Part 2: The End of an Unforgettable Deer Season

With my truck pointed north, I’d often look up at the outdoor temperature gauge to see what it was reading. Per usual, the further north I got, the lower the temperature reading would be. However, once I was a little over half-way to my destination, it began to drop dramatically. Keep in mind, I’m wearing shorts and virtually no shoes. I expected the temperature to drop, but not before I arrived at the land. It had dropped almost thirty degrees, and I wasn’t even there yet. By the time I made it to the land to hunt, the temperature gauge was reading 35 degrees.

When I arrived at the gate, a couple of guys were already there. Among them was my friend, Brad, whom I affectionately refer to as my personal “deer skinner”. Brad brought his nephew, Rhett, with him for the evening, who is a college baseball player in Kansas. I immediately liked this kid, obviously, and was glad he was along for the trip. Also hunting for the evening was our deer camp “work horse”, McCaa Donald. McCaa did most of the food plots on the land this year, and in my opinion, were the finest food plots I’ve ever had the privilege of hunting. Each one bears resemblance to a well-manicured football field. Rounding out the evening lineup was another friend, Barrett Page, and his son, Jack. Barrett is a mountain of a man who is probably the most prepared, and well dressed, deer hunter that I’ve ever known.

As soon as I began to unload my four-wheeler, and put actual clothes on, it began to sleet pretty hard. The cold air combined with ice falling from the sky took my breath away. I hurriedly gathered my gear and made my way into the tent to change. By the time I came out of the tent, the sleet had changed to more of a wintry mix. The others went to their hunting locations in their trucks. I was going to have to take my four-wheeler to mine. This was, perhaps, the most miserable four-wheeler ride of my life. You want to go fast to hurry and get out of the weather, but going fast makes the sleet hurt when it hits your face. Not to worry, the sleet didn’t last long before it turned to big snowflakes. When I finally reached the location I wanted to park the four-wheeler in, my outer layer was pretty well soaked. I continued the rest of my journey on foot to my stand.

The wind was absolutely howling. I picked a shooting house to spend the evening hunt in, out of the elements. In order to keep the snow from blowing in the shooting house, I had to close the windows. It was bone-chilling cold. Given the conditions, I had no optimism of seeing deer. However, every single other person was seeing deer! They’d all stayed dry in their trucks and were seeing a bunch of deer. I suffered through the cold ride, I had to see deer, right? Wrong. I spent over three hours in the shooting house and only saw a few wood ducks. This just didn’t seem fair! Hunting rarely ever is.

The night was going to test my intestinal fortitude. Temperatures were supposed to be in the mid-20’s, and the wind chill was already in the teens by the time I got settled in. I made a makeshift clothesline in the tent to hang and dry my clothes with the propane heater. Snow covered the top of the tent and the wind was relentless. This was going to be the longest night ever. I don’t run my heater while I’m asleep, so that extra blanket I packed was going to come in handy. I thought the best thing I could do was go to sleep and hope not to freeze.

I awakened before daylight the next morning in the exact position that I laid down in. The wind had subsided some, but still blew enough to make it very uncomfortable. I cranked the heater up, got dressed, and headed to my stand. When daylight arrived it was cloudy and windy. I couldn’t stop shivering in the stand and found myself praying for the sun to come out. When it finally did, it was like an immediate morale boost. It also got the deer up and moving. In my morning hunt, which lasted until around 10:30, I saw a few different small bucks and a few does. Having a little meat in the freezer already, I was in search of a mature buck, so I passed on all of the deer I saw. My gut told me it was lunch so I climbed down and headed back to my tent, tossed down a sandwich, and made preparations for my final hunt.

I chose the box stand where my daughter killed her first deer for my final hunt of the season. The stand overlooks a nice food plot about 100 yards in length and 30 yards in width. I’d hoped it would be warm in the box, but the constant breeze kept it cool. It wasn’t too long before a young buck entered the plot. He had one beam that forked on one side and a nub on the other. I enjoyed watching him feed before he slipped off into the woods. As the sun began to set, more deer entered the plot to feed. With time running out on my season, I began to get restless. That’s when he showed up.

The buck came seemingly out of nowhere and began to run other deer off. I knew he had to be a mature buck. His body was much larger than the other deer in the plot, and they respected his presence. When he finally became stationary, I clicked off my safety, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger. Just like that, for the second year in a row, my deer season was over. Unlike last year, there was no celebration at the camp. There was no “skinning party” to be had. My season ended just like it began…just me and the woods.

Part 1: The End of an Unforgettable Deer Season

Many times I have sat in a deer stand and watched the sun fade below the trees on my last hunt of the season. The shadows begin to creep across the landscape. The cold evening breeze breathes one last gasp before a dark stillness takes over. The forest becomes quiet as stars begin to blanket the sky. I take one last look at my hunting grounds. There’s nothing there. An empty feeling comes over me as I pack up my gear and walk out of the woods for the last time. The cruel winter has left me empty handed, unable to take that buck that has filled my thoughts since October.

That scenario has played out over a dozen times in my life. I’ve had years where I put in a ton of work only to come up short, and I’ve had years where I didn’t put in much work and came up short. When you don’t put the time in, and the last day comes and goes, it’s hard to feel upset about the outcome. It’s the years where you hunt and hunt and hunt still coming up short that hurt the most. I’ve often said that I care as much about the experience as I do the killing, and I do, but I’d be lying if I told you I’d never left the last hunt of the season not feeling down in the dumps.

