In the sleepy Mississippi Delta hamlet of Leland, walking through the front door and onto the creaking, century-old hardwood floors of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum is like stepping back into time, into the good ol’ days: towering walls covered with ginormous fireplace-blackened deer heads, fishes, game animals big and small indigenous to the Great State of Mississippi; extensive displays of hunting gear, local duck and turkey calls, boats and outboards, clothing from back in Grandad’s day, and beyond. Photos. Lots of photos. “The culture that created all of those old Delta deer camps is mostly gone,” says Billy Johnson, explaining that museums mostly tell stories. Oftentimes pointing around the room, he then tells some of them in colorful detail. Mostly about people. Born-and-raised nearby myself, I’d not heard most of them before and made a mental note to soon return for second helpings. Enjoy.
Honoring Mississippi Wildlife History
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere where today, Duck Season Somewhere Studio is in the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum in downtown Leland, Mississippi heart of the Mississippi Delta in my home county of Washington County and joining me today is Mr. Billy Johnson. Billy, how are you, man?
Billy Johnson: Doing good.
Ramsey Russell: Man, I’ll tell you what, it’s quite a collection you got going here, man, I’m impressed, I don’t press easy, but I’m pretty impressed.
Billy Johnson: Well, God blessed Mississippi with vast natural resources, so it’s a lot to do outdoor wise in Mississippi hunting and fishing. Every river in Mississippi had a different tribe of Indians living on it before we got here and they all had their legends, they all had their better hunters and fishermen and when the settlers first came, that’s who they learned from. So, I mean, just the Mississippi River with the world class waterfowl hunting, most fertile freshwater fishery in the world, world class deer and turkey hunting, that’s more natural resources than most states have. And that’s just the western border of our state. So, it’s people down on the Gulf coast and never done anything but saltwater fish. So Mississippi is a state with a vast array of different outdoor opportunities. And you take the bird dog trainers and hunters up in the northeast part of the state, a lot of those people are in the National Field Trial Hall of Fame up in Grand Junction, Tennessee. You take Paul Alas bass fishing legend, he’s in the National Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, they just put 5 time world cHoltion turkey caller and call maker Preston Pittman into the National Wild Turkey Federation Hall of Fame. So Mississippi’s outdoorsman had been honored all over the state, it just had never been honored at home. So we put this Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum in a 14,000 square foot two story building that had been 100 year old hardware store and I’m 68 years old and when I was a kid, it wasn’t any Walmarts, it wasn’t where you just order stuff online, people came to the local hardware stores to get all your hunting and fishing supplies. And a lot of times old Tasco and Western Auto would carry them. But you would come to this hardware store and if you wanted to buy a turkey call or you want to buy a duck call, they had them in separate drawers and you could take out every call they had and play it or blow it and get the one you wanted. Now, when you go in the store to buy a turkey call or a duck call, they’re in a plastic package with cardboard behind it, they all look alike and you don’t know what you got till you get home.
Honing Hunting Skills
If you can teach a kid to slip up on a squirrel and shoot it in the head with a 22 short, that kid can hunt in any situation anywhere around the world.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of them been made in China, they had a world change.
Billy Johnson: That’s right. I guess maybe my favorite exhibit in this museum is the Mississippi Turkey call maker exhibit. And we got 40 or 41 now different turkey call makers from all over the state that use Mississippi wood, native Mississippi woods to make their calls.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s start there because you got a whole big stretch of wall dedicated to Mississippi turkey hunting and turkey call makers. Talk about that turkey hunting culture. Now, you’re from the Delta, did you all have a turkey hunting culture here?
Billy Johnson: Well, we did behind the levee, all the river, most of all the river clubs had turkey and it was a deal where the older turkey hunters would pass what they knew down to the younger turkey hunters and it was pretty much hands on where, they told stories and about their different hunts and all, and you’d hear the same stories every year. But one of my favorite turkey hunting stories, there used to build these log blinds up on Montgomery Island. And we had a guy named Holt Collier and he was sitting in one of those blinds and coyotes and armadillos had kind of just started coming around, it was something that we hadn’t had for just a few years or hadn’t seen and a coyote ran a big rabbit right up through the blind that Mr. Collier was in. And the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had put this poster up in our camp about be careful, don’t shoot a red wolf that they will protect it. So, they got Mr. Holt at night was asking about it, said, are you sure it was a coyote? They said, did he have a domed head and they were showing it, he said, well, if I had to put my finger on what I think he was from the length of the tongue, he had said it have been a weird wolf, that’s the kind of culture and stories and all I grew up hunting on these Mississippi River islands from the older hunters. And one thing I always found interesting was that, a lot of the best deer and turkey hunters in my father’s generation and I’m 68 years old, grew up hunting squirrels with a single shot rifle, 22 rifle with 22 shorts and they didn’t have turkey or deer to hunt when they were kids. But when they moved to the Delta or moved wherever, once you could hunt big game, I mean, they were good hunters. If you can teach a kid to slip up on a squirrel and shoot it in the head with a 22 short, that kid can hunt in any situation anywhere around the world. And a lot of those kids grew up hunting bullfrogs in the summer with the 22 and hunting squirrels in the fall and in the winter to feed their family. One of the best hunters and fishermen I ever knew is in the outdoor, we got the Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame in this museum named Vick Turner and he was from Ethel and he would come in with a limit of squirrels with a 22 open side rifle all shot in the head. And I mean, anybody that can do that in any hunting or fishing situation, you put them in, they’ll adapt to it. So a lot of the people that I grew up hunting with had already been to World War II and back before they ever got a chance to hunt a white tailed deer or a turkey. So they were very much a priest to still be alive and to have made it home from the war and to have a place to hunt where they could take their kids. So, all of these river islands, back in those days, deer season in Arkansas would be like two 6 day seasons and maybe a 5 day season. And you’d load up a barge with horses and dogs and jeeps and hay and dog food and start off at Terrene Landon, north of Rose Dale and take all the camp supplies over butane bottles, our camp did not have running water, only the water running was in the river that went by the island, but we didn’t have running water and we didn’t have electricity, everything, the stoves, the refrigerator, the lights and the heater was all butane. So we had to haul Butane over there and everybody had their job, everybody in the camp participated in putting the hunting on. We’d saddle the horses for the horse riders and we’d load the dogs up and we’d go to the woods and it would be the whole camp would participate in the hunt. And a lot of times our dogs would swim the White River and get over on Big Island or their dogs and the dog man would take a boat and go and get the dogs and they had learned what the other camp had killed and they had learned what we had killed. So nobody would really know who had done what as far as back home until you came home. And in between those short deer seasons, squirrel hunting was a real big deal. The opening weekend of squirrel season, the first of October, it was an old man that grew up on Montgomery Island named Clay Matthews, he was born up there and he could clean squirrels so quick, it made your head swim, it wouldn’t have any hair on them. And his wife, that’s what they lived off of. They lived on the island, he trapped coyote and trapped bobcats mostly and they would tie up those old blue logs that they’d find floating in the river and sell them. And he’d take us boys and show, he had a special knot that he had tie his logs up with and when the timber man came down the river, each of those guys, those old guys that lived on those islands had have their own special knot and he would know from that knot whose logs they were. So, it was quite a culture that I thought would never end, but it did. The timber companies ended up selling the islands and –
A Part of the Culture: Levee Hunting
So, deer hunting in the delta and along the river inside the levees, deer have been there for a long time back to the time of the Indians.
