HAYES, La. The pintails came in from behind the pit blind, giving up their position with a medley of peeps and purrs and the shrill noise of air rushing over rigid wings. They sailed over the decoys, never beating a wing, and turned low and wide on the far side of the flooded field.
"Oh my," Erik Rue said. "This could get interesting."
They were the first pintails of the day, and their sudden appearance had a mesmerizing effect. Their slender bodies shined in the golden morning sun, sleek shapes punctuated by long, pointed tails.
A group of mallards made sure the spell didn't last. As the pintails worked over the downwind end of the spread, the mallards appeared above the submerged pit, sailing overhead on the same trajectory as their predecessors.
Ducks were working in all different directions pintails, widgeon and mallards. Soon there were scores of ducks circling the blind in groups of various sizes. Rue swapped back and forth between a whistle and a standard mallard call. His eyes darted right and left as he watched the aerial display through thick bundles of grass and shrubs hiding the blind's opening.
Just when we thought it couldn't get more interesting, seven white-fronted geese locked their wings and sailed into the mix, clucking and yodeling all the way.
A self-described specklebelly goose fanatic, Rue dropped the duck calls and was cackling at the geese before the duck calls stopped swinging on his lanyard.
Mallard calls rang out from the rest of the blind. Ducks and geese were all over us, circling and diving and sailing. A stream of assorted duck and goose noises poured out of the blind.
"What exactly are we doing here?" Rue whispered.
Options are good.
Two mallard drakes finally ended the confusion. They crossed low over the top of the blind and started to light off the decoys on the back side of the pit. We hit the calls hard as they hovered 20 feet over the field. The greenheads flew right to left to take one more look at things. It was their last look.
The rest of the waterfowl menagerie bugged out while the mallards splashed into the shallow water.
"It all started with the pintails," Rue said, "but we never did get a shot at them."
Such scenarios were common during the Duck Trek's two days of hunting with Rue's Calcasieu Charter Service south of Lake Charles, La. We came south to experience duck hunting at the flyway's southern terminus, and we found it, as well as some of the best white-fronted goose hunting anywhere.
"That's my deal," Rue said. "The mixed-bag, combo hunt for ducks and specklebelly geese is our specialty."
In two days of hunting, Rue and our two-man crew bagged 12 specklebellies, 11 mallards, 3 pintails and 2 widgeon.
"This area has always had great duck hunting," Rue said. "Louisiana's the stopping point for the migration. But for a lot of the locals here, the speck has always been the big deal. A lot of people are happy to get just a few ducks as long as they get their specks."
Rue and his crew of guides are quite proficient at getting their specks. For starters, southwest Louisiana represents one of the most important wintering areas for white-fronted geese, and hundreds of thousands take up temporary residence here each fall and winter.
But location is only part of it. Rue showed time and again that a good specklebelly goose call in the right hands can work wonders. Rue is Dizzy Gillespie on a speck call, cheeks red and bulging, making sweet music that's irresistible to its audience.
On the first morning in Louisiana, we had our limit of six specks by 7:30 a.m. It took an extra half-hour the next morning.
"If it was just me and two of my buddies out here, we'd be going home at that point," Rue said. "I like to hunt ducks, but I want the geese."
Rue consistently worked both small and large groups of mature geese into the decoys. Some dropped out of the sky on a string, while others worked around several times before settling into the decoys. The smallest group to decoy was two birds; the largest was 16 birds.
We limited out on geese so early that Rue started working groups for fun and to offer more photography opportunities for the Duck Trek's James Overstreet.
"I could sit here and do this all day," he said. "I love it."
Cast and blast
Ducks and geese aren't the only part of the combination package sportsmen can enjoy in southwest Louisiana.
Rue's lodge is located on the eastern shore of Lake Calcasieu, known to locals as Big Lake, and many of Rue's guests finish a day of duck and goose hunting with red drum and speckled trout fishing on the lake and nearby marshes.
"I've fished all over the place, and there aren't many places better than this," said Rue, a former Redfish Cup professional angler. "For the first half of the season, somebody's hunting and fishing every day. We're blessed with a fantastic resource. It's just one more way to provide our guests a good time."
Rue showed the Duck Trek a good time with a redfish trip after our first morning of duck and goose hunting.
The redfish didn't exactly jump on the line at first, but after a move to a different area, we caught fish on every other cast. Water spilled over a water-control structure between the marsh and Lake Calcasieu, and redfish stacked up to feed in the slack water to the sides of the current.
We left the dock at Hebert Marina, just a block from Rue's lodge, at 2:30 p.m., and were back in the lodge with three limits of redfish filets before dark.
Louisiana is known as the Sportsman's Paradise, and it's a name that isn't lost on waterfowl hunters.
It's the last stop on the migration route for many ducks in both the Mississippi and Central flyways.
"We get birds from both," Rue said. "A lot of people have it in their minds that the Central Flyway is one highway for ducks and geese and the Mississippi Flyway is another highway, and the birds only use one or the other. But that's not how it is. It's just an imaginary line that humans have made up. The birds move back and forth. It's all connected."
When ducks and geese reach this end of the flyways, they find vast marshes filled with submerged aquatic vegetation along the Louisiana coast. It's a smorgasbord of readily available food, and it's just part of the nutrition equation. There are also vast agricultural lands north of the marshes, and rice farming operations provide more food for waterfowl to fuel their long northward migration at the end of winter.
