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.

2020: A Year of Lessons

2020 is finally coming to a close. Many will welcome the turning of the calendar in hopes of better fortune in the year ahead. My family’s year hasn’t gone how we planned, but how many years do? While I do not make New Year’s resolutions, I do try and take the lessons learned and apply them in the future.

The first lesson of 2020 is to never take things for granted. That sounds very cliché and it’s probably not something I should just now be learning at this stage of my life. However, this year really beat this lesson into me. We were 20 games into our season when COVID shut us down on March 12th. We were in first place in our conference, and I really would have liked to of seen how that would’ve ended. We’ve always told our players to play each day like it’s your last, but who really ever thinks that will happen? 2020 showed us anything is possible, and I know there are a lot of guys that wish they could get those last games back. Fortunately, most college athletes were given an extra year of eligibility. The high school kids are the real victims of the shutdown, since they can’t get the year back. My heart aches for those that weren’t able to complete their last season of high school sports.

The second lesson of 2020 is that the world can do without a lot of things. I’ve never thought that what I do is very important in the grand scheme of things. Sure, my job has importance, but we aren’t curing diseases. As a college baseball coach, I believe it is my duty to help prepare young men to go and make the world a better place. The competitive side of me hates to lose, but 2020 has told me that it’s not the single most important aspect of my job. There are far more important people in the world than coaches and athletes. 2020 has taught me that we need to place more value in them than we do our entertainment. I don’t necessarily believe in essential and nonessential workers. Every job is essential to the family that needs that income. However, can you imagine our world without doctors, nurses, and first responders? They are the real heroes of 2020. The world can do without athletes, actors, and musicians, but this year has proven that our medical professionals and law enforcement are truly irreplaceable. We can also certainly do without politicians.

The third lesson of 2020 is to spend time doing what you love with the people you love. By now it’s no secret what I enjoy doing. I love my family, baseball, and the outdoors. Once baseball was taken away this year, I made a point to spend as much time with my family and friends in the outdoors as possible. We bought kayaks shortly after the shutdown began and used them to fish small lakes and ponds in the area. I spent more time fishing with my daughters than ever before. We took our first hand grabbing trip together this summer and lucked up with a 47-pound flathead catfish. We went on our first ever river camping trip together. These are things that I did with my family growing up and haven’t had the opportunity to do it with my kids until this year. My middle daughter caught her first bass by herself this year. A proud accomplishment in the eyes of dad. My oldest daughter killed another buck this year using my first rifle. That’s something that I’ll never forget. As I type this, we are currently at our deer camp in hopes of bagging another deer before the end of the year. These are moments that I’ll forever cherish and hope they will too.

The final lesson of 2020 is to keep learning. Sometimes I get to thinking I know a little bit only to find out I know nothing. Learning shouldn’t stop with age. I learned and tried so many new things this year. I learned a new method of catching catfish on the river (bank poles), and I’m still trying to perfect it. I learned how to clean frogs and a new, more proficient way to clean a deer. I learned how to catch crabs in brackish water and how not to tie your boat up during a falling tide. I learned that if your family loves you that it doesn’t matter if anyone else does. I’ve learned that it’s okay to get down, just don’t stay there.

I will continue my trend of not making a New Year’s resolution in 2021, but I’m going to do my best to take what 2020 taught me and be better. For those that have had a rough year and are worried about the future, I once heard a quote that we can all live by, “It’s okay to have a pessimistic mind as long as you have optimistic boots.” My family and I wish you all a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ah December, I have longed for you all year. Decorations are everywhere you look, and Christmas is just around the corner. Schools have let out for the holidays, well mostly. For some reason my kids have a packet of work to do during the holidays, but that’s a conversation for another day. This time of the year is great to relax, enjoy family, and celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s also wonderful for another reason, the rut. During this time period, just about every year, the rut in the Delta is in full swing and this year is no exception.

My cameras have been out since August, until recently. I’ve hunted four different bucks all season long with no luck. It makes me wonder if having cameras out is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s nice to know what is out there, it’s also painful. I’ve been determined to kill one of those bucks and probably put too much pressure on the deer, and myself. My wife has even used the term “obsessed” more than once regarding my pursuit of the deer on my cameras. Up until this weekend, I’d never seen a single one of them on the hoof.

