“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy said it in “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. Louisiana’s Ricky Caldwell spoke those same words on the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in 2012.
Ricky was born and raised not far from what would eventually become one of the best public hunting tracts in North America. Under his father’s tutelage, he cut his hunting teeth at the Madison Recreation Hunting Club at the end of the Sharkey Trail. It was there, in 1965, where he killed his first deer with a .410 shotgun.
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But when Chicago Mills sold the land to the government, the Caldwells lost their camp and were forced to hunt different lands, none of which could compare to the memory-filled swamp.
Finally, after hunting a few years away from his heart’s desire, Ricky, along with his son and some friends, were able to buy a small lot on the Tensas River and, once again, Ricky was reunited with the land he loved.
Because he’s a farmer, Ricky’s wintertime schedule is slow and allows plenty of time to hunt. From Nov. 1 until Jan. 31, he’s in a tree just about every day (except Sundays).
Going into the 2011 season’s final month, Ricky had taken a good 8-pointer. And he had every reason to believe No. 2 was going to fall in just a matter of time.
He was seeing lots of deer. He’d even taken a shot at a buck he thought would go 150 or better, though he had only a missing arrow to show -- or not to show -- for his effort.
Ricky started hunting with a crossbow two years earlier. Before that, he was a compound bow user. He likes to find two trees close together.
On the day he saw the 150-incher, he’d found a setup just like that, and he was watching two bucks and a doe a short while later. The larger was staking claim to the nanny.
“The big one made a growling noise at the little buck whenever it got too close to the doe,” Ricky said. “I’ve heard them talk about a buck roar on television, but I don’t know if that was it or not.”
After watching the deer for an hour, the big buck finally gave Ricky a chance. But the hunter was so focused on shot placement, he neglected to see that the front of his crossbow was too near the tree in front of him. Thus, when he pulled the trigger, the bow’s limbs struck the trunk and sent the bolt to Never Never Land.
“I was sick when that happened ... so sick I almost puked,” Ricky chuckled.
As he made his way back to his truck, he vowed to return to that spot as soon and as often as possible.
In a dozen trips -- hunting three days at a time before giving the place a rest -- Ricky saw several deer, but not the big one. He soon grew weary of the chase.
“I made the decision that I was going to hunt it one more time, and that would be it for that spot,” he said.
Ricky climbed the same tree for the last time on Tuesday, a mild Jan. 24. At 9 a.m., he heard something fast approaching through the water behind him. It was a buck!
When Ricky lifted his crossbow, the deer turned and started circling him at 40 yards. He tried to stop the massive 7-pointer, but the animal had other ideas, other places to go. Ricky almost left at that point, but he decided to give it one more hour.
At 9:55, Ricky stood to stretch and gather his gear. As soon as he was upright, he heard something crash in the palmettos and immediately sat back down and grasped his crossbow.
He soon spotted the familiar 7-pointer.
“I could see it and another deer out in the palmettos, circling each other. I thought the other one was a doe, at first, but then I realized it, too, was a buck. They’d been fighting,” Ricky said.
The 7-pointer had Ricky’s complete attention before the other buck stepped clear of the fronds. And when he saw it, he nearly fell out of the tree.
“I’ve hunted that same area for 47 years, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “That buck was HUGE!”
Both deer began walking toward Ricky’s tree. When they neared his stand, the larger one stopped. Ricky’s heart was buck dancing beneath his sternum.
Wracked with indecision, wondering if he should wait for the deer to take a few more steps, doubtful that he was really awake and fearful that he was, Ricky stared at the deer as if it were a purple-suited munchkin wearing a top hat.
The deer made the next move, heading toward an overgrown road, and then Ricky snapped out of his daze and took the 35-step shot. The buck rocketed out of there, and Ricky lost sight of it, although he did see water splash high in the air as it undoubtedly went to ground.