It was late January, 2016 as I stepped out of my truck and unloaded my Artic Cat 4-wheeler to head deep into the Wilkinson County river swamp in hopes of stalking a hog since deer season was out.
I was given permission to hunt this piece of property that had just changed hands in a land deal. I knew this area very well because I hunted the property next door for many years several years back.
I have learned the best way to educate yourself on a new piece of property is to first learn its boundaries, and then to put in the effort and time to walk it and scout it out. In my opinion, there is no better way to do this than combining a hog hunt with a scouting trip this time of year.
As luck would have it, I got on a group of hogs fairly quickly after hearing one squeal. I closed the distance, and as I got closer to the group of hogs, I checked the wind and loaded an arrow.
I was able to get within 25 yards of a big sow with several shoats as she had her head buried in the leaves looking for the last few acorns that were left behind from the previous fall’s mast crop. I drew my bow and let the arrow fly. She bolted, and the smaller hogs scattered from her squeal. I walked over and picked up my arrow, and since she was quartered to me a little, my arrow exited farther back than I wanted. I waited about 30 minutes before taking up the track.
Little did I know at the time that this tracking job would take me to a spot that would start me on a two-year quest for a wise old buck—a true swamp donkey.
I was taking my time and moving from blood sign to blood sign as I came upon an old oxbow lake just off the river. The oxbow lake was full that time of year, and it basically forced the hog to either follow a high bluff around the oxbow lake or jump and swim. I will never forget when I looked up from the hog’s blood trail that went into the cane thicket and first saw that huge rub, and then another, and another… all in a line, and all as big as my thigh!
It was hard to concentrate on my tracking job, but as luck would have it my hog was laying dead not far past the last rub. I took my I phone out and searched for the Hunt Stand app and pulled up my spot and marked it, and then I screen shot it.
It was a long drag to get the hog to a point I could drive to pick it up with my 4-wheeler. As you can imagine, a thousand questions were running through my mind, mainly was the buck that made that sign still alive?
Had I stumbled into his core area? Was he living on the island created by the oxbow lake, or was that high bluff his bedding spot to be able to see or hear anything approaching his hiding or bedding spot? Or was this simply a travel corridor used on his daily routine.
I spent the next several months studying the area and topo maps and strategies of how to hunt this buck in hopes he was still alive. You never know what kind of head gear a buck is carrying just by looking at big rubs, but it was more than obvious this was a very mature buck.
For those of you who know me or have read my articles over the years, you know that I don’t use trail cameras. I don’t have a thing against them and have lots of fellow hunters who swear by them. I am just old school and trust my woodsmanship and scouting, which in my opinion is becoming a lost trait and skill. Big, mature rutting bucks are very unpredictable and will travel miles from their core area during the rut.
Now let’s fast forward to the fall of 2016, which was as dry as I have ever seen it for that time of the year. But on a good note, I was able to walk anywhere in and around the oxbow lake and the island created by it because it was bone dry. However, regardless of the oxbow funnel being gone, the buck—or a buck—was again using the big rubs on the high bluff above the dry oxbow.
I hunted the buck on the high bluff several times, and although I saw plenty of deer, I never saw a buck that I felt was making those rubs. I knew with the oxbow lake being dry that any animal or buck could cross it anywhere and was not being forced around the high bluff due to the water level.
I continued to study the area and would hunt different spots around the dry oxbow lake in hopes of getting a look or a shot at this buck leaving the big sign. I hunted as much as I dared without over-hunting the area, but I never saw the buck I felt was capable of making that sign.
The summer of 2017 was totally opposite from the previous dry summer. Much timber had been harvested off the property, and volunteer pokeberry was growing everywhere in the new clearcuts. I drove to the property in late July early one morning in hopes to catch some hogs rooting in the new clearcuts at daylight. Although I did not see any hogs, I did see a bachelor group of seven bucks feeding on the pokeberry leaves, and one was a toad!
This made me ask myself the question… is that the buck that was making the big rubs? Even at several hundred yards and in full velvet I could see he had lots of mass and looked like a 10-point. He was obviously way bigger than any of the other bucks in the group. Although a lot of timber had been harvested on the property, the area around the oxbow lake had not been disturbed. I decided right then and there that I would make one scouting trip in mid October to check the water level in the oxbow lake, and see if any of the rubs had been freshened up, or if any new rubs were present. I decided I would do this when it was raining, so as not to leave any scent and to disturb the area as little as possible. Then my plan was to not dare go back in there until the time and conditions were right.
The oxbow lake was full of water, and I found a fresh huge rub on a willow tree on the high bluff of the river at the back of the oxbow lake. This would be my ambush point where the water would create a natural pinch point. Any animal would be forced by my ambush point—or jump in the oxbow from a height of 10 feet and swim across.
If you ever ask me when is the best time to hunt in my area here in central Georgia, or if I could only hunt one week out of the year, I will take the last week of October every time.
Bucks are on their feet and cruising and seem to respond to rattling the best this week. I told my son Josh that my plans were to get up very early on Friday the 27th and go hunt “Oxbow,” which was the name I had given this buck—a name for a buck that I did not even know for sure existed.
