The August 5 edition of my hometown newspaper, the Lincoln Journal, mentioned that primitive weapon deer hunts are to be held this fall at Bussey Pointe in Lincoln County. The report brought back the days when my Granddad Poland often referred to the Bussey Place down in Double Branches, and it resurrected one day in particular, my one day as a deer hunter back in 1979.
Back then I worked as a scriptwriter for what’s known today as the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. I’d write scripts on natural history topics and occasionally on hunting and fishing. The boss of bosses was John Culler, a Georgian I’ve written about before. John’s approach to writers was that they needed to experience what they wrote about. For me, that meant I had no choice but to spend a day afield deer hunting. The place where I was to hunt is special, a setting of natural, cultural, and architectural splendor, a classic example of the old South.
Bonneau Ferry, an old plantation, sits on the eastern branch of the Cooper River. The original plantation contained 10,000-plus acres, stretched 14 miles on the Cooper River, and held 1,300 acres of rice fields and 8,000 acres of forestlands. The sprawling site holds a wealth of cultural resources, including an 18th-century plantation house and ruins. One such ruin is Strawberry Chapel; a chapel of ease built around 1700 that is the last remaining building of Childsburg, a bustling town before the Civil War. To see it is to imagine the ruins of Rome in a small but meaningful way.
All this beauty, wildness, and culture found a permanent home. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources acquired Bonneau Ferry in 2005. Back when Westvaco owned Bonneau Ferry, it annually put on the dog for the media, the centerpiece of which was a deer hunt. Outdoor columnists, photographers, feature writers, filmmakers, and members of the state wildlife department looked forward to this annual fete. I went just one time but I clearly remember the trip. I was sent, against my will, to get an education.
A contingent of state wildlife personnel left Columbia around three one October afternoon. Arriving a bit after five, we entered the plantation, driving through twin ranks of live oaks dripping Spanish moss, the quintessential Southern setting. Black gentlemen wearing tuxedos greeted us with silver trays laden with cocktails and cigars. Out back, men were shooting clay pigeons along the banks of the Cooper River, the blasts echoing across distant ricefields. The sun was dropping fast. The air had a chill to it.
Our host for the evening was Westvaco’s Coy Johnston, a University of Georgia forestry graduate and a friend and colleague of my Uncle Joe Blonsky who worked at Westvaco many years. After hearing a welcome and some brief remarks, some of which laid out the plans and rules for the next morning’s hunt, we spent the evening socializing in the old plantation house. One rule was that it was advisable to harvest (kill) smaller bucks with unattractive racks.
The well-appointed house, the fragrance of cigars, and the camaraderie of outdoorsmen brought to mind the kind of life Ernest Hemingway must have lived at times. “Rugged opulence” came to me. One fellow, reminiscing many years later, remembered that “You could open any cabinet in the house and it would be full of all kinds of brands of liquor, cigarettes, and cigars.”
For dinner we had sumptuous steaks. It was a long evening filled with billiards, poker, adult beverages, and wild stories of all manner. I retired around 1:30 in the morning, knowing I had to rise at 4:30 for breakfast before being driven to a deer stand.
Thanks to the luck of the draw, my bunkmate that night was quite a character, an outdoor columnist for an Upstate South Carolina newspaper. I can’t recall his name and a few well-placed inquiries turned up nothing … that was, after all, 31 years ago. I do recall that my bunkmate, whoever he was, was a former Green Beret who had served in Vietnam and killing a man came easily to him, so they said anyway. He rode Harleys long before they became the domain of middle-aged men trying to recapture a sliver of their youth. He was extremely tall and was a legend among the “hook & bullet” outdoor writers. He tolerated no foolishness and would hurt a fellow if given cause. He was, in short, a man to be feared.
Our bunks were at the tiptop of a chalet-like cabin and maybe three feet separated our berths. The ceiling, perilously low, served as a sounding board. The legend was ensconced in his bunk, snoring like a Scottish bagpipe eternally rising then dropping, a tumultuous snore the likes of which I’ve not heard since. On and on he went. I spent one miserable night there. I watched precious time pass with no sleep as this wild man shook the timbers.
Finally, in a moment of desperation, I yanked my pillow from beneath my head with my right hand and slammed him in the head with it: a sudden, smooth movement that returned the pillow beneath my head in a flash. Wild man, whatever his name was, snorted and leapt to his feet smashing his bald head hard into the ceiling. All manner of cursing burst forth. I feigned sleep. I lay as if a dead man. Wild man went downstairs, cursing all the way, where he woke up the men and never came back upstairs. I got maybe an hour’s sleep. Rising with the feeling of being drugged and fearful of encountering wild man, I slipped out and headed to the plantation house.
