Crockett Creek Confessions And The Quest For The Phantom
GON's 2016 Fall Fiction Series: Part 1 of 5
The members of Crockett Creek Trophy Club were optimistically approaching another hunting season on their club, located in famous Dooly County. Nestled between Crockett Creek and the Flint River, the land consisted of 1,000 acres of the most intensely managed property in the entire state of Georgia. Through years of hard work, sweat equity and superior deer genetics, a legend roamed the area. The signs made by the monarch left no doubt of the buck’s presence. The only question was which hunter, if any, would be fortunate enough to catch up with the buck they all dreamed about… “The Phantom.”
The late February afternoon sun began to slowly set behind the distant tree line as 8-year old Tyler James watched the covey of quail break from their hold up within the clearcut wind row. Moments later, shotgun blasts were followed by the commands of his uncle coaching his bird dog through its retrieval. For Tyler, the first three months of the year were highly anticipated because this was the time of year he could go hunting. Although too young to carry a shotgun, Tyler always carried his trusted Daisy Red Rider BB gun. He wasn’t allowed to accompany his uncle quail hunting in the fall due to safety concerns from the presence of deer hunters.
As they searched for any remaining singles, a ray of sunlight revealed a shape above the scattered broomsedge. Tyler’s curiosity grew as his uncle leaned over and picked up a massive shed antler with six long points. The boy’s wonder struck eyes nearly popped out of his head as his uncle struggled to stretch his index finger to his thumb around the base of the antler.
The abandoned headgear, still completely in-tact, would have made a spectacle to even the most experienced trophy hunter. Rightfully so, for it sported multiple points over a foot long and a base the size of a Coke can. That event not only sparked a curiosity, but it began a lifelong obsession for Tyler. At that moment, a buck hunter was born. Until now, it was still the biggest shed Tyler, now 30, had ever found.
• • • • •
Tyler’s thoughts returned to the present as a hawk swooped across the freshly bush-hogged area, searching for any easy meal. The field was quite the scene as numerous field mice and rats found themselves vulnerable, scurrying for cover. Tyler watched and took in the moment as he admired his newest possession, a perfect 6-point shed antler.
Tyler’s eyes itched from the dry August dust that he’d stirred up while mowing one of the properties food plots, known as the Pecan. Both his “Finish The Drill” T-shirt—earned during his playing days as a DB—and brim of his UGA hat were completely drenched with sweat. Even with the sweltering heat and constant barrage of swarming gnats and yellow flies, Tyler couldn’t be more content. He had a front row ticket with one of nature’s best hunters, and the largest shed antler he’d found since that late winter day some 22 years ago. Adding to his excitement… college football season was just three weeks away.
The sound of the running tractor gave way to the approaching black Dodge pickup. It was Jordan Sanders. In Tyler’s opinion, Jordan was the best trophy hunter he’d ever known. Jordan had won several local big-buck contests, as well as two appearances over the years in the GON Truck-Buck Shoot-Out. Although Jordan was almost 50 years old, they shared a passion to hunt monster bucks, which made them best of friends.
“Thought you might like a Gatorade,” Jordan shouted.
“Thanks, I thought you’d never ask,” said Tyler.
“Looks like you found a little surprise.”
“Yeah, how ‘bout that!” exclaimed Tyler as he raised the shed to show Jordan. “Look at the mass and tine length.”
Jordan massaged his salt and pepper beard.
“There’s only one buck in this area capable of producing somethin’ that big,” Jordan said. “One thing’s for sure, we know where The Phantom fed at least once last winter.”
“Agreed,” said Tyler. “I can’t wait to show this to the guys. Let me finish up here, and I’ll meet you back at camp. We should have just enough time to get over to the peanut field for the bachelor show.”
Jordan broke into a smile, “Yep, love this time of year when those ol’ wall hangers show up just before dark to gorge. As you’d say, like an episode of Mutual Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Who knows, if we are lucky, we might just get a glimpse of The Phantom.”
“How’s everyone doing?” asked Tyler.
“They’re busy workin’ on stands, layin’ boards across all those wet areas of that new trail that cuts through The Green Stuff and fillin’ the feeder stations one last time with that deer feed you’re so high on,” said Jordan.
Tyler chugged the Gatorade and tossed the empty bottle into Jordan’s truck bed full of feed.
“Dude, after this season, they’re gonna put my picture on those bags, posing with The Phantom!”
Within the hour, Tyler pulled into camp as the sun started to cast late afternoon shadows.
Most of the members were already gathered on the front porch of the clubhouse; fully dressed in camouflage Bug Tamers and equipped with binoculars and camcorders. Their faces full of anticipation about the evening game plan.
