The damp of the January morning (on Jan. 14) drove straight to the bone and clung like steel traps, much colder than the dry snow and sub-freezing temperatures I’d left behind near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the day before.
But then, that’s the way it’s always been down South – a cold that courses your body; one that numbs the toes and finger tips, tortures any exposed surfaces and makes the sway of an errant limb feel like the lash of an angry whip. I know the pain of Southern cold ever so well: I grew up in Shreveport, La., just about 200 miles east of where I was creeping Indian style through the undergrowth of Claiborne County.
Daylight had not fully separated itself from the dark. Briars grappled my body determined, it seemed, to snare me. The misery – the angry side of nature – seemed hell-bent on overwhelming the excitement of this very special hunt.
As I’d done for the last 10 seasons, I’d made a pilgrimage to Six Forks, a prime deer habitat of 2,400 acres. Just as full of anticipation and excitement as a novice; certain this would be the year I’d bag the trophy that had long eluded me. Why? Because this preserve is one that’s been managed with strict rules since its inception: 8 points or better. So the odds seemed good.
My ongoing entrée to this paradise is an old grade-school buddy, David, who’s been a member of Six Forks for over 15 years.
The night before … we joked, told lies, and shared some of our deepest hopes and fears. In a few short minutes, the years and months that had separated us evaporated. As we wolfed down large quantities of smoked ribs and suitable libations, the conversation invariably turned to “Where you goanna’ hunt tomorrow?” The litany of names would have been recognizable only to the initiated: Yahoo Bottom, Pin Oak Flat, Trail of Deer, Old No. 8, Paw Paw’s Bottom (not to be confused with Poacher’s Bottom). To me, the names rang out like the familiar hymns I’d heard long ago in the churches pastored by my maternal grandfather.
This year my brother-in-law, Kevin, accompanied me … and I wanted him to get the full Six Forks experience. That in mind, we decided that I’d escort him to a prime tri-pod stand on the edge of a cutover bordered by a nice bottom and a food plot. I chose to stay fairly close to him, and doubled back to the south end of Poachers Bottom to Ray’s Stand: a 20-foot ladder that, through the years, has grown several inches into the tree. As we neared our chosen locations, daylight began to break. Through the ground fog I saw two whitetail flags and knew we were in the right place.
But I’d been spotted. With Kevin secure at his stand, I crept farther into the bottom and, with a bit of huffing and puffing caused by the huge intake the night before, I ascended Ray’s ladder and surveyed a nearby creek.
The platform was cold but, strangely enough, not bothersome. I was totally hyped with fantasies of a trophy buck. During those hours from breaking day until around 8:15, I’d remained as alert as a sentry on a military post, all the while thinking back over the many hunts, the many joys of the outdoors and how truly blessed I am.
Suddenly, I looked up and spotted a mass – a big body – trotting through the woods about 70 yards away.
Quietly and without hesitation, I shouldered my .45-70 Marlin, picked up the movement, swung ahead to the next opening in the undergrowth and waited.
As the Mississippi monster came into my sight I dropped the hammer, fully expecting to see him stumble and topple over. But no: He continued.
I knew I’d hit him but there he was, moving. So I worked the lever and swung my Marlin onto him again: Another clean miss.
Completely panicked, I watched the huge buck swing to my right. Intuitively, I knew that I was not the first hunter he’d outsmarted. But this time I regained my composure, chambered another round and, as he moved into the clearing on an old logging road, the Marlin slammed a lethal hit into his shoulder and dropped him.
Hands shaking (they always do with a case of buck fever); this was no ordinary situation. I knew that this was the biggest buck I’d ever claimed in all my hunting trips, which have covered most of the Lower 48.
Trying to maintain calm, I bolted down Ray’s ladder and trotted to my prize.
Official Safari Club Score: 177 5/8; Boone & Crocket 165 2/8.Weight 225.
As of this writing we are still awaiting a determination about his official age.
This was one of those times that I knew I’d done something extraordinary. And I knew, too, that it had been made possible by others. I’m indebted and most grateful to David, Ray and the members of Six Forks for giving me this opportunity that will forever remain among my most treasured memories.
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