True story – I killed my 1st deer ten minutes after a pair of poachers passed in front of my stand. It really wasn’t even a “stand.” It was 2X4’s stuck in the crotch of a scrub oak that required grappling up the couple of branches sturdy enough to hold a 90 pound 14 year old. It was even dubbed “The Sore Foot Stand.” Had Mom seen it, Dad probably would have been hauled to court.
Anyway, we were hunting a 1000 acres of private land that bordered a county-owned piece of public ground, and the Sore Foot Stand lorded over the boundary between the two. About 8 in the morning, I caught movement to my right and witnessed two camo-clad, fully-armed gentlemen emerge from the oak hammock, sans the orange vests required to hunt the public piece. Maybe calling them poachers is incorrect because they weren’t hauling an 8-point out of our woods, but they were certainly guilty of armed trespassing. Private property signs in both English and Spanish could in no way be ignored.
The second guy was just clearing the barbed wire fence when his accomplice elbowed him and pointed at me up in the tree. Instead of doing what I would have done, namely haul butt into the woods, they actually had the audacity to wave at me like a child would wave to his mommy as she looked out the window of an airplane about to lift off. I did what any young hunter would do – I emptied my .308 on those greaseballs.
No. The signs didn't say trespassers would be shot. They – and this still boils my blood – just slowly walked off, making sure to retrieve their game cart they’d concealed in the palmettos. I sat there a little shaken, not real sure what to think or do. But, I just stayed put because in those days, being anywhere other than where Dad left me was a mortal sin. Good thing, too. Ten minutes later I glanced behind me at a large doe that would become my first deer kill of what’s been a fairly productive, almost famous hunting career.
Save for my first experience with howling coyotes in
Carolina a couple years later, not much has ever
really unnerved me in the woods quite like coming across folks that just
shouldn’t be there. One, it’s a gross safety issue. My bullet-proofness has
worn off through the years – I'd hate to take a .270 to the torso because some
trespassing swine is too eager to shoot at movement in hopes of felling an
eighty pound sow. Two, you can never be at ease with the intentions of a fellow
willfully breaking the law.
Case in point, I had undressed to my skivvies to cross a chilly creek to hunt an oak hammock that had become synonymous for dispatching large boars. This was on a piece of phosphate property we had exclusive rights to, but the engineers and electricians and janitors made no beef with carrying equipment in their trucks so they could hunt on the job. Well, luck had nothing for me that morning, so I stripped back down to ford the raging rapids, carrying my boots and pants and jacket over my head like a real clown. On the other bank, I sat down to re-appropriate my wardrobe.
When I stood and made the first couple steps back to camp, I looked up and saw a man in a red flannel shirt smoking a cigarette and clutching a lever action .30-30. I paused for a minute trying to figure out whether I was about to have a shoot-out with this guy or if this was a hallucination from the early onset of hypothermia. Being only 19 and wishing to maintain exclusive rights to this property, I cowardly sidled away instead of confronting him. Never been too confident of grabbing a poacher by the tail – best let the men in charge deal with that. Plus, I was more than a little startled at the thought of this guy standing there long enough to watch me dress.
My worst encounter – by a long shot – happened back at that 1000 acres, almost ten years after my first doe. We were camping there for a weekend Spring Turkey hunt. Me being the selfless guy I am, I volunteered to go down alone early Friday morning to set up camp and potentially bag a tom. The trouble was, it was pouring rain. It had been all night and stayed true to form in the predawn hours. Thunder, lightning, buckets of rain. It was the kind of downpour only a freaking lunatic or turkey hunter would be in.
So I drove the property in my old white Dodge Ram, listening to tunes, guzzling diet coke and pounding gas station donuts, just waiting for the weather to clear for a minute or two of turkey calling. Around I was granted the reprieve I’d been waiting for. I pointed the truck down the trail that would take me to the Sore Foot Stand. I could quietly slip into that area and settle in without spooking any toms that were probably still roosted in the drizzle.
Now, how can I keep this PG and not be too gross? I parked the truck a few hundred yards from where I was going to pitch my decoys. As I was putting on my vest, the old stomach took a pretty evil right turn on me, quite possibly due to the mass consumption of diet cola and sugary glaze. Panic-stricken, all thoughts of turkey hunting were placed aside as I snatched a roll of hockey tickets from the glovebox and half-ran, half-crouched my way to largest palmetto head I could find, feverishly stripping myself of clothes and equipment to where it all left a breadcrumb trail of gear a blind person could follow. (God, these last two stories have me half-naked in the woods – I’m one with Nature, I guess.)
After atoning for my sins and regaining my composure, I ambled back to the truck and an irregular tan color in the tall grass grabbed my attention. Thinking it was a fawn or a bilingual Private Property sign some interloper tossed out there, I grabbed my Nikons off the dash for a closer gander.
In hindsight, I consider myself fortunate I did not walk up for a closer gander. The tan color was a baseball cap, which wouldn’t have been so unfortunate had it not been attached to a head. I focused my binoculars and noticed sideburns. Behind that I could make out the outlines of two more bodies prone in the grass. I ran back to my truck and racked a shell very loudly into my shotgun, hopped in and gassed the Ram to the gate. Had there been any dust on that road after the rain, I’m sure I left a trail of it. I wasn't looking back to check.
My immediate thought was murder, that these were bodies left to rot, because, again, no one should be out in weather like this. And that scared me more than the realization that I was pants-down not 60 yards away focused on a completely separate life-threatening issue. It’s not that I minded dead bodies; it was “Who killed them and where is that person?” that spooked me the worst. There was a migrant camp that bordered the property, and there were always reports of violence and robbery and other shenanigans coming from that joint – we’d see them all the time wandering through the scrub. So it wasn’t too hard to jump to this homicide theory.
I left the 1000 acres and wheeled down to Lake Manatee Fish Camp where I had better cell reception. I contacted the head honcho of our place who called the police. I met the sheriff’s deputy about 30 minutes later back at the gate, and we drove down to the scene of the crime completely sweating bullets, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The bodies, thankfully, were gone. The only evidence of them being there – and exonerating me of tall tales – were perfectly formed human depressions in the wet grass. There wasn’t much for the deputy to do other than kindly help me gather my belongings that were still strewn about the woods. He said he’d go check the migrant camp to see if anyone had been missing that morning. I never did hear back, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t bother. The weekend never really improved – the next morning I botched a chance at one of the largest gobblers I’ve seen in
It’s been a long while since I’ve dealt with poachers or trespassers or whatever you want to label them. I hunt WMA’s a lot these days, and the leases I have been on are typically far from public lands or colonies of field laborers. It’s never a fun thing to have these encounters.
Still, when I think back on that first doe, it is a wonderful story to tell.