Lunkers in the Spring

There is so much to do in the spring time that you just can’t keep up with all of it. Between baseball season, trying to go turkey hunting, watching my kids play ball, I forget that this is the best time of the year to go bass fishing. In recent years, I’ve also done less bass fishing and more fishing for catfish on the river, so it’s easy for me to miss it some years. However, I was recently in Montgomery, Alabama and was introduced to some guys fishing in a tournament on the Alabama River. While they were fishing for crappie and not bass, it reminded me that, “hey, this is the best time of the year to catch a lunker.”

While grabbing a quick bite to eat on Friday night in Millbrook, Alabama I met two guys in town fishing the 2021 Crappie National Championship. Michael Pelsor and Wendell Heath made the trip down to Alabama from Indiana in hopes of winning a championship later this week. This is the first time that I’d even heard of such. A national crappie fishing circuit? It blew my mind to find out that was even a thing. Of course, I blew their mind when the conversation somehow turned to alligators and I showed them pictures of some gators we’ve killed over the years. We swapped hunting and fishing stories for a bit before heading different directions, but it got me thinking. Why in the heck haven’t I been bass fishing yet? Now, Wendell made it clear of his disdain for bass fishermen, but I’ve never been much of a crappie fisherman, so bass it is.

Growing up in Mississippi, you learn how to bass fish about the same time you learn how to tie your shoes, maybe even before. My dad was always a big bass fisherman when I was a kid and I can remember standing in our front yard learning how to cast with a practice plug. I remember starting out with an old Zebco 33 reel and practicing in the yard for hours. After that, I graduated to tossing one of Dad’s Abu Garcia bait cast reels. Between getting yelled at for doing it wrong and having to untangle multiple “bird nests” I figured out how to cast with the reel pretty quick to avoid both. However, the first “big bass” that I ever caught was with that old Zebco.

I’ll never forget catching that fish. I was only four years old and it was in the middle of the summer. I’d just gotten a cast off of my leg that I had broken a few months earlier when a large mirror fell on top of me in the dressing room at JC Penney in Laurel. We lived outside of Laurel, at the time, in the Myrick community. Behind our house was an old pond, that probably wasn’t much bigger than a half-acre, and I would fish in it regularly. Dad was at work and Mom was cutting the yard so I grabbed my rod and headed down to the pond. Equipped with a plastic purple worm, I tossed my lure into the pond. As soon as the worm hit the water, the fish gulped it down. The bite was so strong I doubt I even had to set the hook. I can vividly remember just hanging on trying not to lose my rod as the fish pulled. My mother noticed me struggling with a fish on the line and hopped off the mower to come help. By the time she got there I pretty much had the fish to the bank.

We weighed the fish at just over 5 pounds. Not too shabby for a 4 year old alone in the backyard! We took the fish to a man down the road that did taxidermy work and had my catch immortalized. It still hangs in my home office today, along with another 5 pound bass. The other 5 pounder is a fish my oldest daughter caught when she was 4 years old, as well. She caught it in a local pond here in Oak Grove while bream fishing with some friends of ours. She likes to brag that she caught hers on a Barbie rod with a cricket, somehow making her the better fisherman. To my wife’s disdain, we also had her fish mounted to hang next to Dad’s.

That’s the great thing about bass fishing. It’s a great family activity and you can do it almost anywhere in Mississippi. It doesn’t have to be expensive, although it can get that way in the event you want to mount your catch. I love to watch my kids wrestle a bass to the shore. It’s fun to watch their eyes light up as if they have accomplished something spectacular. Another good thing is bass are pretty darned good to eat. They are less “boney” than bream, and to me, just plain taste better, which also reminds me, it’s time to fill up the freezer.

Baseball on the Southside

At the time of writing this latest installment of the Pinstripes to Camo blog, it is the eve of the turkey season opener. By the time this is published many of you will already have bagged your first bird of the 2021 season. So I will open by saying congratulations (in my most jealous voice possible.) I’m hopeful that the opportunity to get in the woods and hear that majestic gobble comes soon, and I hope when it does that I’m ready to take advantage of the moment. In the meantime, let me bore you with talk of baseball instead.

You may not have noticed, and judging by the size of the crowds at Milton Wheeler Field, you haven’t, but our baseball team is currently 15-2 overall. Yes, that was a shameless plug for our team. Along with good fishing and plenty to do in the outdoors, South Mississippi has great baseball. That I am well aware of. There are plenty of opportunities to see great baseball, all within a half hour drive from virtually anywhere in the Pine Belt. William Carey is no exception, regardless of your thoughts on it being a small university or not. Don’t believe me, ask die hard USM faithful what happened the last few times WCU played the Golden Eagles in the regular season. William Carey is a baseball school and I won’t apologize for saying it.

I’m not saying that we can go across town and beat those guys. They have a fantastic team and, in my opinion, one of the best college baseball coaches in the nation. What I am saying, is that it’s beyond time for folks around town to take notice of what’s going on down Highway 49 south. Regardless of whether or not we win another game this year (I hope we do or I’ll have to become a writer full time) we have a great group of young men. We’ve got four players that will end up being doctors! How many college baseball programs can say that?

Playing and coaching at WCU has obviously made me very biased, but for good reason. WCU is home to me. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so please forgive my pride a little bit. WCU is where I met my wife. She later transferred to USM to pursue a degree that WCU didn’t offer, but guess where her allegiance lies….WCU. WCU gave me my first ever coaching job, as well as my first ever head coaching job. There are a lot of people around town that don’t know that I was the first ever Men’s and Women’s Cross Country coach at William Carey. Shoot, we even won a conference championship in our fourth year of having the sport and had multiple All-Americans during that time. For me to say that I love William Carey is a major understatement. It’s given me everything that I have.

