a comfortable duck camp on Lake Catahoula with a beautiful view of the lake. Matt is a taxidermist at the Sportsman’s Taxidermy Studio in East Grand Forks, MN and wished to travel to Louisiana to hunt full-plumage ducks. Joining him would be the owner and operator of Sportsman’s Taxidermy Studio Jim Benson, Matt Vanderpan of Grand Forks and myself.

In North Dakota, hunters have been blessed with an abundance of waterfowl. I like shooting mallards in fields as much as the next guy, but every once and awhile I like a change of scenery. One thing I believe North Dakota hunters need to do more often is visit other states to pursue waterfowl and see how truly blessed they are.

When the four of us arrived at Duckster’s hunting camp on Thursday afternoon it was dark. Waves from Lake Catahoula quietly swept up against the shore and the stars shone extra bright against the Southern sky. It was the last weekend in January and the last weekend for waterfowl hunting in Louisiana. Pork chops, sausage, white beans, rice and fresh brownies awaited us. By the time I would return to the North, I would understand the true meaning of “Southern hospitality”.

The duck camp was a haven where people could relax and enjoy themselves. Duckster only had one rule for us Northerners, “Do not wash the caste iron pans with dish soap.” Other than that, anything went. It was my kind of place.

On the wall of the duck shack there is an article about the 1985 duck season forecast. “Duck Shortage Means Shorter Season” is the title of it. The paper has turned yellow but the message is clear. Droughts across the prairie and changes in farm practices had resulted in less than ideal breeding conditions. Fortunately today the duck populations indicate “liberal” hunting seasons. As waterfowl hunters we must still keep one eye on conservation to keep the topic from the 1985 article from repeating.

Duckster had informed us that the water levels on Lake Catahoula were about twelve feet higher than normal. The abundance of water had spread a lot of the ducks out into the rice fields. Hunting had been slow the last couple days, especially for puddle ducks.

Friday morning we awoke to fresh biscuits and a plate full of sausage and bacon. Duckster was kind enough not to wake us weary travelers until coffee was brewed and breakfast was ready. Outside it was calm with the familiar summer sound of crickets chirping. I was glad to be in a more comfortable weather.

After gear was loaded into a duck boat that rested upon a trailer we headed to the lake to launch. The four of us Northern boys rode in the boat while Duckster drove his tractor that pulled the boat. It reminded me of going on hayrides as a kid to pick out perfect pumpkin for carving.

Hunting canvasbacks in style

Hunting canvasbacks in style

After an easy ride across the calm water to a hole surrounded by flooded treetops we slipped into a floating blind. I was highly impressed by these floating blinds; they are probably the slickest structures I have ever hunted ducks from. Already set in front of us was a mix of mallard and pintail decoys. In the mix there was also several dozen bleach jugs with the ends painted black to mimic resting Canvasbacks. The five of us quietly awaited the morning flight.

The ducks that flew Friday morning did their best to stay clear of our decoys. The lack of wind did not help our cause either. Most of the ducks did not fly, and rested instead on large rafts in open water bays. That is hunting.

We did manage to take a single canvasback before we broke for lunch back at the camp. The wind was going to pick up towards evening and we would surely hunt again. On the way back Duckster checked one of his “trot lines” that was set the previous day. It was a twenty five-hook set but there was only one catfish on the line. It was my first experience checking a trotline.

As we drove across the lake we could see the sun reflecting white off of thousands of rafting canvasbacks. There were so many birds that they almost appeared to be snow geese. Wide eyed, Matt Jones leaned over and whispered to me, “This must be what Lake Christina and Heron looked like years ago in Minnesota.” Today Lake Catahoula in central Louisiana winters between 150,000 and 200,000 canvasbacks.

By the time the sunset across Lake Catahoula, signaling the end of the first day of hunting, several firsts had occurred in my life. It was the first time I had been to Louisiana, the first time my hunting party has taken a limit of Canvasbacks, and the first time I had shot a duck in January.

