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.

Taking the Time to Be Your Own Butcher

My deer season officially ended a week ago, but in actuality, I didn’t completely close it out until today. The non-hunter will have a hard time understanding what that means, so I will explain. For most of us that hunt, it doesn’t end with the shot. The shot can actually be considered the beginning of the entire process.

Before we had kids, I had time. I had time to hunt. I had time to fish. I had time to process my own meat. Anyone that has children should be able to understand this, whether you hunt or not. I owned a meat grinder and sausage stuffer and would spend hours after the kill processing my own meat. There were no play-dates to take kids to, no naps to work around, no constant need of attention, etc. There was only time. The times change and we change with them. For years, my grinder sat in a storage room collecting dust, then it somehow vanished. I blame my wife for its disappearance. By the time we had our second child, I did what most hunters do; I took my meat to a processor.

Taking your meat to a local processor has its advantages. The first advantage is that you don’t have to do any of the work. This can be very advantageous when you have small children at home that require a lot of attention. You can use the extra time to play with your kids, or in my case, watch football. The second advantage is your local processor is better at it than you are. I have no doubt that every processor that I’ve dropped a deer off with is much better at turning raw material into something edible than I am. The next advantage is there is no mess to clean up. Processing your own meat is not for the faint hearted. I can turn our garage into what looks like a crime scene out of a horror movie in no time. The clean-up is my least favorite part of the entire process.

Even with the obvious advantages of taking your meat to a processor, there are disadvantages as well. The greatest of these is the price. Dropping your deer off at a processor can be very costly, depending on what you want done. Smoked sausage is going to cost you upward of $3.60 per pound. If you prefer to have your deer ground into hamburger meat it will cost you around $2.00 per pound, or more, depending on if you want beef mixed in or not. On average, I would spend over $100 per deer when I would drop one off at a processor. That makes for an expensive deer season for the average hunter. Another disadvantage of dropping off a deer is getting YOUR meat back. Every processor will tell you that you are absolutely getting your meat back. I beg to differ. A couple of years ago I killed a doe with my bow in early December. I skinned the deer and de-boned it before taking it to a processor (not in Hattiesburg). Two weeks later I was notified that my meat was finished, and I could come get it. Shortly after that, I cooked some of the hamburger meat and found bullet fragments in the meat. I called the processor who explained that sometimes bullet fragments pass through in the grinding phase and remain in the meat. I understand how this could happen, but this deer was not killed by a bullet, nor did it have any sign of previously being shot. I was, without a doubt in my mind, given someone else’s meat.

You might ask, “Why is that necessarily a bad thing?” It’s bad because I don’t know how that person took care of their meat before taking it to the processor. I am very particular about how I keep my meat cold and soaked before processing it. I certainly don’t want to eat meat that sat out in the heat for an extended period of time, and I don’t want to eat meat that I don’t know where it came from. Taking proper care of your meat after the shot is the most important thing that you will do. After all, isn’t this the reason for hunting, to provide meat for your family to eat?

This year, I decided to go back to processing my own meat. I bought a grinder, as well as a new vacuum sealer. The grinder cost around $200, and the sealer, with bags, cost around $150. I figure after processing three deer that my equipment will have paid for itself. The process of creating your own finished product may seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as one might think. The best thing to do is watch some videos, or talk with someone that knows what they are doing. Sure, it’s going to take you a little time, and you’ll probably end up messing some of it up the first time. However, you’ll know exactly where your meat came from. For me, it’s also more rewarding when we sit down at the table to eat, and I know exactly what it took to get this meal to the table. There’s a sense of satisfaction and pride knowing that I brought that meal from the deep woods to our table without the adulteration of another hand.

Today I finished cutting up the last of my deer meat from the season. I cut some up for grinding into hamburger meat, and some into steaks for frying or grilling. I feel accomplished, along with a bit of melancholy that the season went by so quickly. I also cleaned my truck out this weekend, which is the real sign that deer season is over. My hunting clothes are packed away and my guns are put in the cabinet (unless the government wants them; in that case, they were lost in a boating accident). I’ve cleaned, boiled, and whitened my last deer skull for the year. I am finished. Tomorrow begins a new day: baseball season.

Final Hunt: The Boot

The moment that I have been dreading since October has arrived: my deer season is finished. What a season I’ve had, though. I cannot remember another deer season where I’ve had this much fun and this much success. Yes, I know there are a few weeks left of deer season, but baseball has arrived and my attention has completely shifted to that. This past weekend has made the transition much easier than I anticipated.

