Plans May Change, Good Teammates Don’t

It never fails. Each year I have dreams of climbing up a tree for opening weekend of bow season. In my dream, there’s a gentle breeze on a cool, crisp October morning. The sun rises and burns off a light fog revealing an array of autumn colors in the trees. Squirrels chase one another and knock acorns from a large white oak. Suddenly, the sound of a breaking twig interrupts the busy morning. From seemingly out of nowhere, a large buck appears under the white oak for a morning snack. The wind is in my favor, and the buck has no idea I’m even there. Slowly, I raise my bow and take aim. The buck is broadside at a mere 30 yards. My hands are steady and my breaths are light. I release my arrow and…I wake up.

Every single year on the eve of my first hunt, this is what I envision happening. And every single year I’m left completely disappointed. I’m sure that somewhere some fortunate soul is living out my dream. However, as long as I continue to open the season in Mississippi, it will just have to remain a dream. In my defense, it was only just barely over a week ago that the weather was almost perfect for bow season. Then, in true Mississippi fashion, the humidity shot up and I was reminded that summer is still upon us. Good weather or bad weather, I still had every intention of being in a tree for opening weekend.

The older that I get, and I’m not old by any stretch, the more that I understand there’s no such thing as a concrete plan. I believe being a parent has taught me this as much as anything else. You may make plans, but they are always fluid. Kids get sick. The weather forces changes. You have car problems. Something comes up at work. Stuff happens. It’s a part of life that is hard to accept, but the quicker you learn to adapt, the better off you are.

For weeks I’ve been planning my opening weekend. I’ve shot my bow, inspected my climbing stand, aired out my tent, and put together a gear list that would make Janis Putelis blush. My initial plan was to go up on Friday as soon as we finished fall practice (remember, I’m a baseball coach first), set up my tent, and hunt the following morning. I’d mapped out a general area of where I thought I’d have success that morning, and another area for an evening hunt. As long as the weather cooperated, my plans for a grandiose opening weekend were falling nicely into place.

Amidst all of the planning and visions of what I hoped would be a bang of an opener, I got an unfortunate phone call. I’ve been blessed over years of playing sports to have had some great friends and incredible teammates. When you lose one, especially unexpectedly, it really puts things into perspective. Opening weekend all of a sudden didn’t seem so important.

On Friday, we had practice, just as planned. However, when practice ended, Vicksburg was not the direction that my vehicle was pointed, as formerly planned. My wife and I drove down to Robertsdale, Alabama to pay my final respects to my teammate and his family. The line at the funeral home wrapped around the building, a true testament to the type of man he was. Joe was a good ball-player, but an even better person. Needless to say, the world will be a much lesser place without him.

On the ride home, I began to reminisce on my days of playing college baseball. It warmed my heart to see the outpouring of support for Joe’s family from my former teammates. I may be biased, but I think those guys were the best. Not only were they winners; they were, and still are, high quality individuals. The loss of Joe is a reminder to get the most out of each day, and no matter what, be a good teammate.

Saturday morning arrives and I’m tired. The week’s events coupled with the drive on Friday night have me moving slowly. Instead of an opening weekend hunt, my plan is to go up and put some cameras out. If I have time to get an evening hunt in, I’ll do so before heading back home. By 9:30 a.m., it’s already hot, and the weather is showing rain off and on all evening. I, almost reluctantly, load up the truck and head to Vicksburg.

Pulling up to the land has a totally different feeling than in the past. We now only possess about half of the land that we had last season. I get out of the truck and the air is so thick you could almost slice it. There’s been a light rain, and it’s threatening again. Quickly, I jump to work to get cameras out to ensure that I have time to make a quick hunt. On my route to put out camera number one, I make brief stop on top of a big hill that I like to just sit and relax on. It’s good medicine for a day like today.

With three cameras deployed, I have time to make a hunt before the rain and darkness end the day. I strap my climber to my back and hike uphill a good ways before finding a suitable tree. The scenery, nor the weather, come close to my dream for opening weekend. I’m pouring sweat, the mosquitoes are eating me alive, and there’s no giant buck feeding under a white oak. Actually, I’m pretty certain that every deer within a three mile radius can probably smell me.

I sit for a couple of hours until darkness falls. A light rain begins to come down as I walk out of the woods. While hiking out, my mind races. I think about my camera placement and whether or not I got them in the right spots. I think about the long ride back home. I think about Joe. I don’t know what the season will have in store for me. Things happen and plans change. The one thing that I do know is that I will give it my best effort, no matter what…because my teammates taught me that’s the only way to do it.

