Mastering Marsh Deer

South Louisiana has the toughest terrain in existence for harvesting whitetails, but there are ways to up the odds substantially in your favor.

“Not bad for a marsh buck!”

How many times had I heard those words?

Now, here I was looking at a buck that was more than “not bad.” He would score 130 B&C if I could put a ¼-inch flexible steel tape measure on him.

I spotted him immediately when he boldly — no, majestically — strutted out of the thick myrtles. I had been watching several does picking over the sparse remnants of marsh cowpeas, long spent from the early December frosts.

The frosts had also knocked down the once tall flag and cut grasses interspersed with bull tongue and peavine that make it nearly impossible to spot deer in the vastness of the marsh. Now, those deer stood out like cows in a pasture — a pea pasture — nearly 300 yards away.

Had it been a few weeks earlier, I’d have never saw him. The grass would have been too high. I was hoping he’d feed toward me like the does were doing.

There’s something peaceful about sitting in the marsh, where the temperature is just a tad above a goose-bump shiver. As you breathe, the chilled air in your lungs dissipates a smoky vapor upon each exhale. It always reminded me of when I was a kid watching the Minnesota Vikings on television.

Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Jim Marshal and Alan Page would go into their three-point stances on the frozen tundra they called a football field. The smoky vapor rising above their helmets made them look invincible. I loved to go outside and force the air out of my lungs imitating them.

I couldn’t help but notice the deer in front of me exhaling the same smoky vapor. Why not? They were mammalian just like me. Only, I was looking at them with eyes located in the front of my head like the predator that I was. Theirs were set on the side of their heads providing almost 360-degree reactionary vision. Funny, the things you think of when sitting on a deer stand.

My set-up couldn’t have been better. The crisp morning breeze was in my face, and the morning sunrise was to my back. I wanted this buck. Lord, how I wanted this buck. I wanted him so bad I began to pray.

“Lord, now you know it’s been a long time since I killed a big buck. Let me take this one. Amen,” I said. Because I had my sweater cap on while I whispered my devotion, I wondered if it still counted.

Under normal circumstances, had I had a flat-shooting .270 or ought-6, this hunt would have been over. However, lying across my lap was a Mossberg 12-gauge pump with a 24-inch rifled barrel topped with a Leopold 1.75×4 shotgun scope.

Stoked with Hornady 300-grain SST sabot slugs, the whole rig was hardly a long-distance nail driver. But when you hunt a shotgun-only lease, you improvise as best as you can, only to still fall short sometimes.

I’d have to watch these deer for a while and hope the big buck would continue feeding toward me.

Louisiana coastal marshes and swamps are the hardest terrain to hunt of all the habitats across the U.S. where whitetails are found.

Having hunted the northern forests of Michigan, Midwestern farm fields and the rocky terrain of the Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico, I can attest that Louisiana marshes present the most difficult of challenges for consistently harvesting deer.

Though whitetail characteristics are similar everywhere, if you can master this terrain, you can go anywhere in the U.S. and be more successful hunting whitetails.

When friend and Patterson local Rhett Granier showed up on my doorstep New Year’s Day during the 2004-’05 season, asking me if I knew how to score a deer, I jumped at the chance. Granier’s buck measured 144-7/8.

Not only has Granier been able to overcome the obstacles of marsh hunting for whitetails, but he also has been able to parlay that experience into harvesting huge monarchs — mainly bowhunting.

“One of the problems with the marsh being so thick is that it’s hard to know what the buck-to-doe ratio is,” Granier said. “Rattling and some attracting scents don’t seem to work, because the buck-to-doe ratio isn’t like other areas where they manage for it.”

Granier does most of his bowhunting on the Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area, known simply by locals as the “refuge.” On the Delta, deer have an opportunity to grow trophy racks because it’s bowhunting only.

Outside of a couple of youth lottery gun hunting days offered during the season, deer don’t hear the boom of rifles. Bucks can reach the 2 1/2 to 4 years of age required to sport larger racks.

Granier looks for the same sign that most whitetail hunters look for, but says the success is in the set up once an area is found that looks promising.

“In the marsh, the sign indications that a deer leaves can be found on oak ridges and canal banks, but the No. 1 thing in harvesting a big marsh buck is a fresh set up,” he said. “You can’t beat a fresh set up because you don’t have any human scent. On a new set up, you’re coming in one time and that’s it.”

Granier also strategically places his fresh set ups in areas where he finds funnel locations.

“When I look for sign — tracks, rubs and scrapes — and I find what I’m looking for, I set up a pinch zone,” he said. “I’ll set up the pinch zone in an area I know they have to pass, because it forms a natural funnel.”

Because Granier prefers to bow hunt, he does hunt near rubs and scrapes but not right on top of them.

“I’ll give 20 yards when I’m hunting near rubs and scrapes,” he said, “or a little farther if they’re spread apart. I’ll try to get between them — say 20 or even 30 yards — but not on top of the scrape or rub.”

Though the buck I was looking at exposed himself like a yearling, it’s not the norm for these monster monarchs of the marsh. Actually, I had to give him credit. The early season hunting pressure had long passed, and the crowd overlooked this piece of marsh for the most part.

