The Swamp Bottom Buck Of Beagle’s Demise
The deep swamp hides the buck of a lifetime.
Clark lurched forward and teetered as the mud squelched then gurgled, sucking with a firm grip on his right boot. He dug in hard, pushing with his left leg to free his right, then groaned in frustration as his other knee-high, rubber boot disappeared. With a slurp, he sank thigh-deep in the warm quagmire.
“Dangit Mike! Why’d I let you talk me into this mess,” Clark hollered at his friend who was well out ahead, hopping over the muck from tussock to tree root in a camo T-shirt and jeans tucked into a pair of high-top, canvas tennis shoes. Mike Shaw was about average height, lean and compact from years of outdoor work. He didn’t even notice the heat nor the physical activity that was grinding on Clark’s nerves.
Mike removed a faded-blue ball cap to wipe the sweat from a high, shiny forehead. He couldn’t help but laugh as he looked over the waist-high undergrowth at Clark. Since about 8 a.m. they had been slogging through the swamp bottom looking for deer sign. Clark was coated with mud from his gray-bearded chin down.
Tall, thin and a little ungainly, Clark Dickerson couldn’t seem to get all his limbs to work together as a team. He also couldn’t avoid stepping in the low spots. Because of it, he had spent a lot of time wallowing in the mud.
It was a typical oppressively hot and humid August day just before noon in mid-west Georgia. Even beneath a shaded canopy of towering hardwoods, both men were soaked with sweat.
“I told you those boots wouldn’t help,” Mike said, working his way back to Clark. “You know how deep it gets in here when the water’s up. Stop stepping in the wet spots.”
“Shut up Mike! When we run into a moccasin, you’ll wish you had a pair of boots, too,” Clark said. “And, even if we do find a good deer, we can’t get in here of a morning to hunt it, anyway. Now pull me out.”
Mike found a long fallen limb, and standing atop the exposed root ball of a huge cypress, he extended one end of the branch to Clark. At first Clark made no progress against the suction, but as he wiggled his feet they came unglued. He walked himself hand-over-hand up the limb, dragging himself across the sludge on his belly.
Nearing the tree, Clark reached for a gnarled root and released his grip on the limb. Mike was leaning back to support the other man’s weight and, caught unaware, tumbled backward over the root ball. He landed hard on his backside on a narrow hummock that rose just a foot or two above the surrounding bog. Ready to curse Clark for letting go with no warning, Mike sat up. That’s when he spotted it wedged up against the root ball.
“I told ya’ deep in the swamp is where we’d find him,” Mike whispered in awe, as much to himself as to his hunting buddy.
He had to blink once to make sure it wasn’t just an odd-colored root, but there, almost hidden in the tangled mass of tree roots, was the most outrageously massive shed antler Mike had ever seen. Even weathered from a season in the swamp, with tines gnawed at the ends by squirrels, the antler was undeniably the most impressive he had ever seen on the property. It was the left-beam shed of a giant Georgia buck.
“Check this out!” Mike beamed as he carefully extracted the shed from the roots. “This thing is a freak of nature.”
He was surprised by the heft in his hand. Just the left side suggested a very wide spread with incredible tine length. It didn’t appear to have the kind of mass the two men were used to seeing from most of the big squat-racked bucks on the property, but that was an illusion. As Mike wrapped his hand around the thick base of the main beam, he realized the antler’s long curves lent graceful proportion to what was actually very good mass.
Mike immediately began breaking the antler down. It was impossible to tell how much of the brow tine was gone, but even gnawed down it would stretch a tape to 8 or 9 inches. And the main beam was incredible, sweeping more than 25 inches in a graceful arc and crowned with three tines. Only the G2 was completely intact, and it must have measured at least 14 inches. But judging from the mass where the G3 was broken, it would measure about the same. The fourth tine was gnawed down to a nub.
