Patrick Malouf is cutting up mallard breasts, wrapping them into smoked bacon with a dash of cream cheese and pickled hot peppers while men stand outside on a cement balcony smoking cigars and drinking dark liquor, watching greenheads come off their day loaf, circle once and cup into the acres of flooded corn below.
He is telling the rest of us gathered around the kitchen bar, slugging from cans of Coors Light and Yuengling tallboys, the latest story he gave his wife when she quizzed him why he duck hunts so much.
“I said, think if we owned a Macy’s department store, but you could only go there and shop for 60 days. You only have that small amount of time to take your best friends. When it’s over, the doors close, and you have to wait till next year.”
All of us listening were duck-hunting addicts and thinking the same thing: “We’re telling our wives or girlfriends the same story.” It’s sensible…to us. Then Malouf follows up with another tale of his 8-year-old son that wrecks that notion, though we pray all our kids turn out just like this. His boy is so enamored with the outdoors, when mom recently asked if he wanted to have a friend spend the night, he told her “no, because then I might not be able to go squirrel hunting in the morning if he doesn’t want to go with me.”
“She mighta shed a little tear on that one,” Malouf says. His wife knows well the symptoms of a hunter obsessed.
This is life for many families in the Mississippi Delta. People here have to hunt; it’s born and bred in them. It’s a private hunters’ state, though there are some spots to chase ducks on public if you’re willing to do the work and aren’t scared of failure. Land is handed down from father to son. Men are driven to succeed in business so they can pay for their greenhead passion, improving habitat on their farms and buying into duck clubs. Insurance salesman, lawyers, bankers, but also farmers and laborers shape work season around duck season.
If you’re an outsider, you can pay a legendary guide like Mike Boyd at Beaver Dam to hunt the Delta or know a guy who knows a guy; ours was Mike Galloway of Cupped Waterfowl. Mike, in the words of Bryan Jones, owner of Providence, a family farm in the east Delta, is a “Yankee-Irish-Redneck,” who became friends with Bryan’s oldest son B (short for Bernard) while the two developed and sourced products for Will Primos back in the day. Both men were fond of ducks, and B revealed to Galloway his family owned a little place with some dang good mallard hunting on it. Mike has been coming back every season for the last 15 years, and the two have teamed up again with the rapid growth of Cupped, which is making all kinds of gear from blind bags to bird straps, with more coming every fall.
Limits for Breakfast
A specklebelly floated in over the left edge of the decoys right at shooting time, and Bryan (Mr. Jones from here on out, because this is the South and respect for elders lingers) politely said “one of ya’ll can shoot that speck, if you want to.” No one did as this was the first time Mr. Jones, Mike and a writer from up North hunted together—there’s always a feeling out process, you know.
Many of the blinds have a name at Providence, which is farmed for peanuts (the snow geese that winter here love them), beans and cotton. We were in the “Before School” hole, which Mr. Jones took the kids to when they were young because ducks are typically in here early or not at all. You can shoot a quick limit and still have time for mama to make you a biscuit and get to class before the bell rings. There were at least 100 ducks in the narrow strip of water bordered by small timber and overgrowth the evening prior. Mr. Jones and I sat on a wood bench in a small brush-covered hog panel blind with a high back. Mike was on the outside with his yellow Lab. Not a touch of wind blew as less than two-dozen decoys floated still on the water. We would only shoot three mallards this morning, while our friends on the south side of the farm tallied a four-man mixed limit of teal, shovelers, gadwall and mallards. When our first two birds, a greenhead and Susie came in, we put six shots into them, only connecting with our last loads of No. 4 steel. Galloway went out to work his dog as the mallards had fallen in the CRP and let out a big whoop!
“He musta shot a band,” Mr. Jones smiled. Indeed, and his Yankee-Irish-Redneck luck would continue when he shot another band on our last morning, this time a wood duck.
In the Delta you will find many duck hunters that hunt “proper.” That means no mechanical motion, though Mr. Jones did use a few on-the-water “toys.” It’s not that they don’t believe spinners work; they grew up hunting with decoys and a jerk rig, and here heritage is everything and so they do what their fathers taught them. Smartly, small trees were planted around the blinds at Providence, so on sunny days the limbs cast shadows over the hide, secluding hunters from leery greenheads that have been called to and shot at for months before arriving in the Delta. Mr. Jones, B and the youngest son, Will, all shoot over/unders, not only because of tradition, but because they typically don’t need a third shot, though their proclivity to southern manner would never allow them to say so.
“I think here it’s not just about killing ducks, it’s about fooling ducks the right way, working birds with a call and a jerk cord, and getting them in close,” Galloway said.
If you’re not from here that may seem a tad elitist. To a kid who grew up on the Illinois River building one small two-man blind with his dad on the only piece of water we could get access to—and using every homemade gadget in the book to trick’em—it was a stitch odd. But this is their culture, it is how many of them have always hunted ducks, on a family farm that belonged to their grandfather’s grandfather.