Fortunately, last season I didn’t have to endure that feeling. I climbed into a stand on the last evening of the last day with no pressure. I’d already killed a nice buck earlier in the year and planned to just sit and enjoy the evening. Much to my surprise, another opportunity at a shooter buck was presented and I was able to end the season on an incredibly high note. It was the best season of my life in terms of killing mature bucks. It was a season spent with friends at the camp making memories that will last forever. My daughter was able to kill her second buck last season, as well, adding to the fun.

Going into this season, I knew things would be different. Not having the house probably meant I’d have fewer companions, which turned out to be accurate. There were so many uncertainties. How would I manage without the creature comforts that I’d become accustomed to? How would my equipment hold up in bad weather? How much could I endure before throwing in the towel? All of these questions, and more, were answered at one time or another this season. I felt like I learned a new lesson each time I went to the land to hunt. I also learned a lot about myself and how much I love the outdoors. I’ve never felt as close to nature as I have this season, and for good reason.

My biggest regret of the season is not getting in a hunt with my oldest daughter. It’s become a tradition of sorts for us over the last three or four years and it hurt not having her there at some point. Unlike me, she has a greater appreciation for the finer things in life, namely indoor plumbing. A hot shower and the privacy of a bathroom were creature comforts that she wasn’t willing to do without in order to kill a deer. I don’t blame her. There were many times this year that I longed desperately for a hot shower and a sink to wash my hands. As for the other, I’m a guy so I don’t really mind having to do my business outside. One more way to feel that much more connected to nature!

As for my equipment holding up, it performed as well as I could hope for. Early in the season I would take my tent down each time I’d leave. It was a lot of work to pack up everything each time so in late November I decided to leave the tent standing. It was in an area that wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, so I wasn’t too worried about it being a burden. I was also able to stash some things in there for future use instead of hauling it back and forth each trip. Over the course of almost two months the tent endured at least three pretty good storms. Thankfully, upon my return it was seemingly unfazed with all of my equipment that was inside left intact.

How much could I endure before throwing in the towel? When I think about this question, I’m not really sure it was answered. I spent some awfully cold nights (for a South Mississippi boy) alone in that tent, at times shivering so hard it shook the lantern hanging above me. I remained committed, albeit not without questioning my sanity at times, to finishing what I started. Never once did I feel like saying “forget it” and packing up and going home. Some will read this and think, “whoopity-do, you camped in a tent.” I agree, it’s not earth-shattering, but having spent all of my prior hunting trips in the warmth and safety of a house, it was a big deal for me. And if you haven’t been camping in the woods, alone in sub-freezing temperatures, I don’t expect you to understand the hardship. I do, however, encourage you to try it. You’ll learn more about yourself than you realize.

The dreaded “final hunt” was approaching. I packed up my gear in the truck and hugged my family goodbye for a couple of days. Recently, we’d experienced the warmest December that I can ever remember, but now it’s January 2nd. The temperature is still close to 70 when I pull out of the driveway wearing shorts and a pair of Crocs (I’m fashionable). The forecast is calling for a major temperature drop so I packed an extra blanket for my trip. I also made sure I had enough propane canisters to run my heater and my stove. When I left the house for the “final hunt”, I never could have imagined just how challenging and exciting it would be. To be continued….

2021: A Year’s Worth of Memories in Review

Am I the only person that feels like 2021 has gone by in a flash? I feel like we just turned the calendar yesterday! After what many perceived to have been a dreadful 2020, this year felt like a new start. Many restrictions were lifted early in the year, and the hope of vaccines getting us back to normal was a New Year’s wish that I’m sure many made. Obviously, that didn’t exactly work out and here we are about to turn the calendar again in hopes that 2022 will bring back some normalcy to our lives. Don’t bet on it.

For myself and our family, 2021 was filled with many new obstacles, as well as many new triumphs. We made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and made enough memories to last multiple lifetimes. We endured another year relatively unscathed by injury or major sickness (always a blessing) and watched our children reach some milestones in their lives. Aside from watching politicians attempt to burn our country down, 2021 hasn’t been so bad, after all.

The year began as any year should begin…with me bagging a nice buck. Oddly enough, the end of deer season was the beginning of the New Year. That’s the good thing about the Mississippi deer hunting season, you get to start your year off the right way. The buck turned out to be the oldest deer that I’d ever killed and one of my favorite bucks of all time. Even better, one of my very best friends and his son were at the camp to experience it with me. 2021 was looking up already!

Deer season quickly turned into baseball season, as it has done each year over the last thirty years. I traded in my rifle for a fungo and camouflage turned into a pinstripe uniform. In case you were wondering, that’s where the name “Pinstripes to Camo” is derived from. The sounds and smells of spring filled the air, and I became acclimated to hotels and late night meals. Our team was winning, which always makes for a fun spring. The temperature heated up a little more and so did our guys. We rolled through our conference tournament in Mobile, AL for our first conference championship since 2009. That momentum carried into our regional in St. Louis, MO and to within one game of going back to the NAIA World Series. My heart broke for our seniors as I watched them hug their teammates for the last time. Losing the last game of the season is never a good thing, but I was grateful for their efforts and proud of their accomplishments.

Taking a spring gobbler in 2021 eluded me again…continuing my streak of 35 years. I’m beginning to feel like a Chicago Cubs fan by saying, “Just wait until next year.” Maybe 2022 will be the year I finally put one of those beautiful feathered fans on my wall. Then again, our schedule for the month of April is almost 100% on the road so I wouldn’t bet on me bagging a Tom. 2021 afforded me one turkey hunting trip, which turned into a final farewell to our camp, where I’d made so many wonderful memories with friends and my children.