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, I want to back up just a little bit and we’re going to talk about that culture because when I think of the Mississippi Delta growing up right there in Greenville on the Mississippi River, I think of those Delta river clubs inside the levee and there was a ton of them all up and down the Mississippi River still is. And you hit on a lot of key points, I asked you about turkeys and we’re talking about something else, we’re going to get back to turkey, but you’re talking about the dog. And dog hunting today for deer hounds is, it’s almost kind of gone the way of the past because now land ownership is so fractionalized, you can’t turn hounds out like you used to, but back in the Mississippi Delta going all the way back to Holt Collier, all the way back to the William Faulkner, all the way back to – I mean, that was a big deal back in those old days when you all deer hunted, you all hunted with dogs, that was a big deal, wasn’t it?
Billy Johnson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it’s real exciting, but I mean, it wasn’t as many deer in the central part of Mississippi as it is now. Now, they were behind the river, behind the levees and that’s where – but in those days, any buck was a good buck. And basically, deer management was in its infancy in our area back then. And you may see 50 does in the morning, but they didn’t want you to shoot does and later they realized that we had to get the buck to doe ratio down. I mean, basically in my lifetime, we’ve gone from now, we let deer go, that when I was a kid, we would have mounted. And we’ve learned about minerals and we’ve learned about growing warm season food plots for deer and getting deer through the late summer stress period, late winter stress period. And we as hunters, we have evolved, but the fun of those old hunting camps is not the same. Because then, kids would help with everything in the camp and they were made to feel like they were a part of the camp and we ate what we killed, we ate squirrel, squirrel stew was a big thing and fried deer meat was a big thing. And those old stories and those old recipes have come down two more generations, since then. We had a guy named Dave Flanagan and he always called everybody a Molly Dodger and he fixed the deer season would open the second week of in Arkansas where Montgomery Island was, it would open the second Monday in November and we’d all go up there either that Saturday before that or that Sunday and Sunday afternoon, he’d have a big pot and he made that Molly Dodger stew and the same thing every year.
Ramsey Russell: What was in that Molly Dodger stew? Whatever he could get?
Billy Johnson: No, he was real specific. He used top sirloin steak and then, he would take V8 juice and soak the meat to start with and then he had used all these different canned vegetables and about 30 minutes before it was ready, he had put a couple of tablespoons of lime and a couple tablespoons of wish bone dressing in there and he had put about half a pack of thin spaghetti noodles. But it was –
Ramsey Russell: That sounds a lot like my granddad too. He just called it stew, I called it soup, he called it stew, but it had a lot of the same ingredients.
Billy Johnson: I wrote a story about Mr. Flanagan and his son in law brought me a quart of stew that he had made from that recipe. When I brought it up to our hunting camp in Holmes County and my daddy came up and he said, what you got cooking over here? I said, oh, I just got a little stew. I fixed him a bowl and when he took that first bite, he said, damn boy, that ain’t your stew, that’s Molly Dodgers stew. And we left Montgomery Island in 1980 this was probably 2010. So 30 years later, the first spoonful went in his mouth, he recognized, he knew exactly what it was.
Ramsey Russell: When did all those camps inside the levees begin to proliferate. When did that come to be?
Billy Johnson: As far as when they start breaking up or when they start?
Ramsey Russell: When did they emerge into becoming this culture that they’re in.
Billy Johnson: Well, in the big woods down in the South Delta, William Faulkner was hunting down there, I guess in the 30s and 40s. But refuge hunting club over where you cross the river bridge to go to Arkansas was one of the first and I know it was in existence in the 30s. But just one deer everywhere. And the first camps that they used to have around here, they just take two mules and hook to a wagon and put all their camping gear and all their cooking gear and they’d go to one set of woods, if it wasn’t any deer there, they’d go to the next, but I mean, deer were very sparse. I have read where between market hunting and such that in 1925 our deer population was 1500 and by 1965 our deer population was 250,000 and our annual harvest was 25,000. And by 2010, we got somewhere between a million and a half and 2 million deer and our annual harvest is somewhere of 250,000 deer. So the whole story of us going from just a few deer – during the depression, people killed anything they could to eat. I remember seeing an old article that a game warden Wildcat Stevens wrote about that 8 deer and 3 men had been shot the week before and asking everybody to be careful that it was because of the shortage of meat, it was a lot of people in the woods that have never hunted before and be sure of your target. So, I mean, back during the depression, the deer were just about shot out around here. And it wasn’t that many deer in parts of the hills. I showed you a picture in 1961 with Henry and a friend of his was the first two bucks that were brought in the entire county and that was 1961. So, deer hunting in the delta and along the river inside the levees, deer have been there for a long time back to the time of the Indians.
