For years I hunted public land in north Mississippi. Most of the land was owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and it surrounded Sardis Reservoir. It was decent habitat that held some deer but it received tremendous pressure from all sorts of activities that ranged from people running dogs for rabbits and deer to people going out riding four wheelers or just walking around and shooting. This meant that any given day could produce conditions that ranged from fairly quiet to a full blown circus of activity around your stand.
It wasn’t optimal but it was free...and free was the difference between hunting and not hunting. We generally hunted the same four or five places all of the time, but every now and then we’d push into a new area to see what it held. It was on one such outing to a new place that I had an experience that will stay with me forever.
We were going to set up in a new spot this day. It was a set of hardwood hills on the south side of the lake with uncharacteristically steep valleys. The ground in this part of Mississippi is a series of rolling hills but there isn’t much that one could rightfully call “steep”. This set of woods was different in this respect. Here there was some steepness to the land, which led to deep draws between the hilltops, which in turn led to drainage at the bottom.
Drainage areas are a source of interest when hunting in Mississippi. Mosquitos are everywhere, but where there are creeks that hold water you will also have another issue to contend with… the Cottonmouth water moccasin.
For those of you who don’t have Cottonmouths in your part of the world, allow me to introduce you to them. These snakes are not only poisonous but they are mean spirited and stubborn. The big ones will grow thicker than your fore-arm…so thick that even the long ones look stubby. When they reach this size there is no mistaking the triangular shaped head that is the calling card of a venomous snake. As bad as their venom is, their attitude is worse. To help you get in touch with the attitude of the Cottonmouth I want you to think of an impatient crack-head that hasn’t had a fix in a week…this will get you close to understanding these reptiles.
Most snakes will leave the area when a person comes close…and if they can’t leave then they will at least lay low until you’re gone. A cottonmouth ain’t goin’ anywhere when you come around. In his view of the world it’s YOU who needs to buzz off. Not only are they not going anywhere but they are going to threaten you if come close, and if you come close enough then you’re getting struck at. No bones about it.
Most times when you approach they’ll simply coil up and open their mouth as wide as it will go to show you both their fangs and their freakishly white mouth lining. This white lining of the mouth is the genesis of their nickname “cottonmouth”. The fact that it’s called a cottonmouth should be causing a light to go off in your head. This snake assumes this threatening posture so often that it has come to describe them. It’s not called the “closed mouth snake” or the “run and hide snake”. It’s called the cottonmouth because it’s going to threaten you and then attack you…and the first sign you’ll get that it doesn’t like you is the wide-open, cotton-white mouth.
This is an impressive display. I’m not afraid of snakes at all…but every time I see this threatening posture from a cottonmouth it’s a bit un-nerving. This snake would just as soon duke it out with me as back off.
I’ve heard that while a bite from a cottonmouth won’t kill you…it’s going to hurt so bad that you’ll wish you were dead. It dawned on me one day that of all the old Crocodile Hunter shows I saw where the Aussie guy grabbed some of the world’s most poisonous snakes by the tail…I never saw a show where he grabbed a cottonmouth. I take this as further evidence of the snake’s nasty disposition…even the alligator dude didn’t want to fool with them.
So these are the bow hunters concerns in Mississippi during bow season, mosquitos and cottonmouths.
It was at the bottom of one of these draws that I mentioned earlier that I had decided to set up my climbing stand one October afternoon. The weather in Mississippi during bow season is generally still hot…it’s basically mosquito season with a chance to kill a deer or get bit by a snake. I honestly don’t know why it’s not more popular than it is.
In addition to the mosquito issue you also have the sweat issue. By the time you get to your stand it’s quite possible (one might go so far as to say “probable”) that you will have worked up a good sweat. This is the last thing you want when deer hunting but it comes with the program when you bow hunt in Mississippi.
I got to my stand this day around 3:00 PM and was delighted that I wasn’t just a completely sweaty mess. I picked out a tree right next to a dry creek at the bottom of the draw, put my can of bug spray in my cargo pocket just in case I needed it for self-defense, and climbed up 12 or 15 feet to settle in. Given that the creek was dry I was more concerned with mosquitos than snakes this afternoon.
If there was a decent breeze then the next few hours would be spent in blissful solitude. I would be able to enjoy a comfortable afternoon, perched high in an oak tree while watching the sun turn the woods into beautiful kaleidoscope of orange, red, gold and yellow as its rays filtered through the fall foliage and onto the forest floor.