“If he’s got another one to match, this thing might be a Booner!” Mike said, handing the antler to Clark, who was sitting against the cypress pouring sludge from his boots. “Look at the length of those tines.”
Holding it in his hands, Clark knew Mike was right. But what struck Clark more than the buck’s potential score was how beautiful the antler was. The tines were freakishly long but well-formed in proportion, and even after a year spent in the swamp it still had an unmistakable, deep-brown chocolate hue.
• • • •
Later that afternoon, Clark was happy to be back on dry land as he walked the back side of the Bagley property. He had been checking the regular areas for sign and was now scanning the sandy, broken earth of a freshly plowed and planted food plot. He knew there wouldn’t be any fresh tracks in the soft soil yet, but he wasn’t scouting for deer any more. He was looking for pieces of flint that had been worked, perhaps thousands of years ago, by the Creek indians that had hunted the Turkey Creek drainage.
With his head down, he moved slowly, kicking at the dirt whenever he spotted something that might be a partially buried spear or arrowhead. He had picked over all the fields on the Bagley property numerous times, but he hoped the disks might have turned up something new.
‘I wonder what the property was like back then,’ Clark thought as he squatted to pick up a piece of flint. ‘It’s been timbered on this side of the creek, but I bet some of those trees on the west side were here with the Muskogee.’
Seeing no signs of work on the rock, he threw it to see how far it would go. He watched as it sailed across the field and heard it rattle through the branches on the other side. When the rock hit, a commotion arose, like a startled animal. Thinking it was a deer, Clark took a few steps to his right for a better view. What he saw was a human form fleeing into the woods.
“Hey you! Stop!” Clark yelled, but the intruder never missed a beat.
Clark ran across the field to the treeline, where he could see a short distance into the woods. He listened to the rustle and crash of someone running through the woods and saw flashes of dark green before the person disappeared out of sight.
‘Who would be poking around this far onto our property,’ Clark thought. ‘Probably just a kid hunting squirrels.’
• • • •
“Who would have thunk it?” Mike mused later that evening after supper. He was turning the massive antler in his hands and sitting in a ratty old lounge chair in the bunkhouse. “You think we’ve had a Booner on the property without us knowing it?”
“Don’t know,” was Clark’s reply.
A seasoned hunter in his 50s, Clark had lost his fervor for trophy hunting when he gave up his rifle in favor of a bow. The antler was also the most impressive Clark had ever seen, but big racks were no longer what drew him to the sport. As awkward as he was on his feet, he was a crack shot with his bow, and he loved the added challenge of getting closer to his quarry.
For the same reason, Clark had put down his compound bow five years ago in favor of a traditional longbow. He had only managed to kill two does since forsaking the mechanical advantage of a compound, and it had taken him three seasons to get his first. The sense of accomplishment he had felt in that moment was, for him, comparable to killing a world-record whitetail.
Now Clark was moving on to the next challenge — making his own weapons. He was sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair hunched over a blanket on the kitchen floor. He was using a hammer stone to knock flakes from a caramel-colored chunk of chert he had found on the creek bank earlier that day. He had produced a growing pile of chert flakes and dust on the blanket and was working so intently with the flint he hadn’t even really heard what Mike said.
“Hey! Chief Muddy Britches, I asked you a question,” Mike barked, snapping Clark away from his preoccupation with the rock. “What do you think’s the deal with that buck? How we gonna kill him?”
“Don’t know,” was again Clark’s answer. “Let’s have a look at the map.”
• • • •
Mike had the map made years ago when the men had first leased the property from a family friend in town. When he was a young boy, Mike had spent summers with his grandfather wandering the sandy pine woods, and his past had drawn him back.
Mike had done well with the landscaping company he started as a high-school student mowing lawns during the summers. Now in his mid 30s, he had grown the company to the point where his job now consisted mostly of managing crews and trucks. It provided him with the time and finances to support a serious addiction — hunting.
