Highs and Lowcountry

Chasing hogs, fanning gobblers, kayak fishing, trapping crabs, camping under the stars—South Carolina's Lowcountry is a wild wonderland where outdoorsmen can have the ultimate spring break. And for a week last spring, the author and his son did exactly that

We haven’t been on the water for eight minutes when June, a stout redbone hound, stands up in the johnboat, nose in the wind, and strains against the lead. Pig-Pen, always the cheerleader, whines in concert, and Ricky Jayroe barks us to order. “Hang on, boys,” he says. “That June dog don’t lie.”

He motors the johnboat straight into the sawgrass as gators slide off the banks, and I shield my eyes from flying muck and tatters of reeds. Now June and Pig-Pen are going crazy. Jayroe unsnaps the leads and they’re off the front of the boat, followed by my son, Jack, photographer Tom Fowlks, videographer Paul Kemper, and a ­Kevlar-​clad American bulldog named Buster—all of them instantly swallowed by curtains of marsh.

But I can’t make the jump: Each time man or beast leaped off the boat, the vessel scooched back a few inches from the bank. Now the boat is adrift, and I have to crank the motor, spin it around, and beach it in the reeds. By the time I jump from the bow, the screaming, barking, and howling are making for pure bedlam. I thrash through briers and marsh, across waist-deep muck and water. Jayroe roars above the din of the dogs: “Where’s my hog killer?”

I nearly vomit with the strain of powering through the marsh. Somewhere in the middle of that hell-show is my boy, who had claimed it early: He has first dibs on the knife.

lowcountry hunting
A Lowcountry cruise.Tom Folks

+ Release the Hounds

When we met Jayroe at the boat ramp, he wore short pants, a belt knife large enough to chop wood, and black Chuck Taylor high-tops. Jack and I, wearing knee boots, stifled smirks. Old-school lace-ups on a swamp hog hunt? My 20-year-old daughter wears high-top Chucks. But Jayroe hunts a place few people know about. South Carolina’s Lowcountry may be known for its genteel demeanor, crowned by Charleston, all charm and table manners. All around, though, lies a vast tangle of semi-wild lands. Our plan was to plumb the untamed Lowcountry. There’s the longest stretch of wild beach on the Atlantic seaboard, and a half million acres of river swamp that haven’t been gentrified and gilded. We sketched out a full week of chasing hogs and turkeys, and paddling and fishing remote barrier islands.

Early on, Jayroe explained his affection for wild hogs of the Southern marsh. His family has free-ranged marsh hogs in the Lowcountry for generations. In the hundreds of thousands of acres of Lowcountry coastal marsh, wild hogs can root vegetation to bare muck. But then those small clearings fill with smartweed and arrowhead and attract ducks in mind-boggling numbers. “These hogs been running wild down here forever,” Jayroe told us. “They’re the curse of the earth up in the woods, but it’s a different story in the marsh. We treasure ’em. That’s why I hunt with just two bay dogs and a catch dog, and hunt close and quick. There’s a strong place in my heart for things that have been here for hundreds of years.”

Close and quick, it turns out, is an understatement. Scrambling through Pee Dee River goo, knee boots nearly sucked off my feet, I think for a split second about Jayroe's black high-tops. The smirk has long left my face.

hog hunting
Ricky Jayroe; the drag.Tom Folks

Now the baying cries of the dogs are ringing like a wall of sound, and I burst through, into daylight, and go nearly headlong into a wide, sunny slough. Jayroe is chest-deep in mud, dragging a squealing hog through the water by a front leg. June and Pig-Pen are latched to the pig’s chest and flanks. Buster has one ear in his jaws. Jack is halfway down the bank, moving in.

I leap into the fray, jam both arms shoulder deep into the goo, and come up with one leg of the hog. Jayroe and I hoist the combined weight of pig and dogs and muck toward the bank, but it’s too heavy to lift, so we pin the thrashing mass to the head-high slough bank with our shoulders and hips. Jayroe hands Jack an 11-inch Bowie knife.

“You know where to stick her?” he asks. Jack nods. The knife goes in a few finger-widths from the nearest set of dog jaws, and for a moment I’m more concerned about Jack getting ripped up by June or Buster than the pig. He levers the knife back and forth as the animal begins to still.

There’s no time for introspection or reflection. Not yet. Jayroe and I are still holding the pig against the mud cliff, out of the water, and it takes all three of us to drag the hog up the slough bank and drag ourselves out of the mud. I’m not 100 percent certain Jack made it out of such a melee of snapping jaws and flailing pig and the giant, shimmering Bowie without a single scratch, but for a long minute we just slump on the bank, chests heaving. The river and marsh, mud and blood, are mired together so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. We catch each other’s eye and shake our heads together in amazement.

