Handloading Hallucinations

Up until my junior year in high school, hunting was not particularly detrimental to my “formal” education, neither was it a threat to my financial stability. Almost all of my hunting prior to that time was done over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays for deer and turkeys at my maternal grandfather’s ranch in Texas and accounted for at most 3 or 4 shots a season. And on the one or two additional dove hunts that I would make around town with my father, I might (Might!) shoot a box or so, but that would be it for the year.

Things changed dramatically after I got my driver’s license and was introduced to duck hunting, two events which occurred at about the same time that my grandfather’s sponsorship of my formal skeet-shooting lessons ended. I had progressed favorably throughout my training, so to reward my accomplishment he gave me a gas-operated 12-gauge “automatic”. So now I had the fire to hunt, the means to get there, and a gun I could shoot reasonably well.

Still, for the duck hunting part I had to rely on a buddy to take me along with him, since I had no boat. Sadly, his invitations were not frequent that winter, so the additional expense of shells suitable for waterfowl was hardly noticeable.

However, it became quite obvious the following season after my parents had graced me with an 11-foot duckboat in lieu of a class ring for graduation. That winter a sizeable percentage of my week-end “date money” went for shotgun shells. So since I couldn’t any more deny myself the hunt than the company of the young ladies, a financial adjustment of sorts had to be made.

Rolling my own, so to speak, was not an unfamiliar task, since I had been reloading the family’s supply of .30/06 rounds for deer hunting since I was about 15. And my duck-hunting buddy’s father cranked out enough magnum 6’s to provide for his and his two son’s entire season of shooting. So, having gleaned from my friend his knowledge of the subject, and having coerced my parents into believing that a shot-shell reloader would be cost-effective, I received one for my 20th birthday. And I must remind you that this occurred just as plastic hulls were beginning to appear and long before single-unit wads became available.

For the opening of the dove season that year I had stuffed some once-fired paper hulls with what I hoped was the proper amount of Red Dot powder, a mysterious combination of assorted wads, and an ounce of number 9 shot. As we left the car parked at the edge of the field, I dumped a box of them into my vest pocket.

Initially they worked acceptably well, but it wasn’t long before I discovered that the crimps on a discouraging number of the shells had begun to open, leaving my pocket, not the hulls, full of shot! Obviously, more pressure from the press somewhere in the final stages of reloading each hull must have been needed. Not so obviously, that pressure increase was not in the stage where the hull is crimped – that only resulted in bulging several hulls just above the brass. A little more wad pressure, though, plus a slight tamping of the hull to compact the shot, helped; most future crimps stayed crimped.

Then I loaded up some short-mag 6’s for the upcoming duck season – with different hulls, different powder, and different wads. And they could be created only after very miniscule changes were made in the amount of wad and crimping pressure from the press. But most of them came out looking pretty good, and since they were short-mags – which were reputed to be far better for the purpose but which had once been cost-prohibitive for me – I just knew I was going to slay ‘em!

Believe me, the ducks that I hit, I did! But two distinct problems manifested themselves throughout the season. One was frequent jamming which rendered my automatic a rather expensive single-shot. The other was not so obvious and was temporarily ignored: I missed a lot of very easy shots!

Having read many accounts of the old duck hunters of yesteryear, and having observed that almost all of them shot doubles, I not-so-subtly hinted that a side-by-side does not jam and would be a nice present for my 21st birthday. And bless my parents’ hearts, I got the one of my dreams: 12 gauge, 30-inch barrels bored modified and full – a traditional waterfowling piece for a real duck-hunting nut. Now let ‘em come!

They did, and while the gun felt right and handled my fairly hot handloads easily, I missed regularly. And upon requesting a hunting friend to watch and see if I was flinching, it was determined that I wasn’t – not too often, anyway. Something, somewhere, was not quite right.

