Behind the levee is magical; a wonderland if hunting and fishing wild, mostly untamable places in the Deep South is your thing. Long-time friend and storyteller, Jim Crews, takes us behind the levee, sharing stories from a special place his family’s now hunted for 4 generations.

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Ramsey Russell: Jim for those not blessed with growing up in the Mississippi Delta. What is behind the levee? Where is behind the levee?

Jim Crews: Well, let me start that off with a little short history lesson. The Mississippi river, which, of course, forms the western boundary of the state of Mississippi, has always been prone to flooding. And in 1927, there came an epic flood that pretty much put the Mississippi Delta underwater and instigated the United States Congress to try to do something about the flood problem. Because all that flooding was, of course, killing a lot of people, destroying a lot of property, ravaging crops and creating severe economic hardship. So all that said, they appropriated a huge amount of money and directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a giant levee to hold the river in during the spring flood season. That levee stretches from Memphis, Tennessee, all the way to Vicksburg. And the phrase behind the levee is a term that we delta hunters used to denote the bottomland, woods and swamps that now exist between the levee and the river. And what that construction that levee created was some of the finest wildlife habitat certainly in the state of Mississippi and quite probably in the United States. So there are thousands and thousands of acres that are behind the levee in that swath that goes from Memphis to Vicksburg. And most of it now is either held in the form of hunting clubs or in some cases held by individuals, but it is pure wildlife habitat.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, welcome back to MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast, where today I’m in Canton, Mississippi, meet with my long time friend, my attorney, but also my duck hunting buddy, Mr. Jim Crews, who has written another book called Behind the Levee, Hunting Club life in the Mississippi Delta. Jim, I don’t even know where to start. It’s a great book you’ve written and of course, I’ve been blessed to hunt some of these places with you.

Jim Crews: Yes, you have.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about Ward Lake Hunting Club. That’s kind of you all’s headquarters there. Then and now, what is Ward Lake Hunting Club?

Jim Crews: Well, Ward Lake is a hunting club in Coahoma County, Mississippi. It’s right just west of the little town of Sherard off of highway one.

Ramsey Russell: Well, Sherard ain’t nothing but an old shack right there at the crossroads. Last time I went through there.

Jim Crews: It’s a crossroads, basically. There’s what used to be a store there, but not much left there now. Ward Lake itself originally formed right after World War II. And a group of Coahoma County sportsmen got together and decided they wanted something fun to do after dealing with the years of the depression and the years of war, when most of them had gone off to fight and what they did was put together. I think originally there were 50 or 60 men put their resources together and leased up the property that we still hunt today. And it’s still known as the Ward Lake Hunting Club, but leased some of it from timber companies, some of it from local families and that started the club back in the late 40s. And it has been an organized group since then. It’s gone through some change from then to now. I know my personal family relationship began with it in the, I believe in the late 50s. My grandfather was the administrator of the Methodist hospital in Memphis and one of the board members there was Big Jack Sherrod and he was a planner in the Sherard area. His family had settled that area and he was, I think, president of the hunting club. Well, they became friends as a result of their relationship with the hospital. And Mr. Sherrod eventually asked my granddaddy if he’d like to join this Ward Lake Hunting Club because he knew they both liked to hunt and they enjoyed each other’s company. So my granddaddy was the first, quote “outsider”, unquote, to join the club. My dad joined it sometime in the early 60s, I think a little bit before I was born, which I guess I’m telling him my age now, but he fell in love with it. Took me there for the first time when I was 6 years old and it’s been a part of my life ever since.

Ramsey Russell: And you’ve taken your own kids there. We’re going to talk about it in a little bit.

Jim Crews: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: 4 generations in this camp.

Jim Crews: 4 generations.

Ramsey Russell: You talk about there’s got to be some of your earliest members. You talk about shotgun camp. What is shotgun camp?

Jim Crews: Yeah. Nowadays, a lot of our hunting clubs have gotten pretty posh and you see fancier, so called hunting camps and most –

Ramsey Russell: Talk about vacation home on steel.

Jim Crews: Yeah, most people’s homes. But back then, things were quite a bit more rustic. And our first family camp, it was actually shared by 3 families, was a shotgun house. And a lot of folks probably not familiar with that term, but what shotgun houses were originally were cheap ways to house farm labor. They were cabins built out of cypress. They were typically 3 rooms. You’d have a front room, a middle room and a back room, with the back room being the kitchen and the other 2 rooms being bedrooms, living quarters, dining room, all 3. So we had one of those that had been moved off one of the farms nearby and placed out there behind the levee. And it was very primitive, but it was paradise to me as a little kid.

Memories of Grandfather’s Shotgun House: Tales from Behind the Levee

That reminds me of my grandfather, I guess, it was a shotgun house now to think about it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That reminds me of my grandfather, I guess, it was a shotgun house now to think about it. It was on the Arkansas side behind the levee and it was home to rats and mice when the hunters weren’t in it year to year, I guess. And some of my fondest memories growing up as a child not hunting with it. But we’d go over there to check on things on one side of the building, the entire wall. I can just remember this little boy putting my ear to the wall and hearing the bees. Didn’t matter if he’s on the outside or inside. You could put the whole wall with a big honeycomb. And of course, boy, I tell you what, some of my first glimpses of scantily clad women was on them 1950, 1960 era posters hanging up and painted red spray paint. Above the kitchen was Russell’s kitchen cookie no clingy. There’s a lot to be said about that. I mean, it wasn’t about creature comfort. It was about hunting.

