Buckmasters Magazine

Swamp Ghosts

Swamp Ghosts

By Darren Warner

Some bucks spend their entire lives in or near wetlands where hunters seldom tread.

As I looked at the sky to gauge the weather, rain droplets pelted my face. The clouds looked like dirty sheep, kicking water onto everything that lay below.

A low, eerie fog shrouded the swamp, reminding me of a scene from an old Scooby-Doo cartoon.

Jinkies, it’s foggy, I thought – a perfect time to go after Swamp Ghost.

Swamp Ghost was a large 8-pointer that lived in an evergreen swamp. He rarely ventured out of his little sanctuary, but my dad had seen him late in the summer, standing on the edge of his waterlogged fortress checking the wind. We never saw the buck in any of the crop fields that surrounded the swamp, so I put a stand near where Dad had seen him. That’s where I was headed that foggy morning.

The mist and thick brush prevented me from seeing more than 40 yards, and I couldn’t help thinking I was wasting my time.

Then I heard a deer sloshing through the water.

Any hunter who’s heard a deer coming long before seeing it knows the anticipation that follows. I couldn’t see whether it was a buck or a doe, but it was headed straight toward me.

After a few moments, I saw antlers bobbing up and down as Swamp Ghost plodded through the frigid water. The buck’s relaxed demeanor indicated it had no idea I was there. A few seconds later, my arrow sliced through his vitals.

Regardless of whether you hunt in the hardwood swamps of Wisconsin or mangrove marshes of Florida, there are mature bucks that spend most of their lives in them.

“For years, I thought a swamp buck was just a deer that hid out in mucky places when hunting pressure got heavy,” said famed whitetail hunter and author Gary Clancy. “I was wrong. There are deer that spend most of their lives with their hooves in the mud.”

These deer deftly move through lowlands and marshes far removed from the heavy hunting pressure pervading most agricultural areas. If you want to bag a swamp spectre, you have to be willing to get your feet wet – literally. You also have to be willing to get dirty and be a meal for any number of biting insects.

The reward can be worth the trouble.

SWAMP SCOUTING

Just locating a swamp buck is hard work. Start by donning a pair of waders a month or two before hunting season and hike into wetland areas where deer hang out.

Focus on higher ground or break lines. Small bumps or humps surrounded by water are likely places to find a bedded buck.

Legendary Realtree hunter Brad Harris scouts for swamp bucks along edges separating two terrain features, like timber stands and brush lines.

“The edge creates a travel corridor for deer, so it’s an automatic draw for them,” said Harris, who also manages Southern Cross Ranches.

When you find promising buck sign, record the GPS coordinates into your smartphone using any of the available phone applications. If you don’t, it’ll be almost impossible to find the spot later.

Also note potential stand locations and wind direction.

When examining sign, try to determine if there’s a big buck in the area. A mature buck will leave hoof marks at least 2 inches wide. The edges often appear rounded from wear, and you might see drag marks, since big bucks often drag their feet when walking.

Swamp bucks are a little different, but they still need food. Look for nearby acorns, beechnuts and choke cherries. If you find several food sources, place your stand near the one that provides the most cover.

Finally, scouting for deer in swamps is all about patience and persistence. If the swamp is large, get a map and grid the area. Then use a GPS or your smartphone to scout the entire swamp, even if it takes multiple trips.

“It’s hard work wading in water yard after yard and not seeing any tracks or droppings,” Harris said. “You’ll think there are no deer in the swamp. But if you find floating acorns or berries, you’ll find deer flocking to them.”

SWAMP STRATEGIES

Hunting from elevated treestands is the way to go when going after swamp bucks. But be prepared for long sits where you’ll see few deer. Swamp deer tend to meander because there’s so much cover. You might have hunt from the same stand several days before a buck shows up.

Be particularly vigilant about scent control. Terrain features like tall trees, impenetrable cover and pesky thermals can make the wind do some funky things in swamps.

“When there’s foliage on trees, they can act like a wall and make the wind bounce back,” said John Eberhart, bowhunter and author of “Precision Bowhunting” (www.deer-john.net). “And be cautious of entry and exit routes, because you don’t want deer smelling you when you’re coming or going, or cutting your track and running off.”

It’s tempting to choose the easiest route to access your stand, especially if you have to wade through water to get there. But whitetails are going to be using the easiest route as well, so they’re going to know you’re there if you use their trails. Don’t be afraid to wade some deeper water. You might have to put your gear in waterproof bags or even use a canoe to get to your stand.

Still-hunting also can work in swamps, provided you can quickly determine if a buck is worthy of your tag.

If you’re hunting in a small swamp (10-20 acres), a good still-hunting technique is to find a buck track and then make a large half-circle around the swamp, picking up the buck on the other side. If he hasn’t come out after a couple hours, pick up the track and follow it to where the buck is bedded.

Harris likes to put a portable climbing stand on his back, start at daylight and still-hunt until he finds fresh buck sign.

“Many times I’ve still-hunted in the morning and found hot feeding sign and muddy trails,” he said. “I pop up a stand downwind and hunt there the rest of the day. It’s a great way to take advantage of hunting areas that haven’t been contaminated by human scent.”

During the pre-rut, calls and rattling antlers will draw curious bucks into shooting range.

The rut is an excellent time to hunt for a swamp buck. When bucks disappear during the breeding phase of the rut, many of them can be found in bogs, marshes and swamps.

During the rut, a buck will push a doe onto high ground, then wait until she allows him to breed her.

Avoid hunting in swamps when the water’s frozen, however. Ice makes deer nervous and more susceptible to predation, so they move less and are on high alert in icy conditions. You’re also more likely to fall and get injured.

Finally, when you harvest a swamp buck, Harris recommends not field dressing it until you get out of the swamp. Just grab the buck by the antlers and float the deer out.

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After the Fact: The best time to scout is immediately after deer season.

This article was published in the July 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2021 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd