Maybe the good old days were different. To hear today’s guest tell it, it wasn’t a hundred years ago but during my own lifetime that salt and pepper were the only real Louisiana seasons abided. Everything was eaten, by necessity in many cases. Everything. And local wildlife markets thrived. Mr. Johnny Borrel from Avoyelles Parish began hunting at a very young age. He started market hunting in high school and tells us what it was like back then. When and why did he start selling wild ducks? Where’d he sell game and what were the going rates? What’s the most ducks he ever bagged? What about game wardens? What shotgun was considered best? When and why did he stop? Mr. Borrel is an animated storyteller, a steel-trap mind for details. Like a hell-bent green-winged teal with a tail wind, today’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode is going make your head spin!
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Folks, welcome to a really special episode of duck season somewhere. I’m down in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, with today’s guest, and I want y’all to keep in mind, it was a different time. It was different times in a different place than what we know today. The mindsets were different, the attitudes were different, the resources different, the migration was different. But folks, hang on like we’re running through a swamp at 100 miles an hour. You want to hear this podcast, okay? Today’s guest is Mr. Johnny Borrel. How are you Johnny?
Johnny Borrel: I’m doing good. I’m 73 years old.
Learning to Duck Hunt in Avoyelles Parish, LA
“If I take a round guess, I’ll figure I killed anywhere from 45,000 – 55,000.”
Ramsey Russell: 73 years old. Born and raised here in the Avoyelles Parish? Now word on the street is you killed a duck a time or two in your life, is that true?
Johnny Borrel: That’s true.
Ramsey Russell: Good, duck hunter. How many ducks?
Johnny Borrel: If I take a round guess, I’ll figure I killed anywhere from 45,000 – 55,000.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a couple. Do you remember your first duck?
Johnny Borrel: Yup.
Ramsey Russell: How old were you and how did that come about?
Johnny Borrel: I’d say roughly about six years old and we jumped a mallard in a canal and he went in a little further down and then my cousin went and made the round and I stayed at Barlow Creek. And when the duck jumped up, he flew down the canal towards me, and I shot him with a Benjamin pump. 13 pumps and two steel BB’s, and I killed him on the fly.
Ramsey Russell: What did you do with that duck? Y’all take it home and eat him?
Johnny Borrel: Yes. My grandmother cooked them for us.
Ramsey Russell: How did you learn to duck hunt?
Johnny Borrel: Really, I think it came natural, because I can remember calling with my hand. I didn’t have a duck call. I just called with my hands at that time.
Ramsey Russell: Where’d you learn to do that? Did your daddy or granddaddy teach you? Or was it just the neighbors, everybody down here did it?
Johnny Borrel: Yeah, just about everybody duck hunting. My daddy and them weren’t that good of a duck hunter. They were more like dove and squirrel and deer. We’d duck hunt, but, at that time, like I said, they didn’t have the bean field all cleared to have the open area where the duck couldn’t hide like they used to. It was solid timber from Morgan City all the way up to Minnesota along the Mississippi Valley. When they started the bean fields, that’s when the ducks didn’t have the places to hide anymore, and that’s when we started really butchering.
Ramsey Russell: So this would have been back in the 50s, you killed that first mallard duck with a Benjamin pump?
Johnny Borrel: Right. About 1954 – 1955, somewhere around there.
Ramsey Russell: You duck hunted up through high school and stuff like that?
Johnny Borrel: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Did y’all stick to whatever the season length was? How did that go?
Johnny Borrel: No, We started hunting in September, and we quit hunting when the mallards would leave. During the summer, if we found a wood duck roost, we’d go shoot it. So, we hunted. Down here, I can remember, we lived with my grandmother, me and my daddy, my uncle, my mama, and three brothers and everything we killed, we ate. That was robins, cedar birds, black birds, grow backs, back carrack, squirrels, rabbits, deer, ducks, you name it, we ate it. It went in the pot. All my kin people ate the same thing, I mean the whole Parish.
Memories of a Market Hunter in Avoyelles Parish
“What would some of the bigger orders look like?”
Ramsey Russell: Were you killing everything you could year round to eat? Was it a function of the economy? Was it that we’re simple people and that’s how we grew up or was it the function of just the local economy or both?
Johnny Borrel: Really, it was both. Back then, my daddy in 1955 was making 75 cents an hour raising four kids. He was a disabled veteran, but even though. He was a painter and he’d work really from about April to August. In the winter months, I can remember him sitting at the house-well, he stayed in the woods mostly, him and my uncle.
Ramsey Russell: That’s just different times, isn’t it?
Johnny Borrel: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: How did you get into market hunting? How’d you go from duck hunting with a pellet rifle feeding your family to all of a sudden market hunting? And when did you get into market hunting?
