Saving Alligator Season: A Unique Trip to a Familiar Place

Two weeks ago, the opportunity to go alligator hunting this year looked dim. Nobody in my circle had tags. Nobody knew anyone with tags that needed a hand. I even wrote a column stating that this would be the first season in a while that we didn’t go. With one email, everything changed.

Hurricane Ida rolled through on Sunday night, thankfully sparing the Pine Belt of any real damage, but it left a nice amount of small limbs in my yard. When the rain subsided on Monday, I began to clean up our yard. During the cleanup process, my phone beeped alerting me of a new email. I disregarded the email and kept cleaning up. When I finally sat down to look at it, I couldn’t believe what it was.

Jerry Pierce, of Petal, singlehandedly saved alligator season. He emailed me regarding the column on my first ever gator hunt, and told of how this was his first time to ever do it. He and a friend had already filled one of his tags, a five footer, and he didn’t want his other tag to go to waste. Say no more. I immediately called him, and we set up a trip to fill his last remaining tag. With one phone call to Matt Alliston, my gator hunting buddy, we were set up to go to Port Gibson for the last night of the season.

The plan was to meet at the Grand Gulf ramp on the Mississippi River at 6:30. As I turned onto the dirt road to the launch, I could hardly contain my excitement. Shoot, I was even early, a known rarity. You never know what awaits you once you put in on the Big Muddy, and that excites me. Speaking of the unknown, I didn’t mention that I, nor Matt, had never laid eyes on Jerry Pierce before this trip. His email to me was the first contact of any kind that we’d ever had. Alligator season is just that special. As I laid eyes on Jerry for the first time ever, my thoughts shifted from excited to hopeful. I hoped that we could show Mr. Jerry a good time, and help him fill his remaining tag in the process.

We launched the boat and headed across the river toward Yucatan Lake. Yucatan is where I killed a twelve footer a couple of years ago and is known to hold big gators. Along the way, I kept a close watch on the radar on my phone. Things were looking bad. We made the conservative choice to head back across the river to the truck to wait out the approaching thunderstorms. It might have been the best decision we made all night. Not long after returning to the boat launch, the wind began to howl, and the night sky lit up with lightning. We waited out the storm from the friendly confines of my truck.

The “rain delay” was a good time to learn more about each other. Mr. Jerry spoke at length about his family and his time working for Cooperative Energy. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that he worked there for 50 years before retiring a couple of years ago. It was obvious that Mr. Jerry loved the outdoors and loved meeting people. I don’t think that there was a single group of fishermen or alligator hunters that came by that he didn’t talk to. He was going to fit in just fine with us. Now, we just needed to get him a gator.

When the rain subsided, we launched the boat again. We decided to head up river to Davis Island, a place Matt has had success at before. The ride up takes about thirty minutes. Thirty minutes riding up the Mississippi River in the dark seems like an eternity. We finally arrived and began the search for Mr. Jerry’s gator. We hooked into a couple of gators, but neither were quite big enough for us. Mr. Jerry would have been more than satisfied with them, but we wanted to press on in hopes of landing a real Mississippi monster. We didn’t see what we were looking for at Davis Island, so we headed back down the river toward Yucatan.

Almost immediately after entering Yucatan Lake, we had alligators everywhere. Most of them were small, but every now and then we’d catch a glimpse of a gator that would potentially meet our standards. After being hunted for almost ten days, the gators were very skittish. There’s no telling how many boats and spotlights these gators have seen in the last two weeks. Every time we’d get fairly close to a gator, he’d swirl and disappear. We also had competition in Yucatan. There were a couple of other boats hunting that seemed to dart in each time I’d spot a decent looking gator. Eventually, we moved on.

We hunted all night. Just before 5:00 in the morning, we finally hooked up with a decent gator. He wasn’t quite up to our usual standards, but given how difficult it had been to see a large gator, we were more than happy to hook this one. It took a little longer than I’d like to admit to hook the gator, but I finally got him hooked and to the boat. Matt snared him and we dispatched him at 5:05. Just like that, alligator season was over for us.

Mr. Jerry was beyond giddy about his alligator. The swamp monster measured out at 8’6” long, the perfect size to eat. As I drove back home, exhausted, I thought about how neat this trip was. I was gifted another gator trip with a great friend and got to make a new friend in the process. I can’t thank Matt enough for his willingness to get up and go when I call. Friends like this are rare. And I can’t thank Mr. Jerry enough…for saving alligator season.

Weddings Can Bring Back Fond Memories

I’ve been sweating in this tuxedo for what seems like an eternity. The loft at the top of The Venue is steaming from the combination of the late August sun and the body heat of 7 other guys. The wedding isn’t until 6:00, but we’ve been instructed to be here early for the onslaught of pictures. I look down at my watch and it’s 3:30. When I raise my hand to check the time, an old familiar scar grabs my attention. I slide my arm across my body and present my battle wound to my Uncle, who is sitting next to me. “Remember that?” I ask. He laughs and nods yes. How could he forget?

My Uncle Barry and I had been trying to put together a river fishing trip for a while. Between work, family responsibilities, and a date that would work for all of us, it was nearly impossible. We finally settled on a day that worked for the two of us, and also for my dad and cousin, Hunter. The plan was to put in on the Pearl River in Georgetown and head south to the mouth of the Strong River. There was a good sandbar there to camp, and we planned to spend a couple of nights running trot lines. I’m ashamed to say that the amount of gear we brought would take two boat loads from the ramp to the sandbar.

