SEEING STARS

Dr. Monty Rizzo, an ear, nose and throat specialist from New Iberia, travels all over the world to hunt big game. He rarely takes chances when hunting in unknown territory. Hunting in the Atchafalaya Basin is usually a routine outing.

"We were going to hunt in a timber that stays flooded all the time; it's what they call a hole," Rizzo remembers. He and his friend Allen Huval were staying in a camp near the spot and wanted to make an afternoon hunt for the wood ducks and mallards that come in for the night. "It's a big stretch of water, about a mile-and-a-half wide and maybe three miles long. And it's covered with thick duckweed, the kind that floats."

As is often the case in south Louisiana, the winter day was warm. "We're getting ready to get in there, I guess it was about 4 o'clock, and I took off my coat, because it was really hot, and we had on chest waders," Rizzo says. "We were almost out of the camp, and I told Allen, 'Oh man, I forgot my compass.'"

"Allen says to me, 'Don't worry about it, we don't need it. I can tell direction by the stars.'"

They were on foot, shooting ducks, then wading through the waist-deep water to retrieve their birds. "We were going every which way ' we had to follow the ducks," Rizzo says. They each had a burlap sack on a rope. "We floated the sacks behind us, and by the time it was dark, they were full of ducks."

Walking the hole, they paid a lot of attention to their footing. When big cypress trees fall, the root structure tips up out of the bottom. On one side, where the tree is down, the water is shallow and the footing hard. But on the back side of the fallen tree is a deep hole, deep enough to swamp waders.

"So that's what we were doing, retrieving ducks, trying to keep out of the deep holes, and then it gets dark. And when it gets dark, it's really dark. I said to Allen, 'OK, which way do we go?' And he says, 'We're going to follow that star right there.' And I said, 'man, that's not a star, that's an airplane.'

"It's totally dark. We're walking around in there. We have on these headlights. We walk and we walk and we walk. We come to a place where the duck weed is opened, and you can see a little path in the water. Well, the way to open the duckweed is to walk through it. We'd walked through that place 20 minutes earlier. We're walking in circles.

"We keep walking and walking and Allen says, 'The headlights are messing me up,' so we turn them off. The water begins to get shallower and we look up, there's some sort of structure on the shore. We can't make it out, because it's so dark. I say, 'What do you think that is?' Allen says, 'It's those tanks.'"

Huval was referring to was a set of tank batteries they spotted earlier in the day. The tanks were on the other side of the hole, about a mile-and-a-half from the camp.

It was 2 a.m., and they had to cross a thick briar patch.

"So we're going to have to walk back the other way," says Rizzo with a sigh. "But we walk a little ways more toward the tanks, and we figure out that's not the tank battery. It's the back of the camp. ... We didn't recognize the camp because we'd never seen it from that angle. Nobody in their right mind would get in those briars like that. We get in the camp, put our ducks up and go to bed. A front came through an hour after we got out. We'd been in that hole about 8 hours. It rained and got real cold. There was ice on the water. We'd have been really miserable if we'd still been in that hole." ' Mary Tutwiler

BARE NECESSITIES

Fifty-four-year-old Carl Matt of Carencro's been hunting since he was a boy, and one of his earliest hunting memories still makes him laugh.

"When I was a young kid, we went on some goose hunts," he remembers. "Back then in high school you could 'crawl' geese ' it was legal to crawl up on 'em. Me and my cousins were going down a fence row sneaking up on a bunch of geese. We were following a little flood canal next to a rice field. When we got about 150 yards from the geese, the canal turned from the fence and we had to cross the canal. It was like 36 degrees, cold as hell, and we had our coveralls and boots and all kind of stuff on. And we didn't know how deep the canal was. So we decided instead of getting in it and getting wet, we'd take our clothes off and cross it and then get dressed again.

So five of us stripped down to our underwear and started wading across ' and it was only about eight inches deep. It was 36 degrees, and we're all in our drawers holding our clothes up. When we made it to the other side, we sat there and laughed for 20 minutes. We were a couple hundred yards from the road, so we don't know if anyone saw us." ' Scott Jordan

WHERE'S THE BIRD?