I knew when I pulled out of Hattiesburg on Friday afternoon that this weekend would be my last trip to the deer camp this season. I packed my truck light in order to be able to haul all of my gear from the camp back with me on Saturday night. Friday was cold and cloudy and I had high hopes of catching a late rutting buck chasing a doe. After arriving at the camp just in time to get a decent hunt in, I settled into a ladder stand overlooking a food plot where I’d seen plenty of action just three weeks ago. I sat with the cold wind howling in my face for two hours without the slightest glimpse of life. Maybe this arctic blast was too cold for a Mississippi whitetail to get up and move around. The good news was that my good friend, Ben Tharp, and his son, Reid, were meeting me at the camp. Ben is like having a camp chef. I actually think he enjoys cooking more than he does hunting sometimes, and he didn’t disappoint on Friday night. Ben and I have been friends for years and I’ve learned as much about hunting and cooking wild game from him as I have from anyone else. He is a true outdoorsman and a pleasure to be around at all times. If you don’t have a Ben Tharp at your camp, I suggest you get one.

After staying up way later than planned on Friday, it was difficult to get up and moving on Saturday morning. We got into our stands just as the sun was peaking. I hunted my favorite morning spot, a stand that I’ve mentioned before. It’s a ladder stand on a large hill overlooking a good portion of the land. I love to sit there when the sun begins to creep up, turning what was once dark into a vibrant scene of color below me. The shadows begin to fade from black to orange, red, and yellow. Ducks fly by me from the cypress brake to the south. The deer begin to awake from their slumber, and the sun shines on their backs as they walk through the thick entanglement. With each shiny, brown coat that I see, my heart races with excitement. It’s like my own little slice of heaven on Earth. When the morning hunt is finished, Ben once again comes through. A plate of eggs, bacon, grits, and sausage await for the hungry hunter. The morning fuel will be the driving force for the evening hunt

Around noon, the quiet camp takes on a change. Several members of the Donald family and a couple of other friends arrive to spend the evening. The house all of a sudden fills with cheerful noise. The deer camp experience is now in full swing. All kinds of hunting/fishing stories are being told as we trade laughs. I sit mostly quiet and take it all in. In a world that feels like it’s crumbling, here, in this moment, everything is right. Political conversations are as scarce as capitol police. Talks of covid are nonexistent. It’s almost perfect. We plot out where each of us will hunt that evening, and I picked a stand where I killed a good buck earlier this year, the boot.

The boot gets its name from the layout of the property line. To the South, the property line meets up with the Big Black River and curves into the shape of a cowboy boot giving this stand its namesake. The boot doesn’t get near the hunting pressure as some of our other stands, simply because it is quite a haul from the house. There have been times that I’ve made the trip down there only to see grass, and there have been times where I’ve had some great hunts. Since this was going to be my final hunt of the season, I wanted to go down to the river one more time. And for one last time, the boot didn’t disappoint.

I dropped Ben and Reid off at a double ladder stand along the way to my spot. Their stand overlooks a food plot on the edge of the cypress brake that is notorious for buck movement this time of the year. I really hoped Reid would get an opportunity at a mature buck cruising the edge of the brake looking for a companion. After dropping them off, and driving a little farther, I parked my four wheeler and began a long walk to my stand. I walked slowly taking in the scenery around me. As I walked the bank and listened to the river I thought about what a great season this has been. I’ve been able to share so many memories with friends and family. If I didn’t kill anything this evening, it wouldn’t dampen my season at all. This evening was simply a bonus hunt to finish things up.

I settled into my stand and watched ducks fly by for over an hour. The cold breeze blew straight into my face and gave me a chill. Finally, a spike entered my food plot. He fed for about twenty minutes and seemed quite comfortable. As I was enjoying watching the young deer forage, all of a sudden his demeanor changed. His ears pinned back and his head was fixated on the woods behind him. My heart rate began to increase with anticipation of what was spooking him. Suddenly he took off running straight toward me. He stopped after running about 50 yards and looked back. I picked up my binoculars and looked in the direction he was looking, and there he was. A large, mature buck was entering the food plot. At a quick glance I knew this deer was a “shooter”. I quickly raised my rifle, squeezed the trigger, and just like that, my season ended.

The ride back to the camp was interesting with two grown men, a young man, and a 200 pound buck on a four wheeler. We made the best of it and drew plenty of laughs upon our arrival. As we took plenty of pictures of the deer, and with the deer, it was easy to remember why I love this so much. Baseball is definitely my first love, but moments like these are pretty hard to beat. My thirst is quenched, my heart is full, and I’ll forever remember my best deer season ever.

Two Kids and the Debate Over Shooting a Doe

Our holiday season came and went as close to normal as possible. We didn’t get to visit with much of our family for as long as usual, but we made the best of the situation. The kids received more gifts than they’ll be able to remember, and the food was amazing, per usual. I thought that during the holiday season that I’d be able to relax, given that I’ve quenched my bloodthirst lately with a good buck. I was wrong. I’m not saying the thought of being in the woods occupied my brain the entire time, but a good portion of it.