The trip began with a bang, per usual. My dad rode up with me, which was mistake number one. By the time we arrived at the river, he was so carsick that he threw up for the next half hour at least. I’m not sure if I should have felt insulted or not. He’s told me before that he gets carsick as the passenger sometimes, but I’ve never seen someone throw up so much from riding in a car. We loaded the boat up twice while Dad got his feet underneath him enough to ride to the sandbar. We parked him in a chair underneath a canopy and began preparation for running the lines.

My first task was to make some stakes for our minnow traps. This is where mistake number two occurs. I grabbed my uncle’s machete and cut down a stalk of bamboo that was growing behind our camp site. I propped the bamboo up in the sand and began trimming the smaller limbs from it. As I swung the machete the bamboo shifted in the sand, exposing my left hand. The machete filleted my left index finger to the bone. At first, I thought that I’d chopped my entire finger off. There was so much blood. Quickly, I ripped my shirt off and wrapped my hand up. I ran back down to the camp holding my hand in the blood-drenched shirt. I’m pretty sure that my dad never even got up out of the chair. Uncle Barry tossed a couple of things in the boat and the two of us headed back to the ramp.

The closest hospital from our location was in Hazlehurst. It was about a 15 minute ride back to the truck and then another 30 to the hospital. We checked in at the emergency room, then proceeded to wait for almost three hours. It’s a good thing my injury wasn’t life threatening because they would have surely let me bleed out. There wasn’t more than two other people in the emergency room during this time, so I’m not sure the reason for the long wait. They finally called me back to a room, which I’m almost sure hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. The doctor came in, took a look at my hand, and began to work. Before he began to stitch it up, I noticed his hand shaking as if he had severe Parkinson’s disease. This was going to be a very ugly scar. After four hours in the Hazlehurst hospital, and a bunch of stitches later, we headed back to the river.

When we arrived back on the sandbar, well beyond dark, my dad was still sitting in the same chair that we left him in. He assured me that he had moved in the time we were gone. We gathered up the bait that we could and began to set out our lines. I milked my injury the best that I could and avoided doing any real labor. This is a practice that I’ve gotten awfully good at over the years. The guys spent the evening making plenty of jokes at my expense. For the most part, I just wore them and kept quiet. We stayed two nights on the river, my lack of doing labor continuing throughout the trip. We caught plenty of fish and enjoyed time in the company of family.

It’s after 6:00 and I stand still as a statue on the stage, still sweating profusely in my tuxedo, as I watch Hunter peer into the eyes of his very soon-to-be bride. A smile comes over my face as I, once again, think about that trip to the river. I glance up at my Uncle, watching his son proudly, as he repeats his vows. These two men have meant so much to me in my life, and I’m flattered to share the stage with them on this night. Here’s to you, Hunter and Haley, may you have a marriage full of laughter, happiness, adventure…and very few stitches.

It’s Gator Time in Mississippi

960. That’s the number of alligator tags that Ricky Flint, of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, gives out each year. Zero. That’s the number of tags that myself, or any of my gator hunting buddies have this year. To say that I am lost is an understatement.

For the last several years, either myself, or someone as foolish as me, has been drawn for alligator tags. The application process is the first week of June and is free to any resident with a valid hunting/fishing license in Mississippi. A week later, the drawing takes place. The winners have only a couple of days to purchase their tags. After that, another drawing takes place to fill the unpurchased tags. After two drawings, nobody I know has tags…and it pains me.

The first time that I ever went alligator hunting I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t quite understand how you’d catch an alligator on a rod/reel, especially with no bait. I certainly didn’t have a clue what you’d do with the gator once you hooked it. There were a lot of rules and techniques to learn. I wasn’t sure whether or not this would be fun or more like work. Either way, I was committed to going and learning something new.

My first gator trip was also my first Big Black River experience. I joined my cousin, Brandon, and we met up with two other guys at the river. Let me be clear about our boat launch situation. There was no boat launch. There may have been one here years ago, but it had since disappeared…entirely. Ten minutes into my first gator trip, my anxiety running rampant, I’m already thinking what a screwed up trip this is going to be. However, Matt, whom I affectionately refer to as the “Gator Whisperer” will not be denied access to the Big Black River from this location. No launch, no problem. We launch the boats using the winch on Matt’s Jeep. It is a sight that even the most seasoned redneck would appreciate. With the boats in the river and the sun going down, it was time to find alligators.

Being a newbie, I got the privilege of riding in the “gator boat” with Matt to begin with. Brandon and Conrad trailed closely behind in the “rest boat.” The “gator boat” consisted of all of the gator hunting equipment. The “rest boat” didn’t have any rods/reels, snares, or guns aboard due to the rule of not having…let’s just say “groceries” on board. Therefore, we carried two boats. One for hunting and one for relaxation. I enjoyed the action and anticipation of the “gator boat”, but almost equally enjoyed relaxing on the river in the “rest boat.”