If there was no breeze then I would essentially be sitting perfectly still in a sauna with blood-sucking insects trying to kill me before I fell to death out of my tree stand. Mosquitos might be the worst things on the planet. Their high pitched whining grates on my nerves worse than a dental drill piercing a tooth. The way they hover and try to land on your eyes, nose, and ears is maddening, and the fact that they can bite you clean through a set of blue jeans is shocking (in Mississippi they grow them this big). For most people this is never an issue…you can just go to a place where the mosquitos can’t get you. The bow hunter on the other hand has to be here, has to remain virtually still, and you only use bug spray as a last resort due to the scent it carries with it. You are basically at the mosquito’s mercy.
So those were my possible outcomes based on the wind…which was completely out of my control. Either way it was amid this awesome fall sunset that I would silently observe the forest as it transitioned from its daytime schedule to the night shift.
The squirrels are usually the first to move. Depending on where you are hunting you either get to watch the standard-issue gray squirrel, or if you’re lucky enough you are in a spot where you get to be entertained by the freakishly muscular red-squirrels. These are like the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s of the squirrel world. You may see some turkeys next, the birds of prey will be out and silently gliding through looking for a victim, and late in the evening you might even see a fox or a coyote. If you’re really lucky you might actually see a deer.
This particular evening was a slow one. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. The sun had set, darkness was upon me, and the hunt in the new area was a bust. All I had to do now was climb down the tree, pack up my stand, throw it on my back, and hike back to the truck.
I worked my way down the tree in a methodical fashion, set my bow on the ground to my right, and worked on unhooking the stand and packing it up. It takes a few minutes to pack up the stand but I’ve done it a thousand times in the dark so it’s not a problem. Once I had it packed and on my back all I had to do was grab my bow and start hiking.
At this point it is pitch black in the woods. I know that I laid my bow down to my right but I’m going to have to bend down to make out its silhouette against the forest floor. As I squatted down next to the creek and reached out into the darkness I heard a sound that stopped my heart…it was a long, angry, pre-historic, reptilian “HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS”.
I was young and healthy at the time and it felt like my heart had immediately stopped beating. I was reaching out into the darkness to grab my bow, I couldn’t see a thing, and from somewhere VERY close to me is coming an angry and violent hissing whose sound is only amplified by the comparative silence of the night time woods.
I froze. In my mind’s eye I could see it; I’ve seen it a dozen times before. Somewhere in the dark near my outstretched hand is a coiled up Cottonmouth with his jaws agape, trying in vain to convey a warning with an aggressive display that I simply can’t see due to the dark. My heart has started beating again and it’s trying to make up for lost time by going about 1,000 beats a minute. I’m quickly trying to figure out what my next move should be. Should I simply stand up? Just pull my hand back? Jump backward and risk landing in the creek?
As my mind tumbled through the options like a rubiks cube I felt a new sensation cut through all of the other information that I was processing. Something wet was on my right leg. What in the world? Everything was now shrouded in confusion as my heart raced and the hissing continued.
It felt like I had been stuck in this dark squat vs. the snake for an hour. He hadn’t struck yet and I hadn’t run yet. In reality it might have been only two or three seconds…but I aged a year in that time. Now I had new information…the wet sensation on my right leg…and then it hit me. I started a quick, nervous, relieved laughter out loud, all by myself deep in these Mississippi woods the moment it dawned on me.
When I squatted down in the dark to retrieve my bow, my camo trousers had bunched up and depressed the button on the can of bug spray I had put in my right cargo pocket before I climbed up the tree earlier. The hissing sound was the activation of the bug spray can, and the wetness that I felt was the result of three or four second’s worth of bug spray soaking my pocket and pants leg. The timing of the bug spray activation, along with its snake-like sound, and the scenario I was in when it happened all combined perfectly to play a world-class trick on my mind.
I picked up my bow and I marched out of that draw at a very quick pace, laughing like I had just dodged the grim reaper himself. I couldn’t wait to get back to the truck and tell my hunting partner about my “brush with death” and let him share in the laughter.
We frequently say that the hunt isn’t about the kill…it’s about the chase. This is one of those times when the story that you remember most has nothing to do with the animal, but with the process of finding him.