Squirrel Town, USA: Hunting the Cajun Passover

Photographs by Brent Humphreys

The old man waited for me at the end of the dock, where he'd been pulling sac-au-lait—crappies—from the brown waters of Bayou Lafourche. My hunched shoulders tipped him off. "No écureuil?" he asked, in the clipped tones of old Cajun French. He was incredulous. This 89-year-old Louisiana papa, with white hair and eyes the color of Spanish moss, had never heard of such a thing. "No écureuil," I said, hanging my head. No squirrel.

For 24 hours this kind man and four generations of his family had treated me like one of their own. They fed me stewed catfish and smoked Cajun sausage and fried sac-au-lait. They filled me with wild tales of huge swamp deer and gaspergou hooked on trotlines in the bayous. They whipped me in their homemade game of washerboard and brought me a beer every time one hand was empty and baptized me in their family traditions around a campfire. And now I had to own up to Elton (el-TONE) McCauley, patriarch of the McCauley clan of the Ville Platte, Louisiana, Cajuns.

No écureuil.

He didn't miss a beat. "Is okay," he declared, this time in broken English. "Guess now we drink the beer and the highball, no?" Then he cackled and clasped me around the shoulders, steering me into the family camp on the high bluffs of the bayou. It was then I began to understand the finer points of Squirrel Day.

Tucked into a landscape of big woods, ricefields, and sugarcane, Ville Platte (pop. 9,000) lies about 30 miles northwest of Lafayette. It's the seat of Evangeline Parish, named for the doomed heroine in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem of the early Acadians, Evangeline. The Acadians were French-speaking Catholics that the British expelled from Acadia, a French colony of Nova Scotia, and deported to Louisiana in the mid-1700s. Their descendants are known as Cajuns, and these days, Cajun culture is big business in Louisiana. Crawfish restaurants and Cajun dance halls are everywhere, and gas station and grocery store checkouts are piled high with Cajun bric-a-brac from dried alligator heads to cookbooks. But in Ville Platte, Cajun culture has yet to be caricatured or commercialized. It's a place where the old women still speak Cajun French and the old men still cook in black iron pots and even the youngest children know how to bait a trotline.

For years around Ville Platte the opening day of squirrel season—the first Saturday in October—has been known as "Squirrel Day." Schools close early the day before—some don't open at all—because attendance by students and teachers alike is cut in half. Businesses shutter their windows. Everybody heads for "camp," they call it, and that can mean a sleeping bag in the back of a pickup truck or a deluxe hunt lodge wired for electricity, with air-conditioning and big-screen TVs. "Squirrel Day is the Cajun Passover, " explains Ville Platte native Tim Fontenot. "There's a mass exodus into the woods."

TOWN

It's lunchtime on Thursday at the Pig Stand, and already the impending squirrel opener is apparent. The air at Ville Platte's most popular diner is spiced with red pepper and smoked pork and a near suffocating dose of perfume. The Sacred Heart Homecoming Court has arrived for lunch, fresh from a pep rally at crosstown rival Ville Platte High School, and 17 blondes and brunettes with Barbie hair crowd tables loaded with pig. On Squirrel Day weekend, football games at most Evangeline Parish high schools are bumped up to Thursday night. Play them on Friday, locals explain, and nobody would show. "The day before the hunting season opened you could count on at least 50 percent absenteeism," Bobby Hamlin, the principal at Ville Platte High School, tells me. "Even the teachers played hooky, so it cost the parish a fortune in substitute teacher fees. That's why the schools started closing. They call it 'Budget Day' now, on the official calendar. But everybody knows it's Squirrel Day."

Already hunters are swarming town. At Dalbis' Meat Market & Grocery they load up on slab bacon, six kinds of pork sausage, and a heavily seasoned, smoked cut of beef called tasso. Pickup trucks sagging with ATVs clog the parking lot over at Evangeline Bank and Trust Co., where one battered old Dodge is piled dangerously high with sleeping bags, enormous coolers, and a queen-size floral-printed mattress rolled up like a burrito and lashed down with cotton twine. Inside the bank, hunting regulations are taped to the wall. The tellers, loan officers, and even the local V.P. are dressed head-to-toe in camouflage.

