When William Tecumseh Sherman and his minions sashayed to the beaches of Savannah 151 years ago this month, they left behind a wide, scorched swath of Georgia from Atlanta to the sea. Among Sherman’s explicit commands was the following, from Special Field Orders 120: “The army will forage liberally on the country during the march.” Which meant, in essence, seize or destroy everything in its path.
And directly in that path, among the swamps and treacherously thick tangles around Springfield, was a hardy group of Georgians who didn’t appreciate that order very much. In an effort to preserve as much of their way of life as possible, they gathered their livestock, drove it deep into the sloughs and built a huge pen around it. Cowpen Branch it was called.
And still is.
The plan worked, and even a century and a half later, the traditions that those pioneers started are held to today. “Tradition” is a well-respected word among members of the Cowpen Branch Hunting Club in Effingham County, with a couple dozen of whose members I traipsed up and down Cowpen Branch on Halloween Saturday. We were taking part in a sport that dates back to the first settlers of our state: hunting deer with dogs.
It’s a way of life in these parts, one that these coastal hunters cling to and staunchly defend. It’s also a method of hunting that has been widely disparaged, prompting Georgia deer-doggers to partner with DNR in crafting a set of regulations unique to the sport, a sort of give-and-take that has been a model for other Deep South states that allow this type of chase.
Among the provisions are required acquisition of permits from Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division; land-tract size consisting of 1,000 contiguous acres, originally, which was later reduced to 250; and a proviso that all dogs and vehicles used to hunt deer on that property must have permit numbers.
As I ride with Cowpen Branch club president Greg Burns—who has held that title since the club was founded 23 years ago—he cites that last requirement as especially beneficial in dealing with potential problems.
“The biggest headache any hunting club like this has is that sometimes one or two surrounding landowners will get upset that dogs are running on their property or somebody is shooting at deer on their land without permission,” Greg said. “Cowpen Branch has a really good relationship with folks around here. I get to know them personally, give them my cell number and tell them to call me any time they think there’s a problem with our folks. I’ve had that happen just a couple of times, and I call or go to their homes as soon as I can get there. I remind them to just look for the truck sticker, which will immediately identify Cowpen Branch and the member.
“We’ve found every time that the problem wasn’t with our guys. We have a good group of hunters that know the rules and bend over backward to live up to them.”
It is a good group, as I can attest after having hung out with them on this all-day hunt. Top-notch hounds, too. I happen to be of the opinion that any kind of hunting is better when a dog is involved. Watching them work—from rabbits to squirrels to hogs to coons to bears to deer—enhances any trip. This one would be no different.
It’s a couple hours (at least) drive in the darkness from Dublin to the club’s camphouse near Springfield. I saw a pre-dawn deer—there’s always one—standing on asphalt on her side of the yellow line somewhere east of Oliver, but fortunately for both of us she didn’t change lanes.
Greg and I had agreed on a 7 a.m. meeting, and at 6:30 I was instructed by Ms. GPS to turn off a county-maintained road onto a dirt road, which a mile later led to another gravel-top. At 6:45, she intoned, “Arrived.” Forty thousand trees and no turnoffs in sight said otherwise; a quarter-mile on down the road was the final dirt road I was looking for. So now you know what kind of place we’re dealing with: a total of 4,000 acres just west of the middle of nowhere. Perfect.
The first giveaway that I’m in the right place is a lazy, shifting cloud of campfire smoke. What hunting club doesn’t build a gray-day campfire? There’s a single bulb burning under a pole barn shelter as a few of Cowpen Branch’s 21 members begin to gather. The first one I meet upon stepping into the mist brings that word “tradition” flooding back. His name is Cecil Fulwood. He’s ready to get this hunt started, displaying his impatience and wondering what the holdup is.
He’s also 90 years old. A hand-carved wooden cane is the only giveaway to his age, but if he ever used it for any purpose other than making a point as he recalled hunts of years past, I never saw it.
If you’ve ever wondered about how this deer-dogging business works, let’s pass up the meeting and greeting and small talk and get down to it.
The first order is to select the “square” of land to be hunted. Several factors go into this consideration, among them number of hunters present as it pertains to size of the square, so there’s enough room to go around; recent hunting pressure; whether or not neighboring clubs are also running dogs, so as not to disturb their hunt, etc.
Cowpen Branch holds hunts with dogs only on Saturdays and holidays during the season. They’ll run the entire weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Otherwise, it’s still-hunting and stand-hunting only during the week.
Now, who goes where in the selected square?