I mentioned that my wife thinks I’m obsessed, and I’m not going to argue that assessment. When I’ve been at home lately, I’ve only been half at home. My mind has been constantly wondering what the deer were doing. Where are they hanging out? What are they eating? Are the does close to being in heat? Have those bucks already been killed by the neighbors? To Amy’s credit, she understands me. She can tell when something is bothering me and when my attention is elsewhere. When she tells me that we’ve got something planned for a weekend and I can’t go hunting, she can tell when I want to be in the woods. I thought I did a decent job of hiding my disappointment of not being able to hunt, but apparently I don’t do a good enough job. She calls it pouting, I call it longing. To each their own. She knows how much I enjoy hunting the rut, though, and agreed to take on the job of single mom while I fed my obsession this weekend.

I arrived at our camp just after lunch on Friday afternoon. Brad and his daughter, Emily, were already there. Brad had already plotted our evening hunt and suggested I hunt a stand on the north end that hadn’t been hunted all year. I took his advice and I’m glad I did. I didn’t kill anything, but I got a taste of the rut for the first time this year. There were a couple of young bucks grunting and chasing does through the woods. It was a great sign that the rut was in full swing at our place. The evening hunt only strengthened my obsession and the night seemed to last forever. I couldn’t wait to get back in the woods.

Rain was in the forecast for Saturday afternoon, so I needed to make the morning hunt count. I went back to a stand that I’ve hunted a few times and seen plenty of deer activity. The stand sits on a tall hill and overlooks a lot of land below. It’s the perfect place to watch bucks chasing does during the rut, and I felt like I’d have the best opportunity to see one of those bucks I’d been hunting from this position. I hadn’t got settled in the stand good when a loud “boom” went through the sky. Two other guys from the camp, David and Daryl, were hunting that morning, and I felt confident that the shot came from Daryl. Daryl confirmed a few minutes later that he was the one that shot, but he didn’t feel good about it. While I sat in the stand waiting to hear back from Daryl on what he potentially killed, the action was heating up. I watched a couple of young bucks lock horns for a moment, then watched a young eight point buck chase a doe right by me. They both stopped right in front of me, and I heard a buck snort/wheeze for the first time ever in my life, a very cool moment.

A little while later, Daryl confirmed that he killed a buck. He sent a picture of the deer to me, and I immediately noticed the deer from my camera. I couldn’t hardly wait to climb down and go check him out. I went back to the camp a little later, met up with Daryl, and we went and retrieved the buck. He was everything I thought he would be. The buck was a main frame eight point about 19 inches wide with a sticker coming off of his left G2 (second tine). My obsession grew even more to kill one of the remaining bucks I had on camera. It grew so much that I even convinced Brad to hunt in the rain that evening. We saw deer, but we didn’t see what we were looking for. I would have to wait until tomorrow.

My Sunday morning hunt was rough. I almost ran over one of the bucks I’d been hunting with my four wheeler on the way to my stand before daylight. I certainly wasn’t going to see him after that. Then, I hunted a tripod that requires you to bring a cushion to sit on. Once again, I forgot to bring a cushion and I cut my hunt short rather than have back surgery this week. Feeling defeated, I returned to the camp and decided to put all of my energy into the evening hunt. I was going to be alone so I had my pick of the entire property.

I went to the river for my evening hunt in hopes that the lack of pressure there would have the deer moving. I saw the same doe and yearling that Amy wouldn’t let me shoot a few weeks ago. They both fed until a spike ran them off. My frustration grew even greater. Another doe showed up. Again, the spike ran her off. I’ve never wanted to shoot a spike so bad in my life. Then, another doe came into the plot. This time the spike didn’t show up. I looked up and the largest buck I’d seen in a while was standing at the edge of the plot. I immediately knew he was a “shooter” and raised my rifle. I took a deep breath, let it out, and squeezed the trigger. My struggle was over. I was so excited that I wanted to skip across the food plot. I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders seeing the deer laying there. When I got to the deer I realized that I’d never seen this buck before. I didn’t have a single picture of him. That made it even sweeter. He was a main frame eight point with stickers on both G2’s. He’s possibly the biggest buck that I’ve ever killed. I loaded my hard earned trophy up and headed back to the camp. I made sure to immediately send a picture to my wife to let her know my obsession had been filled, for now.

Avoid a Disaster, Check Your Gear

Over the years I have had my fair share of outdoor mishaps. I’ve broken equipment, broken bones, sank boats, and sank four wheelers. I’ve had hooks stuck in my hands and in my face. I’ve nearly chopped an entire finger off with a machete trying to construct a minnow trap. I’ve even been in a boat that essentially submarined 60 miles off the coast of Louisiana (we’ll get back to that in a minute), and I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit in emergency rooms across Mississippi. The one thing that I’ve never had an accident with, until now, is a firearm.

