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May 6 , 2020

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Hunting Camp Recollections; Smooth Stones and Shirttails

by Frank Ross
Hunting Camp Recollections; Smooth Stones and Shirttails

At this point in my life, most of my memories are well rounded. Like a rock in a river, life has worn away the rough edges and left memories that are smooth, untainted by discomforting recollections.


Some unpleasantness remains, dimly lit for the most part. Without a decided effort to the contrary, much of my childhood is recalled with the big fish I caught, and not the ones that got away. While I have no big bucks to ponder from my early days in the woods, hunting still holds the most precious places in my heart.


If senility is the opiate of the aged, I must be getting close to that blissful state, for I can close my eyes and relive the past just like it was yesterday; as long as it was further back than yesterday. My short term memory is shot, but I have excellent recollections of 30 or 50 years ago..


When I was 10 years old, my father introduced me to hunting with a single barrel, 20-gauge shotgun. First came the forays into Gulf Hammock Wildlife Management area, along Florida's West Coast. It was here that I was schooled on squirrels, while we hunted from a makeshift camp that would have made the Beverly Hillbillies proud.

Artwork by Tabitha Woodden


My father was, well let's face it, a "rigger." He was always coming up with a plan that involved bailing wire in some form. He spent a lot of time at auctions and would come home with these "treasures" that were destined for the engineering hall of shame. One such auction adventure garnered a set of bows from a duce and a half Army truck. After crafting a plywood trailer on a mobile home frame and installing the bows, he covered them with the canvas that he got in the same deal and proudly presented his new "hunting rig." True, there was room for sleeping and a place to cook when it rained, but a beauty -it was not. My brothers and I dubbed it the "Green Monster," but this epithet was never uttered in dad's presence. He was a lot of things, but a sense of humor was not among his personal inventory of traits.


The fall hunting season finally arrived, and after "Greenie" was loaded with all the accouterments necessary for a week's stay in the woods. Our 1948 Willys Jeep Wagoneer was doing all it could to gain momentum out of the driveway, pulling the ungainly trailer. As the trailer's frame ground against concrete at the edge of the road, we inched our way into traffic and were off on a great adventure. I tried to focus on the hunt ahead, and not on the flapping canvas contraption that flailed away in our rear view mirror.


This was to be my first hunt of more than one day's duration, and at the time I didn't care what we had to sleep in as long as it wasn't on the ground. My older brother and I slept in a makeshift bunk-bed at the head of the trailer. That December weekend in 1958 was very cold. We left on Friday afternoon after school closed for the winter break. Saturday morning, the mercury in the thermometer emblazoned with a Coco-cola logo that hung by the door strained to hold at the 19 degree mark and I was thankful I wasn't sleeping in a tent. Warm it was not, and dry -well sort of. As luck would have it, the first day of our hunting trip was capped off by a storm that could only be classified as a real "frog strangler." As the storm raged, we huddled inside our canvas contraption and were constantly chided not to touch the inside of the canvas when it was raining.


"Keep your hands off of the canvas," dad growled. "You'll make it leak."


Naturally, I had to touch it to see if he was telling the truth, or just yelling because that was his nature. While daddy was busy sorting his plunder, I reached out to a small damp spot and made contact, then quickly sat back down. In short order, a drop of water formed and a rhythmic plunk, plunk played out a tune on the box of canned food that lay beneath the mark of my disobedience. Dad looked up from his work and watched the steady plinking drip, then he glared at me, then looked back up at the dripping ceiling. Somehow he knew, or perhaps I just looked guilty. After that one little indiscretion, every subsequent drip was credited to my disobedience, even though most of them were coming from the roof higher than I could reach. We spent most of the day moving things that had to be kept dry. Following a full day of claustrophobic correction, I was more than ready to venture outside when the storm subsided.


At the time, Gulf Hammock was largely a swampy wetland with areas of high ground where huge oak hammocks dotted a sea of palmettos and cabbage palms. The swamp was awash with standing water and flowing rivulets that collected in large pools that had to be waded. We hunted late that afternoon and came back with a few wet squirrels, and clothes that were soaked to the bone. These were the days before GORE-TEX, and my military surplus poncho, another auction treasure, was only marginally effective under the steady drip of water that cascaded off of big trees when the wind blew.

Even with wet clothes and clumsy rubber boots, it was a day of exhilaration. We were hunting, and didn't have to go home for a week. The dampness combined with mercury that was hovering in the lower 30s made for an uncomfortable night, but we were able to get a fire started before supper. After cautioning me not to ever do what he was about to do, daddy doused the damp wood with a small tin of gasoline and touched off a blaze that soon warded off the chill, on one side at a time. Daddy was infamous for his child rearing philosophy, that was most often stated as, "don't do what I do, do what I say." I made a mental note: Gasoline is an excellent fire starter, but vowed to myself never to use it -unless it was absolutely necessary.


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All too soon, our week in the woods evaporated. I never got to use the two slugs that I had been given, just in case a buck stumbled into my path. On our trip home, daddy was pulled over by the Highway Patrol for driving under the minimum 45-mph, speed posted on Interstate 4 that ran between Tampa and our home in Lakeland. His $45 ticket sounded the death knell for our canvas contraption, though its final demise was not immediate.The officer instructed us to get off at the next exit and take secondary roads He cussed most of the way home as he fought the errant trailer with its flapping canvas.Traffic on the old two lane highway was heavy but one thing was certain, we wouldn't be passing anyone. I wonderred what the vehicles behind us thought of our contribution to traffic control.