There’s a roughly 2-foot-by-2-foot piece of plywood nailed up under the shelter, and from its pegs hang numbered brass circles about the size of a silver dollar. These are taken down, one for each hunter present, and placed into an upturned cap. Hunters reach in and pick one, and from there, lowest number to highest, select the stand they want to hunt.
So we may be loosing the dogs in Lee Square, No-Name Square, House Square or a dozen others. And stands? The Dip, Washout Dip, The Funnel, Frank Graham Stand, Cathead, Lonely Pine, Gut Pile (stand downwind and you’ll understand) and Mister Cecil’s favorite, The Cedar Tree Stand. It comes equipped with an old boat’s padded swivel seat with the pedestal mounted on a stump—right beside a cedar tree.
With the square and all stands selected, trucks begin to roll, excited hounds baying from their boxes. When everyone is in place, the radio signal will go out to turn loose. But make no mistake; this is deer hunting. Whatever rules we hunters put in place are not likely to be followed by the bucks.
As Greg and I set up, we planned to spread out roughly 150 yards down a long, lonesome woods road. Likely a half-dozen pickups have come by us, winding their way through the gray gloom. Mere minutes in, before the hunt has even started, I happen to glance back the way we came—and pick up movement about 200 yards distant.
The big buck is as chocolate-dark as any I’ve ever seen. My first thought, truly, is “moose.” His legs are long and ungainly like one, and he’s equally as dark, the white on the insides of those legs fairly shining. With the old Model 70, I could pick a fly off his ear—but this deer dogging is shotgun only. The Beretta in my hands might as well be a BB gun.
I’m curious, though, why the stander back up the road hasn’t commenced firing as I alert Greg.
“I told him to stay on the road, but just as we were leaving somebody reminded him that a buck was killed last week just down in the branch there, and that’s where he went,” he replied with a rueful grin. That little trip cost one Cowpen member, who never even saw him, a mighty impressive buck. Greg had turned his dogs out, and they had gone directly to the spot the deer entered the heavy cover. He told me later in the week that a hunter on a neighboring club killed a big, chocolate-colored 8-pointer ahead of the dogs.
That’s the way it goes.
The morning passes with races this way and that, but with the incredibly thick cover, when noon arrives we’re deer-less—except for what’s swimming in gravy in the fantastic stew Greg’s wife Tammi prepared for the crowd.
On our first afternoon stand, I’m set up on another long, ruler-straight dirt lane but notice a fairly open creek bottom 30 yards in front. Old habits kick in and Greg smiles, “Go ahead,” so I ease down to the bank and stand in head-high greenery, feeling right at home, as dogs open in the distance.
When this happens, please don’t fool yourself into thinking that whitetails go bouncing off trees like overcharged pinballs. One of their favorite tricks is to ease just to the side of the dogs, then double back. If the hounds group, or pack, up, they can usually drive the deer to standers. If a lone dog gets the scent and has no help, the deer may be in the next county—or snug back in its bed—within minutes as the chaser tries to work out the trail.
A whitetail may be concerned about the dog behind it, but you can also be certain that it’s constantly checking for danger ahead, as only a whitetail can do, while making its escape. That’s precisely what the one sneaking up the creek had in mind.
Greg had seen the deer when it came off a nearby rise, but it was too far for a shot. It made its way into the water and was walking in the creek itself—right at me. A load of 00 from the Beretta 12 dropped it like an anvil, and we had our first deer. And it suddenly dawned upon me that this was only my second deer taken with a scattergun. The other was my first ever—40 years ago less a single day!
From there, the action picked up, though there’s seldom a dull moment in this type of hunting. Cowpen’s Bubba Rahn took a nice 7-pointer not long after, echoing my sentiments exactly by saying, “I believe in still and I believe in quiet when I’m deer hunting, dogs or no dogs!”
Bubba’s buck was slipping past at less than 25 yards. He sensed something out of place but couldn’t pick the hunter—seated on a folding stool by a tree—out in time. You can’t overstress still, cover and quiet.
The following week, Cowpen’s Kurt Graham took a heavy-horned 11-pointer, one of the club’s best, ahead of the dogs. That deer weighed 185 pounds. There are 21 members this year, down from a high of 40 and up from a low of 15. On average, 40 to 50 whitetails a year are taken—this off 4,000 acres, remember—with each member allowed a doe apiece.
Greg says that Cowpen members “hardly ever kill a 130-class buck.”
But the holidays are just ahead, and deer hunters’ dreams always turn to that elusive old monarch of the swamps that has evaded the hounds for years. Maybe, just maybe, this is its time…
Those dreams, like dogging deer itself, are long-standing traditions.