I’ve always thought myself to be fairly decent at casting. What I didn’t realize is casting a very large treble hook in the dark is not even close to the same thing as your typical bass lure in the daytime. After my first couple of unsuccessful casts on a gator, I can very distinctly remember Matt asking me, “Are you drunk? Have you ever been fishing in your life?” Sadly enough, I wasn’t drunk, and I had been fishing all of my life. That’s how bad my casts were. They were nowhere near coming close to hooking a gator. Instead, we spent the minutes after my first few casts getting the hook out of the trees, or dislodged from the bank of the river. I wasn’t even hitting the water! Each time I’d cast, raucous laughter would fill the night air from both boats. I know it was frustrating for Matt watching this disaster, but to his credit, he never told me to sit my butt down for the night like he probably should have. Finally, I made a cast that hit water, and pretty soon I was hooked up with a Mississippi alligator.

When I felt the hook snag into the gator it was like discovering the opposite sex for the first time ever. You can’t really describe the feeling, but you know dang well that you better not touch it or it’ll bite you! I cranked down on the reel, careful to keep tension in the line. After about ten minutes of back and forth with the gator, it surfaced next to the boat. According the Matt, the gator was a little over 8 feet long, which meant it was not big enough to keep for the large tag, and too big to keep for the “runt” tag. It didn’t really matter to me, I was absolutely hooked. From that moment on, I didn’t want to be in the “rest boat” ever again. I’d hunt alligators all night long, or as long as Matt would let me.

We didn’t end up keeping a gator that night. We caught a few more and had a couple of nice ones give us the slip, but none of them measured up to Matt and Conrad’s standards. The two of them are notorious for catching gators over 11-12’ each year, and the only way they will settle is if it’s the last minute of the last night. Getting the boats back out of the river was an even bigger spectacle than putting them in. Of course, I fell in the river during this process (something Brandon reminded me of). We headed to get some sleep, but sleep didn’t come easy, even after being up all night. Something in me had changed. I couldn’t wait to get back to the river to do it again.

Me and Matt with a 12′ Alligator in 2019

The Significance of the Number 10

The significance of ten cannot be denied. Most of us are fortunate enough to be born with ten fingers and ten toes. For the more fortunate, we somehow figure out how to keep ten fingers and ten toes throughout our lives. Wives expect shiny gifts for a ten year anniversary (pretty sure I messed that up). Most high schools have ten year anniversaries. If you like to go bowling, you know that there are ten pins to knock down. Ten’s significance even goes back as far as Moses, in the Bible. God gave him Ten Commandments to deliver to the people at Mount Sinai.

For me, I’ve always measured things by ten. I love a “ten run-rule” in baseball…when I’m on the scoring side. My favorite look to a buck’s antlers is a large 5×5, or a ten point. I’ve also told my wife that I wouldn’t mount another bass unless it was ten pounds. Counting by ten was something we learned in school at a young age (our middle daughter calls it skip counting). Finally, we celebrated our oldest daughters tenth birthday this weekend, and what a celebration.

On Thursday, I started getting the itch. I hadn’t been out in my boat in the last few weeks and, to be honest, I was starting to get melancholy. I started asking my wife the typical questions. What are our plans tomorrow afternoon? What about tomorrow night? She knew what I was doing and quickly shut me down. She reminded me that Mackenzie’s birthday was Saturday, which I needed no reminder for, and that she needed me around the house so she could run some errands. I told her I could be back by 7:30 on Saturday morning, but she wasn’t budging this time. I might have pouted for a minute, but I understood. Yard work it is.

Saturday came and went with a small celebration that evening. On Sunday morning, we went to church and then to lunch at my in-laws. Now was my opportunity. I asked Mackenzie if she would like to go wet a line for a bit to cap off the birthday weekend. She seemed just as eager as I was. I was so excited to head to the lake that I hadn’t even thought of the most basic things. We tossed some rods in the boat and headed toward Columbia, MS to Lake Bill Waller.

I hadn’t fished Bill Waller in over ten years. There’s that number again. We arrived at the lake to find that we were the only people there. An entire state lake to ourselves! I hurriedly launched the boat and we loaded up. One problem…the boat wouldn’t stay cranked for more than a couple of seconds before fizzling out. Why, you might ask? There was no gas. In my race to get on the water, I forgot to even get gas. You can’t run your motor over idle speed in Waller anyway, so we settled for trolling. I didn’t charge that battery either, so I just kept my fingers crossed that there’d be enough juice to get us around for a while.

There was a gentle breeze on the lake that kept the bugs away. The skies were mostly cloudy and the temperature was near perfect following the rains from earlier in the day. The only noise on the lake was the croaking of frogs and the sound of our lures hitting the water. We hadn’t been fishing very long when we saw the first of two alligators. The gator eased on toward the other side of the lake, often raising its entire body to the surface to show us how big it was. I guessed that it was pushing…wait for it, TEN feet long. The second alligator that we encountered was a little bit smaller, but got much closer to the boat.

We fished and talked about how peaceful it was on the lake. With no luck, we finally saw a school of shad jumping on the surface in the distance. A quick lure change and we headed that direction. My first cast into the nervous shad produced a big bite. To my amazement, I’d snagged a 3-4 pound catfish on a Rapala lure, a first for me. A couple of casts later, I caught the first bass of the day. After that, Mackenzie wanted a lure change, too. It didn’t take long and she hooked up with a decent size bass. It was the first bass that she’d ever caught on anything other than a plastic worm, or live bait. Soon, our stomachs told us that it was time to head home.

