By Mike Handley
Photo courtesy of John Lowery
Unless you're a deer hunter, the 50 flat miles of Interstate 20 between Vicksburg, Miss., and Rayville, La., aren't particularly breathtaking. Much of that highway is still paved with concrete slabs, which reverberate through floorboards. That it's a major trucking route might also necessitate dodging strips of tire rubber that look like giant black Fritos.
If a driver's gaze drifts right or left, he'll see bean, corn, rice and even fallow fields replanted in hardwoods. The land is fertile, and cotton prices are low.
Almost every field - hundreds or even thousands of acres - is also home to deer stands on stilts, testament both to a thriving whitetail population and a state that allows the men and women who hunt them to do so with rifles. Few hunters can see one of these stands and not wonder what it would be like to sit in it.
In Texas or Oklahoma, they'd be squatty oil derricks. In Louisiana, a better term might be deer derricks. They're called shooting houses by some, box blinds by others. And whether purchased and hauled into place or actually built on site with scrap tin and treated lumber, these little home-away-from-homes are perfect observation platforms for hunters who aren't afraid to reach out and touch their quarry.
They're on stilts not because they're over water, but to allow hunters to see and shoot farther.
Deer don't view the stands as threats. And unless the structures are erected at the edge of a food plot, the animals rarely give them a second glance.
Actually, food plots aren't that common in Richland Parish, for which Rayville is the center of government. Between the crops and abundant mast, there's really no need. Routinely tipping the scales at between 250 and 300 pounds on the hoof, north-central Louisiana bucks are throwbacks to an age when soybeans were common across the Southeast. When the market went bust decades ago, farmers in many states turned to growing pine trees, which ended the era of super bucks.
That didn't happen in the Mississippi Delta or in the parishes west of the levee, from Vidalia up to the Arkansas line.
John Lowery has taken his share of Richland Parish brutes. He likes elevated shooting houses because he doesn't have to worry about scenting up the thin stretch of woods that offer the neighborhood whitetails travel corridors and bedding areas. He just sits, watches and waits for deer to waft out of the trees and into the fields.
The 36-year-old from Rayville spends a lot of time on a tractor or at the cotton gin in nearby Start, La. Whenever he's not tending the land, he's thinking about the deer it holds.
One Saturday morning in late September 2008, while walking his property and looking for deer sign, he saw a buck in velvet that really primed his pump. He'd seen a bachelor group about an hour earlier, but this dude was by its lonesome. And there was no doubt it carried a second beam on the right side.
He saw the same buck a week later.
"I told my wife, 'I should be getting pictures of it right now,'" he said, describing how the buck was feeding in front of where he'd put out a trail camera. And, presto, he did.
But then the camera-shy deer disappeared.
John isn't an avid bowhunter, but he briefly considered hunting the buck during Louisiana's bow season. Not wanting to invade the deer's sanctuary, he ultimately decided against it. He coveted the unique whitetail too much to risk pushing it across the Beouf River onto someone else's land.
He's not the only rifle hunter in those parts who avoids boogering up his hunting spot.
John's first vigil in the shooting house was on opening day of the state's blackpowder season. But he never saw the double-beamed buck. His second trip to the stand was on Nov. 21.
He'd spent the morning inside a tractor, disking parched ground. It had been unseasonably dry. He eventually gave up while attempting a second field and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon inside his deer stand. He was tucked in by 3:45, rifle leaning against the wall while he scanned the horizon with binoculars and range-finder.
Several deer eventually entered the big milo field to eat. When John's gaze shifted to a corner about 5 p.m., he saw the double-beamed buck and a 4-pointer.
"I thought he'd gotten past me," John admitted. "I was kicking myself. I just hadn't noticed it in time, and it was about to disappear around the corner. Plus, the direction those two bucks were heading was directly downwind from me. I figured there was no way."
The buck, however, gave John a second chance. And so did the deer gods.
"It fed back around the corner, coming back out into the open," he said.
"I ranged it at 313 yards and poked my rifle out the window ... and then, I probably shouldn't be telling this, but I flinched.
"I'd forgotten to click off the safety, and I flinched pretty badly when I went to squeeze the trigger.
"Actually, I'm glad I did. It offered me the chance to talk myself down before trying again," he added. "I'd never have hit that deer if the safety had been off the first time."
The shot was perfect.
Hunter: John Lowery
Official Score: 178 1/8"
Composite Score: 192 7/8"
-- Reprinted from the September 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.