Breakfast was a feast of eggs, bacon, steak, grits, biscuits, and steaming fresh coffee. I drank more coffee and orange juice than I should have. Soon after I was dropped off at my stand, which looked more like a tree house or the base of the Tower of Babel, a serious urge to empty my bladder set in. I tried to put it out of my mind. I was here to learn to kill.
I was given no choice but to hunt. I was not allowed to refuse. That didn’t mean that I had to shoot a deer though. Still I wondered if I could do just that. As some writer long ago wrote, “A man needs to know if he can kill something or somebody.”
I figured I’d not get the chance. I know that relieving yourself while deer hunting is a no-no. You betray your human presence to all deer in the area. Maybe you spook the whole herd. I had no real notion of all that hunting business. Not only did I break this cardinal rule several times, neither did I wear camouflaged clothing nor did I sit still as a stone. I was restless and a bit bored. I’d stand and sit, stand and sit, and then the sun began to come up. Soon a flock of wild turkeys, 17 hens led by a gobbler, strolled by a distant edge of marsh. “Damn,” I thought, “being up in this tree house must make me invisible sure enough.”
So here I was, urinating off a stand, wearing jeans and some light-colored shirt, and I didn’t even have my own rifle lovingly maintained with a scope precisely dialed in. An old timer at the old house had given me an old, worn gun. I was cold, cradling a 30.06, a bit bored, and most of all wondering when the truck would come rescue me. I knew no deer with any sense would come my way.
Just then a patch of trees and brush seemed to move, a grey-brown slow movement. At first, I thought my eyes were fooling me. Materializing like a spirit, a buck with a small, asymmetrical rack came down the trail straight at me. He’ll smell me and spook, I thought, but on he came, closer and closer. The gun was in my hand, my finger on the safety. Now I had a decision to make. Should I shoot this animal? The rules said I should. What if just let it be? My mind whirled with the possibilities.
I decided to ignore the buck. I tried to think about the wild man. Somewhere in a stand I figured was the wild man, and he’d probably come in with a Boone and Crockett trophy deer. I sure didn’t want to see him. I figured a few cups of coffee had set his mind right and he’d realize I’d clobbered him with a pillow a few hours earlier. Fueled by some deer’s fresh blood I knew he’d confront me. That was to be my fate.
The damn deer kept coming my way. I clicked the safety off and raised the barrel. One shot dispatched the animal and it was mercifully fast. My hands shook. I remember that the gun’s blast sounded like a bomb, shattering the Lowcountry peace. It was the last time I hunted deer and the only time.
In a culture that’s increasingly anti-hunting, I am not an anti-hunter. I believe it has its place in the modern world for various reasons. It’s part of our heritage, it helps keep game populations in check, and it provides great outdoor recreation for sportsmen. It does much to fund the preservation of woods and fields as well. But don’t tell me how difficult it is to roam the woods in an ATV to find a good place to make a stand from which to shoot a deer when it wanders into the crosshairs of a scoped rifle. The wily whitetail is not so wily.
I believe primitive hunts like the ones at Bussey Point give a deer a fair chance. Scoped, high-powered rifles don’t. Not in my view they don’t. I, for one, like how the Native American Indians hunted deer. They ran them down in a sort of tag team relay whereby one Indian would chase the deer and then another Indian would come in with fresh legs until the exhausted deer could no longer go on. At least those hunters had to be in shape.
Not long ago I was having dinner with some vegetarians who morally oppose the killing of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other animals for food. As we discussed the sensitivities and issues, they turned their wrath on hunters.
I asked them a simple question: which animal lives a truer, more natural life, a cow confined to a pen all its life or a deer free to breed and live as intended? That shut them up. At least a whitetail deer doesn’t spend its life in a pen being dosed on artificial feeds, hormones, and other additives designed to accelerate market time.
And my one day as the great white hunter? I learned that, yes, I can kill, but that lesson wasn’t a pleasant one and it grew a bit more gruesome when I watched two men dress my deer. They did it expertly and precisely, like surgeons. I kept glancing over my shoulder waiting for the wild man to slip up and do me harm, but then I learned he had left after breakfast. He had a deadline to make. That deadline, just maybe, saved me some pain.
I tried to eat a roast cut from my harvested deer but I didn’t care for it a bit. Still, I suppose I played a small part in making the deer there a bit larger and more trophy-like. But that was it for me. I never went back and I have no idea what the deer of Bonneau Ferry are like today. I suspect, though, they are still not that wily.