Now, comes the best part of the entire weekend. What could be better than a birthday weekend capped off by fishing? As we were riding home, Mackenzie told me that she wanted to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior! It kind of came out of nowhere in our conversation, and I could tell that she had been thinking and praying about it. I don’t care if she ever kills another deer or catches another fish, this was absolutely my proudest moment as a father. As I choked back tears on the ride back, I couldn’t help but to think of all of the people that have poured into her life. We’ve been so fortunate and blessed to have so many friends and family to love on our kids. Tonight, my heart is as full as it’s ever been. I’m grateful for another fishing trip that I’ll never forget.

Ghosts of the Yockanookany

Admittedly, I’ve been a little down since the spring. With the sale of our deer camp, I haven’t been looking forward to the upcoming deer season as much as I would have in the past. Fortunately, there’s always another opportunity knocking. Last week, I took an afternoon to go check out the new hunting grounds for the season. On the drive up, I had a renewed sense of energy about deer season. I was excited for the first time in a while. I had no idea what I was going to find out about the property when I arrived.

As I got a little closer to the property the pine trees never turned into hardwood. Part of me knows this isn’t a good sign when it comes to deer hunting. The other part of me knows that I know how to hunt piney woods, due to having grown up in the Pine Belt. Plus, there’s gotta be hardwoods somewhere on 1700 acres of property. This particular piece of land is situated just outside of Carthage, MS on the Yockanookany River in Leake County. As I arrive at my destination, my heart leaps with excitement, followed by a strange feeling of uneasiness.

Now, I’m not the squeamish type. I don’t scare easily, but this property almost immediately gave me the heebie-jeebies. My kids often ask me if I ever get scared walking through the woods, especially in the dark. I have to remind them that when their dad is in the woods I am the baddest thing in the woods. That being said, any person that tells you they’ve never been a little uneasy, or frightened, at one time or another in the dark is a liar. I’ve been startled by deer jumping up and running off, or by birds that fly up in front of me while walking along a trail. And the close sounds of coyotes howling is always enough to make the hair on your neck stand up. Those things aside, I’ve never had much else to fear in the woods…until possibly now.

After riding around the property for a while, I met a couple of guys that have hunted this place for years. They knew the history of the land and the surrounding area. I’m a sucker for a good history story, so I was eager to know the backstory. According to the story, the land was first settled by Choctaw Indians. The chief of this particular band of natives was Chief Red Dog. That explained the name of the road, Red Dog Road. Chief Red Dog was one of the signers of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, which moved the Choctaw Tribe from Mississippi to Oklahoma. The treaty was the first under the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Four years later, the road was named “Red Dog Road” in honor of the chief.

The story continued to the next land holders. The Harkins family moved to New Orleans from Ireland. While in the Big Easy, they were making a name selling Irish whiskey. However, they soon wore out their welcome and had to quickly leave town. They landed just outside of Carthage on Red Dog Road where they opened up a plantation. They continued their whiskey business, as well as plantation life, until things took an awful turn.

It takes a lot people to make a plantation work. Just as with any business, you will have good employees and bad employees. The Harkins family experienced one of those bad employees. One of the workers on the plantation was unhappy with the way he was treated. In lashing out, he hooked a mule up to a plow and plowed right through a flower garden of Harkins’ wife, upsetting her and the rest of the family. When told to leave, he proclaimed he would return that night and kill everyone. He did return that night and stood outside calling for the owner to come out and fight. The story said that the owner continued to ask the man to leave, but instead the man rushed the front porch of the house. Harkins shot the man dead on the front porch. A year or so went by after the shooting and Harkins’ mental anguish over the event continued to grow. He was so distraught over the ordeal that he was no longer his self. One day he disappeared, never to be heard from or seen again.

The locals are terrified of the old Harkins land and the house, which still remains on the property. It’s said that kids would often drive to the end of the road and dare one another to go down to the house. Other local stories include seeing lanterns in the woods. They say it’s the Harkins family going out to check the crops at night. Either way, it’s pretty eerie being in the house and on the land, especially knowing the history of the property. Now, I definitely can’t wait until deer season!

Across the street from the old house is the St. Ann Catholic Cemetery. Many of the Harkins family members are buried here. The cemetery adds to the mystique of the property, and the dates on the tombstones, many from the late 1800s, show just how long this place has been around. I messed up and told Mackenzie a little of the backstory on the property, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be hunting solo this year any time I go to Carthage. Who knows, maybe this year I won’t be the baddest thing in the woods.

The old Harkins Home still remains on the property.

We’re Moving the Summer Olympics to Mississippi

Seemingly with a snap of the finger, the weather has shifted from raining every single day to heat that’s so hot it will melt your face off. I checked my weather app last night around 9:00 and the heat index was still 98. If you were to catch a fish right now, it would already be broiled. It’s entirely too hot to spend the night in a tent on a sandbar, as well. Until it cools off a little bit, it’s a good time to stay inside and stay cool.