Summer rolled around and I was ready to go fishing. I attempted one handgrabbing trip, but the river would never cooperate with me, and I never stuck my hand into a hole. By the time I returned to my truck, some jackwagon had stolen my catalytic converter. River trips were put on a hold for a while after that. I decided, in an effort to make my wife feel better, to stick to public lakes for a while. During this time, my oldest two daughters learned how to drive the boat, which should prove handy in the future. I plan to teach them how to run trotlines and bank poles in the summer of 2022. This should nearly complete my mission to make sure no boys ever talk to them. The last phase will include learning how to properly chew tobacco.

Just before fall baseball started, I made my first ever solo camping trip on the river. It was a bit nerve-wracking, especially being my first trip back since the theft. Not too long into the night, the sounds of the river soothed me and made me feel at home again. I was able to catch a few fish, while at the same time proving to myself that I can go out alone and get it done. I highly encourage everyone to experience this at least once. There’s a peace in being alone at night on the river that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

Archery season finally arrived in Mississippi and a whole new world was opened up to me. Camping and hunting has provided an entirely new challenge. Not having a kitchen, or a bathroom, has probably kept a lot of friends from joining me this season. I’m ok with that, but I do often miss the companionship while hunting. I’ve experienced all kinds of new things this deer season and have learned to embrace my fears of being in the woods alone for multiple nights. When you’re alone in the woods at night you hear every little sound. You can either let it drive you crazy, or you can lay back and learn to enjoy it. However, I don’t care how tough you are, when an owl lands on the limb above your tent and begins hooting at 3:00 in the morning it’s going to scare the crap out of you.

The best thing, without any doubt, to happen in 2021 was watching my oldest give her life to Christ and follow through with baptism. I don’t care how much good, or bad, the world throws our way, there’s no substitute for the feeling I got watching her. There will never be a buck killed, a fish caught, or a championship won that will match that feeling. I don’t know what 2022 will have in store for us, but beating the memories of 2021 is going to be hard. I hope you and your families all have a safe and happy 2022 filled with good health and new outdoor experiences.

Smith County: The Place for Old, Rusty Cars and Christmas Eve Bucks

It almost feels like karma that the opening week of the rut in the South Delta has come and gone while I’ve been mostly confined to my bed with a touch of pneumonia. That’s what I get for writing about how we’ve avoided any real illness in the last year or so. Thankfully, I’ve pretty much turned the corner and am ready to head up to join in on the action. I’ve been hearing reports that deer are chasing like crazy up there and I think that’s what helped lead to my quick healing. Even not being 100%, one cannot just lay in bed and miss the rut while still calling themselves a hunter. Defying the wishes of my family to stay and home and rest, my truck is loaded and ready to go.

I’d like to thank everyone for not blowing my inbox up with hate mail from last week’s article. Maybe my three readers didn’t disappear after-all at the mention of banning the use of feeders! On the other hand, our podcast might have taken a hit after last week’s episode. Anybody that knows me knows that I love the folks in Smith County, but that’s not going to stop me from telling some great stories and, perhaps, throwing a little shade from time to time. Let’s be honest for a second, I’m from Jones County…we ain’t much better. Then again, I graduated from Laurel High School so that keeps me a cut above the rest of you Jones Countians.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I will lay down my arms, momentarily, and tell a good Smith County story. This is a story that doesn’t include having dozens of old, rusty cars in the yard, or someone burning a trailer down. It also happens to coincide with the rut and Christmas, so this week is a perfect time to share it.

I hunted as much as I could in high school, but hunting always took a backseat to baseball. After-all, hunting wasn’t going to get me into a college or pay the bills one day. In my limited experience in the woods, it only made sense that I never really killed a buck worthy of conversation. I never really knew what I was doing, and I didn’t have the time to practice and get better. College was more of the same. I would hunt when I came home for the holidays, but it was mostly just to shoot a doe or two for meat. Baseball consumed most of my time and the remaining energy was probably used to pursue sins of the flesh. After meeting my would be wife, and finishing my playing career, I turned some of my attention to the outdoors.

I began to pay more attention to the annual rut and the best times to see deer moving. I started to actually scout the areas that I was hunting instead of the old “show and go” method I had been using. Two days before Christmas in 2009, I found the best rub and scrape line that I’d ever really seen. It was in a little finger of woods next to a cutover that I’d been hunting some that season. The land was privately owned in Center Ridge, Mississippi (in the middle of Smith County). All of the sign was fresh, so I strapped my climber to a tree just downwind of the markings. The following morning was supposed to be cold and still, so I hoped I’d get my first real opportunity at a mature buck. I quietly slipped back out of the woods and prepared for the next morning hunt.

The weather forecast was accurate. The temperature was well below freezing (much unlike what Christmas will be this year) and there was virtually no wind. I got to my stand well before the sun came up and quietly climbed up the tree. Before climbing, I sprayed a little bit of Tink’s Doe-in-Heat on some of the bushes surrounding the scrapes. After getting settled, the sun began to slowly creep up. Sounds of the woods came to life in an instant. Birds and squirrels cheerfully awakened and began to move to warm themselves up. Soon, deer were doing the same thing.