Ramsey Russell: It was a big thing of having these big camps and it was a lot of folks involved, it was a culture, I just find it extremely interesting talking about going over to Montgomery Island and hauling out and it being just a tent camp. I mean, that’s got to have been a good old day.
Billy Johnson: Well, Montgomery Island now, I mean, the tent camps were before then, but Montgomery Island, I mean, we had a cinder block clubhouse. Now, I didn’t start, my first trip up there would been in 1960, but before then they had a wood clubhouse that ended up burning and then they had another clubhouse that went off in the river, so by the time I got there, they were on their 3rd clubhouse. But everybody slept in one room, had about 40 bunks in there and then they had another room out back that the cook stayed in. And then we had horse pens and dog pens and then we had a big area with a kitchen with picnic tables where we ate and a big fireplace. One of the more interesting guys in that camp was an Italian named Guido and he shot a rifle, he was a quail hunter and he shot a rifle just like he did a shotgun. He shot open sight 36 and I mean, he was a remarkable marksman and one of the best Fish and Game cooks that I’ve ever seen. He had Squirrel Catch Toy recipe and I mean, he was known for his different recipes and those recipes have been passed down, a couple of generations. But I mean, we hunted on a 3300 acre island and it was several crop dusters, ag pilots in the club and we had an airstrip and they would fly in. But when the island was sold for a lot more money than we wanted to pay in December of 1980, one of the last nights, we would go down to this big sand dike and make a fire and Holt Collier who was a master storyteller, he got up and just said, well, we’ve had a lot of good times up here and said, the most important thing is that nobody ever got killed in the river, all these river crossings out here in Victoria Bend, he said, but the thing I’m most proud of is that nobody ever got mad and quit the club. So that was a profound statement. And we were leaving the island for the last time and he was sitting on an ice chest, they had made a trip across the river and they were going to come back and get Holt and he wore leather boots and he had a luga pistol in a shoulder holster and aviator sunglasses and he was sitting there with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and an apple in the other hand and he had take a shot of whiskey and then take a bite of apple and some of the new people that were buying the island pulled up to the sand bar, he says is this Montgomery island? He said, yeah, he said, you hunt up here? He said, yeah, he said, could you give me some advice? He said, yes, sir, best advice I can give you is 29 the first of January, you might not find inhabitants to be so friendly and they crank the boat up and turned around back to land and told some of the other camp said, man, it’s a crazy old man sitting on our chest with a bottle of whiskey and a luga pistol, I don’t know if we’re going to go buy the island or not. But no, all those guys had great stories and I ended up writing two books and some 800 outdoor articles in the core of a lot of those articles was those stories that I heard for years over on Montgomery Island.
Ramsey Russell: You told a story, speaking of Holt Collier, earlier you were talking about the 22 single shots, you told a story about him giving some youngsters a bunch of bullets or something.
Billy Johnson: Well, Holt and his older brother John Allen was smoking a cigarette behind their daddy’s country store and his daddy came out to put something in a trash barrel to burn it and saw him smoking that cigarette and told him said you boys come in here and sit down, said I want to talk to you, said I’ll make a deal with you all, he said, I’ll furnish you all with all the 22 shells you all want to shoot if you won’t smoke anymore. And Holt said from that point in his life forward, that shooting was his pastime. And all the brothers would go in and company and all would go to these country stores and his daddy would give them a brick of 22s, which is 500 and he said that’s what they would – he said other kids was playing football and baseball and all, but we were shooting and they learned to one of them and throw a washer up in the air and the other one would shoot it and the key to it was when you throw that washer up for a split second, when it went as far as it was going up, it would stop before it was coming down and that’s how they learn to do it. And he always told me so when you hunting squirrels with the 22 when that squirrels running on that limb right before he gets to the end of that limb to jump to the next tree, he’s going to stop and that’s when you shoot him, that’s when you get him. So, I don’t know I guess, things that you’re interested in you remember, and I was interested in what everything Holt Collier or that old guy that lived on the island Clay, I was interested in what they had to say. One meaningful thing that happened on Montgomery Island all my folks were pharmacist and I didn’t want to be a pharmacist work inside and my dad took me off on the Jeep and stopped over on that dike, I was telling you about that, sand dike and he said, Billy, he said, what do you want to do with your life? I said, well, I want to hunt and fish. And he said, well, let me ask you something, he said, some of the most successful businessmen in the Mississippi Delta are members of this club, if there’s one person that you could be like, that’s up here that you know, who would it be? Before he got out of his mouth, I said, Clay and that was all caretakers that lived up there on the island. He said, hell boy, he ain’t but a half a step in front of what he’s living off of. I said, yeah, but he’s living in a paradise up here and I mean, as I got older in life, I tried to spend as much time hunting and fishing as I could. To me, the most valuable commodity on this universe on this planet is time. To have the time to hunt when the deer rut in, to go fishing when the crop is spawning, to go fishing when they’re bedding, to have that freedom, I’d rather be broke in the woods and have a million dollars up in the office that you can’t take 3 steps in any direction. And I ain’t gone too far off that trail in my life and I’m 68 now and I mean, we’ve got longer, I mean, hunting seasons are in months now.
Ramsey Russell: Holt Collier, I’m sitting here looking at a picture of in a museum, he used to say, his dog didn’t care whether he was rich or poor.
Billy Johnson: He said in the bank, money don’t mean nothing. Your dog don’t care if you’re rich or poor. And he hunted with Theodore Roosevelt and to me, one of the most – I mean, Theodore Roosevelt did a lot for this country. He helped establish the National Parks and all, but to me, one of the most meaningful things that he ever said was the habitual carelessness of the first shot cannot be a tone by rapidity of fire. So, what he was saying was that, when you’re hunting, make that first shot count.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of your pictures, a lot of your museum, you go back to the old Delta deer camp days we’ve talked about and you got a picture over there of them all wearing them real tall boots. Was just because it was muddy all them woods?
Billy Johnson: Because it was muddy all the time. They wore those, they hunted with shot, when the Delta was clear and a lot of those woods were still cut over and grown up with cane breaks and all and they hunted with shotguns and dogs and they wore those lace up neat leather knee boots and they use those horns and basically what the horns were, they were like before the CB radio, when you could go back and talk to people, the horns, they had their own language and one toot meant, where are you? Two toots meant I’m here, Three toots was a dead call, meaning that the dead was there and four toots was to gather up that that the hunt was over.
