Ode to Joie: Hunting the Cajun Way

Get an inside look at Cajun culture while hunting for hogs, whitetails and waterfowl in Atchafalaya, Louisiana.

I didn't want the knife. When I first called Kody Landry about hog hunting behind his beloved Catahoulas and pit bulls, the Cajun hunter was fired up--until I mentioned a rifle. "Oh, I don't know about that," he said, low and gravelly. "Nobody's ever shot a gun over my dogs." He hesitated. "How we do it down here, you are right there on the animal, and you see the eyes go black and the life go out of him, and then you know what hunting is about. You not pretending. So you gotta tell me, Mr. Eddie: How do you feel about the knife?"

Twenty-four years old, clean shaven, and wrapped in muscle from work on Louisiana's offshore oil rigs, Landry is about as Cajun as they come. He's a descendant of Catholics expelled from Acadia, a French colony centered in Nova Scotia, by the British starting in 1755. Thousands of these Acadians made their way to New Orleans, where Spanish officials outfitted them with grain and salt pork, hammers and axes, muskets and lead shot. They were then turned out into their new home: the Atchafalaya Basin, a 1.4 -million-​acre mosaic of bayous, backwater lakes, swamp forests, and river and marshes that sprawls just west of the Mississippi River, between present-day Lafayette and Baton Rouge and down to the Gulf. Over the next 350 years, the Cajuns made a home from the basin's woods and waters, fishing, hunting, trapping, logging, gigging--whatever they had to do to make a living out of a part of America most Americans hardly know exists.

Today the basin remains the heartland of everything Cajun--from gumbo to zydeco music. It's where Cajun French is still heard in the country butcher shops, where opening day of squirrel season is celebrated by entire families, and where I have a week to hunt hogs, deer, and ducks. I can't claim a single drop of Cajun blood, but I hope to experience the basin that the Cajuns see--a place that has kept their culture alive and rooted to the swamp come hellish hurricanes and high water.
Which brings me back to the knife. I had no desire to kill a hog with one--a method that seemed to me to be more about machismo than the respectful pursuit of a wild animal. But five minutes into my hunt, my Cajun baptism is at hand.

Release the Hounds

Landry and I pull our trucks deep into the morass of wet woods in St. Martin Parish, just south of Butte La Rose and west of the serpentine Atchafalaya River, and are barely out of the vehicles when the dogs go off. The jump comes so quickly and the hogs are so close that the Catahoulas forget the rules. Catahoulas are glassy-eyed Louisiana-bred beasts that locals say developed from a cross between red wolves kept by Native Americans and Hernando de Soto's war dogs, the mastiffs, bulldogs, and greyhounds the Spanish explorer brought to the region in the 16th century. Catahoulas are jump dogs, and jump dogs don't typically catch the hog but chase it, nipping at its hocks to make it turn and fight. That's when Landry unleashes Major, a Kevlar-vested "American boar terrier" (Landry's term for a pit bull) that has yet to meet a pig worth fearing.

The other Catahoulas hardly have time to pee before Stanley, worming through a dense tangle of box elder and fern, jumps a pig not 20 yards from the truck, and suddenly wild hogs break in every direction. I twist around to get the .30/30 up as a black shape blasts away through the tangled mess, but it's hopeless. With three dogs close on their tracks, the pigs are hoofing it.

Soon, 75 yards up ahead, the dogs' barking turns frantic, their baying chops throated with menace. Landry yells for me, "Run, Mr. Eddie! Run!" I obey, vaulting logs, bashing through curtains of briers, my gun out front. By the time I get to the fracas the jump has turned into a run-and-catch--the dogs have the hog by the ears and hocks, pinned to the ground. A cacophony of snarls and ear-piercing squeals throbs in my head. Mud, leaves, and twigs are flying. I search for an opening for a bullet, but it won't happen. There is no chance for a shot. My heart falls.