Since I regularly shot much better with my light dove loads, the problem did not appear to be with the gun. So, being a dedicated student of the shotgunning tips that I read in my regular monthly outdoor magazines, I decided to pattern-check my handloads. The results were appalling: three rounds fired into newspaper sheets at 40 yards with the full barrel patterned 72%, 38%, and 45%. The hot loads were apparently causing the over-the-powder wads’ gas-checks to leak and blow the shot-spread!

I was also getting my face crunched every time I touched one off. I was also ruining a dozen or so hulls every time I switched over from loading light to heavy – and back again – while I was getting the pressure-settings right. And I was also reading that the most proficient duck hunters of yore did it with relatively light loads. Well, why not?

So I standardized, and once I got everything adjusted properly on the press – and disposed of all that heavy-load stuff, eliminating the potential for disaster by dumping Herco powder into a Red Dot load (Or vice versa) – life became much simpler. And I soon began to regain my confidence in the duck blind as well as the feeling in the right side of my face.

Every now and then, though, the paper base wad that was characteristic of those old hulls would begin to disintegrate after a couple of reloadings, intermix with the powder, and cause a dud. This problem was remedied by the advent of the all-plastic hulls – which created their own problems by requiring different powder, wads, and pressures.

They were also quite a bit more expensive.

Still, once I absorbed the costs associated with this change-over, I discovered those hulls were economically viable because they could be reloaded up to 6 or 7 times. The crimps stayed crimped, and I had absolutely no duds – except when I would fail to notice a dove’s feather that had made its way into the shell while both were in the game-bag and cause a blooper – dove feathers, you know, when mixed with Red Dot do not combine to make a very effective propellant. Anyway, once I started watching out for that, my misfires were totally eliminated.

For several years thereafter, all went well. Then a hurricane destroyed my reloader – along with almost everything else my wife and I possessed, including my job. So I returned to college for a semester and finished my degree (And bought a new-and-improved reloader), and for that momentous occasion (Getting my degree, not the reloader.), my parents gave me a slick, top-of-the-line 20-gauge over-and under!

So now I was facing the same problem I thought I had solved when I standardized my 12-gauge loads. The problem wasn’t swapping out the various press-parts and components every time I changed over from loading 20-gauge dove-load 9’s to 12-gauge duck-load 6’s; it was getting those damned pressure-settings right without destroying a box of shells in the process! Aggravation soon became a common affliction.

The obvious solution was to shoot one gun most often, and I finally broke down and began to subject the over-and-under to the ravages of the duck blind. In either gun I was shooting only an ounce of shot anyway, and the 20-gauge did well with that, though over the years I had to re-blue it three times and re-work the stock twice. But that aside, after I made that move my press stayed properly adjusted for the 20-gauge loads for almost two decades.

And I must avow that an ounce of 9’s – the “dove load” – was literally death and destruction during the teal season! Nevertheless, eventually it became a requirement to shoot steel shot at ducks, and I absolutely refused to destroy my two beloved doubles by pouring that stuff through them. So I retired the old side-by-side to the gun rack, only shot the over-and under at doves and jacksnipe, and with the wife’s blessing (And assistance with paying the note!) I bought a steel-acceptable side-by-side – and factory loads – for my duck hunting.

Eventually another hurricane ended up getting that reloading press, too, but by that time I wasn’t using it much anymore, mainly because of the steel shot requirement for ducks. And I wasn’t hunting them nearly as much as I used to – not as mad at them as I once was, I guess – so I couldn’t justify the costs of tooling up to reload steel. I had all my 20-gauge hulls stuffed, though: high-power hard-plated 8’s – which had proven to be a great dove load that I don’t believe you can buy in the sporting goods stores. That’s one of the benefits of rolling your own, you know, but I often wonder if I ever really saved any money doing it…



But the Ducks Knew…



Roughly halfway down Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River – somewhere near what is now the second spillway – was once a small pass leading into the Gulf known as Double Bayou. Before the plague of coastal erosion took its toll, the area was lush with both emergent and submergent aquatic vegetation and was prime feeding grounds for wintering waterfowl, especially canvasbacks.