Jim Crews: It was about hunting and being together.

Ramsey Russell: Who were some of the families that shared that house with you all.

Jim Crews: Well, it was my dad’s buddy, Jack Sherrod, who was Big Jack Sherrod’s son. Jack and my dad were contemporaries. And then Jack’s brother in law, Mike Simon, who’s still a Ward Lake member. I think he’s actually now the oldest, still original member, but he’s still alive, still a member. But those 3 families shared that cabin. And you talk about the mice in the walls and the beehive in the walls. We had both of those. And the first time I ever smelled a dead rat was there.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Jim Crews: We’d put out decon and of course, a rat isn’t going to go die.

Ramsey Russell: How’d you keep it heated?

Jim Crews: Well, we had a fireplace. We had a propane stove, too, that would help keep it warm.

Ramsey Russell: Got back in the days it got cold still.

Jim Crews: It got real cold. I remember I had about a 40 pound sleeping bag in those days.

Ramsey Russell: You talked about the floods leading up to the delta and the building of that levee. Talk about some of the floods. 73 to the present day, because it’s still a very flood prone area and it seems like the water’s getting even higher than it used to get. But there have been some epic high water marks, so to speak, since 1973 being one of them.

Jim Crews: Oh, yeah, I was there for the 73 flood. 73 and 75 were both huge floods. The couple of things I really – There are a couple events that happened during those that I remember. One of them, I think it was a 75 flood came in April during turkey season. Of course, we didn’t have sophisticated prediction mechanisms that we do now, but my dad was there and he was a die hard turkey hunter. That’s what, that was his real passion. And we knew how water was coming. But what he didn’t realize was how fast it was coming that particular time. And he had spent the night, he had gone out and hunted, knew there some of the low places in the woods were starting to fill up. So he knew water was coming. Well, he tried to drive out to go home and found himself cut off. There’s a low swag right up close to the levee. That is the first place that gets too deep to drive. And –

Ramsey Russell: That’s where they got to feel from for the levee.

Jim Crews: Yeah, probably so. But what he found was that he could not drive out. It was higher than the water, water was higher than the hood of his bronco well. Long and short of that is he had to leave the bronco up on top of the old levee. The historic 1886 levee that still stands in bits and pieces on our property. He had to leave his bronco there for 2 months and rent a car.

Ramsey Russell: What did he walk out, flew them out.

Jim Crews: He got somebody to bring him out in a boat.  But it was trapped, there was nothing he could do about it. There was another event. We were launching a boat to come in during a flood and it may have been that same year. I can’t remember that. But there were 2 old gentlemen that were members and they were also launching right at the base of the levee. They put their boat in. They got in. Current was shooting down the levee. They tried to crank their motor and couldn’t get it cranked and the current washed them into a cattle fence. And as soon as that boat got up on that fence, it flipped it over. And these old guys were probably 80 years old then. And my dad and a couple of his buddies saw this happening and waded out in that raging current and pulled them out of the water. I think they let the boat go on float to Louisiana, but those guys would have drowned then and there if they hadn’t pulled them out then.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, considering the Mississippi Delta and its present state, when you start talking behind the levee on the riverside of the Mississippi river, it’s still a pretty wild and woolly place because of that water.

Jim Crews: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: And after 75, what’d been the next big flood?

Jim Crews: We have floods periodically. And a lot of them really aren’t that memorable, other than they will knock out a turkey hatch if you have it in April or May. But they come and they go. But then we had the historic epic flood of 2011. That’s the one that I will never forget.

Ramsey Russell: Hang on a second. You talked about the levee. We crossed over the mainline levee. Go through the dip, drive a few miles. Okay. We’re on board Lake Hunt Club. And there’s a row of camps built on an old levee that’s 1886 levee.

Jim Crews: I went back and did some research.

Ramsey Russell: What would it be half the height of the mainline levee, today?

Jim Crews: It might. I don’t think it’s even half. But it was built in 1886. I went back and did the research on that.

Ramsey Russell: And it held during the 27th flood of that. Did that –

Jim Crews: No.

Ramsey Russell: No, it did not.

Jim Crews: No, it blew out. And if you – You may not have noticed them, but there’s several breaks in it as you go down the levee or go down the road, rather. And in a couple of those breaks, the water came pouring through there so fast, it scooped it out and left lakes. And those are known behind the levee as blue holes.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Jim Crews: That’s what you call them. There’s 2 explanations for that term. One is they’re deeper, clearer. Deeper and clearer than most of the swampy kind of bodies of water you find back there. So mentally, you think of them as being blue instead of brown, which that’s really not the case if you look at them. But it’s a relative thing. The other theory is that they were named because that water blew a hole in the levee.

Ramsey Russell: Yep. I see.

Jim Crews: I’ve seen the oldest map I’ve seen of the property there, I think. I don’t know who made it. I remember that map as a little boy in the 60s. It was probably made before then. It was spelled blue hole.

Ramsey Russell: Right. that’s the color.