Tall oaks disappeared into the darkness and the flooded forest floor lit up with white mallard feathers. Six men crammed in a johnboat, elbows and knees rubbing against one another, the discomfort giving way to the daunting beauty of Mississippi Delta green timber. This little clump of oaks surrounded by thousands of acres of agriculture was almost bulldozed for farming, saved at the last second by a few men with the means to buy it.
Malouf screwed hooks into the trees for us to hang guns and blind bags.
“I’ll call the shots boys, and we’re gonna leave them wood ducks be,” he said as we all hugged our own piece of timber.
The South is known for mallard snobbiness, though Patrick showed little restraint the day before at Providence with a shoveler double.
“I think it coulda been a clean triple, but I felt B’s eyes on me,” he joked.
But the timber is for four greenheads…and a pintail if you’re lucky. It was fun to see those woodies dart through the trees in the dark without shooting. One landed inches from my brother, way more memorable than cutting feathers.
“We have gotten a little spoiled down here,” B admitted. “For a long time, it’s been the expectation to shoot four mallards, and when we don’t, it’s a little disappointing.”
Before shooting time, Charlie Jones (no relation) and Patrick brought the timber alive with high balls and greeters. The sun was on its way up and you could begin to see the jigsaw puzzle of bark and moss carpeting the trees. There were mallards in the canopy and six found their way through the oak limbs and lit close. They all sat there for a moment, before eyeballing shadowy figures and then sprung up, back through the trees.
The time came to hunt and the symphony of calls and pulling of jerk rigs really began. A second group of hunters that dropped off before us was first to shoot and the roar rolled through the woods—you could almost feel the reverberating sound finding its way through the trees. Then a pair, or maybe three mallards, it all happened so fast in the dark, came in and we dumped two. They didn’t hesitate to flutter into the decoys, and the sound of backpedaling wings was only magnified in the woods. I will never forget how loud it was, followed by the smell of a smoking 20-gauge.
But then the hunting turned tough. If you drink enough bourbon with an ol’ southern boy around the fire at duck camp, he will eventually get to how hard it is to kill birds down here. That by now every bird has heard and seen the show: calling, two spinners and a blob of GHG Hot Buys, from Canada to the Gulf Coast. And there is plenty of truth in that some days, especially in warmer years when Delta mallards never come in great numbers, which was the case in mid-January 2019. We fooled a few more greenheads and shot some hens too when it was clear that was the only way to half-fill duck straps. The other hunting group of four killed their 16 birds, but it didn’t come easy; not every group finished in the hole, and some tree limbs “got broke” by shots into the blue sky above.
“I think they were the same ducks we have been hunting all season, and they know the routine,” B said. “They hear the calls, see the decoys and just land 100 yards away. Sometimes in the timber I think it could be better to just call (with no decoys) and see what happens.”
By now our group had become quick friends. B and my brother Carl, a chef, both fond of cooking, bonded that way, making us a fine duck and deer dinner the last night of the trip. We all stayed up too late each evening drinking and laughing, and Mr. Jones taught a couple boys from Illinois the South is a pretty damn enchanting/hospitable place. Everyone here has a smile and a cocktail, and a story. Like how Providence was originally a slave plantation turned religious commune where blacks and whites lived and worked the land together during the Civil Rights struggle (Will Campbell wrote a book about it titled “Providence”). Mr. Jones bought the land because he grew up quail hunting the nearby hills that slide into the first acres of the east Delta, and knew it was a good place to shoot a duck.
“I believe my father hunted every day of the season for many years, and is the reason we don’t have any quail here,” Mr. Jones said with a grin.
Since we were all well acquainted, there was no hesitating, no worry over when to shoot on the final morning. B, Carl and I stood outside the blind in the first minutes of legal light, picking off buzzing teal and a few mallards. Snow geese erupted from the roost and came over us.
“I looked to the left and B already had his gun up, then I looked over and you had yours shouldered,” said Carl, after we rained several birds from the flock. “I thought ‘I better get in on this.’”
It was thought to be a hunt for full limits. We had been in a deer stand the night prior and saw the birds buzzing over the wetland on the south end of the property. Some rain and a south wind were forecast—it was a lock. But as had happened many times in the Delta that season, the birds were there one day, and the next, they were not.
So we settled for a few ducks, bonus snows and more stories and laughs. B made us biscuits and ham for breakfast, and we called bullshit upon hearing the news of Galloway’s second band of the week before filling Thermoses with coffee for the long ride home.
Before making the trip, I was determined to understand life in the Delta, it’s history and to better gauge Mississippi by reading dozens of articles and literature, both fiction and non. But, of course, experience trumps anything you will find in the written word, though this excerpt from famed journalist and outdoorsman, William Faulkner, who was born in New Albany, Mississippi, stuck. He wrote: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
After three trips here, the South remains a mystery, but I do know this: Some of the most passionate and obsessive duck hunters can be found in the Delta. They work tirelessly to spend as many mornings during the 60-day season in a blind or standing next to a flooded oak…and it takes one hell of an extraordinary woman to love them.