The Alleged Double Murder on Reelfoot Lake Points to a Problem Duck Hunters Must Fix
An altercation between duck hunters on the famed Tennessee lake has left two young men dead, and many unanswered questions. But one thing’s certain: It’s the time to address the cutthroat culture on some public marshes
There’s an ongoing double-murder investigation happening right now in the Reelfoot Lake area of Obion County, Tennessee. WPSD Local 6 News reports that 70-year-old David Vowell, of Martin, stands accused of shooting and killing Chance Black, 26, and Zachary Grooms, 25, after an argument on the water while duck hunting Monday morning. According to District Attorney General Tommy Thomas, Black and Grooms, both from Weakley County, were hunting with a third man, Jeffery Crabtree, who was also present during the confrontation. Crabtree reportedly took the gun from Vowell after the shooting, and then ferried the victims to the bank to get help.
Vowell wasn’t present when investigators returned to the scene, but his truck and boat were both recovered. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation filed first-degree murder charges and arrest warrants against him Tuesday, and he was considered armed and dangerous. As of today (Wednesday, Jan. 27), the search for Vowell has been halted, due to high water on Reelfoot Lake. Attorney General Thomas says search crews now believe Vowell either died in the lake from exposure, or was helped from the water.
As the manhunt is temporarily delayed, it’s time for public-water duck hunters to face a reckoning: We have a problem.
Reelfoot Lake Is a Notorious Hunting Spot
Reelfoot Lake is less than two hours down the road from me. It’s a shallow lake formed by the New Madrid earthquakes of the early 1800s, and a mecca for bluegill and crappie anglers in the spring and summer. Come winter, it’s one of the South’s most storied waterfowling destinations, noted for huge blinds and elaborate decoy spreads, and for a calling style all its own. Old-school Reelfoot hunters used wooden calls with single metal reeds to “cut down” call high-flying ducks from the stratosphere. You could make a good argument that the highball mallard call, prevalent on the contest-calling stage if not among real mallards, originated on Reelfoot.
The lake is not a place I hunt myself, but I have plenty of friends who do. This tragedy is the talk of the local news right now, and the rumor mill is flying in the duck hunting community, too. Hunters around here know the people involved quite well: Vowell was a prominent businessman in Martin, and Black, one of the victims, worked the gun counter at Final Flight Outfitters in Union City—maybe the biggest and best-known independent sporting-goods store in the region.
Among area duck hunters, there seems to be two sentiments: Grief and sadness for the victims is, rightfully, the first. But there is also a morbid understanding—an assumption that it was an argument over duck hunting that became heated enough for someone to start shooting—and a general lack of surprise that this could happen. For those who don’t know, Reelfoot Lake is a tough place, one that’s legendary for blind burnings, fist fights, and boat ramp justice against anyone who doesn’t follow the rules.
Not that the rules are all that clear. Reelfoot is technically a public lake. Most of the hunting on it is still done from permanent blinds over massive spreads of decoys. Some of those blinds are entered into a public drawing conducted every summer by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and whoever draws the lucky ticket gets that blind for the season.
More of the blinds, though, are privately owned, apparently grandfathered in by old land deeds and deals that predate the formation of the lake itself. Those private blinds, on public water, have been passed along through the generations. As some of those blind owners have passed on, the blinds have become public property, at which point they’re entered into the TWRA lottery drawing.
All the blinds, public and private, are open to public hunting if the occupant—be it a private owner or draw winner for the year—isn’t in the blind by a set time. On occasion, owners arrive a little late and find squatters. In those instances, sometimes they make friends and hunt together. And sometimes they don’t.
Freelance hunting from boat blinds and the like is allowed, but you must be a minimum of 200 yards from other hunters. But with so much competition on Reelfoot, a 200-yard buffer can be tough to find.
This can all cause tempers to flare. Ducks circling one blind sometimes get shot at by hunters in other blinds. It’s called “shooting the swings,” and it’s akin to a high crime on public duck water.
Then again, if you’re sitting in a duck blind to shoot ducks, and flying ducks “swing” over you within range, are you not shooting?
Exactly how common altercations are on Reelfoot is up for debate. Some long-time local hunters say it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Others insist that it’s worse. At minimum, it’s notorious—so much so that right now, there’s a 50-page-plus thread on The Duck Hunter’s Refuge called “Good Ol’ Reelfoot Drama.”
The thread was started in mid-January, a couple weeks before the shooting, and it began with a user talking about a run-in with another hunter on the lake while looking for a spot to freelance hunt. The thread became an ongoing discussion—and argument—over the pros and cons of the blind laws and hunting culture of Reelfoot.
When news of the shooting broke on Monday night, one user posted:
Good Lord, but this thread has certainly come to fruition. Prayers to the families who have lost loved ones.
On Tuesday, another user posted, in part:
First of all I do not condone in anyway the alleged allegations of Mr. Vowell. I believe his actions were reprehensible.
As tragic as this event is, let’s not fail to make use of it as a teachable moment.
This tragic incident should give pause to those slob hunters who; set up on top of other hunters…, skybusters who ruin the hunt for everyone…shooting swing ducks…or any myriad of other infractions….
The lesson is, “You just never know who’s in the next blind, and how much crap they are willing to take.”
There is one indisputable fact about this event, if those poor boys got killed because they were shooting at swing ducks, they will never do it again.
