LAKE SALVADOR AND THE CAJUN DUCK HUNTER
Probably no section of North America in its primitive state was richer in bird life through the years than southern Louisiana. Encompassing four million acres, Louisiana’s coastal marshes and swamps represent over 40 percent of the estuarine wetlands in the contiguous United States. Millions of people rely directly or indirectly on the marshes for their livelihood and for protection against hurricanes and storms. This land was the heart of the unique Cajun culture.
Located at the southern end of the Mississippi and Central Flyways, the low-lying coasts, where stretched great vistas of marsh and shallow lagoon, gave food and shelter to seventy per cent of the waterfowl of the United States and Canada. Wild geese and ducks of all kinds and species, shorebirds such as yellowlegs, plovers, willets, snipe, and woodcock migrated to these natural feeding grounds to escape the rigors and barren bleakness of northern winters.
So, if one were asked the best state for duck hunting in the olden days in the United States, one would find it extremely difficult not to say it was Louisiana. For the migratory game birds of the Mississippi Valley, Louisiana was the “Grand Central Depot” with terminal facilities that were unsurpassed. Her reedy shores, her vast marshes, her long coastline, and abundance of food furnished what was not only a haven but a heaven for waterfowl and shorebirds.
And this was especially true of the forests, marshes, swamps, and prairie areas for sixty miles and more inland from the Gulf of Mexico, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by its bayous and rivers.
If asked the best area for duck hunting, one would say it was somewhere on the coastal region, which was one vast waterfowling Garden of Eden. Most would say it was a sixty-mile stretch eastward through a series of canals, bordered with marshes, that spanned the sometimes overflowed prairies from bayou to bayou, from Terrebonne to Lafourche, Lafourche to Des Allemands, on through Lake Salvador into and up Bar ta ria, again crossing the prairie and at length, leaving Lake Cataouatche through cypress swamp to the Mississippi River, opposite New Orleans.
Furthermore, Lake Salvador, 12 miles south of New Orleans, in the southern part of St. Charles Parish, would most likely be mentioned as being the best spot of that sixty-mile stretch. It had been a famous ducking ground ever since the beginning of European settlement in Louisiana.
Lake Salvador was a shallow, marsh-bordered lake approximately 50-square miles in area. Here, people lived in the basin near the end of the eighteenth century. On the north shore of Lake Salvador were numerous tents of duck hunters’ camps occupied during the hunting season, duck hunters of French or Spanish descent from the settlements along the Mississippi and in Barataria. The waterfowl reached New Orleans by going from Lake Salvador up into Lake Cataouatche then east by way of the Westwego Canal to New Orleans.
All these mentioned places produced boat or railcar loads of waterfowl each season, and here the silent pirogues of the Cajun hunters plied unmolested. The posting of one’s grounds was associated, in the Cajun’s mind, with ideas of aristocracy—peculiar privileges to the rich and oppression to the poor. When seen, they heeded not such notices. Claiming ownership of the countless flocks of geese and ducks that were wont to settle during the winter months at Lake Salvador, its ponds, and marshes, these warning on paper were disregarded and ridiculed. Therefore, they continued their encroachment, for this locality had always been noted for its excellent waterfowling grounds.
The Cajuns knew their country as no stranger could and where waterfowl could be killed every day. For a pirogue, they didn’t go to the nearest Bass Pro Shop, instead they sharpened their ax and selected a nice cypress log. Traveling by pirogue to the hunting grounds was described by an Englishman as “floating in the water on a match.”
Camps built and used by family groups had been an important aspect of life around Lake Salvador during the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Families left their homes to move to their waterfowling camps at Lake Salvador every year during the duck season. The family camps were small and organized around an extended family. Consisting of both houseboats and houses built on stilts, camps were built to house additional labor during the heavy season of any particular resource such as waterfowl where families could live together near hard-to-reach resources. Camps were typically accessible only by boat, and even in the twentieth century many did not have electricity.
The typical family hut or shack, learned how to build from the Indians, contained only two rooms, one of which combined all the features of a kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom. The other room was used only as a bedroom. The whole family was crowded into these two rooms, which were small at best. Both beds and bunks were used for sleeping, with the children crowded three or four to a bed. A woodstove, located outside, was used for both cooking and heating. A houseboat was merely a hut on a small barge.
Some camps consisted of one or two hunters and not a family. Their camp consisted of either a houseboat or a one-room, palmetto-cedar hut whose construction was learned from the Indians.
Whether it was a family or only one or two hunters, the hut was located on the bank of a bayou or lake to make it easy to access by boat, which were used to procure supplies or haul their waterfowl to market, if not shipped by train or someone else’s boat. Slips for the boats were dug into the bank and were tied to stakes driven into the ground.