Johnny Borrel: I was in high school. I met a buddy of mine, Larry Goyal. His daddy was a market hunter and I became friends with him and we started hunting and that’s how I learned to sell my ducks at the barbershop. The barber would tell me I need 2 or 3 ducks here, or 5 or 6 ducks here, and that was to buy shells, or hip boots. I even bought a gun.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of gun was it?
Johnny Borrel: I brought a Winchester 1200 pump, and I paid $100 for it, and a case of shells at that time, 20 boxes, was $60, and that was 20 ducks, 20 pairs, and I had my case of shells through the year.
Ramsey Russell: So you’re friend’s daddy, y’all were best friends, your friend’s daddy was servicing the local market with ducks and you realized, “Hey, I can make some money too.”
Johnny Borrel: That’s what I did.
Ramsey Russell: Go to the local barbershop, go to the local community, did they have a special species they wanted or did they just say we want duck?
Johnny Borrel: Mostly people wanted mallards back then. A pair of mallards was $3, a pair of wood ducks was $2.50, a pair of teals was 75 cents apiece, that’s $1.25 back then. That was big money, I mean a pair of squirrels was $2. I’ve even sold squirrels. In the Avoyelles Parish, they ate everything.
Ramsey Russell: Back crow or robin, cedar wax wings, all that things.
Johnny Borrel: A dozen Robins with 75 cents. A buddy of mine, Mr. Louis Tausan, had an order to sell 60 dozens at 75 cents a dozen.
Ramsey Russell: What would some of the bigger orders look like?
Johnny Borrel: I can remember he had a shed that he built to pick his ducks, and he had nails all the way around. He had two roosts. I think he had something like 120 ducks he was picking to sell in one lick, and that was most probably going to Baton Rouge.
Ramsey Russell: Unbelievable. So was everybody in the community doing that or it was just a few of y’all?
Johnny Borrel: It was just us. Down spring on Bar Road they had quite a few market hunters there that depended on fishing, hunting, and trapping, and market hunting, and then Bartlesville had a few hunters, and Moreauville had a few market hunters, they had the Rushal’s and the Rickel Boys would sell ducks too, and further down the road in Bartlesville, there were the Fobs and I can’t think of the other ones.
Ramsey Russell: There’s still a lot of people doing it back in the community.
Johnny Borrel: Quite a few. And in Hesla they had Lake Pearl, they had a lot of market hunters that stayed in Lake Pearl, people didn’t realize.
Ramsey Russell: I bet a lot of people listening are wondering how did you market hunt? Were they just regular duck hunts but you shot a bunch?
Johnny Borrel: In market hunting, they got them to light. They had a bunch of them and most of them shot Winchester pump model 12, you could put seven shells in the gun. You had seven shots instead of five, if you remember that.
Ramsey Russell: I did not know that.
Johnny Borrel: I know that the market hunter, Mr. Goyal and Mr. Tausal, that’s what they used.
Ramsey Russell: What are we talking about with bait?
Johnny Borrel: They’d use live decoys sometimes.
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever use live decoys?
Johnny Borrel: No, never had the chance. I was too young for that. I was a young boy when I met them, but they used live decoys.
Ramsey Russell: They raised them, those were their pets.
Johnny Borrel: Oh, yes. I guarantee you that the secret was, they’d put one drake in the back of the blind, one drake on the other side of the blind where the hen couldn’t see. The drake would sit down and then the hen would start calling.
Ramsey Russell: Trying to get him to come in, and she called all the other ducks. How many? Just one hen or was it a couple of them?
Johnny Borrel: Just one hen. That’s all they needed.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of habitat were they hunting mostly?
Johnny Borrel: Mostly, back then, they had openings in these sloughs in buck willows. They’d clean it out. They had a pocket. They put a very nice blind because a lot of them guided people from Texas that would come down to hunt over here with Mr. Goyal and Mr. Tausan.
Ramsey Russell: Put me on the timeline. We’re not talking about the early 1900s, we’re talking 50s 60s?
Johnny Borrel: 50s, 60s, that’s when I met them. You understand? Like I said, in 1949, Mr. Goyal bought a 1949 Jeep, Willis Jeep, four wheel drive. Paid $1750.50, his last duck was a grey duck for 50 cents. Paid for that truck.
Ramsey Russell: How bad were the game wardens back then?
Johnny Borrel: Well, it was sort of like this: some of them were bad until about the late 50s. Then they got some pretty good game wardens that sympathized with them. They would let them kill, but they wanted their share too, now.
Ramsey Russell: Like how so?
Johnny Borrel: Well, that would go to Baton Rouge most of the time.
