Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Return to Mattamuskeet

In my childhood years my family made all kinds of trips for all kinds of reasons.  During some of our sporting outings we discovered a special place located in the coastal swamps of North Carolina, more than 400 miles east of our home in the Smokies.  The earliest trips were ones where we camped in November to hunt, getting a jump on deer season by hitting a part of the state that opened earlier than the mountain region.  We'd also tow the boat along and fish some of the Carolinas' only natural lakes,
the miles of canals around them, and some coastal plain rivers like Pungo, Alligator, and Scuppernong.  Eventually those trips started including spring break trips where we'd go there purely to fish.  We caught big yellow perch in Lake Phelps and largemouth bass in and around Lake Mattamuskeet.  We'd also pick up slab crappie, white perch, bowfin, and the occasional gar.

By the time my brother and I were into high school traditional trips to Mattamuskeet had been established - spring fishing trips and fall hunting-fishing combo trips.  About the time I was done with college, the fall trips had become a permanent fixture.  They began to include an uncle and some cousins.  The biggest buck I ever took in North Carolina came on a trip down there, and I got to share the shot with both my dad and my uncle at the same time on a fluke chance that we all met up at once.  That was also my last trip.  After getting married and moving away, my participation in the fall tradition ceased.   A dozen or more years have passed.

late 1990s

My dad and uncle still go every year.  Sometimes my cousins join them.  The trip has gotten bigger.  It lasts longer and has grown to include salt water trips for redfish and trout.  In the time since I last went, my dad and his brother have turned grey.  My cousins have grown into men.  I have my own six- and seven-year-old children.  A man we met while staying in his sportmans' motel for spring fishing trips became a family friend.  Llamar Spencer hosts the trip every year in his little motel and allows hunting on some tracks of land.  He too is a grandfather a few times over now.  I realized one day that the trip, which I've taken for granted for the past decade, can't go on forever.  The time had come to suck it up, buy some airfare, shell out a huge chunk of coveted vacation hours, and fly with my own son from Montana to North Carolina and take part in the annual fall trip.

For the first time there were three generations hunting together where I was not the kid.  My son Cooper has been on small hunts with me in Montana.  Before this fall he'd seen one deer taken.  Now we've shared some experiences new to him that will make lifetime memories.  We swatted mosquitoes, watched deer up close, listened to great horned owls in the dusky dawn, slogged through the swamps, bounced across the waves - tasting sea spray as we chased redfish and watched dolphins.  It may be something that helps shape my son's perspective on the outdoors.  He really knows nothing outside of Montana when it comes to outdoor adventure.  Now he knows there's more, a whole other realm of outdoors unlike the world he lives in that is equally grand in its own ways.

We caught turtles and hermit crabs, hid in ground blinds, ate wild grapes, poked holes in the floating duckweed, and turned our motel kitchen into a full-blown meat processing facility.  We watched cotton fields get baled, peanuts harvested, and soybeans picked.  We hit a little marina cafe for some fried flounder, hush puppies, okra, and tea sweet enough to stand a straw in.  We hung out as six guys, ate like six guys, watched baseball playoffs like six guys, and mulled over hard decisions together - like whether to fish fresh or salt the next day, or whether to hunt.  Or maybe to both fish and hunt.  Tough stuff.

We all met up at the Hyde-Away (aptly named for those folks heading out on sporting getaways to Hyde County, NC) on a Thursday and settled in for the next ten days.  Even got in a little fishing before dark that evening.  The next day we walked the property we'd be hunting and set up ladder stands, hung chain-on stands, and built a few ground blinds.  Saturday was opening day, and that morning found my dad and my son sitting together in a pair of ladder stands set up side-by-side. It was my son's first experience in a tree stand and my dad's first experience hunting with his grandson.  As dawn broke over the swamps I was sitting a short distance away in a sweet gum, hidden by a tangle of vines, and listening to frogs and the general din of eastern woods that I hadn't heard in a long time.