As soon as all of the gifts were opened and the twentieth forced feeding was finished, I was planning the next outing in the woods. Part of me felt a little remorseful to my family for all of the time that I’d put in the woods recently, so I decided to do something different for this trip. I was going to take not one, but two kids with me to the camp. Mackenzie is pretty much a seasoned veteran at this point of her young hunting career. Collins, on the other hand, hasn’t spent much time in a deer stand. To her credit, she’s only five and has the attention span of a typical five year old. Long hours in the stand looking at nothing isn’t really her thing just yet. However, I decided that taking them both would be the best way for me to get back into the woods without upsetting the balance at home, so off we went.

We arrived at the camp on the 27th of December around 2:00, hurriedly got dressed, and headed to a box stand. The rut was still going on at the camp, though it had slowed from the week before, and I thought we’d have a shot to see a decent buck that afternoon. The stand we went to is notorious for seeing deer, so I thought it would be a good place to keep Collins’ interest peaked. When we arrived at the stand I noticed it leaning to one side. Apparently, during a recent storm the ground around one of the legs of the stand had washed out. The box stand was essentially sitting on three legs, rather than four. I climbed up the ladder and decided that it was safe enough for the three of us. The girls got settled in the stand and it wasn’t long before we saw our first deer, a yearling doe. They had a blast watching her and even named her. When she left the food plot, the girls decided we should all paint our faces camouflage so the deer wouldn’t see us. Like any father would, I obliged, and we painted our faces camo to avoid detection should there be another deer come to the food plot. A short while later, two more deer came into the plot. A large doe and a button-head buck fed in the plot until they were joined by our first, and only, “rack” buck of the evening. The buck was too small to shoot, but he chased the other deer around and entertained us until dark.

The next morning my alarm went off and I got out of the bed. After a few minutes milling around the house, I realized that I was the only one that got out of bed. I woke both girls up and essentially got the same response from both of them, “Dad, it’s still very, very dark outside.” Needless to say, they both went back to sleep and I slipped out of the house to a stand for a little while. While I really didn’t have anything to worry about by leaving them in the house, my mind wandered the entire time I was in the tree, so I cut my hunt short. I returned to the house around 8:30, very early by my standards, having seen a couple of small bucks and a doe. The girls seemed excited about the evening hunt, so we ate an early lunch and planned to get in the stand around 1:00 that afternoon. Collins made sure that we packed plenty of snacks and the iPad for the evening sit. There was a full moon so I wanted to make sure we got to the stand early in hopes of catching deer feeding midday. We got to the stand shortly after 1:00 and sat there until dark. We did not see a single deer. This is very unusual for the particular stand we were in and for our camp in general. I’m not entirely sure whether or not this is the first time anyone sat in this stand and didn’t see something, but I don’t remember another evening hunt where this happened. Part of me was grateful to not see a deer. I know that sounds silly, but there’s a side of me that wants my kids to endure the suffering side of hunting. I don’t want it to always be easy for them, so this was a nice reminder.

We stayed at the camp another night and once again morning came and they didn’t want to get up. This time, for the first time this season, I gave in too and went back to sleep. We decided to put all our marbles in for the evening hunt. I also wanted to show them perseverance, so we went back to the same stand where we didn’t see anything the day before. This time, however, we did not go at 1:00. We waited until around 3:00 before we got settled into the stand. Five minutes hadn’t gone by when the first two deer arrived in the food plot. A larger, mature doe joined the other two does in the plot soon after. The doe seemed very aware of our presence and looked our way often, sometimes stomping her leg at us. I told Mackenzie that she was going to bust us and we needed to shoot her before she scared all of the deer away. Plus, we needed at least one more deer in the freezer for the year, so this would take the pressure off. Mackenzie got in position to shoot when all of a sudden she turned to me and said she couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t stomach “shooting a girl deer” and lowered her rifle. All of the movement had really peaked the doe’s interest in us, and I feared the hunt would soon be ruined. I grabbed the rifle, aimed quickly, and squeezed the trigger. The doe dropped almost in the spot she was standing. Collins, who had ear protection on and was watching the iPad, never even knew that I had shot.

We continued to sit in the stand the rest of the evening, until dark, while I explained to Mackenzie that it is necessary to kill some does during the season in order to help out the buck population. She humored me by acting like she understood, but I don’t foresee her shooting a doe anytime soon. Collins, on the other hand, was stoked to get to see a dead deer, regardless of whether it had horns or not. We had a great trip and some much needed daddy/daughter time and that’s what matters most. My season is dwindling fast, however, and the itch still remains to kill one of those bucks on camera. Maybe I can talk my wife into just one more trip.