THE Waterfowler — Pat Pitt
A life spent hunting birds all over the world
HARRISBURG, Ark. — There’s no doubt about who sets the rules at the L’Anguille Lounge Duck Club. He is Pat Pitt, the 64-year-old waterfowl hunter and taxidermist who started this duck club 20 years ago.
One of Pat’s rules bans the use of spinning-wing decoys. Another puts four-wheelers in the same category: banned.
It was a violation of the latter that saved Pitt’s life one year ago.
Pat Pitt has some valid reasons for the ban on all-terrain-vehicles, but he’d just as soon blanket them with this statement: “If a man is too lazy to walk to a pit to kill his ducks and then walk out, then maybe duck hunting isn’t for him.”
Pitt is anything but lazy, especially when it comes to hunting ducks. This past Arkansas season serves as an example. There were only two days left in the season after I accompanied Pitt as he killed a six-duck limit of one mallard drake, two pintail drakes and three green-winged teal. He would hunt those final two days, of course, giving him a total of 57 days afield in Arkansas during the 60-day season. He killed a limit of ducks 42 of those days. Pitt was sea duck hunting in Maine on the three days he didn’t hunt in Arkansas.
And, basically, he’s been doing this since he was 14 years old. His obsession with waterfowl began when some older friends at his high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., took him duck hunting for the first time.
“I just thought it was a cool thing to do, and I got hooked,” Pitt said.
Pitt had plans to be a waterfowl biologist when he attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but he ran into a problem with his major professor who, he said, “Didn’t like people who hunted and didn’t like me showing up for class in hip boots.”
So he transferred to what was then called Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1971. That’s where he fell deep into duck hunting. A friend told him about another waterfowl fanatic — Dr. William “Chubby” Andrews. Pitt looked him up in the phone book and stopped by Andrews’ Memphis home for a visit. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Andrews died.
Nash Buckingham has been called the greatest American sportsman of the 20th century. First-run copies of his nine books, like De Shootinest Gent’man, are collector’s items, and he wrote hundreds of articles for magazines like Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield. Buckingham died in 1971, but not before becoming such good friends with Andrews that “Mr. Buck” referred to Andrews as “the son I never had.”
Andrews, in turn, became Pitt’s mentor. They were frequent hunting companions at places like the Beaver Dam Ducking Club, which Buckingham had made famous in his writing.
“Dr. Andrews started taking me to Beaver Dam in November of 1971,” Pitt said. “We’d hunt twice a week, on Thursday and Saturday. We did that for a long time, from ’71 until 1983, and we were pretty religious about it.”
You don’t have to look hard to see the effect Andrews had on Pitt’s life. Pitt continues to wear a Duxbak-made, Jones-style hat that he bought in 1971. Adorning one side of the hat is a Nilo Farms pin that belonged to Buckingham before Andrews passed it down to Pitt.
Andrews died in 2005, at age 84, but not before introducing Pitt to the art and craft of waterfowl taxidermy and seeing him becoming as obsessed with it as he is about hunting. Pitt got into taxidermy out of necessity, after returning from an Alaska hunt with more birds he wanted mounted than funds to pay for them.
“I came back with 27 birds,” Pitt said. “I had harlequin ducks, scoters, old squaws, Pacific eiders.”
Pitt began mounting his own birds, then some for friends before he opened a commercial taxidermy business that specializes in waterfowl. Pitt considers his taxidermy work “better than average” but “not upper echelon.”
“There are a lot of good waterfowl taxidermists in this country,” he said. “I know most of them, and I envy what they can do. They’re like Picasso. I’ve got a bird in my collection from most of them.”
Pitt's “collection” is a story in itself. It consists of both live birds and bird mounts. The live ones are in an aviary Pitt built near the “carriage house” at his home in Olive Branch, Miss. The live birds usually number around 40.
“It’s my aquarium with feathers, so to speak,” Pitt said. “I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for a pretty bird. I’ve got a lot of exotics in there from Europe, Asia and South America. I like the whistling ducks of South America. From North America, I’ve got wigeon and cinnamon teal. I’ve got Laysan teal from Hawaii. They just about got wiped off the face of the earth. At one time there were only 14 left in the world.”
But the live birds are merely a sideshow compared to the waterfowl taxidermy Pitt has on display in the carriage house, which was first built as an apartment over a three-car garage. Pitt remodeled it to house over 850 waterfowl mounts collected during hunting trips far and wide — everywhere from Alaska to Argentina, Africa to Iceland, Mexico to New Zealand. Pitt has three species that are now protected from hunting — Steller’s eider, spectacled eider and emperor goose.
Pitt estimates he has mounted somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 birds. He averages 150 to 200 a year, mostly for customers, but his private collection keeps growing. He doesn’t know the exact number, but after estimating it at “over 800” last year, he’s saying, “over 850” this year.