The family moved into their dwelling a week or two before the duck-hunting season opened to get things in readiness. All took a hand in looking over their hunting paraphernalia, repairing anything if necessary. The ways of the father were the ways of the sons. The father and the sons set out decoys and made blinds, etc.
When the season started, each member of the family had an appointed task. When the day’s waterfowl was brought to camp, the mother and girls gutted and hung the waterfowl to dry, with help from the boys when needed. While they were away from camp hunting, the women folk kept the camp clean and prepared the meals. This routine was followed every day of the hunting season, being interrupted only to celebrate Christmas, or a rare trip back to buy supplies at the nearest store. To learn waterfowling lore, the younger boys went along with their father to learn the tricks of the trade, how to set out decoys, etc.
In camp, the girls helped their mother with household tasks and were taught the proper way of gutting and drying waterfowl and shorebirds, a most important lesson because a damaged bird would bring only a fraction of what it would otherwise be worth. When a boy became old enough, he was given a share of the season’s kill, and, in time, usually between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, he became full partners with his father and was allowed to hunt by himself. This partnership often times endured for life, even after marriage. The girls, however, were not so treated. They received their food and clothing, and a little spending money on occasion, nothing more. It was a man’s world.
Although camps were placed in relatively inaccessible areas, they were not totally isolated. During certain seasons, such as winter in the hunting area, or summer in the fishing areas, several families would be found in the same vicinity, taking advantage of prime conditions. Camps were often placed for ease of communication, on the same route, if not the same spots. For example, houseboats were commonly moored along a bayou emptying into Lake Salvador and camps built on slightly elevated shell beaches or mounds around the lake or a bayou. If enough families were nearby, floating stores supplied these camps with a limited supply of groceries and bought their waterfowl, if not taken to New Orleans. The family camps provided a point of continuity—a place where the skills were passed from one generation to the next—and were a primary source of income for the family.
The Cajuns were amphibious people inhabiting a world of swamps and bayous. They hunted alligator in the hot summer months, beginning when the warm weather of spring had driven the waterfowl back north to the breeding grounds, or fished when the heated waters of the lakes and lagoons compelled the fish to seek the more temperate currents of the open sea. They hunted gators for meat for their own consumption and hides for the game markets, which were shipped to Paris. In the fall, when the waters were lowest, they fished, trapped, and continued alligator hunting, while preparing to hunt waterfowl.
In the earliest of days, waterfowl began arriving by the middle of October, sometimes even as early as September depending on the weather, but, for the most part, were not fit for consumption, being to lean and poor from their long migration, so the market hunters waited until they had had time to fatten up.
When a Cajun market hunter in 1875 set out from his camp on Lake Salvador, he was equipped for a day of hunting with two muzzleloading flintlocks, ammunition, and a sack with ample supplies of coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, potatoes, and biscuits. He paddled in a light cypress pirogue, paddling through canals and bayous, to dark cypress swamps. One of the principal duck grasses was the wild oats or wild rice, ten to fifteen feet high, whose rich, farinaceous seeds furnished food for rails and waterfowl.
After a successful morning hunt, they often took their guns and walked to an old burn in the marsh, where it had been fired in the early fall for “marsh rabbits.” Here rabbits were taken for food. During waterfowl migration, the burnt marsh swarmed with snipes of a dozen varieties and nearly that many species of rails, along with plovers, which also graced their table, and went to the New Orleans market at the French Quarters.
At camp, nothing was more relished than Cajun duck-gizzard Jambulyuh. Other meals consisted of rails cut up in pieces and sauteed and then stewed and served with a dense white sauce, while redfish court-bouillon was considered greater. Nevertheless, if duck-gizzard Jambulyuh be not the greatest dish a Cajun family ever tasted, then they would certainly have liked to try it superior. Others swore of their Jambulyuh coots and boiled rice, highly seasoned. No bread whatsoever was eaten, but occasionally roasted sweet potatoes were served. No matter how the JAM + BUH+ LY + UH was served, a pot of boiled coffee accompanied the meal.
After dinner, the guns, all double-barreled muzzle loaders, were carefully cleaned and examined; the shot, No. 7 only, and powder replenished; and dry, black moss for powder wadding, and green moss for the shot, were placed in convenient reach in the pirogues, and soon each one, with gun in front of him and paddle in hand, was off for his evening hunt. The evening hunt consisted in cruising cautiously and silently around the borders of the open water, peeping into the little nooks and around the little islands for water hens or coots, but chiefly for ducks, and the banging of the guns told that execution was going on rapidly on all sides.
All these Cajuns were capital shots and took their game on the wing, dropping their paddles, snatching up their guns and dropping the game when flushed, with astonishing expertise.