The club, known as, Crockett Creek Trophy Club, was unique in that it consisted of a variety of habitats. The land featured 250 acres of crop land hidden from the main roads, more than 2 miles of creek frontage on its east boundary, and a 500-acre swamp on the south end that bordered a large chunk of private land and touched a small portion of the Flint River on the west end.
The group had formed a LLC to purchase the property five years ago. They found a way to lower the payments by select-cutting small sections of timber, planting pine trees and leasing the crop land to a local farmer. They convinced the farmer to plant peanuts, soybeans and corn on a rotational basis by offering a discount on the farm lease.
Bulldozers were brought in to clear strategic openings for food plots. Several areas were planted with fruit trees consisting of crabapple, pear and persimmon. They also implemented an idea from Texas that involved fenced-in feeder stations to keep the hogs out.
Jordan’s profession as a contractor had proved invaluable; as recently they’d completed a cabin, which sat basically in the middle of the property. All in all, the members felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment because they were just ordinary guys, with limited funds, that put their heads together and formed a wildlife paradise.
Besides Tyler and Jordan, there were four other members in the club. Floyd Abrams and Gus Morganson were both in their 40s and from the Atlanta area. Jay Kingsley was fresh out of college, and Craig Carboni was an entrepreneur from Florida.
From the shenanigans Floyd pulled, and his vibrant personality, one would never guess he was an accountant. His desk-chair beltline was the only giveaway that he was an executive type. He was the life of the party and had a unique hunting style that involved using tricks to take big bucks, which earned him the nickname, “The Magician.”
Gus was stocky, partially bald and often wore dark sunglasses to hide a childhood incident involving a BB gun war. Although some of his shooting challenges were due to buck fever, the main contributing factor was that he was forced to shoot left-handed. Nonetheless, he often caught grief from everyone for notoriously bad shot placement.
Jay was like a little brother to Tyler and a fellow UGA graduate. Jay was young and could sometimes get easily frustrated, but he was always extremely eager to learn. Jay had Mathew McConaughey style hair and a tall, slender build. He came from money, and the other members teased him because he looked more like a country club Polo model than a deer hunter.
Originally from New York, Craig was most often referred to by his last name, Carboni. He was often razzed for his Sopranos look-alike appearance, thick northeastern accent and most of all, for living in Florida—especially during the weekend of the Georgia vs. Florida game.
• • • • •
The guys gathered around. As Tyler passed the shed to Floyd, every head turned at the sound of the approaching diesel. It was their neighbor, Zane Westerfield. Noticing the gathering, he eagerly jumped out to join in. The group all looked up at Zane, who towered over everyone with his 6-foot, 9-inch frame.
“Hmmmm, what we got goin’ on here?” asked Zane as he blew the gnats away from his thick red hair and beard.
With a sarcastic look, he focused in on Tyler.
“Now if you were half as good at actually shootin’ bucks as you seem to be at findin’ sheds and gettin’ those trail cams, you’d be alright.”
Jordan spoke up, “You’ve got some biguns on your wall, but if we lived down here and had 10,000 acres of our own land to hunt, we’d put you to shame.”
Zane laughed, “I hear ya, Jordan, but my time’s limited too, handlin’ all these chicken houses.”
The two shook hands.
“All good, Zane…all in good fun.”
“Absolutely,” he replied.
“Besides, nothin’ like a little friendly competition to add some drama to this season when we put you in your place once again,” continued Jordan.
“We’ll see about that,” said Zane. “I’d talk more, but it’s time to check out the inventory for this upcoming season. I’ll stop by later this weekend and show y’all what some real footage looks like.”
Walking away, Zane gave a parting shot to Tyler, “Nice’un there, city boy, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up on gettin’ that buck. We all know he lives on my place.”
“Go ahead with the big talk now, Zane,” replied Tyler. “I think I have an idea where he’ll be this season. I might just have to rattle your cage one morning when Maggie goes off.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. It’ll take an Ultra mag for you to make it happen. The sign of a real trophy hunter is to do it like me… with a bow.”
With that, Zane climbed back in his truck and drove off.
At about the same time, one of the group’s favorites drove by in a beat up Chevy. It was Raymus Gregg, an old loner who had recently purchased 63 acres of land that bordered their west property line. The grizzled hermit slowly passed and stared the members down as he spit into his Dixie cup. Raymus had been part of the club that hunted the property before the group purchased it. He had a reputation for running around with the wrong crowd and held a grudge against them for not inviting him into their LLC. The guys half-heartedly waved at Raymus, but he didn’t return the gesture.