Ramsey Russell: They were the state game wardens?
Johnny Borrel: State. And then if the Feds came in, the state knew about it, so they’d tell the market hunters to slow down that day.
Ramsey Russell: Take a day off.
Johnny Borrel: Right.
Ramsey Russell: The man’s in town, take a day off.
Johnny Borrel: That’s exactly right.
Duck Hunting with the Good Ol’ Boys
“Ducks were ducks, it didn’t matter.”
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever hunt with any of the good ol’ boys?
Johnny Borrel: Oh yes.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me some stories about that.
Johnny Borrel: The first time that they finally got in with them, that’s when my uncle was taking care of a bean field, and the night before, the game warden’s brother-in-law took the state representative of Avoyelles Parish duck hunting, him and his buddy, and the other buddy that they hunted together [with], it was three of them. The 3rd one got pissed off, so he went and got the game warden to go catch the other two and the state representative but they got away because they didn’t bring the ducks out with them. The next day, we were all supposed to go again, but they couldn’t go, so that’s when I got in there and I went and we killed 96 ducks that day. Out of 96, I’d say I killed 80, because the first bunch that came in there, they started lighting in the pond I was in.
Ramsey Russell: This is the story you were telling us where he was in the vines?
Johnny Borrel: I was in the vines.
Ramsey Russell: Tell that story, it’s a great story.
Johnny Borrel: I was sitting there, my uncle told me, “You see that willow tree? There’s a pond.” When I got there it smelt like a chicken coop, solid with chicken crap. I got into the tie vine and it made me a little blind and right at daylight two mallards came, so I gave him a call. They started to break and they came to light and 50 teals came and lit with them. I was about to shoot and I could hear this racket coming. I looked behind me and the sky was black, coming with mallards, and they started lighting that hole, and by the time they were within five feet from me and I wasn’t moving and I looked behind me and this other man was trying to crawl through this plowed field to get to the hole and I said, “No, you aren’t going to make it.” I shot three times and I went out there and I picked up 28 dead ducks. I didn’t go after the broken wings. Then we started shooting after that and my uncle came and that’s when I told him to tell that man to stop shooting because he couldn’t hit anything.
Ramsey Russell: Who was he, just somebody?
Johnny Borrel: He was a friend of my uncle’s, Mr. Stafford Harvard. My uncle was Leon Borrel. I told him, “Tell him not to shoot because he can’t hit nothing.” We ended up killing 96 that day. When the game warden came to see what we killed and when he walked in he said, “I guess you didn’t kill nothing.” And my uncle says, “No we didn’t. But Johnny killed.”
Ramsey Russell: When you’re shooting ducks like that, were you targeting just mallards or would you just target the next duck in the decoys?
Johnny Borrel: Back then, most of the ducks that we had were mallards. The first time I killed a shoveler.
Ramsey Russell: I was just thinking of asking you about shoveler.
Johnny Borrel: First time they lit, there were five of them. That was me and Bobby. We were in the blind, I said, “Bobby, look, some shovelers!” Ain’t never seen that in my life. So I shot them. When I brought them home, my daddy wanted to kill me, because I killed a spoonbill that ain’t worth a damn to eat. That’s the truth.
Ramsey Russell: Would you target green heads or were you just out there shooting whatever mallards that came in?
Johnny Borrel: Ducks were ducks, it didn’t matter. What people don’t realize today, I can remember going out in school, I wasn’t the smartest in class because I had my mind outside 90 percent of the time. At recess, you could walk outside, look up, and as you see a bunch coming, 115, 200, when that bunch would get right here, you’d look back, there was another bunch coming behind them. That many ducks all day. Passing over Marksville, Louisiana every day. That’s the Gospel Truth.
Ramsey Russell: How long did you market hunt?
Johnny Borrel: I’d say from the time I was in high school until I got married and then I started off-shore.
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, was it the work or your wife? Did your wife make you an honest man?
Johnny Borrel: Yeah, sort of.
Ramsey Russell: They do that to folks, the good ones do.
Johnny Borrel: She had a little bit more sense than me.
Ramsey Russell: Most of them do.
Johnny Borrel: But like I said, I didn’t buy any shells. I swapped ducks for shells.
Ramsey Russell: What were some of the best hunting conditions you ever ran into? Like we were talking before the show about the freeze of ‘83.
Johnny Borrel: The freeze of ‘83, we started off the day after Christmas and for 10 days, we shot ducks, we killed 1050 ducks. The first day we killed 150.
Ramsey Russell: How many is “we?” Just you and your buddy?
Johnny Borrel: Me and my buddy, the two of us, and my little boy and his little boy, but after that they had to go back to school. We pounded, just me and him.