Ramsey Russell: Did you all use those on Montgomery Island?
Billy Johnson: Oh, yeah. The horse riders used them to communicate back and forth.
Changes in the Mississippi Delta
So, waterfowl hunting has always been part of the fabric of the outdoor world in the Mississippi Delta.
Ramsey Russell: Back in the days, you were talking about in the 60s, the deer hunting culture and all like that going out there to those islands as a child, but the waterfowling culture in the state of Mississippi back in those days wasn’t duck hunting, it was goose hunting.
Billy Johnson: Well, by the 60s now it had transitioned into a lot of duck hunting. One thing, we’ll go back to the goose hunt in a minute, but one thing that changed the Delta is, I guess maybe in the 50s, a lot of Cajuns in South Louisiana, people moved into the Delta and started farming rice on this buckshot land. You know what happened in the Delta, they would clear land and then they had grow cotton on it until it wouldn’t grow cotton anymore, then they’d go get some more land, well, they were taking this land and growing rice and it increased the population. The ducks would come down the Mississippi River and they would feed in these rice and soybean fields. But back in the 30s and 40s and 50s, those old river goose hunters would take up a wooden house boat that would sleep 8 to 10 people and they’d have 2 or 3 skills and they would locate the house boat in a chute in close proximity to the sand bars where the geese were coming in and they would dig a pit and they would drag up driftwood and they would just sit in those pits and hunt. And one other thing they did, they had these Chris craft inboard outboard ski boats and they would transport people like back to the Lake Ferguson waterfront. But they would use homemade decoys and stick them up on the sand bar and pretty much just eat what they killed. But duck hunting when I was a kid was real big on Lake Whittington, which is up near Benoit and they had some woods with some holes in them. And what they would do is, take chicken wire about 4ft tall and put bamboo stand, bamboo up in the chicken wire and wrap it like a horseshoe around two or three trees and then come around where you could slip your boat in there and we had decoys in those holes. I remember, when the 1973 flood came in the fall of 1972 it was doing a lot of rain, we had to add string to those decoys 3 different times. But a lot of those old – we had a guy here Aaron Moss from Leland and Mr. Moss was one of those old river duck hunters and river goose hunters and in Greenville, Herman Caillouet, he won the World Duck Calling Championship at Stuttgart in 1942 calling with his natural voice, but he was one of those guys that hunted on the river. Now, you refer to those tent camps, a lot of those duck hunters had those tent camps and they would go and put those tents up along the river on close proximity to where they was going to hunt or they had those house boats like I was talking about and that was just a culture during that time period and then it transitioned in the delta into field hunting and now it’s not much cotton in our part of the delta and people start planting soybeans in April. When I was a kid, they never planted soybeans, so they got through planting cotton and wheat was a big crop then, a lot of times they had plant beans after wheat. So if you had a wet fall when the duck started coming down, you’d still have soybeans in the field. And a lot of times they would rut those fields up and it’d be a lot of beans and a lot of water all out in the fields and the ducks would be feeding on that. But I mean, now by the time season comes in September, most of the beans and the corn, both are harvested and it’s been disk under, so it’s a complete different deal. But the culture went from river goose hunting and duck hunting to hunting on the lakes now to hunting on the fields. I can remember it was a man named Red Abshire and he was a big rice farmer and he used to let us boys go out there and hunt doing our Christmas break and he was an excellent chef. I mean, he could cook, you give him some okra and some duck and he could probably make 20 different recipes from it. Gerald down in Hollandale. Gerald was another one that taught a lot of people how to cook waterfowl. They’d take a wood duck, make a wood duck pot roast and stuff it. And they get fat off what other folks would throw away. I mean, they could cook, save up a bunch of duck legs and have duck legs and rice. I mean, they knew how to use every part of the ducks and geese that they killed. And they taught a lot of people in this Delta, how to cook like that.
Ramsey Russell: One part of your museum right here is dedicated to Mississippi duck call makers and there were quite a few, seem to be a lot of, from here in the Delta from either Le Flore county or Washington County.
Billy Johnson: That’s right. We had Gordon Hartley, he made Southland calls and they were mostly cedar, but he made some out of Cocobola wood and made some out of walnut. They had quite a few duck makers from Le Flore county son Jordan and Speedy Thorp and Mr. MacPherson. And they hunted a lot over in an area called McIntyre Scatters. And when they made Grenada Lake and those four reservoirs up there, it changed the duck hunting over there. But it was two world duck calling championships that were won with son Jordan Calls. And we had a guy Tom Walsh who was an accountant from Greenville and he won the very first World Duck Calling Championship in Stuttgart in 1936. And he had a flock of English calling mallards and he had them in a pen in his backyard like anybody else would have a dog. And he’d come in from work and sit back there and call, he learned to call with his mouth and he learned to call from listening to those calling mallards. So, waterfowl hunting has always been part of the fabric of the outdoor world in the Mississippi Delta.
Ramsey Russell: Mr. Herman Caillouet, how do you say his name, Herman Caillouet and he won with a mouth calling.