The sun hadn’t been up more than 15 minutes when I heard the first twig snap. From where I was sitting, I could see the cutover. The sound of a large animal moving through the cutover got louder and louder. Finally, I got the first glimpse of the buck’s antlers. At the time, he was by far the largest buck that I’d ever seen while hunting. When the buck finally made it out of the cutover and to the forest line, he was no more than 30 yards from where I was sitting. He seemed intent on going to check his scrapes from the previous day. Another couple of steps…and BOOM!

The buck dropped right in his tracks. He laid dead less than 20 yards from my tree. My ears were ringing and my hands were shaking. I composed myself enough to call my dad and tell him what happened, but hadn’t yet got my legs to stop shaking enough to climb down the tree. After 20 or so minutes, I was finally able to make my descent. I walked up to the deer and couldn’t believe it. I’d finally done it! I tried dragging the buck out, but he weighed well over 200 pounds, and I was still a little shaky. Another phone call to my Great-Uncle Elvin Henderson (a Smith County legend) and he came and helped me get the buck out of the woods.

I’ll never forget my Christmas Eve Buck. It wasn’t my first buck that I’d killed, but it was my first mature buck. It was also the first time that I’d ever successfully scouted an area. That day changed hunting for me. I actually fell in love with it. And when I say “fell in love”, I don’t mean with killing a deer. I mean that I fell in love with the entire process of hunting. Successfully taking a mature buck is a load of fun, but it’s even more fun when you’ve put in some work. It also feels good to have bragging rights at the family Christmas. Here’s to hoping I can bag another one this year ahead of Christmas…especially before making the trip to Smith County.

Covid Is the Least Concerning Problem For Deer

Over the last year and a half, I have desperately tried to avoid writing about anything related to Covid. I felt like there were plenty of other folks scaring the mess out of everyone without me adding to it. That said, I cannot deny that Covid hasn’t been a major factor in my life, and everyone else’s, for almost two years. My family has fortunately been spared the tragedy that many families have had to deal with. I’m grateful that we’ve yet to encounter the virus in any way aside from minor inconveniences in our day to day life. However, just when I think we are starting to turn a corner with the virus, new studies show that deer can contract it and pass it to humans.

Many game animals have to deal with various diseases, a lot of which can be transferred to humans. Take rabbits for example. Rabbits sometimes carry a disease called Tularemia. It’s been known to kill off large populations of rabbits in the wild, and it also has the ability to be transferred to humans. People can get Tularemia through tick bites or from handling and eating undercooked meat. The symptoms of Tularemia vary greatly, from fever and a headache to much more serious problems, like pneumonia and even death. Trichinosis is another disease passed on from wild game to humans. Trichinosis, most often is acquired through eating undercooked bear meat. Once you have trichinosis, the odds are that you’ll have it for life…even if you don’t realize it. Symptoms of Trichinosis range from diarrhea to fever and muscle pain. Both, Tularemia and Trichinosis can be treated with medication.

The fact that game animals are affected by disease can be chalked up, in my opinion, to nature doing its thing. The animal kingdom is not unlike any other in that there has to be a balance. The new studies that show Covid in deer populations shouldn’t come as a surprise. Deer have been dealing with various diseases for a long time and will continue to do so in the future. Deer have been known to contract Hemorrhagic Disease, more commonly known as “blue tongue”. This disease is brought on by small, biting flies mainly during the summer months. Hemorrhagic Disease is not always fatal in whitetails, but ranks among the top leading causes of death in otherwise normally healthy deer. Fortunately, this disease has never been known to be transferred to humans from consumption of meat from an infected animal. State reports showed a rise in Hemorrhagic Disease in deer populations for 2021 in Mississippi.

Brain abscesses are another common problem for whitetail deer. These abscesses often occur from bacterial infections in wounds on a whitetail’s head. Wounds to the head are common, especially in whitetail bucks that engage in fights with other bucks. Deformed antler growth can also be a source for the infection that causes abscesses. This is not an immediate death sentence for whitetails, but it can be fatal. Once again, this is something that is fortunately not passed on to humans.

The most common disease that deer contract in North America, and the most popular to talk about before the announcement of Covid in deer, is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). As of this summer, CWD has been confirmed in 25 different states, including Mississippi. I have a hard time accepting that if it’s been found in Mississippi there’s no cases of it in Alabama or Louisiana. I also have a hard time believing that it hasn’t been here for longer than we think. We didn’t just miraculously stumble onto the first few deer in the state to have the disease. It’s been here and it’s staying here.

CWD is not treatable in whitetails, and it’s 100% fatal. A deer may have CWD and not show any signs or symptoms for over a year. I’m not a scientist, and I had to change my college major from Biology to History after taking Anatomy and Physiology (true story), but CWD is caused from a prion. From what I’ve learned about prions you pretty much can’t kill them without the aid of a nuclear weapon. If a CWD infected deer dies in the wild, and its body decomposes, those prions can even live in the soil where the decomposed body was for a lengthy period of time. Why does this matter, you ask? Let’s say grass grows where this decomposition took place and another deer feeds on that grass. Technically, that deer could potentially now be infected with CWD. That’s why I believe CWD was in Mississippi long before we ever knew for sure that it was here.

The million dollar question is, “How do we keep CWD from spreading?” To me, the short answer is we can’t. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything we can to slow the infection. I’ve long said that there are entirely too many corn feeders in Mississippi. One way to slow infection is to get rid of them. I might lose two of my four readers after making that statement, but I believe this is a surefire way to slow the spread of CWD. It’s well documented throughout the country that the use of feeders is a great way to spread the disease. Deer often acquire CWD through saliva, and what do feeders do? They bring deer to one specific spot to feed, often in large numbers. Proper disposal of remains could also go a long way in the prevention of the spread of CWD. Tossing a carcass out in the neighbors pasture isn’t only distasteful, it could also help the spread of the disease. There goes another reader.