Jim Crews: So that’s what I go with is name for the color, but that’s a term I’ve never seen used anywhere except behind that levee.

Ramsey Russell: So in 2011, though, do you told me one time that it breached levee or during 27, but since 1927, that levee pretty much held the water inside. Inside the mainline levee, never got over that old 1886 levee. Never topped it, didn’t flood them houses on top of it.

Jim Crews: Never topped it until 2011.

Ramsey Russell: 2011. That’s a long time, Jim. That’s 90 years of floods. And what happened in 2011?

Jim Crews: Well, we thought that was going to be just another flood where –

Ramsey Russell: You got one of the tallest cabins over there.

Rising Waters: A Tale of Watching and Waiting

We watched that river gauge closely that time of year. It came up, it went down and as it often does, it started coming up again. Well, we got a little spooky.

Jim Crews: I did, yeah. That’s some that are higher now. But that year we had high water in March, not at all unusual. We watched that river gauge closely that time of year. It came up, it went down and as it often does, it started coming up again. Well, we got a little spooky. Something about this one felt ominous. And it was enough that we thought, there is some possibility that a little water might get in the house this time. We didn’t quite know what river stage that would be – we watched the hell in the gauge flood stage is 44. The prediction went from 48, which is inconsequential, to 49 to 50. And when we saw it going to 50, we thought, we need to go get some stuff. I look back and think how naive we were, but maybe we ought to put appliances up on the counters and do some things just in case. Well, I’ll this went on over weeks and I was nervous, I was preoccupied. The levee board would not let us go back there to check on things. They were worried about the stability of the mainline levee.

Ramsey Russell: They sure were.

Jim Crews: Would not even let us cross over and launch a boat and ride back.

Ramsey Russell: In 2011 because we were down on the Yazoo side down. The engineer for the levee board told us that not only was the water higher, but it, but that levee, since it was built in the 70s, had never had water on it for as long.

Jim Crews: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And so they were concerned. I mean, from Vicksburg clear up to Memphis, everybody’s wondering, oh lord, what’s going to happen? Go ahead.

Jim Crews: Well, we were watching it and all we could do at that point really was pray. Prediction went to 52. Friend of mine sent me an aerial photo he had gotten from somebody and you could still see some of the cabins on the old levee were still had little rings of dry ground around them and –

Ramsey Russell: Wow. Is it?

Jim Crews: My house is at the same elevation as those. So I said, okay, well, I’m all right then for now. I’ll never forget the evening. A friend of mine called me and he said, have you seen the river prediction today? And I said, it’s been right at 52 for the last 4 weeks. He said, they raised it 4ft today. He says, going to 56. And my heart sank because I knew then that there was going to be not only water, but lots of water in the house as it turned out. And you’ve seen the watermark. We left it on one of the cypress walls in the cabin. We had 4ft of water in that house for about 3 weeks. And so that was that. Eventually the water started receding enough to where the levee board did allow us to start going back and checking things out.

Ramsey Russell: What was that like?

Jim Crews: It was horrifying. A friend of mine had gone again naively, I asked a friend of mine who had gotten in there before I could get up there. I said, could you go in and just raise our windows and let some of that moisture start drying out. And he called me the next day and so I went in there and I said, what was it like? He said, you going to have to see it to believe it. But I learned a lot of things as a result of that. I learned a great deal about house construction, because we had to physically gut that house board by board and nasty wet clump of insulation by wet clump of insulation and literally pull that house completely apart from the inside to let it dry out, air out so we could rebuild it.

Ramsey Russell: How long did it take to dry out?

Jim Crews: It took us about a month to gut it. Working long weekends and then we let it sit for, I don’t know how long, 2 or 3 months, probably just wide open. We had taken all the doors off, we’d taken the windows, lifted the windows up and of course, everything was out of it. There wasn’t – All the furniture was ruined. So we’d taken all of it out and just really stripped it down to studs and nothing. And then rebuilt it over time. It took, it was about 10 months after we flooded that, we had it back operational again.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I bet that was nice, getting that all done and moving in. And did you all raise it any?

Jim Crews: No, we didn’t. The federal government was trying to force us to. And you know how you feel when the government’s trying to force you to do something. We pushed back on that pretty hard. And eventually saner heads prevailed, and they left us alone.

Ramsey Russell: I don’t know whatever came to this, Jim. I don’t know why they thought of this, but at some point in time, there was a class action lawsuit of sorts building against the Corps of Engineers, saying that their water management policy inside the levee is adverse possession.

Jim Crews: Yeah, I’m aware of it. I can’t say I’m familiar with it. There’s actually 2 levy districts in the delta. There’s the I forgot, I can’t think of the names of them right now. But the one that affects us is not the one, the subject of the lawsuit. It’s the more southern one.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Jim Crews: And I’ll be interested to see how that comes down.

Ramsey Russell: Because there really is a lot of truth to that. I mean, they really built that is a form of adverse possession. When it starts affecting stuff like your cabin and your property, your wildlife and your assets, your personal and private property, that really is a form of adverse possession. If it can be managed, else how. But I don’t want to get off in that rabbit hole right now. Jim, what kind of scofflaw was Jim Crews in 1978? We all got a sorted and young and in temperate past.