That brings me back to baseball. I love this team. They are tough, they play hard, they are fun to be around, and they like to win. I also believe that the covid situation has brought them closer together. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict what will happen the rest of the season. However, for now, I’m incredibly proud of them. Last weekend, we were down 7 runs in the fifth inning. If you’ve ever been to our field before you’d know that making up a 7 run differential is near impossible. Milton Wheeler Field, named for longtime history professor at WCU, is an absolute graveyard. The ball just does not fly there like it does across town. Didn’t matter to our guys, who scored 17 runs in the next three innings to enact the 10 run rule. Just this weekend, looking to complete a four game series sweep, we found ourselves down by three runs going into our last at bat. We scored four runs to walk off the series. We do not quit!

Not quitting…seems like something this country could really use a dose of right about now. I have to admit that I think covid has made our baseball team better. It’s made them focus on things that matter. It’s forced them to make better life decisions. It’s made them realize that tomorrow is not promised. This has been my hope from the moment that our season got shut down almost exactly one year ago. I can remember saying, “How can we make something positive out of this situation?” So far, these guys have figured that out. In the coming weeks, our schedule will get tougher. I hope that our guys will get tougher with it. I also hope that they will get the credit that they are due, not just for baseball, but for the things they are accomplishing in the classroom as well.

Next week I promise that I’ll get back to the outdoors, well maybe. In the meantime, check your schedules and swing by Milton Wheeler Field one weekend. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Chris Williams and I after a basehit in a recent game

Doubling Down with Dad

Oftentimes when I drive I will listen to a popular hunting and fishing podcast put on by my hero, Steven Rinella. The podcast is named “Meat Eater” for the television show that he has on Netflix. If you’re a hunter or fisherman and haven’t watched the show or listened to the podcast, I strongly encourage you to do so. It covers a wide variety of topics in the outdoor world, and I’ve learned a great deal of things listening. One of the topics of the conversation the other day was recovery dogs. I have a dog, Tessie, that will blood trail a deer, but I highly doubt she’d know what to do if she stumbled onto a ticked off buck that was still alive. However, I’ve seen some really good recovery dogs in action over the years, and the podcast made me think of one hunt in particular.

I think I’ve mentioned before that my dad doesn’t do much hunting. He would much rather fish than suffer the misery of sitting in the cold waiting for a deer to walk by. However, he will sometimes accompany me on a trip to spend some time together. I’m pretty sure he does it knowing that the only way he’s going to see his son in the fall or winter is by getting in the woods. When it comes to deer season I’ll admit that I’m pretty selfish with my time. I’ve missed friends and family member’s weddings and funerals because they interfered with deer season. Hey, it’s not my fault they chose to get married during the rut!

I got Dad to join me and an old friend from high school, Weston Windham, on a morning hunt in December 2016. It was a pretty chilly morning, and I expected the deer to move well as soon as the sun started getting higher and melting off the frost. We got up early and met Weston at a chunk of land outside of Laurel that his family owned. Weston, being a gracious host, made sure to send Dad to a good stand that is nearly impossible not to see deer from. I hunted a ladder stand not too far from Dad, in the event that he actually pulled the trigger that I could go and help him. I settled into my stand just as the sun started coming up. Almost immediately, I began to start seeing deer going about their morning routines. I can’t remember just how many I saw that morning, but I remember it being a lot. I wondered if Dad was having the same luck. At the time, I was thirty years old and my dad had never killed a deer in my lifetime. He says he shot a few back in the 70’s, but I have no proof of that. I did know that he’d never killed a “rack buck” before, and I anxiously awaited hearing a gunshot in hopes that his days of deer-less-ness ended.

By 10:00 that morning, the action at my stand had dwindled, so I began to climb down. I still hadn’t heard a gunshot, so I was a little disappointed. As I walked down a lane headed back to the truck, a buck stepped out into the lane and stopped about 100 yards in front of me. The sun was almost directly in my eyes, but I could make out his rack well enough to know what I was shooting. I shouldered my rifle, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped right in his tracks. As I walked closer to the deer, I was startled by a loud gunshot not far away. The shot came from where my dad was hunting. My heart began to pound with excitement wondering what he had killed. I pretty much forgot about the buck that I shot, and I hurried to his stand. When I got there, he was still shaking from the adrenaline. He explained that he had shot at a buck and felt confident that he’d hit him. He showed me where the deer went, and we found blood. This is where the fun ends and the work begins.

We trailed this buck for as long as any deer that I’ve ever trailed. We trailed him through the thickest briars that you can imagine. We trailed him for over two miles that went in a big circle. There were multiple times that I thought the deer had to be close and multiple times when I thought we should give up. Finally, we backed out and brought in the secret weapon, Tank. Tank is Weston’s pit bull that serves as a catch dog. Tank will catch wild hogs, deer, and pretty much anything else that you put him on. Tank also happens to be my dad’s favorite dog in the world and for good cause. Weston rigged Tank up with a GPS collar and put him on the trail. It wasn’t five minutes later Weston was screaming at me to bring a gun! When I arrived with a shotgun in tote my brain couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. Tank had ahold of the buck by the snout and the buck had picked the dog up and was slinging him back and forth. The dog never let go of the buck. Weston quickly grabbed the shotgun and finished him off, giving my dad his first ever buck.

I tried to argue that Dad still hadn’t actually killed a buck, but after we examined the wound we decided that the deer would have died if we’d have given it more time. After loading up the deer we made our way around to the buck that I’d killed and loaded it as well. As we began to skin the two deer I remember thinking of how cool it was to double down with my dad. The two bucks weren’t going to make any record books, but neither one of us cared. We took our time cleaning the deer, and we all three shared our versions of how the morning unfolded. It was a moment that I’ll probably never be able to recreate. Then again, maybe one day I’ll double down with one of my kids.