Moreover, I knew that the odds of seeing deer in the pea-patch they were feeding in were pretty good, since it adjoined the thick myrtle cover; a nice buck would eventually show himself.

Stephensville resident Noah Bergeron is another refuge bowhunter who utilizes the difficult terrain to his advantage.

“The marsh is so thick, and it’s floatant too,” he said. “You’d have to have an airboat to get out in it. I set up on edges of thick myrtle areas where there are intersecting deer crossings.”

Since there are no tall pine trees to utilize climbing or lean-to stands, most marsh gun-hunters utilize tripods — some as high as 20 feet in the air to see over the tall flag and cut grass. Like sugar cane, the grasses literally form a wall.

Gun hunters strategically try to place their stands where the marsh offers an opening. Others, where allowed, utilize airboats to break shooting lanes similar to what you would see in a right of way. Where airboats aren’t allowed, a good weed-eater works just as well, although not nearly as fun.

Bergeron utilizes the myrtles for concealment.

“Myrtles aren’t that tall, and neither is my stand,” he said. “I’ll put it right in the middle of them and utilize the lower branches to hide me.”

Bergeron also mentioned there isn’t any myrtle-style camouflage offered on the market; therefore, he utilizes more solid, dark patterns to break up his outline and silhouette.

All deer move to feed and procreate. Marsh hunters who keep this in mind will utilize this combination to their advantage when looking for big marsh bucks.

Does in heat are still going to feed during a buck’s most vulnerable time of life. Though the thickness of cover is a marsh hunter’s biggest obstacle, knowing the preferred food for the time of year is a key ingredient for success in overcoming it.

From late summer all the way through the first frosts in late November and early December, marsh cowpeas are a favorite for whitetails in the marsh. Marsh deer put on weight during this period from these legumes, and become butterball fat. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to cut layers of fat off choice cuts of venison in order for the meat not to have that tallow taste.

Local old-timers, who hunted the marsh, often use the phrase, “The deer are breaking the peas.” Actually, what the deer are doing is busting roads through the peavines that envelope and bow over the tall flag grass and roseau cane. A pea-patch in the marsh will have vain-like roads branching out in all directions as deer feed.

The hunter looking to outsmart a big marsh buck will strategically place his tall tri-pod stand where it intersects the travel route from thick cover to a patch where the deer are “breaking the peas.”

Another, favorite is acorns. Due to coastal erosion, hurricanes and saltwater intrusion, however, oak trees have been thinning over the past decade.

Canals that cut through the marsh typically have oak trees on some of their spoil banks. During the few weeks when acorns ripen and fall to the ground, deer will cut trails through the marsh to get to them. I’ve seen these beaten-down trails used so much they form a muddy road. There’s not a blade of grass left standing, and tracks fill every square inch of the path.

Find a live or water oak in the marsh heavy laden with mast, and you’ve found a place to consider placing a stand. You’ve also found a key location where a game-trail camera would be extremely effective in patterning deer movement and seeing what the local clientele looks like.

Bayou Vista resident Shane Wiggins has harvested several wall-hangers in the past decade. Wiggins knows that in order for hunters to harvest bigger bucks, they have to let them get through a few seasons first.

“You have to let the little stuff pass,” he said. “Our lease is an 8-point-or-better lease, and we let a lot of deer walk in order to shoot big ones. If you want some meat, shoot a doe, but you’ve got to let the smaller bucks pass and give them time to grow.”

The does had now moved to my far right, feeding toward some thick myrtles. I was sure they would bed down in that thick cover and chew their cuds until late afternoon. When I saw the buck putting it in gear to follow them, I worried that he was probably going to do the same thing. To my dismay, that’s exactly what he did.

I sat disgusted and praying again: “Now Lord, that ain’t right…”

Suddenly, I saw him again, and he was working toward me, weaving in and out of the cover that the myrtles offered him. At 150 yards, I raised my shotgun, and put my scope on where the neck met the front shoulder.

“Still too far,” I whispered to myself.

I was going to let him keep coming. I wasn’t confident in my ability to place the SST bullet where I wanted it. Though a technologically advanced load for a shotgun, I was still holding a shotgun.

As he weaved in and out of the myrtles, palmettos and patches of flag grass that wasn’t totally flat from frost yet, I looked ahead of him to see if there was a place that would offer a clear shot.

Finding a little spot where he had to pass, I positioned myself to where I’d be comfortable when I raised my shotgun to close the deal.

All that was left between the buck and my taxidermist was a patch of thick scrub maple trees surrounded by palmettos. He’d disappear into it for a brief few seconds, and come out the other side.

I raised my shotgun and waited … and waited … and, waited.

“No, Lord. Tell me it isn’t what I think it is.”

“Alright, don’t tell me!”

The big boy had stopped and bedded down in that thick patch of scrubby floatant mess approximately 125 yards away.

The good news is I had a year to plan for him. I’ll be set up in this monster monarch’s dining room this fall, and with his peas, I’ll be serving SSTs.

With any luck, I’ll be telling my taxidermist: “Not bad for a marsh buck, eh?”

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