Stories of a Life Afield
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36 pages

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Two short stories about the life lessons a hunter learned in pursuit of wild turkeys and deer.

In "Thanks to Gert," the first of this two-story ebook, A. Hunter Smith recalls one of the funniest and most productive April turkey-hunting seasons he has experienced in the thirty-five years he has spent in pursuit of one of God's most maddening, frustrating, and divinely conceived creations. "Brothers in Arms" is a story about hunters and fishermen who discover that their best teachers are the wild creatures they hunt. Elders and mentors may impart advice, but Smith has learned the inescapable rules of hunting by observing the actions of the wild things around him. These rules, Smith says, equalize us all in the struggle of life and death in the natural world.



Publié par
Date de parution 01 novembre 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611175189
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0350€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Stories of a Life Afield
Stories of a Life Afield
Brothers in Arms and Thanks to Gert
A. Hunter Smith

The University of South Carolina Press
2014 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
978-1-61117-518-9 (ebook)
COVER ILLUSTRATION : Mallards by Lynn Bogue Hunt (1878-1960); oil on board, 14.5 10.5 inches; photograph courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions, Boston, Massachusetts
Brothers in Arms
Thanks to Gert
My brother Hunter was appropriately named, although I doubt that my parents had even an inkling of that at the time.
Hunter and I are direct descendants of two families that chose to relocate themselves in the mid-1700s to what became South Carolina. Our father s family, the Smiths, settled on king s grant property near the Lynches River, while our mother s family, the Mannings, carved out their king s grant in a small settlement known as Manchester, close to the Wateree River.
Succeeding generations prospered by hard work, learning when and what to plant and, as important, where. While both families raised some domestic animals, such as cows, pigs, and chickens, for food, they heavily depended on wild game and fish to sustain themselves. This dependence on the outdoors lasted for generations. Accordingly how to hunt and fish was passed down to each new generation, because it was fundamentally important. Subsequently and just as important, a reverence and respect for all wild creatures and the places they live in were instilled in us as well.
We were taught to pay attention to detail when we were afield and were taught the proper etiquette of hunting and fishing with others.
We learned the old school ways of training and caring for dogs, and how to properly handle guns and fishing equipment. We were also taught not to be greedy with game and fish. These lessons were at times harsh, but ultimately we learned the importance of conservation. We, I like to think, became true sportsmen. If you shot something, you cleaned it and ate it. It was that simple. If you caught fish, you cleaned them and ate them. It was that simple.
Twenty years separate Hunter and me, so I had the distinct good fortune to begin outdoor activities with him from the time he could first walk. Over the last forty-five years, we have hunted and fished all over South Carolina, and he is an excellent companion and the most accomplished woodsman I have ever known. I think that I can safely say that in our entire time together outdoors, we have spent a considerable portion of it laughing at ourselves and each other, because we have never felt the need to compete with each other while afield.
The stories you are about to read are the product of more than 350 years of inherited observation, knowledge, and training.
When you finish these stories, I suspect you will see the woods and waters of South Carolina in a different light and perhaps will have learned some things that you did not know.
Brothers in Arms
F or many, southern river swamps are imposing places. There s something wild and unrestrained about them, something brooding and full of secrets. Their haunting skylines and sightless black waters stir imaginations to create myths and legends, an eerie and howling wood where ghouls and specters come to haunt the murk and shadow and ghosts are often conjured beside the flickering campfires. But in truth what arises from those spectral mists are the last remnants of Eden, the last beating hearts of wilderness unremitting, unconscious still of ill intent. There is nothing deviant there, nothing maligned or spiteful. There is only life, only purpose and survival. Like any wilderness there is danger there, but it is outmatched by raw beauty.
Those sportsmen who understand this do not fear such wilds but respect them. They do not attach morality to basic instinct or intent to primal action. They know that their lives out there are governed by the elements; they accept that consequence follows decision and that safety comes from awareness. What awaits such woodsmen there is not some lurking peril but memory without regret, joy without remorse, and a place of quietude beyond a world that demands to be heard.