My cousin Ryan connected with two deer that morning, and by evening they were butchered and in the chest freezer we'd brought along for the sole purpose of filling with game and fish fillets.  Over the next few days we took five more deer, all of us punching at least one tag.  It was a meat hunt, pure and simple.  Some good bucks were seen, but either beyond property boundaries or after shooting light.   Over the course of the week we also saw turkeys and four bears.

One morning I took a deer with my son practically in my lap.  Another evening I sat side-by-side with my uncle and shared in the moment with him as he took a deer, something we hadn't done in years.  Sometimes my son and I watched deer together with no intention of shooting them - aside from hoping a bigger buck would show up.  He observed whitetail habits and behaviors, listened to them splash through the swamp and flooded cornfield as they walked.  

The deer we did take was a little buck who stepped out into a grassy lane and walked within twelve yards of us.  My son was in my lap, trying to keep from shivering on the frosty morning.  I could do nothing but watch as it came from 50 or 60 yards and walked passed us before catching the movement of my son turning his head to watch it go by.  The deer bolted back to where it'd come from and stood broadside, trying to decide whether there was a threat or not.  I asked Cooper if he wanted me to take this one.  He  enthusiastically whispered "Yes!" and slid slowly off my legs behind our screen of brush.  The deer stood just long enough for me to settle the crosshairs and squeeze a shot, Cooper taking in the whole event.  It promptly ran off and few yards and sank in a canal.  I marked the spot and half an hour later it appeared on the surface.  We fished it out with a long stick as my uncle and cousin Sean linked arms and hung onto me while I leaned out over the canal to reach the deer. 

Hunting gave way to fishing as the weather warmed and the freezer filled to a level of venison everyone was satisfied with.  The wind diminished and two absolutely perfect days emerged in the forecast for some runs by boat out onto the bigger salt water.  We had two boats - my uncle's and my dad's.  We launched inland within a canal and ran out into various bays of Pamlico Sound.

My dad had dialed the water in over the previous dozen years, and we zoomed from spot to spot, catching fish upon arrival at nearly every place he had in mind.  We caught trout where he said there'd be trout, found redfish where he said we'd catch redfish, and picked up flounder along stretches he said would hold them.  There were points of land jutting from the marsh where both redfish and trout were stacked together.  We caught fish on various plastics, suspending plugs, walk-the-dog topwaters, and Glass Minnows (more on those and the fishing HERE).  We were fortunate enough to get into some hot trout action and to hook some brute redfish.  I got to scratch an itch that had been festering for more than ten years, and even took a big red on a topwater bait for icing on the cake.

In one afternoon my dad and I landed five redfish between 24 and 29 inches.  Cooper didn't seem to care too much about hooking fish on his own, but he fought several to the boat when we handed him a rod and got an absolute kick out of netting the ones my dad and I landed.  He loved to measure them to see if they were keepers and let them go if not.  He maintained the live well and its water quality.  But driving Grandaddy's boat was the highlight of each day....

One evening at the end of our trip I slipped out for a solo hunt.  Instead of taking a stand, I moved slowly through the flooded woods, checking field edges and glassing deep into the tangle, hoping to catch up with a buck my uncle had spotted earlier that was sticking to the woods.  While following a scrape line I came up on two bedded does that I watched at close range for a while before they figured out I was there.  Later I detected a larger animal moving my way that turned out to be a bear.  It got to about 35 yards, then found a carcass to gnaw on and spent the next 40 minutes crunching bones just a short distance away, never aware of me.  The swampy vegetation was just too dense to get a picture, and bear season wasn't yet open.

Our final morning found us loading up the pick-up trucks and boats like gear-laden gypsy wagons.  The trip was over - seven deer, a few hundred fish, and plenty of comradarie later.  Six Allisons.  Three generations.  Five of us hadn't been in the same room together since my cousins were toddlers.  Cooper was a new addition, and he'd heartily jumped in with both feet.  The trip was long overdue, yet also timed very well.  Throughout the days as my dad and uncle Ed reflected on previous trips, they realized they were having a hard time mentally separating one trip from another.  Memories ran together.  But I have a feeling this one will stand out in each of our minds and will be referred to fondly for years to come.