Lost Shades and Stitches in Venice

In the time since last week’s story about the Okatoma debacle was made public, I’ve received quite a few messages and had even more face to face (but not too close) conversations questioning my ability to operate a boat. And rightfully so. That day on the Okatoma was a disaster and my wife reminds me of that occasionally. To everyone that has had a good time at my expense in the last week, I remind them of the most important fact of the story…a life was saved that probably wouldn’t have been had I not sank that boat. This little tidbit hasn’t stopped the people that I once thought of as friends from poking fun at me. So this week I’m going to pass the buck along and do some poking for myself.

Rewind to May 2014. We had just finished up our baseball season after being eliminated from a tournament in Montgomery, Alabama. Upon hearing the news that we were finished for the season, my good friend, Chris Coulter, gave me a call to see if I wanted to unwind for a couple of days on a deep sea fishing trip to Venice, Louisiana. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect. After a long season with a disappointing finish, I couldn’t imagine a better way to drown my sorrows than in the Gulf of Mexico chasing yellowfin tuna.

We headed down to Venice a couple of days later and rented a room at the marina to stay for the night. We took in a fresh seafood meal at the restaurant at the marina and got all of our gear prepped for the next morning. The weather forecast couldn’t have been any better for a day on the water. The high temperature was going to be in the mid 70’s with gentle breeze all day. The seas were forecast to be two to three foot in the morning and calming down to less than one foot after lunch. We were planning to head out of the south pass of the Mississippi River and go about 60 miles offshore to some floating oil rigs. If I’m not mistaken, the name of the particular rig that we were supposed to fish around was Thunderhorse. I could hardly contain my excitement the night before the trip. I hadn’t been deep sea fishing in a couple of years, and this was to be my first trip out that far.

We got up early the next morning and started to head out. Chris also brought along two other friends for the trip, to which I was very grateful. As we began to run through a check of our gear before we left the dock, I had no idea what the heck I was doing, so I was glad to have the other two guys there to make sure everything was right. As we pulled out of the harbor, the sun was beginning to rise, and the views from the Mississippi River were breathtaking. We passed massive cargo ships that were traveling up the river toward New Orleans, as well as many other anglers headed out for the day. You really don’t appreciate the size of some of those cargo ships until you’re alongside of them in a 31 foot boat. We headed out the south pass and toward open water. Freedom was just ahead!

One of the unique things about fishing out of Venice is how close you are to the continental shelf. As we headed south toward Thunderhorse rig, the water color turned from an emerald green to the darkest blue you can imagine. As we entered blue water, I also noticed that the depth finder on the boat was blinking instead of giving a reading. I asked Chris why it was doing that, and he explained that it was because when we dropped off the shelf that it wouldn’t pick the depth up. We went from being in water that was around 400 feet deep to water that was over 2,000 feet deep in the matter of minutes. I’ve never felt so small in all of my life. This is where I began to be a little nervous for the first time that morning.

Remember that I mentioned the seas were supposed to be two to three foot? Yeah, that was a little off. As we traveled further south those 2-3’s turned into 4-5’s. About an hour and a half into the trip we took a wave over the boat. It felt like getting a Gatorade shower after a big win in a ballgame. This is the second time that I felt nervous on the trip. Now I’m soaking wet and freezing as we keep pushing the 31 foot Fountain toward our fishing spot. In an effort to beat other fishermen out there we keep going through the rough water. Not twenty minutes after the first wave, we took on another. This time it felt like hitting a wall. When the water had washed over us, I noticed that the windshield was mostly missing. Jagged pieces of plexiglass remained. It was also in that moment that I felt something warm running down the side of my face and chest. I was wearing a light green shirt and when I looked down, it was red. Vaughn, Chris’ friend, alerted me that I was bleeding pretty bad. I reached up and felt a gash under my chin and another on my right ear. Vaughn was right, I had a couple of pretty nasty wounds.

As Vaughn tried to tend to my wounds and stop the bleeding, Chris did his best to keep us from being rolled by another big wave. I looked down again and noticed another large cut on my left hand. After the boat was stable, Chris began to look for superglue in his tackle box to help stop the bleeding. With no such luck, we wrapped my wounds as best as we could. In all of the commotion I also realized that my sunglasses were gone, and the blow from the windshield had knocked my contacts out. I couldn’t see much further than arm’s length away. This is the third time that I got really nervous on the trip. Not being able to see just how bad my cuts were made me anxious. Vaughn freaking out made me even more anxious. Chris, however, was as stoic as ever. We made the decision to turn the boat around, given the scope of my injuries, and head back to the harbor.

By the time we got back to Venice, two hours later, most of the bleeding had pretty much stopped. We loaded the boat on the trailer and headed north to get me stitched up. I fell asleep in the backseat and when I woke up we were almost back to Hattiesburg. A half-blind trip to Wesley Medical Center and 18 stitches later, my fishing trip was finished. I’ve since gone back to Venice with Chris and had a lot of fun, but I learned some lessons from that trip. When given the chance to sit in a bean bag or behind the windshield, choose the bean bag, and don’t ever forget to pack super glue…just in case.

How to Successfully Sink a Boat

With the events of the last week, it’s hard to imagine that Spring is almost here, but it’s coming! I love the Spring for more than just warmer weather. Spring is the season of new life. For the next few weeks I will consistently check the trees for new buds. I even welcome the grass beginning to grow again! Spring also means it’s time to start fishing. In the next few days, I will pull my boat out and start prepping it to hit the water soon. Making sure everything is working correctly before hitting the lake or river is important for multiple reasons. The last thing you want to do is get to the lake and your boat not crank. Or worse, you get going down the river and run into problems.