Thankfully, so far there’s been no reports of CWD in humans. Now, I wouldn’t shoot a deer that exhibited symptoms of CWD with the intention of eating that animal, but for now you can rest easy about consuming venison. If you do see, or kill, a deer that is acting odd and shows signs of potential CWD, it’s best to contact your local wildlife officer. You can also report all of this to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on their website. As hunters, our number one job is conservation and making sure that future generations are able to enjoy hunting and fishing as much as we have been able to. All of that being said, the rut is starting so hurry up and get in the woods.

Rut Aside, When’s the Best Time to Hunt?

As the days pass, we get closer and closer to the rut. For many, this will provide the best opportunity to bag a trophy buck (trophy meaning whatever makes you happy). The bucks are obviously a little easier to kill during this time, as they throw caution to the wind in pursuit of hot does. But, what about bagging your trophy outside of the rut? I don’t claim to be any better of a hunter than the next person, but I’d like to discuss a few things that have worked for me.

Before I even dive into different approaches to help you be more successful in your hunt, here’s a disclaimer. You may do exactly the same thing as me and never see a shooter buck on the hoof. You may do the polar opposite of me and kill a Booner every year. There’s no right, or wrong, way to skin a cat. This is simply what seems to work for me. And that’s not set in stone. Sometimes you have to change your approach on the fly, which I’ve done numerous times, with success and failure.

The first thing that is important to me is keeping a journal. After each hunt, I take a little time to detail the conditions. I keep up with the location that I’m hunting, the date, time, weather conditions, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, temperature, and finally, my results. I jot down whether or not I saw any deer, what direction they came from, what direction they went, and what type of deer they were. For me, in hunting, as well as baseball, past performance is the greatest indicator of the future. Obviously, this isn’t always perfectly accurate. There are other external factors that often play a role in whether or not you see deer. They could have been bumped by other hunters or predators. Their food sources could be changing. You really just never know, but keeping a journal will help you pattern your deer in the event they haven’t been tampered with.

I have a lot of friends that swear by hunting with the lunar calendar. Aside from a full moon, this is something that I never even looked at until a few years ago. The more I pay attention to it, the more of a believer in it I become. I’ve found the lunar calendar to be more useful when the weather pattern stays relatively the same. The moon phase hasn’t been a “be all, end all” game changer, but the different phases do seem to affect deer movement. I’ve seen more deer activity during the “New Moon” phase during normal hunting times in the morning and evening. Some hunters won’t even get out of bed during a full moon and will hunt during the midday hours. I’m not one of those guys. I’ve noticed more late morning and early afternoon activity during the full moon, but not enough to make myself sleep in. Instead, I’ll just hunt later and get back in the woods earlier during the full moon.

For me, weather may have the most significant impact on whether or not I’ll see deer. I’ve had more success on the front end and back end of weather fronts than anything else. Over the years, I’ve noticed that deer that are up and moving when rain begins will continue to move, but deer that aren’t moving will stay bedded until it stops. If you can brave the elements to be in your stand just before the rain ends, be ready to see deer when it stops. There’s been many times I’ve waited in absolute misery to be able to be in position when the deer start to move, and it’s worked. If you do this, be sure to take measures to keep your weapon dry. Take care of your gear and it will take care of you.

We don’t get a lot of cold weather in Mississippi, but when we do, make sure you’re in the woods. There’s not much better than hunting a quiet, frosty morning. The deer may not move at first light, but when the sun gets high enough to burn the frost off, the deer will start to move around. This is my favorite time to hunt. For me, if we are going to have a good frost, I don’t care what the moon phase is. Weather trumps moon. Afternoons ahead of a good frost have also proven successful. The deer activity really seems to pick up in the evening, just before dark, ahead of a good freeze. Barometric pressure has also proven to be a nice guide when hunting. On cool, high pressure days I like to stick close to food plots. When the pressure is low, I’ve had more success hunting close to bedding areas. Once again, this isn’t a sure thing, but it makes sense given deer are more likely to stay close to home with an approaching front.

Regardless of whether you hunt the moon phases or the weather patterns, one thing is for certain. You can’t kill a buck if you are sitting at home on the couch. That being said, I do believe it’s best to save certain areas for the right conditions. If you have the patience and the ability to do this, you will greatly increase your odds of having success. The best thing is to go with your gut. Sometimes it will betray you and you’ll come up empty, but that’s why they call it “hunting” and not “killing.” Keep a journal, have a good time, and get in the woods!

The Best Camping Trip Ever

So far this deer season, each trip that I’ve taken to the camp has been a solo trip. I’ve had a different learning experience each time. I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable of going out into the woods and surviving on my own, not that there will ever be a time that calls for that. When you’re alone in the woods, especially at night, you hear each little sound. Your senses are a little sharper than usual. However, even as much as I’ve enjoyed my solo trips, deer camp is much more fun when someone else is there to share it with you.

On Thursday, we had a Thanksgiving meal that can’t be beat. True to my word, not a single piece of turkey was consumed. This year, with my last article a topic of conversation, there was no denying my “No turkey on Thanksgiving” protest. That said, nobody was overly excited with my idea of “Swampsgiving”, but my mother-in-law allowed me to make the deer rolls. The rolls didn’t disappoint and complimented the rest of the meal very well. At least I thought they did, and nobody complained so I’m taking it as a win. Shortly after lunch, I began to prepare for a weekend trip to the deer camp. I packed all of the usual gear and planned to head out the next morning. This time, however, I wanted to do one thing differently.