Lake Bogue Homa: A Trip Down Memory Lane

As we enter the second summer in South Mississippi, I hope you enjoyed your fall. The good thing that second summer signals is the beginning of whitetail archery season. Next weekend, for those north of Highway 84, archery hunters will be sweating in stands and swatting mosquitoes in hopes of bagging the first deer of the year. Lord willing, I will be right there with them, Thermocell on full blast, in the thinnest clothes that I can wear. If the mosquitoes aren’t too bad, I’m not opposed to stripping down to my skivvies in the stand. If memory serves me correct, the last deer that I killed with a bow I more closely resembled Ted Nugent in a loin cloth than the modern day hunter. Half naked, or not, I plan on being in the woods Saturday morning. The wait has been far too long.

Speaking of “far too long” and Highway 84, my fishing buddy and I took a trip down memory lane this weekend. Ashamedly, I haven’t actually ran my boat in a while. The last time that I took it out, I forgot to put gas in it. Mackenzie and I had to troll around Lake Bill Waller rather than use the outboard. This weekend seemed like a good time to remedy that, especially after I’ve shot my bow a few times and feel pretty confident. Sometimes the hardest thing for us is choosing where we want to go. We decided on Lake Bogue Homa.

Before we decided where we were going, I started naming off lakes within reasonable driving distance for the afternoon. I’d detail where they were and the size of the lake. Most of them were within an hour from the house and around 60-80 acres large. That’s not really big enough to open up the motor and let it fly, but I let Mackenzie have some input on our destination. To my delight, she was immediately intrigued with the name “Bogue Homa”. I told her that the lake was 882 acres, which peaked her interest even more due to it being much larger than the previous ones mentioned. When I told her that it was just outside of Laurel (my hometown), she was sold.

We loaded up the boat and our implements of destruction and headed north on Interstate 59. She was excited to be going fishing, I was excited to be going home. Bogue Homa holds a special place in my heart. Before moving to Jacksonville, Florida, we lived only a few miles from the lake. My dad was an avid bass fisherman during those days and would frequently take me with him. We’d usually end up at Bogue Homa or Maynor Creek in Waynesboro. As Mackenzie and I pulled into the lake, my heart felt like it would leap out of my chest. She was amazed at the beauty of the lake, and it is beautiful. Memories flooded over me with the sight of the lake. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was at home.

Stepping out of the truck and breathing the air took me back 30 years. It hasn’t been quite that long since I’d been to the lake, but this time felt different. This was the first time that I’ve taken any of my children to this special spot. I began to think about trips that my dad took me on years ago. I can still remember always stopping at Lakeside Grocery for bait, or a snack, before we’d fish. Dad would carry on conversations with Bill Culpepper, who owned the store, while Ms. Gladys would encourage some sort of sugary snack for me to get for the trip. These were simple times that I yearn for in my life.

I remembered to get gas this time, so we had no problem cranking the boat. I opened the throttle up and we were moving! The warm breeze on my face felt so good that I wished I could freeze time in this moment. The lake was relatively quiet with only a few other boats on the water. When we stopped to rig up our lines, Mackenzie asked me, “Do you hear that?” I’m pretty much deaf in one ear so my reply was, “Hear what?” She said, “Exactly” with a smile on her face, once again proving that she is indeed my child. It was a perfect afternoon to be at Lake Bogue Homa.

We ended up doing more riding and exploring than we did fishing, which was alright with me. My good friend, and former colleague, Reggie Richardson and his wife, Blair, joined us for a while on the water. He needed to run his boat, too. As per usual with us, the conversations mostly amounted to baseball and our kids. I didn’t feel an urgency to fish and Mackenzie didn’t seem to mind, which was good because 882 acres of water feels a bit overwhelming without a depth finder or lake map. After Reggie and Blair left, we trolled around, stopping to fish briefly. We encountered two rather large alligators toward the back of the lake and saw numerous different species of birds. As we moved about, Mackenzie kept clamoring of how pretty everything was, and I couldn’t disagree.