So, as Clark and Mike stood in front of the faded 5×5, topographical map pinned to the wall, they knew it wasn’t needed to hatch a plan. The lay of the land was etched in their minds, but it was part habit and part tradition to stand in front of the map while discussing strategy.
“Well, we found the shed here,” Mike said, putting his finger on a low-lying area of swamp bottom near the center of the map.
They had found the antler slap in the middle of the widest, lowest swath of swamp land on the property. The swamp, known as Beagle’s Demise by locals, cut through the middle of the Bagley property and continued for miles down the creek bottom. There were different stories for how it got that name, but most of them referenced a group of unlucky rabbit hunters after canecutters deep in the swamp.
The Bagley property formed a bowl, with the deepest portion of the swamp at the center of the property. A large tea-colored creek, Turkey Creek, drained from the dam of a 100-acre pond at the north end of the lease. Along its course, the creek bottom was a swampy, braided mess that stretched out dozens of acres in the low spots.
On the west side of Turkey Creek, where there was no road, the land rose from the swamp to a hardwood ridge. The woods were pretty much in their natural state — old-growth hardwoods with a thin understory, pocked with privet thickets.
The property on the east side of the creek was much more conducive to what Mike called “fat man’s hunting.” With generous help from Mike’s landscaping equipment and crews, the four men had turned what had been a small farm into a deer-hunter’s dream.
A good system of dirt roads could take them just about anywhere they wanted to go on the east side of the creek. And where the hunters most often went when the season opened was in and around the food plots. There were two good-sized fields they kept planted for the deer and turkey, but despite the presence of comfortable box stands over both fields, the men liked to limit their shooting there to keep the deer on the property. The honeyholes were the four smaller 1- to 5-acre food plots spread across the back of the property.
The men had built wooden bridges at two narrow, high spots in the swamp and cut trails that led from the east side of the property to the west, but the deepest areas of the swamp were all but inaccessible. For this reason, they had never hunted deep in Beagle’s Demise.
Looking at the map, Clark shook his head and turned to Mike, “You’re going to need more than a shed to pin down a pattern on that brute. Besides, it could have washed down when the water got up during the spring rains.”
“Yep. You’re right. I’ve got a lot of work to do before the season opens,” Mike replied. “I’m taking some cameras down into the Demise tomorrow morning. I’m also going to see if there’s an easier way to get in there using that old canoe behind the barn. Want to go?”
“I think I’ll pass,” Clark chuckled, remembering his morning in the swamp. “Keep your eye open for our intruder, though. Might ought to put a few cameras around those back fields. We might get a photo of him.”
• • • •
Fat and sleek, she lay on a rotting log warming herself in a puddle of late-afternoon sunlight. Her tongue darted in and out collecting information from her surroundings. Even at rest, she was hunting.
The log jutted a few feet into stagnant water, the surface of which was coated in lime-green algae that dried to a black sludge at the edges with the pool’s daily recession in the August heat. This drying pool would feed her for the remainder of the summer on tadpoles, frogs and fish stranded by the diminishing depth.
In the wet warmth of the evening, the incessant sleepy hum of insects was shattered as a lone bullfrog tuned up and began to croak. Unanswered, the frog leapt, its plump body landing with a plop in the surface scum. Then it began kicking with powerful legs for the mud flat on the other side.
Her elliptical pupils, black and sinister, instantly detected the motion from nearly 20 feet away, and more than 5 feet of olive-green, scaled muscle slid from the log into the water. Silently she snaked across the surface of the pool. As she drew closer, she detected a stark image of the amphibian’s faint body heat through the pits toward the front of her broad triangular head. She locked onto it like a heat-guided missile, falling in behind the frog as it kicked on, lazily unaware.
Reaching the far side, the frog turned clumsily on stubby front legs to settle into the sludge with just its round eyes poking out of the water. She had stopped swimming, and her length was coiled into a tight S as her momentum brought her into the shallows less than 2 feet from the amphibian.
