Reminisces, Requim and Rites of Passage

One old-fashioned deer club is making sure the next generation understands and appreciates its history.

Cypress Grove Hunting Club is a throwback to the days of yesteryear, when there weren’t a lot of deer in the woods, and hunting clubs were large, extended family groups that passed memberships down like knightings. When a father died, a son took his place as permanent member. The associate member list might grow, but there were only so many permanent memberships allowed — as written in the original club charter. And the charter was written out generations before, by the forebears who formed the club, and were the original permanent members.

Such clubs are disappearing from our hunting society, and that is a great loss to us all in the hunting brotherhood because with them a great many traditions, skills and a lot of oral history will disappear. They taught many of us, the older generation of deer hunters, what we first learned of hunting. We learned the skills of killing, cleaning, preparing, even cooking deer.

We learned tracking, both with blood trails and with blood dogs, and we learned respect for the quarry, the traditions of the hunt and for the older members of our society who passed the skills down to us.

But many of us, reared in the traditions of these clubs, will not get to see our sons and daughters tutored in similar ways. Most of these clubs have disappeared, broken apart by changing land uses, different hunting styles and, strangely enough, an abundance of deer.

When many of these clubs were formed, there weren’t as many deer as we have today. Clubs banded together to hunt for the camaraderie and spirit of belonging as much as the thrill of hunting a deer.

Hunting hounds were an integral part of these deeply Southern traditional hunting clubs. Dogs were needed because without them, you could sit on a stand for near a week, hoping to see a single deer just walk by.

If you had uncommonly good luck, you might spot a buck running ahead of the pack, and if you brought one down, well, your year was made. You were just the luckiest person anyone knew. And if it turned out to be a buck with a good rack — a “mountable deer” — people might rub your head or your hunting clothes to get some good fortune the next time they went to the stand.

My first deer was a bow kill on Cypress Grove property. My first deer taken with a gun, and many after that, were killed hunting in traditional hunts with Cypress Grove, using dogs to move them.

Later, I joined in the tradition of running dogs and hunting deer from horseback that is truly a dying art. I am proud I had the opportunity to learn it and experience it, because most of the old clubs of this type are gone.

Today, we have landowners who have discovered the wildlife on their property is a resource, just like trees, minerals and farmland, and they have discovered they can charge huge fees to allow people to hunt on their property.

And because of changes in land use and hunting practices, we have seen an unprecedented explosion in our deer herds where areas that were devoid of deer 40 years ago now boast populations once believed impossible.

In many cases, the fees have caused the demise of these old-style clubs. Folks just couldn’t pay the price and retain the large holdings these clubs maintained. With the explosion of the herds, still-hunting came more and more into vogue, and the majorities complained about their properties being overrun by the hounds of the old-style clubs. The deer were being run day and night, and the still-hunters couldn’t hunt their deer, their way.

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I hadn’t been down in the swamps of Cypress Grove in 15 years. I had always kept contact with family, friends and relatives in the area, but as I grew older, the distance to hunt grew longer, and I gravitated to hunting with new friends in closer places.

Cypress Grove continued to do as they always had done. The paper company owned the land, and leased sections to the highest bidder. Sometimes a piece of land the club had always hunted would be bid out from under them, and they would find themselves putting up with new neighbors, having to hunt around new borders that had always been crossed before.

But always, Cypress Grove persevered. When the other clubs failed, like the faithful wife with an errant husband, they picked the leases back up from the paper company. Then another piece would disappear, and the cycle would start over.

The strength of the club lay in the strength of the families that had lived on and farmed the land for eight generations, beginning around the time of the Civil War. No matter who came and went in the newcomer clubs, Cypress Grove always had a core group of family and friends who would maintain its integrity, its purpose and its traditions.

The call came at night, the second week of November.

“We’re having our annual youth weekend up here. You’re always talking about bringing that daughter up here to visit. You know — the 14-year old we’ve never met.

“I can’t guarantee we’ll even have a club next year. The paper company has the property up for sale, and someone’s looking at it. This may be the last youth deer hunt this club will ever have. Bring her up this weekend, and let her hunt with us.”

I had missed the several weekends available to take my daughter into the woods during the Louisiana season, and let her still-hunt on private lands. I had kicked myself for not practicing what I always preached — giving every kid every opportunity to experience hunting. Now I was being offered a real opportunity to come back to my deer hunting roots in Southwest Mississippi.

Cypress Grove’s youth hunt has grown over the years to achieve statewide fame. It has been written up in magazines and newspapers, and covered on outdoor television shows. I knew the last season had seen them take more than 30 kids out on the stands with their dads and moms, and allowed them to stand hunt for deer while the hounds ran, and the riders got the deer up and moving.

Jennie Patterson, a mainstay of the club for 40 years, was calling to get me back to the fold, to pass the traditions down to at least one more generation. My daughter Jessica would experience an old-time hunt once in her life, if never again. Of course we would come.

We all have busy lives. I couldn’t get there for the entire weekend, but we drove into a camp area on Saturday night that caused Jessie to gasp in amazement. I was equally stunned.

Cypress Grove consisted of a shotgun shack, a cleaning rack and a dog pen when I last hunted here. We were greeted by vehicles parked along the road in front of a small community of trailers and campers, several raised 16 feet on support beams over the 100-year flood level of the Mississippi River that inundated this area in 1973.