Floyd shook his head, “Every time I see Raymus, he always seems to be up to no good.”
“I get the same feeling!” said Gus. “On a different note, that Zane is something else. He’s the same age as you Tyler, but man he beats all. Let’s just make sure one of us gets The Phantom.”
Craig chimed in, “Yeah guys, I don’t think ol’ Capt’n Redbeard could fit his head through the front door if he showed up over here, struttin’ around like one of his roosters, with The Phantom in the back of his truck.”
That evening the members split in two groups. Tyler, Jordan and Jay decided to glass the peanut field on the east end of the property, bordering Crockett Creek. Floyd, Gus and Carboni headed for the soybean field across from camp.
As the black Dodge pulled into the peanut field, they were disappointed to see a yellow object heading straight for them. The yellow bird sounded more like an Apache Helicopter, than a single engine plane. It was reminiscent of a World War I aircraft. Buzzing just above the tree tops and less than 20 feet off the ground, the pilot surveyed the cotton field next to them.
Jordan shook his head in disgust.
“Well, guess we aren’t gonna sit here. With all that noise and stench of spray in the air to foliate that cotton, ain’t no deer coming here this evening.”
“Where can we go?
“Isn’t it crazy how that dang plane seems to always follow us around when we’re down here?” asked Tyler in frustration. “Maybe this is an omen. Let’s haul butt over to the cypress swamp. It’s on the other side of the property, but if we hurry, we can make it.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Jordan. “Hold on tight!”
Minutes later, the truck sped past the white barn that stood next to the entrance of the red dirt road that led to the swamp. The dust cloud rolled over the top of the truck as it came to a sudden stop at the top of the field, sticking to the armor-all dash as it consumed the cab.
“Tyler, see anything?” asked Jordan.
The three began to cuss as their binoculars filled with what looked like an entire heard of hogs.
“Stinkin’ P.I.G. hogs!” uttered Jordan. “I hate strinkin’ P.I.G. hogs! I wish we could eradicate the entire population from existence.”
Jay chimed in, “Too bad it’s so close to hunting season. If it were earlier in the year, I would introduce them to my trusty SKS Osama Ben Hoggin’ for a little trigger treating!”
“It’s so close to dark, we might as well ease down toward the woods’ edge and see what happens. We can hunker down and hide behind one of the tires of that center pivot,” said Tyler.
• • • • •
The wood ducks sounded like guided missiles as they whistled over The Phantom. His ears perked up. The remaining sunlight glistened over the barrage of spider webs and murky water that surrounded the buck’s bedroom. Unlike most bucks during the summer months, he preferred to be alone.
The bedroom consisted of an enormous cypress tree, the roots mixed in with cattails and clumps of high grass, about the area of a table top. To the casual eye, the swamp looked like nothing more than one big wet area, with a mirage of trees towering over head. Many hunters over the years had overlooked it, thinking there was too much water to hold any deer. But to The Phantom, it provided both security and cover.
It was home almost year-round, except for when the buck relocated after the rut near a dry creek bed filled with green briar, adjacent to a triangle shaped field of volunteer pines. That bedding area was only 300 yards from the Crockett Creek club’s Pecan Food Plot.
Now, at 7 1/2 years old, the reclusive animal earned his nickname well. The Phantom rarely ventured out of his bedding area during daylight. He’d only been seen once during hunting season since he was 4 1/2 years old. That year, Tyler saw him on a secluded food plot that was planted out in the middle of an old, grown-up field. Even then, it was too dark to shoot.
At the sound of the croaking frogs, the buck stood up and tested the wind. A pair of hoot owls began their echoing cadence back and forth across the swamp. Even during the sweltering summer months, when man was seldom around, The Phantom thoroughly tested the wind before beginning his daily evening journey to the peanut field.
The sound of the buck changed as it moved closer to its feeding area. Knee-deep water turned to thick, moist mud. The buck’s lower legs were stained by the dark rich soil of the swamp. A random streak of mud covered a subtle scar on his right hind quarter. What started out as a slight sloshing noise turned into a suction sequence as the buck lifted its heavy legs out of the muck. As The Phantom got within seeing distance of the wood line, it veered off on a faint trail, seldom used by other animals.
The obstacle that formed itself on the field edge was a dense mass of saplings, tall grass and honeysuckle. From simple observation, one wouldn’t believe anything could walk, much less run, through such thick cover. The Phantom finally made it to the field edge and lowered his head to the ground in order to get his massive antlers under the dense jungle of canopy.
