In the nightmare, terror is just behind and gaining. Big, eight-ball black and much too close, the roaring mass with teeth and jaws popping and claws swiping, steadily closes the distance. There’s seemingly no escape: attempting to run—even for your life—as if in deep water is a dire, daunting, even hopeless task. The only hope is to awaken.
Trouble is, this is no dream. I happen to be hyperalert, adrenaline skyrocketing, heart pounding in my ears.
Neck-deep in Surveyor’s Creek, handgun lofted high overhead and lungs heaving, my waterlogged legs do their best to churn TOWARD a thunderous battle raging deep in the mid-morning gloom of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Right you are: I’m doing the chasing…
You want a real nightmare? That would be the morning of July 14, 2017, when the phone call came. William Jackson Carter lay down the night before and never woke up.
I couldn’t process it then, and I still can’t process it more than a year later. This is a guy who went to South Vietnam on New Year’s Day and got blown up on Easter Sunday. Wrangled with doctors on several continents who told him he’d die unless they amputated a shrapnel-shredded leg. (He was buried with it, by the way, some 40 years later…) Caught gators and boars and snakes, killed quarter-ton bears in the swamp, and the list goes on and on. Taught me reams of information about the Okefenokee and its inhabitants. And how to bear hunt.
Jackie Carter was, and remains, a very large legend. We hunted swamp bears for exactly 30 years and were looking forward to 31 like 5-year-olds to Christmas.
Perhaps the hardest part was that Jackie was that rarest of commodities: a true friend. I wrote of him in my first book, Rabbit Stompin’, and that may well be my favorite piece of all time. The accompanying photo certainly is. And I’ve said before that if forced to give up all but one of my hunting and fishing ventures, Okefenokee bear hunting is the one I’d hang on to. But it was all too obvious that terrible July morning that things would never be the same again.
This particular pilgrimage is a fraternal thing, a brotherhood of sorts. The hunters here are unique. It’s not deer camp or opening-day dove shoots. Hours of semi-boredom are interspersed with periods of such all-out adrenaline bursts that one has to remind oneself it is exactly at times like this that heart attacks strike. More than once I’ve collapsed in swamp mire and literally forced myself to breathe at a reasonable rate before resuming the chase. I have seen “simple” once in 31 years: a 400-plus pound bear walked across a swamp road in front of a hunter’s truck, then treed.
But mostly, mind-numbing exertion is required. It is always bloody, many times dangerous and while certainly not for everyone, boundlessly addictive where I’m concerned.
And should you question the brotherhood bit, be advised
that it’s what this story is all about.
Don Butts is a big-hearted guy I met at Jackie’s home many years ago. We hit it off immediately, and I rode with him the first day of our six-day (back then) hunt. Don had my kind of truck: large and 4-wheel drive, i.e., the last to get stuck in the swamp. We saw each other several times since, and when news of Jackie’s death got around, Don called me out of the blue.
“Didn’t know if you had a place to bear hunt this fall and wanted to invite you down, “he said.
Despite the fact that I make my living with words, it’s hard to explain how much that meant to me. At the time, I didn’t know if I would even care to bear hunt again. True friendships run extremely deep with me. No Jackie? How do we even do this?
But there’s also the fact that one doesn’t just hike off to the Okefenokee and set himself up to hunt. Berths with these boys are like platinum-plated gold nuggets. There’s a certain number of bears, and despite the vast acreage of the government-controlled swamp itself, a certain (very limited) amount of bordering land to hunt them on. I quickly realized that if I had been looking for a definition of friendship, it was right in front of me.
All my bear hunting, south of Ontario, had been on the eastern side of the Okefenokee, ranging over the years up and down Trail Ridge from just north of Folkston to the southern end of Laura Walker Park near Waycross.
Don’s piece of this damp, dark paradise consists of 7,653 acres starting 9 miles southeast of Homerville on the swamp’s western side. I’d never seen it, but after about 10 minutes, I was in love all over again.
