Crockett Creek Confessions, Quest For The Phantom Part 2

GON's 2016 Fall Fiction Series

Terry Phillips | September 1, 2016

September — The Transition

Eighteen-year-old Tyler James climbed the 12-foot wooden ladder stand that was positioned between the open hardwoods and the 20-year-old pines.

It was opening day of bow season.

Tyler anxiously watched and waited for a deer to make its way through the cut fence that he’d created back in July. All intentions of getting a big buck were gone in 20 minutes as he swatted his arms freely in the air at the swarming mosquitoes. His Tree Bark camouflage shirt was no match or defense for the constant barrage.

Jordan stalked his way around the young man undetected. He hadn’t planned on seeing a hunter in the woods. However, he was scouting near the property line. Jordan chuckled to himself as he gazed at the obviously inexperienced hunter through his binoculars.

The youth, swaying his arms and moving his head back and forth freely, looked more like the singer Stevie Wonder than a deer hunter.

Jordan paused and watched in amusement. “You call yourself a hunter,” mumbled Jordan, as he made his was around the kid.

• • •

Tyler’s memory faded, and his mind was back to present. He grinned and loosened his tie as he made his way home around I-285 in the stop-and-go traffic. Although it had been 12 years ago, he thought about that event every year as opening day of bow season came around. That was the year the two men met. Jordan often told the story at camp of how he first saw Tyler. No matter how many times he told it, everyone always had a good laugh.

Dressing in a suit and tie every day gave Tyler a “city boy” aura. In reality, the ties worn each day felt more like a noose around his neck than a company requirement or fashion statement. To Tyler, it was more of a disguise to make a little money than anything else. Jordan often joked and prodded him about all of his stereotypical corporate America meetings. Although Tyler didn’t work with his hands, Jordan had developed a deep respect for his hunting abilities.

In the years since the two first met, Tyler had developed into a well-respected trophy hunter.

Jordan and Tyler worked tirelessly to improve their chances through year-round land management practices. There was absolutely no weather condition, situation or area too difficult to reach for either hunter when it came to pursuing big bucks. Like Jordan, Tyler’s woodsman skills were strong, and he exhibited a savvy—like no other—of being at the right place at the right time. He was already miles ahead of most hunters and way ahead of the pace compared to Jordan’s skills when he was 30.

Meanwhile, while Tyler was riding around the Atlanta by-pass, the poacher was busy replaying the events that had taken place three weeks prior, and he was preparing his next move. It consumed his every thought. During the seconds that it took to switch the gun from safety to fire, the buck had moved just behind one of the feeder station posts. What the poacher thought was The Phantom lying dead inside the feeder station, turned out to be the trough, half standing from the lone support of the remaining post. What appeared to be the huge buck was just a wounded trough, lying at a 45-degree angle.

The Phantom had survived.

• • •

Opening day of bow season had come and gone. Mid-September was more like “Indian summer” as highs still scorched the red clay soil of Crockett Creek with temperatures topping 90 degrees. It was so hot in middle Georgia that nobody went to the land that weekend. Tyler went to Athens instead and watched his Dawgs put a whippin’ on another opponent.

The group had agreed to have their final work weekend on the third weekend of September, primarily for two reasons. First, the area farmers had always advised that the closer to October the better for gun season food plots. Second, Georgia was playing on the road.

On the final weekend of September, Mother Nature brought a welcome cool snap to Georgia. Tyler breathed in the cool, crisp air as he packed his truck on Friday evening.

The low humidity of late September was a welcome relief from the muggy, dog days of August.

It was time to hunt. He was headed southbound to Dooly County. Best of all, he could concentrate on hunting and planting a few remaining food plots without distraction.

• • •

The Phantom’s nostrils flared as he breathed in the cool morning air. It was 5 a.m., and the buck was busy completing his nightly endeavor to mark his kingdom. The crickets sang in rhythm, like a nighttime symphony. The buck paused, motionless, as he stood on the edge of the giant, recently turned peanut field. The pale moonlight cast a long shadow in front of him. The reflection of his enormous body and antlers, with rake-like tines, stretched well past the buck’s portrait.