Toward sunset, all concealed themselves in blinds made out in the open water, by sticking into the shallow water long green reeds, in such a manner as to leave the tops four feet above the water, in two rows, the length of a canoe, with one end closed and a space left between just wide enough to admit a pirogue. Into one of these blinds, the hunter, with a duck call, stationed himself and awaited the flight of the ducks as they poured into the lake toward nightfall from the rice fields. From an hour before sunset until after dark, the flashes and booms from these treacherous blinds told the destruction that was going on. When it was too dark to shoot with accuracy, the hunters headed their pirogues toward camp, with 15 to 30 each of ducks and water hens, but chiefly ducks.
Upon arrival at camp, one of the market hunters made the fire and put on three pots of water—one to scald what fowl they design to eat, one for coffee, and one for the invariable rice and water hens. The others placed the ducks in a pile; one picked up a duck, turned its belly up, pulled back the wings, plucked at a single stroke a large handful of feathers from off the side below the wing, and placed the feathers into a bag hung before him; snatched another bunch from off the other side, then two from the lower part of the belly, leaving a bare place about the size of one’s palm. He then tossed the duck to another man who was sitting on the floor; he carefully and cautiously opened the belly with a small narrow bladed knife, very sharp, and then threw the duck to a third man who drew out the entrails with a quick jerk with one hand, and pulled out with a grasp the liver, gizzard and heart, throwing them into a bucket, to be dressed and eaten in camp. Another took the duck, pressed into the cavity a ball of green moss, which he rubbed around, withdrew, and threw away, putting in as many as three or four of these moss balls until the bird was clean and dry inside.
The ducks were then sorted, tied in pairs, and hung up by the necks until packed to be sent off. No less than 16 varieties of ducks were known to these hunters. The canvasback and the red head were the best and brought the most money, the black mottled) duck was next, and the French duck or mallard was third.
The camp at night presented an interesting picture. When the ducks were disposed of, each one took a water hen and plucked off the feathers as clean as possible; the bird was then dipped into scalding water and rolled in hot ashes, where it was rubbed down white and clean. The entrails were then taken out, it was washed and a small stick about two feet long was stuck into its mouth, passing under and along the skin of its neck and out through the rear of the body. Onions, or garlic, and salt and pepper were then pressed into it and the stick was stuck into the ground in front of the fire at such an angle as to make the bird hang over the fire.
In an hour, by occasional turning, it was roasted to a turn, when the hunter stuck the stick in the ground between his legs and pulled off wings and legs, and, finally, the breast and body at his leisure; and it was certainly as rich a feast as one would wish to eat. Then came the JAM + BUH+ LY + UH and coffee, when pipes, songs and tall tales in Acadian French made the fireside merry for a couple of hours. By nine all was quiet. Four o’clock awakened the camp to a cup of strong coffee, and then before day all were on their way to their blinds, where they put out their decoys. By early dawn, the cannonading from 60 hunters on the lake sounded like a battle. The day’s hunt produced anywhere from 60 to 100 ducks per gunner.
They lived in rude shanties or huts with walls made of broad split cypress pickets and some cane. The roof consisted of thatched palmetto fronds scavenged from land clearing. Windows were openings, sometimes covered with oiled cloth or paper, and had wooden shutters for protection. The doors were planked wood and floors were packed dirt. Other huts’ walls and roofs were made from palmetto.
Huts were sited on the banks and bordering Native American shell-mounds of Lake Salvador, Bayous des Allemands, St. Denis, Dupont, and Barataria, and numerous other sluggish tidal streams and lakes in the great wilderness of Louisiana. The region in which they resided was uninviting to more civilized communities. Here they remained, as they had been, for ages, unmolested by the inroads of civilization, and in undisputed possession of their moss-draped cypress swamps, their lonely shell-mounds and live-oak groves, their desolate sea marsh, and their lakes and lagoons.
Waterfowling on Lake Salvador goes back to the Native Americans. Following two centuries of sporadic visits by European explorers, settlement began in the early 18th century with the arrival of French colonists, then later the Spanish. During the late colonial period, Lake Salvador supported hunters, trappers, and fishermen. As mentioned, in the late eighteenth century, on the northern shore of Lake Salvador there were Spanish and French hunter’s camps with numerous tents, but no huts at that time.
When the first “norther” set in, Cajun market hunters turned to their lighter pirogues, called by the natives a “running pirogue,” and turned to market-hunting feathered game on land they owned, not by deed but by natural heritage: the numberless mallards, the “French duck” as the natives called it, black ducks, pintails, grey ducks, teal, sometimes the canvasback, and the coot or water hen, the rails, and the snipe.
St. Charles Parish had many geographical advantages and was partially bounded on different sides by three lakes of considerable size, namely: Pontchartrain, Des Allemands and Salvador, the last two being connected by Bayou Des Allemands. The distance by boat from Lake Salvador to New Orleans was about 12 miles by water by way of lakes, bayous, rivers, and canals. At all three lakes, the market hunters did very well, and during the winter months a large number of ducks were shipped to New Orleans.
