The Freak: A Survivor’s Tale

A story of perseverance begins with a young hunter coming of age in 1957 and links to the present as a legendary buck fights to survive.

Reader Contributed | August 1, 2017

By John Seginak and Brandon Adams

The big doe and her two fawns were bedded in a thick privet patch on the very edge of a large beaver swamp. A thunderstorm had rolled through earlier, and now at sunset the heat and humidity were almost unbearable.

It was early September, 2010, and if the damp, stifling air wasn’t enough, the biting insects were out in biblical numbers. All three deer continuously shook their heads to ward off the bugs. The doe couldn’t take it anymore near the swamp. She headed toward the soybeans, where at least there was a slight breeze drifting across the field, a small relief. The fawns trotted ahead of her, their minds on filling up on that delicious greenery.

Johnny Sykes was just leaving his house to go hunting. It was already 4:30 p.m., and he wished he was already up the tree in his climber, but there had been work to be done on Mitch’s Oglethorpe County farm.

“Are you going huntin’ in this outdoor sauna?” said Mitch Solder, the landowner and Johnny’s best friend.

“Heck yeah… been waiting all year, bud. Guess I rather hunt than be comfortable.”

Mitch laughed.

“Well good luck. I guess I’ll be comfortable. Where ya gonna sit?”

“Climber down in the bottoms by the dead pit. Maybe it’ll work as cover scent, although the wind is right anyway,” Johnny said.

“Dang boy, you’re glutton for punishment,” Mitch said.

Johnny was set up and ready to go by five. He couldn’t take the head net with the heat. It stayed in his vest.

“Nice big doe to fill the freezer would be nice. Big boys aren’t gonna move in this heat,” he thought as he sat in the stand.

The fawns entered the field first, about 20 yards from Johnny’s stand. Until he saw the large buttons on the buck, he thought it was a young doe and her fawn. The doe had been bred very early, and that, combined with the doe’s genetics and their sizes, had made the buck fawn very large for early September. The sire was a 5 1/2-year-old 12-point that would tip the scales at 250 plus.

It was several minutes before the doe entered the field. By this time the fawns had headed to a sweet spot along the edge of the beans. Being in a depression, that area received a little more water every time it rained, and the deer instinctively were drawn to the additional nutrients from the beans in that spot of the field.

The doe was wary, but the wind was perfect for the hunter, and this hunter was patient, his setup good.

The doe was broadside at 20 yards, front leg forward, when Johnny squeezed the release. She never made it out of the field, and 10 minutes later he was standing over the doe. The fawns had seen him and bolted back into the swamp bottoms. They had their first contact with a human, and it wasn’t good.

He texted Mitch… “BED.”

Mitch knew what than meant— bean eater down.

He drove the side-by-side Gator down to help load the deer.

“How many did ya see?” Mitch asked.

“Just this doe and two big fawns. But man, the buttonhead was huge! They were the first ones out, but by the looks of the beans, there’s a bunch still coming out. Brian and I sat this field in August and counted 42, including six nice bucks. From last year’s data, I think we should try to harvest 18 to 20 does,” Johnny said.

“I’m with you on that. You’re the retired wildlife biologist,” Mitch said.

Washington County, 1957

Billy Haddock turned 10 years old in 1957. His father had passed away when he was 8, and he was being raised by his momma and grandparents. His grandfather on his daddy’s side was William Haddock, one of the most respected hunters in the Washington County area. He had begged his granddad to take him hunting since his father died. The response was always the same.

“You’ll earn the right to go when you come out with me and learn to read sign and help build blinds. You’re not gonna be a boy just sittin in the woods with everybody doing the work for you. Besides, you love the woods and nature, Billy. You’ll enjoy it and feel you did your part on the land.”

By the 1959 season, 12-year-old Billy could pattern deer like a seasoned hunter. His granddad also instilled morals and ethics into the young man.

“If you have to cheat and break the law to kill one, son, you’re not much of a hunter. Do the right thing,” his grandpa said more than once.

By 1959, it was time. The  short Georgia deer season would began in two weeks, and Billy couldn’t keep his mind on anything else.

His mother warned, “If those school grades start sliding down, son, your granddaddy will be huntin’ by himself again this year.”

School was a struggle for Billy. It didn’t help that every time he sat down to study the whole page turned into a visual image of a big buck crossing the Oconee River bottoms. His granddad’s 1,000-acre farm included those big bottoms, and he farmed 600 acres of soybeans and peanuts. It was deluxe deer habitat. The bottoms were filled with huge live and swamp chestnut oaks, and the many switch cane thickets afforded plenty of bedding cover.