There was one more stop on The Phantom’s route back to his bedroom, and the buck felt an urge to complete the mission before the orange glow lit the eastern horizon.

Satisfied there was no danger, he headed toward a large persimmon grove that grew in the wet peninsula off the northern end of the peanut field. Part of an old home site from generation’s past, the grove was unusual in size. There were well over a hundred trees, making it an absolute wildlife magnet during early fall. As the buck tested the subtle breeze, he could smell the pungent air of the ripened fruit from across the field. The buck stopped momentarily to feed on the exposed peanut vines as he made his way to the orchard.

The primary purpose of The Phantom’s visit to the grove wasn’t to feed. It was to check and work his scrapes. The buck stopped to gather his senses as he entered the canopy of the persimmon trees. Nothing could be detected to confirm The Phantoms suspicions. Nonetheless, he sensed danger. Something wasn’t right. The chain-on stand sat vacant in front of the hoodsized scrape.

After minutes of careful observation, The Phantom satisfied himself that all was well. He then cautiously passed by the stand on his way through the thin strand of woods. Although the odor was almost a week old, the old veteran definitely detected human scent. The stand had been hunted hard the previous weekend by Gus and Floyd. As much scent precaution as the two had taken, the buck’s keen nose had detected their earlier presence.

Before working the final scrape, the buck couldn’t resist the temptation to rub the young group of mimosa trees that stood on the back edge of the field. The buck took the small sapling in his antlers and thrashed his neck furiously back and forth. In a short deliberate motion, the buck had broken the tree in half. In an uncontrollable fit of anger and rage, the buck continued demonstrating his dominance as it destroyed the rest of the small group of the trees.

He then made his way to the scrape. Like a Brahma bull, he lifted his front hoof and began feverishly scraping out the wet ground. The buck stepped into the bare earth circle and started urinating on his back hocks.

Lightning flashed brightly as the sensor of the camera capture movement.

In a blink, The Phantom vanished.

• • •

Across the dirt road from the grove, situated 25 feet above a forest floor covered in pine needles, sat Tyler. He had long been situated in his stand an hour before daylight. The 10-acre woodlot of tall mature pines offered many ideal stand locations next to the adjacent stand of short planted pines.

Back in July, Jordan and Tyler surmised this area as a good location for a chance at a bedroom buck and put up a bow stand. They felt like their chances of catching a mature buck in the persimmon orchard during daylight were slim to none. From reviewing the aerial map, the closest, most secure bedding area to the grove was a mere few feet behind this tree stand location.

The ripe persimmons, along with the recently turned peanut field, made for an ideal time to try out the stand.

Tyler grew antsy as he wondered how much longer to first light.

He glanced at his watch but couldn’t read it. He cupped the watch and lifted his hand close to his chest and pressed the light button. The green light illuminated his face and outline; it was now 15 minutes before daylight.

The red glow that accompanied the eastern sky was yet to reveal itself as Tyler heard the unmistakable sound of a four-legged animal approaching in the pre-dawn darkness. He tightened his arrow release around his wrist. He knew the drama that would soon be unfolding before him.

The steady walk turned into an occasional faint whisper of shuffling pine needles as the buck came closer to its sanctuary.

Tyler’s mind raced, “Was the ol’ boy a little late on arrival this morning?”

The buck paused as he scent checked his bedroom. This morning the buck smelled something strange. No, it wasn’t the smell of danger, but the smell of an intruder.

The buck raised his nose to the northwest breeze as it stopped and smelled the fresh scrape, loaded with buck urine. The scrape was located just 30 feet from his bedroom. The buck locked up. The seconds ticked by like hours as Tyler nervously awaited daybreak.

As magic light approached, Tyler caught the slight flicker of movement as he scanned the seemingly impenetrable entanglement of pine branches behind him. The swishing noise and movement startled him as the buck violently thrashed and shook the cedar tree back and forth below him. Tyler sat mesmerized. He couldn’t believe his mock scrape was working!

