The New York Times, a positive hunting story?


My Indian name is "Runs with Beer"
Nov 4, 2007
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Who'd a thunk it? The New York Times has actually published a positive view of hunting, by women even...

The New York Times
Pushing the Limit
The Huntress Club: Duck Hunting Sorority in the Swamp
Published: February 4, 2009

SHERARD, Miss. The leader of the hunting party carried a 12-gauge Winchester 101 repeating shotgun with a wooden stock. Standing thigh-deep in the stagnant bottoms of Willow Hole, where a Labrador retriever named Congo whimpered from a twilit hardwoods bend, she waited for first shooting light, the moment a half-hour before sunrise when hunters can legally fire on the wood ducks gliding overhead.

Is it time yet? whispered one of the groups hunters, Kate Morrison, 45, from Memphis, a stay-at-home mother of two boys.

About one minute, said the leader, Allison Crews, 42, an owner of a small insurance company in Canton, Miss.

They call themselves the Swamp Witches, a half-dozen women pledged to return twice a year to the Ward Lake Hunting Club, a privately owned 6,500-acre conservation parcel here in the floodplain of the Mississippi Delta. Hard by the Arkansas border, some 140 miles northwest of Jackson, the club occupies a prime span of the Mississippi Flyway, migratory route to generations of waterfowl and one of the most widely envied birding grounds in North America.

In recent years, nonprofit groups have sought to expand the appeal of duck hunting among women, sponsoring clinics from Colusa County, Calif., to Cape Girardeau, Mo. Eager to broaden their market, outfitters like Avery Outdoors have provided free gear.

But so far, women have remained in the distinct minority. Of the 244,000 Mississippians who went hunting in 2006, the year of the most recent survey by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, only about 30,000 were women. Nationally, women accounted for 6 percent of all migratory bird hunters, a decline from 186,000 in 1996 to 131,000 in 2006. Merely by hunting outside the company of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, the Swamp Witches made for an unusual sight, said Tony Dolle, spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands conservation outfit based in Memphis.

Bound by an informal sorority of the outdoors, the Swamp Witches embrace some antiquated ways. At a time when many hunters have grown accustomed to driving or motor boating to their duck blinds, these women prefer to feel the ooze of the muck below their boots, to propel their canoes by their own muscle, to inhale the pungent methane of the marsh, to wade its unknowable waters.

Its not very common for that to happen in that form, Dolle said. I dont know if Id call it old-fashioned. The methodology that they use is older and more traditional. It can be tougher hunting.

Accountings of the groups origins were confused, in dispute or both. The women keep no archivist, no historian, though they have been known to employ a chef. Most agreed that they came together more than a decade ago through a shared passion for horseback riding.

Their leader, Crews, is the wife of a prominent lawyer in Madison County. Her father-in-law, James M. Crews Jr., had spent decades acquiring the land around Ward Lake for conservation and private hunting by a club of 33 families. In one telling, James M. Crews III had first called the women Swamp Witches in honor of their zeal.

The relating of this history told over red wine in a cabin decorated with a state flag, a topographical map, duck decoys, family pictures and a bookshelf full of war memoirs was interrupted just before supper one Sunday last month for a prayer.

As the party dined on shrimp n grits, duck Wellington (the chef, Chris Robinson of Memphis, had reduced the gaminess of the meat with a marinade of milk) and tiramis, the women recounted their first hunting excursions. Susan Williams, 52, an importer from Clinton, spoke of a pride so deep that she had felt inspired to show off her first slain duck, in frozen form, at a New Years Eve party.

Thats a validation for the women, Williams said. A lot of people say, Oh, sure, women hunt, but there are men putting out the decoys for them. We have our own dogs, we put out our own decoys, we do it all without power, we canoe in.

The group had been subjected to some curious questions over the years Do yall have to have a license, like males do? one man was said to have asked but Crews, reserved and proper, struck a more diplomatic tone.

Were not out to prove anything, she said. We just like it.

That night the witches bedded down early, expecting a difficult hunt. The next day would be a Monday; stirred by weekend hunters, the ducks would be wary. And with few other hunters out on a weekday, the ducks would have their pick of safe landing places. With all that in mind, Crews had left a bind of slain ducks in the swamp overnight for the groups traditional commemorative photographs. At 4:45 a.m., she rousted her witches with a call of Morning.

Down the hallway came Morrison; Williams; Lind Bussey, 50, of Jackson; Leigh Bailey, 46, a real estate developer from Clinton; and Lila Sessums, 43, a show horse rider from Clinton. The women pulled on their boots, gathered their weapons and rallied their dogs. From the kitchen, Sessums sang a chorus of You Never Even Called Me by My Name.

She had a wild look in her eye, this Lila Sessums. Boarding an all-terrain vehicle laden with a bouquet of daisies and an infant car seat, she followed Crews through a clearing under a veiled moon near full. The women sang cackles into the blackness, turning now through a vine-webbed forest of hackberry and cypress, loosing the hounds to run, driving until they came upon the waters edge.

Together they waded into the mire, launched canoes and paddled past beaver holes, buckbrush and cypress knees. At Willow Hole they debarked. Crews set out decoys. She rotated her leg through the water, drawing ripples in imitation of resting ducks. The women hid beneath low-hanging branches around the perimeter. Congo took his place on the aged willow trunk. The distant trees looked like teepees. From one of them a great horned owl called. Wood ducks squealed, too. Then the sky turned acrylic and shotgun reports crumpled the stillness. The women blasted their steel shells skyward and Congo leapt into the chill lake waters, but nothing fell.

No, Congo, Crews said, guiding the dog back to his perch. No bird. I know you have faith.

She sounded a duck call, her fingers fluttering over the mouth of the horn as if for a blues harp solo. Four gadwalls responded, circling back over Willow Hole, diving toward the decoys. The women opened fire into the windless sky, aiming for a clean kill as the birds came within perhaps 40 yards. Again the ducks escaped.

I said to shoot them, not shoot at them, Crews admonished.

Morrison laughed at her own poor aim, saying, They were too close.

Daylight extended, and frustration too. Hours passed with no ducks in sight. Sessums smoked light cigarettes and threatened passing blackbirds. Somebody poured cream liqueur from a flask. Wagering ensued. Crews and Bussey paddled across the swamp and back again in a luckless effort to scare up a flock. By afternoon the women were due to return to their husbands and their children and their jobs and their social engagements.

In time a large flock soared far, far overhead. Here was one last chance. The women crouched in the swamp and sounded their calls and waited.

Thirty of them above us, Crews whispered. Thirty sets of eyes looking down.

But the ducks did not descend. For the women, other obligations were waiting. Crews began to pack the canoes.

Well, I got the witches here, she said. The witches are harder to get than the ducks.

Across Willow Hole, Bailey fed the last biscuits from breakfast to the dogs. Morrison touched up her lip gloss. Sessums was still scanning the heavens, shotgun aloft, looking for something to shoot. She sang: Ducky love, ducky love, come on in, ducky love.