The problem with being inside is there are no fish to catch and nothing to shoot. I’m pretty much relegated to watching outdoor shows on television. Speaking of television, you know what people aren’t watching? The Olympics. Viewership is down more than 30% from the last Summer Olympics in 2016. I’ve got a few theories as to why viewership is so low. First, athlete fatigue. I know a lot of folks are tired of sports being so politicized, myself included. Next, on demand viewing. It’s pretty easy to record the events and watch at your convenience. Third, we need new events and new venues. This is where this column comes into play.

I think we can all agree that Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever…in a pool. What would happen if we changed the venue, to say, the Mississippi River? Great Britain just set a world record for the 4×100 meter medley. I didn’t see it, but I read about it. I’d certainly tune in to watch our British friends attempt a relay across the Big Muddy. Instead of using different strokes in the race, we’ll just send a barge downstream as an obstacle. The winner gets a gold medal and a steak from Walnut Hills Restaurant in Vicksburg.

Next on the list is boxing. Have you ever watched an Olympic boxing match? Me neither, so let’s change it too. I live a couple of miles down the road from the site of the last sanctioned bareknuckle world heavyweight championship. The fight, between John Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, went 75 rounds with Sullivan winning. It lasted over two hours in temperatures over 100 degrees. I say we take the gloves off and let our Olympians prove their mettle. Fights will begin at noon under the water tower at the intersection of Richburg Road and Sullivan-Kilrain Road. I even get visions of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV saying, “If he dies, he dies.” The last man standing gets a gold medal and an open bar tab at Sully’s Restaurant in Hattiesburg.

The third thing we are replacing is fencing. All of the ideas that I’ve had about sword fighting were crushed the first time I ever watched fencing. First, there is entirely too much body armor. Second, the “sword” is too thin and feminine looking. In changing this event, we will give our contestants the choice between two options: frog gigging on the Big Black River or flounder gigging on the Gulf Coast. Winners will be based off of how many frogs or flounder they return with and total weight. The winner will receive a gold medal and a meal of broiled flounder and fried frog legs from Crechale’s Restaurant in Jackson.

Last, we are going to combine all bicycle sports. There’s no point in having more than one, so we will include all facets in one big event. The race will begin on Highway 49, just south of Florence. Contestants must weave in and out of traffic through Florence and Richland. If you get ran over or hit a giant orange construction barrel, you are out. The course will continue onto Interstate 55 and into downtown Jackson. Once riders reach downtown, the road portion of the event is over. Now begins the off-road, Mississippi version of BMX and mountain biking. The narrow streets and large, hazardous potholes provide the perfect venue for this portion of the ride. The spoils of victory in such an event will be high. The winner receives a gold medal and the opportunity to decide whether or not Mississippi schools will wear masks this year.

I really do think we could do a great job in Mississippi with the Summer Olympics, at least from an entertainment standpoint! Shoot, we could even add noodling as an Olympic event! Wouldn’t that be a sight! Oh, the money I’d pay to watch two fellas from Iraq and Afghanistan trying to wrestle a 40 pound catfish from a hole in Eagle Lake! Maybe they’d understand us a little better afterward.

Since I’ve got the lighter side of this article out of the way, allow me to share something more pressing and serious. As most know, I am a baseball coach at William Carey University. In all of my years of playing ball and coaching, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. One of these is former USM skipper, Corky Palmer. Coach Palmer suffered a major stroke in 2020 and faces a very long recovery. He will require ongoing medical care for the foreseeable future. Any prayers, as well as financial assistance are greatly coveted. If you feel moved to donate to Coach Palmer’s aid, you may do so at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-coach-corky-palmer.

The Father of Waters Goes Unvexed

The setting sun beams down, creating thousands of tiny sparkles on the water. The smell of burnt diesel from a tug boat pushing a barge down river coincides with the smells of the outdoors. The sounds of birds flying over Desoto Island, and the occasional sound of a fish breaching the water are like music to my ears. I am on the Mississippi River, and I feel so at home.

As we dumped out of the Yazoo River into the Mississippi, I couldn’t help but think of how tall of a task Union General Ulysses S. Grant had. After the fall of Memphis into Union control, Vicksburg was the final Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Without Vicksburg, the Union could not effectively cut the Confederacy in half. I can imagine when Grant first laid eyes on the fortress in the bluffs that the scene was slightly overwhelming.

The river, as well as Vicksburg, was so important in the war that Abraham Lincoln stated, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close unless that key is in our pocket.” Even General William T. Sherman claimed that he would “slay millions” to secure the safety of navigation of the river. The defeat of Vicksburg, however, would not come easy. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign suffered failure after failure, including the sinking of the US Cairo, a Union ironclad boat. Finally, in March of 1863, Grant surrounded the City of Vicksburg, but could not penetrate its defenses. He settled for a siege, which lasted for 47 days until Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered the starving city on July 4, 1863. Lincoln, upon hearing the news, declared, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

The thoughts of Vicksburg 1863 continue to fill my mind until the sun sets. The sight of the last remaining beams of sunlight glistening on the water almost takes my breath away. It’s perfect. At this point in time, I don’t care if we catch a fish or not. I’m perfectly content, in this moment, to gaze in wonder at the Almighty’s creation. The light fades and my stomach growls, reminding me of why I’m here.

While we only technically took two days to put this trip together, Brandon and I have been talking about doing this for two years. The extent of my catfishing trips have mostly been relegated to small rivers and lakes. My general method for procuring fish has been trot lines, bank poles, handgrabbing, and the occasional rod and reel catch from a sandbar. His method for catching catfish is a little different.