A few feet from the hog, Landry's buddy David Braun wrenches a dog off the pig and snaps its leather lead to the trunk of a nearby tree. Landry grabs another. The Catahoulas are out of their minds, swarming over the animal stretched out in the mud, but the chaos begins to take on a sense of order and even calm. Braun never says a word but just looks at me with slightly arched eyebrows, then hooks the lower edge of his waxed cotton coat over the hilt of a large sheathed knife. I shake my head. Braun glances at the pig, then back at me, and holds my eyes with his own. The question answers itself. I lean my rifle against a mossy box elder trellised with vines and accept the knife.

The hog has calmed somewhat, now that only a pair of growling dogs have it tethered to the ground. On my hands and knees, I straddle the pig, my left forearm bearing down on the animal, my right hand holding the knife. Braun removes the dogs one at a time, until I am alone on the pig, my full weight pinning it to the ground. The hog is still frantic and squealing, but its eyes never leave the dogs, as if it isn't even aware of my presence. I work my way up to the point where my eyes are even with the pig's eyes--black beads with a glossy sheen that transfixes my own gaze. It's only then that I can work the knife between the ribs.

Through the steel I feel the hard knot of the heart, and at that moment I understand: This time, I am the bullet.

Then the pig's panting turns to tremors, the tremors to quivering black hide. In 15 seconds it is over, and we are both lying still, the pig beneath me. There is no rush of adrenaline, no exultant release. All that I feel is my own beating heart. When Landry finds me he doesn't seem to see the knife, my bloody hand, or my panting. He's watching my eyes, looking for any sign that now I see the hogs and the dogs and the swamp the way he sees them.

"Now you understand, Mr. Eddie," he says quietly.

Bayou Brothers

In the middle of it all. That's the theme of my week in Cajun country. Forty-eight hours after my personal encounter with a wild basin hog, I climb down from an Atchafalaya deer stand after a long stint staring through brown ferns and brown vines and dog-hair stands of winter-brown trees. My headlamp lights the way to the bank of a bayou, where I sit and doze in and out of sleep until I hear the screech of an aluminum boat hull on a cypress knee. That's my ride.

I had hunted another day with Landry--and put my lever action to work on a pig running flat-out 30 yards from the dogs--then drove east from Catahoula toward the basin's remote heart, which lies inside the levees that hem in the Atchafalaya River itself. At Happy Landing I met 41-year-old Cajun crawfisherman Jody Meche. We shook hands and he herded me into his crawfish boat, anxious to get me into the woods. Within minutes we were hurtling down the broad, brown flow of the Atchafalaya into what can best be described as America's Amazon.

Meche calls from the black dark of the bayou. When I step into his boat, he turns a floodlight to a nice 8-pointer piled up in the bow. "What you think, boy?" he asks. "He was up in them little creeks where the deers like to hide and never move not a hair till dark. They think they safe, but maybe not so much, eh?" Meche is primed for a coronation back at camp; this is one of the bigger deer of the year so far, and there is nothing a Cajun likes so much as a grand entrance.

The Meche hunting camp has clung to a bayou bluff off the basin's Whiskey River Pilot Channel for more than half a century. There's a low-slung bunk cabin, outbuildings stacked with net hoops and crawfish traps, and a long shed sheltering two dozen mud-coated ATVs. Behind that there's little but the basin's hardwood ridges and brownwater sloughs, miles of swamp and woods, and waters that peter out somewhere near the sunrise.

For decades Meche's parents ran the family camp. Frank and Loretta Meche were true swampers--basin Cajuns who made a living from the Atchafalaya's woods and waters. Just outside the levee they ran a small grocery store and dance hall, but they spent most of their time deep in the swamp, crawfishing, trapping turtles, picking Spanish moss to sell to mattress companies, running catfish lines. "To them," Meche says, "being out here wasn't making a living. It was making a life."

We tie up to a sycamore at the base of the camp bluff, and Meche takes long strides up the path from the dock. It's soon apparent, though, that we're late for the party. Hanging from a towering meat pole is a stout 11-pointer, lit with the headlamps of four-wheelers, surrounded by a dozen hunters. It's the biggest deer the camp has seen in years. Meche bounds up to the animal and lifts its hoary head.