You have to think globally to consider a number like that. Pitt has a partner in that endeavor. Ramsay Russell would also kill a limit of ducks as a member of the L’Anguille Lounge on that last Friday of Arkansas’ duck season. Sitting in a pit blind with Russell and Pitt is a lesson in both world geography and waterfowl.
Russell, 45, earned undergraduate and masters degrees from Mississippi State in wildlife management and forestry. After he met Pitt at a Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival in 1990, they became friends and frequent hunting partners. Russell joined the L’Anguille Lounge Duck Club nine years ago.
Like Pitt, Russell has long been fascinated with waterfowl hunting, and in doing it all around the globe. In 2003 Russell and his wife, Anita, formed a sporting travel agency specializing in wing-shooting adventures world-wide. Based in Russell’s home in Brandon, Miss., GetDucks.com’s motto is, “It’s duck season somewhere.” Pitt is listed as the “field specialist” for GetDucks.com.
“When I met Pat, it just stopped me dead in my tracks,” Russell said of his first encounter with his kindred spirit.
They’ve since traveled the world together, hunting wild turkeys, doves, upland birds and waterfowl. And they’ve turned those years of experience into a business offering customers “the hunt of a lifetime.” In January, Russell accompanied a group to Alaska’s St. Paul Island, where one hunter bagged a King Eider drake wearing a leg band. It was only the 10th banded King Eider ever reported.
Russell offers “blue-collar” or “top shelf” trips, where the hunting is the same — excellent — but the accommodations and meals can be tailored to a budget.
The L’Anguille Lounge Duck Club is blue collar. There’s nothing fancy about the clubhouse, which is leased annually from a local farmer. There are 18 members, representing Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama, in addition to Arkansas. Pitt’s grown sons, Stephen and Patrick, are members.
Pitt discovered the duck hunter’s paradise of Arkansas shortly after he moved to Memphis. This duck club is named after the nearby L’Anguille River, which was mentioned in the journals of early French explorers dating back to 1723. (“Anguille” in French means “eel.”) The L’Anguille (pronounced here “lan-GEEL”) River watershed was once comprised of swamps and bottomland timber, like the rest of the Mississippi River Delta. The swamps were drained and the timber cleared in the late 1800s and early 1900s, replaced by fertile lowland fields that now grow primarily soybeans and rice.
This area has long been known for duck hunting. Just a few miles from the club house is where Wallace Claypool impounded the L’Anguille River to form Claypool’s Reservoir, where approximately 300,000 ducks were shown on live television during Dave Garroway’s NBC “Wide, Wide World” show on Dec. 23, 1956.
“I’ll sacrifice comfort for killing any day,” said Pitt in stating the theme of the L’Anguille Lounge.
They were true to the mission this season. Pitt keeps the numbers on everything here. The duck total at the club was just over 2,500, which was a couple hundred over their 20-year average. They killed another 500 geese, 306 of which were specklebellies (white-fronted geese).
The percentage of mallards killed dropped from the average of 40 percent to 25 percent this season. Pitt blamed that on the unusually warm winter, which allowed us to hunt this day without wearing jackets.
“I like to say that it’s like they gave a party and nobody came,” said Pitt of the low mallard numbers. “I talked to a friend in Ontario the other day. He said it was 40 degrees and raining, and their mallards hadn’t even gotten there yet. I talked to another friend in northwest Missouri who said they were covered up in mallards after the season closed there.”
On Jan. 7, 2012, only 12.9 percent of the country was snow-covered. On Jan. 7, 2011, 42.7 percent of the U.S. was covered in snow.
That brings us back to that cold afternoon of Jan. 16th, 2011, when Pitt’s duck seasons almost ended forever. A Mississippi guest of a L’Anguille Lounge member had brought a four-wheeler to the club house, not knowing Pitt’s rules. After breaking ice to hunt that morning, Pitt decided to take advantage of the situation by using the four-wheeler to transport a liner to a pit blind that had been leaking. Pat’s son, Patrick, had dropped off the liner at the pit and left his father there to work on it.
The four-wheeler was already parked in the back of a pickup truck when Pat called on his cell phone in distress. He was amidst a major heart attack. Through the use of the four-wheeler, Patrick was able to get his father out of the flooded rice field and into a truck cab for a wild ride to a Jonesboro, Ark., hospital. Pat remembers hearing someone in the hospital cardiac care unit saying, “We’re losing him,” as a new pair of $300 waders were cut from his body.
Two weeks later, having survived a blockage of his anterior descending coronary artery, known as “the widow maker,” and two broken ribs suffered during repeated manual chest compression, Pitt was back in a flooded field near the L’Anguille Lounge, where he watched his black Labrador retriever, Ace, splash back to the pit with retrieve No. 7,000.
“I’ve traveled a lot of miles and made a lot of memories,” Pitt often remarks.
And some of Pat Pitt’s rules are made to be broken.