I was lucky to be born to people who cherished such places, who had known them for centuries. Their very existence was hacked from the bottomlands, and their lives passed along generations in the shadows of the cypress and the tupelo. It was a part of them and it sustained them, and they would have had it no other way. Such love and knowledge was passed to me as proudly as a coat of arms, and I have carried that banner gladly ever since. But even after all I was taught and all that I have learned and have witnessed, after four decades of hunting the floodplains of the South, I am constantly amazed by things that I have never seen. The evolution of life in that darkened wood is shy and reclusive and only reveals itself completely to determined patience.
It takes time and energy to learn to hunt big river swamps, to understand them truly. In those shadowed reaches, the ways and manners of game are not always apparent, the patterns not so easily recognized in a world where the signs of life are evident at every glance, while the life itself remains guarded. Yet if you are persistent, there are other worlds there to be discovered, worlds few others have ever seen.
Twelve years ago I began to hunt a portion of the Santee River Swamp in the low country of South Carolina that was unfamiliar to me at the time. It is a vast tract of bottomland that borders the river for fifteen miles, a tremendous expanse of floodplain near to twenty thousand acres that has been left the better part of half a century to its own devices. By the time I started exploring it, the old roads that remained had long been overgrown and were nearly unrecognizable as anything man had made, and those few that were still apparent had long been rendered impassible by floodwaters, the bridges washed away and pipes blown. It was and still is, for all intents and purposes, as God had meant to leave it, except for old wounds hacked into it by saw and ax that had begun to heal on their own. As river swamps go, it is a magnificent place, full of ancient cypress and tupelo and massive oaks along twisting inland oxbows and flat lakes, thousands upon thousands of acres of hardwood and canebrake. No more perfect a river-bottom deer habitat could ever be envisioned.
The deer that live in it are as they should be, wild and uncorrupted and unaccustomed to the scent of man. You would think that would make them easy targets, but it s exactly the opposite. One thing I have learned in my time as a guide, having worked on hunting plantations and as an independent nearly all my life, is that whitetails that are used to people are far easier animals to hunt than those who have only heard the rumors. This I know is contrary to popular opinion, but those who have been in the business long enough would undoubtedly agree with me. A deer seems to be born with an innate distrust of anything on two legs, but they can be conditioned to put up with people given constant interaction. A whitetail in his true environment is not subject to intrusions from humans on a regular basis, however, and his reactions are not as you would expect.
A buck that lives in a big river swamp is exactly the same deer that lives on the hill genetically, but he is in many ways an entirely different animal. He has adapted to an environment of extremes. He s not like a deer who is born and raised on a farm and lives his entire life where nothing much changes but the seasons and whatever they decide to plant in his favorite field that year. A river swamp buck is a vagabond, a wanderer. He is in fact-for lack of better terms-a migratory whitetail. His placement in life is dictated by flood and drought, by feast and famine. His sense of territory is not bounded by acres but by miles. He claims every nook and cranny, every twist and bend along his section of river swamp, and he keeps more than one house. He may well summer on the far west end but is just as likely to winter in the extreme east, even though ten straight miles or more may lay between. As a whitetail he is always partial to one residence, but as a swamp deer, he is never bound to it. If he was he could never survive there. Like any migratory animal, his routes are old, familiar, and well-reasoned. He knows exactly where he is going and why. To hunt him you have to learn to think as he does, because you can t just walk up and question him, and if you could you can pretty much bet that he would lie.
Knowing these things, the first years I spent hunting that swamp were simply armed scouting missions. I worked on dry months and wet, through drought and flood, walking the ridges and the flats and paddling the oxbows and sloughs. I came from the east and worked west, started from the south and went north, and crossed all other compass points in-between. I covered miles in weeks and thousands of acres in months, until the day came that I knew the lay of the land well enough to leave my compass behind. Of course I saw and shot deer, saw and shot wild pigs. I learned regional patterns of movement. Yet all the while I was looking for the bigger picture, that group of elements that dictated where the majority of animals would be on any given condition and when, but also, more important, how they went about getting there. I was trying to teach myself how to get in front of a migration and to stay ahead of it. By the sixth year, I had pinpointed all of the main routes but one. I had learned that there were in fact four major routes of travel in and out and up and down the swamp, depending on the conditions. I learned as well that there were very few permanent residents, those hardcore swamp animals that remained behind to endure the harshest of elements, in a place that would flood literally tens of thousands of acres of habitat season in and out for weeks on end.