Billy Johnson: He won with his natural voice beat 279 other callers in 1942. Another guy that did a lot of waterfowl hunting with Herman Caillouet was a guy named Herd Parsons and he was the exhibition shooter for Winchester and he was from Somerville, Tennessee. And he and Mr. Caillouet would come down here and hunt a lot together. And I tell you something else, they did, people up around Clarksdale had a lot of pecan orchards and when the crows got to eating all the pecans, they’d get Mr. Caillouet and Mr. Parsons and they’d go kill them. Another thing that Herman and Parsons were famous for they could both call crows with their mouth and in areas in the North Delta where they had a lot of pecan orchard crows would come in and eat up a lot of the crop and they’d go up there and one of them would call and the other one would shoot. Parsons was a guy that believed in taking kids hunting and one of the most famous hunting statements I’ve ever heard her Parsons said that, if you hunt with your kids, you’ll never have to hunt for them. And I think that that quote is relevant any time. So, like I said, it was a lot of famous waterfowl hunters and callers that hunted in the Delta over the years. But like I said, it was a transition. I mean, just like in 1973 flood soybeans was up to $10, so a lot of people were planting soybeans up in the hills and deer had always left the delta and gone to the hills and come back. Well, this time they had soybeans to eat and next thing you know, the flooding had populated, it populated the hills with deer was the same way with the waterfowl here. When those Cajuns came and started showing people how to take that old, worn out buck shot cotton ground and land reforming it and planting rice and leaving some for the waterfowl. It created a whole other segment, whole other dynamic of waterfowl hunting in the delta. And everything we’ve talked about, it’s changed, everything’s changed, from the amount of deer we got to the way we hunt waterfowl and a white tailed deer has adapted to live and feed off what’s available and we’ve adapted to hunting them in the hills, still hunting and not hunting with dogs, seasons are a lot longer, we got trophy deer in places that didn’t have any deer 50 years ago. So, a lot has changed in the hunting methods and the culture and all has changed with it.
Ramsey Russell: What was the demise of that old inside the levee camp culture? You told me a little bit earlier about how things have changed that the culture that created all those deer camps is now gone, what happened?
Billy Johnson: Basically, what happened was a Gypsum company and a lot of the big timber companies quit using willow wood to make particle board and started making it out of wood byproducts and started selling those islands off. And they went, I mean, it’s hard to talk somebody into buying something for $1000 what they had been renting for a dollar and a lot of those islands were just written, I mean, dollar and dollar and a half an acre and they ended up, so it just ran all the people from around here that we’re hunting on the river, we all fled to the hills and I mean, we had an opportunity to –
Ramsey Russell: Corporate America came inside the levee.
Billy Johnson: Corporate America took over those river camps, that old guy, Holt Collier, they took him to Catfish Point Hunting Club and they had these great big houses built up there and everything. And I heard he was going, I went to see him after he got back. I said, how do you like that deer camp? He said, deer camp, they got hotels built in the woods, they’re eating beef steak every night and letting the deer go, so the only thing you can shoot is old great big buck and he ain’t fixing to eat, so that ain’t no deer. It was a lot of fun hunting on those old river islands. If you missed a deer, you’d have a kangaroo court every night and they cut your shirt tail off. So, when you’re a kid, you think nothing’s going to change, but it did change.
Famous Turkey Hunters & Calls
…a lot of those little towns in the pine belt had turkey call makers and they had been taught by older turkey call makers.
Ramsey Russell: It does change unfortunately. You got a real impressive collection of Mississippi turkey calls here in this Wildlife Heritage Museum. Turkey hunt is a big part of Mississippi and there’s a lot of famous turkey hunters and turkey call makers that come from here. But why are there so many turkey calls?
Billy Johnson: Well, the pine belt of South Mississippi had turkeys long before we had them up in the interior part of the hills in central and North Mississippi, in every little town just like they got a car and a painter and electrician, a plumber, a lot of those little towns in the pine belt had turkey call makers and they had been taught by older turkey call makers. And they made calls out of wood that was native to their part of Mississippi. Raymond Chisholm from down there, he called Trough calls out of Baywood and he would walk in the woods in the swampy areas and Bay is kind of like a magnolia. And he had find just the tree that he wanted and he had cut that tree down and drag it back to the house with a mule and he would sit on the front porch and carve those call. Probably my favorite exhibit in the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum because it tells so many stories, one of the best stories would be Henry Miller and EO Mitchell, they worked for the railroad, they were telegraph operators and they were interested in turkey hunting, they had friends that had some large tracts of land and the government had done some secret releases. And by that, turkey population never stays the same, it’s always going up or going down. And back in the late 50s and 60s, people like Billy Joe Cross and Wayne Strider, he was a game warden from up around Clarksdale, PV Horton, they knew that those turkeys were going to die over on catfish point because they had so many and they would trap them and take them to land owners to land holdings in the hills, in Montgomery County, Carroll County or Tyler County. And they turn those turkeys loose and a lot of people are killing or having an opportunity to do a lot of turkey hunting up there now that if it hadn’t been for them, it would be a much different story. So turkeys, they’re in areas now that where they weren’t earlier and it’s given a lot more opportunity for people to hunt them. And Mississippi turkey call makers are known all over the world. And Henry Miller and EO Mitchell, as I said, they were telegraph operators for the railroad and when they took the telegraph lines down to put up telephone lines, those old telegraph lines were on 100 year old cedar poles and they started using that cedar, it was an old lady with a store up there between Winona and in on highway 51. And she had a scratch box turkey call that came out of Montgomery Ward that she was a widow that her husband had and Henry Miller borrowed that call and measured it and everything and they started making calls from that. And EO Mitchell went into the business and Earl Mickel came and wrote 3 books I think about turkey call makers all over the United States and one of those tortoise shell calls that Mitchell made ended up in the Smithsonian. Henry Miller took a little bit different path. He knew if he started selling calls and it’d be an episode that last the rest of his life, so he just made calls and gave them away. He made hundreds of turkey calls and gave them to kids wanting to learn how to hunt. He