Y’all better buckle up and hang on! Mississippi Delta historian and story-teller-of-epic-proportions, Hank Burdine is back, and this times going as fast and furious as an almost late-for-shooting-time hunter tearing down a gravel road! This colorful episode touches on memorable people, places and times throughout the Mississippi Delta like only Hank can tell it. What’s so special about the Mississippi Delta, how’d Hank get his start duck hunting and what’s changed since those glory days? Where or what is “Booger Den?” What inspired Hank to organize “The Old Duck Hunters Dinner,” who was there and what’d those folks’ represent? Who was The Duck Doctor, and what infamous Mississippian once described him as “the best duck hunter ever known”? Folks, this is one great episode y’all won’t want to end.
The Old Duck Hunters Dinner and Other Mississippi Times, Places
Hank Burdine, Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Mississippi Delta Boy
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I’ve got in the mobile Duck Season Somewhere studio today Mr. Hank Burdine, local legend, duck hunter, and Mississippi Delta celebrity. How are you, Hank?
Hank Burdine: I’m doing fine, man. I’m glad to be down here with you, and whenever I see you there ain’t no telling what we’re going to end up talking about.
Ramsey Russell: It ain’t no telling what we’re going to talk about, I think the same thing. You know, Hank, for those who don’t know, you’ve got a book yourself, and I’ve read it. You’ve been a writer for a long time.
Hank Burdine: Well, not really. I lost my wife about 15-16 years ago when we were living in Florida, and I wrote a little story about being down there in Florida. And about that time, Delta Magazine had just come out with its first issue. And I read the issue and really liked it, it was all about Delta stories and Delta people, had Lee and Pup McCarty, with McCarty’s Pottery from Merigold, on the cover. And I called, I said I’d like to write a final word, which is the last page in the magazine, it’s about why I can’t leave Mississippi, even though I was living in Florida at the time. And they called me after they ran it and asked me, would I write a story on such-and-such, and I kind of really didn’t want to write that, and I said, what if I write one about this, and came up with an idea, and they said that would be good. Well, from that point on, after every issue, they’d call me back up, well, when are you going to turn in your next story? They don’t tell me what to write about, I just kind of come up with an article, come up with a story, and that’s what I write about.
Ramsey Russell: But you got a great thing, you know it’s funny you say “why I can’t leave Mississippi,” because I can remember being a young man in my twenties in college and wanting to leave Mississippi, wanting to go out West and be a forester, be a biologist, and just, I love it out West, golly. But something happened. I know somewhere along the way, I just started having kids, started having a family, and Mississippi’s home, it’s freaking home. And even though I’ve lived here in the hills, central Mississippi, since high school, since before high school, we moved down here when I was in seventh grade. The Delta is unto itself. If you’re born in the Mississippi Delta, you’re always the Delta.
Hank Burdine: That’s correct, that’s correct. I left about 1994, 1995. Did about a fifteen-year walkabout, moved my family out to Westcliffe, Colorado, lived up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, which was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. My wife got sick with breast cancer and we moved to Florida, in the Niceville, Florida, area across from Destin, Choctawhatchee Bay, to be closer to her family and closer to my operations in Mississippi Delta, at the farm and everything. And when I lost her, my daughter had about three years finishing up high school. So when she finished high school, I moved home, and I’ve often told people that, if I never leave the state line of Mississippi again, I’ll be happy.
And they say, “Well, Hank, what if you want to go to Memphis?” I say, “well, Memphis is the capital of the Delta, and New Orleans is just right down the river, and between New Orleans and Memphis and Mobile, why I want to go anywhere else?” I’m home right here. It’s just something about the Delta and Mississippi itself that, it’s so unique, and the thing about the Mississippi Delta too, to all of us that enjoy the out of doors so much, there’s so much to do in the Mississippi Delta. I often say, around where I live and hunt, that we work nine months of the year just so we can hunt three months out of the year. And deer hunting, turkey hunting, the duck hunting. I’ve been involved in duck hunting just about all my life.
Mississippi Delta Canada Goose Hunting
My daddy was a big goose hunter. After the 1927 flood they came up with the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, and they were able to channelize the river, take a lot of these bends out, create a lot of these oxbow lakes. And in that program, they took the Greenwood bends out, shortened the river by about thirty-something miles, built the dike, the Greenville Harbor Dike, and created Lake Ferguson. At that point, folks that wanted one, and could get one, would have these big river boats. My daddy had a 48-foot twin-crew Matthews boat that he’d take out on the river and goose hunt off of. Fred Borderline’s daddy, Big Joe Borderline, had a steel-hulled boat called The Gulf Pride. He was in the Gulf oil business. Big Joe Verdant had a boat, and these folks would go out on the river and they were mainly goose hunters, and that’s what they really enjoyed, and they would stay out there for a week at a time. You had the big boat, to Mr. Charlie, which was Charlie P. Williams’ boat. And they would duck hunt for sport in the afternoon, when the ducks would be coming into little breaks and flues and off the river and sandbars and all, but mainly they were goose hunters.
The big duck hunting, at that time, in the 30’s and 40’s, when these big compounds such as Swan Lake, which is now part of the Yazoo Wildlife Refuge, you had lake Wapanocca outside of Memphis, over in Arkansas, you had a lot of these other big, flooded timber areas that were basically the duck hunting habitat where folks would go and hunt, those that weren’t hunting on the Mississippi River. You had breaks and slashes and sloughs and all these woods and everything where ducks would congregate, had a lot of wood ducks in here. And you got to remember, the Mississippi Flyway, there’s about 40% of all the duck population that migrates in America each year. And, historically, coming out from the breeding grounds of Canada, they follow that river. And as the river flooded the grass fields on the sandbars, the grass flats, and the thousands of acres of hardwood bottoms that would go underwater, with the millions of tons of hardwood master, pecans, your pin oaks, your acorns, all of this food that the ducks followed. But duck hunting back in the 30’s and 40’s was not at all as big as it is right now.