Chris Coulter, who I’ve mentioned in my articles before, is one of my favorite hunting buddies and is also co-hosting a podcast with me. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, we have a podcast now. Here’s my shameless plug for you to tune into Apple Podcasts or Spotify and listen to the weekly “Pinstripes to Camo Podcast.” On the show, myself, Chris, and my cousin, Hunter McCool, discuss all things outdoors in a lighthearted, conversational way. Back to the story. I called Chris and asked if he’d like to join me on a camping trip to Vicksburg to kill a little time in the woods. To my delight, he was just as excited as I was. Chris and his eight year old son, Mack, would be joining me for my first rifle hunt of the season. Since I had most of the necessary equipment for the trip, they provided the groceries for the weekend. I’m incredibly grateful that they got the groceries instead of me. We ate so much better than we would have.

After we all arrived at the land and set up camp, we headed out to hunt. We both chose box stands on food plots for the evening hunt, and we both saw plenty of deer. The temperature began to drop quickly as the sun faded and deer began to fill up my food plot. Unfortunately, none of them met my standards for the evening. When darkness fell, I picked up Chris and Mack, and we headed back to the camp. Chris lit our fire and began to go to work on dinner. He whipped up some steaks in a skillet and sliced them like fajita meat. He then added bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and brussel sprouts and served it over diced up potatoes that he cooked over the fire’s coals. I don’t know if I was just hungry or if this was the best camping meal that I’d ever eaten. I’m leaning toward it being the best camping meal of all time.

The fire is exactly what I’ve been missing in my solo camping trips. There’s something, other than it keeping you warm, that is comforting and relaxing about a campfire. We sat around the fire for a while talking about our hunts and laughing about experiences from previous years. I enjoyed watching Mack and his father share this moment, and it reminded me of camping experiences with my dad as a kid. This trip was going to be unique, though, because the temperature was going to drop well below freezing for the night. Mack’s sleepy eyes told us it was time for bed so we headed into the tent for the night. The two of them bundled up on an air mattress, and I bunked on a cot that Chris brought. It didn’t take more than a few minutes and I could hear Mack breathing heavy. Chris and I laughed at how easily he went to sleep.

Sleep didn’t come so easy for me and Chris. After finally slipping into a deep sleep, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of an owl. He was so close it seemed like he was on top of our tent. That normally soothing “hoot” was about as annoying as it could possibly be. Finally, the owl left and I drifted off to sleep again, but not for long. I had set up our camp on a ridgeline and later discovered that a buck had made a small scrape just down from the tent. Around 2:30 in the morning, that buck must have come to check it. He couldn’t have been more than 10-15 yards from the tent when he began blowing and stomping. It woke Chris and I both up. The annoyed buck did his thing for a few minutes before finally trotting off into the woods. Back to sleep we went.

My alarm went off and the morning greeted us with ice and frost on everything. We cranked the portable heater up as we got dressed for the morning hunt. The cold air stung as we rode the four wheeler to our destinations. After our morning hunt, we returned to camp and Chris cooked another meal that couldn’t be beat. This time we feasted on deer sausage with peppers and onions. For the first time ever, I gained weight while camping. The trip was topped off when my buddy, Brad, and his friend, Frank, showed up to hunt. The only thing that could have possibly made this trip better would have been one of us killing a big buck.

Alone time is good, and is often needed. The solo trips that I’ve taken have been as much therapeutic as they have been anything else. On the other hand, this is probably my favorite hunting trip that I’ve taken in a long time, if not ever. Good food, good friends, and watching a father teach his son about the outdoors is hard to beat. I hope there is more of that going on than I realize, because the world needs more dads taking their kids camping and hunting.

Life Is Too Short to Eat Something I Don’t Want

Why? Why do we continue to push turkey and dressing on Thanksgiving every single year? It doesn’t even make sense. It’s not even turkey season in Mississippi. If we can shut down entire oil pipelines, the least we could do is get rid of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Around this time last year, I wrote an article about my disdain for turkey on Thanksgiving. A year later, and hopefully a year wiser, my feelings haven’t changed. The mere thought of meal after meal of turkey makes me want to fast for the entire week. So, guess what? I’m protesting turkey for Thanksgiving again this year, except this time everyone in the family is going to know.

Last year, I detailed a few recipes for venison to substitute the traditional turkey for your family meal. However, I failed to cook any of those dishes and had to settle for ham. My protest didn’t gain any traction, and I’m not even sure that my family even realized that I didn’t eat the turkey. This year, things will be different. I’ve already planned to grill my deer rolls for our Thursday meal and have even thought of adding some other items to the menu just to prove my point. You’re probably thinking about how selfish that is…and you’re right. Life is too short to force myself to eat something that I don’t want to eat. I had to do that for eighteen years while living with my parents. Now, I’m going to eat according to the wishes of my palate.

Thanksgiving provides a unique opportunity to showcase different foods to family and friends. You’ve got a captive audience, and the entire day pretty much revolves around the meal. So why would you want to waste the opportunity cooking the same old traditional thunder-chicken? Most anybody can whip up a turkey for their Thanksgiving meal. Now, that doesn’t mean it will taste good or keep you from burning your house down. I still have visions of the fire department having to show up to extinguish a fried turkey gone wrong. Regardless, cooking a turkey can’t be that difficult or fewer people would do it. That being said, I need to cook something on Thanksgiving that would be the polar opposite of turkey and take my protest to the next level. It needs to be something that my wife’s family leaves thinking that I’m either crazy or a genius.

