He owns this swamp. Ain’t no doubt about that, his morning roll call moving the moss like a hot August zephyr. He’s tucked himself into 3,000 acres of hardwood ridges tumbling into river-bottom swamps in an ox-bow of the Alabama River. Not but one way to get in and out of his kingdom less you want a pre-dawn swim in the Alabama.
It’s the finest turkey ground I’ve ever seen. These ridges have never been logged. Thick, old hardwoods shade the open floor. I’ve been in a few cathedrals. I’ve been in these woods a few times. The similarity ain’t lost on me. Both places are quiet, the kind of quiet that instills reverence in even the most feckless heathen. In one you hear footsteps on marble as clear as the tapping of a woodpecker in the other. Both of ‘em confirm your insignificance.
These ridges come in through the neck of the oxbow and drop steeply into the palmetto bottoms. There’s ravines that could swallow buildings and a misstep in the dark morning would be your end. The top branches of the biggest of these old bucks, rooted in the bottom of the ravines, don’t even reach the top edge.
Where the ridges die out, the bottoms begin. The bottoms are swept and purged every year by thick, reddish Alabama water. What’s left is a dark forest of old bearded oaks and cypress reaching out over dunes and sloughs cut and carved by the old sculptress. That she is old is evidenced by the sand dollars embedded high in her bluffs some 100 miles from the nearest salt water. Cypress swamps and palmetto thickets push endlessly under the canopy offering a thousand hog wallers, deer beds and turkey roosts. This is the kingdom of the Swamp Haint, the biggest bird I’ve ever seen, with prehistoric tracks and a beard of Gandolphian proportions.
This land once belonged to Red Eagle, though true to his culture he would never claim ownership of the land. That is a peculiarity of the white man. He was perhaps better known as William Weatherford, half-breed chief of the Creeks, son of an English speaking trapper who married a great-granddaughter of the first Sehoy, Princess of the Wind Clan. He lead the bloodiest Indian massacre on American soil at Ft. Mims on the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, fought Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, was captured and ultimately pardoned for his great bravery. He spent the rest of his life on this ground.
Not much has changed here since then. Only the dark creosote hunting camp, tucked in the far reach of the oxbow suggests a difference. Once a year, Jimbo and I retreat here to elude the 21 st century and to hunt turkeys – big turkeys, in particular the Swamp Haint. Jimbo saw him first.
We’d come in from the morning’s hunt. At dawn the air is crisp and the senses are sharpened by the cold. By late morning, the hot sun and six hours of hunting have relegated us to the front porch for shade, coffee and chewing tobacco. I’d been up on Jasey’s field hunting birds in the big hardwoods. Jimbo had been in the swamp. He sat there tinkering with a slate call looking for the sweet spot. The air hummed with the sound of the bees that nested in the porch roof, they’re switch suddenly flipped by the sun’s heat. They were huge bees that raced around bumping in to each other and flying right up to your face where they would hover in some kind of bizarre staring contest. Slater Hanks called ‘em “study bees”, “cause they come up and study ya.”
“He was as big as I’ve ever seen. Big ol’ beard draggin’ the ground. He was up on a big dune on the other side of a slough. I called and he strutted and stomped and drummed and spit for an hour, but he just wouldn’t come over the slough. Man he was somthin’.”
“Bout 40yards, but I wasn’t gonna chance that shot with a 20 gauge.”
Jimbo’s not into firepower. Hunting skill is the attraction, the killing secondary. He hunts ducks to great success with a 20.
“No chance to move?”
“No cover, nowhere to go. I was sitting behind one scrawny palmetto. Man he was big. How bout you?”
“Tar baby he don’t say nothin’.” Code words for a silent morning. “You gonna try and roost him tonight?” After dinner we’d go out and roost birds before coming back for a last cup of coffee and a chew before bed. We’d sit on the porch listening to the night and every so often flick on the big handheld spotlight. Inevitably a dozen pairs of devil eyes would peer back from the treeline.
