Article for January - February 2014
The Last Drag
by Hunter Smith
original artwork by Pam Corwin
Old habits die hard. Some harder than others.
My brother is older than I am by twenty years, and I'm no spring chicken. After forty-plus years in the field together, and both of us hard hunters, lately we find ourselves more "stove up" in the mornings than not, and a walking stick is no longer a novelty but a dire necessity. Yet we still crawl out of bed at ungodly hours to go limping after some unsuspecting creature whenever we get the chance. It’s comical really, because we've found ourselves wasting a lot of good hunting time trying to figure out how to negotiate terrain that we used to bound across like yearling mountain goats.
About five years ago, sometime in late November, we met up to go creep around after a deer. Creep being the operative word, because as arthritic and bursitic as we both are these days, there really isn't any alternative. Brother looked at me that morning and said, "You know what I’ve decided?"
"Having bad knees and bad backs has made us a heck of a lot better deer hunters."
"Well when you move slow as we do, the deer just figure you're a stump. Point of fact, as little ground as I cover anymore, I might as well go back to climbin' trees."
"Think you could get up one?"
We were in a flooded swamp, submerged roots and snags and cold, cold water just high enough to overtop our hip waders, praying for daylight so we could see where we were and maybe find a hummock of dry ground to step up on long enough to pour the water out of our boots.
"If it's dry enough out there I'm building a fire!" I said.
I could barely see Brother's profile in the frigid morning light, his breath blue and billowing around his head. He laughed. "You know, there was a fire back at the campsite."
"There's probably a deer back there too."
"This doesn't make any sense at all does it?"
"We're old enough to know better."
Brother lit a small cigar and held it aloft to see where the wind was headed. "Where you going?" he said.
"Up towards the cut."
He took a pull on the cigar, blew a thin stream of smoke and cocked his head at me in a way that questioned my sanity. "You know as well as I do, that if you go up there you're gonna shoot a deer!"
"You mean to tell me we’ve been standing out here in the dark, freezing to death for the last half hour in order to not shoot a deer?"
Brother put the cigar in the corner of his mouth and rummaged around in a coat pocket, found some gloves and put them on, then shouldered his rifle and looked through the scope to see if he could see anything yet. "I'm saying it might be best to shoot a close deer."
"Close to what?"
"Close to the truck!"
As I started to wade off, I called back, "What time you want to meet?"
"The same time as always I guess."
"Shoot a little deer!" He hollered after me.
No better whitetail country has ever been conceived of by God or man — a wide swath of swamp surrounded by farmland on three sides, winding hardwood bottoms weaving in and out of thick cutovers and cane breaks, thick with swamp chestnut and overcup oaks, and deer trails like cattle crossings, with scrapes on every high spot and rub lines gone out of eye shot. Wading along through those flooded drains, slow and easy and nearly soundless, was a deadly way to hunt deer. We had proven that more often than not. I had a few little cigars myself, and once I had closed in on where I wanted to be, I lit one and tested the wind. It was steady enough, so I checked my scope and chambered a round, picked a good route to hold the wind and started easing along.
The sky was dimly lit, but reddening towards daybreak. Just enough light to find the cross hairs in the open places, but still more than enough shadow to hide your movements from all but the most suspicious of creatures. My objective was a pinch point of high ground running between two massive cutovers. The trails and crossings in there looked like somebody had loosed a herd of buffalo — a magnet for big bucks and the reason for Brother's earlier warning. I slowed to a crawl as I neared it, stopped a minute and leaned against a tree to compose myself, because I had a real good feeling about it. As I was standing there, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Just an irregularity in the landscape that could have been anything, but I stood there a long while and studied it, because it just didn't look right.
It was no more than twenty-five or thirty yards off, a pale and ghostly orb hovering above ground as if it were floating. The timber there was tall, casting long shadows on an already dim landscape. I stepped slowly to one side to get a better angle on it and the orb seemed to follow me, so I stepped back and leaned slowly over the other way and it swayed with me again. Hard as I tried, I could not make it out to be anything living or dead, and was about to dismiss it as an optical illusion and had actually taken a step forward when I thought better of it and stopped again.
