As I sit here writing this, its a balmy 78 degrees outside here in New Orleans. One week ago I was sitting next to a pond, wearing thick layers of camo while the cold mountain winds blew around me on a tract of public land near East of Missoula, MT. Earlier that morning we made a hike in the dark across the safety zone and into the hunting area until we found a small pond to throw a few decoys into and wait on the morning flight.
Just when the dark grey clouds broke and allowed the first bit of daylight to peek through, a hen mallard came swinging down into the decoy spread. I kneeled up over the grass and put Land’s Remington 870 Wingmaster to my shoulder. I crippled her on my first shot. Land’s black labrador retriever Turk got right to work and eventually found the bird hiding in a patch of wheat grass.
There was little action for the next hour and Land decided to set out and find some more birds on a nearby creek. He returned 45 minutes later nearly out of breath with news that he’d shot a triple on Canada geese. He thought that we should stalk the creek to try our luck at jumping some birds.
My trips in Louisiana never afford this type of hunting. You’d find yourself waist deep in marsh mud doing this in my neck of the woods, but the grassy fields along this creek were perfect for sneaking up on puddling ducks. It was like upland hunting but for ducks- and I liked it.
We made a few attempts and after much walking, Land was able to spook and knock down a gorgeous mallard drake. Turk made another fiery retrieve and we added the drake to our stringer.
Every once and a while I would mistake the flashing of a whitetail deer jumping through brush along the creek bank for the beating wings of a duck or goose. I can’t recall how many deer we saw but it was the most I’ve ever seen in any one area, especially one that is so open and available to the public.
The rest of the stalk wouldn’t produce another bird but we got in our fair share of exercise. The wide open landscape made for some incredible photo opps too. We decided to call the hunt and started what became known between the three of us as “the death march” back to Land’s truck. Being weighed down by my backpack, gun, one of Land’s geese, and the ducks made me miss the ease of Louisiana hunts in a surface drive boat. Still, I pressed on, sadistically enjoying the new experience. “When in Rome” I told myself.
Hunters there should consider themselves lucky as this type of prime territory is rarely kept public in Louisiana and it certainly wouldn’t exist if there were oil and gas underneath it or money to be made from leasing or private ownership.
I am lucky in that my family owns marshland from two of my great grandfathers who purchased the land for trapping muskrats. I also lease some marsh property for duck hunting. In some cases families were able to make money from allowing oil and gas companies on their properties, but most of the time, large profits were made by land holding companies who owned hundreds of thousands of acres of marsh. In my case there was a pipeline canal that cut straight through my great grandfathers’ marsh land during the height of oil and gas exploration. These canals were cut and exist all throughout Louisiana’s coast. They weakened the marsh and allowed saltwater to intrude that marsh and upset the balance of brackish water and destroy those types of marsh.
When seeing the vast amounts of public land and water in Montana I thought for sure that there must be no resources to harvest here. That would be the only way to keep politicians and energy companies hands off right? Land told me that there was indeed oil and gas underneath these public grounds but a legacy of staunch conservation started long ago by Teddy Roosevelt was set in place to defend and develop them responsibly, putting long term health over short term gain. I learned later that evenening from Land that Montana has had its share of exploitation on public lands and only through an ardent conservation constituency has it survived
I had a lot to think about on the plane ride back to New Orleans. I started to miss Montana the minute I stepped into the Southern heat. What I took away from the trip was the desire to help Montana sportsmen maintain their legacy of conservation. As for my work at home, I want to transfer that energy here to Louisiana where we are engaged in a life threatening battle to save what’s left of the Mississippi River Delta. The delta is where we hunt. It’s where we fish. It’s also been a great supplier for our nation in seafood and energy production. But we are losing the delta at an alarming rate and if we don’t take action soon, it will be all but gone in less than 100 years.
The time is near to elect the leaders who will either fight to preserve our public lands and access to them or choose those who favor opening up those land to let big business extract its resources and become the playgrounds of the privileged. I would encourage those in Montana who believe in keeping those lands free to the people to rally with all their might. I’m now one of you. I plan to return to Montana and enjoy the public resources your state has to offer and I stand with you as a brother in conservation. I hope you will return the same to us down here in Louisiana.
1st photo courtesy of Bob Marshall and 2nd photo courtesy of Land Tawney