Tyler’s heart pounded at the sight of the mature buck, just a few feet away.

”Please Lord, please,” he murmured to himself.

“That’s it, that’s it,” he mind whispered as the buck moved past the dogwood branch. The 10-pointer’s travel corridor was heading right through a small opening approximately 20 yards away. It would be a perfect quartering-away shot. As the buck emerged, Tyler eased his Mathews to full draw. He placed his 20-yard pin behind the buck’s shoulder, paused for a split-second, and squeezed the trigger. At the sound of impact, the buck hunched forward and quickly disappeared into the pine thicket. Tyler could tell by his posture that he’d made a solid hit. Seconds later, Tyler heard the crashing sound of pine limbs, which confirmed success.

Tyler’s hands shook uncontrollably, like he was sitting in sub-zero conditions, as it sank in what had just happened. He tried to control his breathing as he sat down to regain his composure.

An hour later, Tyler climbed down and walked over to his arrow. He leaned over and picked it up. It was covered in dark red blood.

“Man that Muzzy ate’em up,” thought Tyler. He searched the ground in front of him and found a small speck of blood. As he followed the trail, the amount of blood intensified as it grew steadily more and more visible. When he reached the spot where the buck entered the pines, he saw a broken branch ahead with spattered blood on the pine needles.

Fifty yards ahead lay a solid Pope and Young buck. Even from that distance, Tyler could tell that the buck’s rack came way out in front of its roman-shaped nose. The buck’s body looked more like a mule than a deer.

As he knelt next to the deer, Tyler paused and gave thanks for such an awesome gift. He was ecstatic. He couldn’t believe he’d been given the opportunity to take such a beautiful, magnificent animal. He could hardly believe his eyes as he finished measuring the deer and wrote down the tally.

Highlighted by heavy mass and a pair of 10-plus-inch G2s, it was a 150-class, 10-pointer… with a bow.

Jordan, Jay and Gus had just arrived in camp and were standing around talking to Zane Westerfield when Tyler pulled in. The three club members had all driven down that Saturday morning.

“Where’s he at?” shouted Jordan.

With a huge smile, Tyler paused as he took in the moment and calmly raised the blood stained arrow.

“He’s in the back of my truck,” replied Tyler.

“Come on dude,” said Jordan. “We know it’s too hot to be pullin’ bucks into camp during September. It ain’t November the 3rd!”

Gus jumped in. “Amen, Jordan. As soon as we finish up these last few food plots, I’m headed to da house.”

“Don’t under estimate my boy,” said Jay.

“By looking at where you are signed in on the board, you must’ve hunted near those persimmons, right?” said Gus. “You must have poked one of those does that Floyd and I saw last week.”

Not missing an opportunity to razz, Zane also chimed in, “Just remember Tyler, if you want to see what a big ’un looks like, just stop by my house on the way home. You can view my collection anytime.”

“Yeah, yeah,” replied Tyler. “Y’all come on over here and help me skin this ol’ doe out, then.”

Silence fell over everyone as they peered over the side of the truck. One could have heard a pin drop.

“Oh my goodness!” shouted Gus.

“How in the world did you do it?” asked Jay.

Tyler enjoyed every minute as he told the group how he’d been able to take the buck.

“The best part is boys, I pulled a trick out of Floyd’s hat and created a mock scrape with buck urine… and it worked!” said Tyler.

“Floyd will be proud,” replied Jordan. “Make sure you mention him in your GON Truck-Buck write-up.”

“I will, for sure,” said Tyler. “Gonna also enter it in Kountry Farm’s ‘MOST PERFECT’ buck contest, cause there ain’t no doubt about it… this buck is perfect!”

Jordan turned his attention to Zane and raised his eyebrow.

“Well Zane, you have a 150-class buck, too, but you didn’t get it with a bow.”

The group laughed.