Duck Hunting Whiskey Chute with Mr. Sonny Rich
And at that time back in the 60’s, I had lost my daddy. Sonny Rich, who was a tremendous trap shooter and one of the biggest, one of my great mentors that I had in my life helping, once I lost my daddy, bringing me up and duck hunting and deer hunting. And I grew up hunting at Whiskey Chute, which was an old chute off the Mississippi River there at Longwood, which in those days was about five miles from Swan Lake. That was after Swan Lake had been taken over by the federal government. But here I was, 18, 19, 20 years old, going to college, trying to work in the daytime. But the winter time, “come on boy, let’s go duck hunting.”
Well, his son, Mel Rich, was a dear friend of mine, and I remember hours on end sitting in that truck with Mr. Sonny Rich, right on the bank of Whiskey Chute, about midway down the chute, listening to mallard ducks. He said, “boy, you hear all them ducks?” and I’ll tell you something, my son, he just sit there with his ear out the window. Be cold as it could be, he listening to ducks. And after about 20-30 minutes he said, “Son, that’s what I’m going to send you to, first thing in the morning.” I’d get so excited, I couldn’t stand it. But Whiskey Chute was too thick, too tight, to take a boat out in. You had to wade out in there with chest waders. Where he would send me, the depth of the water was about two inches below the top of them chest waders. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to swim out of Whiskey Chute.
But it wasn’t until several years later that I realized what Mr. Sonny Rich was doing. He’d always go down on the west end of Whiskey Chute where it was much shallower, it was about two feet thick, two feet deep down there, and there’s a bunch of hardwood trees down there. Well, Sonny Rich was a national champion trap shooter, and he shot a Winchester 21 duck-grade gun, which is a full, full choke gun, three-inch magnum Winchester. And every now and then during the daytime, those ducks would come into me and I’d shoot, do what I could do, I wasn’t that good of a shot back then. And then normally, about an hour or so into the deal, I’d hear him hollering, “Come on up here, boy, come on up here.”
What he’s doing the whole time, he knew I wasn’t going to kill many ducks, and he knew that’s where those ducks wanted to go, was right where he sent me. But as soon as I’d shoot at them ducks, they flied straight to the end of Whiskey Chute, they’d make that end, make that turn right over those tall trees where he was, and he’d drop them every time he’d pull that trigger. I’d go down there, and he had an old Chesapeake dog back then, and he had trained that dog, or whether that dog trained himself, I never saw Mr. Rich miss a duck. When that duck came over—and he didn’t call that much, he didn’t have to, because he knew what those ducks were going to be going—and yes, he was pass shooting them, but he knew the length that he could shoot, he knew how to kill those ducks, and he did. And that Chesapeake would go out and pick that duck up and bring it to that log he was standing by, and he would line those ducks up precisely on that log with the heads in the same direction. You would look down there, there may be eight ducks—however many the limit was at that time, never shot over the limit, of course—but he’d line those ducks up ,and if one of them ducks flopped down or fell off, that dog would pick it up and lay right back on that log.
Ramsey Russell: So Mr. Rich had a Chesapeake Bay retriever lining ducks up, and he had a Hank Burdine helper to help push him ducks over to it?
Hank Burdine: Help flying those ducks away from me, pushing straight to him. And we didn’t put out decoys. He knew that those ducks were going to fly to the end of that Whiskey Chute and make that turn right over the treetop height and turn and head back around. And that’s all he do. When he hear me shoot, he’d get ready, because here comes the ducks. And then you would go and join him and finish up shooting your ducks. And then I’d go up and join him, sometimes, when he’d holler at me.
And I never will forget, one morning Doctor Eustace Winn came down there, he was a wonderful doctor, a surgeon there in Greenville, showed up down there to Kassel barn first thing in the morning, about 4:35 o’clock, driving that Cadillac, pulled out a box of Converse waders. And we’re all sitting in there getting ready to go, and he said, come here, boy, and help me pull these waders on. Doctor Winn was a big man. So I got him in them chest waders, and he goes down there with Sonny Rich on that end down there, and he’s shooting a Model 12 pump, a three-inch pump. Just like I had, I was shooting my dad’s Model 12 three-inch pump. Well finally, he called me up there, and I came on up there after I realized what the game was, and we had a wonderful hunt, got all our limits.
And so we get back to Kassel barn there, where we were dressing all up, and Doctor Winn looked at the watch—and he was trying to get those waders off, now this is a brand new pair of Converse waders that we just put on him two hours before. And he looked at his watch, he said, I got to operate in thirty minutes. I said, let’s get them waders off. He reached inside a drawer, pulled out a case pocket knife, he said, “Cut these boots off me, boy, I got to be operating.” Put on a brand new pair of $100 waders and cut them off of him within two hours. But that was the kind of duck hunting that I came up with in that time.
Mississippi Delta Duck Hunting back in the Good Old Days
And then as I got a little older in college, and was developing my place at Willow Run and we didn’t have four-wheelers back then, didn’t have three-wheelers. Big Red Honda, Big Red hadn’t come out yet. I had one of the first three-wheelers. It was an Adventurer three-wheeler made somewhere down in Louisiana, one wheel upfront, two in the back, then had the motor sitting between your legs. But it wasn’t at all like a regular three-wheel was back then.
And we used to have to hunt out of these Red Ball waders. We didn’t have all the Mossy Oak camouflage, the different gear that you have today. You go to the Army Navy store. You may remember the Army Navy store, you buy these old Army coats. Well as soon as they got wet, it’s the worst thing, the coldest thing in the world. And we didn’t have these nylon mesh decoy bags, you put them in the croaker sack. And they were all cork decoys, and they were heavy, and it could take you an hour, sometimes, to slog a half mile out across a bean field to get to a slash.