The hunt itself lays out like this: blocks are checked to see if bear tracks go in and don’t come out, and if the tracks say the bear is not a sow with cub(s) and big enough to hunt, hunters with hounds begin to surround the block. Yes, we’re running bear with dogs. No bait piles, no elevated stands, no waiting to be able to pick and choose the perfect animal from among many ambling by. The bear will be running, fighting, climbing or a combination of the three. Or, you may hear a dog handler with GPS say something like, “They’re a’walkin’ him.”
That means the (usually large!) bear is sauntering a ways, then stopping to do his best to rip and tear anything he can get teeth or claws into. He’s not scared enough of the pack to climb but bad enough to kill the whole bunch. When they’re a’walkin’ him, play time is over. So let’s get right down to it.
Don and I, along with several others, have gone to the opposite side of the block from the handlers. We will be lining up along a dirt road deep in the swamp, attempting to head the bear off as it streaks for the federal reserve. Okefenokee bears are a lot of things, but few classify as stupid. When they hear dogs, they head for the sanctuary where we can’t follow. Go in there with a gun after a bear and you’re looking at prison time. Some years there’s a huge crop of palmetto berries, a favorite food, in the reserve, and the animals don’t cross the line to our side much at all. This was one of those years, so we knew right off what we were up against.
To that end, the night before I made the conscious decision to shoot. There would be no time the next day; going in with a mixed mind set meant no shot at all. It’s either yes or no. Again, this is not a deer hunt; it is frenetic action; nothing is going to strike a pose. For example…
As we pass by two trucks parked bumper to tailgate on the way down to our spot, Don stops to warn the talking hunters to be ready, that dogs are about to drop out of the box. They nod, and we roll another 400 yards.
I get out, load and stride rather hurriedly another hundred. Don is listening to the radio, waiting for
everyone to get into position and the hounds to hit the dirt. With his door open, the truck’s interior and parking lights are on. (It’s the Okefenokee; it’s dark here; you notice these things.) Looking back up toward him, I notice that neither the two trucks nor the hunters have moved. Minutes later, the dogs open with a roar—and a big bowling ball of bear whirls across the road 30 yards behind that last truck.
Blown opportunity, right out of the gate.
Two minutes later, the hair on the back of my neck jumps to attention. I don’t know why, except for the fact that I’ve hunted for half a century and sometimes these things happen. On full alert, I glance toward Don; a small bear sticks his head out of the scrub between us, facing the truck, then pops back in full retreat. Never knew I was there, but instantly sized up as too small to shoot at any rate.
The same feeling moves me to my left, on down the road away from the pickup, and inexplicably the rifle is raised and in position before I even realize it. A bear—and for sure not the one I just saw—barrels full-blast into the open 40 yards out, sails over the ditch and with two bounds is in the road. Between bounds, I stick a 165-grain Silvertip a little too far forward and into the shoulder, rolling it into the ditch on the far side.
It’s up in a flash, and as the gun rumbles, tumbles again. Finally, up and gone into the boiler-plate blackness of the swamp. But I know it’s not going far. Neither, for at least a couple of minutes, am I. Coronary thrombosis missed a golden opportunity right there.
When the shooting started, big Don rolled out of the truck like a waterfall and, unbeknownst to me, saw what was probably the small bear run right behind me. That’s the way it goes; you may not see a bear for three days or three in three minutes.
Hunting, I believe it’s called.
But all that mattered now was that I had a wounded bear on my hands. Replaying it, I probably shot as if at a running deer, obviously considerably faster than a running bear. On the other hand, I’ve seen a heckuva lot more running deer than bears moving at any pace. This thing may be lying dead 50 feet or 500 yards in, or semi-upright and madder’n a million hornets anywhere in-between.
Knowing things were about to get extremely damp, I put away the rifle and emptied my pockets except for a fresh handful of rounds for the big handgun. Dogs arrived, were put on the track and immediately opened. I looked at veteran hunter/dog handler K.R. Fulford, who said with a grin, “There’s your bear; let’s go get him.”