Jordan joined in on the razzing, “Red Beard, it looks like you’ll have to stop by Tyler’s if you want to see a 150-inch Pope and Young Buck on the wall!”

Zane’s cheeks turned slightly flush as he looked at Tyler.

“Well man, you’ve definitely set the bar high. Don’t get too confident. The one you really want is sleeping right now on my place. Come mid-November, we’ll see who’s got braggin’ rights.”

And with that, Zane hit the gas on his Polaris Ranger and sped away.

“What a buck. Congratulations again, Tyler!” interjected Gus. “Change of plans, looks like I need to stay this evening and hunt that Chinaberry chain-on stand. The one I hung after seeing The Chocolate Buck last month.”

• • •

That afternoon, Gus anxiously changed clothes and headed to the stand. He hadn’t been in the stand for more than 10 minutes when a doe came out of the woods and began feeding on the peanuts. Gus nervously grabbed his bow from the hanger as it slowly fed out in front of Gus. She suddenly raised her head at the sound of Gus’s arrow sliding back on the arrow rest. Gus’ extended arm shook as he attempted to put the pin on her vitals. The pin danced all around the alert doe.

Gus stared in disbelief as he watched the arrow land 3 feet in front of the doe.

“Dang, I knew I shoulda used my 30-yard pin instead of my 20-yard,” thought Gus.

The doe raised her flag at a straight angle and began walking stiff-legged in a circle. Gus shook his head as she blew continuously and then bolted from the field. As Gus walked over to retrieve his arrow and confirm his shot, he knew the place was ruined for the evening.

Rather than head back to camp, Gus decided to follow Tyler’s example and hunt near a bedding area for the remainder of the hunt. Better yet, there was a place not far in the woods where he could set up that was a bedding and staging area combination. He methodically eased his way toward the stand.

• • •

The sunset cast its rays through the field edge as Gus scanned the woods in front of him.

Gus was now set up about 75 yards from the field edge. Several doves flew over and began to perch in the pine limbs above the stand. Gus sat and stared at the empty woods.

“I can’t believe I missed that doe,” thought Gus as he waved his hat at the gnats and mosquitoes. Several minutes went by before Gus heard the familiar sound of an approaching animal. He began to breathe hard as he glanced over his shoulder. He reached for his bow. Excitement quickly changed, like a deflated balloon. Gus watched as an armadillo scurried along, nosing the ground in search of a food. The varmint worked its way all around the stand before changing directions and heading back the way it had come.

A little later Gus gritted his teeth at the sound of the animal coming back his direction again.

“How in the world can there be an animal that sounds so much like a deer?” thought Gus.

He didn’t even bother turning his head to identify the movement of the approaching animal.

“I’m gonna start bringin’ a can of fluorescent orange spray paint so I can put my initials on that little rascal’s armor,” thought Gus. “That’ll teach ‘em to mess with my hunt.”

Gus clutched his pee bottle as the approaching animal came closer. This time, Gus was determined to scare off the unwelcome guest.

Gus’s heart skipped a beat as a deer’s outline formed before him. This time, it wasn’t the armadillo, it was a buck. Not just an ordinary buck, but The Chocolate Buck. As the buck eased forward toward the field, the thick, dark antlers and split G2s immediately grabbed Gus’s attention. Gus knew right away that it was the buck that Floyd, Carboni, and he had recently seen.

“Oh no, oh no… STOP! Just give me a chance,” thought Gus.

He quickly traded his pee bottle for his bow. It was all Gus could do to steady his hand enough to connect his release to his bow string. Like an answer to prayers, The Chocolate Buck turned and presented a perfect 20-yard, broadside shot to the hunter.

As Gus came to full draw, his attention was still on the buck’s heavy antlers which were tall with dark, long tines. The buck was just as impressive out of velvet as the previous encounter when part of the bachelor group of bucks.

“Easily 140,” thought Gus, as he released the arrow.

The arrow sounded like the crack of a baseball bat as it struck its target. In a blink of an eye, the buck was gone.