Billy, as anyone else, was hoping for one of the big-racked bucks that he and his granddad had watched in the bean fields most of the summer. They had built several box blinds on the field edges, and also several permanent tree stands near the food sources and bedding areas deep in the river bottoms. It was hot, exhausting work in July, but Billy enjoyed it. Just being in the woods doing stuff concerning deer hunting, with his granddad, was enough to erase the heat and humidity a little.  He knew if erected in July, the deer would be used to them when Georgia’s deer season opened in November. Billy also was developing a love for all wildlife and nature. He knew every inch of the land from long walks he took bird watching and flipping logs for snakes and salamanders. Billy knew all of the species in the area, and he knew most of the birds and their calls. He could recognize a Swanson’s warbler call from a pine warbler call, and he knew that a job in the outdoor field, maybe as a biologist, was his life calling.

Finally the big day arrived. Billy had slept at his granddad’s to be right at the farm when he woke up, and the night before, he reveled in all his granddad’s stories of deer harvested in the past. He didn’t sleep much, and he got out of bed when he heard his grandma fixing them breakfast.
“Get any sleep, Billy?” the old man asked, although he already knew the answer.

“No sir, I’m kind of wound up tight,” Billy said. “Figured that. Eat a big breakfast, we’re gonna hunt for a while.”

It was a beautiful November opener… slight northwest breeze, not a cloud in the sky, and 38 degrees.

“Where are we hunting granddad?”

“Well, this is your hunt. Where do you think would suit us best?” his grandpa asked.

“Hmmm…. The deer are really hittin’ those acorns hard west of our stand near Horseshoe Bend. They’ll be headed to bed down in the big cane thicket north of the stand. Let’s sit there. We can slip down the river from the east,” Billy proposed.

“Good choice, boy. Let’s leave soon. Eat up. It would be good if we were in the stand a half hour before grey light. Grab your gun, and get your colors on.”

Granddad drove his truck down the field road toward the river swamp, the shafts of light from the headlights illuminating the dirt two-track and little else. The hair stood up on Billy’s arms. He would never forget this feeling, excitement of what was to come of this hunt, and also at the mystery of what was out there in the predawn darkness beyond the truck’s headlights. They were both wearing waders, and that rubber smell filled the cab of the truck.

“Let’s park here Billy. It is only another quarter mile to the woods line, and if we park here there will be less of a chance of spookin’ anything.”

“Yes sir. Hate to bump any.”

Billy hung the gun sling over his shoulder, and they eased toward the woodline without flashlights. The moon was bright enough that they could easily see the ground, and this was ground they were both so familiar with.

When they hit the woods, they turned on their flashlights and headed northwest toward Horseshoe Bend. It took 10 minutes of slow but deliberate walking, but soon they were situated in the stand, 25 feet up in a crotch of a huge water oak. It was roomy, and they had built a large bucket seat in it.

The swamp had received several inches of rain the previous week, and the bottom had some flooded areas. They needed their waders to reach the stand.

“All this water is a good thing, Billy. It’s gonna funnel the deer from those swamp oaks to the bedding thicket at Horseshoe. They’ll be comin’ right down that low ridge 50 yards in front of us.”

“Yes sir,” Billy whispered. “I just know they’re coming”

A new day was being born in that Washington County swamp almost 60 years ago. It was a new beginning for young Billy Haddock, who as daylight broke was a full step closer to being a man as his fingers gripped a .270 rifle.

It was light enough to see a hundred yards down the swamp when Billy spotted movement. The animal was coming from the briar patches that bordered the peanut fields.

“Granddad, I see something.”

“Oh yeah, I see it… too small for a deer.”

They watched as a huge bobcat  worked its way back into the swamp, probably after a night of catching cotton rats up along the fields.

“What a beautiful critter,” Billy whispered.

It was the first one he had ever seen up close. It walked by, not 20 yards from the tree and continued toward the Oconee River.

“Cat never knew he was being watched, Billy. Glad ya got to see him… looked like a big male.”

The sun was just about above the horizon when the buck appeared. He was coming down the ridge at a fast walk.

“Granddad,” Billy exclaimed. “I see a buck!”

“Get your gun up when he gets a tree between his eyes and us,” the old man instructed.

The buck, as the bobcat, had no clue he was being watched. When the deer was 50 yards away and broadside, Billy’s granddad stopped the deer with a grunt. The .270 roared. The buck kicked high with his back legs, then tore through the swamp with water flying before disappearing into a thicket.

“I think I got him! Did I get him?”

Billy was beside himself.

“It looked that way, son. I think all those hours ya practiced shootin’ your dad’s gun just paid off! Let’s wait 10 minutes before we go look, just in case, buddy.”

Billy will never forget that slow walk to the spot where the buck was standing, or the first sight of blood on the November leaves. They found blood, lots of it, right where the buck had stood when Billy shot.

“Now follow the blood trail, Billy. I’ll be right behind ya. You should be the one to recover the buck. I’ll hold your rifle.”

“Yes sir,” Billy responded excitedly. “It’s plain as day. Don’t even have to bend over to see it.”

“I got him!” Billy yelled.

He ran up to the deer and grabbed his antlers.

“Granddad, it’s a nice one!”

“They’re all nice Billy,” his granddad said. “One of God’s beautiful creatures.”

“How old do you think he is,” Billy asked?