Well, what began happening at that time, is rice was beginning to be farmed in the Mississippi Delta. They were beginning to level land. The Mennonite group were the big dirt movers back then, and I remember some of the first dirt that I moved on my farm and on some road jobs we had at the time, were these double-barreled dirt buggies. They had two tractors hooked, tongued, front and back, and two buggies behind those two tractors, and that supplied the horsepower. And when they would power down on those tractors, that tractor would stand straight up in the air. And the driver was on there, and that’s how we was moving dirt.
Well, by this time I had been developing Willow Run down there, had some wonderful brakes and sloughs on that place, and flooded bean fields where the water went out into beans and had great duck hunting. And after about four or five years, I realized that my ducks were diminishing. And Senator Rich would always tell me. He said, “Son, if you want to kill ducks, there’s nothing you can do to make a duck come into where you want him to go. A duck is going to go where he wants to go. You can put food out there, if he doesn’t necessarily want to come visit it, he’s not going to.” And I said, “Well, something is happening, because I used to have ducks.” And I got up in an airplane and flew and looked around Leroy Percy Park, and the park itself looked like a forested oasis in an ocean of water.
Duck Distribution Changed as the Mississippi Delta Landscape Changed
The fields had been leveled. They were holding water, rice fields holding water, and bean fields, the flooded fields that the farmers were leaving out for duck hunting began to pull the ducks away from the natural habitat that I had. So that is what I think we’re seeing now. You’ve got a lot of areas, a lot of farmers have become attuned to the fact that they can flood fields and they can hunt them, some of them leasing them out, selling hunting leases, and the ducks are getting scattered. There’s a lot of food out there for the ducks, we’re planning a lot of corn now, which we didn’t plant when I grew up hunting. And so you’ve got cornfields—I’ve tried to grow rice for ducks, but I found out that the black birds come in and eat all the rice up. So I’m getting more and more attuned to moist-soil habitat foods that you can fertilize, and grow these barnyard grasses and try to keep the broadleaf weeds out of them. And that is the natural food that the ducks have been involved in all along. I was involved in, not a member of, but the Fighting Bayou Hunting Club, outside of Ruleville.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about that, Hank.
Fighting Bayou Hunting Club, Ruleville Mississippi
Hank Burdine: Knew all those boys, Skipper Jernigan, Bubba Tollison, George Lederhausen, Billy Van Devender, all that group. Dr. Charles Lanny, Dr. Bush down here, Dr. Barrett, such a great, good group of people. And that is an area outside of Ruleville that, according to Skipper, will flood on a heavy do. It’s in the bottom of what’s called Bugger Den. I’m from Ruleville, and know a lot about that area up there, and ducks have been coming there, as Skipper Jernigan says, since man’s memory retaining not to the contrary. So it is a natural area that is timber that floods out. And those ducks just have been flocking in there forever and ever, amen. And it’s a wonderful duck hunting club that was originally put together by some folks down here in Jackson that came up there and leased some land and hunted on it.
And then a gentleman named Mr. P. L. Blake had it for a while, and had big fancy hunting stands out there, and the different holes. The Wanderly Hole, the different types of areas out through there, but mostly it’s timber hunting. And when you’re in there, the water is not ankle-deep, but it’s no more than knee-deep. When we’re standing out here, and it’s a sight to behold, to be in flooded timber no matter where it is, whether it’s a York Woods, the Coca-Cola Woods, Fighting Bayou, areas like that. When those mallards want to come in there, they circle and they come in by the thousands.
B. C. Rogers talks about “God’s Own Church.” When you can’t go to church on Sunday, you’re going to be out there duck hunting. You’re as close to God in a duck swamp and flooded woods than you are sitting in a church with a steeple on top of it. It’s just something that raises the hair on the back of my head. – Hank Burdine
And I’ve seen some mornings when we just choose, and I’ve done this on my place very rarely, but up in areas like that oftentimes more. Sometimes you just won’t raise your gun, you just want to see what’s happening, and you just sit there and it’s a great thing. B. C. Rogers, Wren and Ivy, the friend of mine, talks about God’s Own Church. When you can’t go to church on Sunday, you’re going to be out there duck hunting. You’re as close to God in a duck swamp and a pad in a set of flooded woods than you are sitting in a church with a steeple on top of it. It’s just something that raises the hair on the back of my head.
The Old Duck Hunters Dinner
And there was one time, I had a dog named Bud, which was a big, red Chesapeake Bay retriever, and it’s often said that a man is due two things in life: a good woman and a good dog. And I’ve had both, my big dog Bud was one hell of a dog. I’m going to tell you, he had a lot more sense than a lot of folks I know, to tell you the truth. But now I’ve got a little Boykin Spaniel, which have Chesapeake blood bred into them. I’ve got a picture of my daddy’s boat, taken in 1938, of a Boykin Spaniel laying on the console inside that boat. So I didn’t realize it at the time, but my daddy had a Boykin Spaniel.
So my last Boykin Spaniel, named Boogie Woogie, called him Boogie for short. He and I were sitting out in the Lost Forty duck hole, one morning, just Boogie and I, and I was drinking coffee, hadn’t even loaded my gun up, and it was just beginning to try to get light. A duck hunter knows that moment. It’s that moment when, all of a sudden, the temperature drops about three or four degrees and you know something is fixing to happen, and that first inkling of the sunlight begins to smudge itself in the East. And the wind was blowing a little bit, and it stopped blowing, and I pulled myself another cup of coffee, and ducks started coming in.