At each lake were ten or twelve camps, each containing four to six hunters that formed a partnership, hunting from October to March and maintaining a constant camp during the whole fall and winter, for the purpose of hunting for the market. They were all Creoles or Acadians. The latter came to Louisiana to become the Cajuns, people proud of their French roots that adapted to a new land and a new life. Originally, they came from the west central part of France to settle in French Canada part of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, dating back to 1764. They sent their game every day to New Orleans where their “salesmen” in New Orleans kept an account current for the hunting season with the recognized head of the partnership.
Bayou des Allemands was a beautiful stream, rising near Donaldsonville and emptying into Lake Salvador, where it was lost in the numerous bays and outlets extending to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Salvador was a magnificent body of water north of Lockport and was the entrance to one of the most charming bodies of lakes that led into the Gulf at Grand Pass, that could be found on the globe. Lake Allemands was a large body of water between Lafourche and St. James. These lakes were supplied with fish and crabs at all seasons, and during the hunting seasons were favorite resting places for the immense flocks of waterfowl that came down from the colder climes of the north.
In 1900, the Cajun families on Lake Salvador were invaded by professional white market hunters. One particular spot on Lake Salvador consisted of 425 acres along a four-mile shore of the lake, which had a famous duck pond on it, plus some additional smaller ponds and much swamp land. A group of market hunters leased this acreage for ten years from 1906-1915 and had made a fortune, clearing many thousand dollars during that time. Ten years of shooting had not diminished the supply.
During four-months in 1915, the hunters, who rented the grounds, killed a multitude of ducks. For one week, shooting from daylight until dark, using no bait, they killed and shipped 40,000 ducks from this particular spot to the French Market in New Orleans. They brought from 25 cents to 50 cents a pair wholesale, with the mallards bringing 50 cents, while teal brought 25 cents. They had two “run boats” which were constantly loaded with ducks to capacity, and they made a fortune.
1915 would be the last season of the white market hunters at Lake Salvador for the local Cajuns ran them off.
The season of 1916 was a good one for the Cajun families on the lake, as they found it necessary to double up on their efforts to kill more waterfowl during that waterfowl season, needing money on which to live. The surplus kill had the sanction of the state game commission, as the commission stated that it was needed to relieve distress among the poor Cajun families who were victims of the poor fishing season the preceding summer.
After the Civil War, the French Market was perhaps unsurpassed by that of any other city in the world, with its heyday being in the late nineteenth century. It received a constant supply of venison, bison, bears, pigeons, woodcocks, rails, quail, prairie chickens, plovers, snipe, squirrels, rabbits, coons, turkeys, cranes, geese, and ducks. Most of this game reached the populace, the principal hotels, restaurants, and saloons via the French Market to gratify the hungry stomachs of an immense army of gourmands, who did not partake of hog and hominy exclusively.
The market hunters at Lake Salvador had two latten-rigged “luggers,” which were constantly loaded to capacity with waterfowl during the four-month season. Taken to Des Allemands, the waterfowl, principally ducks, were shipped by the Southern Pacific railroad in great quantities to New Orleans, and large quantities were also shipped via the water route by the steamer St. Charles.
According to those in the know, there was no other place in Louisiana that was as good a market-hunting preserve as Lake Salvador, for it was very near the game markets of New Orleans and had an unlimited supply of birds. Being so close, ice was not needed, thus a large sugar barrel held 40 pairs of mallards, or 80 pairs of teal. In addition, baiting was not necessary, for the fodder grew wild in great abundance. And before the universal use of breechloaders and the invention of nitro-powders, it was not unusual to see acres and acres of ducks on the lake.
Things began to change after oil prospectors discovered how to drill in Louisiana’s wetlands in the 1920s. So, they dredged their way through enormous marshes and created a vast network of canals to get to their wells. Over time, the canals became heavily trafficked thoroughfares, linking bayous and bays across the region, and 70 percent of south Louisiana’s land became privately owned, thus changing the environment for so many Cajuns.
These early hunting camps were the forerunner of later hunting camps such as Fred Dudley’s and others such as Tropical Garden Gun Club, La Butte, Red Camp, Hard Times Camp, and others—where Cajun culture is maintained in the lives of new generations of Cajun duck hunters.
As the twentieth century progressed, each year coastal Louisiana lost its wetlands at an increasing rate, reaching about 40 square miles per year in the 1970s. This represented 80 percent of all coastal wetland loss in the United States and constituted an economic cost of about one-half billion dollars per year. Recently the rate of wetland loss has slowed somewhat.
The Cajuns of Louisiana today are renowned for their music, their food, and their ability to hold on to tradition while making the most of the present.
The old saying: “If it walks, crawls, swims, or flies, we kill it, and it ends up in the Cajun’s pot.”