• • • • •
Like Indians watching buffalo on the prairie long ago, the three men laid on their stomachs, busy observing the circus of hogs that scattered the field before them. There were at least 50 hogs total, in all shapes, colors and sizes. The nervous animals moved back and forth in small groups as they slowly fed toward the pivot. Suddenly, a large boar charged forward and chased off the group of smaller, inferior males. Its mud-coated mane raised 6 inches off its back. The sow that the boars were after still had piglets.
“No wonder there are so many hogs. The sows breed before they even kick off their litter,” replied Jay.
A young 6-pointer made its way out into the field. Minutes passed, and daylight started to fade. A group of does and their fawns appeared. The men watched in disgust as a group of shoats chased the deer from the field.
The swamp humidity was smothering, and it showed on Jay’s face and forehead.
“I’ve had enough. Let’s head back and get dinner started,” whispered Jay. “I’m gonna scream if another skeeter or fire ant bites me.”
Jordan and Tyler continued to scan the wood edge.
“Hey, what’s that big red spot, standing down the wood line, next to that thick hedgerow?” whispered Tyler.
“My God, look at those antlers,” replied Jordan.
It took a moment to set in.
“His rack looks stupid it’s so big. It must be 2 feet tall above his head.”
The three stared in astonishment as the magnificent buck made its way farther out in the field.
Lightning bugs were like flashes of light at an evening outdoor concert as they lit up the dark wood line. The buck continued a pattern of feeding for 15 to 20 seconds before raising its head to check the wind.
“How in the heck does he walk around with all that bone on his head?” asked Tyler.
“Even in full velvet, it’s easy to see… definite Booner! Might even break 200, I’ve never seen anything like it.,” said Jordan.
Jordan continued as he looked at Tyler, “I think we know where The Phantom hides out now during the summer. The pieces of the puzzle are slowly coming together.”
Tyler nudged Jay. “You got that on video?”
“Running on night vision, but trying,” said Jay.
“Let’s stay here until pitch-dark,.” said Jordan. “Then we’ll crawl our way back to the truck.”
• • • • •
Little did they know, they hadn’t been watching alone. They weren’t the only ones with their sights set on The Phantom this season. As they drove past the barn, the poacher pulled off his black mask. He grabbed his rifle and infrared binoculars and made his way down from the hayloft. Although a half mile away from the pivot, the poacher had seen everything. He had the equipment that would rival any Special Forces or CIA agent. He was an old school outlaw and well versed in the art of avoiding game wardens. To him, there were no property lines. Even better that it belonged to those rich fellas, thought the poacher.
He chuckled to himself…
“Feed all ya want out thar in that field. I know where you’ll be later,” whispered the poacher.
About the same time the drama was unfolding at the cypress swamp, the other group was witnessing a fantastic show, too. They were camped out on 4-wheelers at an elevated point in the field. Dusk seemed to signal the dinner bell for all animals, including unwelcomed guests. In late August, no place on earth seemed to have more mosquitoes than Dooly County. Gus spent most of the time wiping his forehead and the humidity haze from his fogged up sunglasses. He wasn’t particularly comfortable in the elements.
Katydids sang in unison. At times it was almost deafening. Almost in a blink of the eye, there was movement. Not 75 yards away, a bachelor group emerged. Though unintentional, the three men had positioned themselves in plain view, right on top of the medley.
The first buck was a 4-pointer; followed by a pair of 2 1/2-year-old 8-points. The bucks looked at the hunters and cautiously stepped out to nibble on the lush green leaves. Their urge to feed overshadowed their sense of danger. Shortly thereafter, a beautiful 10-pointer with long knife-bladed brow tines stepped into the field.
“Now there’s a candidate for this season,” whispered Gus.
“Be quiet,” urged Carboni.
Hardly able to contain himself, Gus gleefully whispered, “Now there’s five bucks. And the latest arrival has big, gigantic, chocolate antlers with split G2s!”
A few minutes passed as the velvet racks and profiles of the bachelor group slowly turned into fuzzy outlines as darkness fell.
“Only in late August could we get away with this,” said Floyd.
“You got that right,” added Carboni.
Moments later, it was dark. They turned their headlights in the direction that the bucks stood just minutes prior. As the beams hit the wood line, Gus looked at the other two, “That chinaberry looks like a daggum good spot to hang a bow stand. I know where I’ll be come opening day!”
That night, after a steak dinner, everyone gathered around the camp fire. As tradition, the club always had a fire, regardless of the temperature. The conversations centered on the bucks spotted that evening, mostly toward trying to pattern The Phantom. Jay got a hard time because his footage of The Phantom was too shaky.