made over 1500 spinner baits and gave them to kids who were wanting to learn how to bass fish. So, their story, EO Mitchell and Henry Miller, they hunted turkeys, it’s a Choctaw wildlife area and Buckatunna wildlife area down by equipment back when nobody else was really hunting them. One of the most meaningful hunting stories I ever heard turkey hunting. EO Mitchell sold calls in this building that we’re in right now, this was for 100 years it was a hardware store and it was Joe Turner Hardware and I came in back in the 70s, EO Mitchell sold his calls here and he pulled a polaroid picture out of his shirt pocket and showed me a picture of a white turkey and I wanted to hear the story and he was so calls up around Starville at a hardware store and a bunch of guys sat around there playing checkers and whittling and chewing tabaco and telling stories. And it was a story about this white turkey in the area that couldn’t be killed. And it interested Mr. Mitchell and he told them, he said, well, if it can’t be killed, you all wouldn’t mind me hunting him, would you? They said, no and rattled off of about 15 names of the people that had been out there calling and him trying to kill him. So they showed him the ridge that the turkey roosted on and they showed him the bottom where he liked to fly down, so Mr. Mitchell went out there the next morning, fly down time, he took his cap and just sound like a hen flying down, he waited 3 or 4 minutes and start scratching around on the leaves and that old turkey flew down within 30 yards of him and he killed a turkey. And time he made it back to those old guys were at that hardware store and he walked in, he said, well, boys, you all want to see that turkey couldn’t be killed, I got him out here in my truck, man, they jumped up and ran out there and one of them guys said, mister let me tell you something, he said, I give you $100 for the call you call that turkey up with and he took the old hunting cap off his head and he said here it is boys right here. So, later on, we started working on this museum and I started on the EO Mitchell trail trying to find was he still alive? And this and that and Albert Paul from Greenville, who’s a world class turkey call maker. He told me, he said you need to go and he said EO is dead, but his partner making calls is Henry Miller and he lives up. So I went to Mr. Miller and he put me in touch with Phyllis Smith who was EO Mitchell’s daughter and that White Turkey is about in a display about 30 ft from where Mr. Mitchell told me that story. So, when you’re young, you don’t know what God’s got in store for you and when I heard that story back in the 70s, I had not the foggiest idea that I’d ever opened a museum in this building and that turkey would be here. But that’s one of the stories that’s here and I’ll tell you another interesting story is a lady named Eleanor Russler and her daddy was Mark Ham and they hunted on Ham Island, what’s known as Jackson Point now, West of Clarksdale. And her daddy took her turkey hunting when she was young and showed her how to make a mouth call and she came up with the triple stack mouth call and Brassy Danone came up there and hunted with their family and he started making them and then Will Primo started making them. But Miss killed her first turkey in 1956 and she hunted with a browing sweet 16 shotgun and she believed in calling the turkeys in close with that mouth call. And she made calls and taught over 100 younger hunters how to turkey hunt. And the importance of Miss is that she just didn’t teach him to do what she loved, she taught him why she loved it. And she was inducted into the Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame in last month here. So, it’s a lot of interesting stories that need to be preserved about Mississippi Outdoor culture and we’re trying to do the best we can in this museum, but turkey hunting has gone in my lifetime from just kind of a niche type of hunting. When I was a youngster fall squirrel season was a lot more popular and widespread than turkey hunting is. And now, thanks to people like Billy Joe Cross and PV Horton and Wayne Strider people all over Mississippi have an opportunity to turkey hunt. So, like I said, much has changed in the outdoor world over the last 50 years and if history repeats itself, it’ll keep on changing.
Ramsey Russell: You talking about Mr. Herman, what he did for a living? Was he a commercial fisherman or what was his claim to fame besides mouth calling?
Billy Johnson: Herman Caillouet, he had a place called the King’s Rest motor lodge in Greenville. And people that knew him would come and waterfowl hunt. You got to realize back before the internet and cell phones and this and that I mean, if people want to know anything about crappie fishing, they’d go to Doc bait shop in South of Greenville and doc would tell them where they would buy and what they buy, if they want to go waterfowl hunting, they’d go find Herman Caillouet. Herman Caillouet, back before there was a bridge between Greenville, Mississippi and Lake Village, Arkansas, they had a Warfield Point ferry and that ferry would take about 12 or 15 cars across where you had to cross the river and Herman had a motor vessel pilot’s license and he carried people across. Anybody that’s ever read Rising Tide by John Barry, Herman rescued over 200 people during the 1927 flood. And a lot of Baptist was in Greenville and they were always down on the Bootleggers, but when the flood hit, it was the Bootleggers had the biggest and fastest boats on the river. And they quit talking about them after they rescued them out of trees and off the tops of barns and houses and all that, but the Bootleggers and the river man like Herman Caillouet, they rescued a lot of people doing that flood refugees doing that 1927 flood. But Herman Caillouet was also known for jug fishing and catching big catfish on the river. And we’ve got a framed article from the Times Picayune in New Orleans in 1952. Mr. Caillouet, he had his own concoction and if the river was real muddy, he’d put red food dye. And what he would do, he would take deer meat to scraps and freeze it and then he had thought it out and he had saturated with that concoction and turned the meat red where he thought the catfish could see them better. But he knew the river, he knew where the channel was and he would get those jugs and put them where they would float across the channel and on those ledges on both sides is where he would catch the catfish. And he was also, a world class outdoor cook. Herman Caillouet was probably one of the most colorful characters that’s ever lived in the Mississippi Delta in my lifetime. He ran for sheriff one time and didn’t get very many votes and there’s a place named Jim’s Cafe on down there on Washington Avenue where they meet for breakfast in the morning, after the election, Herman showed up down there wearing a big thumb cocker calvary pistol. He said, good lord, man, why’d you carrying a pistol for? He said, hell, anybody ain’t got no more friends than I got need to care. So, yeah, man, all those old river hunters and fishermen, they love the river and people ask me, if I’m off hunting somewhere, man, what I need to do if I ever go to Mississippi Delta? I said, well, you need to go see the sun rise on Lake Washington and the sun set on the Mississippi River. And once you do that, everything else will come into context real quick.
Ramsey Russell: Who was the Bootlegger that made those commercial fishing boats?