+ The Wild Turkey Blitz

Paul Owens walked out of school when he was two weeks into the seventh grade, walked the 13 miles from Marion, S.C., to tiny Galivants Ferry—then walked a few miles more. For six months he lived out of a pup tent pitched deep in the Little Pee Dee River swamps. He came out of the woods on Friday afternoons to sell catfish for $2 apiece, and squirrels for a dollar.

That was 47 years ago, and he’s never really left the big coastal swamps of the Little and Great Pee Dee. “I do my best in the woods,” he says. “That’s where I’m happy.” He’s 60 years old now, and still in the woods more than he’s not, as a gamekeeper and personal guide for one of the largest landowning families in the region. So when Owens says he’s stumped at what the turkeys are thinking, you have to wonder what the next move should be.

We’ve met Owens at the Galivants Ferry General Store, about two boiled peanut throws from the slow black flow of the Little Pee Dee River. The Galivants Ferry village is little more than a bridge and a store these days, high up in the Lowcountry where the rivers start to kink up like moccasins on a log, but the store serves as a de facto community center for folks scattered across a vast swath of swamp, timber country, and sprawling farmland. We refresh the hog coolers with ice, then follow ­Owens past soaring houses with tall white columns into a serpentine network of county roads.

lowcountry hunting
Jack (left) and the author listen for birds.Tom Folks

He takes us to the back side of a swamp-rimmed field where a peninsula of woods juts across the far corner. It’s close to sunset when we get there, enough time to watch a dozen-plus birds fly to roost on the far side of the field. The previous year, Owens counted 96 turkeys in this very same field. “Twenty-seven longbeards,” he tells me. “Everything works like it should, it’ll all be yours come morning.”

Now it's come morning—and it's one of those mornings when every turkey in the world seems perfectly content and oblivious to our efforts to rile them up. We're lined up in the same cattail-fringed ditch where we roosted those birds the night before. ­Owens is on the field edge, flashing a preserved turkey fan toward the roosting woods. Jack's glassing the distant timber. He's found two birds, blown up and strutting inside a plot of pines. But they're a quarter mile away. I have a distinct feeling of not-gonna-happen. After a solid no-action hour, we belly-crawl back to the farm path to regroup.

It’s a tough time of year, we agree, early in the season when the toms are happy with their harems. Then we wonder if those distant birds could have seen us in the predawn moving slowly in the moonlight. We decide to reposition 150 yards downfield, but two steps into the move I catch the glint of early sun on feather tips, on the far side of a rise in the field. “Down! Get down!” I hiss. We drop to hands and knees.

lowcountry hunting
Paul Owens grins for his close-up; a Lowcountry tom.Tom Folks

Now two turkey fans knife beyond the rise, above the sourweed. The toms are moving from right to left, and on their current heading, they’ll be in the big pines in less than a minute.

We crawl back to the field in a frantic crab shuffle. I wedge a slanted 4-inch pine sapling behind my back. Jack tucks down on the ditch back, between the water and a fire ant mound that would fill half a bathtub, and holds a fan. The tail tips are nearly to the woods. I pull out a slate call and practically gouge the slate with a striker. A second desperate yelp does the trick. The tail tips stop, then I see one tom, and now the other, crest the ridge. The whole flock follows. Owens croons with lullaby yelps, which can’t hurt, but it doesn’t fully explain what happens next.

When the sun hits Jack's turkey fan, the biggest tom breaks into a full-on charge. It's hard not to laugh at the old boy, wobbling wildly, gobbling on the run a good 200 yards out. He never slows. Jack looks over with concern. He's in the crosshairs of a big tom butt-whupping. For another 100 yards, the turkey never looks sideways, never falters, and gobbles like mad. At 50 yards, Jack glances back with wide eyes: You got a plan here, Dad?

I pull the trigger when the bird is 17 paces away. The tom flops backward. It’s over that quickly.

There’s a time of backslapping and reliving those frantic last minutes. But then I realize: I’m done, and the sun is barely over the trees. It’s a conundrum felt by turkey hunters everywhere. When it’s crazy good, it’s over too quickly. If I could plan a hunt to suit me best, I would have to work hard all the way to a trigger pull at the end of the day. So I’m standing off to the side of the fuss, my eyes tracing the path from the far side of the field to the bird on the ground, and Owens seems to intuit what I’m thinking. He looks over at me, his eyes wide over a beard as tangled as Spanish moss. “Buddy,” he says, “there’s toms a-gobbling, hens a-singing, sun is up and lighting all that frost in the dirt. What else do you want out of life?”