Ramsey Russell: How did you shoot that much? Because even if you’re a great shot, shooting 100 percent, if you shoot that much, you still have to figure folks can hear and they know you’re shooting a bunch, maybe shooting too many. How did you avoid the game warden? How did you stay out of trouble doing that?
Johnny Borrel: Well, back then, if you were in the clique, you could get away with it. In 1972, I’ll give you a good example, I killed 286 ducks that day. Out of 286, I killed 230. That day, my daddy got in the blind with me from 12:00 – 1:00. we would kill 55 wood ducks. We didn’t see a mallard. For one hour, we had one bunch after another of 50 – 75 wood ducks fly into the decoys. It lasted one hour and they quit. Daddy says, “I’m going.” The game warden came, picked him up with the ducks, and went back to the camp. I stayed until dark and kept shooting.
Ramsey Russell: Would you wait for them to land on the water or would you shoot them on the way?
Johnny Borrel: I was shooting on the water then when they got up.
Johnny Borrel: Like I said, you could say back from 1962, it was a midterm at school, we would take a midterm test, and I flunked every last one of them. We caught a freeze and I went to the rice fields. That’s the most ducks I’ve seen in my life at that time. We shot eight times, and we picked up 49 ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Mallards?
Johnny Borrel: Mallards.
The Winchester: Gun of Choice
Ramsey Russell: Unbelievable, what was your gun of choice? Was it that gun you bought, that Winchester?
Johnny Borrel: Yeah, the Winchester. At that time, in 1962, I shot my daddy’s Browning 12 gauge automatic. Then I bought myself a Winchester, 1200 model, 1200. I should have bought the 12, the bottom 12 was $15 cheaper. But the dealer says, this is a new kind of gun and all this, and it looked a little prettier, and I made a mistake.
Ramsey Russell: Didn’t hold as many bullets.
Johnny Borrel: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: What was your go-to shot shell? Whatever you could get?
Johnny Borrel: Well, before I started reloading, I’d shoot an ounce and a quarter. Number six, I’d buy a case that was 20 boxes, and I’d buy 10 boxes of number 6, 5 boxes of 7.5., and 5 boxes of number 9.
Ramsey Russell: What do you use the number 9 for, ducks?
Johnny Borrel: On the roost, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Talk about hunting on the roost like that.
Johnny Borrel: Well, you had more BB. Wood duck roost, Mallards roost. It didn’t matter; they were closer.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about doing that. Would you just wait till it’s darker?
Johnny Borrel: Well, back then, that’s when the bean fields opened up, and you’d wait, and you’d see why they were roosting while the first bunch would start going down. You would run over yonder and you’d get there and they pour in on you and you’d shoot until pitch dark.
Ramsey Russell: What would be an average bag on a roost shoot like that, shooting those nines?
Johnny Borrel: I’d kill anywhere from 20 to 30. Easy, easy.
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever hunt with a dog back in those days?
Johnny Borrel: No, I was the dog.
Ramsey Russell: You were the dog?
Johnny Borrel: Yeah. I’d shoot them and pick them up fast as Hell.
Ramsey Russell: Did anybody hunt with a dog back then?
Johnny Borrel: Not too many.
Ramsey Russell: Was that a function of alligator being around or just a function of messing up the hunt?
Johnny Borrel: There were no alligators back then. The first alligator at Spring Bayou that I saw was in 1967 and I hit him in the head with a paddle, knocked him out, put him in the boat, and he had a tag, they had transplanted him there. Because back then, in the 1950s, the market hunters had cleaned them out and that’s when they brought the beavers in back then, and that ruined a lot of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: I had no idea.
Johnny Borrel: They didn’t have beavers here in 1950, not until 1967.
Ramsey Russell: And they brought them in?
Johnny Borrel: They brought them in. That was the first beaver dam we saw in Spring Bayou.
Ramsey Russell: Did that help a duck hunter or hurt it?
Johnny Borrel: No, it didn’t help. I think it hurt. Well, it didn’t make any difference. They just dammed up, but they started cutting the trees and they got into the canals that drained everything and started damming that up. That’s the trouble with them, now.
Ramsey Russell: That’s some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever heard. The market hunters wiped out the alligators.
Johnny Borrel: Oh yeah. Back then, they’d sell alligators.
Ramsey Russell: The hides and the meats?
Johnny Borrel: Just the hides. Most of them didn’t eat the alligator.
Culinary “Delights” in Louisiana
“There’s a lot of stuff that folks in this part of the world consider good to eat that the rest of us wouldn’t think about eating.”