Billy Johnson: Perry Martin. He was up around Rosedale and his liquor was sold and the finest places all up and down the Mississippi river and he believed in cooking it low and slow. And it’s been said that he would put the kegs willow trees or hang over in along the banks of the river and the slews that join it and he’d go between the trunk and the limbs and tie those kegs and the waves of the river would rock that whiskey back and forth. One memorable story about Perry Martin, he had gotten caught by the revenuers and he went and got Walter Sellers who was speaker of the house from Rosedale to represent him. And Mr. Sellers looked at the ticket and it had possession of white lightning. So he goes into the court courthouse with Mr. Martin and he’s got a dictionary and he’s got the statute book and he told the judge, he said, you honor and I’ll search this book and the statute book and said, if you’ll let me read from this Webster’s dictionary said, lightning is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the atmosphere and if you search yourself through this statute book, nowhere in it says that it’s illegal to possess lightning in a bottle and judge dismissed and let him go. But Perry Martin lived in an old house boat and they say you down by the river and you’d walk down there in an old pasture and he didn’t have any electricity, he didn’t have any air condition in that boat and he’d give you about a half a water glass full of that whiskey and you drink it and then buy a gallon and said a lot of them had to stop and sit down before they got back on top of the levee because it was about to fall out. So he was the most famous of the Mississippi Bootleggers. Folk hero, legend, icon, all those definitions fit Perry Martin, I think, he died in like 1969 and he was 90 years old. So, he was one of those guys that I spoke about Big Island earlier, he lived on Big Island and made whiskey over there and then later moved to Rosedale. And they say the only time he came to Rosedale was to get a hair cut and to vote and he stayed on his side of the levee and let people, stay on the other side. So, Mississippi River people living out there through the years, they were sophisticated, people call them river rats and this and that. But all of them I ever knew were high quality people that you could trust and respect and do anything in the world for you. I mentioned Clay Matthews earlier, he grew up on Montgomery Island, Guy Jones, lived right there at Terrain Landing and they were two of the last of the lamp lighters. And way back when river boat industry was just going, they had these floating lamps to Martha, the river and they ran on kerosene and they’d go out and back before they had motors, they would row out there and they would trim the wicks and keep them lit and the floating lamps and mark the channel and they would keep it full of kerosene. And like I said, I was privileged to know Guy Jones and I was privileged to know Clay Matthews. And Clay told me one time the farthest he ever went from home was that during the war, World War II, they came along in a navy boat and picked up everybody that lived one person off every one of those islands and they carried him up to Memphis and they put them in some buses and took them to auditorium and they showed them like a movie screen pictures of all the different enemy ships and told them, how to get in contact and who to get in contact with if they ever saw one. And they loaded them back on the buses, loaded them back on the boats and brought them back to where they lived and Clay said that was the farthest he ever went from Montgomery Island when he went to Memphis.
A Big Part of Mississippi Delta Culture: Fishing
Ramsey Russell: We can’t really talk about Mississippi Delta hunting culture without talking about some of the fishing and I’m just going to throw it out there. I mean, because there’s a lot of fishing every river, every lake loaded with them. But right there in the Hall of Fame Collection you got right next to each other, you got of all people, Billy Joe Cross and Slater.
Billy Johnson: If you look in my lifetime when I was a kid, people fish with cane poles with a cork and when you caught some crappie, you would scale them, cut the head off, gut them and fry them whole. Well, Billy Joe Cross taught people how to filet fish and how to get the filets out of them and he made it mainstream, exactly. He had like, maybe 20 different cookbooks and he was on 16 or 17 different nationally televised cooking shows and he taught people how to filet fish he and Eddie Slater won, I think seven, state Crappie Championships together. Eddie Slater ran a ferry over on the Sunflower River, his family’s fairy and they took mussel shells and cleaned them out and sold them to the Japanese to make buttons. He caught gar and sold them and he had live traps, he took spot tail and sold them to Herman, he had a ranch up what he called his ranch up there on Walnut Street. But he learned how to make jigs, how to tie jigs and basically between him and Billy Joe Cross, they change the way we fish for crappie, they change the way we cook crappie and Jack Wells and his family over B & M Pole company in West Point, they taught us how to use fiberglass and graphite poles. So, I mean, it’s a complete different deal and those three Mississippians that are all three in the Outdoor Hall of Fame, I mean, they’ve taught people all over the world. What kind of pole to use, what kind of bait to use and what to do when you get to catching the fish and cook them. So, Mississippians, if you look at the history of our state, much has been said and much has been written about our musicians and our athletes, but I put our outdoorsmen up against the outdoorsman from any other state, not only about the skills they have but the innovativeness. I mean, people didn’t think about filet and fish and the Billy Joe Cross came along and he taught people how to broil them, how to bake them, how to fry them. Museums tell stories and that’s a three part story that you can learn right here in this museum about crappie fishing in Mississippi. And they came up with, it’s a wire to fish website 45 years ago, they came up with a list of the top 10 trophy crappie lakes in America and the top 5 were Mississippi Lakes, Grenada, Lake Washington, Arkabutla and Enid and Sardis people come from everywhere to fish these lakes. So, what Billy Joe Cross and Eddie Slater and Jack Wells have taught people, transcends far past our state line.
Ramsey Russell: Where do you collect all this stuff for this Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum? Where did all these deer heads and duck and a taxidermy and photographs and guns and traps and trophies and calls and boats and motors, where did all this come from?
Billy Johnson: Well, back in my days of writing outdoor articles for the Greenville paper, Leland paper and all, for some reason I had presence of mine, even though I knew I couldn’t use but one or two pictures any time I went and interviewed somebody, if they had 30 pictures I copied all of them and I ended up with a vast collection of outdoor photographs that nobody had seen. And a lot of what’s in here, I’d always collected old lures and stuff and it’s just stuff that I collected. But people have been real good to us. A lot of times an old hunter will die and he may have daughters or no Children or whatever, maybe daughters don’t hunt and I just started going around to known hunters and fishermen and they started making donations, want to be a part of the museum and probably one thing I need to say without getting into too much trouble at home was, I was going to Montana hunting and before I left my wife said, look, I need you to do something, I said, well, write it down, I can do it when I get back, she said, no, you can do this while you’re going. She said sometime when you’re gone, I go in this room where you got all these pictures and it’s a lot of real interesting pictures in there that nobody’s ever seen, you need to figure out something to do with them. Well, of all things, I always would go up and go across North Dakota. Well, when I was on the way home, I94 was iced over, so I dropped down to Rapid City, South Dakota and I told my dad, I was on the way home and told him where I was and I was iced in couldn’t make it all the way across South Dakota. He said, go to Wall Drugstore at Wall South Dakota and it’s an old drug store in a town not much different than Leland and they got started off with a drugstore, they’re right on the edge of the black heels and the bad lands and they started off giving free water to people fixing across the bad lands and they got several museums there. And I walked in and just like an acorn falling out of a tree it hit me on the head, as soon as I saw what they had done at Wall drugstore, that’s when I came back and sat a group of like minded people down and told them, that I had an idea about this museum, doing a museum like this. And so we started the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation and started a mass and a collection for the museum. And then another time I went out west, I went to Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming and I walked around the corner and there was the Wyoming Outdoor Hall of Fame. So, I got to thinking about a lot of our outdoorsmen that were in National Hall of Fames had never been honored at home. And so we decided to make the Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame part of the museum. And it’s a lot of wonderful stories, Strickland, Will Primo, Preston Pittman, Jack Dudley, Jack Dudley won the World Turkey Call Championship with his natural voice. So, it’s a lot of people in this Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame that if you read their history and look at their collections, you can learn a lot from.
