I heard the buck before I saw it. The sloshing of hooves as the big deer trotted through the swamp was clearly audible, even though the animal was 100 yards away. When the sound reached my ears, my heart started pounding.
Swamps grow gigantic bucks. Deer have abundant food year-round every year, so they stay healthy, adding body mass and growing to astounding proportions.
It was difficult to see through the thick undergrowth. But the deer finally stepped into an opening, and I could make out his huge rack — 10 points at least. He surely weighed close to 250 pounds. His neck was thick with the rut.
The buck didn't see me — not at first. He hooked a bush with his horns and browsed on succulent plants growing in the shallow water of the swamp. I clutched my shotgun and tried to wish him my way.
It was not to be, though. Something tipped the deer to my whereabouts — a scent on the breeze, perhaps, or the loud beating of my heart. He suddenly raised his head and looked directly at me. Our eyes were locked for a minute or more. His tail swished nervously. Then suddenly he broke away and was gone, as quickly as he had come.
I haven't killed a swamp buck as big as that one yet, but I'll keep trying. I've had dozens of encounters with giant bucks like the one just described. And sooner or later, I figure luck will be on my side.
Swamps grow gigantic bucks and plenty of them. Few people hunt these areas, so bucks can grow old. Their antlers get larger every year they live. Consider, as well, the fact that these fertile bottomlands provide plentiful browse and mast. The deer have abundant food year-round every year, so they stay healthy, adding body mass and growing to astounding proportions. Few places provide better hunting for trophy whitetails.
Choosing a Hunting Area
If you want to give swamp hunting a try, the first order of business is deciding the general area to hunt within the swamp you've chosen. A detailed topographic map is your most important tool in this endeavor. If you learn to properly read all the symbols used to represent various features of the landscape, it will help you pinpoint several areas you can scout before choosing specific stand sites.
I ask myself several questions when studying my maps.
First, "What terrain features are bucks most likely to follow during their daily activities?" Any long narrow "ridges" of high ground are worth checking because deer -- even swamp deer -- prefer to keep their feet dry if they have a choice. These ridges won't be distinct like ridges in upland regions, but will appear as slightly higher elevations on the map, often along the banks of oxbow lakes or streams, or near the swamp's outer perimeter where lowlands gradually give way to dryer terrain. The best ridges are in areas forested with oaks or other mast-producing trees, but provide easy access to small woodland clearings where browse plants are plentiful. Also look for bottlenecks between two bodies of water (deer tend to travel routes where the least wading or swimming is involved) and old logging roads into remote areas, which tend to follow higher ground.
After I identify sites such as these, I ask myself, "Which of these areas are least likely to be visited by other hunters while also providing a means of access that is not unnecessarily difficult?" I prefer sites where I can travel part of the way in a canoe or johnboat, which allows me to reach the area quicker and bring a deer out (should I be fortunate enough to kill one) without totally exhausting myself. In some areas, I float down a bayou or river then hike to my hunting area. In others, I may simply motor across an oxbow lake to a parcel of land impossible to reach in a vehicle. Such areas can be magnets for deer when hunting pressure intensifies elsewhere.
Finally, I ask, "Can I hunt this area safely?" Getting lost in a swamp is easy; getting found is difficult. It's important, therefore, to enter a swamp only when you're confident you can travel through the area without such a mishap befalling you. In my experience, this is best accomplished when the locale has easily recognizable features such as rivers, lakes and logging roads that can serve as waypoints to guide you along your way. It also may mean hunting less-remote "fringe" areas -- locations closer to roads, trails, etc. — until you're more confident in your navigation skills. Regardless, proper preparation is a must to hunt safely in swamps.
When scouting swamps, I carry a compact notebook, a detailed topographic map of my hunting area and a pen. I write numbered notations in the notebook about each type of sign I see and place a corresponding number on the map. When my scouting is complete, these notations help me choose several stand sites, which are then prioritized — good, better, best.
The most important notations are those about sign such as droppings, tracks, trails, feeding areas, beds, rubs and scrapes.
I look first for clearly defined trails that lead from one activity area to another — for example, between bedding and feeding areas. These often follow ridges of high ground, or "paths of least resistance" that permit easier movement from one area to another through the dense swampland vegetation. Scouting edges of oxbow lakes and sloughs often turns up frequently used trails that have lots of fresh tracks and droppings, and many good trails follow the contours of hills and rises that are present.
Carry a compact notebook and detailed topographic map while scouting your hunting area. Write numbered notations in the notebook about each type of sign you see, and place a corresponding number on the map.
I also scout thoroughly for crossing sites that permit deer to move from one side of a body of water to the other. For example, a slough connecting two oxbow lakes may have a beaver dam across it that deer use as a bridge of sorts, making this a good place to set a stand. Likewise, a narrow spot in an otherwise broad bayou may serve as a travel route, even if deer have to swim across.
The best trails lead to thick bedding cover or dense escape areas. Finding where several trails merge into a heavier, single path increases odds of seeing deer, but it may be best to first use a game camera or other device to determine if deer use is during the day or strictly at night. During some of my early fumblings as a swamp hunter, I wasted time watching what, in retrospect, were clearly night-time travel corridors.
Watch, too, for trails with fresh deer sign that traverse feeding areas. This could be a stand of white oaks that has leaves kicked up to indicate deer were there recently searching for acorns, or a small clearing with fresh tracks left by browsing whitetails.
Rubs are among the most important types of sign when scouting swamp bucks. A series of rubs shows the path a buck follows, at least on some days. I've taken several swamp bucks by setting up on fresh rub lines.
Scrapes also provide distinct signs that a buck is using the area. The best are fresh and damp with little debris. Putting a stand downwind is definitely worthwhile.
Look for patterns of movement, and choose several potential stand sites. The nice thing is, in swamps, bucks aren't as apt to change their routines much after hunting season arrives because they rarely see people. If you set up in a good locale with lots of sign, and have lots of patience, you'll likely to kill your deer sooner or later.
It won't be easy. Swamp hunting never is. But crossing the boundary from civilized living to a wild bottomland leaves an indelible mark upon the hunter's soul. Contentment never comes easy again. It exists only in the swampy backwoods away from the tyranny of telephones, schedules and pressing responsibility, in a place where the odds are real, and the necessities of life are no longer guaranteed.
Best of all, in the heart of a swamp, you have a better than average chance of taking a whitetail buck that's bigger than any you've ever seen, the type of deer that inspires legends. Hunting such an animal will challenge you in ways you never imagined, and the result of all those days spent scouting and hunting may bring success or failure.
Failure is never truly part of swamp hunting, however. Whether you kill a buck or not, the hours you spend in the bottoms are worthwhile, for they produce memories you'll never outlive.