Ramsey Russell: Really? That’s a big thing nowadays. I don’t care for it myself. I know Dale likes them. I don’t care for them myself. I do like a little jaw meat sometimes fried up, but I can take or leave alligator
Johnny Borrel: Turtle they went crazy for a while. People went after the big loggerhead turtles and just about wiped them out.
Ramsey Russell: They sure did. They sold everything down here.
Johnny Borrel: If it was good to eat, it was sold.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of stuff that folks in this part of the world consider good to eat that the rest of us wouldn’t think about eating.
Johnny Borrel: That’s right. Grow backs: the only reason they were outlawed as a federal offense is because it was the Mexican state bird.
Ramsey Russell: Really? I didn’t know that.
Johnny Borrel: It was damn good eating.
Ramsey Russell: Have you ever killed them and eaten them?
Johnny Borrel: Oh yeah. During the summer we’d hunt grow backs.
Ramsey Russell: How would you cook them?
Johnny Borrel: Smother them with bell peppers and onions in a black pot.
Ramsey Russell: Make a gravy.
Johnny Borrel: Make a gravy.
Ramsey Russel: That’s how you cook everything down here. Tell somebody how to cook that stuff down here. For those who are listening that don’t know how to make a gravy with grow back or duck or something, how would you make a gravy?
Johnny Borrel: To start off, you brown your meat, you put your onions, your bell peppers or whatever, garlic, you ground that good. You put your little flour, you brown that with just a touch of grease to keep it from sticking. Then you start putting water and salt and pepper. You put the lid on the black pot after you put your meat and everything and you cook it until it’s tender.
Favorite Hunts of the Past
“1972 was my most fantastic hunt. I killed 230 ducks.”
Ramsey Russell: That sounds good. What are some of your favorite memories back then? Tell me about some of these great hunts y’all went on back then, because some of us can’t imagine hunting like that.
Johnny Borrel: 1972 was my most fantastic hunt. I killed 230 ducks. They came and picked me up out of the blind at 10:00 to go eat something. When I got in the camp, I looked on the side where the silos were, they had about 150 doves sitting on a cement slab. I asked the game warden, I said, “Give me three shells, I can shoot 75 doves right there.” He says, “You shoot that, I’ll write you up. You’re going to kill some ducks.”
Ramsey Russell: Wasn’t any money in doves.
Johnny Borrel: When I walked in the camp I was drinking my coffee, the phone rang, and it was Poony, you remember Poony. He told me to tell the other game warden that he would be in Corinne’s field the next morning to hunt ducks. Two game wardens.
Ramsey Russell: When you sold those ducks at the barbershop or the individuals, wherever you sold them, were they plucked and cleaned?
Johnny Borrel: Oh yeah. You have to pluck them. You have to keep the heart and the gizzard.
Ramsey Russell: They want the heart and the gizzard.
Johnny Borrel: Oh yeah, just like you buy a chicken.
Ramsey Russell: I mean going out and shooting a lot of ducks, I’ve been to foreign countries where you shoot a bunch still, that’s a lot of work. You got to clean them off, whole plucked them?
Johnny Borrel: Dry plucked them.
Ramsey Russell: You must be an expert at plucking?
Johnny Borrel: Not any more. My hands are too old for plucking.
Ramsey Russell: You’d come in with 30 or 40 ducks, let alone 200 or 286. How long did it take you to clean them and how did you clean those ducks that quick?
Johnny Borrel: We dry picked them. In 1983, I kept my father-in-law and two of my sons, they were young, in a shed eight hours a day picking ducks.
Ramsey Russell: My goodness. All season long?
Johnny Borrel: That’s right. When I got married, I had a freezer on the ice box, just a freezer port. Well, after the first week of squirrel season, it was full, so I went and bought the biggest freezer that they had and put it in the house. When I filled that up, I filled my mama’s freezer, my uncle’s freezer, and my other uncle’s.
Ramsey Russell: When you say dry pluck, you mean just sitting there plucking? No wax, no machines?
Johnny Borrel: No wax. We tried the wax, but we didn’t know exactly. Back then my grandmother would start picking and then daddy and my uncle would help and we’d all pitch in and pick. But then, once I got married, I didn’t have that no more. I had my father-in-law and that’s why I had four kids.
Ramsey Russell: You kept them busy. You know, they say idle hands do the devil’s work so you gave them purpose in life. How many ducks do you reckon they picked during that season?
Johnny Borrel: On average, I’d say we picked from 1000 to 2000.
Ramsey Russell: They must have had some strong hands.
Johnny Borrel: Oh yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I guarantee you they did.
