By Alexe van Beuren
Etta McWilliams Pass Hodnett knows her way around a kitchen, a sewing machine—and a shotgun. “I’ve enjoyed hunting since I was 12 years old,” she tells me as we sit in her living room. Her love of hunting accompanied her through the next eighty-one years—through two marriages, four children, twenty years of employment at Big Yank and thirty-two years of raising catfish in the Delta.
“Miss Etta” was raised in southern Mississippi with five sisters and three brothers on a small farm. She didn’t go to school until the cotton was all picked each year, and even then the walk was over two miles. After completing ninth grade in Louise, Mississippi, and playing on a girls’ basketball team that lost only one game, “Miss Etta”, at age 18, married Jesse Harold Pass. “I just never did go back to school,” she tells me. Instead, she and Mr. Pass moved to a small farm on their own near Belzoni, Mississippi, complete with cows and chickens, and they had four children, Bobby John, Betty Sue, Wanda Lou, and Martha Lee. Farming economy was so bad, someone told them about the garment plant in Water Valley, now Big Yank. “We moved on Friday,” says “Miss Etta”, “and I went to Work on Monday.”
Through all of this she kept hunting. A beautiful woman with blue eyes, she was the only one of her sisters to hunt. In later years she has hunted a lot with her son, Bobby”. “My girls could shoot as good as anyone, but they never would go hunting,” says “Miss Etta”. “What do you like about it?”, I ask, my eyes on the mounted deer in her living room. “It’s just relaxing. You get out there in the woods, and you forget everything.”
After eighty-one years of hunting, she certainly knows what she’s talking about. Mr. Pass died in 1967, and two years later “Miss Etta” married her childhood sweetheart, Bill Hodnett, from the Straight Bayou Community near Belzoni. They had not seen each other for thirty-six years until she visited her sisters who lived nearby. She shows me their wedding picture: “Miss Etta” looks like a movie star in a short white dress she made herself, her eyes blue and her hair sleek. She moved into his home, an old schoolhouse that gradually filled with their trophies. Bill and Etta hunted together—and from what she tells me, competitively.
After spending their days tending over 500 acres of catfish ponds, the couple often went fishing for Bream. One day, “Miss Etta” brought up the subject of a dishwasher. She wanted one, but Bill did not want to buy it. “Miss Etta” told me that he said, “If you beat me fishing, I’ll buy you one.” The couple went fishing in separate boats. When they met up they had the same number of fish, and Bill proudly proclaims the fact that he did not have to buy the dishwasher. “Miss Etta” smiles and continued, “And just then, a white perch jumped into my boat—I got my dishwasher.”
Over the years, the Hodnetts took many hunting trips outside of the state; she’s shot elk, mule deer and coyote in Colorado and Utah, and wild goats and antelope in New Mexico. But her most exotic trophy comes form Mississippi—an albino mallard duck. “People from Mississippi State came and looked at it,” she says. “they said it is one in a million.”
“Miss Etta” has also killed three deer in one day (twice), gotten two turkeys with one shot, and bagged fifteen ducks with five shells. “We always cooked everything we killed,” she says, so she is familiar with the taste of game like armadillo, rattlesnake, and coon. She has made sausage out of wild hogs and eaten possum surrounded by sweet potatoes.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” she says, smiling. Her prowess has been recognized: “Miss Etta” won the Delta National Guard Armory Trophy for her twenty-four pound turkey, the biggest of the season; and took home a trophy the following year for shooting a turkey that boasted the longest spurs.
Mr. Hodnett died in 2000 and “Miss Etta” moved back to Water Valley. Now at age ninety-three, she spends time with her daughter (Betty Harris), visiting her other children in Memphis and Collierville, Tennessee, and attends Woodland Hills Baptist Church. She took her last hunting trip when she was eighty-six years old, returning with an eighteen pound turkey, but she still has a way with a gun, thanks to the squirrels around her house. “I shot a squirrel the other day,” Miss Etta” says, blue eyes shining, “and I was wondering how many women in Water Valley can dress a squirrel?”