"Who?" he asks.

Eleven thumbs jerk in the same direction.

"Steven?" Meche cries, then breaks out in a great bellow of a laugh. "I thought my 8-pointer was a deer to be proud of, but look at this! Look at what big brother has done!"

Steven Meche is Jody's elder by 24 years, and the brothers bear-hug and brag about each other's bucks and start spilling the details, arms flailing, feet dancing. I'd been told there's hardly a Cajun alive who can tell a story sitting down.

But it's a celebration whose time has come. Three years ago, Steven Meche suffered a horrific 25-foot fall from a tree-stand. Plucked from the swamp by helicopter, Steven still walks with a limp and has a hard time getting around in the Atchafalaya's tough country. Bringing a whitetail buck like this back to the family's hunting camp is a totem, of sorts, a way of closing a long, painful circle of healing.

"These deer in the basin, they ain't what you see on TV, just a-walking here and there," Jody says. "They live hard and they hold on to life hard. Steven, he deserved a deer like this." Meche holds up the hoof of his brother's deer. It is grotesquely misshapen; months of living deep in the swamp woods have melted away the edges. "Look at that," he says. "That's a basin longtimer right there, partner."

The next afternoon I take another stand deep in the heart of the Atchafalaya, scanning the woods on high alert, trying to find a slash of creamy antler in 1,000 shades of brown. All that shows, however, are three does, a dozen turkeys, and a herd of Boone and Crockett-worthy raccoons. "It's not easy to kill a big deer back here," Jody had warned me. And for me, over these last couple of days, not such a simple thing to kill a small one.

But I've learned enough not to force the big moments. I settle down, content to let the swamp tell whatever story it wishes. As the light fades I can just make out a small flock of cardinals in the cypress trees nearby. Red smudges in the gloom, they remind me of a scene I'd seen earlier that seems to tell the story of the Meche deer camp--and it's almost as good as a buck in range.

The night before, after the brothers had gutted their deer and the other hunters had emptied the gumbo pot and half the camp was two beers into a raucous Cajun card game called bourre, I walked outside, where the bucks hung from the meat pole like chandeliers. Faint tendrils of steam still rose from the cooling bodies, the cut edges of the hides rimmed in frost. Then my eyes fell to the ground. Scattered across the cement slab were the steps of a dance, Jody's boot prints left behind as he'd spun and pirouetted and stalked across the cement, reliving his hunt. I could read the story of the Meche camp in those tracks, and the ancient story of man and deer. It was a choreography of the Cajuns' joie de vivre, their irrepressible "joy of living," writ in the ink of mud and muck and the red blood of an Atchafalaya Basin buck.

Holding on for Dear Life The morning has been so hard and the ducks are coming so fast and I am trembling with so much pent-up energy that I am talking to myself as I would to a child: O.K., push the shell into the receiver tube. Good boy! Now another one. But then a drake scaup cuts my corner of the decoy spread and the sun catches the green sheen on the black head and it's all too much. I reflexively shoulder the gun, swing on the bird, and click on an empty chamber. The rookie screwup makes me chuckle, and now I'm -laughing--​laughing at the number of ducks overhead, at my kidlike glee, at how quickly our fortunes have turned.

An hour ago I was on my knees behind a duck boat, stuck fast on an Atchafalaya Delta sandbar. Stand up and I'd sink to my thighs in a gumbo of sand and silt. So I draped my arms over the transom, braced my elbows against the Go-Devil's stern, and knee-walked the boat to a bedraggled old blind of cut willow and marsh cane.
Now, before the sweat has dried from my brow, two limits of bluebills are heaped on the boat floor. I lean the shotgun against a willow and watch the birds pour down by the hundreds, some so close I could sack them with a frog net. For the next hour I wish for a mallard, but it's hard to complain with a sky full of ducks and the marsh to ourselves, here where Louisiana falls into the sea.

