Magical Morning In A Coastal River Swamp
A father's dedication and a daughter's determination paid off during a special deer hunt deep in the swampy bottoms of Fort Stewart.
I have been trying to get my daughter Sabrina a deer for quite a while now. Sabrina is now 16 years old. She has been fishing and hunting with me since she was a toddler. I remember when I was stationed at Fort Knox, Ken., strapping her into a car seat in the Jeep and going for rides in the evening looking at deer. Man would she get excited watching the deer. I knew then I had a future hunting buddy!
In 1995 I was stationed here at Fort Stewart. I fell in love with the coastal area of Georgia — the swamps, river bottoms and the fishing in the ocean. Wild hog, deer, turkey and saltwater fishing all within 25 miles of home, what more could you ask for? So I made up my mind to stay here, and six years ago retired from the Army.
Sabrina started hunting with me in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. We could sit on the hillsides and hunt together. Well, the swamps had some challenges we had to overcome for a little girl, like thick, nasty terrain that floods at will. One day you’re sitting high and dry, the next morning it can be under a foot of water. It makes for some of the toughest hunting country you can find. She was too young to climb a tree, so we stuck to saltwater offshore fishing and turkey hunting until she could climb a tree and carry her own stand.
When she turned 14, she was big enough to tote her own stand into the river bottoms and climb with it. The quest for Sabrina to get her coastal slam was on. She needed a buck, doe, hog and turkey. I got her a .243, a .50-caliber blackpowder rifle and a 20-gauge pump shotgun. I made her practice, practice, practice at the shooting range. Finally, I felt she was ready.
She got her first turkey at 15 years old with the 20 gauge, then last year she got a nice sow with her muzzleloader. But the deer would always elude us. She had her chances — two years ago she got frozen from buck fever when a spike walked in under us. She just stared and never moved. Last year she had a great shot at a doe at 25 steps. She squeezed off, and “click.” She forgot the 209 primer when she got settled into the stand. Of course there were always the girl distractions I had to battle. Shopping with mom on the weekend, etc., etc. I would have deer all over me while she was shopping, then the next day when she wants to go… no deer.
Well, Sabrina’s hard work and detemination paid off Oct. 19 this year.
After spending opening day in the stand getting rained on and seeing nothing, I decided to try a spot I scouted after season ended last year, a spot where I found some huge buck sign. We launched the Old Town 14-foot canoe, aka The Swamp Stalker, in the dark a full hour before the first crack of dawn. The canoe slipped silently down the dark waters of the Canoochee River on Fort Stewart, and we proceeded to paddle our rear-ends off. There was nothing but moonlight, and the head lamps we had on for safety as we paddled in the darkness for about 30 minutes. It was totally silent except for the frogs and an occasional owl hooting or the bang of a paddle on the gunnels of the canoe. The mist coming off the water due to the cool morning air temp gave it an eerie feeling in the moonlight.
We beached the canoe and slipped in to the woods, working our way to the spot I wanted to hunt. Sabrina went up one tree, and I went up right next to her about 5 yards away. I positioned her for the best view and shots of a trail the deer were using. Today was all for her. We were set about 7:15 a.m. and watched the woods come alive with the light.
About one hour into the hunt, I thought I saw some movement. As I was scanning the swamp trying to figure out what it was, I saw Sabrina raise her gun, and she had a look on her face that I knew meant deer. I looked left (her right), and here comes a nice doe through the swamp bottom. I looked at Sabrina, and I could see she was shaking like it was 20 below zero. She watched the doe come to within 15 yards, and she raised the .243. The doe stopped, and BOOM the .243 barked fire — at the same time the doe went straight down.
Sabrina had her first deer! We were whispering back and forth, and I told her how proud I was of her. I told her to check to ensure she had a live one in the chamber and to make sure the safety was back on. She was pumped to say the least.
I told her, “Let’s wait another hour and see if anything else will happen.”
I was on the phone to a few friends letting them know Sabrina scored. About 10 minutes went by, and I saw Sabrina start bringing up the gun again and looking to her right. I looked over and right on the same trail the doe was on all I see are horns coming through the tall swamp reeds. She looked at me, and I said ‘SHOOT!’
It was a very large deer for down here in the swamps of southeast Georgia. Sabrina raised the .243 and waited as the buck cleared the reeds and hit a small mud creek about 20 yards away. Perfect broadside shot. I heard the safety go click, and Sabrina let out a loud ‘BLEEEETTT.’ Just like a champ.
The buck stopped and looked in our direction — BOOM the .243 barked again, and I lost sight of the buck as it whirled behind my tree. I could see it hunch at the shot, and I knew she made a good hit.
I turned around but couldn’t see the deer because of the high reeds in the swamp. Then I heard Sabrina yell, “HE’S DOWN… HE’S DOWN!”
We climbed down, and first we found the doe — her first-ever deer. Then we went and found the buck. I got them field-dressed, and we lugged everything back and loaded up the canoe. The tide had gone out during the hunt, so we had to drag everything including the canoe through the shin-deep mud about 25 yards to get to the water’s edge. Man what a mess. Sabrina would get stuck every few steps, and I would have to help pull her out. We had mud all over everything, but we couldn’t have been happier.
Because the tide had gone down, and with two deer, two stands and all the other gear, the canoe wouldn’t float for a while, so we had to get back out of the canoe and pull it over the sand bars on the river for about three-quarters of a mile. Then we could float again and continue our way back to the truck. On the way out, we were stopped by the game warden. He checked us out and congratulated Sabrina on her deer. The buck was aged at the Fort Stewart Pass and Permit check station. The folks working there were great and very excited to see that Sabrina’s first two deer ever came off the base. They knew Sabrina from all the hunting we have done there, and they are aware of her tough times with the deer. They aged the buck at 6 1/2 years old. He had 4 1/2-inch bases, 21 1/2-inch main beams and a 17 3/8-inch spread.
Great to be a dad!
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