It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are, sooner or later you will run into issues on the water. My family loves to pick at me about all of the problems that I’ve had over the years. Shoot, I’m even in a group chat with a group of local coaches that constantly make jokes about me sinking boats. I’m glad I’ve been able to provide them with some entertainment over the years. My wife, however, doesn’t think it’s that funny.

The time period was the summer of 2009. I hadn’t been handgrabbing for catfish in a couple of years and was itching to go. I convinced a friend of mine, Michael Fuquay, to let me borrow his boat for the day. He had a 14 foot aluminum boat with a 25hp motor that was the perfect size to take down the Okatoma River. I have to wonder if Michael really knew me as well as he thought, or if he just thought that taking his rig down the river couldn’t produce any harm. I convinced my wife, Amy, who was my girlfriend at the time to go with me. I also called an old college teammate, Jordan Rogers, who is now the head baseball coach at South Jones, and invited him and his girlfriend to make a day of it with us. Three more people that had no idea what they were getting into.

We met Jordan and Kristin at the Okatoma Outpost, where we left a car there to take us back to the boat launch in Seminary at the end of the day. We launched the boat in Seminary and headed downstream. I’d never felt so free in my life. What could ruin a day on the river with good friends? That question was answered about two hours later. We stopped a few times to fish a couple of holes I knew about along the river but had no success. We would stop at sandbars every so often to eat and swim. Shortly after lunch, the sky turned black and the wind got cold. We got caught in one of the worst thunderstorms that I’ve ever been in while on the river. Lightning was popping everywhere and I was certain that we were all going to get fried in that boat trying to get to cover. The girls were absolutely terrified, and inside, so was I.

The storm finally passed and we continued down the river. We picked up the pace a little in case another storm rolled through. I don’t think the girls could handle another one. Soon we came to a small waterfall in the river. When the river is up, you can go over this fall no problem in the boat. However, the river was not up, so we opted to get out of the boat and walk around the edge while I held a rope attached to the boat. My plan was to guide the boat down the softest part of the fall and let the current bring it over to me once it was over the falls. Everything went perfectly, until the boat got stuck on a boulder at the bottom of the waterfall. I held the rope and watched in horror as water came over the fall and poured into the boat. I pulled the rope as hard as I could, but the boat wouldn’t budge. It didn’t take long for the water to fill the boat up, and all I could do was hold that rope and watch Michael’s boat sink to the bottom of the Okatoma.

When enough water had successfully entered the boat, it slid off of the boulder and sank to the bottom. I was still holding the rope but couldn’t pull it to shore. This is where the trip gets really interesting. Two guys came kayaking down the river and went right over the waterfall, flipping each kayak. The current pushed one kayaker to the bank where we were standing, while the other one bobbed up and down like a cork in the middle of the river. The second kayaker couldn’t swim and began to panic. He somehow ripped his life jacket off in the panic and was struggling to stay afloat. Jordan quickly jumped into action and swam out to the stranded kayaker. It was just like the movies where someone jumps in to save a person drowning and has to punch them in the face to get them to calm down to be able to save them. Jordan pulled the man ashore saving his life. At this point, I was incredibly freaked out, but still holding the boat. The men asked how they could ever repay us for saving the guys life. Hey, I know how. How about helping us pull this boat out?

The two guys helped us get the boat out, and soon, we were all on our way back down the river. One problem. Now the motor, which had been submerged, would not crank. After an hour or two of floating with no motor and the sun starting to go down, I frantically began trying to get the motor to crank. Alas, just as darkness hit, the motor fired up. We didn’t have a flashlight because nobody thought we’d be out this late, but we made it back to the landing eventually. I’d never been so happy to see Kristin’s car. One more problem, Jordan left the keys to the car in my truck…which was in Seminary. Thankfully, a man and his daughter were camping and took us back to my truck. We brought the boat trailer back and began winching the boat out of the river. Due to the landing being sanded over we couldn’t back the trailer down to the water. While winching the boat up to the trailer, I all of a sudden heard a loud POP. Yep, I’d pulled the handle right out of the front of the boat.

Michael, concerned about our well-being, had called me multiple times. I finally got around to calling him back to tell him what all happened. He didn’t even seem mad. What a great friend! The next day I took his boat to get it repaired. Believe it or not, he even let me take it out again not too long after that. Amy, however, did not make the next trip. To be honest, I’m surprised she even talked to me again after that day. Yet, here we are, after almost eleven years of marriage, still nervous about getting in a boat with me. Wonder why?

Me and Amy circa 2009

My Friends are Jerks, Sometimes

Well, it’s February which means winter has finally arrived in Mississippi. As I sit and look out my window at the sleet, snow, and ice falling from the sky, I can’t help but wonder, where was this back in December? It’s no secret that I loathe cold weather, unless I’m in a deer stand. I don’t mind days like today if there’s an opportunity to shoot something. However, with no adrenaline rush to be had, the cold penetrates me to my core and makes for a day of lazing around the house with a blanket wrapped around me. It also reminds me of some cold hunts that I’ve been on in the past, one in particular.

About 9-10 years ago I drove over to Woodville, MS to accompany a friend on a public land bow hunting trip. It was late December and we were experiencing a nice little cold snap, which was sure to get the deer moving. I met up with my friend, Ben Tharp, who had just killed a nice buck with his bow at St. Catherine Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to go back on the refuge and see if we could catch a couple more bucks slipping through along the Homochitto River. I had never killed a deer with a bow on public land, so I was excited about the opportunity. Ben had already scouted the area pretty well and felt confident that we’d see plenty of deer.

