Every duck hunter in Mississippi, and most duck hunters in the nation, believe that if they’ve lived good, sportsmen-like lives and have close relationships with God, they’ll get permission to hunt at Beaver Dam before they die.
If you’ve ever taken off your clothes in the dead of winter and swam out into an icy slough to pick up a duck you couldn’t reach from the bank...
If you’ve ever taken a shot at a flight of incoming mallards with their wings out, feet outstretched and necks bent...
If you’ve ever had a child, a lady or a beginning duck hunter in the blind with you and fired right after they’ve shot to down the duck, and then said, “Way to go! You got that duck!”...
If you’ve ever had your waders fill up with icy pond water, felt that tingling on your tongue and seen those white specks before your eyes because of the extreme cold before grabbing a duck on the water and running back to the bank...
If you’ve ever had a Labrador dive into the water after a duck and return through mud up to his chest, taken the duck from the dog and watched it shake mud off on you...
If you’ve ever dreamed about the good ol’ days when wave after wave of greenheads came down the Mississippi Flyway, and ducks had no limits on them, very few people hunted ducks and outdoorsmen hand-carved their own decoys, then you’ll enjoy the opportunity of hunting at Beaver Dam. Probably more writers and avid waterfowlers have written about their adventures, told lies and enjoyed good times at Beaver Dam than on any other duck-hunting waters in the Southeast.
Whether by good luck, a quirk of fate or the blessings of the duck gods, Mike Boyd was born into a family who owns a portion of Beaver Dam.
“I’ve been living on Beaver Dam for 51 years,” he told me one cool winter morning last year as we waited on first light and listened to mallards, pintails and gadwalls drop into our decoy spread before shooting time. “My grandfather, R.B. Boyd, lived about 70 miles south of Beaver Dam. He worked hard and saved his money. Eventually he bought two parcels of land in the northwestern corner of Beaver Dam Lake in 1949. My family has lived on the land and farmed it ever since.”
Beaver Dam, a longtime oxbow off the Mississippi River, just outside of Tunica, originally lay in the main channel of the Mississippi River about 10,000-plus years ago. No one knows for sure how Beaver Dam received its name, but there are some theories.
“John Owens, whose family traditionally has owned and still does own most of the land surrounding Beaver Dam, told me he saw a really old map that had this area labeled as Beaver Dam Lake,” Boyd said. “So, I know Beaver Dam has been the name of the lake for at least 100 years.”
Ducks always have come to Beaver Dam Lake. Many sportsmen believe that when ducks break out of their eggs in Canada, they already know the route to Beaver Dam.
Nash Buckingham, a nationally known writer from Memphis who also freelanced for outdoor magazines and wrote books, helped make Beaver Dam famous back in the 1900s. Buckingham always named Beaver Dam as his special duck-hunting spot, made Beaver Dam come alive to his readers and mesmerized them with his waterfowling tales.
He and his friends would travel by train from Memphis to Tunica, which in the past didn’t have casinos, major highways or even much of a town, and hunt the plentiful ducks — far away from the hustle and bustle of Memphis.
“Buckingham’s father was one of the original members of the Beaver Dam Club,” Boyd said. “All of this territory was opened up in the late 1800s, when the railroad came through here. Before that time, this region was pretty much inaccessible to most people.”
In Buckingham’s time, he and his friends would catch the Limb-Dodger train in Memphis to Evansville, south of Tunica, where Horace Miller, the caretaker of the Beaver Dam Club, would greet them. Since the trip took only about two hours, these sportsmen could leave Friday after work and reach Tunica quickly. Then Horace and his wife, Aunt Molly, would take Buckingham and his friends to camp, cook for them and take care of them.
“These men started the Beaver Dam Club,” Boyd reports. “They’d ride the Limb-Dodger train from Memphis to Dr. Owens’ property in Tunica to hunt ducks.”
Buckingham and his friends would let Horace Miller know when they’d arrive and how long they’d stay at the club. Miller would buy groceries and stock the shelves to ensure these Memphis outdoorsmen had plenty to eat and drink.
Armed with his love of Beaver Dam and his wordsmithing skills, Buckingham wrote extensively about hunting the area, recording the history of the ducks, the lake, the men and the times. His fluent and masterfully crafted words caused his stories to sell like hotcakes.
“Today, there’s a cult following of hunters of all ages who have read Nash Buckingham’s articles and want to come to Beaver Dam and hunt the same area Nash hunted,” Boyd said. “I’ve hunted Beaver Dam my entire life, and it’s an absolutely fabulous place to hunt ducks.”
Hunting at Beaver Dam
Most of the blinds at Beaver Dam consist of tree houses crafted like long, dry boxes with waterproof roofs on them that can accommodate five to eight hunters and suspend them up off the water with all the comforts of home in them. Each blind has an opening in front of it and a resting spot that makes ducks drool.
