By Dick Daniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Every Louisiana sportsman has heard of Catahoula Lake, the duck-hunting mecca in east-central Louisiana, but they might not know what a rich and sometimes violent history it has.
Catahoula is a depression lake that was created when seismic activity caused the land to sink; the Little River then filled up the depression with water. It is not known when the lake was formed, but seismic disturbances have been observed in modern times. On September 23, 1899, Bayou Sara’s True Democrat reported on one strange event. “All at once bubbles were seen to rise on the surface of the water, the lake appeared to rise in the centre, and for ten minutes waves swept the banks of the lake, the water rising eighteen inches at the time, after which it gradually receded to its original level. This phenomena was witnessed twice the same day.”
Archaeological surveys of the Catahoula area have discovered stone spear points that are approximately ten thousand years old, proof that the lake’s rich ecosystem has attracted people to its shores since prehistoric times. The name Catahoula is, in fact, Indian in origin and may mean “sacred or clear lake” or just “lake.”
The most famous Indian story associated with the lake is the origin of the Catahoula cur, Louisiana’s state dog. It is commonly believed that the breed is a result of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s wolf hounds interbreeding with native Indian dogs. Modern research, however, has proven that De Soto never entered modern-day Louisiana. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Catahoula cur has any connection to the area or the Indians who lived there.
During the Civil War, Catahoula Lake became a dangerous and violent region when the infamous Jayhawkers began hiding out in the surrounding swamps. Jayhawkers were Louisiana Unionists who opposed secession, and they were often joined by Rebel deserters and anyone else who had reason to hate the Confederacy. More often than not, they were little more than bandits who preyed on local civilians.
One band of Jayhawkers hid out in what is now the Dewey Wills Wildlife Management Area (WMA) between Catahoula and Larto lakes. An Alexandria resident wrote that these outlaws “entered the residences of planters, carrying off whatever they needed. … In remote parts of the parish, they burned buildings.” In February 1864, Confederate authorities sent in the cavalry to drive out the gangs. Their orders were to “hunt the Jayhawkers down with the utmost severity, and shoot any with arms in their hands making resistance.”
In writing to two men who lived on Bayou Boeuf, one officer declared, “There are a number of Jayhawkers in the vicinity of Catahoula Lake and Little River, [who are] very troublesome to loyal citizens and defying civil and military authorities. They are difficult to capture only from the fact that when pursued by cavalry they take [to] the swamp.”
The officer explained that the cavalry around Larto believed tracking dogs would be helpful in rooting out the Jayhawkers and requested that the men loan their hounds to the army. Unfortunately, the troopers had little success in capturing the bandits; so shortly afterwards Gen. Camille Polignac, who commanded Confederate troops around Trinity (Jonesville), issued orders that “if Jayhawkers are taken in arms, they will be summarily executed.”
When the war ended, Catahoula Lake once again became a tranquil place where private and commercial duck hunters plied their trade. On November 7, 1875, Alexandria’s Louisiana Democrat reported, “Wild ducks in great quantities have been flying southward over our town the past week. The hunters have been bringing some few from Catahoula lake into market, which are being retailed at 12 ½ cents each.”
On January 21, 1880, the same paper ran a short piece about a duck hunt that three local men had on the lake. They “killed in three shots, and before daylight at that, 66 ducks.” There were no game laws at the time, so shooting ducks before daylight was legal; but it would be interesting to know how they managed to find, and slip up on, the rafting birds in the dark.
Today, the state owns Catahoula Lake, but it is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. While the western shoreline is privately owned, most of the eastern and northeastern side lies within the Dewey Wills WMA and the Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge. Both allow hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities, so sportsman should be able to enjoy the lake for many generations to come.