Well, I hadn’t loaded my gun, I was shooting a double barrel at the time, and my dog looked at these ducks coming in, and looked at me, and knew I hadn’t even loaded my gun. And all of a sudden I felt a cold blast of air hit me in the face, and I raised my eyes up and I looked around, and I’m choking up thinking about this, because I got to thinking about all the duck hunters, the old duck hunters that I knew, that had helped raise me, that had helped bring me up, and had brought me into duck hunting as I know it and as I love it today. And I got to thinking about all these old duck hunters. And I began thinking further, and I said, where are these old duck hunters? And all of a sudden I realized they were all gone. And another cold blast of air hit me, and it dawned on me that, at this stage in the game now, I am one of the old duck hunters.
I raised my eyes up and I looked around, and I’m choking up thinking about this, because I got to thinking about all the duck hunters, the old duck hunters that I knew, that had helped raise me, that had helped bring me up, and had brought me into duck hunting as I know it and as I love it today. And I got to thinking about all these old duck hunters. And I began thinking further, and I said, where are these old duck hunters? And all of a sudden I realized they were all gone. And another cold blast of air hit me, and it dawned on me that, at this stage in the game now, I am one of the old duck hunters. – Hank Burdine
And I got to thinking about other friends of mine that I’ve grown up duck hunting with, the Sid Law’s, the Chuck Cage’s, the Bubba Tollison’s, the George Vanlandingham’s, all of these people that are in my age group that have hunted all our lives and are now teaching young ones, grandchildren, children in the duck hunting tradition. And I got to thinking about these folks, and I decided that I would have what I called an old duck hunters’ dinner.
I called my friend Cameron Dinkins, got Esperanza Outdoors over across the lake, beautiful old home over there on the bank of Lake Washington, at Linden Plantation. And we put together an old duck hunters’ dinner. And I invited Sid Bollweevil Law, I invited Chuck Cage, I invited Bubba Tollison’s son Zach, because Bubba is no longer with us. Had George Vanlandingham, and, of course, Cameron Dinkins was there with us, and Stuart Roberson. Had Joe Verdan there, Joe was another one that was of the older duck hunter group that brought me along, taught me how to blow a duck call. And I asked them all, and I wanted Jimmy Presswood to be there.
Jimmy Presswood was the one that devised and built and had the concept of the Ugly Duck Boat, and we’ll talk about it later on. And I asked them all to come and I said, bring your duck calls with you, bring your lanyards with you. Because I knew a lot of these people had a good number of duck bands on their lanyards. I had a house fire that burned up my first lanyard full of duck bands. And so we all came, had a wonderful dinner, and then we sat around and we started telling old duck hunting stories. And at one time I said, I want everybody to bring out their duck calls. And we had a little duck calling exhibition.
I said, I want you to lay those calls on this rug and let’s take a picture of them. There were seven duck lanyards laying on the rug, and on those seven lanyards were 550 duck bands. Now that’s a lot of duck bands, and every one of those bands were taken within a 70 or 80 mile radius of Greenville, Mississippi. Now some of y’all duck hunters can do your math on it. But from what I have seen, and what I’ve understood, and what I’ve checked records, in Fighting Bayou, in different areas that I’ve hunted, and talked to different people, it’s anywhere from 250 to 350 ducks that is harvested per band. And when you run the numbers on 550 bands, on 300 ducks a band, that’s almost 16,000 ducks between these seven gentlemen that were there. And Jimmy Presswood’s duck strap was not there. Some of them had over 100 bands on them, and that’s not talking about the goose bands but duck bands only. So when you think of that, and you look at the area that we’re hunting in, and that’s the Mississippi River, the big wooded areas, the big timbered areas, flooded bean and rice fields and cornfields now, that’s a lot of duck, it’s a duck mecca.
Jimmy Presswood’s Ugly Duck Boat
And you’ve got the confluence of the Arkansas River coming in around Big Island at Rosedale, and it is a duck magnet down here. And some of the best duck hunting, of course, is once the freezes come in and your bean field and your rice field and cornfield freeze up.
If you’ve got a rise in river, then that’s the time to hit the river and duck hunt. But the problem with that is, and I did it too many times as a youngster, refuse to do it now, is your safety factor in hunting that Mississippi River. If you’re not in a safe boat, a big boat, don’t go out there. I’ve hunted too many times in little jon boats out there before day, that it’s not necessary anymore. Now along about the 60’s, Lake Whittington was a very hot spot to duck hunt on, and they were building floating blinds out there, and they were trying to build permanent blinds in some of the willow trees in the middle ground, in the grass flats and all. But on a permanent blind in the lake like that, it may be six feet out of water one weekend and four feet underwater the next weekend. A floating blind, not necessarily, is always in the right place, the ducks may be using another area.
A fellow named Jimmy Presswood, from Greenville, who was a master welder and fitter, and he loved to duck hunt, yet he hated to get cold. And he came up with an idea to design a floating duck blind that was mobile, that he could move from one place to the other wherever the ducks were using. The first generation of what we now call an ugly duck boat, Jimmy would sit in it and have his hand outside running the motor. Well, that didn’t last too long, until it was morphed into what was called the original Ugly Duck Boat. It was a low-slung boat, made of steel, that was six feet wide, 12-14 feet long. Got a walk board around the side of it, positive flotation, anywhere you could put in it had positive flotation. It had a top on it, that was hinged, that would raise up, that three men could get in with a dog. And when you close that top, the other side of it, the port side, was slanted, and it had three port holes, three holes cut in it, that you had sliding Plexiglas you could raise up and down. And you’d camouflage that boat, you had your gas tanks on the outside.
