article by Dan Chason
The world of hunting and music lost a legend recently, with the passing of my friend Eli Haydel. It was in the late 1990s when Eli’s son, Rod invited me to Cameron Parish for a teal hunt with him and his legendary Dad. Although I have hunted with Rod on many occasions, it was the first and last time I ever hunted with his dad, Mr. Eli.
At the time, I was an avid duck hunter and my two heroes were Eli Haydel and Phil Robertson. Both of these men had the same mantra: Build a duck call that sounded like a duck. Eli’s niche came from the world of music as he was a world class saxophone player. By taking the same reed configuration as his musical instrument of choice, he designed a duck call that not only sounded like a duck, it was famous for blowing when wet. Every duck hunter knows that wet is part of duck hunting. Eli’s sales pitch was simple: Put a decoy in a bowl on the sales counter with a duck call around its neck with a sign that said, “Blows when wet”. And blow it did.
I arrived in Cameron Parish to a world that I knew nothing about. Marsh hunting in South Louisiana and timber or rice hunting in North Louisiana are two completely different worlds. I had brought along my trusty Lab named Ranger. I was fortunate as I had two good working Labs. Ranger was my favorite as he was old, pushing 11 at the time but was steady as a rock. Ranger had been dismissed as a “AKC trial dog” as he preferred to leave on command but get off line on his mark and use the wind to track a duck. It didn’t matter to me if he went by Pecanland Mall to retrieve the duck, just as long as he brought it back to me was all that mattered.
As I pulled up to the Haydel camp, Mr. Eli came out and greeted me. He and Rod assisted me in unloading my gear and showing me where I would be bunking. It was the opening weekend of the September teal season, and Mr. Eli told me that the flights were good and that he hoped I had brought plenty of tapes for filming and lots of shells. As he walked over to my truck and looked into my dog box, I saw a somewhat disappointed look. In his familiar Cajun drawl, he looked at me and said, “Hey Dan. ‘Dat dog ‘dere…he kinda old ain’t he? ‘Dis marsh huntin’ is hard on a dog, even a young dog. Why don’t you let me take one of my young dogs an’ let dat ole’man rest in the morning.” I smiled as I am sure from the outside, Ranger’s grey muzzle and his slow walk would tend to make a seasoned hunter wonder if he could do the job. I, myself have hunted with guys who bragged on dogs that couldn’t cut it, but I was confident when I looked at Eli and said, “He’ll do just fine, Mr. Eli. Don’t let looks deceive you.” Mr. Eli relented and walked towards the porch with Ranger following, slowly shaking his head as he sat down. We sat and visited and Mr. Eli talked about his children, grandchildren and the history of his company. Ranger sat at Mr. Eli’s feet as the patriarch scratched his muzzle as he enlightened me. You could see the pride as he talked about his boys and their accomplishments. He didn’t talk about the numerous duck calling championships or his World Goose Calling Championship he won himself. He talked about how they had stepped in and took his business to the next level and how he could depend on them. When I could get him to talk about duck calls, he had a simple analogy. Too many people blow a duck call to draw judges and not ducks. Ducks call in subtle tones and even ducks can’t call ducks sometimes. I barely slept that night as I couldn’t wait to hear and watch this man in action.
Rod Haydel is an accomplished caller, but there was something about the way that Mr. Eli worked a duck that was special. Maybe it was his trying to call while attempting to not smile as the teal worked over and over to our spread. On the first shots, we dropped 4 teal that went in 4 opposite directions. Two of them hit about 50 yards from the blind. My instincts kicked in, and I stepped out of the blind to work my dog. Big mistake. Marsh grass looks like hard ground and it isn’t. After filling my waders and being pulled back to the blind by Rod, I learned real quick that marsh grass isn’t for fat boys. Ranger sat patiently while I fought the muck and mud until he jumped at my command of “Back!” Sure enough he retrieved the first teal and waited for me to send him again. This retrieve was what we call a “blind.” The meaning of a blind retrieve is the dog cannot or did not see the duck fall and has to rely on hand signals or commands. That is most dogs, but not Ranger. I sent him back, and I will admit, I was worried as he stayed gone a long time. Even Mr. Eli noticed as he cautioned me about all the alligators and asked if we may need to get in the boat to look for my dog.
Just as I was about to give in and go on a search, I could see the grass moving to the left of the blind. Not only was Ranger coming back to the blind, he was coming back with not one, but two teal in his mouth. Needless to say, my smile could not be disguised. As Ranger returned to the dog box and I handed him a well deserved bite of honey bun, Mr. Eli broke the silence and gave not only me but my dog the highest of compliments….”Hey, Dan….about ‘dat ole dog ‘dere….you wouldn’t consider selling him, would you?”
A great memory of a great hunt with a legend in the hunting industry. Mr. Eli will be sorely missed by friends, family and by this hunter who was honored to have shared a blind with him. Rest in peace, my friend.