Two weeks ago, against my better judgement, I decided to hunt in a downpour in hopes that the rain would let up and the deer would move. The radar on my phone was about as reliable as I am at knowing when the rain would stop, and I ended up getting soaked to the bone. The rain never stopped before dark and I never saw a deer. It was my last hunt of the weekend and I returned home to Hattiesburg wet and without any meat. It rained so hard that even the clothes that I didn’t wear got wet. Everything in my pack was soaked. My rifle was also mostly unprotected during the hunt and took a beating as well. At the end of the hunt I quickly packed my bag, loaded my truck, and made the long drive home. When I got home I was so tired from the day that I didn’t unpack anything that night. All of my clothes and my gear were still wet and remained that way through the morning, which wasn’t too big of a deal. The one thing that I should have made sure got cleaned up that night was my rifle, and I didn’t.

The next day I unpacked and cleaned my rifle up. I had removed the magazine from the rifle following the hunt and put it in my backpack. The problem is, I never removed it from my pack that next day. The magazine stayed in my damp backpack for almost a week. This is where my problem begins, or so I believe. Fast forward two weeks to this past weekend. I returned to the camp with every intention of shooting the first mature deer I saw, doe or buck, to get my wife off my back about bringing some meat home. I hunted Thursday evening and only saw a doe that still had a yearling with her. If I shot the doe and my kids found out they’d probably not talk to me for a while, so I passed the opportunity. Once again, I returned to the camp house with no meat and had to figure out what to do about dinner. Fortunately, my good friend, Chris Coulter, came up to the camp from Hattiesburg and brought steaks for dinner. He knows me well enough to know not to depend on me for deer meat for dinner.

Speaking of Chris, remember when I mentioned submarining a boat off the coast of Louisiana? Chris was the one driving the boat. We left early that morning out of Venice trying to get out to a hot spot to catch yellow fin tuna. We were headed out in six foot seas that were stacked in pretty tight. I was sitting next to Chris on the bench seat when we took a wave over the bow that blew that windshield of the boat out. Chris ducked, I didn’t. For my late reaction time I received 15 stitches in my face, ear, and left hand. I also lost my sunglasses and had my contacts knocked out, or washed out of my eyes. We pointed the boat back toward the coast, and I rode the rest of the way blind and bleeding all over the place. Chris is still mad that I wouldn’t let him super glue my face and ear back together so we could continue heading out to fish. I’m still angry that I lost a $200 pair of sunglasses and a pint of blood, but we still hang out. I’m just not letting him drive my boat, but he did cook the best steak I’ve had in a while.

The next morning we woke up early and hit the woods. The moon was still very visible as I settled into my stand on a hilltop overlooking a large bedding area. The morning air was crisp and the wind was almost nonexistent. It was almost the perfect morning for deer movement. It wasn’t long after the sun came up that I had two mature does feeding under an oak tree just 80 yards to my left. Even with the pre-rut beginning at our camp I made the decision to harvest one of the does to keep my wife happy. I slowly lifted my rifle, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. There was a click then silence. Shocked, I figured I had a bad shell and began to lower my rifle to bolt in another round. Just as I let the rifle down, the gun went off, sending a 7mag round screaming through the sky. It scared me so bad that I almost fell out of the tree. I sat there for about 20 minutes trying to figure out what had just happened and how fortunate I was to not have been seriously injured. That’s when both does came back to the oak tree to feed again. I repeated exactly what I did 20 minutes prior, and once again, the rifle clicked. I didn’t move much this time out of fear, but as soon as I moved my head the rifle went off again. That’s when I remembered leaving those wet shells in that magazine. After sitting a while longer I climbed down and went back to the camp, somewhat angry and somewhat thankful to not be bleeding.

I put new shells in the rifle and fired it into a target positioned 100 yards away. The rifle fired like it was brand new, aside from the scope being off (of course). I let Chris shoot it first in case something bad happened that I wouldn’t get maimed. I try to be a good friend. After this weekend I’ll be sure to check all of my gear, especially my rifle and ammo before each hunt, and I encourage you to do the same.

Mississippi Public Land Hunting

Over the last few years I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to hunt some great properties. The place we hunt and fish now is owned by my wife’s cousin’s family, along with another family, and is nestled along the Big Black River just south of Vicksburg. The 1000 acre property consists of flats along the river and hills to the north with deep valleys. There is a large lake on the property that holds some of the largest blue gills you’ve ever seen, along with some pretty nice sized alligators! The deer hunting is phenomenal and it has more turkeys than you could ever kill. With a three bedroom house on the property, it’s paradise for a guy like me. My hunting grounds, however, have not always been this nice.

