Reelfoot Lake – A World of its Own

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(l-r) Chris Nischan, Mike Butler, Andrew Pearcy and Ed McCoy pose in the rain with many of the day's ducks taken with Moore's Guide Service. (Photo: Richard Simms)

SAMBURG, Tenn. – It was a virtual parade of camouflage as duck hunters gathered at the boat ramp. Sunrise was an easy hour away and a fine, misting rain added to the pre-dawn gloom. Anticipation of the day ahead coursed through the crowd like an electric current as boats pushed away across the cypress-filled lake.

It is always a marvel as guides steer their boats through an absolute maze of backwater trails to their respective duck blinds. Some blinds rest on open water areas of Reelfoot Lake while others are tucked away in pockets resting like hidden jewels among the flooded cypress forests. The ride alone to a Reelfoot duck blind is worth the price of admission, regardless of the hunting.

The hunting on Friday almost made me forget the boat ride. It started slow but not long after a cloudy sunrise, flock after flock of mallards poured across the lake, literally filtering in and out of the cloud cover overhead like ghosts. However Jonathan Moore with Moore’s Guide Service worked his magic with a duck call and coaxed many of those ghostly mallards out of the sky.

Many were shy and refused to cross into that invisible 12 gauge shotgun radius. But on regular occasions mallards broke the barrier and Jonathan exclaimed, “Kill ’em!” Not always, but usually we did and throughout the day the duck stringers grew heavier and heavier.

“I’ve been hunting with Jonathan for several years,” said Chris Nischan, a fishing guide from Nashville “He has a great blind, he works hard and is just a fun guy to be around.”

The beauty of the day was that the action didn’t come in a flurry. It went on all day long, right up until the required Reelfoot quitting time of 3 pm.

With seven shooters in the blind, 25 mallards and a handful of “off ducks” heading for the freezer after a good day hunting on Reelfoot Lake. (Photo: Richard Simms)

“I’ve seen more ducks today than I’ve seen all season long,” said Moore. “I think we’ve finally got a few new birds moving in.”

Moore made his first duck hunt 25 years ago when he was eight years old. He remembers the hunt with his uncle like it was yesterday.

“We all killed our limit that day but it was a hard, cold northwest wind. The lake was really rough and a little scary. We all got soaking wet,” said Moore. “When we got in my uncle said, ‘You’re scared. You probably won’t never come back again.’ The next morning I was over on his front porch beating on the door trying to get him up. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

It was one of the more difficult duck blind interviews I’ve ever conducted because we were constantly interrupted by ducks. In spite of our great day, Moore said overall their duck season has been below normal. Excessive rains have the rivers high and lots of new areas are flooded, scattering ducks far and wide. He admits his job as a waterfowl and crappie fishing guide can sometimes feel like work.

“It does at times. Especially those days when everything ices up,” he said. “But once you’re starting to get burned out on the hunting, the season ends and it’s time to start crappie fishing and vice versa. It refreshes itself so I never get too burnt out.”

Guide Jonathan Moore adds more downed ducks to growing stringers on a very good day. (Photo: Richard Simms)

In the world of hunting and fishing, there is absolutely no “sure thing.” Reelfoot Lake waterfowling is no different. This was probably my seventh or eighth duck hunting foray to Reelfoot and this hunt was without question, the best I’ve experienced. There have been a few forgettable hunts, at least if measured based on the number of shots fired. But the boat rides, the company, the great food and the memories make every Reelfoot hunt special for its own reasons.

Blue Bank Resort Guide Caleb Dunn (left) steers the boat through a maze of trails through the Reelfoot cypress swamps as Guide Logan Hayes follows behind with another group of hunters. (Photo: Richard Simms)

That was the case Saturday when we teamed up with guides from Blue Bank Resort and the Zapancich family from Ely, Minnesota. Jennifer Zapancich stood out in the crowd. Scan the camouflage crowd at the boat ramps and the overwhelming majority are guys – all who consider themselves manly men. A feminine touch is very rare.

Jennifer Zapancich hails from Ely, Minnesota where her father owns a Zups Fishing Resort. But Jennifer, a hardcore duck hunter, migrates to Reelfoot Lake and Blue Bank Resort during the winter working as a bartender and duck hunting every day she can get on the water. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Jennifer, however, was pretty much raised outdoors. Her father, Mark, owns and operates Zups Fishing Resort in northern Minnesota. Jennifer will be the third generation keeping the resort alive for more than 80 years. As a cold rain beat down Saturday morning the young lady refused to scoot inside the blind where it was warm and dry. Her eyes stayed glued to the sky knowing the next duck to cruise overhead would surely lock its wings and glide into the decoys.

Watching her peer up into the chilling drizzle reinforced the reason the young lady upended her life not long ago to actually move to Reelfoot Lake during duck season.

“Of course everything freezes over up our way and I came down here duck hunting a couple of years ago,” she said with a northern accent, almost as thick as my southern one. “I just loved it. I got a job bartending at Blue Bank and now I move down here in the winter and then head back up to work at our resort in the summer.”

Like any day duck hunting anywhere, every day is a new day. Ducks are called “migratory waterfowl” for a reason. They come and go at the blink of an eye, or a slight shift in the weather. The hunting action was much slower on Saturday but several ducks died nonetheless. Perhaps the highlight of the day was the hot lunch prepared in the blind by the Zapancich clan all the way from Minnesota, including mock chicken legs and smoked lake trout spread. I will be seeking out more mock chicken legs in the future (which don’t even contain chicken, by the way).

Owner Mike Hayes turns Blue Bank Resort into a winter wonderland every Christmas. Families travel from miles around to enjoy the lights. (Photo: Richard Simms)

In the evening Blue Bank Resort lights up the Reelfoot shoreline with thousands of Christmas lights and decorations. A group of high school youngsters in tuxedos, high heels and high dollar gowns gathered for “Winter Formal” pictures among the twinkling lights.

“I have really tried to gear my business in recent years not only to hunters and fishermen, but to the regular tourist crowd as well,” said Blue Bank owner Mike Hayes.

With every bar stool filled and a full restaurant each night, it appears to be working.

“Reelfoot is a one-of-a-kind place,” said Moore. “Everybody needs to come witness it at least once.”

The local folks, and especially the guides, are very protective of their very unique resource and opportunities. Some duck blind sites are allotted in an annual drawing conducted by TWRA. However the majority are still registered to individuals and have been in the family for generations. Outside of farming and a state prison, hunting and fish drives the economy in the Reelfoot Lake area.

There is no other place in Tennessee like it. You can travel from the Smoky Mountains all the way to the Mississippi River in Memphis, but you still haven’t seen all of Tennessee until you can put a check mark by Reelfoot Lake. I’ll definitely be making more marks there in the future.

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