Jim Crews: That’s right. You push boundaries when you’re a teenager. I think that’s just –

Ramsey Russell: 50 years ago, was a long time anyway.

Jim Crews: That’s right, 50 years ago. And speaking of statutes and limitations and legal terms, the statute of limitations is run. But my dad and my good buddy Hal Patton, who was one of my growing up friends, hunting buddies, actually. Probably the guy that really got me into duck hunting. The 3 of us went out one morning, it was during the point system years and we had a jam up hunt out in one of the cypress breaks on the club there and killed, typical Mississippi Delta limit of primarily mallards and gadwalls. But we had a black duck in the bunch that day, and a banded duck that my buddy Hal had shot at and missed. And I killed just incidentally. If he ever listens to this podcast, I’m going to memorialize this. That was one of the 4 greenheads, banded greenheads I’ve killed after he shot and missed them. But anyway, we got through with our hunt. We were limited out, had a big pile of ducks or 3 big piles of ducks in the boat and motored back to the landing. And I saw, as we got close to the boat landing, I saw a flash, a metallic flash and a buck brush. And I picked that out. And then I realized it was a man standing there. And what that flash was game warden badge. And he was a warden then, was named Mike Jenkins. I’d never met him before, none of us had. But Mike said, did you all have a good hunt this morning? Yes, sir, we sure did. He said, well, let’s see your ducks. And we had them stacked up so we could count them out easy, point system days. The high point duck was always the last one that was shot, but everything was good on our limit. He said, well, I need to check your licenses and your stamps. And we got those out and everything was fine. And he said, do you all have – I guess the last thing I need to check is this was prior to steel shots, so we had leads. But he asked us, I need to check gun plugs. Hal had a Remington 870. His was fine. My dad was shooting a side by side double. And of course that doesn’t require a plug because it only shoots 2. And as all this is transpiring, I was getting more and more nervous and shaking and sweaty because what I realized was my 870 did not have a plug in it. And Mike looked at me and he said, well, I need to see your gun. I said, well, I’m afraid I got something to tell you. I hadn’t got a plug in it. My dad was a real stickler for abiding by the game laws and the look he gave me could have cut me dead. But he said, well, Mike said, all right, I want to go talk to your dad for a minute. They walked off, leaving Hal and me standing back there by the boat. Because Hal didn’t know what to say. I’m terrified. I didn’t know if I was going to have to go to jail or if I was going to have to hire a lawyer with money I didn’t have, because I was only, I think I was 15 years old. So I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know what was going happen, but it couldn’t be good. Well, after a few minutes, both the men come walking back down and Mike said, look, I appreciate the fact that you were honest and owed up to this. We all make mistakes. He said, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you off with a warning and you’re not going to get in any trouble over this. My dad said, well, he may let you off with a warning, but I’m not. And my sentence for that was to clean out the rain gutters in my parents house, which were full of leaves and there was many yards of nasty, wet rain gutter that I had to clean out to pay my penance for the unplugged gun. And I think that forever cured me of yard work. I never liked yard work.

Ramsey Russell: Jim, talk just a little bit about the habitats you all hunt over there, because it’s not really flooded timber. It’s flooded cypress. And I love hunting flooded cypress. That’s pretty much describes you all’s hunting experience over there. Is hunting these breaks?

Hunting in Cypress Breaks: A Unique Experience

The vegetation types are, of course, cypress trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. A lot of buck brushes in there, willows and places.

Jim Crews: Yeah, that’s really 100% of our hunting experiences is cypress breaks, which are, of course, they flood seasonally. They don’t necessarily stay wet all the time. A lot of it depends on the year and the beavers, but typically, they’ll drop in whole or in part, during the summer. The vegetation types are, of course, cypress trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. A lot of buck brushes in there, willows and places. One of the really cool things that we have that makes our duck hunting special is a lot of aquatic vegetation. We had the coontail, moss and duck potato very prevalent in most all the places we hunt. So we’re not dependent on planting rice or millet or corn or any of that stuff to attract them and hold them and but that’s our habitat.

Ramsey Russell: What are you all’s favorite hunting task? I mean, I’ve hunted wee enough, I know the answer, but I mean, the birds don’t always just come in, crack a dome.

Jim Crews: No, of course, a lot of times they do, but I’ve never been one that wanted to just get in and kill them and see how fast we can get in and get out. I like to savor the experience. And what we get a lot of is mid morning to late morning flights. That’s kind of one of our hallmarks. And I have had a lot of hunts that didn’t really turn on till, maybe 08:30, 09:00 o’clock. And you never really know. Well, I won’t say you never know. Sometimes a front will come through or something that is stirring them. But the fact that you go out at daylight and don’t do particularly well doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to give up at 08:30 or 09:00 and go in.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. And do you like clear days or cloudy days?

Jim Crews: Clear, for sure.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, they like laying off in them shadows. Actually, I’ve noticed that.

Jim Crews: They do better on a clear day. But of course, you know me well, if I’m not sitting here behind this desk and it’s duck season, I’m up there whether it’s clear or cloudy or cold or hot or rainy or windy or what.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I wonder if it’s the cypress or all that coontail, moss back off and then breaks it, attract all the gadwall? Cause you all shoot a lot of gadwall.

Jim Crews: We’re high percentage on gadwall.