The frog jumped, and she struck. In less than a fraction of a second, her jaws hinged open exposing 1/2-inch hollow fangs as she slammed into the airborne frog. Before they hit ground, her fangs sank deep into the tender flesh behind the frog’s bony head. She pumped tissue-destroying enzymes into its soft insides.
Neck arched and muscles taut, she pushed the frog into the mud as it struggled briefly before succumbing to the venom. Then she unhinged her jaws and began the process of swallowing her meal. She needed the sustenance. She was feeding not only for herself, but for the clutch of eggs developing within her.
• • • •
Joe Dan Butler pulled off a pair of expensive-looking shooting sunglasses as he stepped through the door. He folded the custom-camo frames and snapped them into a case, which he slid into the chest pocket of his uniform before giving the lady at the front desk his best male-model look while tipping the brim of his black cap.
“You’re lookin’ mighty fine today, Ann,” he winked at the receptionist. “Is the boss in?”
Ann giggled, not coy, but amused by the man’s demeanor. Joe Dan was a ladies’ man in his own mind, despite what the rest of the world thought of his tobacco-stained mouth and the expansive gut straining the buttons of his conservation-ranger uniform.
“Hello, Joe Dan,” she said. “He’s here. Let me tell him you’re waiting.”
Ann pushed the intercom button and spoke into the phone. “Mr. Bagley, Joe Dan Butler’s here to see you.”
Only Ann heard the groan on the other end of the phone. Until two years ago, Joe Dan, the local game warden, had been the fourth hunter on the property Old Man Bagley leased to Mike Shaw. Two years ago Mike had kicked Joe Dan off the lease for years of routinely missing work days and failing to abide by the club’s management practices. Since then, Joe Dan had been pushing Old Man Bagley to turn the lease over to him.
“I bet you’re getting geared up for the season, Joe Dan,” said Mr. Bagley as he stepped into the outer office hobbling a little on a cane. “What can I do for you today?”
Joe Dan flashed a smile and jumped right into his speech. It was the same speech he had given Old Man Bagley several times before.
“Making the rounds, Mr. Bagley. Thought I’d stop in and say hi,” Joe Dan cut straight through the small talk. “Just thought I’d give you another chance to accept my offer. I’ve been thinkin’ about it. You know, with me living in town, I can take better care of your property than those guys. Plus, I’ve got connections. I can develop a membership that’ll not only take care of the land, it’ll take care of you… financially. I’ve lined up six guys willing to pay five times what Mike and them are paying for the lease.”
Old Man Bagley was beginning to get exasperated with Joe Dan. Just shy of a spry 90 years old, he’d heard it all and didn’t have the patience for it. He’d already told Joe Dan the lease wasn’t about making money. Old Man Bagley had all the money he needed. He’d have let Mike hunt the land for free if Mike hadn’t insisted on paying him at least something.
“Joe Dan, I’ve tried to tell you this nicely, and this is the fourth time you’ve come to see me about this. Mike is dang near kin to me, and money is not an issue,” he said. “The only way anyone is going to get that lease from Mike is if he gives it up or if I find out he’s down there cooking moonshine or something.
“Good day, Joe Dan. I’ll see you at church on Sunday.”
With that, Old Man Bagley hobbled back into his office and closed the door. As the game warden turned to leave, he spat a stream of tobacco juice into the waste-paper basket next to Ann’s desk.
‘Bagley is straight as an arrow,’ Joe Dan thought. ‘I bet if I could catch Mike down there doing something illegal, Old Man Bagley would be forced to kick him off the lease.’
Joe Dan’s devious mind was churning as he walked out the door. He didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he was going to get Mike Shaw, and he was going to get that land.
