Wet is best — How to deer hunt the Florida Parish swamps

The swamps of the Florida Parishes might not look like a deer mecca, but one the soggy environs make it easy for hunters to locate their prey. Learn how to use the wetlands to your advantage.

“‘A face only a mother could love,’ goes the saying, right?” snorted Doc’s cousin Brian as he returned from yet another run to the sheepshead ceviche platter with another heaping plate.

“Well, I’m coining a new one!” he said, looking around while stuffing another heaping cracker into his mouth. “Ready? Here goes: ‘A landscape only a deer-hunter could love!’”

Brian was never known for his tact. Here in Doc’s den for the usual weekly LSU game paaawty, he was surrounded by deer hunters.

And with the Arkansas Razorbacks just beating our Tigers — (a week after Alabama’s win over our Tigers) — after these emotional traumas, none of us were exactly in an ebullient mood to begin with.

In brief, Brian was kicking a hornet’s nest.

Remember The Honeymooners? Remember Ralph Kramden? Picture his face when he was winding up for his famous, “To the moon, Alice!”

Well, that’s what many of the faces in Doc’s den looked like — especially Artie’s.

“Better watch your mouth around here!” Artie finally erupted from the corner.

A few minutes earlier, he and Brian had seemed quite chummy. They agreed that Les Miles needed to be drawn and quartered in public.

Now they glared and snarled at each other.

But Brian had a point. He was a dilettante hunter, mostly targeting birds (quail, doves ), and was — naturally — a fly fisherman.

But recently he’d broken down and agreed to a deer hunt with his brother-in-law on his timber company lease near Bogalusa.

Half of the place had been recently logged. So Brian’s “breathtaking woodland panorama” had consisted of something akin to section of the Ardennes forest — after the Battle of the Bulge.

Brian explained how he sat in a box stand beholding a scenic landscape consisting of ugly, shattered trees; huge, muddy ruts from logging machinery; burnt stumps; and piles of cut-downs — all of this dotted with abundant but unsightly shrubbery.

As most of us know, that shrubbery makes for ideal deer fodder. But let’s face it:  For a normal nature lover, it’s not exactly something out of an Ansel Adams gallery.

Some of Doc’s newly discovered family property is on the Tangipahoa River, straddling that sharp transition zone from upland piney woods (with a few water oak bottom) to cypress-tupelo swamp. A portion of this vast acreage lies on the very edge of Joyce Wildlife Management Area.

Similar transitional terrain can be found in the Maurepas Swamp and the lower Pearl River WMAs, along with Bogue Chitto and Big Branch National Wildlife Refuges.

Indeed, in terms of public deer hunting, some of the best terrain to come on tap in Louisiana lately has come in the form of wetlands.

And it’s not just rutting dates that differ between swamp deer and upland deer. Their food preferences and travel routes also diverge.

For years we’ve been double-dipping on the deer season by hopping between spots in Area 4 (which is mostly pine upland but interspersed with many lowland areas) and nearby sections of Area 9 (which is mostly swamp and wetland.)

So we’ve noticed these unmistakable patterns and marked them in our logs.

In brief, Brian was in luck: He’d be hunting a much more picturesque place the following week, something more like the pictures in swamp tour brochures and Julia Sims’ books.

Maybe his mood would improve.

“Those nutrias sure are playing havoc with these wetlands,” Brian frowned when we met up with him after a mid-morning scouting trip on Doc’s newly discovered property. “Just like I’ve been reading and hearing from so many sources. Man, their trails were all over this area! And they’re mowing down the vegetation. Can’t see what they leave for the deer to browse upon.”

“Nutrias you say, huh, Brian?” Pelayo asked with a smirk.

“Sure, their little trails just crisscross that flotant marsh, as you guys call it,” Brian said. “Don’t look like a good stand site to me.”

“Let’s have a look,” Pelayo said, looking over and arching his eyebrows.

Soon, Pelayo pointed to some drying mud splattered on a nearby cypress tree, about 2 feet from the ground.

“Looky cheere,” he said. “Nutrias don’t get that big, Brian. That’s from a muddy deer walking by.”

Then he pointed to some substance atop the mud that looked much like the mud itself but was more greenish and slimy.