The main camp was now a comfortable, large cabin with a fireplace, sleeping quarters, a huge kitchen, a great common room and, wonder of wonders, that sacrilege to the spirit of the hunt for deer, satellite television.

The din of the huge generator that fed power to the entire collection of camps could not overcome the raucous laughter from the crowd jammed in the main room.

Jessie, never shy, held back, awed by the number of people in the room, camo green their dominant color and décor. I peered through the window, recognized faces everywhere, opened the door, and dived into the crowd, reveling in the screams and laughter at my appearance — the prodigal had returned. I was home.

More calls, laughter and cries of amazement at the beauty of a 14-year old girl none had ever seen. I had marked her, it was observed. Others drily observed her mark was a definite improvement over mine. My daughter grinned at the jibes and insults hurled at one who had abandoned the fold, only to come crawling back, to experience real hunting, good hunting.

“We’ve had state biologists come down here to hunt with us, when they could hunt with anyone in the state of Mississippi. When we asked them why, they said they never saw a club that got more fun out of a kid killing a doe than most clubs got out of a trophy buck.”

Lewis Guedon was reminiscing after the crowd had thinned. He had taken the weekend off from farming to help run the hunt for the kids.

“I guess that’s what’s held this club together — friends and relatives who love to get together, no matter the reason, and deer hunting is just a part of it.”

“We’ve put on this hunt for some years now, and the crowd just keeps growing,” Jennie Patterson chimed in. “We bring the kids down here, cook for them, put them on stands with their adults, and give them the chance to shoot a deer.

“We had 38 kids on stands today. We’ll have near 30 tomorrow. Whether they kill a deer or not, they have a wonderful time down here, and we plan the whole weekend around them and their deer hunt.”

“Planning doesn’t even describe it,” said Sue Roy, another club mainstay. “We’ve been working on this for a month or more, getting the food and drinks together to feed a crowd like this. We almost ran out of lunch today, but we covered it.”

I get up earlier than most at deer camps. I was standing next to my bunk the next morning, pulling on a fresh pair of jeans when the door opened. Rose, the cook, came barging in.

“Any of youse mens ain’t dressed, best cover yourselfs. The cook is comin’ in!”

With that, Rose barreled past the racks of sleeping men and children, and began a clattering in the kitchen designed to warn one and all that it was time to get up, whether they wanted to do so or not.

After an amazing country breakfast of biscuits, bacon, sausage, eggs and grits, there came the tradition of planning the hunt. Maps of the club property were examined, stand lines chosen, and trucks designated to take the kids and their adult companions to the stands.

The riders saddled up, planning a sweep with the dogs through the cutover and weed fields in front of the stand woods, hoping a deer would break from their thrashing and run through the standers. The standers climbed into the pickups, dripping equipment, seats, packs and people from their beds — looking like third-world gun jeeps, “Technicals” they called them in Somalia — bristling with armed warriors, off to do battle with the wily deer.

Jessie and I drew stand No. 70, a great place we were assured, that sat at the head of a slough, a natural barrier that caused the deer to channel around its end. Any deer that came out of the field would be sure to run around the end of the slough. We settled into it, talking, enjoying the November woods. The heat and mosquitoes were a constant aggravation.

We never saw a deer, but there was excitement as the hunt moved past us several times out in the weed field. We could hear the shots from the older kids on horseback, accompanied by some of the adult riders, as they rode up the deer. We heard the whooping when they missed, getting the beagles on the hot trail. We would get keyed up, looking hard. But as with all things, nothing works exactly as planned. Deer can’t be herded, and the riders got the shots and collected the deer this morning. The standers saw a few, but none in range.

But four deer were killed by the kids on horseback. The standers were collected, the deer loaded in the spare trucks, and we returned to camp to a huge lunch prepared by Rose.

By mid-afternoon, it was drawing to a close. The kids had played touch football in the road in front of the camp. The worst injury the entire weekend to anyone resulted from the scrapes and burns from slides on the hardpan and gravel of the road.

“We’re one of the last of the old horseback clubs,” Lewis observed. “Not many of them left that hunt the way we do. Too much work for most of them, I guess. But it’s a way of life down here.

“As long as there’s a Cypress Grove, we’ll be hunting with dogs and running them with horses. Lots of people hunt with us who still-hunt in the hills. But they enjoy the fun and the carryings-on. It’s a different sort of hunting, one you don’t see much anymore. I guess they relate to it in a way from their youth.”

“If we lose the swamp,” Jennie said, “we’ll go on somehow in the hills. We’ve got plenty of land up there. It just isn’t as easy to hunt this way, but there’ll still be a core of Cypress Grove doing it up there.”

Jessica, ever ready to get behind the wheel, drove us out of the swamps — a distance of about eight miles up dirt and gravel.

“You had fun, darlin’?” I looked at her as she intently followed the ruts of the road.

“Oh Dad,” she grinned, casting a quick look my way. “I want to come back. Can we bring the horses, and ride with the riders?”

Jennie, Sue, Lewis and all of Cypress Grove would be proud. Another kid, brought in and steeped in a tradition many generations old … and converted.

And dad was proud. A future horseback hunter. A convert. A connection with the past — and the future of hunting.

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