Even in the worst droughts, water was not an issue. There were artesian springs bubbling up from the aquifer everywhere, but enduring drought conditions staunched food sources so significantly at times that only a few acres within a thousand would produce mast, a lean time for animals relying almost solely on browse to see them past winter. Again, during these times only the most tough-hided animals remained. All the rest, come flood or famine, migrated out and spread themselves far and wide into the surrounding high ground, some actually moving into other counties, by way of swimming the river or traveling along the fall line on the edge of the swamp.
One October I watched a buck chasing a doe in an oak flat in the center of the swamp two miles from the river proper. He had a malformed tine, not broken but bent down flat like a drop tine; he also had a white knee sock on his left hind leg, unmistakable characteristics. I watched him for better part of a half an hour, hoping to see the deer I was really after, or another that would go a little heavier. I saw neither and let him go. Mid-December that same year, with the river on a major flood, I shot that buck on the edge of pine plantation on the other side of the river, in an entirely different county and nearly five miles away from where he d been. I have his rack on the wall as I write: a grand testament to their endurance, will, and adaptability in the face of unforgiving environments, one of the main reasons I love them so.
Wild pigs are migratory, anyway; they are not bound to familial territories like whitetails, and they go where they wish, for no other reason than they wish it. Still if they are happy in a place, they would rather not leave it unless forced out.
Pigs travel in family groups called sounders. Brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, they stay together, unless split apart by an aggressive boar chasing the sows in heat or the young are forced out at maturity. Individual sounders are easily identifiable by the color variations on the coats of individual pigs. Some pigs are of solid color but most are not, and each hog s markings are unique. In that same river swamp, I came upon a sounder of pigs on the far northwest end on the first of November and left them be, only to run up on them again fourteen miles to the southeast before the beginning of the second week of that same month.
These things are not isolated to this one particular river swamp but have occurred to varying degrees in all the large river basins I have hunted over the years, especially the ones subject to the most extreme fluctuations. It is a fascinating and extremely challenging habitat to hang your hat in, no doubt, but is as close to the primordial essence of hunting as you can get, and I personally would not have it any other way.
Although the behavior of these animals is not completely unique to floodplains, that particular type of swamp is. It is downriver from a collection of dams, the first of which originates at the crest of the fall line better than a hundred miles upriver. Behind these dams the seasonal rains are captured and controlled by massive impoundments. When the water is released, though it usually corresponds with natural freshet cycles, the volume and flow rate sent downriver is sustained far beyond the normal rise and ebb of natural floodwaters. Whereas it would normally crest and fall over the matter of a few days or weeks on a natural cycle, the flooding there can remain well over a month, and at times longer. Also that stretch of swamp rests on a foundation of porous limestone, which allows groundwater to rise up and leak out of it like a heavy sponge. The constant rise and fall of seasonal floodwaters over the millennia has carved sloughs deep enough to expose the bedrock in many places, and the result has been a collection of independent and free-flowing lake systems within the floodplain that have no dependency on the river whatsoever. They are living bodies of water unto themselves. This is an asset to the wildlife, especially during years of extreme drought, but come flood it becomes their enemy. These lakes serve to quicken the inundation when the river begins to crest, and a full-on flood-that would normally take days to occur-can well happen overnight. Animals in that place are particularly sensitive to the change in weather patterns come the fall and spring, and I personally believe it is because they are well aware it could signal an impending and critical rise in the river level.
On the seventh year, I set out to fit the last piece of the puzzle in place. It was the largest and most elusive. In the very center of the tract, the floodplain spread to its widest point, over five miles from river edge to hill line and the better part of three miles across from where it began to broaden to where it narrowed up again, an immense parcel of land.
The predominant terrain feature

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