The sun began to set so we headed back toward the ramp. We opened up the motor one last time before trailering our boat. As we pulled off, I took one last glance at the lake. The remaining sunshine left sparkles across the water as if there were hundreds of diamonds floating along. Pulling away, my heart began to ache for days of old. I know we aren’t supposed to live in the past too much, but this trip really tugged on my heart strings. I even took Mackenzie by our old house before we went home. The yard that once seemed so big now looked small. Maybe one day she will visit one of our lakes and have the same fondness that I have for Bogue Homa.

Having the Right Tools for the Job

Last week, I wrote about being prepared before deer season. One thing that I haven’t gone into much detail about is what type of gear I use. There’s rarely a conversation involving hunting or fishing that doesn’t include something about what type of equipment we are using, or wish we had. My gear list often changes, depending on the time of the year, and what I am hunting. Some people do better with less gear, some better with more. I like to think that I’m somewhere in the middle based on conversations that I’ve had with other hunters. This week, I wanted to talk about some of the gear that I like to use and their particular function.

I’m somewhat of a gear snob when it comes to what brand of equipment I use. The older I get, the more I enjoy creature comforts. This gets tricky at times for those of us hunting on a budget. If you don’t have an unlimited amount of money to throw at gear, then sooner or later you’re going to have to improvise. Some things, though, are worth spending a little extra to ensure they do the job. One of the things that I won’t hesitate to spend a little extra on is the clothing and boots that I wear.

There’s nothing that can ruin a hunt quicker than being absolutely miserable. If you can’t stay dry, or you’re shaking the entire time, you’re not going to be as zoned in on the hunt. Being able to sit long hours in the stand requires some level of comfort while doing so. Personally, I get cold with the slightest north wind. Under Armour makes a great pant and jacket that should get you through a mild, Mississippi winter. The pants are lightweight and lined with wool for extra warmth. The jacket is also lightweight and wool lined, while at the same time, fitting snug enough through the arms to be able to comfortably shoot a bow. They are both water and wind resistant, as well as quiet. Putting these on over a mid-level baselayer should be sufficient for most of the winter conditions that we experience here. From a price standpoint, the jacket will run you around $180, while the pants are around $120.

Boots are another essential item that I don’t mind splurging on. Once again, I believe it’s a matter of preference depending on what keeps you comfortable. For years I’ve worn a Scentblocker boot for most of my early season hunting. They aren’t insulated and wear more like a tennis shoe than a normal boot. However, they are now discontinued. I’ve enjoyed my insulated Under Armour boots for late season hunts and terrain where I might encounter water. UA now makes a lightweight, early season boot that appears to fit like the old Scentblocker boots. Since I walked my sole clean off of my Scentblocker boots during turkey season, this will likely be the new early season boot that I choose. Again, if your feet hurt, you aren’t going to press yourself to go that extra 300 yards that might put you in a better position to bag your buck. If you can spend a little extra money, this is where you do it.

Next, is our weapon of choice. Choosing the right weapon can be an area that you spend as much, or as little as you want. Obviously, you want something that is going to be functional, but the good thing is there is a wide range of options as far as price. Long before the invention of the compound bow, people were killing big game with homemade archery sets. Bow hunters today can spend as little as $100 on a cheap compound bow and go kill deer. On the flip side, you can spend well over $1,000 on the latest and greatest. I shoot a Mathews Drenalin that was made in 2009. It’s not the latest model by any stretch, but this is one area that I see no need to upgrade at the moment. It still does the job and that’s all that matters to me.

The choice of what rifle to use is a hotly debated topic. Choosing a rifle is another area where the budget conscience hunter can save a dollar. I’m currently shooting a Christensen Mesa .308, but if I had to choose one rifle to hunt with for the rest of my life, I’d go a different route. When I was 10 years old, my dad bought me a used Remington Model 700 chambered in .243 for Christmas. It’s a beautiful rifle with a shiny woodgrain stock. In Mississippi, it’s capable of killing anything you’re going to see. It shoots flat and fast, and it’s as accurate as any rifle that I’ve ever owned. I’ve never even upgraded the scope, which is some kind of terrible Tasco, but I can drive tacks with this rifle. Speaking of optics, having a good pair of binoculars will save you the hassle of raising your rifle all of the time. I use Bushnell Autofocus binoculars that have plenty of eye relief. You’re going to spend a lot of your time looking through these, so get a set that feels comfortable.