For years I would hear stories of gigantic bucks being killed across our state and would get incredibly jealous. To me, it seemed like the only people that were killing big, mature bucks in Mississippi were people that had plenty of money. One could say that it is still that way to some degree, and I wouldn’t be able to completely argue with them. I know plenty of landowners that have made it their life’s work to grow big deer, and they’ve spent way more money on the project than the average Mississippi deer hunter is willing to spend. However, our state has done a fantastic job in the last decade of managing our deer herd and increasing the odds of killing mature deer on public property.

There are numerous public land opportunities for Mississippi hunters to kill deer and kill big deer. Before I get into some of those places, it’s important to remember that our main goal as hunters shouldn’t be to kill something to put on the wall. I’m as guilty as anybody for wanting to kill the biggest deer in the woods anytime I go hunting, but I’ve also learned that putting meat on the table has to be the first priority. I’ve tried to teach my kids that feeding the family has to come before harvesting a trophy. Luckily for our family, my daughter has done a good job of filling the freezer and allowing me the opportunity to be a little pickier.

There are thousands of acres of public hunting land in Mississippi. Some are obviously better than others, but all afford a hunter the opportunity to harvest a deer. There are numerous Wildlife Management Areas and National Wildlife Refuges that allow deer hunting as well, for a small yearly fee. Some of these places provide a hunter the opportunity to harvest meat, and to also kill a deer that you’d be proud to hang above your mantle. Some years ago I put my jealousy aside and began trying to figure out how I could kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to find somewhere that I would have a chance to fill my freezer, potentially kill the buck of a lifetime, and not break the bank doing it. Upon looking more into it, I found that some of the WMA’s and NWR’s in Mississippi were responsible for some of the largest bucks killed in our state.

A good friend of mine, Ben Tharp, was the first person to introduce me to hunting an NWR. Ben is from Woodville, and it’s basically a sportsman’s paradise, especially if you own some land in the area.  However, Ben was a lot like me and relied on having to hunt a friend’s place or public land. His dad, Terry, is probably the best deer hunter that I’ve ever met, and these two guys have built some nice trophy rooms consisting of a lot of public land bucks. Of the little knowledge I have about the woods, much of it I learned from Ben and his dad. Possibly the most important thing I’ve learned about hunting and fishing with these two is you better learn quickly, or they are going to let you hear about it.

The first trip I ever made with Ben and Terry to an NWR they had a spot picked out for me to hunt where they’d seen plenty of sign. We got up early in the morning and arrived well before daylight to head into the woods. Ben pointed in a direction toward the woods and said something to the effect of “walk about 100 yards down this trail, hang a right at a dead tree, walk 40 more yards along the hill, and you’ll come to another oak tree. Hang your stand there.” He lost me at “100 yards down the trail” and I spent the next 30 minutes shining my flashlight all over the woods. Soon I saw a light coming toward me, and it was Mr. Terry. He asked me what in the heck I was doing, and I told him that Ben sent me to hunt this area. Mr. Terry looked at me like I was crazy and said that Ben sent him to the same spot. He took me to a tree to hang my stand and spent the entire walk cussing his son. I text Ben and told him that his dad was going to kill him for sending us both to the same spot. Ben couldn’t figure out what happened and swore that he sent us to different locations. Either way, Mr. Terry was pretty ticked and somebody was to blame. It turns out that in my frantic search for the tree I was supposed to climb that somehow I’d crossed a creek, walked up a hill, ended up 300 yards away from where I was supposed to be, and invaded Mr. Terry’s hunting spot for the morning. That happened 10 years ago and Mr. Terry still refers to me as “Whichaway” because I don’t know which-a-way I’m going.

Public land can be incredibly fun to hunt because you never know what you’re going to run into. It took me a little time to figure out how to hunt on public land, and I still don’t know near as much about it as many other hunters do, but I always learn something new when I go. Since that first debacle with Ben and Terry, I’ve been able to harvest some deer on public land, even my first public land buck years ago. It’s pretty cool to be able to kill a deer on public land when you know the deer are being pressured by other hunters. I enjoy the challenge and it gives me a sense of fulfillment when I’m successful. If you are like I was and think that big deer can only be killed on private land by wealthy landowners, do yourself a favor and head out to some Mississippi public land. Work at it, stay optimistic, and you won’t be disappointed.

