Heart of Dixie: A Traditional Alabama Deer Hunt

Photos by Peter Bohler About 25 yards behind me is the Bald Cypress Sink, a completely flat pool of water … Continued

Photos by Peter Bohler

About 25 yards behind me is the Bald Cypress Sink, a completely flat pool of water beneath an unbroken coating of luminous green duckweed. Cypress trees rise from the water, their craggy fingertips draped in frosty veils of Spanish moss. Fangs of cypress knees jut from the mud. I’ll hear anything running through there. On the other three sides I’m surrounded by a mixed hardwood forest this early January day in Alabama, and only the beech trees still hold leaves, so I have decent fields of fire.

I’m awaiting the arrival of a deer, preferably a big buck scared witless by one of the two packs of hounds the Millwood Hunt Club has loosed in this 2,400 acres of pine and hardwood forest in Hale County, Ala. My old friend, Wade Brannon, has lured me here from Montana for one of the five or six drives the club organizes annually. Wade had ordered me to stay within 25 yards of where he dropped me off. There are about 75 guns in the field today, we’re loaded with buckshot, and it’s important to know where everybody is.

Having never been involved in a hound drive before, as I stand and watch dawn light the forest, I keep thinking, How much easier could this be? I stand here, dogs chase deer to me, I shoot one. I lean back against a big white oak, its bark smooth with moss. I’m going to kill a fine Alabama deer, easy as pecan pie.

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Twenty minutes in, I hear the hounds, several high-pitched yelps and one deep, continual cannon booming. The forest makes pinpointing their echoing howls impossible. Then there’s some silence before the hounds sing again, closer now, led this time by a beaglelike yap. They’re headed right for me.

A Swamp in the Land of Cotton
In 1882, the land that made up the Millwood estate became the property of the forebears of retired federal bankruptcy judge George Wright, who, with his sister Camille W. Cook, owns the property now. Millwood lies on the banks of the Black Warrior River, in the Black Belt of Alabama, where deep dark soil made cotton king. Too swampy to grow cotton, Millwood became an important river port. Cotton was warehoused here, and a modest rivermen’s hotel housed steamship operators waiting out low water; today that building serves as a bunkhouse for the Millwood Hunt Club members.

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Judge Wright’s great-uncle, Wiley Croom Tunstall, a powerful Alabama politician, assembled large tracts of cotton plantations in addition to Millwood, which he preserved as a hunting ground and a timber plantation. He brought the young George Wright here to experience hound drives, an old Southern tradition that’s now dying as pieces of land big enough for running dogs fracture under the pressures of subdivision.

Tunstall had seven nieces and nephews, and when they took control of Millwood, it changed.

“I had an uncle who wanted to live like a millionaire but he wasn’t a millionaire, so in 1940 he cut over the whole property, sold every stick of wood he could for a dollar,” says Judge Wright, who is now 82 years old, and whom everybody calls simply “the Judge.”

Eventually the family decided to draw cards to divide all the property holdings. Scalped, swampy Millwood was not a prize in the portfolio. Camille Cook, representing the Judge’s branch of the family tree, drew the four of spades: Millwood. The Judge could not have been happier.

“When we took over in 1962,” Judge Wright says, “we didn’t cut a tree for 30 or 40 years.”

Today the plantation is managed with the help of a forester to produce a rotating harvest of hardwoods and pine, and a biologist to sustain healthy deer populations. “If you’ve got good timber management, you’ve got good deer habitat,” the Judge says.

This observation seemed accurate enough the evening before the drive, when Wade and I sat in an elevated shooting house overlooking the Doe Patch, a 200 x 50-yard field surrounded by loblolly pines, beeches, and sweet gums. The Millwood Hunt Club maintains about 20 of these fields, which are planted with a mix of rye, winter wheat, and clover; about the time winter rains start to rot the acorns that deer eat, the fields green up. We watched eight different does feed and then ghost into the woods. But, this still being the rut in Alabama, just before dusk a handsome buck sauntered across the field, sniffing their trail. His rack had long distinctive tines, six by Eastern count, polished so white they glimmered like daggers in the gloaming. Millwood rules prohibit stand hunters from harvesting bucks smaller than 8 points. So we watched as he followed the does’ trail in the wrong direction, heading where they had come from, until he disappeared into the dark understory.

We’d seen nine deer in an hour and a half. I was thinking that the morning, with the aid of drivers and dogs, was going to be stupid easy.

