Sitting in a late-October duck blind on Pool 9 of the Upper Mississippi River, it was difficult for me to fathom that in 2 months I'd be in the bayou doing the same thing. Louisiana in winter. That thought alone was enough to quell my spite for the oncoming Minnesota madness. Southern waterfowl instead of numbing Northern blizzards? Sign me up.
Jumping Into The 'Experience'
December had mercilessly arrived. A bone-chilling breeze struck me through the cracks of the jetway as I boarded a plane for my southbound migration. Trading Sorels and a snow shovel for waders and a shotgun, I found myself in a johnboat, peeling through a thick fog on Catahoula Lake. Jay Strangis, publisher of American Waterfowler magazine, and Andi Cooper, a biologist from Ducks Unlimited, joined me as we began our very own pursuit of the "Experience." Honey Brake Head Guide Drew Keeth would call the shots this morning with his loyal gun dog, Cash, at the ready.
They call it the "Honey Brake Experience." That's exactly what's offered at the 40,000-acre plush paradise nestled in the heart of the Louisiana Delta Plantation. It's a custom-tailored getaway with limitless outdoor recreational opportunities, pure relaxation ... or both. Honey Brake Lodge, with its elegantly rustic design, was built to accommodate anyone, from hardcore duck hunters to sophisticated folks who are seeking a departure from the daily bustle at an exceedingly comfortable "home away from home."
"I realized we had something particular and unique; we wanted to preserve that," said Louisiana Delta Plantation President Ron Johnson. "So, we just built a cabin and upgraded from there." That's one heck of an understatement.
A quick glance at the stunning exterior and interior of Honey Brake Lodge.
During a typical day as a guest of Honey Brake, you can wake up and enjoy a gourmet Cajun breakfast in their stunning dining room overlooking Larto Lake. From there, you can choose to board a pontoon for a relaxing cruise or jump in a fishing boat to catch crappies and largemouth bass. Head to their world-class shooting facility in the afternoon for a round of sporting clays, five-stand or duck flush. Kick back in the evening by the lodge fireplace and sip a whiskey or sweet tea, or grab a binocular and camera for a sunset nature-viewing expedition.
Elevated walkways lead through the trees to the Honey Brake cabins.
Sound too much like an exaggerated travel brochure? Well, sorry, but it's the real deal. Honey Brake is a destination, not just a hunting camp. However, if part of your sporting portfolio has a section dedicated to duck hunting, take note: Honey Brake is the type of place that consistently holds the potential for an epic multispecies showdown. It's the type of place where any waterfowler could reach the pinnacle of their wing-shooting career.
Birds Of The Brake
It's not difficult to understand why Honey Brake has all the makings of a waterfowl hunter's dreamland. It's massive, privately owned and contains the largest Ducks Unlimited water control system in the country. With the system, land managers can strategically drain or flood particular areas of the property, allowing them to manipulate the habitat year-round and make it ideal for ducks. Honey Brake is also neighbored by the 60,000-acre Dewey Wills Wildlife Management Area—some of Louisiana's premier public land.
"When I realized this was the largest WRP [Wetlands Reserve Program] land in the United States, we decided then to start building a duck hunting camp," said Ron.
My journey was to last only 1 1/2 days—far too shallow to immerse myself in the entire Experience. So, undoubtedly, all of my time would be spent with eyes to the sky and dreams of a banner duck day. Due to a painfully dry season, I wouldn't get to take advantage of the exclusive shoreline hides along the many flooded fields that Honey Brake is best known for. There simply wasn't enough water to fill the normally duck-rich holes. Thankfully, within a stone's throw of the lodge is Catahoula Lake—our Plan B—which just so happens to be the largest natural freshwater lake in the state.
“Any situation a duck could think of ... we have it here," said Drew, who is also general manager of Honey Brake. "From the agricultural fields to moist soil areas, or from the big, open waters of Catahoula Lake to flooded timber, we offer it all. With a property this big, we pretty much have our own flyway!”
With less than 48 hours to burn some shells on the wintering bayou birds, I suited up in the mud room and prepared for my first morning on the water.