January 19, 1983. It is the last day of my regular seven-day hitch as the company representative for Gulf Oil Company on a barge-mounted drilling rig that is prospecting an outpost well in the Quarantine Bay field – a well-developed oil patch across the river from my home in Buras. My rig is in a canal dredged into the marsh just west of the main producing area; a remedial – or “workover” – rig is on a well in the open waters of the bay a mile or so to the east. Today is crew-change day, and after a full week of Murphy’s Law manifesting itself in every way possible, I am exhausted. But the duck season closes at sunset the next day, and duck hunting is one of the main reasons I have chosen to live in the Mississippi River Delta where there are no Burger Kings or Wal-Marts but where hoards of ducks pass the cold months. And I hunt them hard.

During the past season I have done well with the pintails down Grand Pass. They are my favorite target and one of the most abundant of the Delta’s ducks. The set-up is a natural: the blind is near the end of a long point extending into the shallow waters of northeastern West Bay and is built low and well concealed in the point’s natural vegetation. Any wind from the eastern quadrants is good, southeast is best. A little cloud cover is hoped for to shield the westering sun on afternoon hunts – my preference because the normally rising tide at that time makes paddling out and back and setting the decoy spread easier than when the tide is low.

It is mid-morning now. Back at home and having quickly scanned a week’s worth of mail, I snap on the VHF weather radio. From it I learn the afternoon will turn cloudy as the southeasterlies build in advance of a weak low-pressure system that is forecast to make up in the northwestern Gulf and move across the Delta that night. Small-craft warnings will probably be raised this evening, I think, but that’s nothing, as these days it seems they fly a flag every time a summer squall pops up! But that aside, it appears conditions will be ideal for an evening hunt. So I ignore the need for sleep, choke down a sandwich, gather my decoys, gun, and gear, and after changing clothes slide the pirogue into the bed of the pick-up and drive to Venice. There my boat awaits me afloat in a service company’s shed – a little honorable gratis for me giving them a good deal of business.

By one o’clock I have secured the boat to the myrtles lining the south bank of a canal leading off the pass. The canal runs for a quarter-mile or so almost due east to west, and I have hunted it from the brake of roseau canes on its north bank when the low-tide mud flats caused by a strong cold front have made my blind on the point unhuntable. Now, though, with the day’s normal rising tide and the onshore breeze, there is plenty of water – the decoys will beckon.

A half-hour later my normal spread of 42 has been arranged in its traditional fish-hook pattern in front of the blind. The blocks are mostly pintails and coots – “paillon” and “poule d’eau” in local patois – and they bob and jink at their tethers enticingly. It is now completely overcast; everything is perfect.

Within minutes a pair of mottled ducks take an unusual interest in the big spread and splash down. I only watch; they are basically non-migratory, and to me shooting one would be sort of like shooting a next-door neighbor. They dabble for a few moments, then jump and fly away. An hour passes before another bird gives me even the semblance of a look.

Three o’clock, and a tight wad of perhaps a half-dozen ducks crosses in front of me some 200 yards distant, moving from south to north, and disappear over the canal where the big boat is tied. Then another wad – and another – and then another. All follow the same path; none show me the slightest interest. Finally, after half an hour of watching the parade move steadily past me, it all comes together: they are canvasbacks and are apparently on their way to the shallow bay just north of the canal after feeding at Double Bayou. And I have as deep a fondness for hunting the big divers as I have for hunting pintails.


Canvasbacks were once the most desirable duck for the market hunters of years past. Because of that – as well as a loss of breeding habitat in Canada and severe degradation of their primary source of nourishment on several of their major wintering grounds – their numbers declined precipitously during the 1900’s. Possession of them in hunting bags was prohibited for many years, then, once they began to rebound, a very meager allotment of one per day was enacted. Today their population is relatively stabile, but still only a small percentage of their once great number. In most areas where duck hunting is popular, they are quite rare – the lower Delta is a notable exception.