When Violence Isn’t Shocking, Something Needs to Change
We have a problem, and it’s not just at Reelfoot Lake. I’ve hunted waterfowl in every flyway, including three Canadian provinces. I’ve freelanced the Dakotas, and gunned from layout boats on Chesapeake Bay. I’ve run the Mississippi River and leased pits in Louisiana. I’ve slogged through rice fields in Arkansas, shot geese in Montana, and waded through cypress brakes with champion callers in Mississippi. I killed a greenhead on Beaverdam with Bo Whoop. Meanwhile, I’ve hunted whitetails, mule deer, mountain lions, turkeys, elk, antelope, quail, grouse, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, and stuff I can’t remember on public land.
Through all of this, I have never encountered any contingent of sportsmen more consistently and openly hostile to one another than public-water duck hunters.
And I’ve been right there in the mix, having heard and laughed at countless tales of asses whipped and teeth spit out at places like Catahoula, D’Arbonne, Bayou Meto, Camden Bottoms…. One day I found my boat trailer vandalized at the Hatchie River National Wildlife Refuge. Years ago, I admired a buddy’s skinned knuckles and listened as he retold the tale of beating the hell out of that guy at the boat ramp on Kentucky Lake the day before the season opener. I’ve stood side-by-side with hunting buddies in the pre-dawn, guarding a spread of decoys by light of a headlamp while engaging in cussing matches with competitors, upset that we’d beaten them to a spot “they’d been hunting for years.”
For a long time, I have considered it all to be part of the package. I’ve laughed it off, and written about it, too. Want to be a good public-land duck hunter? You better know how to scout, run a boat, blow a call, shoot a shotgun—and throw a punch.
But the situation at Reelfoot is sobering. It makes me think of the morning in college, when a man in a john boat motored into my spread shortly after daybreak with a scoped rifle across his lap. The day before, he’d had his blind broken into and vandalized, and he wanted to know if I was the no-good S.O.B. who’d done it. I wasn’t, and didn’t know anything about it—but I was about to learn.
Days earlier, when none of my usual college buddies were able go hunting with me, I invited a friend of a friend—a guy I barely knew. He met me at the ramp before daylight. We shot a few ducks, but it was slow overall. I had to leave early, but he stayed.
Later, he admitted to breaking into and vandalizing the man’s blind after I’d left. I don’t know why.
I’d like to tell you how tough I was when the blind owner confronted me. I’d done nothing wrong, after all, short of go hunting with someone I didn’t know. But really, I remember my voice cracking, a 19-year-old kid confronted by an armed man who had reason to be pissed off.
Ultimately, I helped put the blind owner in contact with the guy who’d torn it up, so they could sort it out themselves. I assume that they did. I just wanted out of it.
I haven’t seen the guy I hunted with since. But I see the blind owner pretty often. I’d call us friends, if only casual ones. We both still use the same launch ramp, he still hunts from the same blind, and I still hunt those same bays. Last summer, we ran into each other on the lake. He was out bowfishing with his son, and my son and I were anchored up, catching catfish. My boy, who’s never met a stranger out fishing, held up a basket full of fiddlers, and the man congratulated him with a beaming grin.
We’ve never acknowledged that day. On the one hand, I’ve never really thought there was real danger of someone actually being shot. But watching the news this week reminds me that we were closer than I ever want to be again.
Many details about the incident on Reelfoot are still unknown or unreported. It may not be what most assume it is. Whether there was an argument over duck hunting—whether it was about a blind that was too close or shooting at swing ducks or some other dispute—the bottom line is this: Two duck hunters were shot dead by another duck hunter on Monday morning.
That we’re not surprised means we have a problem.
Update: January 29, 3 p.m.
There are still many unanswered questions about this week’s tragedy at Reelfoot Lake. As of this writing, the accused murder suspect, David Vowell, is still unaccounted for. Neither the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has released much information. But in the last two days, local news media have released conflicting accounts of how the events of Monday morning actually unfolded.
Originally, news outlets reported that investigators told District Attorney General Tommy Thomas that the shooting took place after an argument ensued between the victims and Vowell. This version is still being reported by some outlets, including WPSD Local 6 as recently as this morning.
But other sources, such as WBBJ Eyewitness 7 News out of Jackson, Tennessee, are now reporting a different account, also according to Thomas, in which Vowell motored up to the blind where Black, Grooms, and surviving victim Jeffery Crabtree were hunting, and asked if he could join them. They welcomed him in, at which point Vowell shot Zachary Grooms.
It was so unexpected, the men initially believed it was an accident, according to the report. But then, Vowell allegedly grabbed another gun, and shot Chance Black as well. That’s when Crabtree charged him, knocking him into the water.
“He grabbed the gun away from Vowell. Hit him with it, knocked him out of the boat, and then he took off with the two injured friends in the boat,” Thomas told WBBJ.
Investigators reportedly believe that Vowell was able to get up and leave the scene.
“The water at that place was shallow, around waist deep. He turned around, and saw that the suspect was in the water. He had gotten up out of the water and was walking towards the bank,” Thomas said.
We will continue to post developments as we get them. — W.B.
Update: January 31, 9 a.m.
According to WPSD Local 6, David Vowell’s body was recovered from Reelfoot Lake at around 3 p.m. yesterday, January 30. In a tweet, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Vowell’s identity had been confirmed, and an autopsy will be conducted. The cause of death will be announced after the results of the autopsy.
Today, January 31, is the final day of the 2020-21 duck season in Tennessee. —W.B.
• This story is developing.