Johnny Borrel: The mallards are harder than a wood duck and a teal. I came back one day. In 1989, we caught a freeze. I came back from offshore. I left Corpus Christi that night, or that afternoon, and I got to Alexandria at 1:00 that morning. My wife picked me up. When I got home, I made a pot of coffee, started drinking, and reloading shells. I left that morning. Ne and my oldest son went to shoot ducks. We got in the blind. The lake was frozen. I went to get to the lake and a buddy of mine had my boat, he was going in the lake. They had a spot that the ducks had defrosted about 500 or 600 yards down in the Bayou. They couldn’t make it, but I didn’t know. I went in the woods. I broke a ring that I had, I broke the hole, and the ice cleared it out. We got in there and we started shooting ducks, me and my oldest boy, we had killed 54, I believe it was. We came out and went to check on my boat and I saw that they didn’t go but about 50 yards and they turned around. I said, “Leave the ducks and the guns here. We’re going to go and break the ice so we can come tomorrow morning to get to that place over yonder.” And we broke the ice. It was 5:00 that afternoon when I came out and I stopped at my buddy’s house to tell him if he wanted to come with us, I said, “We got a place, they had the water defrosted, they are sitting there right now, keeping the water warm. If you want to come with butchering tomorrow.” He says, “No, I’m going deer hunting.” And I said, “Well, cool.” So me and my boy went in there that morning. We got there at 10 o’clock, it started defrosting all around by that time we had something like 80 something ducks killed. Came out, we went in the woods back to that hole, I broke, we killed 39 in one bunch. picked that up. I said “That’s enough ducks,” and I went to my other hole and broke it for them the next morning to have defrosted. We came out that day. The next day we went, me and my 2nd oldest boy got in the blind. We started shooting green winged teals, we had 43 killed before 8:00. And they were still coming. And my little boy says, “Daddy, I’m tired of shooting teals. Let’s shoot something else.” I said, we ain’t got hardly any.” He says, “Daddy, you got 43 right there.” I said, “Well, okay, we’ll shoot some mallards now” and sure enough, it was about 9:00, the mallards started coming. At 11:00, he says, “Daddy, I’m tired. You got 48 mallards killed and 43 teals killed, don’t you think that’s enough?” I said, “I’ll go check on my other boy and see what they got. When I got over yonder, they had 50 ducks killed. We came back, got to the camp, and my buddy and them came in. They had 84 – 85 ducks, mallards, killed. That was the 3rd day of the ‘89 freeze, and from there on we averaged about 150 ducks a day for 13 days.
Ramsey Russell: My goodness. Mallards and green wings. Probably some wood ducks.
Shooting Banded Wood Ducks
Johnny Borrel: Wood ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I just had this thought, that’s when my daddy and granddaddy hunted. I’ll never forget one time being, I don’t know, waist high, looking at the kitchen sink. He was cleaning the bird that had a leg band on it. I didn’t know what it was. I said, “What is that?” And he said, “Federal tag.” He used to throw it out. Could you shoot a lot of bands? He said surely I’ve shot a ton of them back in the 1960s – 1970s.
Johnny Borrel: I had a pile of duck bands, but then I don’t know where they went, I don’t want to say anything. You know what I mean?
Ramsey Russell: You didn’t call the man and do all that mess back then did you?
Johnny Borrel: Maybe 5 or 6, I called. I just took them off and I just put them in a drawer. One day I was walking the bayou at Shaniya, the canal around the lake in Shaniya, and I killed 9 or 10 wood ducks. Out of 9 or 10 wood ducks, I had three bands. So I saw my buddy, he was the management fella, and I asked him, I said, “I killed some with wood ducks with bands.” He said “Don’t send them in, I banded them this year.” I killed three in one day. Then I killed one with a $100 reward.
Ramsey Russell: You called him in, didn’t you? That’s big money.
Johnny Borrel: When you have four kids, oh yeah. Look, I’ll tell you. Between the time I was in high school until 2000, an average hunt was 35, 40 mallards or 35 mallards and wood ducks. I’d get in my little holes that I had in the woods and when they came off the roost, I was shooting in bunches of wood ducks anywhere from 50 to 150 passing the tree top level. Now, you don’t see that. Have you seen that lately? Back then, that’s how many wood ducks were sleeping in this place I was in. It was unbelievable. You get in the blind in the morning and listen to the ducks before daylight hollering. What gets me is all these duck callers, they’ll get on that “caa caa caa caa.” If you ever listen to a wild duck, the most you’ll hear them call is three clicks.
Ramsey Russell: They’ll run out of air.