I awoke on Saturday morning to the smell of fresh biscuits, sausage and bacon. Even after feasting on boiled crawfish, corn, and potatoes the night before I managed to scarf two biscuits and multiple pieces of bacon. Staying at Duckster’s duck camp on Lake Catahoula in Central Louisiana was like being royalty.

On this particular morning, the second of our three-day trip, we would be hunting in a Cyprus swamp named William’s Lake. Duckster, our friend from the South, has a permanent blind and another duck shack there. The sky was spitting light rain and the temps were in the mid-20s. We let the two Ford pick-ups warm up for awhile before heading out with a single boat in tow.

A quick, twenty-mile drive brought us to a locked gate, which was the only access I know of to the private Cyprus swamp. It was still dark, but I could make out ghostly outlines of flooded Cyprus trees wrapped in Spanish moss at the boat launch.

The five us loaded gear and guns into the duck boat, and Duckster backed it down the launch into the quiet water. By the poise Duckster had on the boat landing, and the way he kept his boats rigged, you could tell this was not his first voyage into the swamp. Duckster tied a rope to the trailer, which was also attached to the boat. By doing so when he backed the boat into the water, it did not float away. What I cherish the most from new hunting experiences are the little things like that which can be applied to waterfowl hunting everywhere.

A nice bag of canvasbacks

A nice bag of canvasbacks

Duckster slowly maneuvered our boat through the trees in the predawn darkness. It was exciting and eerie to be in place I’d never see before in any light. Before we reached the blind we made a quick detour to the duck shack, which could only be accessed by boat with the high water levels in the area. The shack had no electricity or running water. Duckster had earlier decided that as “Northern Boys” we should probably stay with the comforts of the camp at Lake Catahoula for our first Louisiana trip. Our next trip however, may be a different story.

Just before shooting time we pulled the boat into the boat garage attached to the back of the blind and climbed up onto the shooting platform. As I loaded my scattergun I heard the cries of distant wood ducks in the trees surrounding the swamp. Shortly afterwards wood ducks began to fly. Singles, doubles, and little flocks flew, staying out of our blind’s reach, knowing instinctively the safe passages through the trees.

Duckster explained to us that wood ducks are one species of duck that are born and raised in Louisiana. Sure most wood ducks are migratory, but some have been around those Louisiana waters since the opening day of the season, making them just as wary and sly as our own local mallards back home.

Unfortunately, neither the weather nor the birds co-operated that soggy morning. Around ten we left the blind, stopped at the duck shack and took a walk for a different view.

Duckster led us down paths through the woods where he has walked with his father and other family members for years. Like North Dakotans, there are deep-rooted family traditions in Louisiana when it comes to hunting and fishing. The terrain we walked was very similar to ours as well. If I hadn’t known better we could have been in Northern Minnesota, except for the unique tracks left by the Armadillos.

Along the way Duckster pointed out some of the better spots for harvesting squirrels and deer. Louisiana has both a fall and spring squirrel season. For some reason squirrel hunting is not as popular in the Midwest as it is in the South. I believe that the South has more of a tradition of hunting and fishing for substance. Duckster told me one of his observations while visiting the North was, “Seeing all the critters running around.”

The five of us hunted that afternoon and the following morning back on Lake Catahoula. We shot a couple more birds and ate terrific home-cooked food. Memories were made and good times were had. Duckster apologized for the lack of decoying birds, but it was not necessary as we were all very satisfied with the trip. The experience of being part of the last day in the Louisiana duck season, the company, beautiful scenery, and pleasant weather were enough to keep me satisfied.


One Comment on "Canvasbacks of Lake Catahoula"

  1. coty bordelon on Tue, 18th Dec 2012 1:30 pm 

    Catahoula is a pretty lake and there is alot of canvasbacks but late in the season you get out those blinds and hit up a ring with a few decoys and you will have your greenheads.

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