 The grilled deer rolls are a given. Not only are they a great substitute for turkey, they are delicious and there’s never a wrong time to cook them. It’s also deer season so it makes even more sense. As a bonus, I know my kids will eat them and not go hungry for the day. If you aren’t exactly sure what I’m talking about when I mention deer rolls, it’s very simple. Soak some strips of deer meat in Dale’s Seasoning for a while, roll them up in bacon with a slice of jalapeno pepper in the middle, and toss it on the grill. Some folks use cream cheese in the middle, as well, but I do not. If you decide to cook these, make sure you tend the grill or you will surely burn them. I cook mine low and slow in order to keep them juicy.

Deer rolls aren’t quite enough to convince my in-laws that I’m crazy, or genius, so I need something else. What screams that I’m making a “turkey protest” louder than anything else? Seafood. Hopefully, in the coming weeks I’ll be filling the freezer with more deer meat for the year. With the price of beef going through the roof, and with my wife’s blessing because of this, I plan to kill as many deer as the state allows. Am I being selfish, again? You betcha! To be able to make room for the incoming barrage of freshly procured venison, I’ve got to empty out some of the current contents of the freezer. This week is the perfect opportunity to do it.

Currently housed in our deep freezer are bags of fresh gulf shrimp, redfish, catfish, frog legs, and alligator tail. This week just feels like the perfect time to thin the crowd and introduce my in-laws to some of Mississippi’s tastiest critters. They aren’t “city folk” or uppity by any stretch, but I’m willing to bet they’ve never had a swamp Thanksgiving before. Neither have I, but this year is the time to change all of that. Wouldn’t it be a proper Thanksgiving to cook a meal that is made with the things our state provides us? Actually, it would be downright hypocritical to not use wild game from Mississippi for our Thanksgiving meal. I’m thinking grilled shrimp and redfish accompanied by fried catfish, frog legs, and alligator tail would be a feast fit for a…Mississippian. When the Pilgrims had their supposed celebratory meal for Thanksgiving, I’ll bet you that they weren’t eating pronghorn. As for the vegetables, I’ll be a little more lenient. There’s a vegan somewhere that can make that argument. Whether you decide to break tradition and join my protest, or not, I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving. And if you do eat turkey, I hope it makes you too sleepy to hunt…that way I can kill the deer.

Finally On the Scoreboard

This weekend is usually reserved for taking my oldest daughter hunting. However, she decided to go to a birthday party for a friend instead. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy for another solo hunt with my bow, or if I should be sad that I wouldn’t get the pleasure of watching her hunt. Turns out that I experienced both feelings. The ability to go to any location on the property without having to account for another individual is freeing and easy. The time alone to meditate and take in God’s creation is hard to beat. On the other hand, I sure did miss the bonding time I usually have with my eldest. We don’t get to do many things with just the two of us, and this is our thing together. With almost every deer I saw, I caught myself thinking, “Mackenzie could shoot this deer if she were here.”

The other thing about being alone that is tough are the nights. When the wind isn’t blowing, the stillness of the night can be deafening. The silence was so loud that I had a hard time going to sleep. Thankfully around 9:30 the wind picked, or I might still be awake. Those were the times that I think I missed her the most. I believe it’s a good thing to have alone time and quiet time, but human beings were made to be social creatures for a reason. Companionship while hunting is just as important as alone time in the woods. Either way, thanks to a birthday party, this trip was going to be another solo one.

Last weekend, if you read, I had a tree get the best of me. I didn’t appreciate being stuck in that tree and I was determined to conquer it this time. So for my first hunt of the trip I returned to the tree that whipped me last weekend. I strapped my stand to it and began my climb to a suitable position to hunt from. A little more than half way up the tree, my stand got snagged. I couldn’t believe it. No way was I going to let this happen to me again. Instead of trying to bump my bottom piece off of the snag, like last time, I worked my way around to the back of the tree. I was able to get around the snag and continue my climb without any issue. Lesson learned.

With the first objective of the trip seemingly out of the way, it was time to tackle another issue from the week before. I needed to successfully harvest some meat. Last weekend I wounded one deer and completely whiffed on another. I returned home feeling pretty defeated and thinking that maybe I’ve lost my touch with shooting a bow. Fortunately, when I got back home I set up my target and found that my bow was shooting eight inches low at twenty yards. It was a relief to know that my equipment failed and not my ability to shoot straight. After discussing my problem with the archery coach at WCU, we both decided a new string and new sight should fix the issue.

With a new string, a new sight, and feeling confident, I just needed one more thing…a deer to come within range. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. The rustling of leaves perked me up less than an hour into my hunt. Soon, I could make out the silhouette of a deer entering the plot. It carefully stepped into the food plot, looking all around before it began to feed. My heart was pounding as I grabbed my bow. Upon further inspection, there was one problem. This deer had tiny little horns on its head. I watched the spike feed in the plot for over twenty minutes, well within bow range the entire time. It was painful to be so jacked up and ready to shoot something to have a deer that wasn’t legal teasing me. Finally, the spike jerked his head up and looked down the plot. He was transfixed on something approaching.