I arrived in Woodville around 8:30 in the evening, just as Ben had finished skinning his buck. I unpacked my gear and made preparations for the next morning hunt. Due to the area that we were hunting, we would have a very long hike to get to our hunting location. The hike was just a shade over two miles to be exact. That’s a long way to hike into the woods carrying a climbing stand, a backpack full of gear, and a bow. At least it’s a long way for a lightweight like myself. We did have a deer cart to pull behind us, which should have been a major help to lug all of that gear. Either way, since I’d never had a public land bow kill I was up for the challenge.

We left the house the next morning around 4:30 in order to have plenty of time to walk to our spot. We had about a 30 minute drive, then a two mile walk which would put us in the tree just in time for the sun to come up. The temperature was around 26 degrees when we arrived on the refuge, which should have made for a perfect morning hunt. We decided to strip down to our underwear and boots for the hike in so we wouldn’t get sweaty during the walk and freeze once we got into a tree. It’s a weird feeling stripping down to your drawers and boots when it’s 26 degrees. It’s pretty dang cold at first, but after you’ve pulled a cart full of gear for a about a mile, it feels pretty good. The hike in wasn’t easy at all. We were walking a levee along the Homochitto River that had been rooted up pretty bad by hogs. The ground was very uneven and full of large, wallowed out pits. The cart full of gear bounced along and turned over a few times. At this point, I was happy to not have on all of those clothes, as I would have been drenched with sweat for sure.

We finally arrived at the first spot that Ben had scouted out the days before. This was the spot that I would enter the woods from the levee and try my luck. I put all of my clothes back on and loaded my gear on my back. Before I entered the woods and Ben continued to his spot, he left me with some words of advice for my hunt. Ben told me where he expected the deer to come from and what tree I should climb. Then he dropped a bombshell on me. And I quote him, “If you kill a good buck, let me know, and I will come help you get him out. If you kill a doe, you are on your own.” On my own? What did that even mean? There’s no way he’s serious, right?

I got settled into my tree just before sunrise. When the sun came up I welcomed the rays of sunshine on my body to help shake the chill. The deer must have felt the same because the higher the sun got the more deer I began to see. I had a great morning hunt that consisted of seeing more does than I cared to count and a few smaller bucks. Though I had plenty of shot opportunities, a shooter buck never came within range. Remembering Ben’s words, I did not even draw my bow back on any of the does. Around lunch we both exited the woods and walked out to the levee to eat a quick bite. We discussed our morning hunts and how many deer we saw. I know Ben could tell I was itching to let an arrow fly, but he didn’t change his stance on being “on my own.” After choking down some sandwiches and oranges, we headed back to our stands for the evening hunt. My trigger finger was itching more than ever.

I wasn’t in my tree much longer than 20 minutes when two large does began coming down a trail toward me. I couldn’t stand it. I readied my bow and waited for them to come into safe shooting distance. Once the biggest one was in range I drew back my bow and let an arrow fly. Whack! The arrow hit perfectly, and I watched her run into an area of palmettos. She went down after about a 30 yard run. I text Ben to let him know that I had killed a doe. His response was, “you better get to walking.” He was serious after all. I was “on my own.”

I field dressed the doe and loaded her onto the cart that we left out on the levee. I began my two mile hike back to the truck at 3:00. The cart was much heavier than it was that morning and I didn’t shed my clothes before beginning my hike. As the sun faded, I was still nowhere near getting back to the truck. Soon, I noticed a flashlight coming up from behind me. It was Ben. I was so happy to see him at this point in my struggle. He laughed as he walked up to me and kept on walking toward the truck. I don’t remember the exact words I yelled at him, but I’m sure they weren’t something I’d say to my pastor.

I finally arrived at the truck completely exhausted. Ben helped me load the deer and the cart into the back of the truck, and we headed back to Woodville. I learned some valuable lessons that day. It’s always better to walk half naked into the woods and not get sweaty before a hunt; don’t kill a deer so far from the truck; and if Ben Tharp tells you something, you can take it to the bank.

Patience: Not My Strongest Virtue

Opening day of baseball season is something that I always look forward to. The sounds, the smells; the feel of a new season is magical. Most hunters, myself included, likely get the same feeling about the opening day of deer season. It’s hard to sleep the night before because there are so many “what if” scenarios running through your head. Friday was supposed to be our opening day of the 2021 college baseball season. However, you can’t beat Mother Nature.

On Thursday, a blizzard ripped through the Midwest making travel impossible for our opponent for the weekend. With rain in the forecast here for Friday, as well, it made it easy to push the game back to Saturday. Opening Day would have to wait for one more day. On Saturday morning, I awoke with an extra pep in my step. I hurried to my office only to sit and watch it rain. Myself and our pitching coach, Eric Ebers, sat in our office hitting the refresh button on three different weather websites the entire day. The outlook was pretty much the same, we weren’t going to play. Opening Day, once again, would have to wait one more day.

At this point, I’m pretty much chomping at the bit to get back on the field. We hadn’t played a game since March 10 of last year due to the Covid shutdown. It has felt like forever since I’ve got to watch our team play. If you know me at all, you know that patience is not my strongest virtue. I was so impatient as a child that my grandmother would often make me spell the word out loud to her. As I’ve aged not much has changed. Rain delays and rainouts drive me absolutely crazy. The same thing goes for hunting and fishing. I am not as patient as I sometimes seem, and crummy weather makes me want to throw rocks through windows.

Sunday morning finally arrived, and I looked out my bedroom window and saw sunshine. Today is the day. It’s finally here, Opening Day. I felt like I was shot out of a canon when I got to the field. Our guys pulled the tarp, and the work to get our field ready began. After batting practice and pregame infield, it was time. I’ve mentioned before that there’s not many things that get my blood pumping like hearing the National Anthem on Opening Day, and Sunday was no different. Hearing that song and watching that flag blow in the breeze brought on a major adrenaline rush. It also made me feel proud to live in a country where we get to enjoy these things.

