"Hey, are you Shannon?" I blurted.
The woman in the camo coat, who was pushing a cart piled high with pink luggage accented with white polka dots, turned around and said "You must be Tammy."
Imagine my relief. I was lucky because the two women I had waylaid, Ann Smith of the NRA and Team Winchester's Heather Reddemann, were on the same Winchester/Mississippi Department of Tourism duck hunt I had been invited to. Turns out the woman I was supposed to meet, Winchester hunt hostess Shannon Salyer, was delayed at the Houston airport.
Within moments of meeting each other, Ann, Heather and I were in fast food heaven at the airport Arby's. In a rush of introductions and comparing notes on people we knew in common, I finally got the scoop on the pink polka-dotted suitcases. I quickly realized that Heather was a serious waterfowler with a capital S. Not the kind of young woman I would associate with Barbie Doll bags. I learned, though, it was Heather's foolproof way to ensure that when (not if) the airlines lost her luggage; it would be easy to describe and find. It made sense in a kooky kind of way.
Shannon finally arrived many curly fries later, and we all piled into an SUV and headed south.
The Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of the blues and the land of catfish, cotton and waterfowl -everything from snow geese and specklebellies to mallards, wood ducks, scaups and shovelers. Lucky bum that I am, I was cruising down I-55 with three new friends on our way to hunt these heavenly creatures.
Our destination was Hunter's Paradise Lodge outside of Charleston, Miss. in Tallahatchie County. Presumably it was the same area where Billie Joe McAllister flung himself off that bridge. When I asked the local guides about it, they looked at me like I was a flake. However, it was too late. I couldn't get the song or the movie out of my head for days.
When the pseudo female voice from our SUV's navi system curtly instructed us to "turn right in .2 miles," we were more than ready to finally arrive at Hunter's Paradise. Lodge owner Tim Gray and his guides immediately whisked our luggage inside, and soon we were mingling with the rest of our hunting party: co-host Mike Jones from the Mississippi Department of Tourism, freelancer Stephanie Mallory and Hillary Mizelle of Grand View Media. It was immediately clear this was a fun group of people, and I was quite pleased at how things were turning out.
As my roommate Ann and I were chatting and unpacking, I was hit with the sinking feeling I had forgotten to pack something. Last time I traveled it was undergarments. This time it was my toiletry kit. No deodorant, shampoo or facial cleanser. Just as this group was getting to know me, I had to be the doofus who couldn't remember to pack a toothbrush. For the rest of the trip, I was forced to panhandle for contact solution, toothpaste and lotion. But everyone was kind to me, and I decided I could make do with the group's generosity and the odds and ends I found in my briefcase. At least I didn't forget my hunting boots.
The first night at Hunter's Paradise, I vowed to eat dessert like there was no tomorrow. That was a good decision, as Lucille, camp cook, makes a mean chocolate chip cake. I even woke up one morning before the rest so I could devour the last piece. I admit it was a desperate act for someone living on the shampoo charity of others.
After dinner, Tim visited with the group about what we could expect on the hunt, covered some safety basics and let us check out the firearms we would use. I was pleased that we'd be shooting some quality sporting arms. There was a nice selection of Browning Silver and Gold autoloaders in 12 and 20-gauges. Both models are a splendid choice because they employ Active Valve gas operation making them low recoil choices as well as a beautiful combination of wood and metal. I chose a sweet little Silver 20-gauge because it shouldered almost perfectly. We also examined our Winchester ammo choices (12 and 20 gauge Supreme Elite Xtended Range HD Waterfowl and Xpert Hi-Velocity Steel). I knew I'd enjoy getting to test the various loads to discover what would have maximum impact on birds and minimum impact on me. Tim, who has duck hunted since he was 8 years old, left no doubt he is passionate about waterfowling. For some, hunting ducks and geese is a hobby. For Tim, it's a way of life. By age 18, he had already decided he was going to own, or at least run a guide service so he could introduce others to what he loved. For the next 20 years, Tim worked towards his dream while he held "bill-paying jobs" before finally opening Hunter's Paradise Lodge.
Today, it's a popular destination for duck hunters across the country. Situated in the Mississippi Flyway, the area boasts a heavy concentration of waterfowl. I was getting pumped just thinking about birds circling our decoys, and finally cupping their wings as they made the commitment to join their faux friends.
Our first morning, after only four hours of sleep, we were up and pulling on waterfowl bibs, coats and boots - ready for snow goose action. About an hour later, our vehicle was bouncing down a mud road leading to the middle of a field. Just as the guides were getting ready to unleash a bevy of decoys, it happened. A flash in the distance. Could it be lightening?
The ensuing clap of thunder verified that it was, in fact, lightening. And we got to see many more examples of it. For the next 16 hours I swear, every thunderstorm in North America rolled across the Delta. Luckily, we got a brief respite after sunrise when we saw the wind hurl about 25,000 snow geese high overhead. I was thankful my layout blind had doors, because with that many birds in the air, chances of being pooped on were pretty high.
