The Market Hunter

William Thibodeaux

By William Thibodeaux, History columnist

The following is from a 1985 Ducks Unlimited article written by David Hall and Brian Cheramie.
A market hunter was a hired gun, someone that hunted the swamps and wetlands for ducks and geese in great quantities to supply the demand for waterfowl in many large restaurants.  One of the most proficient market hunters was Florine “Piyace” Champagne from Lake Arthur, Louisiana.  He nearly defied logic, folks from southwest Louisiana say he was the best shot there ever was.  He was such a marksman; he shot ducks and geese with a .22 rifle.  It was not unusual to see a daily boatload of 2,000 ducks and geese being loaded onto a train and shipped to New Orleans.
Champagne was born on August 4, 1889, and at the age of nineteen, he joined his brothers, Henry and Alcee, in organizing his own Duck and Goose hunting camp on Mallard Bay, near Lake Arthur.  However, their operation only lasted three years.  By then, their reputation had surpassed all others across the prairies of Louisiana.  They were recruited by Fred Dudley, an Englishman from Kansas, who had purchased 10,000 acres of marshland for 25 cents an acre.  Dudley built the most efficient market hunting operation ever seen.
Dudley built a flotilla of small cypress boathouses capable of providing in-season homes for the families of the market hunters.  He also provided tutors for the children, extended credit for groceries and other supplies, and each market hunter was assigned his own territory in which to harvest waterfowl.  Each morning, long before the radiant colors of the eastern sky was visible, the market hunters poled their pirogues laden with heavy wooden decoys through the marshes to their favorite spots.  Later, their kill was dressed and packed in wooden barrels in alternate layers of waterfowl and ice, and then they were quickly shipped by boat and train to the markets of New Orleans.
During that era, many Louisianians didn’t consider duck hunting a sport—ducks were harvested like a crop.  A person could buy ducks a lot cheaper than he could hunt them.  Market hunter Pie Champagne worked hard at being the best shot ever.  He was known at Dudley’s Big Time hunting camp as the first to rise and the last to sleep.  It was never too cold or too wet; Champagne waded in the marsh without protection of boots or rain gear.  He was proud of his reputation.
It is said that when the first white men came to Louisiana, they were stunned to see staggering numbers of wintering waterfowl.  They said that the numbers of ducks and geese were so large they literally blocked the sun.  It’s no wonder that in 1908, conservationists throughout America began to grow and they noticed fewer and fewer birds.  It was evident to everyone that the huge harvest of ducks and geese by market hunters would only grow as the American population increased and the future of the great migration would be jeopardized.  According to Ray Holland, one of the original federal game wardens and later, editor of Field and Stream magazine, testified before the U.S. Senate in 1932 that “… in the market shooting days when a lot of men made their living shooting ducks, I have seen 15,000 to 20,000 mallards on the docks for shipments along the Mississippi.”
 
In 1918, the age of market hunting came to an abrupt halt with the passage of Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  Sale of migratory birds was now prohibited and sport hunting was closely regulated.  At that time there were reported to be 1,000 market hunters in Louisiana.
The following year, Florine and his brother, Henry and friend Bob Worthham established the Three Aces Hunting Camp in Lake Arthur.  Word traveled fast—Florine was highly sought after.  Everyone wanted to hunt with Florine Champagne.  Among some of the big names that hunted with Champagne were Franklin Roosevelt, Irvin Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and plenty more.  It was reported that Champagne was a better shot with a .22 rifle than most with shotguns.
In 1922, millionaire cattleman, Jim Gardiner hired Florine Champagne as a fulltime guide and for the next two years Florine shot trap with sportsmen at Gardiner’s club.  Everyone was impressed with his shooting and urged Florine to enter competitions.  He always refused until one day someone offered to pay his way to the Southern Zone Trap Championship in Atlanta.  The veteran competitors wondered who was this Frenchman duck guide from Louisiana.  They were amused by his old-fashioned, long Tom Winchester Model 12 shotgun.  They all laughed about Lake Arthur.  “Where is this Lake Arthur?” they asked repeatedly.   By the end of the week all of their questions were answered and Florine Champagne was never unknown again.
Florine returned home to Lake Arthur a regional celebrity.  He was heavily recruited by Remington and Winchester for their exhibition shooting teams.  They were told that he was a marsh man and would remain in his beloved Louisiana.  However, he didn’t stay away from competition.  He entered and won local, state and regional shoots.  Huge crowds were in attendance each time cheering him on.  Besides an expert shooter, Florine was a recognized duck caller and wooden decoy maker.  He took the title at the first international duck calling championship held in 1947.
Sixty-two years of reckless abuse of wading in the icy marsh had finally taken its toll.  Florine had developed crippling arthritis, which ended his guiding career forever in 1936.  As the disease worsened, he could neither stand upright to shoot or walk without great difficulty.  By 1951, he was reduced to the role of a front-porch legend.  Some of the old-timers would stop by and they’d reminisce about the days of old.  That same year, wealthy oilmen from Jennings, Louisiana, decided to throw a grand celebration to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Louisiana oil industry.  A trap shoot would be the centerpiece of the festivities.  All of the area’s best shooters would compete in the Jubilee shoot.
Florine’s son, Russell, made him a wooden stool which his father could shoot from.  One of Florine’s old competitors and organizer of the Jubilee shoot invited his friend to come early and take some free practice shots.  “I don’t need no practice shot,” answered Florine firmly.  Word quickly spread, a huge crowd of spectators assembled to see the old shooter in action.  Time finally came; it was Florine’s turn to shoot.  Florine’s son helped position his father on the stool and handed him his long Tom Winchester Model 12 shotgun.
Almost immediately after Florine called out “Ready!” the first clay pigeon raced out of the trap.  Florine reacted and squeezed the trigger.  Bam!  The bird floated by and landed harmlessly in one piece.  Everyone eyed the ground, young and old alike crossed their fingers and said a silent prayer.  “Ready!”  The second bird raced out.  Bam! The pigeon turned to powder.  The third bird raced out.  Bam! It too turned to powder.  The fourth flew out.  Bam! Powdered.  Eyes lifted, fingers uncrossed and prayers stopped but the incredible shooting exhibition continued and Florine Champagne never missed again.  He won the Golden Oil Jubilee—it was a Triple Crown: singles-doubles and overall.  In 1966, Florine “Pie” Champagne finally surrendered to time.
 
Non-fiction
 
William J. Thibodeaux lives in Lafayette and can be reached at wjthibodeaux@yahoo.com  Checkout more stories at: williamstories.com      

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