• • • •
The buck held its head low, gingerly maneuvering its massive new set of velvet-covered antlers through the thicket as it picked its way through a dense privet stand in the wee hours of the morning. Now, nearly done developing this season’s antlers, the buck would soon shed its velvet and begin the annual rites of reproduction. But, for now, the rack had not yet hardened. The buck was careful with the sensitive new growth weighing heavily on its neck and head.
Whether the buck was cognizant the rack would be its tool of dominance over the resident deer herd or if the sensitivity of the new growth was the driving factor for his caution, he would be mindful of his antlers until they hardened off and he was able to use them as nature intended. He would need them, especially this year. He was in new territory with new untested bucks.
The activity from extensive timber cutting had pushed the buck from its home range the previous season. Through the late winter months, once the rut had subsided, it had wandered down the creek drainage, rounding the lake and finally finding refuge amongst the isolated hummocks of the deep swamp bottom. Here, there was an absence of human presence that was clearly noticeable to the buck’s keen senses. And the thick privet offered him the security he sought to travel to and from food sources.
That’s exactly what the buck was doing now, traveling back from feeding on the bounty the Bagley property food plots offered. Feeding in the open areas ran counter to everything the buck’s experience had taught it, but browse was thin in the late-summer heat.
While most of the deer were still on the fields, soon to return to their bedding areas in the thickets at the edge of the swamp, this buck was already on its way. At this slow speed, it was a long walk back into the depths of Beagle’s Demise.
• • • •
Mike pulled his battered old pickup onto the dam with an equally battered red-plastic canoe in the bed. With water levels finally at normal pool after years of drought, the lake roared through a huge pipe at the spillway to froth into the creek on the other side.
Mike had left before dawn and packed enough gear to sustain him for the whole day. He’d never even tried to navigate the creek from the dam down to the wooden bridge at the bottom of the property, and he had no idea what the day might bring. It was not a long stretch of creek, but knowing how braided and swampy it was, Mike didn’t know if he’d be able to float the whole way or if he’d be dragging the boat for most of the day.
It was the kind of adventure Mike enjoyed. It was too bad Clark didn’t feel the same way. Clark had decided to sleep in before making the two-hour drive back to the city. He had a wife and two high-school-aged daughters to get home to. Mike did not.
So, alone, Mike loaded his gear, which included a chainsaw, a pair of long-handled nippers and four trail cameras, into the canoe and slid it down the bank into the creek. Once he had settled everything into the boat, he pushed off the bank and hopped in.
As the roar of the spillway subsided, Mike could make out the sounds of night creatures rustling and singing along the banks of the swift-moving stream. In the gray dawn, the searing heat of unadulterated August sunshine was a long time coming under a dense canopy of giant old oaks, and Mike knew before he even dipped his paddle there was no turning back. With the canoe loaded down, the current was too strong for him to fight. It made him smile. The inevitable nature of a strong current set him free. No matter what happened, he would have to see this adventure through to the end.
• • • •
Clark finished cleaning up the dishes from a quick breakfast of bacon and eggs and hung the drying towel on the rack over the sink.
‘I hope we get that rain the weatherman predicted,’ Clark thought as walked over to the table, picked up and fingered the edge of the inch-and-a-half chert preform of an arrowhead he had started the previous evening.‘It sure would help grow the groceries for those deer.’
Still new to the process, it had taken more than an hour and a half for Clark to work a flake of flint into the basic form of an arrowhead, striking first with a hammer stone then moving to an antler billet as the work became more delicate. The billet, a striking tool made from the main-beam of a good buck, was about 7 inches long and curved slightly down to a rounded end about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. He was now almost finished with the striking work. He felt he could get in a few more shaping blows with the billet before it was time to pick up a pressure-flaking tool to give the arrowhead its final shape and edge. His goal was to kill a deer with an arrow he had made using primitive techniques.
Clark sat down, and cradling the arrowhead in his left hand he struck it with a short, firm stroke of the billet. With a crack, the whole base of his arrowhead flaked off onto the floor. It was ruined. He would have to start over. He took a deep breath to blow out the frustration of yet another failed attempt to knap his own arrowhead.