I arrive at the Vicksburg boat launch around 5:30 in the evening. Brandon is already there, rigging the boat. He has seven total rod holders mounted to the boat. There are two on each side of the stern, one on both the port and starboard sides, and three mounted to the transom. Before I know it, we have a rod situated in each holder. I feel as though I’m about to embark on a deep sea fishing trip, except the water is muddy and there aren’t any tuna. Before we put the boat in, he walks over to a slack area of water along the river with a cast net. With one toss of the net, we now have bait for the night. The menu option for our targeted catfish will be shad.

Using much more sophisticated sonar than I’ve ever used in a river, we locate a nice drop-off at the mouth of the Yazoo River as it flows into the Mississippi. The current is strong, but it’s not stable. We try to drop anchor and fish the hole, but the current keeps spinning the boat around. We decide to try a different spot and head back into the Yazoo toward calmer waters. We anchor the boat where a canal runs into the Yazoo, and the water here is much calmer, keeping the boat steady. There’s only one thing in our way of fishing now…barges. This particular canal leads to an industrial area where barges are widely used. Luckily, barge traffic is slow due to the time of the night. We only encounter three barges while fishing this spot, one of which was practically on top of us before we ever heard it. The wake from the barges bounce our boat up and down in the water. It takes a few minutes before the water calms back down.

Now, we sit and wait. We have four baits in the water, with each rod equipped with a bell at the end. The moon is almost full, and I can see the tips of our rods in the night sky. I kick back in my seat and gaze at the stars while we have conversations of wildlife conservation, the future of our country, and baseball. Brandon is a Mississippi State grad, so he is obviously content to talk baseball all night long. Soon, a pleasant sound fills our ears…the sound of a bell ringing.

Brandon quickly jumps up and hammers down on the reel. Fish on! I grab the net with excitement and anticipation of what our catch will be. The fish surfaces next to the boat, and I net him, then bring him aboard. Our cut up gizzard shad did its job and brought us a nearly twenty pound blue catfish. The fish gets its name from its blueish-silver skin color. To be honest, it’s an ugly fish…but they taste great and are a lot of fun to catch.

As the night moves on, so do we. We change locations a couple of more times in search of a fish larger than the one we’ve caught. We stop for a while at what looks like a promising location, but it only yields bites from gar. I glance at my watch and it’s approaching 3am. It’s beyond time to head back to the ramp, so we pull our gear and lift anchor. As I glance at the Mississippi River one last time before leaving, I feel complete. I’ve finally fished the Father of Waters in one of the most important locations in United States history.

The Tranquility of a Solo Camping Trip

For quite some time I’ve wanted to do a solo camping trip along the river. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the company of friends and family on the river, I do. The majority of my fondest memories in the outdoors involve the companionship of others. I wanted to do this trip for a couple of different reasons.

The first reason for the solo trip, is that I wanted to really experience nature. I don’t think it’s possible to really experience all of the little things in the outdoors when you’re in the company of others. I’m always concerned about making sure others are enjoying their trip, or I’m engaged in conversation of some sort. I can’t focus all of my attention on my surroundings and take in each little sound. Maybe some can, but I find myself distracted amongst others. When you’re alone in the dark, in a place that you’ve never been before, you tend to notice each sound. That’s what I wanted from this trip.

The second reason for wanting to go this one alone, was to prove that I still can. It’s been close to twenty years since I’ve made a solo camping trip. In that time, I’ve learned a lot of new things. I’ve learned how to be still. I’ve learned how to make better, safer decisions. I’ve also learned that I’m not as young as I was the last time that I did this, nor am I in near as good of shape. However, being able to write this story is a testament that I’ve still got enough in the tank to go out alone and come back in one piece.

When I mentioned to my family that I wanted to do a solo trip, they all cringed at the thought. Given my track record for accidents and misfortune, almost nobody thought it was a good idea. I’m sure they thought I’d come home with a broken bone, stitches, or a busted boat. And I don’t blame them. I’ve had more than enough of my fair share of all of the above. Even so, this was a trip that I just had to make…for me.

The first part of this trip was the planning stage. I decided that I wanted to put in on the Pearl River in a location that I’d never fished before. Going to the same areas that I’ve fished previously didn’t seem adventurous enough for me. I looked the river over on my hunting map and found a sandbar that seemed suitable for camping. The only question from there was the water level. I couldn’t be sure that sandbar would even be there with the current river stage. There was no way of knowing the stage of the river when the satellite image was taken. I spent the next few days checking the river stage forecast to make sure it wasn’t scheduled to rise any more. This is an important step. The last thing you want to do when camping on a sandbar is wake up to find that the river has risen a foot, and you’re almost sleeping in the water.

Next, was the execution stage. My daughters and I took the afternoon to go to a local private pond and catch bait for my lines. We struggled a bit, but managed to land enough bait for me to run bank poles that night. I figured that I didn’t need to run more than 5-6 poles since I would be by myself. That goes back to knowing limitations and making better decisions with age. After catching bait, checking over my gear, and loading the boat, it was time to head to the river.