Ancestral Hunting grounds
To imagine the Millwood Hunt Club as a bastion of rich and privileged Southerners would be wrong. I learned this the night before, when Cade Cook, the Judge’s nephew, brought me to the rivermen’s hotel to mix with the membership. Millwood has only 30 dues-paying members. Members’ kids are invited to hunt until they’re 22. After that, they can hunt as invited guests. Members can bring as many guests as they want, but each one costs some folding money. Legacies and regular guests are nominated as new members when the rare opening occurs. “Usually, the only way you give up a membership slot is if you die,” a third-­generation member told me.

Cade showed me around the old hotel, where, on interior walls of crumbling horsehair plaster, annual tallies of who shot what were scribbled. Some entries dated back to the 1880s.

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I met Scott Windham, a barge operator whose speech is more brawl than drawl. I was able to piece together that Windham had been hunting as a guest at Millwood for about 22 years, had become a member five years ago, and is one of the club’s most effective hunters. He had brought his son, Hunter, who’s 11 (a couple of dozen kids too young to get a driver’s license were here for this drive, at least a half dozen of them girls).

“He’s working on his fourth 8-point,” Windham said of Hunter. “But he’s very particular.” At Millwood, youngsters who have never shot a deer can take any animal they want for their first kill. Hunter had passed on several does, and when he stared down his gun at a 6-point buck, he’d said to his dad, “Not big enough.”

“Get your first deer under your belt, boy,” Windham had told him.

“Not big enough,” Hunter had repeated.

“I’m glad my son gets to experience this,” Windham told me. “It’s a dying tradition in the South. It’s not about the deer. Stalk hunting is how you get the big bucks. But as far as a social event and tradition? My grandfather talked about driving deer. Way back, my relatives used to camp on this property. This was not long after the Civil War. Now my son and I can see what they came to do.”

I also met the youngest member of the drive, 5-year-old Ford Espy. Ford had shot his first deer, a doe, earlier in the season with a .260 from a stand in a grassy area called Cade’s Field. A blooding ceremony had followed. But Ford’s 42-year-old father, Mel, who works for the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and has been a club member for 22 years, told me that Ford’s attention span wasn’t as refined as it needed to be to stand during the drive. “Plus, as a driver he gets to walk through the woods banging sticks on trees and hollering.”

Then Mel got my heart thumping, talking about the morning to come: “Standing is exciting. Hearing the dogs coming and wondering, Are they going to come my way? It’s the big mystery. They could push one deer in front of them, or 15. You need to be on it. And even after the dogs pass you, keep on point because deer will circle back to lose the hounds.”

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Baying for Bucks
At 6 a.m., I join the camo-clad clubhouse crowd dining savagely on grits, eggs, and lovely thick strips of greasy bacon. Afterward, the membership and guests—about 60 standers and 15 drivers—collect in a crude circle, clumped in clans. Into the middle steps Mike Watts, the Huntmaster, wearing an enormous woolly buffalo hat, complete with horns, looking like nothing so much as Fred Flintstone’s Grand Poobah.

Watts, a former coal-mine operator, starts proclaiming. “Bucks only, 6 points or better,” he says. “If you’re not sure, don’t shoot. If you do, the club will keep the deer; you’ll be reprimanded and beaten with a paddle.” I do a double take on that last note, which I will learn more about later. He has a few things to say about safety and finishes with “If you see a driver, make sure he sees you.”

We’re each assigned to a line captain. Wade is mine. I hop into the bed of his pickup with his 12-year-old daughter, Stella, his 14-year-old son, Hampton, and a few of their besties. Another old pal of Wade and mine, Charley Duggan, had arrived the night before with his 12-year-old daughter, Maggie, and she is also in the truck.

“I’m so excited,” Maggie Duggan says. “I’ve never done this before. It’s my first time to try to kill something.”

Not much later I’m at the Bald Cypress Sink, standing against that oak tree, listening and laying a little groundwork for buck fever. The dogs howl closer and closer, clearly heading toward me. My nerves fizz. I peer keenly around, listening until my eardrums bulge.

Two packs of four dogs each are out there. They’re a mix of American foxhounds (also known as running Walker hounds), a redbone coonhound, and a couple of hound-beagle mixes. They draw even closer now, excited, gobbling like turkeys. Anything they push to me will break along the edge of or right through the cypress swamp. Now even I can tell the dogs are within 100 yards or so.

And then they go silent. Five minutes pass. I hear hoots from the drivers. Ten minutes, no dogs. I’m straining to hear a deer circling back. I see movement. It’s a driver, about 75 yards away. I wave my hat at him until he lifts a hand to me. So much for that easy deer.

Wade picks me up and the entire group collects at a predetermined spot. Mike Watts reckons between 55 and 70 deer have been seen, depending on how many were multiple sightings, but none has been put on the ground. Charley Duggan and Maggie saw a “unicorn buck” missing half its rack, rendering it a 3-point and thus off limits.

