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OUTDOORS: Rewards of Louisiana journey worth bad gusts, skittish ducks
THE COASTAL marshes of southwest Louisiana where the Central and Mississippi waterfowl flyways converge are the stuff of duck hunting legend—right up there with storied Delmarva and Chesapeake heydays when the old-timers spoke of “skies dark with ducks.”
It had been nearly eight years since my last winter Louisiana hunt. Simply driving through that marshy wonderland of Cameron Parish south of Lake Charles and seeing the diversity of birds on the three refuges in the area gets a duck hunter’s blood pumping.
Mix the hunting with Louisiana’s fine Cajun cuisine and it’s always a good time—even if it totally busts any New Years’ resolution regarding weight loss. When it comes to gumbo, boudin and heaping plates of crawfish étouffée, I’m like a puppy that doesn’t know when to stop eating.
One thing about planning any hunting or fishing trip is you can’t foretell the weather at the time you scratch your name into the winter lineup. Louisiana guides typically book an entire season and my travel window was right after New Year’s Day with the “second split” of the duck season well under way.
I planned to join Jeff Poe of Big Lake Guide Service and fellow outdoors writer Nate Skinner of eastern Texas for an afternoon fishing trip for chunky redfish followed by a morning in a hunting blind. Alas, sustained 20–25-mph winds squashed any fishing. Lake Calcasieu, where the Jeff and Mary Poe maintain a beautifully appointed waterfront guest lodge, was rocking with whitecaps.
The freshwater marsh where Poe hunts two blinds is adjacent to the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, the smallest of the three in the area. Prior to our arrival, hunting parties had been enjoying good, albeit sporadic, success with ducks and usually dropped a couple specklebelly geese.
Things seemed to be winding down, though, in the second half of the season. Few new birds were arriving, Poe explained, and those in the area quickly learned where the blinds were.
At daybreak, we heard booming to our east and one of Poe’s buddies later texted that the beaches near the Gulf of Mexico were loaded with teal, courtesy of the big wind the day before.
Our morning started slowly, as we passed on some ringneck and teal shots we probably should’ve taken. Gadwalls (or gray ducks, as the locals call them) were uncharacteristically decoy-shy, skirting the edge of the spread. Pintails stayed high and wide, wanting nothing to do with us.
Except for a couple misses on birds at maximum range, those that dared to fly over the decoy spread wound up riding home in Poe’s boat.
One morning highlight for Skinner was taking his first-ever greenhead drake mallard. An evening highlight was Mary Poe’s pan-sautéed speckled trout with a cream sauce that featured capers and her kumquat pie dessert.
A real gem of a find was the Faulk’s Game Calls “factory” in Lake Charles. This family-run business has been making waterfowl calls for more than 80 years.
Clarence “Patin” Faulk began making calls in the 1930s. After his son Dudley “Dud” Faulk returned home from the Navy after World War II, he began helping out making the calls. He later bought out his dad and expanded operations, moving construction out of the house and into the home’s wash shed behind the house.
He won prominent duck- and goose-calling championships with his calls. Regional demand soared, with Dud and his wife, Rita, selling calls out of their automobile to mom-and-pop sporting goods stores throughout the area. Dud died in 1994 and Rita and their three daughters sustained the business.
I got a tour of the business after my duck hunt. You can see where Dud Faulk kept knocking down walls, pouring more concrete and expanding into the still small workshop that operates today.
The place seems to be part museum, part factory, with machinery and lathes dating more than 70 years. Calls that were made in the 1950s, as well as old packaging material, are also present. Dusty boxes, working materials and more are stacked in every direction. Only four full-time employees make the calls with another half-dozen or so helping administratively.
Most calls cost fewer than $20. Remarkably, each call is still handmade with beautiful wooden barrels turned on lathes and fully assembled in Lake Charles.
Out in the shop, 44-year employee Art Lejeune, also a Navy veteran, held court. He proudly explained the workmanship, how he has designed implements to work on the lathes and, most critically, his belief that the way the calls are made needs to stay true to tradition.
Except for a few “cane” calls, made from bamboo grown near the house, calls are made completely from wood, mostly walnut, cherry and zebrawood, a wood with a beautiful pattern in its grain. On some calls, a copper band joins the two sections. The only plastic in the call is the reed.
Locals regularly ask Lejeune to tune the calls a particular way, to help achieve the desired tone.
Amazingly, they crank out up to 75,000 calls a year and some of their products are used as far away as Turkey and Russia.
I got a double reed mallard call, mainly because Art said it’s foolproof. “[Anyone] can blow this one,” he said. Sounds perfect for me!
See: faulkscalls.com; biglakeguideservice.com; and visitlakecharles.org.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, VA 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email at email@example.com.