Starving for the Weekend

Thanksgiving is behind us and we are probably all a little fatter than we were over a week ago. I stayed true to my word and didn’t eat any turkey this year. My anti-turkey movement even caught on at my in-laws for Thanksgiving, as there wasn’t a bird in sight. If my hunting luck doesn’t change soon I am going to have to eat my words, and the turkey.

No quicker than we finished our Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday, I began planning my weekend hunting trip in my mind. I had visions of killing a doe on the first evening, then hunting one of the “shooter” bucks that we have on camera the remainder of the weekend. In my mind, the hunt always plays out easier than it actually happens. I do the same thing with baseball games during our season. Before a series begins I play the entire weekend out in my head. Of course, it never happens the way I draw it up, and the same goes with hunting, most of the time.

I left our house Friday around noon headed toward our deer camp south of Vicksburg. My wife noticed that I didn’t pack much to eat before I walked out the door. I told her that if I didn’t kill a deer that I wouldn’t be eating any meat. What a stupid thing to say. The first evening hunt went about as you would expect. I arrived at the camp just as the rain stopped and hurried to a stand positioned along the Big Black River. I saw one deer during the hunt just as the fog and darkness rolled in. It was a spike, so I would have to settle for crackers and guacamole dip for dinner that night. Thankfully, I was still pretty full from all of the food I was forced to eat on Thursday.

On Saturday morning, I hunted a new stand on the property that overlooks a road in-between a bedding area and a cypress brake. This stand is a tripod that sits about 12 feet off the ground that provides a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. I thought it would be a great place to catch deer moving from the bedding area to feeding areas. The problem that I had was the seat. It was essentially the bones of a seat with no cushion. The location of the stand was great, but my butt and my back couldn’t take more than a couple hours of sitting. I did see a doe and two yearlings cross the road, but they moved across the road so quickly that I wouldn’t have been able to get a shot off even if I wanted to. My morning hunt ended the same way as the previous evening, with no meat.

With my confidence fading as I returned to camp, I decided to run up the road to a store and grab some vegetables and some granola bars so I wouldn’t completely starve if I didn’t kill a deer. My fortune soon changed when I returned to camp. The Donald family showed up to watch the Egg Bowl at the camp that evening, and they brought food. They brought enough food to feed Patton’s 3rd Army and were kind enough to make sure I didn’t starve. Brad, the deer skinning machine, brought the best bag of deer jerky that I’ve ever eaten in my life, and David Donald fried some fish from our lake, which was fantastic. With the pressure off of me to kill a deer to eat that night, I figured I’d see plenty of action in the woods that evening.

 I went to a stand notorious for seeing plenty of doe with the hopes bagging one to take back home. The first deer entered the food plot around 3:45, and I almost immediately recognized it as a button head buck. It was still early and I’ve seen a ton of does from this stand in previous years, so my confidence remained high. The button head fed in the plot until a one horned buck ran him out. Some would call this deer a cull buck and shoot him immediately to keep him from breeding. The deer was young, and I figured something happened that caused one side of his rack to break off during the velvet stage, so I let him walk. As the sun was beginning to set another buck entered the plot. This one was a little larger and began to bully the one horned buck. While the larger 6 point was bullying the young deer, another buck caught my eye in the distance. I identified him as a three and half year old eight point, which doesn’t quite meet our standards as a shooter buck on the property. He entered the food plot, made a scrape at the edge, and headed toward the other two bucks. If you’ve never seen two bucks fight, it is a really cool experience. The older buck’s ears folded down and he began to stagger sideways like he was drunk. The younger buck seemed up to the challenge and they locked horns. The fight lasted for a few minutes with the older buck getting the upper hand and running the younger deer from the plot. Darkness soon followed and the hunt was over. I returned to the camp with no meat but excited from what I considered a successful hunt. Plus, I knew I wasn’t going to go hungry that night.

That night we feasted on fried fish, potatoes, and hush puppies while watching football outside by a large fire. For the moment, all was right in the world, well almost. Everyone at the camp, aside from me, is a Mississippi State grad. There was no covid, no political issues, just a bunch of friends enjoying each other’s company and good food. That’s what’s so special about deer camp. For me, it’s an escape from the world. Breaking my normal routine, I stayed and hunted on Sunday. It rained pretty much all day and I came up empty handed again, but that’s ok. There will be other days. Plus, if I really need deer meat, I’ll just take my daughter. She’s a better hunter than me anyway.