I arrived in time to get the poles put out and baited just before dark. Thankfully, the sandbar that I’d chosen to spend the night on was not submerged. I set up camp, parked myself in a chair, and began to take in the experience. Being on the river in the dark, miles from civilization, is incredibly tranquil. Each sound seemed like it was right next to me. I listened to bullfrogs bellow, owls hoot, crickets chirp, and the gentle sound of the river flowing downstream. I can say without a doubt that it was the most relaxed that I’ve been in a long time.

I built a small fire next to my tent for comfort, and sat and looked at the sky for hours. The skies were clear and stars glistened in the black canvas. The sound of the fire crackling added even more comfort to the rhythm of the river. I felt as connected with nature in a way that I cannot remember. Things that I was concerned about before this trip vanished right there on that sandbar.

Shortly before midnight, I decided to check my poles before going to sleep. During the boat ride, I encountered two different alligators and one agitated water moccasin. The gators were skittish enough to disappear as I approached their area, the water moccasin was not. We eventually agreed to live and let live.  After six poles checked, I had one flathead catfish in the boat. Not great, but to me it didn’t matter. I was there for the experience more than the fish.

The following morning, I awakened with the first light. The sounds from the night were mostly gone, but new sounds now filled the air. The diurnal creatures were beginning their day, myself included. I loaded my boat back up and began my trip down river, stopping to pull my poles. Out of the six, I landed one more flathead. The two fish combined will provide enough meat for a meal for my family, which to me qualifies it as a successful fishing trip.

After taking the boat out and heading home, I felt a sense of accomplishment and rejuvenation. My family was relieved that nothing catastrophic happened. If one could bottle that feeling of peace and serenity from that night on the sandbar and sell it, they’d be billionaires. If you have the opportunity to take a trip alone into God’s creation, do it, but move slow. Take it in and experience true peace.

Summer Dreaming of Winter Bucks

Rainy days drive me crazy. I can’t stand being cooped up in the house, but I also can’t stand being soaked to the bone while trying to fish. Years ago it didn’t bother me, but I’ve admittedly gotten softer with age. When the weather proves too extreme for me to go out, I usually resort to cleaning around the house. This is a never-ending task when you have young children, so there’s plenty to keep me busy.

During one of my rainy evening cleaning sessions, I stopped to admire a buck on the wall in our office. This particular deer was killed just after the New Year in 2016 and was my biggest buck until a couple of years ago. I finished my cleaning and sat on our couch, watching it rain, and caught myself longing for deer season.

Deer season 2015 was a slow year for me. I’d only been able to get in the woods a handful of times and had only killed one doe, which was harvested early during bow season. The rut came and went, and I only hunted once during that time period, with no luck. As the year came to a close, I’d all but decided that this deer season would be a bust. On New Year’s Day, my cousin called and invited me up to his place in the South Delta for a hunt. I was disgusted with deer season by this time, but the other part of me wanted to see a few guys that I hadn’t seen in a while. I decided to make the trip up to at least hang out for a couple of days.

My first hunt was on the morning of the 2nd. It was cold, and the weather was perfect. I saw plenty of deer that morning, but nothing to write home about. At this point, I was just happy to be seeing deer. The few trips that I’d made that season were marred by warm and rainy weather with very little deer activity. Today just felt different, and I appreciated that. We had lunch down the road in Onward, MS at the only store in Onward. They make a great hamburger if you ever have the chance to eat there. While eating, I can vividly remember thinking of how great an afternoon it was going to be. For the first time all season, I was anxious to get back in the woods.

We got back to the property and all decided where we would sit for the evening hunt. I chose a plot that we called the “Middle Field”, which had a large, elevated box stand on the south end of the food plot. The plot was about fifty yards wide and 400 yards long with cottonwood trees bordering each side. I wasn’t in the stand fifteen minutes when the first buck appeared 100 yards to my right. The buck wasn’t a “shooter”, but was fun to watch. He fed out into the plot and was visibly run down from the rut. While I was watching him I caught a glimpse of movement at the far end of the food plot. My adrenaline began to pump as I could immediately tell that it was a much larger deer.

I grabbed my binoculars and pointed them down the plot, hoping that this was what I thought it was. A quick glimpse confirmed my hopes. The buck was definitely a “shooter.” I quickly raised my rifle and got the deer in the cross-hairs. Before squeezing the trigger, my mind began to do math. The deer was at least 350 yards away. How high do I need to hold it above him to make a clean shot? I decided that the top of his back was a good spot and squeezed off a round. The 7mag blast filled the air and my ears were ringing. The deer took 2-3 quick jumps toward the cottonwoods and stopped at the edge. Did I miss him? I quickly bolted another round and aimed again. I made sure I was steady, but I didn’t have much time before the buck disappeared. I squeezed the trigger again and the buck vanished into the trees.

Shortly after the second shot, I received a message from a friend that was hunting with us. Barrett was hunting a field to my west and said the second shot sounded like it hit. My ears were ringing so loud inside that box that I couldn’t hear anything. I climbed down and walked to the area where the buck was and found one drop of blood. I made sure to mark it and went and got back in the stand to wait for the others to finish hunting. While waiting, I could hear more rumbling in the woods to my right. It sounded like a whole herd of deer coming through the woods.