Ramsey Russell: Do the gadwall experts talk about a bull sprig, big hole. Bull hole. Bull hole sprig. 2004, what’s that story?

Jim Crews: We years ago –

Ramsey Russell: You don’t shoot a lot of sprigs off of the summer –

Jim Crews: No, no, we don’t. But this, that particular time we had a, for just a few years, we got a little field lease over in crowder just less than an hour from Ward Lake. And the main reason we did it was I had a couple of cousins in the club and I all had sons who were right at hunting age, but a lot of mornings, little boys don’t necessarily want to get up and go. And so what we figured out we could do was get this place. We call it the bull hole. It was named after a friend of mine whose nickname is Bull and he had gotten the lease. Originally, we called it the bull hole, but what we would typically do is take the kids to the bull hole for an afternoon hunt. After we did our morning thing. On this particular story, we were in the middle of a big freeze and we had gone out looking at different locations and found nothing that was open that was huntable. And we said, why don’t we try the bull hole in the afternoon? What we don’t do on Ward Lake is hunt ducks in the afternoon. We closed down at noon, but the bull hole was wide open. And we thought, you get good, bright sunshine, even if it’s still kind of cold on a field, it can melt off that ice and you can have a mid afternoon hunt. So that’s what we did. We basically thought let’s go try. Worst we can do is nothing. But it was my cousin John and his son Phillips, and I went. We got there, found a hole just full of ducks. It was right on the edge of a brushy ditch. It was too deep to or I guess it was too far to walk. So we had taken a boat in, but as it shook out, we set up and put a cork decor spread out. You and I have hunted over those. And started killing ducks. Well, Phillips wanted in the worst way. Worst way wanted to kill a pintail. He’d never shot one before. And we had one come in and just, he fluttered out there at about 55 yards. And Phillips wanted to shoot at him. I said, no, no, no, let that one go. He’s too far. You’re probably going to cripple him if you hit him. Just leave him alone. He said, come on, let me do it. I said, no, don’t do it. Well, afternoon went on and we got close to the limit and had another pintail really give it up. And he had a sprig about 7 inches long. He circled us 3 or 4 times like they do. Then he came right in. Well, Phillips’s daddy, John, saw this happening. John literally jumped the gun on Phillips. But in a result of poetic justice, John missed and Phillips, bam, killed the duck right behind his daddy. So he killed his first pintail right there. Like it was supposed to be 20, 25 yards, close and personal. After showing good restraint on that when that was too far that morning, but that was he got rewarded.

Ramsey Russell: You all are now 4 generations hunting behind the levee Jim. What your fondest memory hunt with your daddy? I got to hunt with your daddy a few times. What have you got a fondest memory hunt with your daddy?

Jim Crews: My gosh, there are so many out there –

Ramsey Russell: Don’t come to mind. I just throw that out there at you random. I mean, yeah, there’s got to be one day.

Jim Crews: I’ll tell you, I mean, I do. I have just literally hundreds of days that we hunted together, of course, for deer and turkeys and other stuff we don’t want to talk about on this podcast. But as he grew or back up, when he was growing up, he didn’t have access to any deer hunting. And so for a long time, during his early adulthood and in the middle age, he was really more into to deer. But I guess by about the time he hit 55, 60 years old, I was really into duck hunting. And the limits had gone back up to 6. And he started hunting ducks again with me a lot and for about the last 20 years of his life, was together with me all the time. But there was one year, I think it was around, I like, I hadn’t used this phrase in relation to this time frame, but around the turn of the century, around 2000, we had, I guess you’d call it, the biggest blizzard we ever had in the delta. We had a 10 inch snow overnight. And everyone who could get there had gotten there. Anyone who hadn’t gotten there wasn’t going to get there because the roads were completely impassable. Well, we wake up and of course it’s duck season. So what are we going to do this morning? We’re going to duck hunt. We rode over to this break that we called the duck project and I pulled up at the boat land and all you could see was snow. And I figured you think when it’s 200 and you’d had all that precipitation and all that night before, it’s going to be frozen over. But what had happened was the snowfall had fallen so hard and so fast, it had made a layer of slush in the water and then probably 3 or 4 inches of snow on top of the surface of the water. And I guess that acted as insulation because it didn’t freeze solid, it didn’t freeze at all. It was slush water when I stuck my toe in it, you know how you do when you check in the ice at the ramp? I stuck my toe in it and you could drive a boat in it. I thought, well, I’ve been in a lot of situations, but I’m not sure how this is going to be. But there were 6 of us along. We had 2 boats, we had 6 shooters, 3 dogs, 2 boats went out, started motoring through the brake and there’s absolutely no open water. Like I say, the whole surface was covered in snow. Well, we thought, well, we might as well try. Well, I ran the boat around in a circle big enough to set decoys. And that, of course, churning that muddy water up made it look like an oil slick out in the middle of this beautiful, pristine, magical looking, snow covered swamp. And I thought I threw out 8 or 10 decoys just for atmosphere. Said let’s just give it a few minutes and see if anything happens. Well, I’ll be darned here came ducks out of nowhere. And we’d done all this in full daylight. I hadn’t seen a duck the whole time we were doing this. I hadn’t seen a duck. And I wasn’t very optimistic. But a friend of mine has said, you don’t know till you go. Anyway, here come the ducks. Well, then, I don’t think it took us an hour to kill 36 and I’ve never seen 3 dogs. They all were great hunters, all of them very experienced, all of them very enthusiastic. All of them retrieved about a dozen a piece through the slush water. And if you have ever stuck your hands down in slush water, like in a cooler for any length of time, you know how cold that gets. It’s the coldest water can get without becoming ice. Those 3 dogs were so wiped out after just retrieving 12 apiece. They slept the whole rest of the day and the whole night. But –