When the day ended, we had won two games. Putting off Opening Day for two days had paid off with good weather and good baseball. As I drove home I thought about having patience. How many times have all of us given up on a hunt or a fishing trip because we were impatient? I have many, many times. How many times have we killed a deer that we wish we would have let walk, because we were impatient? Guilty. We don’t have patience because patience is hard. It’s hard to sit and wait for the unknown when the action is slow. That’s the way America is now. We want what we want and we want it now. However, now could be a good time to slow our roll and practice a little patience.

I’ve been racking my brain the last few days trying to find a good example of when being patient failed me. I can’t think of one time where being patient resulted in something negative. Most success that I’ve had was due to being patient, and most failure could have been averted had I been patient. Yet, here I am still fighting slowing down. I even think back to any deer that I’ve shot at and missed over the last 15 years. Aside from an occasional equipment malfunction, being patient and taking a better shot would have resulted in more dead deer. Having said all of that, there is a difference in being patient and being slow to act. If you practice patience, when the right time comes to act, you’ll know.

I’ve had 17 Opening Days at William Carey, 13 as a coach, and I think that this one was the first one that I’ve actually savored. Maybe getting shutdown last season made me subconsciously slow the games down and take them all in. Whatever the reason, this was the first one that I really soaked in each and every pitch. I’m hoping that our players did the same. They, of all people, should understand that the game can be taken away from us at any moment. Covid may end up being life’s greatest lesson for our young people. I’m hoping that it does. I’m hoping that they learn the value of doing things with intent. I’m hoping that they, and myself, learn the value of a little patience.

Leather Gloves Popping and Turkeys Gobbling

February is a happy and busy month at the Smith household. Baseball season gets into full swing, my middle daughter has a birthday, and my wife can be at ease knowing that my deer hunting season is finally over. Even though I officially called my season quits a few weeks ago, Amy has had to be on pins and needles waiting for me to declare “one more trip” to the camp, since the season was technically still going. I stayed true to my word, though, and left my weapons of destruction locked away. It’s not that I wasn’t tempted to go again. Seeing all of the big bucks falling across the state kept my interest peaked. However, the time to make another trip has come and gone, and that’s okay with me.

There is one thing that I want to do this spring that I’ve never done before, though, and that is to kill a turkey. When people hear that I’ve never killed a Mississippi gobbler, it usually comes with some shock. How can someone who proclaims to be an avid outdoorsman never have killed a turkey? It’s a pretty simple answer: baseball. The Mississippi turkey season happens to coincide with the peak of the college baseball season. Usually, by the time that February gets here my time to hit the woods and the water takes a backseat to my favorite activity.

If you’ve ever killed a big buck, or caught a huge largemouth bass, you’ve likely experienced that adrenaline rush and excitement. It’s that feeling when you can’t stop your hands from shaking, and your heart beats so hard you can feel it in your throat. There are three places that I still get that feeling: the woods, the water, and the baseball field. Opening day is just around the corner and I’ve already got all the feels. I’ve had 16 opening days at William Carey, and each one brings new excitement and an adrenaline rush. The euphoric feeling I get from starting a new season is what keeps me going each year. I love the smells and sounds of the ballpark on opening day, from the fresh cut grass to the sound of the crowd entering the stadium. I love hearing the sounds of leather popping as the guys warm up to play. As I stand at attention and the Star Spangled Banner plays, my heart will beat so fast that I nearly pass out. There’s only one other sound that gets my adrenaline pumping this hard.

Since baseball season and turkey season happen simultaneously, I’ve only been turkey hunting a little over a handful of times. I’ve never killed a tom myself, but I’ve been on a couple of trips where people that I was with harvested a bird. The sound of a turkey gobbling in the woods is a hard sound to beat, though. Just the thought of hearing that distinct gobble break the morning silence is enough to excite me. I’ll never forget the first time that I really got to be a part of the best concert in the woods that I’d ever heard.

I’ve mentioned before that my uncle is one of the main reasons that I hunt and fish today. If you can do it in the woods or on the water, he has. A few years ago he invited me over to Lawrence County, where he lives, to go turkey hunting with him and my cousin. My cousin, appropriately named Hunter, has also had the advantage of growing up under the tutelage of one of the best outdoorsmen that I’ve ever known. Even so, neither one of us can hold a candle to Barry McCool in the woods.

We got up incredibly early in order to get in the woods well ahead of daylight. There was a chill in the April air as I loaded up into the truck to head to a spot where my Uncle Barry felt confident there’d be a bird. I can remember shaking in the truck along the way to our spot, but I can’t remember if it was from being cold or excited. It didn’t matter anyway because we didn’t stay in the truck long enough for the heat to even get warm before we arrived at our destination. We walked a little ways through the woods before setting up a decoy at the edge of a small field. The tree line at the edge of the field was barely visible by the light of the moon. After setting up a decoy, we backed up into the woods about 30 yards from the field. Hunter and I sat up against two different trees that were next to each other, and Uncle Barry set up a few yards behind us. The sunrise began to cut through the darkness and the action soon began.

There was a gobbler that was roosted in a tree on the other side of the field from where we were sitting. My uncle hooted like an owl and the turkey returned chorus with a loud gobble. When the sun was up my uncle began calling to the turkey. The turkey would respond and seemed to be getting closer with each gobble. I was looking to my left when I heard my uncle say “don’t move.” To me, don’t move means just what it sounds like, don’t move. My eyes were cut to the left so hard that my vision began to get blurry. With time feeling like it was standing still, and me holding my far left gaze, I felt as if I was about to pass out. Suddenly, there was a loud BOOM and I’m pretty sure my heart skipped a beat.