The final piece of gear that I’ll talk about this week are knives. I usually take two knives in my pack on any deer hunting trip. I prefer an Outdoor Edge fixed blade with a gut hook for caping out my kill. It’s an inexpensive knife that holds an edge pretty well. I use a Cutco Clip Point knife for skinning. It’s hard to beat a Cutco when it comes to sharpness and durability. Even better, they have a lifetime warranty and will send you a new one if you break it. Always be sure to keep your knives well sharpened. It makes the task at hand much easier, and believe it or not, safer.

No matter whether you have expensive taste, or require the bare minimum, just about anyone can hunt deer affordably. Having the right equipment may make the job easier, but when the time comes to pull the trigger, or let an arrow fly, it’s up to you.

September is the Month for Preparation

The great thing about living in Mississippi is there is always a different outdoor season in full swing. Summer fishing turns into late summer alligator season. Gator season turns into dove season. Dove season takes us into the fall hunting season, in which we can harvest multiple species. Rarely is there a time when we don’t have something to hunt or catch in our great state.

September signals the alarm that deer season is just around the corner. If you haven’t sprayed out summer plots and began preparation for winter plots, now is the time. In baseball, we always say that championships are won long before the season ever begins. The same rings true for bagging that big buck. A little work and preparation will increase your odds of putting meat on the table and horns in your trophy room.

This month is also a good time to strap some cameras out in high trafficked areas. With opening day just around the corner, it’s good to know what bucks are traveling through and which bucks make your “shooter” list. Cameras have become somewhat of a hot button topic lately in the outdoor world. A few western states have put more stringent laws in place regarding camera use. A couple of years ago, Nevada banned the use of trail cameras on public land for certain time periods of the year. This year, the state of Arizona banned the use of trail cameras altogether. Montana has banned the use of cellular cameras, and New Hampshire has prohibited harvesting an animal on the same day trail camera pictures were taken.

I’m personally on the fence when it comes to cellular cameras. I appreciate the convenience of them, and not having to enter the woods and disturb the wildlife has to be an advantage. Obviously, the less scent you take into the woods, the better. The other side of me views it as a lazy way to track wild game. The evolution of various types of hunting equipment have made it easier than ever to track and kill deer. Cellular cameras, perhaps, give the greatest advantage of all new gear. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not for the future of hunting, but until Mississippi adopts laws against it, feel free to take advantage.

If you are an archery hunter, September is your last chance get your bow out and dial it in before the season begins. Up until now it’s been entirely too hot to shoot, unless you have an indoor range, of course. I’m beginning to see more and more people posting pictures practicing for the upcoming season. The worst feeling is going into opening weekend not being confident in your equipment, or yourself. Now is a good time to set aside a few evenings a week to shoot. Make sure you test fire your arrows with the broadheads you plan to use, as well. Although your broadhead might be the same weight as your field tip, they will often fly differently. Not practicing with your broadheads can result in poor shot placement and a lost, and wounded, harvest.

Another thing to make sure you work on is shot distance. This drives me crazy with archers. I’m no Fred Bear, but I feel very confident out to 40-50 yards. Knowing your limitations is equally as important as your gear selection. I often see hunters practicing shots of 75+ yards and I don’t understand it. That target is going to stay still through the entire flight of your arrow. A deer is not likely to do the same. I’ve had deer duck my arrow and “jump the string” many times at various distances. Shooting a target from 75 yards is much easier than shooting a deer at 30 yards. Also, isn’t the point of archery hunting to see how close you can get rather than how far you can shoot? When presented with the choice to take a sketchy shot versus letting that animal walk, use good judgement and get him next time. If left undisturbed, you’ll likely see him again. If you wound him, the odds are high that you’ll never see him again.

Finally, just because hunting season is almost here, don’t forget that this is still Mississippi and there are things crawling around that will injure or kill you. The majority of rattlesnakes that I’ve killed in my life have been killed during the month of September. It’s just cool enough to get them to stir during all times of the day. They are also feeding to store up for the winter months that are ahead. Be sure to wear snake protection when out doing food plots or working on your target practice. Nothing can ruin a good outdoor adventure worse than limping to the local hospital with a snake bite. Given my track record of ignorant injuries, this is one that I’ve fortunately not experienced…yet.

Saving Alligator Season: A Unique Trip to a Familiar Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weddings Can Bring Back Fond Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Gator Time in Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me and Matt with a 12′ Alligator in 2019

The Significance of the Number 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of the Yockanookany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old Harkins Home still remains on the property.

We’re Moving the Summer Olympics to Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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