Ramsey Russell: I bet they did. That’s a very memorable hunt. And I’m just going to share this little bit. Cause I loved your daddy a few times. I hunted with him and we were hunting one time and he got stuck in the boat. He didn’t like to get out of the boat, but the only way we could get in position was to move up in front of the boat about 5 or 10 yards. He wasn’t getting the shots, but it was one of our cork hunts.

Jim Crews: Right.

Ramsey Russell: And they were coming in and his daddy said, Russell, come hold my gun. I’m getting out.

Jim Crews: He was hard at it.

Ramsey Russell: He wasn’t going to sit in that boat all day. Cause he wasn’t getting no shots. And I held that beautiful gun he had. And I didn’t want to – I helped him get out there to edge of the timber, but he offered up, let me shoot that gun.

Jim Crews: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And it was a double trigger, which give me fits usually. And it was just – I could not believe how big that gun looked, how light it was. And I just remember, I never will forget. We were waiting on some birds to come in our decoys and I looked at a decoy out there about 15 yards, closed my eyes, shouldered a gun. And when I open my eyes, I’m looking right down the rib, right at that decoy. And a pair of gadwalls come in. Some other ducks kind of worked in and worked in. I knew he wasn’t going to just let me have it all morning. And they got kind of over here and kind of over there. About that time, he said, son, are you going to shoot that gun? And I said, like a pretty girl, I’m going to hold it before I kiss her, Mr. Jim. And about that time, a pair of gadwalls just set up right over the decoys, right in the kill hole. And it’s like that old shotgun of his took off like a magic carpet. Just took a life of its own. It’s like, bam, bam, 2 dead birds and handed it back. It was just – That’s one of my fondest memories of hunting.

Jim Crews: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: I’ll never forget it. Just a very generous man with lots and lots of good stories.

Jim Crews: Yeah, he lived it to the fullest, there’s no question about that.

Ramsey Russell: But your ride or die. Your ride or die hunting partner is your wife.

Jim Crews: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Who’s a swamp witch.

Jim Crews: She is the swamp witch.

Ramsey Russell: Well, first off, what is a swamp witch, Jim?

Jim Crews: Well, the origin of that term is, again, some of these stories take a little bit of telling to do, but when my children were little, they were too little to hunt. We used to take a babysitter with us to the camp. Allison figured out a lot of people know this, teenage girls love horses. Allison loves horses. And what she would do to entice these little babysitters to come with us, in addition to paying them, was she’d have her horses there and they could ride after we hunted, so the little babysitters would take care of the kids. We’d go out to our country, we’d come in. Allison’s very energetic and she jumps from one pursuit to the next. Well, this particular day, what she had decided to do was take, come in from duck hunting, take the boys on a canoe trip out in the swamp. And the whole program exhausted me just looking at all this preparation. But she and my cousin Kate and Amanda, the babysitter and 3 or 4 of our children all got the canoes, went off and did their thing. About this time, I think I had probably cracked a beer and was sitting on the porch steps trying to wind down a little bit from the morning’s hunt and watching all this, my dad pulls up and he says, well, where is everybody? And I said, well, the dang swamp witches didn’t get enough this morning, so they gone back out for more. And somehow that term kind of stuck. Well, during that same era, Allison and a group of now, then and now lady friends had gotten together. They had met over their mutual love of horses, but also had bonded over a love of hunting. A couple of them had grown up duck hunting. A couple just thought it was something fun to do, and they established a tradition that’s gone on now for over 20 years of doing a ladies only duck hunt a couple of times a season. They still do that together. Sometimes they’ll let me go along with them, but really they prefer that it just be them. But they’ve gotten a lot of notoriety from that.

Ramsey Russell: They probably bring you to do some of the muscle now.

Jim Crews: They do. Sometimes they need a little leadership.

Ramsey Russell: I hope they all hear you say that.

Jim Crews: I’ll pay for that. Believe me, I’ll pay for that one.

Ramsey Russell: You got a chapter in your book, which is in the snow. What’s that story about?

