A Fateful Fuller Swamp Hunt

Fuller Swamp isn’t a welcoming type of place that invites you in for coffee by the kitchen fireplace. No, not quite. The call from Fuller is more like a challenge or foreboding taunt. Something like, “Come on in if you dare and give it your best shot.” No promise of success, never an apology to weak-willed, mud-splattered, burdock-covered retreaters, of which there have likely been too many to count.

A spring-fed, late-Pleistocene, relict channel of the Deerfield River located between Mill Village Road and Route 5 & 10 in Deerfield, the deep, dark swamp is tucked along the eastern base of a tall, steep land shelf known in Deerfield parlance as Long Hill. The wooded, cattail jungle is traversed by a power line along its southern perimeter and has, for the few hunters who venture in, grown nothing but more difficult to navigate over the past 50 years. Though historically a haunt for bird, waterfowl, and rabbit hunters, it can also attract the hardiest deer and bear hunters as well. Why not? Wildlife gravitates to such rich, fertile swamps where the eating’s good.

As a young man, the place referred to in townie local lingo as “Fuller’s” was part of my weekly valley pheasant-hunting itinerary west of the Connecticut River. The well-worn path led me from Little Naponset at the south end of Hatfield to the North Meadows of Deerfield, mostly in swamps bearing names such as Mill, Cow Bridge, Bashin, Hopewell, Stonecrusher, Savage’s, and Pogues Hole. Also, of course, intimidating Fuller’s, thus named because of its history as part of the old Fuller Farm, where nationally recognized Deerfield artist George Fuller (1822-1884) was born and raised. Today, an octogenarian Fuller descendant, the widow Mary Arms Marsh, lives there, selling seasonal produce at her roadside Bars Farm Stand, one of my regular summer vegetable stops. Mary and I carry the same Arms DNA, so I view it as family.

As captured on 19th-century canvas, the Fullers harvested cranberries in the bog behind their hipped-roof, Federal home across the street from the even earlier Allen Homestead. They also cut hay in fields that in my day served as marshy Melnik cow pasture, now overgrown wasteland populated by alders and poplars, thorns and vines, cattails and hummocks hiding treacherous pockets of black, sticky mud that can swallow a careless, freewheeling man in a jiffy.

How could I ever forget the day when, hunting with dear late friend and former Frontier baseball coach Tommy Valiton, I stepped on a thin, silty, harmless-looking trickle of a spring stream exiting the swamp’s interior and quickly found myself submerged to my chest? I stopped the slide to oblivion by reaching out my arms and shotgun and eventually hoisting myself back to my feet. No place for the weary or weak of spirit – Tommy was thoroughly amused. His mischievous smile said it all. Yes, he was humored to have borne witness the type of next-step’s-a-Lulu tale that’s told and retold for decades.

Then, of course, there’s another old hunting and softball buddy who’s often accompanied me to Fuller’s over the years. I call him Cooker and it was he who coined the term “Fuller Swamp Music” for the loud, humorous profanities inevitably uttered by shotgun-toting hunters who brave the Fuller brambles. His pronunciation of the word swamp rhymes with ramp or camp, his best attempt at a backwoods, hillbilly dialect.

Yes indeed, the place can draw loud, nasty cussing from even the pious, which fits neither of us. We have both sung Fuller Swamp Music to vent rage brought by wet, mucky misfortune of one little misstep. We know coming in that it’s almost impossible to avoid such catastrophes when focused on a gundog hunting fresh scent and a flush.

Still, we keep coming back for more. It all comes down to finding dense, semi-penetrable coverts where wise, late-season pheasants reside. That description fits Fuller Swamp to a tee, and brings us to my most recent, disastrous Fuller’s adventure that could well be my last. Yeah, I suppose it’s possible, yet not very likely.

The tale unfolded late in the day on November 24, two days before Thanksgiving and four days before the end of pheasant season. I was hunting with a buddy I affectionately call Killer because of his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and hit his mark. Accompanying us was Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of an English springer spaniel gun dog, owned by Cooker and bred to attack punishing cover.

With stocked pheasants getting tougher to find coming down the stretch, we had first ventured into Fuller’s a week earlier. On that maiden voyage, we nearly turned back at the midpoint when unable to find even the hint of a trail to follow and were thus forced to break our own. Mind you, breaking such a trail is no easy task for two spry young lads, never mind two old diehards with a combined age of 143 years.

Complicating matters was a nagging cramp Killer had been experiencing in his right calf since September. He’d been treating it with overnight muscle relaxers prescribed by his doctor and daytime ibuprofen to limit inflammation, but the medicine brought only moderate relief and he couldn’t shake his nagging issue. Physically compromised in his 76th year, he was nonetheless ready and willing to go daily, oozing painful enthusiasm through tough cover. Problem was that his discomfort and concern only waxed as the season endured. Maybe it was unwise to continue pushing it if he wanted to get through deer season. So, yes, it was high time to start balancing his love of wing-shooting with his love of the looming deer season and tender venison backstraps, sizzled rare in the bacon fat of a black Griswold skillet.