You had a propane tank on the outside, you had a propane burner inside the boat. You turned it, it’d warm up like your bedroom in there. When you got out to where you wanted to hunt, you’d throw your decoys out. Jimmy had rigged up a flop-down dog ladder on the bow of the boat, where your dog could work off the bow of the boat and could come climb himself right back up on the boat without any trouble, without you having to reach over and grab him and pull him back in the boat. And the boat was a lethal weapon for killing ducks. But there was only one problem. Jimmy hunted in Lake Whittington. He didn’t like to get out on the road, he killed all the ducks he wanted right there in Lake Whittington. Yet, when you would take one of these boats out—he had some friends, Jeff, Dr. Borderline, Ernie Lane, Dr. Joe Pulliam, the Brents, Howard and Lee Brent. They all go, Jimmy, you got to build us one of these boats, got to build us one of these boats. They’re made out of steel, but they had a flat bottom and a flat bow on the front because Jimmy wasn’t rigged up to build a modified V-hull. So when you take that boat out on the Mississippi River, it almost beat the fillings out your teeth. Didn’t bother Jimmy because he hunted in the lake. He didn’t get in the river with the big waves and the current. So came the third generation of Jimmy Presswood’s boats.
Now when Jimmy first built that first one, that was totally enclosed with the motor on the outside. He took it to the lake. Somebody came up and saw it, and he said, “Jimmy, I don’t know what that is, if it’s a duck boat it’s the ugliest duck boat I’ve ever seen.” Which it was pretty ugly, but the name stuck. So it became known as Jimmy Presswood Ugly Duck Boat. Now, after Jimmy was making that first series of the second generation of boats, and he couldn’t make a V-hull boat. It went over to Monarch Boat Company in Monticello, Arkansas, and you had F&F Welding Fabrication Shop, oh you see a lot of F&F boats out there now, but they’re no longer manufacturing boats. They would build the hull, the modified V-hull, bring it back over there to Presswood Welding, and he would build the top to fabricate on the top of it.
Now we’ve got boats like that that access this river, and they have fifty or a hundred mile range, you can go to where the ducks are. But back into the 70’s, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when we were hunting you never knew where the ducks were going to be. So you ride the river until you see some ducks go up, and then go in there and hunt them. Well, we’d fly the airplane, we’d fly J-3 Cubs. You can find the ducks by the air, then mark it on a map and go right back the next morning. These Ugly Duck Boats were safe, they were comfortable, and you could get in the water, go to the ducks before daybreak, get set up, and as the sun came up, you were off and hunting. So it was a very effective way to hunt big water in a very dangerous river situation. You were in a good, wide-bottomed, safe-hulled boat.
Grits Gresham came down here and did a whole series on Duck Hunting in America. One of them was caged birds up in New England, which, I just, don’t even get me started on that. And then they had another hunt somewhere else, and then they came to Greenville, Mississippi. We put two duck boats in the Mississippi River, and we put the film crew in an airplane to try to find these boats on the Mississippi River. And at one point in time, whoever was in the airplane with the pilot and the film guy, they couldn’t find the boats, it was so well-concealed. That’s how well camouflaged you can make these boats.
And Grits Gresham was in a boat with Jimmy, talking about those boats and the concept of the Ugly Duck Boat. And he asked him, he said, “Jimmy, how often do you hunt?” And Jimmy just looked straight at him, he said, “Grits, I hunt every day of the season, no matter what the weather is.” And he did, every day of however long the season was, Jimmy Presswood duck hunted. And Grits asked him, he said, “Jimmy, I have to tell you one thing, though, this boat looks like a coffin.” And without batting an eye, Jimmy Presswood looked at him and he said, “Rich, it is to the ducks.”
Swan Lake Hunting Club, Washington County, Mississippi
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Tell me this, you mentioned Swan Lake several times earlier, and I can just recall the dozens, not many, but just a couple of dozen photos my grandfather had. He was born and raised around Washington County, Mississippi, too. I remember seeing a picture of him holding a strap of ducks down in Swan Lake. Tell me about Swan Lake. Where is it? What is it?
Hank Burdine: Swan Lake was an old riverbed of the Mississippi River. If you google it up, it’s right there in Yazoo Wildlife Refuge. And then westward from there you had another oxbow, which was Lake Washington, and from there you had another oxbow, which is Lake Jackson, and then you got the Mississippi River. So it’s an old historical bend in the Mississippi River.
There were landowners inside on the islands, and outside of the old Swan Lake bed, that were landowners. They incorporated the Swan Lake Hunting Club in 1893. Today it is the oldest incorporated hunting club in the state of Mississippi. The landowners that owned the land to the middle of the lake were landowning members of the club, and they took in maybe 20 other members in this hunting club.
Swan Lake had the perpetual hunting rights on over 5,000 acres of the Swan Lake bed. I’ve got a lot of the recorded history on it, a lot of the minutes from the different meetings that they had. And in the 20’s and 30’s, before they had legal limits, the way they hunted Swan Lake, there was only two blinds in that whole 5,000 acre lake, but they had trails that ran all through the lake. You had Jen Slough, you had Long Pond, and you had all these flooded cypress trees, hardwood bottomland in there, and grass flats in there. And they had what is called the old Swan Lake duck boat, which I have the only one remaining in existence. They were cypress double-hulled, flat-bottomed boats with duckboards in the bottom of them. And what you did, the shooter would sit in the front of the boat in a slat-backed, cane-bottomed chair with the legs cut off of it, and a man would stand in the back with a pole and he’d pull you through these trails.
They came up with their own limit of ducks in the Swan Lake Hunting Club. And that limit was the number of shells you carried into the swamp in your boat, and you could not carry any more than a hundred shells into the swamp. However many ducks you killed with that hundred shells, that was your limit. So it was a primeval area where ducks had been coming for the millennia.