The Sky Is The Limit
Jay, Andi and I sipped hot coffee, begging for the sun to tear through Catahoula's fog just enough to offer us shots at ducks on their morning commute. Drew worked his calls and rattled off facts about the intriguing, deep-rooted duck hunting tradition of Catahoula. We were sitting in one of literally hundreds of permanent duck blinds on the lake, many of which have been passed down through generations of duck hunters. I smiled to myself, feeling blessed with the opportunity to experience such a unique hunting culture.
We waited in the dense fog for Catahoula birds to buzz our decoys and offer us shots.
Birds started flying, so we shifted our focus to the task at hand. Singles, doubles and some small flocks zipped through the fog around our pine-bough-covered blind. It became apparent that the fog was unrelenting, so pass-shooting would be a necessity. Our decoy spread was impressive, with bobbing lures numbering in the thousands. It was an odd blend of standard floating duck decoys and empty plastic bottles, most with a black coating. Drew explained that the bottles offer unmatched motion with the slightest wind, magnetizing birds from great distances.
Jay and I shot down a few fast-flying green-winged teal while Andi shot the unfolding drama with her camera. Drew plucked a lone bull canvasback from his side of the blind, which would have otherwise snuck by undetected. Jay nodded off for a travel-induced snooze.
Guide Drew Keeth shows off his bull can (left), and Jay Strangis his green-winged teal.
Suddenly, a loud roar erupted from our right, far behind the fence that hovers across the water to bar hunters from one of Catahoula's protected areas. Was that a train? I wondered. Drew responded, almost telepathically. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "That was the cans getting up." All morning, through the tattered fog, we caught glimpses of endless rafts—mainly wintering canvasbacks—floated in the forbidden zone. Every now and then, a few birds would venture to our side of the fence and tempt our gun barrels. Refreshed from his blind nap, Jay came alive and sent his own drake can for a splash. It was time to head back for breakfast, soak up "the good life" at the lodge, and recharge our bird-busting batteries for another day on the water.
We headed back to the lodge for some R&R after a successful morning hunt.
Going Out With A Bang
It's a good thing the Southern hospitality at Honey Brake is all it's cracked up to be, because following our first-morning hunt I retired to my cabin with an impending cold. I woke for dinner, quickly realizing I had caught a bug—not the kind a guy can just sleep off. With all the comforts of home, I knew it would be manageable.
I woke the next morning with my usual Charlton Heston-like mentality: "From my cold, dead hands." A pounding headache, sore throat and cough wouldn't prevent me from picking up my Remington and boarding the Honey Brake van for another morning of waterfowlin'.
Fellow hunters suit up in the Honey Brake mud room for another day of wing shooting.
Under a moonlit sky, Jay and I boarded an airboat—another new experience for me—with guide Richie Graham. The thrilling ride eventually slowed and the boat's spotlight shined on a permanent Catahoula blind. It was a welcomed change of scenery from the prior morning. Richie had a history with this blind ... it was his family's.
We all exchanged duck stories and hearty laughs throughout the morning, keeping my ill spirits up and our hopes alive for an unforgettable hunt. The ducks didn't want to fly in great numbers, but blinds all around us (one in particular) boiled over with consistent shooting throughout the morning. We took a few ducks of our own, including a pair of drake redheads dropped by Richie and Jay. Patience prevailed and my chance came as a drake pintail circled our setup. He swung into range on my side and I let a single shot rip through the calm air, knocking him down on the outer edge of our decoys. My first pintail ... and a drake at that.
Jay Strangis (left) admires a pair of drake redheads, and me, my first drake pintail.
I had merely sampled the Honey Brake Experience, but it was time to head back Up North. I ran my small travel cooler—filled with delicious ducks—through the X-ray machine at the airport security checkpoint. Part of me was hoping they'd ask "What's inside?" so I could explain that I was bringing a taste of the South home with me. I was dying to tell someone how sweet it was, and that I'd be back for more.
Author's Extras: Honey Brake has its own TV show called, fittingly, Honey Brake Experience. Producer Tayloe Emery—the fine gentleman who helped arrange most of my trip—was with us when I took my first pintail. You can watch the video below.