Some of the fishing and hunting highlights in the Southwestern States are described, along with various public land areas in the region. The Southwest is a land often dominated by a warm sun, and for the hunters and fishers it is an area in which there is no off-season.
WE BEACHED THE BOAT ON A SANDBAR off Pass-a-Loutre in the heart of the Mississippi River delta and looked back across Delta National Wildlife Refuge, a vast expanse of green plants and brown water with the promise of unlimited adventure. I hung my bare foot over the gunnel into the river, feeling the soft brush of silt carried by the current, pulled by rain or melting snow from the heart of the continent, from forests and prairies and fields and mountains in faraway places still gripped by a hard winter. A news report had told about a late blizzard; a foot of snow in the Midwest, airports closed, heating oil hard to find.
We talked about that, and about our rest stop, about the half-million ducks and geese packing the wetland maze around us, about the sea trout, redfish, and largemouth bass we’d caught that day. And we talked about the places in the region we planned to hunt and fish that year–the legendary shallow flats along the Texas coast, the deer-and turkey-rich woodlands of Alabama, the flooded-timber duck hunts in Mississippi.
“You gotta wonder why people would live up north,” Ronnie Granier mused. “Man, you go four, six months without huntin’ and fishin’. The way I see it, we gotta be the smartest people in the world.”
Or the luckiest. The region is a land blessed with the basic budding blocks of life, an area where rich soil sometimes mixes with abundant rain and always bakes under a warm sun during a long growing season. What rises from that recipe is a habitat base that supports an incredible profusion of life–which, in turn, provides a paradise for sportsmen lucky enough to live there or smart enough to visit.
This isn’t an area of stunning vistas; you won’t find snow-covered mountains, yawning canyons, or boulder-strewn seashores. Instead, this is a land of soft edges and muted colors, deep shadows and slow waters. It doesn’t shout its glories from 13,000-foot peaks, but whispers them through an endless list of life nurtured in forests and swamps, marshes and river basins. If the Rockies and Appalachians are nature’s billboards, our South by Southwest region is nature’s terrarium, a world painted in tan brush, green woods and black waters, scented with the rich, deep smells of loamy soils and humus.
And best of all for sportsmen, this is a land that seldom sleeps. “The thing about the region that many sportsmen don’t appreciate is that there is no off-season.” says Hugh Bateman, a man who has spent a lifetime marveling at the resources he tries to manage as a wildlife biologist. “For a sportsman, there’s really no quitting season, no winter layover. If you got the time and the freedom, you can just keep going.”
Fortunately, many of its most precious spots have been saved as federal lands, protected as natural treasures of national interest. Together, a diverse group of national forests, seashores, wildlife refuges, and reservoirs offer visitors not only hunting and fishing, but also a glimpse at the forces that shaped the region itself
You can hear the sweet song of the South in places like Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge off the Yazoo River just northeast of Jackson, Mississippi. Move into the flooded timber before sunup, packing a sack of decoys and a shotgun, lean against a cypress or tupelo, and listen to the voice of the swamp as it greets the day. Squadrons of wood ducks come first, screaming as they race the first touches of dawn through the trees. Flights of mallards are next, big flyway birds fresh from the prairies, with bright orange legs and shining green heads, drifting from the sky like falling leaves, miraculously missing branches to land with a long splash.
Flooded bottomlands like these once graced the Mississippi River basin from Illinois southward, lining the big river’s tributaries. Streams like the Yazoo, Big Black, and Sunflower snaked across the broad, flat alluvial plain, creating a maze of sloughs and oxbows. They offered food and shelter to the massive fall flights and provided a rich, year-round home to an awesome array of wildlife from black bears to whitetail deer. Most that remain intact today are under government protection, and a generation of hunters who might have missed this part of their culture understand it today because of that protection.
You can taste the forces that helped make bass fishing the official angling sport of the region by dragging your boat to one of the huge reservoirs along the Tennessee River: Pickwick Lake on the Mississippi/Bama/Tennessee borders, Lake Guntersville in the northeastern corner of Alabama. A ground fog snakes from the surface of the lakes at first light when the throaty roar of high-powered bass boats rumbles across the water. Within minutes roostertails split the horizon as the boys take off, riding metal-flake chargers to bays and coves where largemouths lurk.
No taste for high-speed sport? No problem. Rent a houseboat and drift along the shoreline, probing the dropoffs for bass or crappies. Anchor in a quiet cove near sundown, grill a steak, set out the live baits, and tune in the football game. Easy living is also a cherished outdoor tradition in the South.
You can celebrate the gentle soul of the South on an April hike through the Bankhead National Forest in northeastern Alabama. This is a time when toms are gobbling and the deep green curtain of the forest is sprayed with the white blossoms of dogwoods. The steady flow of did Sipsey River has worn a path through the soft earth, leaving a forested canyon littered with house-sized boulders. Spring rains that freshen the surrounding tablelands rush along creekbeds and pour into the canyon, creating ribbons of freshening water, a constant whisper of encouragement for sportsmen on a mission.
Drive a forest service road to its farthest point, hike into the woods with a pack, tent, shotgun, and call box. Rise early and listen for the hoot of an owl and the defiant reply of a gobbler. Navigate by ear to the right spot, settle down with your back against a thick hardwood, pick up the box–and let the drama be in. If Bankhead’s too far off your path, don’t despair. You can catch both dogwoods and gobblers in other regional forests such as Louisiana’s Kisatchie; Mississippi’s Homochitto, DeSoto, or Holly Springs; or the Sabine or Davy Crockett forests in Texas.