The federal government came up with the US Duck Stamp, charging $2 a duck stamp back then. And those duck stamps were designed to fund a program of putting land back into the habitat as waterfowl reserved land up and down the Mississippi Flyway. And other places also, but primarily it was in the Mississippi Flyway that a lot of that money was used. As the timber companies cleared the land around Swan Lake and all, and some of the farm owners that owned some of the land, the government came down there and bought up a huge chunk of that area down through there. The last part that they bought contained the old Swan Lake bed. And that area had been given perpetual hunting rights to the Swan Lake Hunting Club of the old Swan Lake bed. The government took that hunting right by eminent domain.
The lawyer, Jimmy Robert Shaw, who was a member of the club, took it all the way to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. So the Swan Lake Hunting Club went into the Yazoo Wildlife Refuge system. At the turn of this past century, the Corps of Engineers came up with a program to compartmentalize the Swan Lake bed into four different compartments. And the idea was to capture good water during the rainy season to put into the Swan Lake bed. You’d keep the bad pesticide and chemical-ridden water out of there during the planting season.
Well, they built all these dikes, and I’m not going to get into it too much, because I know too much about it, but those dikes didn’t stay there, they sunk into the swamp bed. They built them three or four different times. The system didn’t work. Where they channelized to tie in Silver Lake to the Steele Bayou—where Black Bayou comes into Steele Bayou, they channelized the whole stretch through there—that kept sloughing off, sloughing off. Now they’ve had to redo that completely and build a whole new project. And I’m afraid, basically, it hadn’t totally done away with the compartmentalized idea. But we’re not holding the water, we’re not having the ducks in there that we had over the last hundred years, that we’ve got recorded history down there.
Ramsey Russell: And you grew up hunting at Swan Lake, back before it was condemned.
Hank Burdine: My dad had died in 1961. He was a member of Swan Lake Hunting Club. They gave me his membership in 1962. I was 13 years old, a full-fledged member of Swan Lake Hunting Club. And that was the year that the government condemned it and took it over, so I never was able to hunt down there. I had breakfast down there with Sonny Rich one time.
Ramsey Russell: You know their policy back in the day of exercising eminent domain to condemn a piece of property that they wanted, which is, as I understand it, Hank, you clear it up if I’m wrong, they just come in and say, we’re taking it and here’s what we’re going to give you. It ain’t a negotiated sale. Whether that property is for sale or not, the US federal government comes in and says, here’s the check, that’s all we’re going to give you, we’re going to take it because we like it. We actually had a guest on here not too long ago who was a former federal agent in that refuge complex, right after all this happened. He said it was not good PR for the federal government. It really rankled a lot of feathers and everything else locally. People have been hunting that property, or properties, plural, for generations.
Hank Burdine: And taking care of it.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Hank Burdine: Doing what needed to be done. And yes, that is the case, or was the case back then. Now that couldn’t happen.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Hank Burdine: So had they waited about ten or fifteen years, we’d still have Swan Lake Hunting Club now. Which was a great magnet, it was a sump for all of Washington County, where that water would come in there, and the ducks, it was a duck magnet.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Hank Burdine: And right, it was in 3/4 of a mile of Whiskey Chute. So, you know, you could pattern your ducks, and when they had ducks in Swan Lake, you’d have ducks everywhere.
To be able to work a duck call, and to know what the ducks want to hear when they’re doing a certain thing, and their flight patterns and all. It’s an art to do that. And the worst thing in a duck blind is somebody who doesn’t know how to call a duck. – Hank Burdine
Duck Hunting is a Social Experience
Ramsey Russell: Boy, duck hunting, in the South especially, but I think everywhere, it really is a social sport, isn’t it? It’s a common thing. But you and I, the first time we met was at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi. And every time we start visiting about duck hunting, it just starts spinning into friends and people and places, you know what I’m saying, like a real social thing. It ain’t like a solitary deer hunter going out on the stand to go draw back a bow.
Hank Burdine: That’s right. I can’t bow hunt because, I’m sitting up in a tree, in a stand, with a bow? No way, boring. Now I can get in a big deer stand, where I got a book, I can be doing on my telephone and such as that. But duck hunting is such a social sport, where you got two or three good buddies in there with you and you’re talking about this, and talking about that, and you’re able to talk, and you’re able to have the camaraderie and the being together out in God’s great, God’s great outside, out of doors. And turkey hunting, when I used to have turkeys, I loved to turkey hunt because I was interacting with those turkeys. You can’t call it—well, you can call a deer, but not like you can a turkey or a duck. But to be able to work a duck call, and to know what the ducks want to hear when they’re doing a certain thing, and their flight patterns and all. It’s an art to do that. And the worst thing in a duck blind is somebody who doesn’t know how to call a duck.
Ramsey Russell: Oh boy, ain’t that the truth. You know, I think calls are one of the most over-used tools there is in duck hunting. I mean you said it previously, if you’re where the ducks want to be.
Hank Burdine: That’s true. You give them a little quack or two every now and then, forget about all that high-balling. Now if they’re flying up, trying to go somewhere, and you’re trying to call them back, yeah, that’s one thing. But if the ducks are working down there, coming in, be quiet. Come on in, they see what you’re doing. That was way before we had all these flapping wing ducks and mojo ducks and all like that.
A jerk cord is one of the most effective things that I’ve seen you can use. And you know, it’ll keep you warm sometimes too because you’re exercising pulling on that jerk cord. Yeah, but to go back to Jimmy Presswood, I remember one time we were hunting over on—well, we might not have should have been hunting where we were, but we were—and I had Jimmy Presswood come over there, and a couple of his boats, and we were sitting out on a log and had old Bubba Beulah with us. And Bubba was supposed to be the man in charge of the jerk cord. Well, he got tired of jerking that cord with his arm so he just tied it around his waist. And he’s sitting out there in the waterways, water’s going back and forth. He not only was pulling the ducks, making the ducks move, he’s creating waves. That’s a great way to make a jerk cord do. But Jimmy Presswood was sitting on the log with me, and I’d never hunted with Jimmy before. And all of a sudden, I looked over at him, he began shaking, and was shivering, and he’s turning blue. I said, Jimmy, are you okay? He said, “Hank, I ain’t never been this cold in my life. Well, it wasn’t that cold.” I said, “Jimmy, wait a minute. You’ve been duck hunting all your life and you’ve never been this cold?” He said, “Hank, I have never until today hunted in anything but tennis shoes and blue jeans.” Because he’s always in his duck boat.
