Overlooked swamp home to never-seen giant
By Ed Waite
When Davis Smith of White Hall, Ark., lost his deer lease to a group of guys with deeper pockets a few years ago, he felt like a fish out of water. He tried swimming with several small hunting clubs after that, but he never found one he really liked.
Davis wasn't sure where he was going to hunt on the eve of the 2008 season.
"But then, out of the blue, a friend told me that his club was looking to bring in two new members to fill out their roster. He wondered if I might be interested," Davis said.
The club leased 6,000 acres in Phillips County, which sounded wonderful to Davis. After meeting with the members, he was accepted into the fold.
Because the '08 season was rapidly approaching, Davis didn't have a lot of time to get to know the property. He studied maps and walked much of the acreage with his friend, who pointed out the boundaries. He also learned that the members had staked claims to different sections.
Not to say there were no good places to hunt. Davis just had to find one that suited him.
"The members told me up front that there were not tons of bucks on the lease, but the ones there were all pretty good. There were food plots and plenty of natural food, so the deer were there; just not plentiful. Also, it was agreed by all that small bucks would always be allowed to walk," Davis said.
Nearing the end of the second week of November, the rut was well underway and most of the club members were in camp for the weekend hunt. Friday's hunt was uneventful for Davis. He still-hunted in various places and stood by trees in others, hoping to see a shootable buck, but to avail.
Returning to camp that night, he heard that one member had shot a nice buck but was unable to locate it in the fading light. Several guys, including Davis, slept in the next morning to join in the search. Davis figured it would give him a chance to see another part of the lease.
During the night, there was a heavy rain. The group spent most of Saturday morning circling the area where the deer was last seen, but it was all for nothing. There was no longer a blood trail to follow and no sign of the wounded or dead deer. By noon, they decided it was hopeless. The group broke up and the guys headed to their stands for the evening hunt.
The search had been conducted in an area Davis had never scouted, since it was another guy's domain. He questioned fellow hunters and was told of an area nearby that nobody visited because it was too swampy and very hard to hunt. It was close by, so Davis thought he had nothing to lose and headed for the forlorn piece of ground.
"As I approached this wooded area, it was clear that some attempt at logging had taken place not too many years back. The ground was very soft, and I had to be extremely careful that I didn't sink into the muck above my boots," he said. "It looked like some trees had been cut, but the loggers were unable to get them out, so they remained where they fell. It made walking very dangerous.
"I was moving very slowly, picking my steps with great care, looking all around me for anything and everything. It was obvious that no one had hunted this patch of timber," he continued.
"The temperature was about 45 degrees, so it was comfortable to walk, but the wind was very strong, blowing maybe 20 miles per hour right into my face. The noise of rustling leaves covered whatever sounds I was making.
"Suddenly, I caught a slight movement that was not leaves. I watched very intently for several seconds, trying to pinpoint the source. And then I saw it again, a glint of antler, an eye even, but that's about it.
"I brought my rifle up for a look through the scope, only to find I could see nothing but blackness. It still had the covers on," Davis said. "I quickly removed the cover, while at the same time seeing the deer rise and start to amble away from me. I immediately got on the deer and fired. I thought I'd pulled the shot when the deer didn't drop.
"I made mental notes of where I took the shot and the last place I saw the deer moving. I remembered my dad's advice: 'Be patient and wait it out.' I tried to settle my nerves and cool my heels for the next 30 minutes.
"About 15 minutes later, I was up and moving toward the spot the deer stood when I shot. I found a bunch of hair on the ground, and felt a lot better about the shot. I also found some blood," he added.
Somewhat relieved, Davis decided he would wait a little longer before following the trail. As he stood waiting impatiently, he felt the first drops of rain.
"I decided I didn't want the same results as the previous day's hunter and the lost buck that morning," he said. "I began tracking in earnest as the rain increased in intensity. Fortunately, the trek was short. I found my buck laid up in a jumbled mass of treetops. I immediately removed my hunting vest, hung it close to the animal and quickly headed for help."
Back at camp, five men agreed to accompany Davis to retrieve the deer. But when the men walked up to the hanging vest, there was no deer beside it.
"I was stunned," Davis said. "Why hadn't I taken an insurance shot?"
Six men began a methodical search of the swamp. The guys spread out and started circling. Fortunately, it didn't take long before one of the hunters said, "Here it is ... Oh my God ... It's huge!"
Suddenly, the buck tried once more to gain its feet to flee, but Davis was close enough to administer the finishing shot.
Moving the enormous deer out of the swamp was far more work than any of them had imagined. As they moved along, guys would sink into the ground well beyond their knees, and the effort to get them out of the muck was as much work as dragging the deer.
Moving around the downed trees and treetops was very strenuous work. It took most of two and a half hours before the men could get the deer to solid ground where a four-wheeler could do the rest of the work.
Back at camp, the deer was weighed before field-dressing and the scales showed 320 pounds.
"I was really concerned that I, a newcomer, had taken such a tremendous buck. I thought it might cause some jealously, but I was wrong. All the members were tremendously excited for me and my success. I guess they all knew it was simply a matter of me being in the right place at the right time.
"Besides, nobody else had really considered hunting that particular piece of land," he added.
Hunter: Davis Smith
Official Score: 193 4/8
Composite Score: 215 7/8
Weapon: Centerfire Rifle
-- Reprinted from the November 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.