The first wave of rain that morning alternated between a gentle pitter patter on my layout blind to fatter, more frequent raindrops. Tucked away in our little camo coffins, we stayed fairly dry, each in our own little world watching birds and clouds sail by. As morning progressed, a blasting wind and cold rain conspired to make our surrender inevitable. Finally, the guides began to load up dogs and decoys, while we tried to snap a few photos. Afraid to ruin cameras, we packed them up and stood with our backs to the wind. And passed the time telling stories and laughing at how funny we looked with hoods cinched tightly around our faces. This was a plucky group of women so I might have been alone in this thought, but I was thankful to be excused from picking up blinds and decoys in a driving rain.
After this gallant effort, we headed back to the lodge where our growling stomachs were greeted by one of Lucille's big country brunches. Hurrah!
It rained the rest of the day. And I don't mean sprinkled. Or drizzled. I mean a full on toad-floating downpour. There wasn't much more to do beyond accept our fate. Fortunately, the lodge is a spacious and comfortable place to fritter away an afternoon. A great room includes a huge living room, ringed with several comfy sofas and a big screen TV, perfect accoutrements for a mid-day snooze. Connected to that is a roomy, cafeteria style dining room while the six bedrooms are off the beaten path down a quiet hallway. Five private bathrooms means even in a group of women, nobody has to wait for a post hunt shower.
After eating, a few of the women grabbed blankets and sprawled out on the sofas for a siesta, but not before checking email and text messages first.
Others sat at one of the many dining room tables, looking at photos, snacking and talking. While we waited out the rain, Mike Jones filled me in on the birding opportunities in Mississippi, which are plentiful and easy to identify thanks to the tourism department's handy map and brochure. Shannon, Heather and I also discussed the art and science of waterfowling and the best ways to reduce felt recoil. We agreed that while butt pads and shooting vest pads work wonders, gun type and fit as well as proper stance and handling are key.
The next morning, after it had rained about 6 inches, I figured the ducks would be scattered from one end of the state to the other with so much water available. Still, Tim and his guides were steadfast about getting us out there for a chance to shoot some ducks. They set us up on some old catfish ponds less than a half hour away from the lodge, which also meant a bit more shut eye for us hunters. It was drizzly, windy and cold (an ongoing theme), and we were all dressed to the teeth, each in our own way resembling the Pillsbury Dough Boy or some other enormous roly poly figure. Kirstie Pike, who founded Próis, sent us beanies and neck gaiters from her line of functional women's hunting apparel. We pulled the hats down over our ears and pulled the gaitors up over our noses so all that was visible were our eyeballs. Still, we managed to shoot some ducks. And some photos.
Driving back to the lodge through the Mississippi Delta, I could almost imagine what this swampy wilderness looked like 100 years ago. The fertile soils of this alluvial floodplain were too good to pass up for the sharecroppers and landowners of yesteryear, and they quickly cleared it for cotton. Today, you'll see huge working farms, growing cotton, soybeans and rice, bordered by acres of forest and sloughs. Though impressively flat, the meandering rivers and pools of water lend the area a backroad beauty no serious traveler should miss.
While the weather remained a challenge, I got just enough of a taste to want to go back. There's no question that if the weather had cooperated, we would have had our hands full shooting ducks and geese. Next time, though, I'm making contingency plans in case there's another monsoon. The Delta is a hotbed of American culture and on my return visit, I'm going to soak it up.
First, I'd head over to Clarksdale to check out the Delta Blues Museum and maybe actor Morgan Freeman's joint, Ground Zero Blues Club. Then there's the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola. In Oxford, there are several historical sites linked to Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulker that I'd like to see.
Just to be well rounded, I think I'd opt for some wacky entertainment, too - the Catfish Museum in Belzoni or the Jim Henson Museum to pay homage to Kermit the Frog's birthplace in Leland. Maybe I'd wrap things up with a stop at the Home of Scissors, World Champion Hog just outside of Charleston on Route 32. While there's plenty to see and do, it's worth going back just to take another shot at duck hunting.
After eight reflective hours in the Memphis airport (the inconvenience of storms had moved from duck hunting to air travel), I realized that the take home message from this trip was that when you're in a wonderful area, eating delicious food and surrounded by people who are smart, funny and thoughtful, a limit of ducks is merely a bonus.
Tammy Sapp was raised in an outdoors family who enjoyed spending time together trapping, fishing, camping and hiking. That outdoor background inspired her to pursue a career in the wildlife field. Sapp worked for 11 years at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation as an outdoor writer, photographer and publications supervisor. She then spent the next 11 years overseeing the communications department for the National Wild Turkey Federation. As the NWTF's senior vice president of communications, she supervised the production of six national magazines and played a leading role in launching three national television shows and several Web sites. Today, Sapp edits an e-newsletter called the Women's Outdoor Wire, writes the Outdoor Scene blog and works as a media and agency relations coordinator for MyOutdoorTV.com.