Johnny Borrel: But this highballing calling, you know, everybody does it. I do it. A lot of people didn’t know that back then in the trees, you’d be creeping and you’d hear [imitation of flapping sounds]. You heard that before? Late in the season, that’s how they communicated. They’d pop their wings to find out where they were. When you’d creep them into trees and what we call button willows, they were eating a plant, and you’d hear [imitation of clapping or flapping noise] and then you’d start creeping. When you’d see them, you’d see the drakes, you never saw the female, because it was all brown. you’d get two males in a shot and then when they disappeared you’d pull the trigger because there were two or three hens in front of them. You’d have killed the whole shebang and you kept the wing to your back blowing to them, because when they got up they had to come to you. I’ve seen myself shoot 19 times, dropping them when they get out of the trees. He saw me do that before.
Changes in Hunting Pressure, Weather, and Bag Limits
“They say ducks can’t read.”
Ramsey Russell: I’m just thinking about those days. You know, you go to foreign countries, you see that kind of stuff now, but you don’t really see that here anymore. When did you start seeing a decline in mallards coming this far south?
Johnny Borrel: I started really seeing it in 2000. Before that, they just had the Catahoula game management area, the rest area there. Now, when they bought Spring Bayou Game Preserve, they made a rest area, and they had the sign. They say ducks can’t read. Well, I’ve got news for you: when they see that sign, they lie right on the other side of the sign and they piled into that rest area and nobody was shooting on the outside, because they were all in there. So finally, the game wardens took it out and opened up the whole thing. But in 1994 – 1995, they bought Little California, Cat Island, and Saint Catherine in Mississippi. That’s the tightest flyway of the Mississippi and the central flyway is right here in the Avoyelles Parish and they got five reserves and that’s where they stay at now. They got to the point where I started noticing that about 2010, 2008. They started coming in right at half hour after shooting time, they’d start piling into these fields around here. Then, when you drive up in the morning, you hear them get up and go back to the reserve, and that got us.
Ramsey Russell: We go down to Mexico, we go down to some of these foreign countries, and there’s a lot of ducks. I’ll give you an example, I went down to Mexico back in late January and we stayed at this beautiful resort. We’d get there 30 minutes after shooting time wearing sometimes shorts, sometimes light pants, Crocs, boots, but shooting freshwater birds coming in. It’s like, there’s 8 of us or there’s 12 of us and everybody shoots 20 ducks. By nine o’clock we’re sitting on the bank eating burritos and I just can’t believe that there are so many ducks, a lot of teal. There’s zero hunting pressure. That particular spot gets shot once or twice every 10 days for about an hour. You go shoot 200 ducks with a crowd of you. But when we’re sitting there eating dinner, breakfast, whatever you want to call them burritos there at 9:30 in the morning, you sit there and watch that duck hole, and it’s just fog, and when you get done it’s as black as it was when you got there with ducks. I’m sitting there thinking, back in the fifties, sixties, seventies, there were a lot of ducks coming down here. Talk about a man that goes out and shoots 30, 40 ducks a hunt. His son goes out and shoots 50 of them, and his other son shoots 90 every day that they can. And it wasn’t just y’all, it was your neighbors, It was the community. But when I think back then, now I think back to today, 2020, and one of 20 states I hunted this year, it’s just the enormous hunting pressure. It seems like so much more hunting pressure today than back then, but it doesn’t make sense.
Johnny Borrel: Back when I started hunting in Shaniya, that was me and my buddy, the Johnsons and the Couviouns. You had Grand Lake that was hunting. Smith bay, they had the Rushals and a couple of others right there. I’d hunt seven days a week. I was working 7/7. In other words, I was going for seven days, coming back for seven days. But then I’d take my vacation for the last three weeks of the duck season, and I had hunted for 21 days. Back then, you didn’t have the pressure that you’re thinking of. You had your regular, die hard hunters like us that hunted every day. But on the weekends, that’s when the weekend warriors would come. It wasn’t as much killing then on the weekend, but Monday to Friday, you did what you wanted. Then, on the weekends, you had a few more. It would help us out when they’d get in the bean fields, they’d come into the trees.
Ramsey Russell: When you think about some of the numbers y’all were shooting then it was a lot over limit. But relative to the day, where the limit on mallards was four, but we started talking about green teals and wood ducks and pin tails and gadwalls those were 10 point ducks a lot of that period of time you’re talking about, the limit was 10 anyway, which is kind of hard to get your mind wrapped around when you’re going to shoot so many on the good days today, on the best of days, and I’ve heard biologists say that bag limit doesn’t kill ducks, days kill ducks. When you think about hunting pressure, like you said, you’re working offshore, you’re doing this and that, but you might have been hunting with vacation 20 days a year. Most folks today are skipping their child’s recital or skipping vacations. They’re hunting more than that and they’re traveling all over the flyway, which I’m all about. But I’m just saying it just seems like a lot of hunting pressure. Dale just handed me a note and it’s a very good point, too: not only versus today, in the year 2020, with all the modern devices we’ve got, versus then, it sounds to me like hearing your stories, a lot of what y’all did, you boated in some of the areas, but you walked in a lot of areas. When I think back to the fifties, sixties, seventies versus now, there were a lot of areas, even down here, where everybody’s hunting like it hurt their mama, you couldn’t get to her or didn’t get to. It was harder to get to.
