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Remembering Wolf Bayou

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Wolf Bayou is in the northeast part of Pemiscot County. It runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi River and the levee. In my boyhood, the bayou area was wooded, but now only a band of trees surrounds it.

The bayou is a mile or so long, and it peters out into what was variously called Island Bayou or Sample Bayou. This small bayou meandered through the woods southward and emptied into Big Lake-later called Sharp's Lake-and is now fertile farm land. During late summer Island Bayou would dry up into a series of long pools.

Fishing in those pools was good but not many casual fishermen found them. Two or three times as a boy I'd be fishing there, and Mrs. Nora Williams would come to the place in her buggy, tie her horse to a bush and enjoy the fun. She'd catch fish, too.

The fish were mostly bream, but occasionally a grinnel (bowfin) would get on the line. They were large, scaled fish that really put up a battle, and our tackle would seldom last until one was landed. They were fighters.

A family of people named Yeager came to our community on a visit to the Valentine family. They heard of those fish, and a group of them went to the Island Bayou with the proper tackle for landing fish and really caught a large number of them.

Those fish weren't highly prized by gourmets because their flesh was soft and not tasty. I did hear of one recipe: build a large fire of wood and burn it down to a bed of coals. Place the fish, intact, on the fire until the exterior is thoroughly charred. Eat the charred skin and throw everything else away. Never tried it!

Wolf Bayou could be a souvenir of the earthquake of 1812. The sides of it drop so steeply and it is so deep that it is difficult to imagine it being washed out. Besides that, water will erode land rapidly only by speed or to circumvent an obstruction. The ground there is flat. What could divert or obstruct water enough to make a hole that deep and long?

The primeval forest must have been a wonderful sight! When I was a young man I knew an old man named John Choin. He told me that the woods there were so clear of underbrush that one could be where the levee now is and see the opening of the river through the forest. The distance is over a mile. Just imagine timber so tall, stately and shady that all of the undergrowth was starved out by lack of sunshine!

John Choin was a quiet and gentlemanly man, and he wore a hat that I'd have given a farm in Texas for. It had a large flat brim and a round crown with no dents. He was an outgoing person, and I wish now that I would have talked to him more and made some notes on his remembrances.

Wolf Bayou itself was fished so heavily that there was a well-worn path all around it. Muddy Bayou flowed into it from the east, but a large tree had fallen across it about 75-100 feet from its juncture with Wolf Bayou, and the path followed right over on the tree trunk.

Many baptisms were held in the bayou. There were several picnic areas, and many came there to swim. There was no supervision over the bayou. That, and the depth of the water, contributed to a number of deaths by drowning.

Sometimes, there would be difficulty in finding the body of a victim, and then Tim Sample would be sent for, and he would find and bring the person to the surface. He was an expert swimmer, and I can remember people, with awe, tell how he could swim across the Mississippi River, touch the Tennessee riverbank, and turn around and swim back. Tragically, Tim himself became a victim of the river much later. He was liked by everyone, and all mourned his untimely death.

Sometimes people would camp there. No one cared who came or how long they stayed. Family picnics, swim parties (some nocturnal), boat riding and just plain socializing took place regularly. No gate, no charge, no curfew-just enjoy.

The woods between the bayou and the river had many pecan trees, some of them large. People could pick up all the pecans that they wanted. When I was a boy and just beginning to hunt, Papa would hunt along with me, and he knew where all of the large trees were. Those large trees were smorgasbords for squirrels.

He would take me to within sight of a large pecan tree, and he'd go a slightly bit different way. I'd slip up to the tree and get one or two squirrels from it, and he would reappear and we'd repeat the process.

Many years later, when working in Detroit, I mentioned squirrel hunting, and a man in the group asked, "Why in the world would you kill squirrels?" I replied, "We eat them."

And with a look of profound disgust, he exclaimed "Man, don't you know that squirrels are rodents?" They are, of course, but they are tasty rodents.

Quite a few hunters did their hunting at night for raccoons, and I tried it with them, but there was far too much walking and too little shooting to suit me. Later, we moved into a community that included fox hunters. At that time we ran a country store, and several of the hunters would congregate there and rehash their most recent hunt.

There was lots of talk about how well "Old Blue" or "Sport" or whatever, had performed on their most recent hunt. I kept waiting for the finale, and finally asked about the kill. I was informed indignantly that there was no kill.

Pressing for details, I found that they would drive to a back road somewhere near and turn the dogs loose. The dogs would cast about until they picked up the scent of a fox, and the chase began. The hunters, in their cars, would move from road to road, and when the dogs finally ran out of gas, the hunters would pick them up and go home. Sometimes the fox, they said, would go by a circuitous route and return to its own burrow.

For a couple of years in the late 1950s, Robert O. Pierce, who owned Wolf Bayou at that time, allowed us to have a place gratis at the north end of the bayou to rent boats and sell bait. Our sons ran the place through the warm weather months. They made a little money and gained some business experience.

The only rent that he wanted was the use of a fishing boat once in a while. I think he used a boat one time. In our family lore, he has hero stature. His father, Otho Pierce, owned and farmed the land that had been Cooper's Lake near the bayou but on this side of the levee land, and my father-in-law, Albert Ball, owned land nearby that was divided by the levee.

Part of his land was Brushy Lake, which was filled each time the river overflowed its banks. When the backwater went down, Brushy Lake would drain through a ditch that had been dug for that purpose. Usually, it would be pretty late by the time the lake drained and the land got dry enough to plant a crop. Otho Pierce, if his neighbor was in trouble for time, would send over some of his equipment and help him get the crop planted. We need more people in this old world like the Pierces.

The forest around Wolf Bayou was cut at some time in the past. I understand that a band of timber was left standing. Since then, Wolf Bayou was acquired by the Conservation Department, and the area is returning to a more natural state. A visit never fails to stir old memories for me.

Wolf Bayou Conservation Area

Most visitors to Wolf Bayou Conservation Area in southeast Missouri come to sightsee or fish in the four natural lakes or bayous that total 43 acres of water. The fish are replenished when Mississippi River floods inundate the bayous. Of the four bayous-Wolf, Sample, Hosler and Mud- Wolf is the largest at 30 acres.

The 264-acre area is largely forested, a remnant of the once extensive bottomland hardwood forest that covered over 2 million acres of the Missouri Bootheel prior to draining and farm use. The bayous were formed at some time by the river itself, though their exact origins remain unclear.

Wolf Bayou Conservation Area includes two parking lots and a concrete boat ramp. Hunting, as well as primitive camping and fishing, is allowed on the area. Electric motors only are allowed on boats.

Because of the unique habitat provided by the Mississippi River lowlands, the area is home to several rare and endangered species of wildlife, including swamp rabbits, alligator snapping turtles, birds called Mississippi kites and a plant called primrose willow. The Conservation Department manages the area to protect these species and to provide outdoor recreation.

Wolf Bayou Conservation Area is in Pemiscot County, north of the city of Caruthersville. To reach the area, take the Wardell exit off Interstate 55 and follow the east outer road south to Hwy. BB. Follow Hwy. BB over a levee and watch for Conservation Department signs.

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