“We must be running a conservation organization here,” Watts says.

We all drive out to the northern reaches of the property, set up new lines, repeat the drill. Again the dogs swing close to me, worked up and baying away. And then, just when I think either a deer or a dog has to burst out in front of me, there’s that silence. Five minutes later, howling resumes, but far away and heading farther.

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Hunt Club Justice
Back at the lodge, everybody seems pleased as peaches, even though nobody even took a shot at a deer. “Now you see that this is not about the killing,” Mike Welborn, the club treasurer, tells me.

The club members gather for “court,” another longstanding custom. A young hunter who killed his or her first deer would be blooded here. This is also when judgments are made and justice swiftly distributed. Hunters can be punished for shooting a doe or a buck that’s too small. Or shooting too close to a dog. Or failing to shoot a coyote or bobcat. For many years, the convicted simply had their shirttails cut off. “But too many wives complained about us ruining nice shirts,” Welborn says, “so we got to licking them with a paddle.”

Huntmaster Watts plays judge. Welborn constitutes the jury. Watts addresses the crowd. “Raise your hand if you heard any shots today.”

Several people raise their hands.

“And am I wrong? Are there no deer hanging here?” Watts gestures to the meat poles behind him, then points to a hunter in the crowd. “Why don’t you come and tell us what happened?”

The man, Kevin Harbison, makes his way to Watts and Welborn.

“Did you shoot?” Watts asks.

“I did,” Harbison says.

“Where’s your deer?”

“I shot a coyote.”

“Bulls–t,” Welborn, the impartial juror, says.

“Where is that coyote?” Watts asks.

“I don’t know.”

Back-and-forth dialogue ensues, wherein Harbison claims he shot a coyote that slunk off into a jungle of blowdowns that a tornado created several years back, and he didn’t waste time looking for it. Welborn, itching to see a paddling, repeatedly drills the same question: “Where is this coyote?”

Harbison conjures no satisfactory answer.

Welborn and Watts sidebar, then Watts announces to the crowd that Harbison, having taken a shot and having nothing to show for it, must be paddled. He picks up a huge plank carved down to a long handle and starts swinging it around like a pinch hitter in the on-deck circle.

“Grab your knees,” Watts says.

Harbison bends slowly and places his hands on his knees. He turns his head to Watts and says, “Before you do this, I want you to know that I know something about you.” A smirking chuckle swirls through the collected hunters. Watts seems to be the kind of guy that other people might know some things about.

The paddle swinging ceases; Watts raises a palm. “A moment while we confer.”

Harbison straightens and whispers into Watts’s ear. Watts whispers back. More from Harbison. Watts stands stock straight, raises both arms in the air, and proclaims, “This man is innocent!”

The club members all laugh.

“What!?” Welborn cries.

“We have no evidence,” Watts says. “He’s a free man!”

After a few more proceedings, Watts wraps things up. “This is the last drive of the year,” he says. “Tell the cooks you enjoyed the food. They work their asses off for us. They come in early and stay until we’re done.”

We all head in to devour heaping plates of collard greens, barbecued pork and chicken, and hot grainy cornbread.

It’s Not All About the Deer
Later that evening, in the clubhouse kitchen, Harbison, Welborn, Windham, and Watts cook a massively inappropriate amount of meat—burgers, sirloins, hot dogs, corn dogs—for the number of people visible on the premises.

“You don’t come to these drives to kill a lot of deer,” Windham says. “I’ve been hunting down here since I was 18, and I’ve only ever killed one deer on a drive.”

“I’ve only killed one on a drive,” Wel­born says, “and that was nearly in self-defense.”

Harbison, unchastened by his near paddling, says, “But I like to keep the tradition going because of these two right here.” He points to his young son and a girl scarfing down burgers, corn dogs, and fries at the table. “A lot of people want to outlaw hounds. I want to keep this tradition going so these kids, when they’re old enough, can still have this to fight for.”

There are very good reasons certain types of traditions fall away. Looking at those kids, so obviously thrilled to be sharing this experience with their daddies—who themselves seem to be having a ball swilling beers and poking fun at one another—I can’t think of a reason this one ever should end. I’m reminded of something the Judge told me about Millwood. “I wanted a home, a place everybody in the family likes to come to,” he’d said, “and I think I do have that.”

The feeling ripples through quite an extended family—the hunt club and their many guests—and I now consider myself a member of that clan. I know one thing: I’ve been invited back for next season, and I already don’t care if I see a deer or not. I’m coming.