Hunter happened to be set up right where the turkey came in and he delivered a fatal shot to the bird. Uncle Barry and Hunter both jumped up quick to retrieve the turkey. I was still trying to get my eyes to adjust after almost blacking out and then being scared to death by a gunshot blast. It was my first experience of being on a hunt where a turkey was successfully called in and killed. Being there that day with my uncle and my cousin was a hunt that I’ll never forget. I’ve still yet to kill my own turkey, but I’m hoping to change my luck this spring. I’ve had a lot of firsts in the past year, maybe 2021 will provide me with another.

Unparalleled and Tough as Nails

The following is written by my cousin, Brandon Parker. Most of us had a “Frank” growing up, and this is a story that many of us can relate to. Here’s to all of the “Franks” that we’ve had, and to us being a “Frank” for the next generation.

When I met a Cajun man named Mr. Develle, a whole new world opened up to me that would dictate how I would live the rest of my life. Although this man was technically old enough to be my grandfather, he became one the best friends I’ve ever had.

       It’s very difficult for me to type this story. It’s been over a month since Frank Chapman Develle left this world to go to a better place. But for many reasons, I’ll never get over his passing. I will live on and continue to do the best I can with the rest of my life. But people that hold such a special place in your heart will always be difficult to think about without stirring up some very strong, very sincere emotions.

       Frank was one of a kind…and that’s putting it mildly. He was a salesman and my father’s company was one of his accounts. I’m not sure when my dad met Frank, but it was in the early to mid ‘80s when I was introduced to him. His accent and personality instantly got my attention. And I can’t thank God or my father enough for getting to meet the man who would have such a profound impact on my life.

       My parents both love sports. It goes without saying that they are the reason I loved playing baseball and basketball and why watching sports is still one of my favorite things to do with free time. But neither of them grew up being obsessed with outdoor activities that didn’t involve teammates and scoreboards. My father did hunt a little as a child, but it was not an obsession to him. My mother had siblings that did some hunting and fishing, but she did not grow up chasing wildlife with a gun or bow in her hand, or wetting lines in rivers, lakes or nearby farm ponds. Frank did, and he introduced this magnificent, adrenaline inducing world to me.

       At first he was just Mr. Develle, another friend of my father’s that I was introduced to as a young child. It wasn’t long before he became “Frank.” I’d imagine most people do not realize when they are meeting someone that will ultimately change their life forever. I certainly did not. And now that he’s gone I will forever regret that I never sat down with him and told him just how much I loved him. To be clear, Frank knew that he had a special place in my heart. I told him more than once. But I don’t feel like he knew just how much of an impact he had on my life. For that matter, I KNOW that he wasn’t aware of how much of an impact he would indirectly have on countless friends and family members that I introduced to the outdoor world, including my wife and two children.

       To say that Frank was a hunter, or outdoor enthusiast, would be a terrible understatement. He was larger than life. He was a real life superhero to me. Frank was not a large man, but he was strong as a bull and scared of nothing. He once got bitten by a cottonmouth at his deer camp on the MS River during a summer work weekend. While I, along with everyone else that was present at the time, was freaking out and worried about his well-being, Frank was more concerned with getting a shower before going to the hospital. He wouldn’t even leave until he found his nice boots instead of just wearing the dirty work boots he’d had on all day. It’s important to note that this camp is inside the river levee and WAY off the beaten path. My older brother frantically drove him to the nearest hospital.

       While visiting his father in New Orleans one time, they came home from church and interrupted an attempted robbery of his father’s home. One of the criminals pointed a gun in his face, assuming this would keep he and his accomplice in control. Wrong. Frank took the gun from him, and if memory serves me right, hit him with a right cross. The criminals hightailed it out of there and my guess is Frank’s heart rate did not increase one BPM.

       Neither of those stories are embellished one bit. He was a rare breed. The best part about him is that his heart was bigger than any of the amazing things he did in his lifetime. He was a fantastic husband to his wife, Linda. He was a magnificent father to his three sons, Greg, Dereck and Matt. He was the perfect grandfather to his 8 grandchildren, Andrew, Justin, Christopher, Ty, Colton, Lauren, Jessica and Summer.

       He was also a wonderful mentor and friend to my brother and I. When my brother was old enough to start hunting, Frank selflessly took him anytime he had the opportunity. I could not wait to get to participate in these outdoor adventures. He taught me how to operate a firearm when I was 6-7 years old. He taught me how to squeeze, not jerk the trigger when firing a gun. He did this by putting me on the shooting bench with what I thought was a loaded weapon. Fearing the recoil, I naturally jerked the trigger. The catch: the gun was not loaded and it made it very clear what jerking the trigger felt like. Frank did not allow you to let fear keep you from doing something that is nothing short of joyous and entertaining to experience. I had to wait until I was 9 to start hunting. Frank loaned me his .357 lever action rifle to use my first year in the deer woods. I was a squeamish kid, and the sight of blood did not settle well with me. Well, as is tradition amongst many hunters, you get blood smeared on your face when you kill your first deer. I constantly told him that I could not handle getting blood on my face. I informed him that I would vomit, and maybe faint. His response was the same ever single time: “you’ll have all the space around you that you need to throw up on, and if you faint, I’ll catch you before you hit the ground.” And he meant it.

