This story was originally posted in 2004, but as hunting season approaches I tend to think more and more about getting in the woods.
You know, not every “hunting” story involves shooting a big buck. There’s a lot that goes into getting ready for hunting season, and this is one of those little adventures that precedes the ultimate adventure of getting that granddaddy whitetail.
Last hunting season I had placed a ladder stand along the St. Mary’s river. It was a 15-foot tall stand and I positioned it about 50 yards from the bank of the river. Recently I secured lease rights to a prime piece of property up around Milledgeville, Georgia, so it was necessary to go recover my best stand so I could take it up to my new hunting grounds. My 14 year-old son went with me to help retrieve it and I’m sure glad he did too because I’d have never been able to manage it alone.We drove up early on Saturday morning, and when we got to the boat ramp we were shocked to discover that the boat ramp, picnic area and parking area was all under about 9 feet of flowing water! The road down the hill to the parking area had become the de facto boat ramp. So we went ahead and launched my little boat there and proceeded on up river to where we thought the ladder stand would be.
The St. Mary’s was higher than I’ve ever seen it in ten years of exploring it in motorboats and canoes. The water had risen to approximately 14 feet above normal obscuring the banks on both sides. The river literally extended back into the woods and out of sight. Talk about current! Boy we had plenty of it, even back in the flooded woods. It was all my little 10-horse kicker could do to take us upstream.
When we finally reached the bend in the river where the stand was located, another problem presented itself. The piece of flagging tape that I had tied about 6 feet up a tree was completely underwater. With the river spilling over its banks to such an extent, nothing looked familiar. It took about a half an hour of cruising back and forth until we spied the stand back among the trees. I had fully expected to be wading in a couple of feet of water while retrieving the stand. Now I was shocked to see that only the top three or four feet of the 15-foot stand was visible above the water! Clearly this would be, at least in part, an underwater operation.
I aimed the boat at what looked like the best avenue of approach through the flooded trees, gunned the motor to get some momentum, and then killed the engine. We got to the stand with a combination of paddling and pulling ourselves along using tree limbs. There was actually a respectable amount of current to be considered as well so it was necessary to tie up next to the stand. I even dropped the anchor! Sitting there in the boat we were perfectly level with the seat of the stand. Obviously the floodwaters were over our heads.
Because of the hour’s drive followed by a twenty minute boat ride, I had emphasized to Josh that we needed to bring along everything we could possibly need while there. Toward that end I had even brought along a large pair of bolt cutters in case the padlock on the chained stand refused to cooperate after ten months of exposure and non-use. It was at about this point that Josh pointed out that we should have brought along some swim fins and dive masks if we wanted to be fully prepared. I could hardly argue with him.
We removed the chain with no trouble and while still seated in the boat. Thankfully the lock worked with no difficulty. So did the strap and ratchet assembly that secured the upper part of the stand firmly to the tree. However, somewhere down below the swirling water was another ratchet and strap coupled with a stabilizer pole that had to be dealt with, and there was no way to do that while remaining dry. So…Josh and I stripped down to our skivvies, and he led the way by climbing out onto the top rung of the submerged ladder stand and down into the dark water of the flooded St. Mary’s river. I toyed with him for a second by staying on the boat and urging him to hurry up and dissemble the stand. But his look of outrage at the very idea was enough to get me on down into the water.
As we both attacked the stand while treading water, I was struck by the thought that this would be exactly the time that we wouldn’t want to entertain any visits of the local reptilian variety, namely snakes and “gators”. I said as much to Josh and watched the look on his face change to grave concern. We continued working on disassembling the stand and after a few moments I extended my leg under water and purposely bumped him on the thigh. The response was immediate! He hollered and almost leaped vertically out of the water. My roar of laughter was enough to change his fear to anger, but later when we were safe and on our way home he agreed that I “got him good”.
Piece by piece we managed to deconstruct the heavy metal stand and get it into the boat. The final indignity was when it came time for me to hoist myself back into the boat without the benefit of having anything underwater that I could stand on. With just upper body strength I managed to heave myself aboard, but I was certainly pretty well spent by that point. I’m sure not as young as I used to be!
The ride back to the boat ramp and the drive back home were uneventful, except that we decided we should go ahead and drive on up to the hunting lease and get our stands in position since hunting season’s opening day would rapidly be upon us. So early the following morning we made the four-hour drive to the area near my brother’s home outside Milledgeville in order to go ahead and place our stands. It was a beautiful morning, and the drive and the time spent with my son were both great. Evaluating the exact location for putting up the stands was now much easier since it wasn’t being done in the pre-dawn darkness of opening day. And even the short visit with my brother followed by another four-hour drive home was enjoyable since it was quality time spent with my boy.
I’ve hunted all my life, and I’ve had lots of great and some not-so-great experiences while hunting. At this point in my life, I’ve also learned that the actual experience of the kill is not the only enjoyment to be had. The camaraderie of being around other hunters, the preparation for and anticipation of the coming season, and time spent with your son, are all aspects of an enjoyable hunting experience. And now I’ve also learned one additional lesson: the next time I go to recover a tree stand placed along a river, I’ll take some scuba gear with me.