It's the same story at City Hall, a looming brick building with Italianate cornices. The clerks working the counters are all decked out in camo, and the mayor is similarly spotted. From City Hall, I head over to Cary's Sporting Goods Store, a sprawling collection of buildings on the outskirts of town where Sherry Cary—"Miz Sherry" to seven out of 10 customers that walk through the door—holds court. She is petite and pretty, her gray curls gleaming against camouflage coveralls. At Cary's, the few days before Squirrel Day are nearly as big as Christmas. "When the men go hunting, they go crazy," Miz Sherry says. "They're a bunch of little boys—there's no limit to what they will buy."

It is nearly four o'clock, and the door hinges at Cary's are warm to the touch, thanks to a constant parade of customers dressed in everything from worn coveralls to ties and suits. Zydeco music wafts out of speakers hidden somewhere on the other side of the gun cabinets and the mounted head of a 900-pound wild hog. At Cary's you can buy enough cast-iron cookware to sink a skiff, rice cookers, mosquito netting by the yard, plus three brands of squirrel cleaners and two kinds of squirrel calls. Today, of course, the talk is all about squirrels, and it's all in a clipped, fast-and-furious Cajun accent.

Miz Sherry hears it all and grins. "Come Saturday morning you might as well shut Ville Platte down. There won't be a man in town."

The next morning I'm up with the sun to catch Ville Platte's early-morning Cajun French radio show, La Tasse de Kafe ("A Cup of Coffee"). The topic today is no surprise: Squirrel Day. On the way out the hotel door I pick up a local paper. Squirrel Day's in there, too: "While Hubby is out Hunting Treat Yourself to an Inch Loss Massage," reads one ad. Shoes Unlimited's 20-percent-off Hunting Season Sale is good Friday and Saturday only. At Susan's On Court gift shop, "Squirrel Season is Open with No Limit on the Savings." On the way back into town I happen to glance at the WELCOME TO VILLE PLATTE sign on the highway. There's a squirrel on it, of course.

To be sure, Ville Platteans have taken their lumps about this devotion to squirrels. They've been called crazy, lazy, ignorant, and out of touch for getting so excited about a squirrel. They've been derided locally and nationally. Radio commentator Paul Harvey once took Ville Platte to task for letting something as seemingly meaningless as squirrel hunting season dictate the school calendar. And Ville Platteans are well aware of the derision.

"We know that to a lot of people, this is a joke," says Mark Cary, of Cary's Sporting Goods. "But you know what? We feel sorry for those people, because they don't have the access to the land and the ties to their family and community that we have. Laugh all you want, but if you could see these children in the woods with their daddies and papas and uncles and brothers, you'd understand that the education they're getting about family and culture and community out there is something they could never get from a book."

COUNTRY

Ervin McCauley stops, his right boot in midstep, and turns his head to the sky. I follow his gaze. Ervin is 66 years old, the eldest son of Elton McCauley, and shares his father's angular face and the crow's-feet that come from squinting into Louisiana sunrises.

Now he inches his foot down. Beyond the overcup oaks that blot out the sky, a murder of crows is mobbing a hawk, and Ervin uses the raucous cawing to camouflage the sound of his stalk. I match his steps with my own and think: This is how so many American boys learned to hunt. Following our fathers a few steps behind.

Suddenly I see what Ervin sees: two squirrels feeding in the withered muscadines. They are coming straight toward us—or toward me, anyway. Somehow, in the last few seconds, Ervin has slipped silently away. He's a dozen yards deeper into the woods now, and for a moment I forget all about the squirrels and marvel at how he's managed to move through woods dry as parchment without crinkling a leaf. I lift my gun and line up the bead and then BOOM! I'm too late.

Ervin steps through a veil of palmetto and spiderwebs with a smile as wide as the Gulf Coast. "I don't know about anybody but us Cajuns," he says with a grin, holding up a beauty of a fox squirrel, grizzled red and black and half again as large as a gray. "But, baby, they is just somet'ing about a squirrel."