Lowcountry fishing
The author fires a cast.Tom Folks

+ Last Supper

From Galivants Ferry, we track the Great Pee Dee River 40 miles to the south, cross into the Santee River watershed, and parallel that famed stream toward the coast. We’re nearing the end of it all, in more ways than one. The swamps and rivers we’ve trammeled drain to the Lowcountry coast, and we’d planned three full days of paddling and camping on the remote barrier islands where those rivers meet the sea. But an early-season nor’easter pinned us down in a Georgetown motel. After the storm passes, we load sea kayaks and gear onto a 28-foot flat-bottom skiff—our revised plan being to cheat with a ride to the island that we’d planned on reaching by paddle.

Our captain, Gates Roll, from Mount Pleasant–based Coastal Expeditions, promises to drop us off “in the middle of the greatest all-you-can-eat seafood buffet in the South.” We’ll have 24 hours to fish, clam, and crab by kayak, but with the heavy rains, I wonder about our chances.

With our gear piled on deck, our entry into the Cape Romain marshes is a far cry from the quiet, elegant way we’d hoped to make a path through one of the South’s greatest coastal wildernesses. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that we’re not calling the shots. Roll threads the skiff through a labyrinth of marsh in the 100-square-mile Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, then crosses 5 miles of the open Atlantic to a scimitar of sand beach that armors Cedar Island, at the mouth of the North Santee River.

It’s a bit of a frantic pace. I get lines in the water before the tents go up, concerned that we don’t have much time to forage for a meal fit for four. Roll throws out a crab pot before taking off, and we troll the beach for oysters. Higher than normal spring flow has whittled down the oyster beds, but I still fill a bucket. Back at the tents, I join Jack on the surf rods. He has the hot streak and lands five nice whiting to my single fish, but as the ebb tide slackens, even his luck runs cold. We reel in the lines and take stock.

lowcountry kayak
Jack paddles to a fishing spot; supper is served.Tom Folks

We have 90 minutes of daylight to pull off a modified Lowcountry boil, so everyone jumps in. Fowlks and Kemper work the fire, Jack cleans the fish, and I get the kitchen ready. In 30 minutes, potatoes, sausage, and corn simmer on a camp stove, while whole fish do the peanut-oil shuffle nearby. A grill holds more fish, crabs, and oysters over hot coals. We eat with our fingers, kicked back on buckets and driftwood logs. After sunset, it’s one of the blackest nights I can recall. I think about our location, nearly 10 miles from a paved road, far out on the edge of the refuge. We could be as far away from another human being as anyone else from Virginia to Florida.

The stars overhead wink their approval. “There’s Orion’s belt,” Kemper says. “And see the big M? That’s Cassiopeia.”

Heads thrown back, we’re all silent for moment, drinking in the grandeur. “And there’s Medusa’s staff,” says Jack, pointing. “See it?” That’s one I’ve never heard of. We all gaze up for a few moments, no one quite certain where Medusa’s staff might be. “That’s what I thought,” Jack says, laughing. “You can say you see just about anything up there and people will believe you.”

The next morning I wake to sun dappling through the cedars and leopard frogs croaking from the wet swales behind the dunes. Roll is slated to pick us up by late morning, so after breakfast, I push my sea kayak into the mouth of the North Santee River, and turn the rudder to cross the strong in-running tide toward oyster bars breaching the water a quarter mile away.

Halfway across, I still the paddle and let the current carry me. The tide is boiling over the oyster bars, stringing drifts of spume a thousand yards upriver. The river carries me backward, upriver, toward the marsh, back toward the margin between land and sea where Ricky Jayroe chases hogs like his daddy and grandfather did. The water flows under the kayak, so heavy with sands and sediments that I can hear their slight rasp on the hull, tiny fragments of the fields and swamps where young Paul ­Owens went to get lost, and found himself along the way. We’d spent five days with a pair of unforgettable Lowcountry characters, but now the Lowcountry itself takes center stage. I can feel and hear and sense the mixing of blackwater and brackish water and saltwater alike; hear the dogs baying in the marsh, the yelp of a turkey, and the hiss of oyster liquor spilling into a fire. This is where it all ends, but it feels like a place where it all comes together.

Videos By Paul Kemper

MORE BY T. EDWARD NICKENS :