Johnny Borrel: Until they started clearing out all these bean fields. When they cleared out around Spring Bayou, I can remember going to the dam and I looked out there towards the Sortie and say “Goddam.” I know people didn’t pass there, but they did. That’s when you realize how much timber they had in the flyway and how much flooded timber. Just the other day, I flew back from Kansas to New Roads, and when we passed over, from Monroe to New Roads along the Mississippi River, I didn’t realize how much flooded country we had until we got right here and this year we didn’t have an outstanding duck season because most of them were in the reserve.
Ramsey Russell: The ones that made it down because a lot of ducks didn’t make it down till February.
Johnny Borrel: But now, when we caught that big ice that we just got through, I had mallards and pintails in my pond behind my house. But we never had an ice since about four years ago.
Ramsey Russell: 2017.
Johnny Borrel: Yeah. Now we killed some ducks then, but before that we hadn’t had cool weather.
Ramsey Russell: It was harder to access places back in these days. But there were a lot more places ducks could go that were just overlooked, too. I mean, a lot of habitat. Now, you’ve got these federal reserves but back then you just had places to go do ducky things.
Johnny Borrel: When I was in high school I could hunt anywhere in Louisiana and not get a posted sign. Am I wrong? I hunted from Monroe down to Baton Rouge, and nothing. You said “I’m going hunting here,” you went, nobody cared then. Today it’s a big money deal. Thank God they made them reserves. Louisiana is lucky. I went to Amarillo. They don’t have a federal reserve anywhere around. Wherever you find water, you can butcher. You go to Kansas, the same thing, Oklahoma, same thing, if you have a pond, you’re going to butcher, because they’ve got to come drink. That’s the main thing. Its water they need, you’ve got to drink every day. And once you fill up that crawl, you’ve got to put something in it.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what a lot of folks say that keep up with us going down to Mexico. They say, “You must be baiting them. Man, these Mexicans arent’ baiting anything. They ain’t going to spend that money on bait. It’s a Sonoran desert. It’s a desert. They’re coming in to drink fresh water. We can get there so late after daylight because the hotter it gets, the thirstier they get.
Johnny Borrel: Right. And people don’t realize that.
Ramsey Russell: Do you feel like, back in the fifties, sixties, seventies, there was more cold weather back then?
Johnny Borrel: I think so. I was born in 1948. In 1951, they had a big freeze, and in 1950, they had two or three good freezes, 1962, I think 1964, 1972m that was a big freeze. When we killed all those ducks. In 1975, we got the big flood. No, 1974. We called it the big flood. We had more cold weather because I can remember for squirrel season, we sometimes had to wear a coat and now you can go in a short sleeve shirt.
Ramsey Russell: This last season was terrible in the Deep South. It was warm for so long.
Johnny Borrel: If that big front could have hit December 1st, I’d like to see how many ducks would’ve come.
Ramsey Russell: My son is 23 years old, my oldest son, and we were going up to Arkansas to band ducks with University of Arkansas-Monticello. They took us out to duck-band one day and that front was about two days away and it was still cold and you could see those ducks piling in the areas we were hitting. He’s 23 years old, he ain’t seen that. And he ain’t seen what would have happened had he gone out in that freeze sitting here in the Deep South. I remember getting so cold when I was his age. I said, “I was your age in college when I can remember, here comes that blueball blow down.” The first thing I had to do, I’m driving a Toyota four cylinder, and I’d have to cut cardboard between my grill and the radio so I could get some hot air blowing out. He can’t get his mind wrapped around that. When those fronts hit, by God, everybody had ducks that had open water.
Johnny Borrel: I’ve been reading the duck reports, and when I was growing up, they’d say, “The ducks are in Arkansas, wait for a front.” Two days before the front, you’d butcher when the front would hit. It wasn’t a good day. The minute that south wind started blowing, they came from the gulf heading north again. You butchered for two or three more days. And nowadays you don’t have that. And I’ve been reading the reports even Arkansas, the old hunters are complaining. There’s no more ducks there. But yet you go to Amarillo, Texas. I’d like to show them guys how to shoot ducks instead of saying take them.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. We will be back next Monday with Part-2 of our interview with Mr. Johnny Borrel, former Louisiana Market Hunter in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. Stay tuned. It’s a good one. See you next time.