I turned and looked in the direction the spike was looking. A mature doe was making her way down the plot and was almost to my shooting lane. I hurriedly grabbed my bow and stood up. I’d already ranged different sections of my shooting lane so I didn’t have to worry about doing that on the fly. She stepped into the lane at 30 yards and stopped. I drew back, took a breath, and let my arrow fly. The sound the arrow made upon contact was just the sound that I’d been waiting for. The deer kicked and hopped into a thicket just out of the food plot. She stood still, like she didn’t know what happened, then took a couple of steps and disappeared. I wasn’t sure whether she went down right there or disappeared into the woods. I grabbed my binoculars and quickly saw my arrow lying on the ground. From what I could tell, it was soaked in blood. It was still early, but I felt very confident in the shot, so I climbed on down. There was a blood trail that Ray Charles could have followed. The deer didn’t go thirty yards from where I shot her. This was the clean, quick kill that I’d hoped for. I loaded up the deer and made it back to camp long before the sun went down.

I finished cleaning the deer, cleaned myself up, and laid down for the night. I was grateful for the meat, grateful for another opportunity after last weekend’s mishaps, and grateful for being able to spend time in the woods. It was a nearly perfect afternoon. The only thing that could have made it better…if Mackenzie had been there and killed it, instead of me.

Kicking Off November With a Bang

My November attire usually consists of athletic wear and camouflage. Who am I kidding, that’s my year-round attire for the most part. Yet, here I am on the first Tuesday of November, wearing a sport coat and slacks, awaiting the arrival of a man I’ve long admired. Dr. Benjamin Carson is set to speak at our annual scholarship dinner at William Carey University, and I’ve been given the privilege of having lunch with him and his wife ahead of the evening’s events.

I’ve never been “star struck” in the presence of someone famous, granted most of my encounters have generally been with athletes. I’ve always viewed these folks as just like the rest of us. However, being in the room with Dr. Carson feels entirely different. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was amongst someone that was incredibly important on a global scale. Not only is Dr. Carson one of the most accomplished neuro-surgeons in the world, he is someone that I once hoped would be the leader of the free world. I’ve told a number of people that when we vote for a leader on a national level, we really don’t know what they are like face to face. It was refreshing, and a relief, to learn that Dr. Carson is everything I thought he was, and more. He’s a gentle voice of reason in a chaotic time, and this country could use more leaders like him.

After the luncheon, and the scholarship dinner, it was time for me to slip back into more suitable attire for November. On Thursday, I packed my truck with the necessary implements of destruction and headed northwest toward the woods. Archery season is in full swing, and the price of beef ain’t getting any cheaper! We’d just finished off our last pack of deer burger from the freezer, and with the encouragement of my wife, it is beyond time to restock. The pressure is on!

If you read my article a few weeks ago, you’d know that my first hunting/camping trip was quite the learning experience. I found there were things that I needed, but didn’t have, and things that I had, but didn’t need. The first order of business was making sure I didn’t freeze to death during the long nights. I invested in a better sleeping bag, and took a propane heater that was donated by a close friend. I’m a bit leery about leaving the heater on while I sleep, but it came in handy before I called it a night. The sleeping bag made all of the difference, and I didn’t get cold a single time while sleeping. I also took a seven gallon water container with fresh water for drinking and hand washing. It’s a little much to lug around, but was nice to clean up.

After arriving and setting up camp, I hit the woods for a late evening hunt. After being in the stand less than an hour, two does approach my position. I drew my bow back and made a noise to stop the largest doe, providing me with a clean, broadside shot. I let the arrow fly and heard the almost immediate “whack” sound. This is not generally a good thing because it means you’ve hit bone, most likely the shoulder blade. The doe high tailed it out of the plot and disappeared into a thicket. After climbing down and finding my arrow, I found the first trace of blood. It wasn’t a lot, and I followed the blood trail into the thicket. Being dark, and there not being hardly any blood, I decided to back out and look again in the morning, not confident in my shot.

The next morning arrived, and back to the blood trail I went. I found a little more during the daylight than I had the previous night, but not much. The trail finally went cold, and my heart sank at the thought of wounding an animal. I feel like the wound isn’t mortal, but I find little comfort in not making a clean kill. Later that evening, I hunted another stand on the property. Three more deer approach, and once again I let an arrow fly. This time, my arrow visibly misses the deer beneath her. Something is not right. I’m not the greatest archer that ever lived, but I don’t miss 19 yard shots. I chalk it up to my sights being off on my bow. Both shots seemed to be low, so the next shot I will just aim high to compensate until I can get home and check the sights. The next opportunity never came.

My last evening sit of the trip was an exciting one. I had two young bucks get within spitting distance of me before they winded me and alerted all of West Mississippi of the danger in the woods. As darkness fell, I began my climb down. This is where things get sketchy. My bottom piece of my climber got hung up and I attempted to free it. It came loose and in the process, fell ten feet below me. I was dangling fifteen feet up in the tree with no clear cut way of how I was going to get down. Fifteen feet may not seem that high, but it’s a long way to jump at my age. I made a quick call to my cousin, Hunter, who is well versed in outdoor calamity.

We tried to think of ways for me to get down, but none seemed reasonable. Finally, I dangled myself from the top piece and dropped down to the lower piece without it falling farther down the tree. Never have I been so happy to put my boots on the ground. I also realized that I must have hit the age where God endows you with “grown man strength” because there is no way I should have been able to hold myself up. This event should serve as a lesson for everyone to be careful when hunting from any elevated stand. As I drove back home, all I could think of was if the rest of November is like the first week, what an adventure it will be.