Jim Crews: Well, it’s funny, we talked about that snow story with my dad, but this was a different event, same swamp, actually. But that particular hunt we had – I’m trying to think how many people we shoot 4 guns per membership. That’s the rule during duck season. We had 8 gunners that day and we were trying to figure out how to hunt everybody. And as it worked out, what we decided to do was combine my dad’s membership in mine. So I had him and my son, Turner, and 5, maybe 6 swamp witches. We may have had an extra. We had a lot of women in the swamp. But we went out this particular day right in the teeth of the storm, it was like a big purple and black cloud coming out of the northwest with heavy snow falling. And in between those big old fat flakes were lots of big old fat mallards and gadwalls. And you know how they are when they’re pushing in front of a hard front. They want to give it up. They do, right? We wound up shooting. I don’t know. With that many people, the limit would have been 48. And we had a lot of shooting going on, but at about. I don’t know, we had most of them were limited and cold and hungry. And they said, the ones that were cold and hungry and limited said, we want to go in. Can we go in? I said, knock yourself out. The trucks that way. So they did. A couple of them said, well we’re not through yet. Can we stay? And these are I’ll say they’re middle aged women, but they’re tough as nails. And I said, absolutely. If you feel like hanging out here, we can finish it up. And we did. Finally came out and even I was cold. I don’t get cold that often, but even I was cold. And by the time we got back to the camp, the first wave of the swamp witches had gone in, built a fire in the fireplace, breakfast on the stove and Bloody Mary’s on the bar. And that pretty much covered the rest of the day, took care of itself.

Ramsey Russell: Nothing stays the same. What are some of the changes you’ve seen over all the years you’ve been down there?

Jim Crews: There been a lot.

Ramsey Russell: Good and bad, I’m sure.

Jim Crews: Yeah. One of the things I remember growing up there was we didn’t – there was a time when there weren’t any coyotes. And I’ll never forget, it was in 1978. I was on a fall turkey hunt and looked up and I thought I saw a dog running through the woods. I looked at it again, I realized, shaped like a wolf. And I said, what ain’t a wolf. And then I realized it was a coyote. And by the time I got up and fired at him, he was gone. But that was actually, I remember them appearing and of course, now they’re everywhere. But the another one and I think you were actually there the day. Well, let me back up. Wild hogs, 1990, we got word that a guest had killed a wild hog deer hunt. And it was a big one. It was 250 pounds, maybe more. But he had killed this big old black hog and we were flabbergasted at that. We’d never even heard of them being around there, of course, just –

Ramsey Russell: At around now.

Jim Crews: Just like you say, goodness knows, on Willow Brake, that once they got, it got there, they got established. But one of the hog stories, and this is where I think you were there this day, Allison went out on a woodcock hunt. We’ve got some pretty good woodcock habitat, and every now and then we’ll go try to kick them up or let the dogs flush them up, whatever. But she went out and took her Winchester 101 with her, working through a thick area, walked up on a hog nest where a mother hog, a sow, had just given birth to a litter. And if you ever seen a wild hog, piglet, little one, they’re striped. They’re really cute.

Ramsey Russell: Like a little striped brillo pad.

Jim Crews: Yeah. But she found there were 8 or 10 of them. She hears her dog just giving the most gosh awful screaming and howling and she realized what it was. It was his mama hog, coming back to protect these babies. So, you know, what does she do? Here comes that hog. Well, Alison busted her with a 1 oz load of number 8, dove shot and killed this 180lbs hog, charging her.

Ramsey Russell: Point blank.

Jim Crews: Only woman I’ve ever known that killed a charging hog with a duck load. I mean, a dove load, rather. Another thing we’ve had come on is black bears.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. You all didn’t see those growing up.

Progression in the Delta: An Evolutionary Shift in Wildlife

And I’m riding down a gravel road and I see a big old raccoon walk across the road. But then I realize a raccoon is not as high as your headlights. And he’s sure not black.

Jim Crews: We didn’t see them growing up. And over time, it’s been interesting to watch their progression in the delta because I don’t think there’s any question they are proliferating. They’re not, by no means are they common now, but they’re there. And I finally, I saw my first one year before last, I was actually leaving to go to a dove hunt outside the levee. And I’m riding down a gravel road and I see a big old raccoon walk across the road. But then I realize a raccoon is not as high as your headlights. And he’s sure not black.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Jim Crews: And so I finally got to see a bear. And we were talking about this earlier a little bit back to doves and ducks and things that we really chase around. Interesting ones to me are the white winged doves. I saw them –

Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy, isn’t it?

Jim Crews: Yeah. I saw my first one of those about 25 years ago on a dove hunt in Carroll County. A friend of mine was standing there and saw it go by and he was gone before we had a shot. But we realized that’s a white wing. Well, then about, oh, I don’t know, 15 years ago, maybe, a friend of mine, we were hunting near Isola. A friend of mine killed one. I got to hold it in my hand and see it, and I thought that was kind of cool. Well, then I forget which hurricane it was, but it was about 4 years ago. We started killing white wings fairly regularly on a couple of fields. Just a couple, wasn’t everywhere around but a couple places. And as last year, opening day got into them, killed 11 white wings out of a 15 dove limit on purpose, picking them out. That’s how many there were. So there’s those and then the kind of coinciding with that are the black bellied whistling ducks. And those –

Ramsey Russell: Those get a lot of up there when it breaks, when it dries up like it does this time of year.

Jim Crews: Early, we’ll see some, if you go out and brave the cottonmouth during till season, you’ll see them. They’re never there by the time big duck season comes. At least they hadn’t been for me. I hear people killing them in all the places in the delta, here and there. But it’s been really neat seeing them appear all of a sudden. I saw one yesterday evening driving through Chula on my way home. Flew right across the town of Chula as I was coming through there at sunset. So things do change all the time. Nature is not static.

