Hunting Dangerous Game

66

I came of age in the 1970s hunting behind the levee in the Mississippi Delta with my dad. Though I took it for granted at the time, this was the coolest place in the world to grow up. Tearing about unfettered in the wilderness like Tarzan on crack made me the man I am today.

The Mississippi Delta enjoys some of the richest farmland on Planet Earth. However, were it not for the extensive levee system, the Delta would be a wasteland. Each spring, the 2,203-mile-long Mississippi River floods apocalyptically.

The modern levee system is a 20th-century contrivance. In response to the record-breaking floods of 1927, Uncle Sam invested the time, money, and toil to tame the mighty Mississippi River. While the sprawling flat cotton and soybean farms on the outside of the levee are the immediate beneficiaries, the terrain defined within the levee inevitably takes an annual pummeling.

I came of age chasing turkeys on the river side
of the levee in the Mississippi Delta.

The Battleground

It was the spring turkey season, and the water was just starting to rise. I was maybe 14 years old and had only recently earned the right to hunt by myself. I wouldn’t trust today’s 14-year-old boys unsupervised with crayons, but I was wandering about the woods with my trusty Browning Auto-5 hump-backed 12-bore. It was a different time.

My turkey gun was optimized for the mission. With the plug in place, it packed three rounds onboard. The gun’s 32″ full choke barrel let me reach out and touch any gobbler stupid enough to respond to my romantic overtures. The technical details of the weapon will have a significant bearing on this tale directly.

The turkeys were clearly looking for love elsewhere, so I packed up my gear and set off exploring. I soon found myself overlooking one-half of a long linear lake that ran roughly north and south. The lake was bisected in the middle by a remnant of the old levee, itself created by slave labor in the early 19th century. This time of year, the surging waters of the Mississippi were building up on the northern aspect of the lake and roaring through an ample culvert. The accumulated aquatic life pressed up into this space was simply mesmerizing.

There was a generous basin perhaps twenty meters across that had been formed by decades of vigorous hydraulic action. The culvert ran underneath the raised road to my rear. This basin veritably teemed with massive trash fish. Hundreds if not thousands of gar, carp and buffalo writhed in a slimy mass as they tried and failed to queue up for their turn through the big pipe. It was the sort of vision to hold a young redneck’s interest.

Alligator gar can reach truly gargantuan proportions. Suddenly, a big six-footer flopped mightily amidst the thrashing mass of fish flesh. Being a young Southern male, I reflexively threw up my shotgun and blasted it center of mass with a hot charge of number fours. If you’re keeping track, that left two rounds in my weapon. Now thoroughly mesmerized, I made my way down to the water’s edge, took a seat and planted the heels of my GI-issue jungle boots in the lake to soak up the spectacle.

Herpetologists tell us these guys are cool. Don’t believe it. In my experience, they’re pretty nasty.

The Adversary

The water moccasin was one of the largest I have ever seen. With the benefit of hindsight, this massive specimen had likely gravitated toward this space in search of an easy meal. When not eating stupid young boys, big Mississippi Delta water moccasins most typically feed on fish.

Modern herpetologists will tell us that water moccasins are actually our buddies, like big venomous kittens who are more afraid of us than we are of them. They serve a critical role in the ecosystem by helping keep the fish population in check or some such. No offense, but that has not been my experience. This thing was a freaking monster, and it was clearly out to kill me.

The Battle

The thick serpent rose out of the water between my boots, its fist-sized head studying my man parts from a slant range of about 18”. I was close enough to see the vertical pupils in its eyes. Reflexively, I raised my shotgun one-handed only to find that the muzzle stuck out beyond the malevolent reptile. The big snake opened its jaws wide to expose the snow-white interior that lends the cottonmouth its nightmarish name. For the briefest moment, time stood still.

Without a whole lot of conscious thought, I let myself fall backward onto my back, pulling the shotgun in close to get a shot at the snake. I then reflexively triggered off a round one-handed. It was a Biblical-grade miracle I did not blow my own foot off. I then scampered up the lake bank like a ferret on fire. Now I had one round left in my trusty Browning.

My heart now beating out of my chest, I crept back to the edge. Just as I did, the enormous moccasin met me coming up. He had been arrayed in your typical S-shaped snake fashion in the water. My shot bolus had clipped him twice but both times near his tail. Now, he was charging up the hill for some payback.

I took a quick hitch step backward and blew his head off at a distance of perhaps three feet. The bolt locked back over the empty chamber as my legs very nearly gave out beneath me. I leaned against a generous tree to gather my wits.

Ruminations

I fetched a big stick and used it to stretch the big serpent’s corpse out. I have no idea its actual length, but it seemed about as tall as me. I then used the same stick to throw the massive dead snake back into the water to feed the fish. The circle of life …

I reloaded my shotgun and headed back to camp with a fresh, cool story. My morning’s efforts would not put a bird on the table that Easter, but I had faced some legitimate peril and prevailed. Such stuff as this is what transforms a boy into a man.

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