I slowly raised the rifle and put my eye to the scope. The white orb evolved into an irregular rectangle. With a lump in my throat, I realized what I was seeing. It was the throat patch of a deer that was squared off on a neck as big around as a five gallon bucket. He was slowly bobbing his head up and down in that curious way they have when they don't know what they are seeing either. Still I couldn't find antlers anywhere. I could see the ears plain as day, and a nice ruddy tuft of hair on the head, but not a base or a tine to be found. We stood there looking at each other for well over a minute, then finally he relaxed and turned to walk away, and that's when I realized that his rack was so wide I’d been looking between it the whole time.
Bamyow! I didn't even think about it, just let him have it.
When I got to him and looked at what I'd done, I shook my head. The buck looked like a cross between a deer and a Jersey cow, well into two hundred pounds, with a rack on him like a small bull moose. When I reached down and grabbed an antler to pull him free of a tangle he’d piled up in, I went one way and he stayed right where he was. "Oh boy," I said to myself. "This is going to be real fun."
What I ended up having to do, was get him to the water and half float, half drag him down close to the truck. By the time I’d done all that, it was closing in on eleven o'clock and a half hour from meeting up with Brother, still hobbling around somewhere out there in the dank swamp. I was sopping wet and near to hypothermic, so I'd gathered a few little twigs and was hunched over a little fire on a tiny island when I heard, off in the distance, whackyooow! It was the sharp and nasal report of a rifle, and I knew exactly what gun had barked it! "Oh, no," I said to myself. "I hope he missed!"
But Brother had not missed.
When I found him two hours later, he was laid up on a root ball with an arm flung across his face. His hip boots were peeled off and water was pouring out of his socks back into the run of water he'd just waded out of. When he heard me coming he barely turned his head.
"What you got?" I said
He didn't even sit up, just reached for his walking stick and pointed it at a stump pile without even looking.
But it was not a stump pile. It was another buck, this one more a mix of Guernsey and elk — just a tremendous old thing that surely had blood relations somewhere in the Rockies.
"What happened to shootin' a little deer?"
"I had no basis for comparison; he's the only one I saw."
"The fact that he's about six feet tall didn't tip you off some?'
"He was standin' in some bushes."
By the time we got those throwbacks from the Pleistocene era to the edge of the swamp, it was four o'clock in the afternoon. The sun was going down. We had been out there all day long shooting and dragging deer. There was a little sunny spot in the road, and we both lay down in it. Brother rolled towards me and said, "You got any aspirin?"
I had an entire bottle. I uncapped it, took a big swig and handed it to him like we were passing a flask. He took a good tug himself. We washed them down with a little branch water. With his arm flung back over his face, Brother said, "How the hell are we going to get these deer in the truck?"
In my exhausted delirium, I hadn't even thought about that one yet. "Anyway we can I guess."
It wasn't pretty, but after some figuring and wrestling and some more wrestling and figuring, we finally got them loaded. We both slumped down on the back bumper, with our heads between our legs. I looked at Brother over a knee cap. "That is the last time I'm doing that."
Brother didn't even look up. "You’re lyin' through your teeth!"
"Watch what I tell you!"
November just past, a pale blue and frozen dawn. Brother and I were both hunched over trying to fight our waders up over a pair of knee braces. Between grunts and groans Brother said, "Where you headed?"
"I believe I'm gonna ease on up towards the cut."
Brother pushed himself painfully erect with his walking stick, took a drag on his little cigar and blew a thin stream of smoke into the wind.
"You know what I've decided?" he said.
"The only way to save us from ourselves is to start hunting without bullets in the gun."
Hunter Smith is an 18th generation South Carolinian and Lowcountry hunting guide. His first book, Stories from a Life Afield, will be published by USC Press in 2014.
Pam Corwin finds lots of inspiration for her artwork while on the job as a S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist. Visit her website at www.pamelacorwingalleries.com.
© 2014 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, January - February 2014 - www.scwildlife.com