I now face a dilemma. I can stay put and hope the pintails, widgeons, and such begin to fly, or I can pick up my 42-block spread, paddle back to the big boat, swap them out for the 5 canvasback and 2 redhead decoys I carry along for insurance against just such matters, and set up in the canal in an attempt to short-stop them. That, however, will be a lot of effort for only one duck, though I could get lucky and also get a shot or two at a stray redhead or ringneck – still not much compared to the 10 ducks I might get if they ever start flying. Another wad passes by – same height, same distance, same track – and convinces me.

I set the seven diver decoys in a loose group in the center of the canal; five coots are spread in a line between them and the bank. I have hidden my pirogue as well as I can behind a fallen willow limb just up the canal – and basically upwind – from them, spread my slicker-jacket on the bottom of the boat and placed a cushion against a seat, and laid out in it. It is an exercise I commonly practice, and it will not fail me now.

The first wad of cans crosses the canal in a rush of wings directly above me and disappears behind the roseaus on the north bank before I can give them a guttural greeting with the call. No matter; suddenly they are there, slipping and sliding in a tight turn just downwind of the decoys. I pick a big drake – and something tells me not to shoot. I suddenly get the feeling I am about to be treated to something spectacular.

For fully another half-hour the parade continues, though now I am directly beneath it and much, much closer. It seems like every other flock of birds that passes overhead quickly appears down the canal barreling towards and then into the tiny spread. I watch in total awe – so many of the so few – as they come, make a short visit, and then depart, climbing quickly to clear the canes, then seeming to immediately descend onto the bay just to the north. Time after time after time. Finally, near sunset and in growing darkness created by the thickening clouds, I take my one drake. It is awfully easy.

Having picked up my meager spread, I begin the 200-yard paddle back to the big boat. About half-way there the brake of canes ends, yielding to a mud flat where delta duck potato grows during the warmer months. Curiously, I look across the flat, and for as far as I can see in the waning light the surface of the bay glistens as white as fresh snowfall from the backs of countless canvasbacks taking shelter from the now stiff southeasterly.


True to form, the TV weatherman on the six o’clock news that evening said the small-craft warnings were up for the night for winds to 35 knots as the low-pressure system crosses the Delta. Tides, he said, would be slightly above normal. Yeah, right…

Just after midnight – with the TV weatherman fast asleep and the TV sets and VHF radios on both rigs in Quarantine Bay turned off for the night, the low-pressure system suddenly and unexpectedly intensified. By three in the morning it slammed into the lower Delta with winds over 70 knots and pushing a hurricane-like storm surge over 7 feet high. My rig, being somewhat protected within the confines of the canal, received little damage save for that created by a barge on the rig’s upwind side – its deck normally flush with the rig’s deck – beating in the sides of the rig 7 feet above its deck! Another barge broke its mooring lines, floated across the flooded marsh and out into a nearby bay that is normally about 2 feet deep. A 600-horsepower tug retrieved it during the storm – a good thing, or it would still be out there somewhere!

The workover rig fared much worse, being blown off location and taking on a 20-degree list which threatened to capsize it. Fortunately, the low-pressure system didn’t dally around, and by evening a crane had the rig upright, though a week would pass before it was operating again. Fortunately, too, the only injury appeared to be to the pride of the TV weatherman, who never apologized or admitted an oversight, only stating that the strength of the storm was not anticipated.

No kidding…

I drove down to Venice that morning to check on my boat. There, I learned that three feet of water had covered the entire area – including the road – just before daylight, but the north wind on the rapidly-departing low’s back-side had helped it quickly drain. My boat turned out to be okay, but the service company’s building and equipment was not so lucky. My friends there – like everyone else in the lower Delta and in the various war rooms of the drilling department offices in New Orleans – had no clue as to what was in store for them and their people in the field early that morning.

But the ducks knew…

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