Ramsey Russell: Always in that Ugly Duck Boat. Hank, I know this is a reach, I get asked this question some myself, but if I asked you one of your most memorable duck hunts, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Memorable Mississippi Delta Duck Hunts
Hank Burdine: I’m going to tell you two of them. One of them was on a morning in Fighting Bayou we got lost. It was a New Year’s morning. And I was with my partner, Tommy Sledge, Skipper Jernigan, and maybe one more, Dr. Parrot might have been with us. And we were going to one place, after you draw the card to figure out where you’re going to hunt. You know how the card draw goes—who gets the high card, go to that place. And we were going to a good spot, but we got lost in those woods.
It was getting daybreak and we said, we’ll just stop the boat, we’ll find ourselves later on. We got out of the boat in the thickest part of woods I think I’ve ever been in, and when that sun came up, it just happened, that was where the ducks wanted to be. And those ducks were knocking themselves out, falling down through those trees. And if you’ve ever seen a duck coming into a set of flooded timber right at daybreak, and he’s hitting tree limbs, knocking limbs off, knocking himself over here, trying to get to that water. That was one of the most memorable duck hunts I’ve ever been on.
The other one, we were doing a story for Delta Magazine. And I was up there, hunting with Skipper. And the editor was going to be there that day, and I didn’t realize that until I saw her walk in the door at 4:35 o’clock in the morning. And John Montfort Jones was there, he was going to be the photographer. So I asked Skipper, if you don’t mind, can I please beg off going with your group and go with them? Because I wrote for Delta Magazine and I wanted to go with them. And they were going to go with Bubba Tollison.
I don’t know if a lot of y’all folks know who Bubba Tollison was, but he was called the Duck Doctor, and he—I don’t mind telling this, because I’ve gotten into this in an article before about him—one of the baddest federal game wardens there ever was of all time was a man named Jimmy Pilgreen. Jimmy Pilgreen, I think that half his career trying to catch Bubba Tollison. Then he finally did, that’s a whole ‘nother story. But Jimmy Pilgreen told me when I called him and interviewed him about that article, he said, “Hank, I’m going to tell you something about Bubba Tollison. He was one of the best duck hunters that I’ve ever known.” And coming from a federal game warden that had been trying to catch him for a long time, that says a lot about Bubba Tollison.
Now that morning, we were going to the Wanderly Hole, or wherever it is in Fighting Bayou we were going to, and we Bubba Tollison was the guide of that group, and I asked to go with him and I did. So they were set up. The editor, she was sitting over on a little old dog stand, and John Montfort was taking pictures. Well, Bubba Tollison and I was standing in the middle of the hole, after we put all our decoys out. No ducks showed up. We never saw a duck. We never loaded the gun. But I sat in the middle of those woods with Bubba Tollison, as we were talking about earlier. And I think that may very well be the best duck hunt I ever spent.
Ramsey Russell: Why?
Hank Burdine: We never loaded a gun, we never saw a duck, but Bubba Tollison and I sat in the middle of those woods and talked for an hour and a half. And I can’t say that that’s not the best duck hunt I’ve ever been on.
Ramsey Russell: What a good story, Hank. What did y’all talk about, if you don’t mind me asking?
Hank Burdine: Everything about ducks we could talk about. And I realized, at that time, that it’s never a disaster when you’re learning and listening to a master. And Bubba Tollison was a master duck hunter. He often said that if you had enough wind to rustle a gnat’s wing, you better take note of it, because the ducks knew it.
The Duck Doctor, Bubba Tollison
Ramsey Russell: I remember reading in your book a little bit about Bubba Tollison. Tell me more about Bubba.
Hank Burdine: Bubba Tollison and Archie Manning grew up together. Archie was from Drew, Bubba was from Ruleville. Bubba could run faster than lightning. And he and Archie, their senior year in high school, in the All-Star game down here in Jackson, and they went to one of the sports reporters and the sports reporters said to Bubba, says, “how many folks you reckon from Ruleville and Drew going to be down in Jackson watching this All-Star game with Archie Manning and Bubba Tollison?” Bubba said, “well, there ain’t going to be nobody left in Ruleville and Drew but the night watchman.” But Bubba and Hugh Abraham, one of his dearest friends from outside of Ruleville, big rice farmer, Hugh Abraham said the only time he’d ever been invited to go duck hunting on his own place was by Bubba Tollison.
Bubba called him one time, called him “Black Hand.” The reason Bubba called Hugh Abraham, “Black Hand,” they had all this old farm equipment, and Hugh always had grease on his hand. I don’t know whether it was grease being on his hand all his life, but I’ve never seen Hugh Abraham with a pair of gloves on in my life. And I can be absolutely shivering, about to freeze to death with my hands blue, and Hugh Abraham’ll be sitting there reaching his hand in the water and all like that.
But Bubba called him one time, said, “Hey, Black Hand, man, I done found a mess of ducks, you want to go duck hunting in the morning?” Hugh said, “Yeah, Bubba, where we’re going?” He said, “That forty acres right south on your farm, from your house, that’s where we’re going to go in!”