“The real question is, where does The Phantom live. Where’s his home range?” asked Floyd. “We know he’s spending time in the peanut field next to the cypress. We know he fed last winter at the Pecan Food Plot.”
Gus jumped into the conversation and directed his question to Jordan.
“What about that area of thick privet and gallberry bushes along the edge of the swamp bottom, next to the creek? Reckon he hangs out there, too?”
“You mean where Jordan had that animal attack that morning next to his stand?” asked Jay.
“I’ll never forget that!” Jay exclaimed. “I could hear that hog’s blood gurgling scream from the Ozone Stand, and that’s about a half mile away. It could of passed for the sound of a woman screaming!”
“Just imagine how loud it sounded just 10 yards away,” replied Jordan. “Bout blew out my ear drums. Gives me chill bumps to this day.”
They all leaned in and gathered closer, not to miss a word.
Jordan stoked the fire and as the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
“I was in my little 12-foot ladder stand for 45 minutes in the dark with my barrel pointed straight down, safety off, finger on the trigger, and just begging for it to get daylight. They even bumped up against the base of my stand several times during the struggle. Whatever it was grabbed hold of that hog by the throat and suffocated it to death. It had to be a bear or a big kitty.”
Jordan paused momentarily.
“Once daylight came round, the woods were completely dead. No birds singing, squirrels stirring, nothing. When I got down, it looked like a scene from a horror movie. Like something poured buckets of blood out all over the ground. Whatever it was dragged the hog off without a sound. I followed the trail but never found nothing except for bloody paw tracks. Truth is, I’m not sure I wanted to find anything.”
The group just starred at Jordan.
“Tell ya what else really bothers me. I walked round putting out scent canisters before getting in the stand. I’m lucky ‘IT’ didn’t jump on me, too. I’d just sat down when it happened. I can honestly say that was one of the only times in all my days in the woods that I felt fear go through my bones.”
Jordan sipped on his Diet Coke as he switched to another tale.
“The other time was that morning in the dark when something started swimming toward me when I was crossing the cypress. I was headed to my stand on the back side of the Gaza Strip. But that’s a story for another time.”
“That hog story freaks me out. Gives me the heebie-jeebies every time,” said Carboni. “Remember that ol’ Indian skull that Zane found and turned in to the state? That was 300 yards from there. What if ‘IT’ isn’t an animal at all?”
Gus looked at the others and said, “I agree. I’ve been down there before. That place is just spooky.”
Jordan smiled “One thing’s for sure. In situations like this, always remember rule number two… keep it real,” he said.
“Jordan, what’s rule number one?” asked Gus.
Getting up from his favorite chair, Jordan said, “Rule number one is…timing is everything. Speaking of rule number one, it’s getting late. Time to go to bed.”
“No doubt,” said Tyler. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow. Gotta get those bow plots in the ground if we expect to hunt them during bow season.”
Sunday Morning – 3 a.m.
The poacher, wearing camouflage overalls with no undershirt, sat in the fork of a tall water oak 30 feet above the feeder station. His strategy was to hunt there from midnight to 6 a.m. The velvet party was in full swing when, with an effortless bound, another buck jumped into the fenced-in feeder station. Like a yard dog protecting its territory, it immediately chased off the other bucks that were feeding at the trough. The poacher immediately recognized the buck as the one he’d seen that same evening from the hayloft.
“There you are…” he murmured. “I figured you’d stop by for a visit before bedding down. That sweet stuff those city slickas been feedin’ is too good to pass up, ain’t it?”
“Sorry about your luck, Atlanta boys,” whispered the poacher as he brought the crosshairs to the buck’s chest. He paused in absolute shock from the close-up view of the buck’s antlers through his night-vision scope.
Time was ticking…
“Looks like you gotta gigantic overgrown bush on your head,” whispered the poacher.”
The Phantom stepped forward, just in front of the feeder trough.
“Not so fast ol’ buddy, I got somethin’ fur ya.”
The poacher took in a deep breath and grinned as he squeezed the trigger. To his dismay, in his moment of pay dirt, he’d failed to remove the safety on his .243 caliber sniper rifle. As he pushed the safety to fire, The Phantom lurched and moved forward to jump the fence. He squeezed the trigger again and instantly heard the familiar sound of a solid hit. Inside the feeder station, it laid motionless.
Giddily, the poacher smiled and started singing over and over again in a soft voice… “Just shootin’ birds, shootin’ birds, they call me the bird man, cause’ I shoot the bird.”
He began his descent from the tree branches.
“Thank you, Atlanta boys. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” shouted the poacher as he hit the ground running toward the feeder station.
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