Jimbo is nothing if not generous. He’d had his chance at the Haint and now he wanted me to have mine. I protested, knowing full well Jimbo would never recant. He never does on matters of principle. Offering a friend a shot at a trophy gobbler was a matter of pure principle.
Jimbo’s tailights disappeared in the field and I stood on the path into the river bottoms. The southern sun was flickering through the palmetto leaves like green shutters in a low country courtyard. I moved quickly down the road, wanting to get to the strut ground so I could check out positions for the morning hunt. I found the dune and the tracks – big tracks – T-Rex tracks. Jimbo was right. This is one big-ass bird. I snapped off a few palmetto fans, sat down under a tree on the end of the dune and stuck the fans in front of me. I was there to roost him, but if he showed himself in the right place I had no compunctions about ambush.
The bugs came in a fury. Gnats and mosquitos flew right through the DEET, biting through my sleeves, banging into my eyes. I decided to practice my Zen meditation to ignore the itch and aggravation. It soon occurred to me there are no gnats in Nepal. I reverted to my southern heritage, simply grittin’ my teeth, cussin’ and trying not to move.
A hen came in from behind and landed in my tree. I learned more about cackling and purring than all the Knight and Hale tapes could ever offer, but I was pinned. A few minutes later, I heard the Haint. The wingbeats recalled Grandma Moon whacking carpets with a broom, limbs cracked and men trembled as the Haint found his way up to his perch. Once seated, he thrust his head skyward and poured forth a Brobdingnagian gobble that shook the swamp and informed its denizens that he was home for the night.
For two hours I sat motionless, joints seizing like a junkyard motor. By the time it was dark enough to belly crawl into the slough and away from the roosted birds, the pain from old age and new bites was agonizing. Great things come only from great sacrifice and this bastard was mine.
Light river sand in the grass track was my GPS back to the edge of the swamp. It would be my guide in the black of the morning. I could feel the truck before I reached it.
“Find him?” Jimbo’s question emanated from the darkness.
“Damn straight. He’s everything you said.”
“You gonna get him?”
Turkey wisdom and superstition bid caution here, but I succumbed.
“I got him locked in.”
Even though I couldn’t see Jimbo, I knew he was grinnin’.
The trail turned to pure river sand and even in the blackness, I knew the slough was in front of me, and the dune to my right. I eased into the slough, reaching out to the right to feel the side of the dune, keeping it between me and the Haint. I reached the end of the dune where it dropped off into the palmetto flats. I crawled up in the mercifully quiet sand and set up. The plateau of the dune spread before me and yesterday’s strut zone was now a kill zone.
Straight up five brought forth a booming reveille. Then another – another. Full-throated gobbles rocked the surrounding woods as the Haint called to his harem. I offered one three-note tree yelp that was cut-off with a heavy-handed response. I waited for two minutes and then clucked twice. That was it. No way was I blowing this. I slid the mouth call into my cheek and let it sit like a wad of good Carolina leaf.
For an hour the Haint rang forth. Hunched under my tree like Quasimoto in the bell tower, I knew he was coming. Each thunderous pronouncement broadened my smile. He was mine. Wingbeats brought my gun into position covering the zone.
The gobble changed – fainter? Cause he’s on the ground? The next, even less. He was walking away. Damn! I thrust the mouth call back in the roof of my mouth and pleaded my case like a starving hooker. The last gobble was contemptuous, the swamp silent. My final entreaty answered only by the gnats.
Jimbo was leaning on the bumper spittin’ juice on the ground when I stepped into the field. He saw the empty hands and offered a smile of shared experience.
“Dya see him?”
“Smart, ain’t he?”
I grinned back and reached for my own tobacco. We leaned against the truck and listened to the swamp.
Jimbo’s nephew Bill, a noted turkey hunter in his own right, went down two weeks later to hunt the Haint. From what I understand he got even closer than me, but the Haint treated him with the same merciless contempt.
Say what you please, I take solace in my belief that the tormented chief of the Creeks, William Weatherford, stills walks this ground – now the tormentor.