After packing his gear, Clark walked out the door to start the drive home. On his way out, he saw Mike’s cellphone on the table next to the door.
‘Oh, well,’ Clark thought. ‘He can take care of himself. I guess I’ll get worried if I don’t hear from him this evening.’
• • • •
Mike was about as dirty as he had ever been, and very tired. A thick coat of mud, sweat, blood and sawdust clung to his skin like icing on a cake. He was actually happy to have it. The grime provided some protection from the mosquitos that swarmed him. Bug spray helped, but these pests were tenacious, and itchy welts were forming on every inch of exposed skin. Mike made a mental note to never enter Beagle’s Demise again without his ThermaCELL.
It had been a long, gruelling day. Mike thought he knew where he was, and he was pretty sure he didn’t have far to go to the first wooden bridge. It wasn’t the bridge at the bottom of the property where he had originally planned to take out, but he would still be able to get the 4-wheeler down the trail to the creek to drag the canoe out.
Mike knew the narrow braid of water he had chosen would have to reconnect with another branch soon. The creek was much wider where the bridge crossed, but he still looked expectantly for the bridge to emerge from the swamp around each bend. He was worn out, hungry and his back hurt from sitting in the canoe. But he was also happy with what he had achieved.
The chainsaw and the nippers had proven invaluable as Mike battled his way into the swamp. Once the creek slowed and widened into the bottom, he had spent most of the day clearing blowdowns and cutting a path down the creek channel. With all the work, it had taken him hours to reach the area where he and Clark had found the shed, but now that he had cleared it out, it would be a quick 15- or 20-minute paddle into the depths of the swamp.
After finding the spot where he and Clark had picked up the shed, Mike did some scouting. He hadn’t found very much sign, no old rubs, but he did find a thin deer trail that snaked through the thick privet and over the hummocks. At the edge of a scum-filled pool, he had found a huge, fresh deer track. It was at the edge of this pool where Mike had strapped his first camera around a tree. He had placed two more along the trail. The fourth camera was at the edge of a stand of old swamp-bottom white oaks. Through binoculars, he could see the branches weighed down with green acorns and was already considering stand sites.
Back in the canoe, Mike was no longer thinking about deer hunting. Rain had begun drizzling through the trees, and he was growing concerned about getting out of the swamp. A sense of urgency grew in his gut as he came to another blowdown that blocked his way.
Mike was tired of chainsaw work. He tried to squeeze the canoe through a gap between the tree trunk and the water. The bow slid under the trunk, but the gunwales scraped, and the canoe came to a halt, wedged under the deadfall by its own buoyancy.
“Ugghhhh!” Mike grunted his frustration. He stood up, gripped his paddle and thrust with all his weight into the bottom, trying to force the boat through the gap. The paddle cut into the muck with no resistance and sent Mike head first into the water.
He came up on his hands and knees and spat out a spume of dirty water. Disgusted, Mike struggled to pull himself upright. As he rose to his knees, his weight shifted. His legs, bent at the knee, sank deeper into the sludge. Each time he tried to gain traction to free one of his legs, the other one sank deeper. He began to panic, claustrophobia overtook him as the muck sucked in around his legs. He rocked from one leg to the other, wrenching himself from side to side as he strained to pull himself free.
By the time he regained his composure, Mike had sunk above his waste in the mud with the water lapping at his armpits. Realizing his predicament, his mind flashed to an episode of “Man vs. Wild,” when Bear Grylls had jumped into quicksand. Mike now hated himself for changing the channel.
‘I just hope it doesn’t rain any harder,’ Mike thought, knowing the water level in the swamp was subject to quick fluctuations.
Could he use the canoe to pull himself out? Mike stretched with his arms, reaching for the stern of the canoe. Just the tips of his fingers scraped on the hard plastic…
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