Today, the ducks primarily taken at Beaver Dam include mallards, gadwalls, wigeons, green-winged teal and a few wood ducks.
The 5- to 10-year-old woods in the location where I hunted with the Boyds still produced plenty of ducks in this site where hunters had hunted for many years. The morning I hunted, Boyd used Avery Greenhead Gear mallard decoys.
“I like the Avery decoys because they’ve got a lot of detail, they’re extremely lifelike, they float and move well, and they attract ducks,” Boyd said.
Unlike other duck hunters, Boyd doesn’t spend much time positioning his decoys in a fishhook design or any of the well-known decoy patterns.
“We just sort of scatter them out and leave an open pocket in front of the blind where the ducks land,” he said. “We’ve noticed that in this timber-type hunting we do here at Beaver Dam, ducks meander more and don’t sit in tight bunches like they do on open water. So, we set up our decoys as naturally as we can to look like resting ducks in our area.”
What do you say to the prettiest girl in the school who’s heard every pitch you can dream up to get her to go out with you? Boyd and the hunters at Beaver Dam deal with this dilemma every year.
“By the time the ducks reach Tunica, they’ve heard all the calling, seen all the decoys and experienced every duck-hunting technique known to man,” Boyd says. “So for the most part, we’re stingy with our calls.”
We had a slow day when I hunted with Boyd, and I noticed he didn’t call much louder than a whisper. I asked him why he called so little.
“In the timber, you don’t want to call loudly,” he said. “Many duck hunters don’t understand that sometimes ducks don’t want to be called to at all, so you actually may take more ducks by keeping your mouth shut. We let the ducks tell us what to do. We first try to get their attention to see how they respond to the calls. If they flare off the calls, we shut up and bet on our decoys to do the work of pulling the ducks in close to us.
“Now, some days, we’re not as stingy with our calling as we are on other days. If there are numbers of birds flying over our blind, we’ll get on the ducks pretty good with our calls. But generally, when we get the ducks in close, we quiet our calling. Mostly, we’ll quack and give some low feeding calls.
“We’ll give the hale call, if we feel it’s appropriate, but we’ve found that if we just make our setup look as natural as possible, and then reassure the birds in the air that those decoys are talking to each other, the ducks will usually come into our blinds. We really don’t get down on the ducks and blow the reeds out of our calls. The ducks want to be here. We just have to let them know that some of their buddies are down here waiting on them.”
Boyd talks to the ducks in a smooth, southern-drawl style language, and earns a good portion of his livelihood depending on his ability to talk ducks out of the sky. Boyd guides on Beaver Dam every day of duck season; however, he doesn’t use an expensive call made from acrylic or a custom call crafted from one of the more-exotic woods.
“I like an Olt D-2 regular duck call,” he said. “It’s an old, antique call I bought on eBay. I’m not the best duck caller there ever was. But I know this old call has a real ducky sound, and it’s worked for a long time. These calls were probably made in the 1950s, when even the commercial calls involved some craftsmanship. In the 1950s, everyone had an Olt D-2 duck call. In its heyday, Olt was the premier duck call.
“Duck calls change, and more importantly, duck hunters change. But the ducks remain the same. They do everything the same as they’ve always done it for thousands of years. But I did buy a new Zinc call I’ll be trying out this season.”
At the other end of the blind, I heard Lamar Boyd, Mike Boyd’s son, cranking up his calling and motioning the rest of us to shut up and sit still. A veteran of duck blinds, Lamar Boyd has hunted and taken ducks at Beaver Dam ever since he’s first held a gun. Many believe he’s probably got webs connecting his toes, because of his total immersion in duck hunting his entire life and having grown up in one of the greatest places in the world to hunt ducks.
“I was an avid deer hunter, and I’d taken quite a few bucks,” Lamar Boyd said. “But deer hunting was a lonely sport. You basically sat there and waited for a deer to come by your stand.
“But duck hunting has several interesting aspects. The decoys, the dogs, the sounds and the sights of the ducks and the fellowship with the people you hunt with add layers of enjoyment to any duck hunt. On a deer stand, you’re supposed to be quiet and sit still. In a duck blind, we can move around, be comfortable, eat, tell stories and enjoy one another as well as hunt ducks.”
On the day I hunted at Beaver Lake, the Boyds brought Miss Molly, another veteran duck-hunting professional, to work. Eleven-year-old Molly’s not your usual Labrador retriever. She probably makes as many, if not more, retrieves each year than any water dog alive. In 2005, she dove in, swam out and picked up more than 1,100 ducks in one 60-day season, and she retrieved at least that many in 2004.
If you ever have a chance to hunt at Beaver Dam, take it. You can step back in history to a time and a place of exciting duck hunting when Nash Buckingham ruled as the dean of outdoor writers and plentiful waterfowl swarmed in the Mississippi skies.
For more information on Beaver Dam, call Mike Boyd at (662) 363-6288, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.