Only the rain never let up, and with the radar showing no end in sight we hightailed it out, soaking wet after a couple of hours.
Instead of waiting out the rain in boredom, my fiancee joined me on a tough, rainy trail run through the muddy paths of Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge. I was wearing myself out, not knowing of the true test of my fitness that was yet to come.
With just a few scattered showers left, we decided to make a quick evening hunt. The bridge we were crossing was still above the water line of Bayou Cocodrie. Even with all the rain, the bayou had only risen 1 foot in the five hours since when we had left that morning.
While crossing the bridge, my brother ended up falling through a small hole in the beams, getting stuck for several minutes as water was seeping up through holes of the bridge. I took a picture of the funny incident, sending it to Zack's wife saying he might not make it home.
As we were laughing to ourselves about the scene, little did we know, the strong current underneath the bridge had already set in motion a process of ultimate destruction.
I had previously crossed the bridge barefooted on the opening week of bow season while it was slightly submerged. I thought that even if the water rose a bit more we could do the same. This was a bridge used by 18-wheelers and heavy log-cutting vehicles. As if we had anything to worry about.
I dropped off my brother and proceeded to my location 1.6 miles in, where I hunted that morning near the corner of one of many overgrown select cuts. I had confidence in this spot because on the previous week for bucks-only I noticed many fresh scrapes and videoed a doe within 20 yards of me for 13 minutes.
Figuring I had better odds by perching in the tree tops rather than sitting on the ground with no rain gear on, I decided to get wet again and climb. While setting up my stand, a doe came sprinting past. I instantly clicked on my camera and picked up the rifle, waiting for the pursuing buck.
Unfortunately, the buck was not what I was looking for, as a spike came trotting through about 40 yards off. I grunted him in to within 20 yards, and then he eased off, tailing the doe.
I texted my brother, "Get ready: the deer are chasing." He asked why I didn't take out the buck. I replied, "I have a feeling big boy is on the way."
The conditions were right, and I didn't want to burn my second buck tag on a small one.
After settling in and seeing another deer off in the distance, I knew deer were moving after the morning's hard rain. The rain did not let up for the first hour of the hunt, but even though I was getting wet, I knew getting in my tree was a good idea.
An hour later I tried my rattle bag. Within a few seconds, I saw big, tall, white horns coming my direction out of the select cut. My heart was in my throat.
I turned on my camera just in time to capture just as he got to the trail where the doe sprinted through earlier. I didn't want to take any chances in the thick woods he was approaching. With the deer stopped in an opening, I took the tough quartering-forward shot.
The buck was struck well, but it hobbled on, so I put a few finishing rounds in him. I don't celebrate until the deer's horns ceases to move. And when those horns were finally motionless, I couldn't climb down that tree fast enough to get an up-close view of this tall buck, which I had seen throughout the bow-hunting season.
The rush was like no other, but the joy faded quickly as I realized I had quite the task at hand upon me: The logging road I walked in on was flooded with a few inches of rain and soft mud.
I got Zack to head toward the truck for the cart and meet me back on the drag. I made the pull nearly one mile solo, seeing an even bigger buck chasing after a doe through the select cut — but as it got dark my brother was nowhere to be found.
Finally, Zack approached but without a cart. He wasn't able to get the cart because the bridge was gone. Not submerged, but GONE.
Another hunter on the opposite side of the bayou told my brother he saw the huge bridge logs floating down the bayou while he was hunting next to the water. Suddenly, the joke I sent Zack's wife from the stand at the hunt's start was becoming truer by the minute. I thought, "Sarah surely won't be happy with me," as Zack said he just gave her a call saying he was really stuck in the woods.
I wasn't overly worried because I thought we'd just drag the deer and gear to the water edge, make a quick and easy swim across, and come back with a pirogue.
Nothing ever goes as easily as planned.
As we were dragging the deer along the watery road, we both took our share of falls pulling on this 105-inch, 190-pound buck — getting wet boots besides the already wet clothes from the drizzily hunt.
We made it to the water, but the once gentle, 10-yard-wide bayou was now a 40-yard-wide raging river.
When dragging a big buck out of the woods, you don't realize how cold it really is until you stop and feel that 20 mph gust of wind from the oncoming cold front hit you. Waiting around for help while wet, cold and hypothermic, was not my first option. I made it in; I was making it out.
My brother, who had several hip surgeries and busted knees from playing quarterback at the college level, was in no condition to swim, much less battle these rapids. As an undersized true freshman with an arm like a cannon, he started for Nicholls State University running the triple option. The hits I'd seen him take from huge 300-pound defensive lineman hurt just to watch.
I, on the other hand, as a personal trainer and excellent sprint swimmer, thought it would be doable. I had swum across many bayous in the winter, retrieving ducks and game or just for the sheer challenge. Cold water doesn't scare me; nothing does.
Our ritual back in high school cross country was to go swim across Cane River in Natchitoches after the state meet every year in November. We were the only school in the state to do this crazy act, as a bunch of runners from the swamp will do the dumbest things for celebration.
My first attempt across this bayou was like a punch in the chin by a heavyweight boxer; I couldn't even make it halfway before the current spit me back into the trees and brambles. This was no pool using goggles in motionless water. The bayou had more ferocity than anything I had ever faced, and I had to do it with a headlight on while holding our only truck key.
Now, I was really cold. I talked with Zack and used a Bear Grylls-style approach he had seen on "Man vs. Wild." TV Shows like these can really help you.
I stripped down to nothing more than undies to create less drag, walked a ways down to a better location —plunging in for a second time using a better angle and a body swiveling method. Halfway through, it felt as though I was swimming in place even though I was going full throttle. It was the longest few seconds of my life, and I was barely able to reach the branches of the other side, as my body was not only burning from lactic acid but being ripped by something.
I realized I was holding onto the branches of a honeysuckle tree. Those are the trees with several inch-long razor-sharp thorns on the bark; but holding onto anything on the opposite side of the bayou, even if it was sharp thorns, was a blessing.
Then, to make it worse, green briar was growing all through the flooded bank. These have the sharp orange thorns on the tough green vines that don't break.
I made it to the truck, bleeding and freezing, but I accomplished my mission and knew the worst was over. I showed up at the camp with over 30 long scratches all over me in wet underwear. My fiancee was expecting to see a big buck, not a wounded hunter looking like he got in a fight with a mountain lion.
An hour later, after rounding up my buddy's pirogue and Laura back at the camp, I paddled out my cold brother, gear and buck. Zack ended up using layers of mud to keep warm on the long hour wait because all the clothes were wet.
I joked, "You look like Dutch trying to avoid the Predator," to lighten the mood. Dutch is Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in quite possibly the coolest sci-fi action flick of all time — "Predator."
A nice game warden came to check us and enjoyed hearing our story of a truly hard-earned buck.
When it comes to getting nice bucks, some guys have all the luck hunting close locations and waiting only a few hours. I, on the other hand, have never had such luck and all my racks have come through some of the toughest trials and tribulations.
It had been over 240 hunts since I last downed a nice buck in October of 2010, even though I had hunted countless hours and hiked marathons of miles. In the end, it was worth every drop of the blood and sweat it took to get my hands on those horns.
But I no longer have the desire to EVER go whitewater rafting.