When the subject of the noise finally made itself visible, it was a large wild hog. Brandon had given strict instruction to shoot every hog we saw on the property, so I wasted no time. Once again, the 7mag rang out canon-fire and the hog dropped in his tracks. My phone began to blow up again with questions of “what in the heck have you killed now?” and “is there a war going on?”

When darkness arrived so did all of the other hunters. Everyone was anxious to see what all had been killed in the “Middle Field.” The hog was easy to find, the deer was a little tougher. We went the spot that I’d marked earlier and began to fan out in the thick cottonwood trees looking for my buck. We searched and searched while only finding a few more drops of blood. Just as we were about to give up on the search, I decided to go in one last time. Not 25 yards into the woods, I nearly tripped over the dead buck. The search was over and my luck had finally changed.

Sometimes it’s really easy to get discouraged during hunting season. There will be times when the weather just won’t cooperate and the deer won’t move. The best thing you can do is keep hunting. One day the weather will change, the deer will move, and you’d better be in the woods ready to make the most of the moment! Speaking of weather, it’s raining again and I miss deer season.

Summer 2021: A Comedy of Errors

When I began writing my blog a little over a year ago, I never imagined that the articles would come so easy. I knew that I had some old material that I could dig into for a story, and figured I’d make a few new memories along the way. I was wayyyyy wrong! I joke with my neighbor from time to time about these articles practically writing themselves each week. At times I wonder if our lives are truly this chaotic, or if this is just normal. There have to be other families out there experiencing the same type of stuff as ours in this stage of our lives. Then again, how many families in our area are comprised of this much estrogen?

In the last year, I have had weeks where I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I’ve had weeks where I had no idea what I was going to write about. On the weeks where I’ve pondered my topic, something always happens to deliver it for me. This week has been one of those weeks. Sure, I’ve got tons of old fishing tales and hunting adventures to sling an article together, but there’s something about writing in the moment that I enjoy more. Everyone has an old story they can tell, but does everyone else proudly hold the title of “chaos coordinator” on a weekly basis?

In a house with three girls, four including my wife, each day presents its own challenges. “This one is being mean.” “That one didn’t pick up her part of the toys.” “She hit me.” The list goes on and on. Needless to say, when I see a brief, fleeting moment at an opportunity for peace, I jump on it. Things were quiet at the office last Friday, so I thought I’d head home early in hopes of doing a little fishing. Saturday and Sunday were to be filled with Independence Day activities at my in-laws neighborhood and in our subdivision, so Friday had to be the day. My wife assured me that we didn’t have any plans for the evening, so I was cleared for take-off.

By the time I arrived at the house, the weather had me concerned. Dark clouds filled the sky to the south, and I certainly didn’t want to get caught on the lake in a thunderstorm. I checked the radar and felt confident that it would be a quick shower, and the evening would be clear. My wife said she needed to run an errand anyway, so I agreed to watch the two older kids while she and the little one drove to pay the water bill. No harm, right? Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this is a rare moment for me. Very seldom do I get the opportunity to poke fun at my wife. She is definitely the most responsible out of the two of us, and rarely, if ever, has an “oops moment”, unlike myself.

So, my wife arrived back at the house after paying the water bill after what seemed like an eternity. I could tell immediately that something was wrong. She ushered me outside to have a look at her SUV. There was a long scratch from the right headlight all the way to the side mirror. Visibly shaken, she proceeded to tell me of how Allie dropped something and she leaned down to get it…while driving. In doing so, she pulled the vehicle just off of the road and took out two mailboxes. Being the understanding husband that I am, I assured her that everything was fine. Not! To say that I was aggravated is a gross understatement. However, being the responsible and good natured person that she is, she stopped and told the owners of the mailboxes about her accident. They were extremely kind to her and just told her to send her husband over to fix them. Husband? But I’m supposed to go fishing!

I drove the half mile down the street to scene of the crime. Sure enough, one mailbox was demolished and the other a little banged up. I met with the owner then headed to the hardware store to get materials to rebuild his mailboxes. Fishing sure would be nice right about now. I made semi-quick work of replacing the mailboxes, much to the pleasure of the owner, who kept me company during my toil. I joked with him that this would have been better had it happened about 8 months ago. My dad, recently retired, was a plant manager at the largest mailbox manufacturer in North America, and my wife had a ten year old car instead of a brand new vehicle.

With the work done, I still had time to toss a line. I hurried back to the house, let my wife know the repairs were finished, and loaded up two kayaks in my truck. By the way, I have my truck back, so please don’t steal my catalytic converter because it screws up my fishing. I told my oldest to get in the truck if she wanted to go, which she did, and we headed to the lake. I didn’t even bother to eat dinner, there was no time to waste.

We slid the kayaks into the water just in time for the evening bite. I cheerfully watched my daughter paddle into position to cast. She’s gotten so much better in a kayak with very little practice. Her excitement echoed across the lake when she’d hook a fish. I think it’s worth mentioning that she’s not cane pole fishing with crickets, neither. She’s bass fishing with artificial bait and learning how to present her lure. It’s pure joy to watch her figure things out, mostly on her own. It makes for some pretty “proud daddy” moments.

The evening sky begins to fade, providing us with a sunset that appears to be painted by God himself. We only landed one fish, but the short time of relative peace on the lake together make the evening something out of a storybook. It’s the perfect ending to a chaotic day, and I’m sure it won’t be the last of its kind.