ALEXANDRIA, La. — Jeff Conella remembers his first duck hunt with clarity.
He was 5 years old and his father bundled him up in blankets and laid him down in the bottom of a boat and they headed off to a blind on Catahoula Lake.
"It was freezing and I was trying to stay warm,'' Conella said. "When we pulled up to the blind, I peeked out from under the covers and my dad's moustache was covered in ice. I thought 'That has to be the toughest man in the world.'"
That was 34 years ago and not much has changed in Jeff Conella's eyes. He and his father, Bo Conella, still spend every season together in Louisiana. But now, some days they both have ice covering their moustaches.
The bright yellow ATV growled its way through the pre-dawn darkness, sending row after row of waterfowl jumping into the air from a flooded rice field, spilling away from the road, forcing the next row to do the same, creating a seemingly-endless motion.
The rolling of the ducks across the field like fans doing the wave at a football game was appropriate. The yellow ATV — possibly the only one of its kind in a duck-crazy world that wants nothing but camouflage — is yellow in honor of the LSU Tigers.
In this part of the world, they take their football and duck hunting seriously.
Jeff and Bo Conella land more seriously on the duck side, at least enough to borrow a friend's tribute to the Tigers to get them into a rice field in central Louisiana. Their destination is a hole in the ground, technically known as a pit blind, dug into one of the field's levees.
The yellow tiger is loaded with guns, shell boxes, decoys, three hunters and a black Labrador named Holly. All fit snugly in the pit.
Once the machine was turned off, the show began.
In the dark, sitting in a pit blind surrounded by water, thousands of waterfowl were playing out a symphony of sounds.
Dozens of teal were cackling in their quacking laugh; pintails were peeping; hundreds of sandhill cranes chimed in with their gurgles; speckle-belly geese were singing their whistles and snow geese were yelling in the middle of it all. Occasionally a hen mallard would add a contented series of drawn out quacks.
To the outsider it would have to be a cacophony of sounds. To a duck hunter, it was pure music, the music of certain promise for a great hunt.
Nestled in a hole in the ground, Jeff and Bo Conella watched the clock. Official shooting time was 6:09 a.m., and above them, pairs of teal and wads of spoonbill zipped around fluttering in and out of the decoys.
"Are you sure it's not time yet?'' Bo Conella asked, pleading for the minute hand to move faster.
"Not yet,'' Jeff Conella answered. "Just one more minute."
In duck hunter terms, it was the longest minute.
With limits of ducks almost in reach of a tennis racket, in many ways, this is Louisiana duck hunting at its best.
Situated at the end of the Mississippi Flyway and having a habitat makeup perfectly suiting waterfowl, millions of ducks winter in this state.
It's not just the end of the road, either. Almost every part of this state has something to offer a duck on its own trek, from breeding grounds to the wintering habitat.
Like Arkansas, agricultural fields make up a large portion of the duck-hunting habitat in the state. And there are plenty of rivers like Red River, Tensas, etc., funneling ducks to rice, soybean and millet fields. In other parts of the state the waters spread out to create the swamps that have become synonymous with Louisiana. To the south of all that is the Louisiana Marsh.
There's a little bit of everything in the "Sportsman's Paradise."
And no matter where you are, time passes at the same rate. Meanwhile the father and son team counted down the remaining seconds.
Just one click past 6:09, the first shot rang out. One duck down and thousands of others filled the air.
By 6:10, two more were floating on the water.
At 6:12, the dark shape of a duck banked and pitched in directly in front of the calls coming from the hole in the ground — and No. 4 was stacked in the corner.
It went like that for the next 27 minutes, with breaks only long enough to allow Holly to lumber across the field, snatch up the retrieve and make it back.
At 6:36 a.m., the pair of hunters had spent 15 shells and had a stack of 12 ducks for their work, most of them spoonbills, the rest blue-wing teal.
It was the quickest hunt to date on the Duck Trek. [NEXT PAGE]
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