In other places squirrel hunting may be considered the pursuit of beginners, a rite of passage to pass right through. But around here people hunt squirrels from the cradle to the grave. Men in Ville Platte talk about the best squirrel hunters just as they fawn over high school football standouts. Elton McCauley was one of the best; everyone knows that. Travis McFarlain, now, that's a dog in the woods, as the locals say. He'll crawl through the palmettos on his hands and knees after a squirrel. David Paul Fontenot teaches at Ville Platte Elementary. "He can go through the woods behind you," Ted Soileau told me earlier, "and you kill maybe two or three squirrels, and he'll get a limit." There's a fellow near Turkey Creek who was born without arms. He's a fanatical squirrel hunter. Steering an ATV with his feet, he watches the trees. When he sees a squirrel he dismounts, lies on his back, and shoots with his bare toes.

Part of this obsession with hunting has to do, curiously, with the oil industry, which employs thousands of Louisianans with shift work that offers frequent weeks off. Also playing a role are Louisiana's famously accessible big woods and sprawling waters. But the strongest force is wholly cultural—and as old as the Cajuns themselves. When the displaced Acadians first arrived in the 1760s, explains historian Carl Brasseaux, "each family received either a saw, axe, or hatchet, plus one rooster, six hens, a gun and ammunition, and a three-month supply of corn. Then they were turned out into an alien land." Those early Cajuns evolved into some of the most skilled outdoorsmen America has known. Their descendants still fit the description.

When we arrive at Ervin's camp, a crowd of Cajun McCauleys are in from the woods. Sons Danny and Kenny have dismantled an outboard motor that refused to start. Its guts simmer in a pot of water on a camp stove. "That's carburetor gumbo!" Danny hoots. Elton, the old man, is hard at work with a fishing rod and two great-grandson apprentices, muttering French encouragement to the shiners he drops through a trapdoor in the boat dock. Another son-in-law, Jay Fruge, is sighting in a pair of .22s. More young boys on ATVs are raising clouds of dust on the dirt road.

From this camp we chase squirrels for the next two days. Fathers and sons pair up. We hunt fox squirrels in the tangled oak and hackberry woods of Bayou Morengo and the Ouachita River sloughs. We go after gray squirrels, which Louisianans dub "cat squirrels" for their mewing calls, in the palmetto-oak forests of the Atchafalaya bottomlands. I hope for a shot at a "chucklehead," a regional variant of the fox squirrel that is darkly furred and seriously oversized. "Those chuckle-heads hit the ground," says Jay one night, "and they sound like a 5-pound bag of rice."

To hunt squirrels back home in my Eastern hardwood haunts, I sneak into the woods before dawn, scrape a circle of clear ground beneath a feed tree, and then hunker down for hours on end. Hearing this, the McCauleys stare at me as if I have two heads. "Not here, " Kenny says. "Here you have to creep 'em." It's the Cajun term for still-hunting, with a peculiar twist. Once the squirrel sees you, it's an all-out race through the woods. "You put the running shoe on 'em," Ervin says. Danny explains: "That cat squirrel, he's so nervous, he just can't stand it if he sees you. Once he start changing trees it's time to go, bo. Fast as you can. Get in front of him and let him have it."

We let them have it, from dawn to dark, by ATV, foot, and boat. By my third morning in squirrel country I am bleary-eyed and dragging from 18-hour days and poker-filled nights and 11 P.M. suppers of squirrels and sausage in onion gravy. Before leaving camp I shove a two-pack of Alka Seltzer into my pocket. Then once again I cling to the belt of a 66-year-old Cajun racing through the black woods on an ATV.

We park the bike as dawn breaks and chamber the guns. I'd been hunting alone since the first day out, but this morning I follow Ervin through the woods again. It's my last hunt with the McCauley clan, and already I'm feeling a twinge of sadness at having to leave. A few hours earlier Ervin and I stood in the camp kitchen as his family filed into the living room, one by one. "The really serious hunting starts next week," he said, as he scrambled two dozen eggs in a cast-iron skillet. "But for the next few days, this is about something else, no? Squirrel Day is for the family. Seeing my boys all together. Teaching them young kids to creep and how to read sign, see them light up with their first squirrel. You sacrifice a little to get a lot."