Gus felt like he’d just been sucker punched in the stomach when he spotted it. He stared in disbelief. Stuck 15 feet high in a 6-inch diameter sapling, with nothing exposed but the feather fletching, was his arrow.

Meanwhile, The Phantom crouched in his bedroom of planted pines. The honeysuckle vines and green briar that grew inside the pines all but covered the deer’s enormous body. Only the buck knew how close he had come to making a fatal mistake that morning.

Things could have been much different for Tyler, if only he had not made a fateful decision to check his watch before daylight. The illumination of the light from the watch had cast an outline on the hunter that The Phantom saw, and it led the buck to take a secondary trail around his normal travel route.

Between the near-miss incident at the feeder, the increased smell of humans in the woods, the camera flash, and now the sighting of the hunter just before dawn, he’d experienced enough. Man was becoming way too present, and The Phantom felt the pressure. It would be weeks before the buck revisited those portions of the farm.

• • •

That night, back at camp, Gus ran the gauntlet as the group sat around and poked fun at the misfortunes of their pal. They insisted that he tell the story over and over. After all, he’d missed not one, but two deer with his bow, in one evening. Not to mention, the Chocolate Buck would have easily made the books.

Sitting around the table, Jordan interjected. “It could’ve been two bucks in one weekend, before the first day of October. At this rate, you might not have a shirt tail left by the end of this season.”

As the night grew longer, thoughts turned to opening day of gun season.

“I shouldn’t talk too much,” said Jay. “At least Gus is seeing deer. I’ve hardly seen anything this bow season and don’t have a clue where to hunt opening day.”

“Go check out that area on the lower end of the test fields. There’s an area down there just loaded with sawtooth oaks,” suggested Tyler.

“Sounds like a good idea,” responded Jay. “I’ll run over there tomorrow on my way out and see what I can uncover.”

The next afternoon, after everyone else had left, Jay quickly gathered up a set of sticks and a lock-on stand, jumped on his 4-wheeler and headed out to the area that Tyler recommended. He was in a hurry; his girlfriend had made it perfectly clear the night before that she wanted him home by 4 p.m. It was already mid-afternoon, and he was short on time. However, he was determined to prove his merit as a trophy hunter and desperately wanted to cash in on an opening day mature buck. He wanted to find a good spot. As Jay approached the area, he skirted the edge of a recently planted test field of Biologic Fall Draw and stayed on his 4-wheeler as he continued down into the woods.

To his surprise, the recent heavy rains had flooded the creek bottom. He drove past the old homestead as he splashed through the ankle deep standing water. The water was full of leaves and debris. Sure enough, just as Tyler indicated, the area was loaded with oaks.

“This place looks like a great spot,” thought Jay. “If I can just get the 4-wheeler through this water, I can put my stand in the back corner of the transition area.”

Jay had just a few feet to go. He gave the 4-wheeler a little extra gas to make it through the mud, while looking back to re-steady the stand.

The burst of speed was short lived. In an instant, the 4-wheeler came to an abrupt halt. The sudden stop caused the stand to come loose from the bungee strap supporting it. Like a bolt of lightning, the stand flew forward off the back of the 4-wheeler with tremendous power. Without warning, it struck Jay in the back of the head like a swinging hammer. His midsection hit the handle bars as he sailed over the top.

It was hard to decipher which hurt worse, his head or rib cage. Confusion filled Jay’s mind as he tried to catch his breath and see past the stars dancing in front of his eyes. The 4-wheeler was still running, but Jay was submerged, neck deep in water.

The 4-wheeler sputtered. Jay began breathing in smoke as it rose up from the wet exhaust. The only thing keeping it floating and from sinking to the bottom were the back tires.

Jay clung to the handle bars as he tried to regain his senses and maintain consciousness.

He could taste the adrenalin as it raced through his body. Panic began to sit in. Just as he was about to fall unconscious, he thought he saw a blurry image walking toward him.

Was he imagining it? Was he dying? Or was someone or something coming to his aid?

He was cold, very cold. Soaked.



Read Part 3 of The Phantom

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