We parked separate vehicles after 3 p.m. in the Long Hill shade under the power line overlooking the southwestern corner of Fuller Swamp, just below the site of a recent fatal automobile accident. Partly cloudy skies were graying and the temperature was dropping into the low 40s, perfect for Fuller’s.

We figured it would take us about an hour to hunt the familiar, rectangular, 20-some-acre covert that has always been productive. We knew Rexxie would be up to the task. The question was: could we stay with him and reward him with retrieves for his flushes? A tall order for even a young man, it helps to know the game and the swamp.

We passed under the power line and descended down a steep 15-foot escarpment to the wetland, crossing a decayed pallet snowmobile bridge into the old pasture. From there we plowed east along the edge of a long, tall alder stand leading to a north-south game trail that would take us where we wanted to go. About halfway to the thin trail used by deer, coyotes and even pheasants, Killer halted to admit he could go no farther. His freakin’ calf was killing him, and he didn’t want to push it.

No problem. I told him to position himself in an opening with shooting lanes and just stand there as Rexxie and I circled west, north, and back south toward him. I knew there was at least one cackling rooster in there, one that had eluded me, Cooker, and Rex the previous day. Given that we were already there, I might as well take a quick loop and call it a day? Who knew? Maybe a wild flush would pass him.

Ole Killer was a little cranky but still game, more than willing to take a strategic stand. The man loves to hunt, to shoot, to watch athletic flush-and-retrieve gun dogs do their thing. Plus, we’ve hunted together for many years and he was confident I could stir up a little action.

I reached to end of the alder row and followed its northern perimeter west before angling toward a productive plateau overlooking a muddy ditch and marsh. Rexxie was all business, bouncing over dense cover out in front of me. I felt a sudden urgency to reach high ground 25 yards away in case he flushed something. Crossing a small patch of low, viny cover to reach my intended destination, my boot got tangled in the vines. I stumbled forward and immediately knew I could not avoid my second fall of the season – not bad for a battered old warhorse. I extended my elbows, forearms, and shotgun in front of me to cushion a low-impact, controlled fall. On my way down, I felt my Achilles tendon pop: not a comforting development.

Uh-oh. I knew what I was dealing with as I lay on my belly, unsure if I’d be able to get back on my feet. If the answer was no, it may have taken a helicopter to get me out of there. I laid my gun to the side, used my arms to prop myself to my knees, unloaded the gun, dropped the shells into my vest pocket, wrapped my hands around the barrels, and used the gunstock to push me up onto my feet. Unsure what would happen if I put weight on my injured leg, I took a cautious step and was surprised that it could support my weight without collapsing. Whew! Maybe I had dodged a bullet.

As I carefully maneuvered out of my tangle, I heard the telltale cackle of a cock pheasant behind me, looked to my left and, sure enough, a rooster passed me 40 yards out. Facing turmoil, I had momentarily forgotten all about Rex, who obviously was still on a mission.

It’s unlikely I would have shot even if my gun had been loaded. Distracted by the injury, I was not prepared. That’s the bad news. The good news was that the bird flew toward Killer, who I could not see. I yelled loudly that a flush was coming his way but received no response from him or his gun before the rooster landed between us, maybe 100 yards south of me.

I walked 10 yards, picked up a game trail and slowly followed it toward the pheasant. Once in the neighborhood, I whistled to Rexxie, who soon appeared, blowing past me with a noseful of excitement. It’s fun to watch.

“Killer?” I hollered.

“Yeah,” he growled from about 50 yards away, t’other side of the tall alder screen between us.

“Heads-up. The bird’s between us, and Rexxie just went in there.”

Seconds later, I heard the “cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck” of another rooster flush, followed by the deafening roar of Killer’s trusty old Remington.

“Didja get him?”

“Yup.”

“Attaboy, Killer!”

Rexxie quickly retrieved the dead bird. I rejoined Killer and told him of my injury. He dropped the rooster into his gamebag and we embarked on our perilous journey back to my truck. Using our unloaded shotguns as expensive walking sticks, we carefully limped a quarter-mile out of that thorny, slimy hellhole fully aware that our season was over.

Finally, two weeks later, after limping around the house between icy then hot soakings, and avoiding medical establishments during the COVID scare, I found my way to the orthopedic surgeon for bad news. I had ruptured my Achilles tendon, which I can’t say surprised me. That’s what the telltale pop screams when it happens. The question was: How had I been able to walk away? Luck, I guess. Maybe even friendly swamp spirits.

So now, here I sit, confined to a walking boot and sentenced to a potentially long, tedious winter recovery. Have I experienced my final Fuller Swamp hunt? Maybe so, but don’t bet on it. I’ll likely return because I love it. So do Killer and Cooker, buddies who’ll come along for the ride, chasing wet, thorny cackles to Fuller Swamp Music that ain’t gospel.

 

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