“And looky cheere,” Pelayo said with a smile. “Dem there’s some deer doo-doo.”

“What?!” Brian asked, frowning as he bent down. “Looks more like cat vomit! I’m not much of a deer hunter, but I thought I knew what deer droppings looked like — if nothing else, from all the ones I find around my backyard in Mandeville.”

“Well,” Pelayo continued in a professorial tone. “Look at all this browsing sign.”

And he pointed at the nearby alligator grass, which had been mowed down almost as with a power mower.

“When deer are feeding mostly on moist marsh fodder like this alligator grass, their droppings get watery and look more like green cat vomit than Milk Duds or Raisinets,” Pelayo instructed. “We learned this while deer hunting Pass-a-Loutre WMA at the mouth of the Mississippi River for years, where alligator grass and water hyssop are main deer browse. Then we noticed the same thing around here years later.”

“The stuff I’m learning this week!” Brian laughed while high-fiving Pelayo.

In wetland areas, away from the higher ground of ridges and spoil banks, the primary deer browse consists of alligator grass, which grows about knee-high and in extensive mats, often covering portions of sloughs.

Deer trails through them aren’t much more than a foot wide, so they often look like nutria or armadillo trails — hence Brian’s mistaken first impression.

In this area, a little slough petered out to open glades of wax myrtle, bull tongue and stunted swamp maple.

And, as is the case almost always and almost everywhere where deer thrive, 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 are many more of these transitions. Trees (namely cypress, tupelo gums, willows and swamp maples) tend to grow on 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 (namely the Reserve, Gramercy and, especially, the Highway 51 canals) in the Maurepas Basin offer the added terrain dimension of spoil banks, usually lush with prime deer fodder from elderberry to blackberry, from deer pea to trumpet creeper and from bachiris to young willow.

As Pelayo finished his discourse, we noticed a nearby swamp maple required only mild pruning to set up Brian’s climber.

A 50-pound sack of corn, sprinkled along the crisscrossing trails further sweetened up” the area as a deer buffet.

Two mornings later, when the gales from a front had finally petered out, I found myself in a climber in another swamp maple not far from Brian’s, in an area that had also been sweetened up with corn.

The wetland scenery that stretched around me was simply glorious.

So I was amazed when I finally noticed it was 9:45 a.m. I’d seen nothing, but the time zoomed by — and I’d enjoyed every minute of it.

Then movement from the left caught my eye, and I turned my head and focused.

Sun gleamed of an antler — a small one, already denoting (in my mind) scrumptious fajitas for Doc’s next LSU party.

In seconds, I was shaking uncontrollably. 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 the deer? I can’t find him through the scope!

Up! Down! Around!

AHH! There it is!

The crosshairs danced, then steadied. Deep breath now.

Geezum! What a beauty! It’s got those slightly “palmated” antlers, fairly common in wetland deer.

But I can’t find its shoulder! Now it’s moving again! Oops, moving again.

THERE!

Start squeezing — can’t! It’s obscured again — and moving!

Finally the der slipped into a thick area of tall wax myrtles ….

My gun was up, the scope fogging up, and even braced against the tree I could barely keep it steady. I was rip-roaring drunk on adrenaline, shaking like a tambourine.

“Take a deep breath,” I quietly gasped, just as the deer emerged into the sun.

The crosshairs were wobbling, and the deer was looking around.

“Keep cool,” I thought.

A deep breath, now. The crosshairs hovered near its shoulder. Steady now ….

Then it took another step and a tree AGAIN obscured its vitals!

I was breathing in gasps. I steadied the gun just as the young buck stepped toward a thicket of trumpet creeper. Its rib cage cleared a little willow, and its head went down to grab some of my corn.

The crosshairs somehow steadied on his shoulder — sq-u-e-e-z-e.

PE-TOW!

“Where is it? Is it down? Is that a leg kicking? Is that its tail’s final flicking?

Yes!

In seconds the deer was still, and I could see my trophy’s tiny antlers clearly in the scope. I was a basket case.

The shakes finally subsided in a half hour, and I started humping it down.

Brian had seen three deer but claimed he couldn’t get a good shot.

His mood seemed much better than at Doc’s.

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