Life is filled with decisions. Ford or Chevrolet. Coke or Pepsi. For many folks, the answers to these are easy. Not so for the waterfowler looking for the best place to sit a blind. And it’s not because the choices are so few; quite the opposite. In this article, we look at two of the most notable duck hunting destinations in the American South. There are many. These are but two of the finest.
Beaver Dam, Mississippi
Beaver Dam Lake and the Beaver Dam Duck Club, a body of water and an establishment both made famous by the late outdoor writer, Nash Buckingham, are, to many, the embodiment of hunting tradition.
Born in 1880 in Memphis, Buckingham, over his illustrious career, wrote volumes about his time hunting at Beaver Dam. He passed away in 1971, just short of his 91st birthday, having lived a tremendously full life. Today, the father/son team of Mike and Lamar Boyd help waterfowlers bring Buckingham’s memory back to life through Beaver Dam Hunting Services (beaverdamducks.com; 662-363-6288).
“It’s no secret that Buckingham made this place famous,” said Lamar, “and there are a quite a few people who follow him closely or are associated with somebody or some (conservation) organization that he’s touched during his life. Beaver Dam,” he continued, “is where Buckingham did a lot of his hunting, and people are interested in coming here and experiencing what he did 100 years ago.”
But the ghost of Nash Buckingham isn’t the only reason waterfowlers make the pilgrimage to Beaver Dam. “When you look at the commercial duck hunting in this (Tunica) area,” said Boyd, “90 percent or more of it will not be happening in flooded cypress timber, and we can offer hunters that opportunity. It’s a very specialized kind of hunting that isn’t available in most places in North America.”
Comfort is key on Beaver Dam. “Our blinds are spacious,” said Boyd. “You can hunt in your house slippers, if you choose to do that. We have a full kitchen, and often cook breakfast right in the blind. We’ll meet you at the ramp or pick you up at camp,” he said of a typical day. “A short boat ride takes us to the blind. Once there, we’ll have coffee and a bite to eat while we hunt. There’s plenty of room for everyone to sit or stand, and still be concealed.” And that’s how it was when I hunted with Lamar and his father—comfortable, casual, accommodating, and paced—dare I say it—perfectly. Hunters are welcome to do their own calling, if they choose. Shots are wonderfully close, averaging 25 to 30 yards, with occasional longer exceptions. This proximity makes the Boyds’ blinds an excellent opportunity for those hunters partial to older and/or sub-bore guns.
“Dad and I caught the old side-by-sidebug a few years ago,” said Boyd. “We each own a dozen or so Fox, Parker, and L.C. Smith shotguns. More often than not, we shoot 20 gauges. I see a lot of Winchester Model 21s here.” Myself, I carried a 1952 Winchester Model 24 side-by-side in 16-gauge to the blind the first morning; a ’79 Remington Model 1100, also 16-gauge, the next.
Hunters spending time with the Boyds will see a variety of puddle ducks, though the variety today is subtly different from when I travelled south from Iowa to hunt Beaver Dam.
“Several years ago,” said Boyd, “we noticed a shift where we lost a significant number of our grey ducks (gadwall). There was a time when if we killed 60 ducks, 60 of them were gadwall. Today, grey ducks are about 15 percent of what our hunters kill, but,” he added quickly, “and fortunately, mallards have taken up the slack. Now, we kill more mallards than we do gadwall.”
A hunt with the Boyds is logistically easy. All of the necessary state paperwork, i.e. licenses, is available online through the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, while an electronic version of the federal duck stamp, another necessity, can be purchased from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website (www.fws.gov) for immediate use. For 2019 to 2020, Mississippi’s duck season runs from November 29 to December 1, closes, and then reopens on December 6 continuing through January 31, 2020, with a daily bag limit of six birds. Waterfowlers hunting with the Boyds are responsible for their own lodging; however, the family does offer hunters accommodations. “We have two wonderfully renovated farmhouses,” said Boyd. “They’re very comfortable. We don’t offer meals, but each house does have its own fully equipped kitchen, fish-fryer, and BBQ.” Additional details, including pricing, can be found on the Boyds’ website.
Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake is my kind of place. In April and May, Reelfoot is all about bull bluegills and crappies the size of Frisbees. Come November, it’s ducks. Lots of ducks. And for my nickel, Jackie Van Cleave is my kind of guide. Blue-wings or bluegills. Puddle ducks or panfish. Van Cleave has been doing it since Hector was a pup.
“Forty-plus years I’ve been at it,” he told me. “Third generation to be guiding on Reelfoot.”
Now 61 and a resident of Samburg, Tennessee, Van Cleave explains why Reelfoot ranks at the top of many a duck hunter’s Bucket List. “It’s a historical place,” he said. “The lake itself was created by an earthquake in 1811 to 1812, and it’s just a prehistoric-looking place. It takes you back in time. The lake’s a series of (open water) and cypress swamps,” he continued. “It’s just a beautiful place.”
The earthquake Van Cleave speaks of did indeed take place in the early 1800s. During that time, upheavals across much of the eastern U.S. dramatically changed the face of the continent. Entire riverine systems were altered; the Mississippi River, in fact, ran backwards for some three days, filling in a 15,000-acre divot studded with bald cypress trees, which today is known as Reelfoot Lake.
Although expansive, not all of Reelfoot is open to waterfowl hunting. A portion of the lake, the northeastern end, lies within a national wildlife refuge, and falls under the management and jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No waterfowl hunting is permitted on the refuge. Another section, said Van Cleave, is held by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) in the form of a wildlife management area (WMA), with some of this acreage being planted in agricultural crops attractive to waterfowl. “Part of this state property,” said Van Cleave, “is planted in corn, millet, and soybeans. My blind is right between the two, the refuge and the wildlife management area. We can hold a lot of birds on these properties,” he continued. “Sometimes, we’ll hold 100,000. Sometimes we’ll hold 600,000. It just depends on what the weather’s like up north and how cold it gets.”
And, not only positioned well, Van Cleave’s blind is indeed a sight to behold. “It’s 20 feet wide and 30 feet long,” he said. “There are two couches, three recliners, a television, kitchen, and bathroom. Then you step up into the shooting area. It’s a real comfortable blind set back in the cypress trees. It’s just perfect for those grain-fed ducks,” he added. By grain-fed, the guide refers to the long list of puddlers his clients encounter on a regular basis, birds that have been making their way south through rich agricultural fields of the Midwest. “There aren’t many divers where I hunt,” he said, “but we have mallards, black ducks, pintail, widgeon, teal, and gadwall.”
As for a decoy spread, Van Cleave’s rig is an impressive as his blind is, well, impressive. “I’m typically running 800 to 1,400 decoys, but it depends on the height of the water. The more water, the bigger the hole gets. The bigger the hole gets, the more decoys I use. Add two to eight MOJO spinners, a Vortex, and a couple jerk strings, and it gets mighty good.”
Like those with the Boyds, Van Cleave’s hunters make their own lodging arrangements. However, what Reelfoot doesn’t lack are places for hunters or anglers to bed down for the night. For a complete list of accommodations, visit the Reelfoot Tourism Bureau’s website at reelfoottourism.com. For more information or to schedule a day in his Taj Mahal of a duck blind, contact Jackie Van Cleave at 731-431-9700.