So Bubba grew up duck hunting. He’s the only man I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen his duck bands, and I’ve counted the bands on it, and his duck strap, and I’m not going to tell you how many bands it is, but it was one of those I spoke of earlier. He has a blackbird band on it. Now, I don’t know if anybody has ever seen a blackbird band, but back in the days, during the high school, in the 50’s and 60’s, you’ve seen these swarms of blackbirds that fly over, and say you can shoot a .22 up there and kill one of them. Well, they would go out on the turned rows, and they would have a dime a bird on whoever killed however many blackbirds, you’d get a dime a bird and they’d want to get the money. Well, here come a flock of them, and Bubba reached up and boom, pulled the trigger. Blackbird went, fell, went and picked it up, it had a band on it. So on Bubba’s duck strap, he’s got a blackbird band.
Bubba messed his eye up, he reloaded some shotgun shells and one of them didn’t do right, and he messed an eye up. And that got him out of the football game at Ole Miss. He was wide receiver, running, whatever, he could run like lightning. And he went to Ole Miss with Archie Manning and George Lederhausen and Billy Van Devender and Skipper Jernigan. And that’s why they were all such close friends, because they all played football together. But his eyesight getting banged up, and beat up in the head, they said, “No, you can’t do this anymore.” So Bubba didn’t play much more football, but that did not stop him from duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I believe I read that story you talked about with Pilgreen chasing him. He must have shot a bunch of birds. I mean, because that was back in the day that, look, I’m not beating up on him, man. I’m saying, times were different.
Hank Burdine: Totally different.
Ramsey Russell: Times were different 20-30 years ago than they are today.
Hank Burdine: You had the point system on certain years, and I never could figure all those things out. But there was a stretch through there, about six or eight years, I believe, where the duck population was way down. But you can you get that book Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy that I have out by Coopwood Publishing and read about the Duck Doctor in that.
Mississippi Delta Habitat Changes
Ramsey Russell: Very, very good book by the way, I’ve read it recently and enjoyed it greatly. How have things changed in the Mississippi Delta, other than zero-grade? I mean, some people say, maybe there aren’t as many ducks as there were back in those days. What are your thoughts on that, Hank?
Hank Burdine: I think we still have the ducks. There are certain areas that are harboring a lot more ducks than other places. There are certain magnet areas. Growing up, I think we had a lot of ducks that followed the Mississippi Flyway and hung close to the Mississippi River. The Corps of Engineers projects, the four lakes over there—Arkabutla, Enid, Sardis, Grenada—were built as flood control reservoirs to control the water coming out of the hills. And for years they weren’t necessarily used as flood control reservoirs. They would keep water in it for the folks to fish in the wintertime, they loved to duck hunt in those lakes, or they hold water in it.
Then after ‘73 and into the 80’s, they realized that they really need to start using these lakes for what they were built for, as flood control reservoirs. So what I think began to happen, they started dumping these lakes in the fall, and they started flooding these Tallahatchie River bottoms out earlier than they normally were flooded. And I think that the ducks began an eastward migration, beginning to move over—and I may be totally wrong on that, but that’s my take on it. That because the lakes were being dumped earlier, and you can go over there now, Tallahatchie River’s chock-full, they dumping all that water. So all of those river bottoms are filling up with ducks. So there’s water in there when the ducks are beginning to come down here.
And the fact that we used to be known as the mound-builders, the Indians around here, building all these mounds around. Now we’re known as the land-levelers. The leveled land for agriculture is better than your center pivot. It’s more economical once you get that land leveled. So a lot of these areas on these farms are being leveled and catching water in the wintertime. It does twofold things: it gets rid of a lot of grass seeds, it kills the grass seeds under the water, plus it produces habitat for the ducks. And the ducks, as you know, use different things during the course of the year.
They are eating hot cereal certain times, they’re eating one thing one time, and you’re going out in rice fields toward the end of the duck season and seeing, I’ve seen ducks get sideways and just strip the little amoebas, the little stuff, off of those stalks and getting that for the building the calcium up for the egg-bearing and all this kind of stuff. And there’s so much more water, there’s so much more habitat farm out there.
It’s just like dove hunting used to be. You could scatter some wheat out in a wheat field, and you’d have doves come in. Now, with the corn harvest that goes on, there is so much scattered corn grain out there. If you don’t have a jam-up, sure-enough, good sunflower field, you ain’t going to have a dove hunt. But what I have found out, the best way to have a good sunflower field is to have a neighbor that has one.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Hank Burdine: You go up with him.
Ramsey Russell: That’s why I call your buddy Chuck Cage.
Hank Burdine: There you go! Ol’ Chuck. We can tell some stories about my buddy Chuck Cage. He is, and has been, as dedicated a duck hunter as anyone that I know. I don’t know how much involved in guiding he is now, I think his son is doing a whole lot of it. But Chuck, not only like Jimmy Presswood would hunt every day, he was just hunting out of a boat in Lake Whittington. Chuck Cage would hunt over an eighty-mile radius area the Mississippi Delta.
Ramsey Russell: Oh my gosh, everywhere.
Hank Burdine: And you’d see him at Doe’s one night and then he’d be duck hunting the next morning. He’d be at The Varsity in Belzoni for lunch and he’d be scouting that afternoon and duck hunting somewhere else the next morning. I personally don’t know how he did it, but he did.
Ramsey Russell: He did. I think he still does. He’s a heck of a guy.
Hank Burdine: If there’s ever anybody I wanted on my team, it’s Chuck Cage.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir.
Hank Burdine: And no matter what I was involved in.
Read Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. I appreciate your time, Hank. Folks, y’all have been listening to my friend, Mr. Hank Burdine. Tell the name of your book one more time, in case they want to read that.
Hank Burdine: Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy, by Coopwood Publishing out of Cleveland, Mississippi.
Ramsey Russell: Hank Burdine, Mississippi Delta boy extraordinaire. Thank y’all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere.