Swamp Monsters

Some of the best deer hunting in Southeast Louisiana is on the WMAs — if you know how to hunt them.

O.K., answer me this: How many of those brochures in hotel lobbies in the French Quarter beckon you to embark on a charming tour of a “5-year-old pure-pine plantation?” Or a picturesque tour of a “10-year clear-cut timber tract?” Or a breathtaking tour of scenic landscape comprising “select-cut timber featuring scenic logging machinery ruts, gorgeous burnt stumps and piles of cut-downs”? Or maybe: “Come with us and gaze bleary-eyed for four hours down a power-line surrounded by monotonous even-growth pines!”I apologize for the question. But let’s face it — what most of us call deer “hunting” nowadays is mostly sitting around and scanning some hideous (for a normal person) panorama waiting for a sign of movement, then for perhaps a flash of brown, then (for fanatics and true aficionados) perhaps a flash of antler.

I’d seen nothing like that movement or flash for two hours, and the panorama was starting to grate on my nerves. My only consolation was imagining Al Gore, Robert Redford and Cameron Diaz gazing at this same panorama — and blubbering openly. The Sierra Club could horrify its constituents (and triple its income) with a poster of it. “Is THIS what you want?! Don’t wait til it’s too late! Send your tax-deductible donation of $35,000 NOW! And receive a pair of Birkenstocks autographed by Al Gore, along with a state-of-the-art tofu slicer! Plus a year’s supply of alfalfa-sprout smoothies! And for you environmental-activist ladies — a lovely, finely-crafted leg-hair comb!”

I was on what passes for a “ridge” in Southeast Louisiana’s piney woods, gazing out over burned clearcuts, unburned select cuts, monotonous 10-year pine plantations, featureless 5-year pine cutovers. Drive I-12 from Slidell to Denham Springs, and look at the mess. It gives me the creeps. Endless thickets of pines, jungles of yaupon, mountains of briars, carpets of greenbriar, most of it evergreen. It never opens up. Deer can live their whole lives in that mess, and never be seen by human eyes — during the day that is.

After three or four days perched in a tree overlooking deer trails that look like cattle ruts without so much as a glimpse of one, you start daydreaming of plowing through these thickets with a fleet of flame-throwing Sherman tanks.

Patterning deer in this stuff would drive the hot shots in the national deer magazines and outdoor shows to utter despair. You guys who kill deer consistently, or even occasionally, in this stuff, walk tall. You’d shame the hot shots. I’ve hunted the Midwest where the video celebrities pose with those monsters — and it’s a joke up there, like shooting farm animals.

And animals don’t get much wilder than the deer in manically hunted Southeast Louisiana.

Finally I’d had enough, and humped down the tree on my climber. For the coming weekend, I needed a change of scenery. And I got it, with bells on.

Regarding public deer hunting, some of the best terrain to come on tap in Louisiana lately came in the form of wetlands. I refer to the 70,000-acre Maurepas Swamp WMA, to the 8,300 acres added to Joyce WMA, to the Big Branch NWR east of Mandeville and to the southernmost portion of Pearl River WMA.

Not that this latter is new — just that after the buffetings from three recent hurricanes, the cypress, tupelo-studded acreage bordering the marsh in the southern portion remains the least damaged and most huntable. The blowdowns farther north in the higher areas make it an absolute hell to hunt. The cypress trees near I-10 and below with their huge root networks held up better to the hurricane winds, and it’s still possible to get a semblance of a decent hunt, with fair visibility, down there.

An added treat: Pass a Loutre. In addition to its Oct. 1-Feb. 15 bow season, it now allows a week of shotgun deer hunting in mid December (check regulations for details).

You generally don’t think of swamps and marshes as providing better deer hunting than managed timberland, but check this out. Here’s the deer kill stats from last year on three Southeast Louisiana WMAs.

• Maurepas Swamp — one deer per 13.2 hunter efforts; total harvest, 204 deer.

• Ben’s Creek — one deer per 26.0 efforts; total harvest, 113 deer.

• Tunica Hills — one deer per 31.9 efforts; total harvest, 92 deer.

Most people would never guess the above from looking at these areas’ terrain from a distance. To the untrained eye, Maurepas Swamp looks like nothing but nutria, mosquito and cottomouth terrain. But like most South Louisiana “wetlands,” the combination of marsh, timber and spoilbank makes for oodles of that “edge” habitat beloved of whitetails, not to mention a genuinely scenic place for us to make our morning and/or evening vigils.

My chum Freddie Rogers of Madisonville had explained the fundamentals of swamp deer hunting, and after burning out on piney woods terrain after three fruitless weeks, I was doing my best to follow them on his friend’s little tract east of Bedico.

As is the case, almost always and almost everywhere, the heaviest-used deer trails will be along the junctures of one form of terrain with the other. In piney woods, you tend to find them where a hardwood or gum bottom starts giving way to the more upland pines, or where a section of, say, 10-year-old pines meets a section of 5-years-olds. Transition zones — that’s the key.

And that’s the beauty of most swamps: There’s many more of these transitions. Trees (cypress, tupelo gum, willow, swamp maple) tend to grow on what pass for ridges in the Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain wetlands. These “ridges” tend to follow the canals, ditches, sloughs and natural bayous that lace the area. The canals (the Reserve, Gramercy and especially the Highway 51 canals) in the Maurepas Basin offer the added terrain dimension of a spoil bank, usually lush with prime deer fodder from elderberry to blackberry, from deer pea to trumpet creeper, and from bachiris to young willow.

Away from the higher ground of ridges and spoil banks, the top primary deer browse consists — hands down — of alligator grass, which grows usually around knee-high and in extensive mats. Freddie calls them “swamp deer food plots” with the added advantage that they don’t “require any tilling, planting and upkeep.”