Friends and hunting partners of George Small often say that if there's reincarnation after death, they'd like to come back as one of his dogs. "I spoil 'em," says Small, a retired executive with the helicopter service company Air Logistics who lives on the outskirts of Youngsville.

Small's current pride and joy is an 11-year-old female black Labrador retriever named Maggie. On their weekly drives to the hunting camp throughout duck season, Maggie usually gets the entire back seat of Small's SUV to herself. "She gets the same heating, air conditioning and country and western music I get," Small notes proudly. "She doesn't get to drink the beer [at the camp]," he adds. "But she gets all the other things that dad gets. And I brag on her more than anything I've ever done, any equipment I've ever had or probably any member of my family."

"That's what hunters do," Small insists. "Cause they're working dogs. They're more than that, they're family members."

In the hundreds of hunting trips they've taken together over the years, Maggie's loyalty and obedience has only further endeared her to George. But one trip this past year had George rethinking his devotion to Maggie.

It was fall, near the beginning of duck season, and George's son Damon had come in from Houston for one of their annual father-son duck hunts. On this trip, they met with a larger group at a camp in Grand Chenier, a prime duck hunting spot just east of the town of Cameron.

In traditional duck camp fashion, the night before the hunt was a time for the group to play cards, tell stories and cook up a big duck gumbo using the birds from a recent hunt. Everyone ate heartily ' including Maggie, who got into the discarded remains of some of the ducks.

"I'm very, very careful with Maggie's diet," says George. "She gets nothing but premium, dried dog food. That's all she's had to eat her entire life along with dog biscuits and other special doggie treats I give her after the hunt. But that dog has never had canned food, never had anything, never table scraps. It's not good for 'em. But they'll eat anything.

"And when she got into all those good, seasoned duck carcasses," he continues, "she's just eating as fast as she can go until I saw her. But it was too late then. She probably had four or five carcasses, enough to make her stomach be distended out a little bit. She had a good drink of water that night and that next morning. Hoo, if dogs can have Tums or Rolaids, she definitely needed some."

In the morning, as they headed out, George noticed Maggie walking a little slow.

"And she would kinda groan, like owww. I thought she was just moving a little slow, but I didn't think anything about it."

The three set out for their duck blind before sunrise in George's old aluminum flatbed boat. George worked the outboard motor in the back while Damon held Maggie by her leash in the front.

About halfway to the blind, Damon turned to his dad and hollered over the drone of the motor: "Daddy, we're going to have to do a little cleanup job on the boat when we get to the blind."

"Why?" George asked.

"Well, your pride and joy Maggie just crapped in the front of the boat," Damon reported.

When they got to the blind, George wore his neoprene gloves and dutifully picked Maggie's mess out of the boat.

"It's not something you want to do at 6 o'clock in the morning before daylight," he says.

After George washed off his gloves in the cold marsh water, they settled into the duck blind. Maggie, still groaning, sat beside them in a small adjacent dog box.

"And I kept smelling something," George remembers. "I looked and Maggie had crapped all in the dog box. So this is going from bad to worse. I got a little bailing bucket thing we had in the blind and tried to wash that off as best I could."

George settled back into the blind, hoping the worst was over.

"By this time," he says, "Maggie, she's still groaning a little bit. You know, she had eaten all the duck carcasses left over from the gumbo but she was apparently rallying, feeling a little better."

The first duck they shot that morning was a little green-wing teal drake. "She goes out and retrieves the bird just like she's supposed to," says George. "But, rather than coming back to the dog box, she got back in the boat, which was between her and the dog box right beside the blind. And I didn't think anything of it. But then, she jumps back in the dog box, with no duck!

"I said, 'Maggie, where's the bird?" George exclaims. "And she looks at me like, 'What are you talking about?'"

"I go look down in the boat. She's eaten the duck, everything but the head and the feet." George's son looked over and shook his head. "Dad, after she crapped every place, she's probably hungry now. So, now she's had breakfast, she'll probably do fine.'"

"And she did fine," George adds. "The rest of the day, everything was fine but it was definitely a slow start."