My plans were to sit until 11 or 11:30 a.m., and make it back to work by 1 p.m. It takes some effort to get to this spot, it’s a 35-minute truck ride, then a 15-minute 4-wheeler ride, and then a 15-minute walk and then climb with my stand. I parked the 4-wheeler, grabbed my bow and my fanny pack and my Lonewolf climber, and headed to the tree I had picked out almost two weeks prior. I got settled in and took out my Voo-Doo deer lure and broadcast it 365 degrees around my stand. As daylight broke, it was not long before I heard the sound of an approaching deer. It turned out to be a spike, but the route he took proved the deer were walking the bluff to avoid having to jump and swim.
At 9 a.m. another buck came down the same trail, and it was a young 8-point. I remember thinking, ‘At least they are getting bigger.’ I also noticed that both bucks were going to the island created by the oxbow lake to bed down.
At 10:30 I had not seen another deer, so I took out my antlers and decided to rattle and grunt. At 10:45 I was looking at my watch and convincing myself to sit there until 11:30, which in reality was only 10:30 because the time had not changed back yet. I don’t know if he was bedded close by and heard me rattle, or whether he was just traveling, but I glanced to my right and saw him slipping toward me through the river cane. With the sunlight shinning off his antlers, there was no doubt he was a shooter! I grabbed my PSE Carbon Air bow and stood up to get ready to shoot. He was closing the distance fast, so I went ahead and drew back as he went behind a huge popular tree, and when his head came out behind that tree at 20 yards, I felt the wind change and hit me in the back of the neck.
He immediately froze with all his vitals behind the tree, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, you are less than 20 yards, unless you bolt, and run I’m going to get a shot.’
He stood motionless for what seemed like forever, in fact to the point I was getting arm fatigue and had to let down. Now it’s a waiting game. As soon as he moves, I will draw back again. Well he did move, but he only turned around and froze again. I could see his butt and his head, but all his vitals were still behind that big popular tree, and I am at full draw again and waiting.
He finally takes several quick steps to go back the way he came from and exposed his vitals quartered away at about 25 yards. I settled the pin on his last rib while aiming for the opposite shoulder and let the 165-grain Bipolar broadhead fly.
The deer lunged forward at the shot, and my heart sank as my eyes in real time told me the shot was way low and back. In fact, it looked like I had hit the buck just above his left tarsal gland and fractured his leg. I watched his left rear leg dangling, and it sounded like he was crashing into everything for more than a hundred yards. Then all got quiet. I was sick to my stomach as I replayed the shot over and over in my head.
I got down quickly to go check my arrow and make a decision as to what to do next. I walked over and found my arrow and could not believe what I saw. It was obvious that the shot was much better and higher than I what my eyes had told me in real time. I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know how far you have gone, but you are dead! I immediately called my son Josh and told him I just shot Oxbow. I told him I needed to give him some time, and that just to be safe I was going to call Mike Lopez and his tracking dog and see if he was available to come later that afternoon and track. I gathered up all my gear and got out of there wanting to give the buck plenty of time. You know the old saying, when in doubt back out.
After talking to Mike, it was decided to wait until around 5 p.m. and get on the track. It was like Mike and I agreed on, if he is dead now, he will still be dead at 5 p.m. This would give the buck six full hours to expire, if needed.
As anyone that has been in this situation knows, it is the suspense of the waiting game and not knowing for sure the outcome that makes the emotional roller coaster of bowhunting the rewarding sport it is. Josh and I met Mike and his dogs and took them to the point of impact at the oxbow lake.
I remember Mike saying, “Geez…. you put some effort in getting back in here.”
It was reassuring when he saw the sign at the point of impact and said he could not have gone very far with that shot. Mike and Josh both had a GPS on a different dog, and I brought up the rear just looking for sign with my eyes. The sign was heavy and constant by my eyes, confirming that the dogs were right on his track. It was a big help that the buck was traveling the whole time through a dense privet thicket where little sunlight could reach the ground, and this kept the blood trail preserved. After a short track Mike said as he looked at his GPS tracker, the dogs have found your buck! We double timed it to their location, and after an emotional recovery and several hugs and high fives, I wanted to see where the buck was hit. Apparently, the shot was a little farther back but not low. The 165-grain Bipolar had entered the buck’s left ham at the brown-white hairline half way up the ham and had exited at the second to last rib on his opposite side. It broke the femur bone in the ham in half and basically zipped him open several inches at the exit point. It made sense to me then that the buck had bolted forward at the shot and caused the impact to be farther back than where I was aiming. We took a few photos and took time to thank the man upstairs. We then had a nice long drag to the closest logging road to load up the buck and take him home.
The Quest for Oxbow was over.
After the required drying period, I had Oxbow scored by Mr. George Steele, who is a well-respected official measurer and retired state biologist. Oxbow grossed 129 7/8 inches and netted 126 3/8, qualifying him for Pope & Young. His mass is what carried him. Of all the bucks I have seen come through my shop in over 35-plus years, this one’s jawbone had the most wear I have personally ever seen. He was a true Old Swamp Donkey.