       Regretfully, I was not with him when I killed my first deer. He could not hunt that weekend, so another man sacrificed his own hunting time on the morning of December 19, 1987 so he could take me out. I reluctantly use the word “regret” when telling this story because I will forever be grateful to Mr. Whitehead for taking me that morning. It was “doe day”, but folks were still not completely sold on the fact that it was ok to shoot does in the late ‘80s. I killed a spike that morning. Mr. Whitehead knew how scared I was to get blood on my face, so he took it easy on me with just a few streaks on my cheeks and forehead. This did not settle well with Frank. I was so relieved when I got to tell him that I had gotten that tradition out of the way with someone who took it easy on me. He promptly informed me that it did not matter. When I killed my first deer with him, I was getting bloodied again. I honestly did not think he was serious. He was. It took me until the ’89-’90 season to finally kill my second deer. With two seasons in the rearview, I had zero expectations of Frank fulfilling his promise to bloody me the way it “should” have been done. I shot a doe on NewYear’s Eve and was caught completely off guard when I suddenly had my head and face completely covered in blood. While cleaning the fat, MS River, slick headed whitetail, he tricked me with the old “look, I see your bullet in here.” When I went to look, I got coated. But I did manage to keep from throwing up or fainting.

       To this day, I still teach people to shoot with the empty chamber trick. I still fool people with the “I see your bullet” when cleaning their first deer. I still teach newcomers to walk heel-to-toe while trying to silently slip through the woods. I still teach people that are new to hunting how to read sign left behind by the animals we pursue. I still tell new or young hunters that if it gets your adrenaline pumping, then shoot it. Don’t worry about how big it is or what it will score. I hear Frank’s voice and see his face every single time I go in the woods or out on the water. I love him. I always have and always will.

       The true reason for writing this is not simply to tell anyone how great of a man Frank Develle was. I could fill a dictionary sized book with stories about him. I’m writing it to remind people that Father Time is undefeated. If there is a Frank in your life, and I hope everyone has their version of him, don’t put off telling them how much they mean to you. Because the day will arrive when you won’t have that opportunity anymore. And if you have a passion for something, and we all should, then pass it along to as many people that you can. It may have a major impact on the rest of their life. Frank did that for me. And now that I’ve introduced many people to the endless joy that hunting and fishing provides, I realize that he was getting just as much enjoyment as the people he was teaching.

Still Chasing Trophies in My Thirties

I can still remember the first trophy that I ever got. I was five years old and just finished my first t-ball season. I don’t know if we earned the trophy or if everyone got one. I don’t even remember any of the games or the scores, but I remember that tiny trophy. One would think that as we get older trophies wouldn’t matter any longer. For me, that’s just not the case.

After getting that first trophy out of the way, I was hooked. I wanted more. The competitor in me was born with that simple piece of plastic on a marble base. I liked the way it looked and I liked the approval that I got from my father. It was a sense of accomplishment. After t-ball, you had to win the league to get a trophy, so that’s what we did. We won the “coach pitch” league and, alas, another trophy. Winning became an addiction. We moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was 8 and one of the first things we did was sign up for baseball. I made the 10 year old All-Star team as a nine year old and we played in numerous tournaments around the city. If I didn’t come home with some sort of hardware it upset me and drove my obsession even further. By the time we moved back to Mississippi following the death of my grandfather, I had a pretty nice collection of trophies, but they weren’t enough. I began running in local 5k and 10k races. With each race that I won came another trophy. I remember the first time they gave me a ribbon instead of the shiny trophy. What a major letdown! As I get older the obsession to obtain trophies is still there, just a little different.

I’m still chasing trophies to this day. In 2017, our baseball team at William Carey came as close to a national championship as it’s been since 1969. Guess what they give you? That’s right, a trophy. Even in my mid-30’s I’m still chasing a piece of plastic. Maybe I’m just attracted to shiny things. Baseball trophies aren’t the only kind of trophies that I chase these days, though. For me, each buck that I’m able to kill provides me with a trophy. Don’t get me wrong, I hunt mostly for the meat, but I sure do like to hang a skull or shoulder mount on the wall. It’s that sense of accomplishment and the story that comes with it. As a kid you displayed all of your trophies on a shelf, or dresser, for all of your friends to see. This proved that you were some kind of super athlete. As a hunter you display your trophy deer, fish, or turkey somewhere along the walls of your house. This is supposed to prove that I’m one of the elite hunters in the area. It doesn’t, but I like to think that.

Just like each baseball or running trophy I got as a kid, each deer mount, alligator skull, or fish in our home has a story. My wife laments each time I bring home a deer head to mount, and to be fair, my closet is running out of space. She doesn’t quite understand the importance of hanging them on my wall. I haven’t convinced her yet to let me hang them throughout the house, so for now my trophies are relegated to the closet and the office. I’m slowly working on her, though. Every morning when I’m getting dressed, I can look up at these mounts and think of how they arrived here. Almost each mount has a story that involves a friend and a different piece of land. Each mount gives me a sense of satisfaction, while at the same time, driving my obsession to get a better one. There’s a pattern in my closet, which we’ve renamed the skull room. The older skulls sport horns that are much smaller than the newer ones. Over the years I’ve learned to pass up what was once a trophy in favor of waiting on something better.

That brings me to my next point; what is a trophy for me, might not be for you. What is a trophy for you, might not be for me. What constitutes a trophy buck? Some will say anything over 130” is a trophy deer, yet I know people that have hunted their entire life without seeing anything that large. To me, a trophy buck is anything that really gets your heart pumping. If the buck you shoot gets you excited, then that’s all that matters. I get so bored and tired of hearing about what a deer scores. Who frigging cares? It’s dead and it made someone happy. Not to mention, half of the hunters in this state have no idea of how to actually score a deer the correct way. Say it with me, “it does not matter what it scores!” When my little league team won our league championship when I was ten years old, nobody outside of Laurel, Mississippi cared, but I did. That’s how you should approach your wild game trophies.

I don’t do many shoulder mounts these days, mostly due to the unbelievable expense of taxidermy work, but I make sure to at least do a European mount of any buck that I kill. It’s pretty easy to do and really cool to hang up in your house….eh closet. So go out and bag a buck before the season is over, and hang your trophy proudly. It will serve as a great memory of a successful hunt, and probably irritate your spouse, which makes it even sweeter.