Ramsey Russell: Billy, why is this museum important to you? What does it mean to you? Because I hear all these old stories, I like what you said, museums tell stories.
Billy Johnson: Well, like I said, we lost Montgomery Island, so I didn’t get a chance to take – my son did not get a chance to grow up hunting with the older hunters that I did and I started writing their stories down where my son and his friends would know, I didn’t want the people that I admired growing up, their stories, the stories of their selves and their hunting stories to become lost in time. And it’s an old added that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you’re not going to know where you’re going. And those old guys taught you don’t throw anything down in the woods, if you rent a boat, be sure to pick up everything, they taught you the values of being a good sportsman, not just a good deer hunter or a good turkey hunter or a good fisherman.
Ramsey Russell: They had an old school ethic about them.
Billy Johnson: They got an old school about – when you leave the lake or you leave the woods, leave it just like it was when you found it. And that was important to me and I wanted to pass that on to the next generations. And a lot of people that we went to see and believed in what we were doing and we got lucky to get this building donated to us. And it’s a heartwarming remarkable walk through outdoor history of our state, that’s why it’s important to me.
The Threads of Any Hunting Career: Respect & Ethics
Being a hunter and being a true sportsman and outdoorsman is two different things or being a fisherman, have respect for other hunters and other fishermen out there on the lake or on the water.
Ramsey Russell: I think about that old school ethic you’re talking about and I’ve said before, it seems to me sometimes that the future of hunting lies in its past, but I do think that, I think that the future of hunting lies in its past just that old school land ethos, that old school ethic, I see it just getting lost along with the stories that those old timers taught us, I see it just kind of getting lost.
Billy Johnson: Well, to me all this technology, it dulls our instincts and the instincts that we were taught as kids. Make sure you shoot a squirrel in the head, don’t mess up any meat. Always keep your knives sharp, your guns old and fresh line on your reels because you never know when you get a chance to go hunting or fishing. I knew old guy named Sam and he took impeccable care, when he came in from a duck hunt, the first thing he was going to do was strip his Remington 1100 down and clean it and oil it and put it up before he ever ate breakfast. For hunters and fishermen that grew up during the time of the depression, back when you could buy a model 12 pump shotgun for $59 brand new, those old guys hunted with everything, they put a poly choke on it and hunt everything from quail to deer with it. And there wasn’t money to buy all this other stuff like people have now. So, to me, teaching a kid how to slip around in a boat and catch a bass on the top water and that kind of stuff and make sure, no trash fell out of the boat in the water, make sure that when you come off the lake, you get any trash out of the boat. So when you run, riding down the highway, it ain’t going to blow out all that is very important part for teaching kids how to respect the outdoors because hopefully they’ll have kids of their own and if you don’t teach it to them, they won’t teach it to the next generation. So, all that is real important, you can get on the internet and learn anything you want to now, but it’s not like it was when I was a kid, when they’d teach you how to tie a jig on your line where it always stay horizontal, they’d teach you to run your fingers when you catch a bass on the top water, take your thumb and your index finger and run it up the line, make sure it’s not any nicks or frayed and that kind of stuff. Being a hunter and being a true sportsman and outdoorsman is two different things or being a fisherman, have respect for other hunters and other fishermen out there on the lake or on the water. That’s what we were taught when we were kids.
Ramsey Russell: And this museum is a tribute to that, isn’t it?
Billy Johnson: It is. I know a guy over there, he used to give a talk, he was a camp boss at the Rosa Hunting Club and the night before deer season, he’d give his talk and he’d tell all the kids there, all the deer that ever been bred ain’t worth the price of one man dead and I mean, that kind of stuff, I mean, you can’t get that anywhere but from the horse’s mouth and that’s a very important part of our hunting culture and the ethics. And those old guys that came up during the depression where if they’d daddy gave them six 22 shorts, they better come back with six squirrels here and they made a lot of the stuff that they hunted and fished with and they didn’t have the opportunity as kids to hunt for deer like our kids do, they very much appreciated the things that several of a lot of people in the younger generations take for granted. They always think the deer are going to be here and the turkey is going to be here and the fish going to be here because they always have, but appreciation of the opportunities that we have and appreciation for the people and their lives did things to give us these opportunities is a big part of what’s in this museum right here. The one thread when you walk around and you see all these showcases in this outdoor Hall of Fame, whether it was a turkey hunter or a crappie fisherman or a coon hunter, the one thread that runs through all those showcases is respect. You got to have – all those people are respected and all of us are going to reach a point where we hit the rocking chair and we ain’t able to hunt anymore and having the ethics to do the right thing through your hunting career and you look at what you got mounted on your wall at your trophy rooms, whether you feel pride in what you’re looking at or whether you feel shame is how you conduct yourself. There ain’t no referees or umpires in the woods and on the water, we govern ourselves and to teach children from an early age to respect the outdoors and respect what they’re hunting and fishing for, that’s way more important than what you catch or kill.
Ramsey Russell: How can people connect with you or connect with the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum here in Leland? Do you all have a website or social media?
Billy Johnson: Yeah, it’s just mississippiwildlifemuseum.com. And we’re open Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 5PM and we got stories here that you hadn’t heard, we got things here that you hadn’t seen, it all comes from our state.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, you’ve been listening to Mr. Billy Johnson in Leland, Mississippi at the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum. Appreciate you all listening, hope you all have enjoyed it, see you next time.