During the late 1960’s while living in Florence, South Carolina, someone brought an article to work about special hunts to be held at the Savannah River Nuclear Plant Reservation near Aiken, SC. It seemed to be a very big deal, the first of its kind, organized by the state and/or U.S. conservation departments. The article revealed that the land there had been closed to the public since the 1940’s for national security. That’s because the nuclear plant produced the stuff that makes atomic bombs go boom, which was apparently a big secret back in the day. As I recall the story, the government acquired most, if not all, of a county and moved the residents out. Only the people who worked at the nuclear plant were allowed inside this very large, secret, fenced-in area of Southern forest – sort of a Bubba’s Area 51.
Why open this secret area up to managed hunts? And why would there be no limits on the number of, or what was killed? Well, it seems that the deer and other critters had multiplied so much over those 25 years that the plant workers could barely make it to the job without hitting a deer or hog crossing the road. At least that’s what they said: Too dangerous for the plant workers. Now, who would have thought that the drive to and from work would be more dangerous than making Plutonium or whatever they had going on there? Regardless, this would be an opportunity of a lifetime! Five of us wanted in on it.
Names would be drawn to determine who got to hunt and when. The article said they would accept small groups if the applications were stapled together, so we stapled ours together. My recollection is that there would be about six consecutive Saturday hunts, starting in early September, each with about 120 hunters. They requested that anyone with deer dogs sign up to insure the maximum kills. There seemed to be no participation limits on the number of folks who brought dogs for the deer drives.
Several months passed before we got word that our group was drawn. So much time had passed that I forgot we had even entered the drawing. But, Oh Happy Day: We would be participating in the 2nd hunt – Early September. The letter urged us to bring plenty of buckshot. Since the dog owners would be driving with their dogs, rifles and slugs were not permitted and hunter orange caps or vests were required, for safety reasons. Directions were provided to the base camp with the time to be there, as well as instructions to bring anything you might need, like water, snacks, and insect repellant.
That long, pre-dawn drive, crowded into a car with four other grown men seemed much longer than it was. With the weight of all our guns and stuff in the truck, and us big boys inside, the suspension was left with no springiness to cushion the potholes. But our spirits were high and I think we each had at least a 25-rd box of buckshot with us. As we passed around a thermos of coffee, someone mentioned that we might have to rent a trailer to bring home all the venison. Damn right we would!
Even though I had gone on organized dog-deer hunts many times with a neighbor who belonged to a hunting club, this was something different. We arrived to see many, many vehicles and large groups of hunters milling around, most dressed in camo and wearing orange caps, joking and laughing and nearly giddy with anticipation. This was a backwoods circus of hunters, all with the same thing on their minds. About an hour before first light, we were called into a large meeting hall and given final instructions. We had each been assigned a stand and a truck to take us to it.
Anyone who was in the military or has seen an old WWII combat movie can envision the mount-up of units onto trucks for deployment into the field at this point. This felt just like a military operation: Small groups of about a dozen men each, with guns, climbing into the back of trucks that were lined up in convoy fashion, with someone barking orders and checking names at each truck.
I was in the next-to-last truck in line. The dogs would be released as soon as it was light enough for safe shooting. They would drive the area that our line of stands enclosed. Time was of the essence now.
As we bounced along logging roads through the woods as fast as the driver could take them in that 1-Ton flatbed, engine whining as it revved up and down through the gears, we were jostled right and left, frontward and backward. Standing was the only sane option. Like the others, I had a death grip on the sideboards with one hand while holding my trusty 12 ga. Winchester 1400 shotgun in the other. There wasn’t much conversation, just a lot of swearing and proclamations of pain. Then as we rounded a sharp bend that required our truck to almost stop, it did. The engine quit. It wouldn’t re-start.
The driver in the only truck following us said he had to go since the sky was beginning to show light. After promising to come back for us after delivering his load of hunters to their stands, he left us there with our ride on the side of the road – two-thirds of the way to our imagined hunter’s paradise. We all dismounted to stretch our legs and wait, joking about our luck – or lack of it. It was a good time to take a leak and have a smoke. The head-man heard of our plight on his 2-way and came to find us. It wouldn’t start for him, either. It was way past sun-up by then. Another half hour passed and the other truck arrived, as promised, to take us on to our assigned places.
Little white cardboard signs with stand numbers were stapled to trees about every 150 yards along our stand-line, which was a logging road. The area had been “cut over” two or three years before, but the woods were just dense enough and the logging road crooked enough that there was no line-of-sight from one stand to the next. We were told to stay within 20-30 yards of our stand sign, for safety sake. I quickly loaded my shotgun as the truck pulled away with its final few standers. It was time for business.
I wasn’t sure which direction the drive would come from so I looked for a place to position myself for any eventuality. Then I noticed hoof prints. They were everywhere. And dog tracks. It looked like a herd of deer had raced across my stand before my arrival – with dogs in hot pursuit. All the tracks were going the same way. My bad luck was holding.
Being optimistic, I still hoped that a straggler would show up. After all, the folks can’t even drive to work at the plant without hitting one. So I got ready, just in case. Then a string of shotgun blasts from a nearby stand put me on high alert. After a pause, the blasts were repeated. Then, repeated again. There was no pattern to the shots so I never thought they were signaling, just shooting something. I thought that fellow must’ve been into a herd of deer or something, so I waited for one to pop into view. But then there was nothing – nothing but silence. Though tempted to leave my stand, I stayed put.
Hours later, about 1 PM, the truck arrived to pick me up. I was hot, hungry, and tired from having been up since 2 AM. On the bright side, the mosquitoes had not been very bad and my tan was a shade or two darker. My truck buddies, formerly strangers, were quiet. When I inquired about all the shooting, the guys came to life. The shooter, it turns out, had stumbled into a nest of rattlesnakes. He said he was almost bitten by a big “mother” that had a lot of smaller ones around it in the area. I don’t recall how many he killed but the number 13 (appropriate) comes to mind.
The long ride back to Florence was quiet. Nobody in our little group had a shot. I think only one of us saw a deer. Somehow, we had all come up with a zero, though many other hunters scored that day. At least I didn’t have to shoot my way out of a snake den.
Since I rarely got to go deer hunting until many years later, and since the hunting rules changed to rifles or rifled slugs only where I lived, I still have most of that box of buckshot. Sometimes, every decade or so, I’ll shoot one or two just to remind myself how they kick and how devastating they are on a target. But that box of buckshot purchased 45-years ago for the “dream hunt” turned out to be enough for a long, long time – maybe a lifetime. Guess I’ll pass them down with my shotgun when I’m too old to shoot anymore. Hope that’s not for a long, long time, too.
Note: The content of this story is from my recollection. I moved to another state the year after this hunt and was curious as to what I could find about it now. When I looked for information about these special hunts, I found that they continued on after that first year. In fact, they continue even today, except this year 2013 budget restraints caused its format to change: No standers this year. It’s now called the Savannah River Site (SRS). You can check it out at