Starting in on the track is when it nearly overwhelmed me. Thirty years don’t simply wash that easily down the drain. I missed Jackie Carter more in that instant than at any time before or since. I’d catch tears streaming down, then laugh aloud remembering that I hadn’t put on a jacket to keep the sharp stuff at bay and was bleeding like a stuck pig. Jackie would have cackled. I thought about the graciousness of a true gentleman like Don Butts, without whom none of this would be happening.
At times I could hear the dogs’ shrieks and bellows, their quarry snapping and popping. Splashing, always splashing. K.R., up ahead, loves it like I do, and even though I only met him that morning, a bond was already in place. Other old hands across the swamp came to mind: Jackie’s father Alton, who started it all; cousins Wiley and Larry Carter, A.C. Darden, Raymond Skinner… and the closest and next best thing to the man himself: Jackie’s nephew Quintin. I recalled all the years he moved silently at Jackie’s side, soaking up every lesson without fail. That boy will do to take along; last time I saw him was at the funeral, and that ain’t right. He still hunts on the other side of the swamp, where his wife killed a 601-pounder, but I was wishing he, too, was here.
There’s no explaining all this except for the fact that my mind was racing even while the rest of me was forced to flail along in agonizingly slow motion.
And then I hit the creek.
Surveyor’s Creek was a lot more than a mere swamp trickle, and every degree as cold as it wanted to be. There was no getting around it, no holding back and no slowing down, because this was my bear, and we were all in for the final showdown at this point. Hoisting the magnum overhead, I waded up to my chin in places. Old hand Danny Hinson’s son Hunter was right behind me all the way, and I’m not sure I didn’t hear him sputter a time or two. A new thought presented itself: if I happen to see—or, even worse, feel—a big Oke gator, there’s going to be a sudden piercing explosion, and we’ll work it all out with the game warden later.
There’s no way to say how far we went in that creek, or how long it took. Struggling to find solid footing; hoisting yourself along on overhanging branches, praying they’re not bamboo-wrapped; hoping against hope that the dogs can hang on and pin the bear down until we get there.
The only feelings I can truly recall were the highest of natural highs attainable, along with the most dogged determination I could muster in order to reach the little rise where the bear finally bayed up. Honestly, if things in the hunting world come any better than this, I’d be scared to try ’em; and if they were easier to obtain, they couldn’t pass muster.
One last lurch at a limb, and solid ground at last. There they are. A final shot, ridiculously loud, and it’s over.
No Super Bowl celebration; it’s not about that. Reverence mostly. Above all, I want to put my hands on it; to sit on the black mud, boots in the creek, and cradle the big head. This bear is just so, so very special.
What had sounded like a rock concert minutes ago was transformed into a cathedral of silence and drifting swamp mist. I remember only K.R.’s pat on the back and solemn, “That’s a good bear; earned that one.”
The highest of praise.
Since nobody thought to pack along a helicopter, it was now time to drag the thing out of here. The trick is to get a 4-wheeler as close as possible, then work to it. Hunter’s brother Houston made his way in to help, and in shifts we eventually managed to drag/float our way back. And their dad Danny, as experienced as they come, was gracious enough to handle the skinning and dressing at the end.
Maybe the proudest guy of all was Don Butts. He’s killed his bears, knew Jackie like I did and alone realized some of what this meant to me. Special kind of fella to provide such a moment. And even more so to allow me to bring my son Dylan, bit by the same bug as his dad, back the next weekend.
Should you require all the statistical particulars, know that there were four bears taken off the property last year. As always, we took this one to the DNR check station in Fargo, where it weighed in at 227 pounds. They come bigger and smaller, but none more cherished.
The skull, cleaned to its natural brilliance thanks to David Sams at Trail’s End, rests on my mantle, where I see it every day; stew, burger and cubed meat are in the freezer. Steaks were gone the first week I got ’em back. If you had to ask yourself if bear is actually edible, you should see the steaks on my grill. They don’t last long at my house.
Thanks for tagging along. I realize this kind of hunting is not for everybody. And you know what? I’m glad…