“He looks like a 3 1/2-year-old, good body size, probably weighs around 180. My beans and peanuts did that,” granddad said with smile.

“It’s a nice rack, too. Not one of the monsters we saw this summer, but I’m so happy with him,” Billy said.

The buck was a 17-inch wide 10-point with long G2s and G3s with good mass. A 130-class buck, but it could have been a spike and both hunters would have been just as happy. Not to mention no one talked about scores much back in those days around Washington County.

“A couple of things we have to do here, boy. Get down there and start gutting your first deer. I’ll give ya instructions as you go,” granddad said.

When Billy got into the chest cavity, his granddad told him to hold up.

“This is tradition son, and tradition is important in these woods. I had this done by my daddy, and I did it to your daddy. Man’s first deer, he gets blooded.”

The old man got a big swamp chestnut leaf and folded it, and then he dipped it in the blood from the chest cavity and painted the boy’s face, hair and neck.

“Momma’s not going to like this, but she’ll get over it. Let’s get this big rascal to the truck, son.”

Contrary to their thinking, Billy’s momma was so happy for her boy’s first deer, and she didn’t mind the blooding. She knew her husband, Billy’s daddy, would have been beaming with pride.

That evening, after butchering and packaging the deer, Billy and his granddad had a talk before they hit the rack.

“Buddy, I want you to think about all that meant something special today. Think about seeing the bobcat, hearing the barred owls, then the wood ducks calling in the river swamp. Think about killing your first deer with your daddy’s gun, and the tradition that exists here. Think about what you learned, and think about always respecting the wildlife and woods God has bestowed upon us.”

When Billy fell asleep, he was thinking about all of those things, over and over, and he was thinking especially of how proud his dad would have been.

December 2010, Oglethorpe Co.

The buttonhead had been mostly on his own since late October. That’s the morning his twin sister had entered a patch of white oaks bordering a swamp thicket. She had left the dense privet bedding cover a few minutes before he arose, as he approached the feeding area, a loud BOOOOMMM sent shockwaves through the woods. The young buck jumped back into the safety of the thick foliage, where he stood still as a statue as strange noises and footsteps followed. That’s the morning the young buck saw Mitch, the landowner, for the first time. The buck never moved until nearly 10 p.m.

After that morning, the buck wandered from one food source and bedding cover to the next. He was more careful. It was now December, and an early fall drought had made food scarce. Most of the natural green vegetation had died or dried up beyond palatability. The acorns were all but gone, and the soybeans had been harvested. The green fields had just been planted and were barely coming up. Getting enough feed to fill his rumen was a daily challenge.

One night, the young buttonhead smelled acorns up on an oak ridge above the bottom thickets where he spent most days and nights. Approaching the hardwoods, he saw several does with fawns, and two small bucks feeding. As he came near the water oaks, the largest doe pinned her ears back and charged. It happened so swiftly, the buttonhead had no chance to retreat. The doe raised up on her back legs and pummeled the fawn with her two front hooves. Hair flew, and he was cut on the right hip.

Now running, he got a good distance away from the does and fawns and circled around to the other end of the oaks. There he was met by a small 6-point, which pinning his ears back—enough of a warning to send the buttonhead slinking back toward the bottoms.

After the small herd left the oaks, the buttonhead went back up the ridge, but there were only a precious few late-falling water oaks remaining. He wandered until he smelled acorns again. They were located next to the club’s hunting cabin—very close to the cabin. But his hunger made him set aside his instinct for caution. Slowly walking to within 10 yards of the structure, the buttonhead began feeding on white oak acorns that only remained because the mature deer knew the danger the cabin represented and avoided the area. After gorging himself, the young deer bedded down in a briar thicket 40 yards from the cabin.

The next morning, the young buck awoke to sounds of trucks coming down the farm road to the cabin. Mitch, Dave, Danny and Johnny all arrived to get ready for New Year’s Eve. Brian arrived a few hours later with biscuits for the guys. Dave was walking by the white oaks when he noticed they had a visitor the night before.

“Hey guys, looks like we have a brave young deer around here,” said Dave as he pointed at fresh tracks and droppings.

“We will see how brave after tonight,” Mitch said.

The young buck was bedded only 10 yards from the wood pile as Danny and Johnny collected wood for that night’s bonfire. The buttonhead never moved a muscle.

More trucks arrived, and more people gathered around the cabin as sunset neared. The buck’s nose filled with a variety of scents from both humans and the meal that was prepared. The buck was getting more and more anxious.

As the sun set, Dave and Johnny started the show. As the first firework exploded with a boom and flash of light, the buttonhead bolted. Limbs slapped at his chest and face. Briars tore at his legs and ears. But fear drove him.

The buck ran across a large hay field, bounding the fence easily. The young deer began to slow finally, after clearing a quarter of a mile in minutes. As he cleared a second fence, his hooves felt something different. It was hard, slick and warm. Over the rise, bright lights appeared from a red Chevy 4×4.

The young buck was blinded.

He froze.


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