At the end of my Cajun odyssey I'm at the end of the road--for man and duck alike. I'm hunting with Eric DeMent, whose family ties to the marshy terminus of the Atchafalaya Basin go back to the 1700s. The DeMent camp is set on a 10-acre sliver of high ground called Deer Island, down where the Atchafalaya River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Getting here required a 45-minute boat ride through tens of thousands of acres of marsh and island and arrowhead-fringed bayou. Tucked off a side channel draped with Spanish moss is the storied old camp--a maze of docks and wharves and walkways, sheds and barns and a three-room camp house on increasingly precious dry ground.

"My grandpa's family homesteaded this island," DeMent tells me. He is goateed and ruddy faced, dressed in blue jeans and an M-65 Army parka. DeMent works part-time for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, but his heart is in the basin 24/7. He hunts deer and hogs and traps nutria on several thousand acres of marsh. Louisiana pays a $5 bounty on the nonnative marsh-eating pests, and the money helps pay for upkeep on a camp that is regularly bashed and buffeted by storms and tides. Back when DeMent's grandfather fished these bayous and his grandmother worked as a teacher on a basin school boat, more than two dozen families lived on the island. In 1819, a U.S. Navy surveying team recorded live oaks on Deer Island 5 feet wide. "On this Island no mark of the axe appears," the surveyors wrote. "It is in a perfect state of nature."

That has changed. The DeMents are watching their island melt away. Oil and gas canals honeycomb the delta marsh, fraying the protective fabric of cut-grass and bulrush. Container ships throw up 5-foot breaking wakes that gnaw at the island's clamshell bedrock. In the last five years, hundreds of feet of river frontage have simply washed away. Another 15 years, DeMent figures, "and we'll be standing in the water right here."

The next morning Eric's dad, Jack, cooks up biscuits and gravy, then we trundle down to the boats, the Milky Way spangled overhead. I'm amazed at the heavy machinery brought to bear on delta ducks. We take the big aluminum workboat with a pirogue turned upside down on the deck, and pull a johnboat powered with a Go-Devil engine. It takes it all. We stake the workboat out in a pass of open water, then pile into the Go-Devil skiff, prop-chop through the water hyacinths, and shove with pushpoles to hide the boat in the marsh. Once again, a sweat-soaked shirt seems as common on a delta hunt as forearms slashed with cut-grass.

In fact, nothing comes easy in the Atchafalaya Delta. Not the hurricanes, not the mosquitoes, not the searing summer heat, not the winter winds, and certainly not the ducks. "Oh, lord, yes, we get no breaks on the ducks," DeMent says. "By the time they get to us, they've been hammered from Canada on down. Ain't no margin for error."

And I can see it: how the single birds circle and circle, looking left and then right, and circle again; how the high flocks flinch and flare at the muffled pops of hunters in some far-off marsh. A half dozen ducks rocket out front, flying right to left and low and fast, dipping below the tops of the marsh, out of sight now, then suddenly above the ochre rim of grass, closer and closer.

"There's mallards in with them teal," DeMent says. "They circling now, watch 'em. Watch 'em!"

And he does, for there's plenty of time to worry about the future and the water and the river that is devouring his island. For now, DeMent is taking the good with the bad, and at this moment, at least, things are looking up. DeMent drinks in every detail, and I see a look in his face that I've seen everywhere in the basin, from the hog woods up north down to the Gulf. The Cajuns know better than most that nothing stays the same. Not for Kody Landry, feeding his dogs and wondering if his son will be able to chase them through the swamp. Not for Jody Meche, turned away by more and more NO TRESPASSING signs blighting waters his ancestors have fished for decades. And not for Eric DeMent, hunting the waters that sustained his forebears and wondering when the water will finally drown his own future here.

"It's just a little piece of ground, but I don't want to lose it," DeMent says. "I've been in this marsh for 38 years, though. Long enough to know that nothing's permanent in the delta." Then he looks into the rosy fire of an Atchafalaya sunrise, where the ducks hang in the sky, suspended in time.