You might best capture the rich diversity of the South by losing yourself in the Big Thicket National Preserve, a wondrous mixture of natural habitats near Beaumont, Texas, encompassing some 86,000 acres. Its twelve units contain remnants of virgin pine forests, cypress swamps, hardwood bottomlands, and native savannah. Researchers are still discovering new plant species here, even as sportsmen cherish its offer of adventure, its sense of wilderness. Drop your canoe in Neches River or Little Pine Island Bayou and drift through the tall stands of cypress and hardwoods. Challenge largemouths and crappies, catfish and hybrid stripers, white bass and sunfish. Beach the boat and strike off through the swamp or the woods. Pause for 5 minutes, let peace return to the timber, and then listen.
You can feel the meaning of “a lazy Southern summer” by taking a rod, reel, and ice chest for a visit to the Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Gulf Coast. Leave your mainland marina when the afternoon thunderstorms finally dissipate, then ride the flat gray water in their wake to the strip of sand dunes, mangroves, and sea oats just visible on the southern horizon. Drift along the outer bars looking for baitfish running in a panic, then launch your live shrimp in a long, lazy rainbow through the warm, sticky evening air. Watch the rod tip bounce once, twice–then set the hook and wonder: cobia, red, Spanish, shark–or monster speck? If the line is too thin or the drag too tight, you may never learn the answer.
But it won’t really matter; there are always other hungry mouths waiting for a shrimp. Besides, the best part of a long, Southern summer day is fast approaching. Sit back and watch the red ball of the sun melt into the Gulf, then catch the glow of the moon behind the top of a thunderhead and the heat lightning snaking between the clouds that ride the evening sea breeze toward the coast.
* It has been said that every Texas boy dreams of the day when he can wade-fish Padre Island National Seashore, but that’s not quite accurate. The quote should read, “every Texas boy, girl, man, and woman” dreams of the day they can wade-fish Padre Island.
There are special places, and then there are shrines. The 100-mile-long barrier island stretching under the tropical sun on the southwestern Texas coast is to Southern saltwater anglers what Wimbledon is to tennis fans or Yankee Stadium to baseball worshippers–a holy place, a symbol of the best, a tradition worth saving. The island forms a barrier between open Gulf of Mexico waves and the Laguna Madre, which rests between the mainland and the island. The ecosystem is home to speckled trout that top 10 pounds and marauding schools of redfish that can snap a broomstick. Add that resource to a habitat that is seldom deeper than 4 feet and features a hard sandy bottom, and it becomes a wade-fisherman’s paradise. Boat anglers will find plenty to do as well. The surf side of the island offers specks, reds, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, and sharks. And just offshore, sailfish, marlin, tuna, and snapper wait for the bigger boats.
There is public camping on the beaches, and plenty of lodges and guides for those who don’t want to rough it. Contact: Padre Island National Seashore, Dept. FS, 9405 South Padre Island Dr., Corpus Christie, TX 78418.
* There was a time when a hunter could move through rich bottomland hardwoods on public land in the Mississippi River basin and know the deer scrape he scouted might have been made by a 300-pound whitetail, or that the cypress-tupelo slough he found off the creek would hold an army of wood ducks and greenheads and perhaps a black bear.
That time is back. The place is the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, a 58,000-acre hardwood preserve in northeastern Louisiana near Tallulah. The tract represents one of the last remaining stands of bottomland hardwood forest that once blanketed the river basin from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Now intensively managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it has become a shrine for Louisiana hunters who have a rare dream: Taking a trophy buck on public land.
The recent average live weight of two-and-a-half-year-old bucks here pushed 190 pounds; 230-pounders are common, deer over 300 pounds have been taken–all astounding figures for public land in the South. The hunter-success rate hovers around 25 percent. Archers can hunt the refuge in the traditional October-January season, but rifle hunters are limited to two weekend draw-hunts, usually the weekends before and after Thanksgiving. The hunts are open to sportsmen from any state, and groups can apply on one card. Contact: Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, Dept. FS, Rt. 2, Box 295, Tallulah, LA 71282.
* On a typical August day in the South temperatures will hit the upper 90s, and the humidity won’t be far behind. The air lies on the skin like warm syrup, coastal beaches are iron hot, shade is just a place where sweat runs a little more slowly.
That’s when Chris Brown grabs his fly rod, loads his canoe on the truck, and heads for the Black Creek Wilderness for some stream fishing. It’s just a 2-hour drive from the Mississippi coast, but it feels like 2,000 miles away. “When I step in that water and start casting, I feel like I could be in Maine,” Brown says.
Black Creek is a classic blackwater stream snaking lazily through the richly forested hills of DeSoto National Forest in southcentral Mississippi. In the 7-mile section proclaimed a wilderness, the creek runs under 10-foot-high sandstone walls, tumbles over soapstone riffles, and sweeps past sugar-white sandbars that can grow to 20 feet high.
In the heat of the Southern summer, its 75-degree waters can feel like an icy Northern brook. And its populations of Kentucky and largemouth bass will race from overhanging banks and blowdowns to attack popping bugs delivered by a careful fly fisherman. Canoe rentals and shuttle services are available in nearby communities. Contact: DeSoto National Forest, Dept. FS, Wiggins, MS 39577.