Because of its position at the terminus of the flyways, southern Louisiana is a Mecca for waterfowl hunters. It's a big reason Louisiana typically leads the nation in total duck kill.
"It's a cultural deal around here," Rue explained. "When you drive through this area in the early morning, every convenience store south of Interstate 10 is full of people going hunting. It's tradition. It's a way of life for a lot of people."
Southwest Louisiana provides a winter home for millions of ducks, but it's also a haven for many Mississippi and Central flyway white-fronted geese, or specklebelly geese as they're commonly known.
"This is the place for specks," Rue said. "They're not going anywhere else. They kill some in Texas, but it's more of a snow goose thing over there."
While southwest Louisiana offers some of the country's finest duck and goose hunting, Rue's Calcasieu Charter Service offers an accommodating way to enjoy the area's hunting and fishing.
Situated about 20 miles south of Lake Charles on the eastern shore of Lake Calcasieu, Rue's lodge can serve as many as 20 hunters or anglers at a time. It's not just about guided hunting and fishing; the finely appointed lodge serves local cuisine that rivals many restaurants.
The menu during the Duck Trek's stay included speckled trout, chicken and sausage gumbo and alligator sauce piquant. Guests can watch ball games on huge flat screen televisions, play billiards or cards, or just lounge around after a long day of hunting and fishing.
"We try to do everything first class," Rue said. "We just want everybody to be happy."
Service and accommodations only take a waterfowl guide service so far. In the end it's about the opportunity to kill ducks and geese.
It's not an easy task at the bottom of the flyway. The birds have experienced a little bit of everything by the time they make it to southern Louisiana, every imaginable decoy spread, every style of duck call, every ruse hunters employ to fool birds into coming in front of their guns.
"They're smart when they get here," Rue said. "These ducks have PhDs."
Rue leases roughly 5,000 acres of agricultural fields south of Lake Charles and north of the marsh. There are thousands of acres of nearby state and federal lands that offer public hunting opportunities and provide additional habitat for waterfowl.
Rue goes to extreme lengths to trick ducks. He insists on total concealment, hiding his blinds in thick vegetation. He sticks to certain routes when entering the fields by all-terrain vehicle or on foot.
"You don't want it to look unnatural," he said. "It may not make any difference to the birds, but I think it does."
Putting ducks and geese in front of the gun has been even more difficult this season. Rue said the migration has been about 2-3 weeks behind the average year. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' November aerial waterfowl survey backs up that assessment.
Although the total duck count for southwest and southeast Louisiana was about 1.3 million, blue-winged teal accounted for nearly half of the total. Bluewings are early migrants, with most leaving south Louisiana for Central America long before the start of duck season in November.
The area's estimated 598,000 bluewings were a record high for the November survey, and without the presence of so many of them, November's survey would have surpassed last year's record low November duck count.
It's not because of a lack of habitat in southern Louisiana. Louisiana waterfowl managers reported excellent production of seed-bearing plants and submerged aquatic vegetation across southwest Louisiana marshes. An abundance of early-fall rainfall also put plenty of water in swamps and agricultural fields to provide additional habitat.
It seems the ducks haven't made it here yet, the probable result of ample rainfall farther north in the flyways.
"Consistent with recent November surveys, this survey suggests fewer ducks have migrated into the state than in the past to take advantage of those habitats," reported Larry Reynolds, waterfowl program leader for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, "and the flooding we have seen in Louisiana has also occurred further north. Wet conditions have delayed harvest of crops and created additional habitat for ducks that may slow the migration into Louisiana."
End of the line
The migration may be a bit behind schedule this season, but southwest Louisiana still harbored a lot of ducks when the state's season reopened Dec. 19 after the first split.
Recent cold fronts apparently had pushed ducks and geese into the area, and the Duck Trek crew and Rue were there to meet them.
After good shooting the first morning
6 specklebellies, 6 mallards and 3 pintails we returned to the same pit blind for another hunt.
The last morning of the 2009 Duck Trek started cold and clear, with a northwest wind blowing 5-10 mph.
We were nearly as far south as you can travel in this part of the world. Next stop, the Gulf of Mexico.
The action started with a squadron of roughly three dozen teal buzzing the decoys and then making a big, low circle before disappearing and then reappearing about five feet over the back of the blind. They were sitting 30 yards beyond the farthest decoy before anyone could raise a shotgun.
But redemption came soon and often. The specklebellies responded well to Rue's calls, and we met our limit by 8 a.m. The mallards were cooperative, too, working well to the calls.
We were having fun watching the specks work into the decoys, long necks craning, so close their staccato clucks sounded like they were in the blind with us. Several nearly were, skirting the corner of the blind by less than 10 yards.
The fun with the white fronts stopped abruptly when a pair of widgeon came in high, flying toward the left end of the blind.
Duck Trek photographer James Overstreet made a long crossing shot from the left end, dropping the baldpate drake off the left end of the blind. The hen skipped a wing beat and then made a big loop behind the blind. She came close enough to the right end for another long crossing shot. My shot found its mark, dropping the duck on the right end of the blind about the same distance as Overstreet's fell on the left end.
It was the sort of symmetry befitting the final chapter in a long and arduous journey from the top of the flyway to the bottom.