Ramsey Russell: No, it’s not. Jim, I’m going to ask you about this. Cause I was there and I think of it. Honestly, when I think about this morning, it’s almost like a Forrest Gump story from, like, I was Forrest Gump. Cause, like, I was kind of somewhere I didn’t really belong, something historic, it’s like, when I think back, I’m like, what in the world was I doing in a boat on that morning? But Allison was to my right in the bow of the boat, your wife, the swamp witch. To my left was a young lady that’s now your daughter in law and then your son. Then you back by the motor and you had told me that night, cooking supper, you said, tomorrow’s going to be kind of an announcement and a question. What do you mean? And he said, well, and I said, oh, boy, I wish you hadn’t told me that, because I’m terrible at keeping secrets. I’m liable to have too many pearly pops and blurted out, but what an amazing morning and time and place. But talk about that morning.

Jim Crews: Yeah, that was –

Ramsey Russell: We had talked about doing a cork hunt. I’ll lay it up. Like, if we talked about doing a cork hunt, we talked about bringing Jake in that old shotgun. But the water was real deep. Well, you might as well come anyway. So, Jake stayed at home and I came anyway.

Jim Crews: Right. Well, that as you kind of led into my son. My younger son, Turner, had been in a real serious relationship with my now daughter in law, Ellery. And he grew up hunting these places. I mean, we had him out on duck hunts when he was 2 years old and they’re very special places to him. We’ve got this one particular location. You’ve hunted it with me several times, as you did that day we call the Otter Hole. But Turner had told me that day before the hunt, he said, I want to let you know I’m going to ask Ellery to marry me tomorrow and I want to do it in the Otter Hole. And there’s nothing like that for dad to hear. I’d been anticipating that it was coming, but I don’t think you’re ever ready for that moment. But I said, okay, well, that sounds great. There’s just one problem. And that was another member of the club had reserved that spot for the next morning. But he, fortunately, he’s a very close friend of mine and I called him and I said, look, I got to pledge you to secrecy here but I want to ask you if you give up the Otter Hole and let us hunt it tomorrow, because Turner wants to ask Ellery to marry him there. And he said, oh, yeah, knock yourself out. That’s great. So all that said, we launched boat the next morning, motored in the dark up to the spot, set our cork decoys out, pulled the boat into the trees. Water is too high to get out, so we’re sitting shoulder to shoulder. And fortunately, that boat’s nice and stable and you can shoot out of it if you keep your center of gravity right. It was cloudy. Ducks weren’t doing much, we were killing. I don’t know. I think we probably killed 5 or 6 over a couple hours, but it wasn’t one much going on.

Ramsey Russell: It was cloudy, it was heavy.

Jim Crews: It was heavy and not much wind. And Turner, I think he had told me at 09:00 was the time, I believe it’s what he told me 09:00 or 09:30 was going to be when he asked her. So I’m kind of looking at my watch and I see him finally take a deep breath and he turns to her. She’s oblivious. She had no idea. She’s sitting there and we’re just small talk. And we all got quiet and turned, looked, and he said, well, I have an announcement and I have a question. And he turned to her and he – I’ve forgotten his exact words, but he said, I’ve always loved you. I’ve always thought you the one for me. And now it’s time to make it official. Will you marry me? And she looked at him with this real shocked look in her eye and everything got real quiet for just a second, but then she said, yes, I’ll marry you, of course. So, I won’t lie. I kind of had to look off a little bit for a minute and let the moisture get out of my eyes. But we had –

Ramsey Russell: I was just glad a duck didn’t land while all that was going on.

Jim Crews: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Or I had to shoot him.

Jim Crews: That’s right. It would have messed up the moment. We had a modest amount of Bailey’s Irish cream in the boat, just in case, we’re going to need to have a celebratory toast. Well, we did that and we celebrated and everybody’s happy. I’m not kidding when I say. Soon as that was all over with, those clouds vanished. The wind came up and here came the ducks. And we had a glory hunt after that.

Ramsey Russell: I really think that between the sparkle of that diamond and the sparkle of her smile, there wasn’t no way the sun could stay hidden behind the clouds.

Jim Crews: It didn’t. I mean it could –

Ramsey Russell: And it was unbelievable. It was Nellie ball the door of duck hunting till we limited it.

Jim Crews: Yeah. You couldn’t have written that script and had it come out any better than that.

Ramsey Russell: Jim, I sure do appreciate you. It’s always a good story. You just, you’re full of stories. Especially when you hunt a property that’s just got that much history, that 4 generations of history. And tell everybody listening because you got this beautiful book and we just scratched the surface, man. You’ve written a lot of good stories in here and I’m about halfway through with it already. But, where can people get this book?

Jim Crews: We are selling direct and the very easy way to get them is to find me on Facebook, Jim Crews. J-I-M-C-R-E-W-S or on Instagram. Send me a message and I will send you everything you need to know about how to order one.

Ramsey Russell: And if you ain’t got his first book, they need to order it, too.

Jim Crews: Yeah. It’s called Amid the Cypress.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Jim, I appreciate you, as always.

Jim Crews: It’s always a pleasure.

Ramsey Russell: I didn’t get to come up here and hunt with you next year, so I’m just going to throw it out there. I may come up here and hunt with you this year.

Jim Crews: We can definitely work that out.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.

[End of Audio]

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