“I’ve watched deer feeding and moving through these mats of alligatorgrass for 20 minutes at a time,” he said. “I’ve seen bucks raise their heads from a hearty session of munching with the grass dangling all from their antlers. Makes for an interesting sight. They really love the stuff. You find an area where it looks like a lawn mower or bush-hog went over it, and you’ve found a good place to set up.”

Well, I had found just that as a little slough petered out to open glades of wax myrtle, bull tongue and stunted swamp maple.

“Now don’t look for anything that looks like a cattle rut out in that semi-flotant swamp,” Rogers cautioned. “Think about it. A deer isn’t very wide. These marsh/swamp deer trails won’t be much wider than the ones made by nutrias and armadillos — but they’ll be deeper, muddier, wetter, obviously from the deer’s weight. If you find mud spattered a foot or so high on the marsh grass and bushes along such a trail, that’s also a tip-off.”

Well, after a little tromping and wallowing around in the slop, and somehow managing to keep my hip boots dry, I found a trail that seemed to meet most of these qualifications. Walking along it for a bit, I found an intersection of another; following that one for 50 yards or so, I found yet another “fork in the road,” you might say.

A nearby swamp maple required only mild pruning to let me hump up to 20 feet with my climber. I seemed to have a nice set-up.

Two mornings later, when the gales from a front had finally petered out, I found myself in that maple. The wetland scenery that stretched around me was simply glorious. The delightful racket of gadwall gabbling isn’t a sound normally associated with deer hunting. Neither is the banter of a few hundred geese conversing on their flight overhead.

But when you’re perched in a swamp maple in the swamp/marsh below Madisonville and Bedico (or in much the same type of terrain in the Joyce or Maurepas WMAs), you often get it.

Add the sights associated with these sounds — a pond shimmering from the morning sun, the bulrushes and wax myrtles still green in December, the occasional dos-gris buzzing overhead on his way lakeward, a gaggle of roseate spoonbills flapping over the tree line to the left, perhaps an osprey crashing into the pond and struggling off with a mullet in his talons — and you have a wetland panorama unmatched on this continent.

Now this is the kind of stuff advertised in those hotel brochures. And let’s face it — if you’ve chosen a form of hunting that requires long, motionless vigils, why not find yourself surrounded by such a gorgeous panorama?

At least that’s how I rationalized my decision when by 9:45 I’d seen nothing resembling a deer.

“Same old, same old” I sighed to myself.

They’re just as nocturnal here as everyplace else in Southeast Louisiana. Oh well.

Then, on the left — movement! Whoops! But it’s partly orange! Some hats atop some adolescent heads that skulk along the high ground where the pines give way to marsh on my left. Well, Freddie warned me about this.

“These kids today!” I growled to myself.

In fact, they’re just like my chums and I were at their age. Subdivisions are going up a mile a minute around here, and that urge to grab a gun and hit the woods is no less strong for some of today’s kids than it was for us. Thank goodness.

But think about it: How many of us deer hunted as kids — much less from a stand? I sure didn’t. To keep me in one would have taken a straightjacket and shackles. No way. We hunted squirrels, rabbits, beer cans, doves, ducks, hubcaps, pouldeau, armadillos, bleach bottles, nutrias, blackbirds, Coke bottles, grackles, racoons, junked washing machines, etc.

Point is, we went roaming around blasting anything and everything that moved — and many things that didn’t. That night we recounted the carnage while watching Morgus the Magnificent. Things were different 40, 30, even 20 years ago. Nowadays, what’s a kid supposed to do with his Christmas .22 rim-fire or crack-barrel 20 gauge, or even his pump pellet gun? He can’t just find the first stretch of woods, barge in and start blasting, reloading, blasting, reloading, peppering the dryer with a full magazine from the .22, refilling it and shattering the windows and stitching the fins on the junked Plymouth.

We left more death and destruction in our wake than the Mongol Horde. We slew right, reloaded and slew left. Point is, we wanted action too.

From all I read and hear, deer hunting’s not hurting for any lack of deer. It’s hurting from lack of “recruitment,” from getting kids interested. And who can blame them? Take the typically rambunctious 12-year-old. Take the typically testosterone-addled 17-year-old. Who expects them to take to a sport where the most dangerous part — according to national statistics — is falling out of your stand because you fell asleep!

Oh well, at least with swamp scenery and ducks overhead, that’s less likely — certainly for me. I was actually kinda disappointed in these three kids. I watched them for a full 20 minutes, and NONE SHOT! Why, back in my day, Pelayo, Chris and I would have made hash of that flock of grackles that lifted from the willows in front of them. Great crab and crawfish bait.

Those kids just might flush a deer, I rationalized. I decided to sit a tad longer. And within 10 minutes — good grief! A deer! A buck no less, not huge but plenty satisfactory by my epicurian standards. He was ambling through the semi-open marsh, barely visible through the tall grass and wax myrtles about 80 yards lakeward from me. He seemed in a hurry, not moseying along feeding. I find this typical for bucks. And the rut was probably raging in this area.

My rifle was hanging from a limb, and the deer was so preoccupied it didn’t see me fumbling for it. Finally, the gun went up. Where is he?! I can’t find him through the scope!? Up!? Down. Around. AHH! There he is!

The crosshairs danced, then steadied. Deep breath now. Geezum! What a beauty! He’s got those “palmated” antlers, fairly common in wetland deer.

But I can’t find his shoulder! Now he’s moving again! Oops, moving again. THERE! Start squeezing — can’t! He’s obscured again — and moving!

Finally he slipped into a thick area of tall wax myrtles. And I never saw him again. But man, what an adrenalin jolt I got that morning! Not to mention the swamp tour.

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