Despite that incident, George insists Maggie is typically an ideal hunting partner. In the hunting log he keeps for her, George has marked 307 ducks retrieved this season alone (overall, Maggie is closing in on 2,600).

"The guys at camp say, 'Well, Mr. George and Maggie are both getting old and they can't hear any more and they can't see as well as they used to,'" George says. "But like that old Toby Keith song," he adds, "'We ain't as good as we once were, but we're good once as we ever were.'" ' Nathan Stubbs

TO CALL OR NOT TO CALL

For the past 13 years, Chris Christensen and Vernon Ventress have shared duck blinds at Christensen's Grand Chenier duck lease. And for just as long, the two men have disagreed on when it is and isn't appropriate to call for ducks.

Ventress, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual, says landman Christensen doesn't know when to lay off the duck call. "He has the habit of calling with his duck call, from the time he gets in the duck blind, whether the ducks are around or not," Ventress says.

Of course, Christensen disagrees. "Ventress is not a reliable source of information. I should warn you of that," he says. "He's a fellow member of the Beavers Club which is how I came to know him, at a time when I lost some of my strong, young helpers. I thought he had enough muscular ability left to help out, so I took him in, as a swamper, at my duck lease, which I have affectionately named The Lower Hog Bayou Hunting and Lying Club." Christensen had hoped that Ventress could lend a hand as a handyman and in a pinch maybe help pull the pirogue, but the last time they went hunting together, Ventress ran his boat aground. "It took us about 45 minutes to dislodge it," Christensen says. "So, his reliability is questionable to say the least."

Ventress recalls one morning in a large duck blind with Christensen. "I could barely see him it was so dark," he says. Christensen started calling for ducks. "I said, 'Chris, it's still dark. Why are you calling?' He said, 'Well, there might be some ducks up there, and it'll keep 'em from leaving.'" Ventress laughs. "So he continued to call."

"We've had differences of opinion as to when to call and how loud to call," Christensen says. "I must give Mr. Ventress credit. He does ordinarily defer to me, but only because it's my lease, I suspect, and not his."

Ventress admits that there are no ironclad rules to duck calling and that a hunter can bag just as many ducks with poor calling and even no calling at all. "There's no real predictable behavior," he says. "But generally speaking, the better callers that call appropriately, that call well and call at the right time are going to improve their chances a little bit over somebody that doesn't call well and just calls excessively."

"I've been accused of scaring ducks away by calling," Christensen says. "Late in the season you don't need to call nearly as much. A few friendly quacks sometime will suffice, but on the other hand the ducks in our area, we have a number of nice ponds down there, and they trade back and forth. If you intervene a little you get a better chance ' I think ' of attracting them to your blind then letting them go to some unguarded spot."

Christensen has never been one to follow the rules though. One morning, after a storm had rocked the trailer at the camp all night long, the two men woke to the same brutal weather. Ventress looked outside and said he wasn't going hunting in that kind of weather. Christensen said there was nothing to worry about. He stepped outside and began to walk down the steps of the trailer when a bolt of lighting struck nearby, rattling the ground and the trailer. "Well," Christensen said, turning around, "maybe we ought to wait a little while before we go out there."

Ventress says that despite his sound arguments for calling only when necessary, Christensen continues with his bad habit, even when ducks aren't even in sight. But does it work?

"Well," Ventress says, "it's kind of like the story I heard a long time ago when I was a teacher at Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge back in 1965, before we moved to Lafayette. This guy was standing in downtown Baton Rouge on one foot, patting his head and rubbing his belly. Somebody had the guts to walk up to him and say, 'What in the world are you doing?'

"He said, 'I'm scaring elephants away.'

"'What are you talking about?'

"The guy said, 'You haven't seen any elephants have you?'

Christensen says despite the wild accusations, his style of calling gets the job done, and he's bagged his fair share of ducks to prove it. Although he disagrees with Ventress, he has no plans of kicking him off the property anytime soon. "He can cook camp catfish probably better than anybody I've ever encountered," he says. "He's very good at that. Now he's on the shaky side, backing you in a blind. But as you've no doubt discovered, he's so full of bull. But he's good company, and he's been a good friend." ' R. Reese Fuller

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