Hunting Beaver Dam at last

Duck season has ended. I wish it hadn't. For the first time in several years, I spent lots of time in a blind —several blinds, actually. And the hunts I enjoyed this season will be long remembered.

Most of the season was already over before I was able to enjoy my first hunt on January 5 near Tunica, Mississippi. That hunt brought back many memories.

I was a youngster when I first visited Tunica in the late 1960s. An uncle took me with him to Tunica Cutoff, a big Mississippi River oxbow, for a day of crappie fishing. I remember quite well the shanties along the lake built on "stilts" so floodwaters wouldn't get inside. Many are still there, unchanged for the most part, but the city of Tunica just up the road a piece has changed immensely in the four decades passed.

Where once there was nothing but shotgun shacks, cotton fields and cane brakes, there now are huge high-rise casinos and many wonderful tourist attractions like the Tunica Riverpark that draw untold thousands to a community that once had little to offer outsiders besides its fine hunting and fishing. The Blue and White Restaurant where we stopped for breakfast all those years ago is still there on Highway 61, and still serves great food. But for the most part, Tunica is nothing like the river town I visited so many years ago.

One thing hasn't changed for more than a century, however. Hunters still travel to Tunica to visit an eight-mile-long oxbow lake just outside town. The lake's name is Beaver Dam. And generations of hunters have known about the fabulous waterfowling here.

The reason for Beaver Dam's fame is the fact it was one of the favorite hunting grounds of writer Nash Buckingham whose prolific pen produced a steady stream of articles for the best sporting journals of the early twentieth century. He immortalized Beaver Dam in those articles and in the pages of books such as De Shootinest Gent'man, wowing his readers with stories of incredible hunts on this cypress-shrouded oxbow.

If memory serves me right, I first read about Beaver Dam in a story called "Januaries Afield" in Buckingham's Game Days, published in 1941. In it, "Mr. Buck" talks about a cold winter day's hunt with his setter Hays and friend Horace.

"It was a morning of bleak, wet gray with no suggestion of sunrise," he wrote. "Just a film of snow had fallen during the night, and the lake's expanse of ice was a pallid field."

He and Horace found a line of open water they could follow out into the lake, and it was packed with ducks.

"Hays hopped into the duck boat and sat at rigid attention as Horace and I, with paddles fore and aft, guided it sledlike across the ice," he wrote. "We each wore armpit waders, for, if we broke through, it was no morning to be caught wet. At the junction point of water and ice, the latter bent but held. Putting up flocks of ducks ahead of us, Horace and I reached shelter in the tall saw grass and tossed out a smattering of decoys … We hadn't long to wait, and that morning I was shooting a 12 -bore autoloader with cylinder barrel. Horace and Hays and I were frankly meat gunning."

The limit was 25 ducks a day then, and in the next hour, "shooting big ducks only," Horace and Buckingham downed fifteen.

"Many and many a flight of teal had whipped past our hide, to say nothing of endless sarabands of blackjack, spoonies, and thin sprigs," Buckingham wrote. "And there was only one hen among those fourteen greenheads, too."

They continued the morning hunt on shore, following Hays the setter as he put up all kinds of game. At eleven o'clock, Buckingham shot the last of fifty bird loads he'd started with that day. He'd scored hits on 39 shots, bagging 17 quail, 18 snipe, two fox squirrels and two swamp rabbits in addition to the ducks killed earlier.

As a youngster, I was enthralled by stories like this, and over the years, I read many more of Buckingham's reminiscences about hunting at Beaver Dam Ducking Club, which he first visited in 1890 at the age of 10. The club was then eight years old, making it, as Buckingham wrote, "the first and oldest of the famous duck clubs of Memphis and the Mid-South."

On January 5, 2009, in the cold darkness of a Mississippi dawn, I accompanied Will Owen and several friends to a blind on Beaver Dam Lake. Will's is the fifth generation of Owens to farm land surrounding the lake, and through my friend Mike Jones with Mississippi Tourism, I had gained an invitation to join Will, Mike, Craig Watson, Webster Franklin and Dan Brothers for a hunt on the famed oxbow. As we motored through the cypress trees, I found myself a bit in awe. Here I was at Buckingham's Beaver Dam, the place about which I had read so much. It was a dream come true.

The blind from which we hunted faced an opening in the stands of cypress trees towering over the lake, and excellent calling by Will, Craig and Dan proved enticing to the many ducks flying about. Several gadwalls pitched in just as shooting hours began, and some met their maker. These were soon followed by a pair of mallards that cupped their wings and plummeted into the hole. Craig and Dan brought them down.

In the lulls between action, Will related stories about Beaver Dam, stories he heard from his father and grandfather, both of whom hunted with Buckingham, and stories from the many days he has spent on the lake himself.

"Many people have read Nash Buckingham's Beaver Dam hunting stories," he said, "and many want to come here and hunt the same places he did. It's like a pilgrimage to a sacred place for some of them. Beaver Dam is rich in waterfowling history, and everyone wants to experience it."

The next morning, I hunted on the lake again, this time with Mike Boyd and his son Lamar. Mike's grandfather R.B. Boyd purchased some land on a corner of Beaver Dam Lake in 1949. The Boyds have lived on the land and farmed it ever since, and Mike and Lamar own the only commercial hunting operation on the lake, Beaver Dam Hunting Services.

"I feel lucky to have grown up hunting here and to have the opportunity to share Beaver Dam with the many people who come here," said Mike. "When they sit down in the blind and look out over the lake Buckingham hunted, you can see something in their eyes — a kind of awestruck look that tells you being here is important to them. It's a very special place."

Lamar concurs. "Folks tell me all the time how lucky I am to get to hunt here nearly every day of every season," he said. "And I realize that. I've read Nash Buckingham's stories about Beaver Dam so many times I've almost memorized some of them. And knowing one of the country's best-known writers loved this place so much tells me it must be a place like no other. Our family is fortunate that Beaver Dam is part of our heritage."

Icy weather had moved in by the time I hunted with Mike and Lamar Boyd. We killed a quartet of gadwalls just as shooting hours began, but the rest of the morning we had to content ourselves with good conversation. Few ducks were flying.

That mattered not to me, however, for I was still in awe of the fact that I was hunting at Buckingham's Beaver Dam. Mike Boyd, on his website, has a few lines that summarize such days in a very positive way. "May we never gauge the success of a hunt based solely on the number of dead fowl lying on the floor of the blind," it says. "May we appreciate every sunrise and sunset for its unique beauty, every sky for what it holds and every person for their stories. May we appreciate the birds, also the retrievers for their hard work, asking only our approval. Most importantly may we never forget the sacrifice made for all of us by our Savior, for without Him, we have no hope."