We continued to hunt as a family using the "Green Monster," for another two years until my boyhood prayers were answered. Through an acquaintance he met in his work, daddy was invited to hunt from a real camp, in the Ocala National forest. This camp had a roof, real bunk beds and a camp cook that did the dishes as well. Although I didn't get to hunt there right away, the dangling carrot was ever present in my mind, especially on Thanksgiving.

The camp, owned by a family whose cattle ranch and citrus groves afforded them this great luxury, was the outward evidence of their success. Inside, the varnished, knotty-pine walls contrasted sharply to its rough exterior of rough-cut cypress. The camp's patriarch was known to all, simply as Mr. Emory. At almost 75 years of age, he was the elder statesman of the camp, with a gentle voice and many stories to tell. His son, with the appropriate moniker of Buck, was the hunt's daily organizer who assigned stands and coordinated the day's activities, after consulting with Mr. Emory.


The camp was my first exposrue to young men who were old enough to drive, and had a truck. Three of these were led by JC, who was a senior at the University of Florida. He suggested a trip to the bar at Salt Springs would be appropriate for those who wanted to howl a little. Ater being reminded that revilee was at 4:30 a.m. they left in a flury of shaving lotion and dirt being slung from tire treads in a hurry to get to the bar. I wanted to be in that truck in the worst way because I knew there would be stories to tell in the morning, if they were able to get up.


The alarm came too early for me, and I could imagine how difficult it must be for JC and his cohorts. In the grandest tradition of the camp, they were up, sipping coffee as Mr. Arthur took egg orders and served them up with several strips of bacon, toast or steaming hot biscuits soaked in butter and grits spiked with cheese. For those who could keep it down, there would be no growling stomachs on the deer stand. At this point, JC appeared to be struggling through the mental floss that was clouding his sences. Mr. Arthur had been a cook on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad passenger train Southland that ran from Chicago to Florida's west coast for 30 years. He had been camp cook ever since.


I'll never forget the awe that I felt, walking onto the massive front porch for the first time as a participant of the hunt, instead of the boy who carried pine cones for the women on Thanksgiving. Rockers were scattered across the porch for sitting and talking about the day's hunt, and for the ladies to rest in on Thanksgiving, the camp's most important day. On Thanksgiving, Mr. Arthur, the camp cook, was in his glory. He would start early in the morning, baking a turkey, huge hams and all the trimmings, then the ladies would make their way to the camp around mid morning with cakes and pies that covered a huge table.

Artwork by Tabitha Woodden


When the men came in from the morning's hunt, Mr. Emory would remove his weathered Stetson, say grace, and everyone would eat far more than was reasonable then take a long nap before the afternoon hunt. While the men were napping from the exertion of the morning hunt and the excesses of the noon meal and two laps of the cake and pie table, the wives and children would walk in the woods to collect pine cones and deer moss for Christmas decorations. Even though the pine cones seldom found their way into decorations, the intention was ever-present, and knowledge of previous failures did nothing to dampen the ladies enthusiasm for gathering more.


I was always assigned to carry a shopping bag to put the pine cones in, and politely feigned interest, but it was the afternoon hunt that had my undivided attention. I wanted to go hunting so badly, but when the men woke up from their nap, the women kissed their "men folk" and headed for home. I wasn't deemed old enough to stay, and home was my afternoon destination, accompanied by the perennial bag of pine cones.


Finally, after two years of waiting, my graduation from squirrel hunter to deer slayer was scheduled. When the alarm went off at 3 a.m. my feet were on the floor in an instant, and I could smell the delicious aroma of frying bacon and biscuits baking in the oven. Mr. Arthur, was a retired railroad cook who had worked for the family for years, and the hunting camp was one of his major projects he took great pride in. Today was my big day. It was Thanksgiving and this year I would be coming in from the morning hunt, not riding up with the women and the pies, nor accompanying pine cones that evening.

Artwork by Tabitha Woodden


Although many deer were taken by the hunters of this camp, one of the real curiosities of the camp was the ceiling. It looked like a collection of quilting patches from some ladies' sewing circle. My youthful curiosity finally got the best of me, and although I was hesitant to show my ignorance, I asked the obvious question. "What are all of the scraps of cloth doing on the ceiling?"


Mr. Emory turned and seized the opportunity to sit down in a cane-backed chair and explain. "Why son, those are shirttails of the forlorn," he began. "How did they get up there?" I asked. Sensing themselves as potential targets, suddenly all of the hunters in the room realized that they had something to do and departed. Mr. Emory smiled as they left, and pointed at one in particular he thought would be of interest. "They are hung up there because someone missed a deer. That red plaid one up there is your dads. There are five.270 cartridges on the string with it. He emptied one clip, grabbed another and started working on that one. We asked him how he could miss so many times. His story was that the deer had Spanish moss all over his antlers and he said he couldn't bring himself to kill a deer that was so poor that he had to haul moss to make a living. Most everyone in the camp has lost several shirttails. If you hunt here long enough, you'll lose a shirttail or two," he said with a broad smile.


I noted that they were all of different sizes, and asked how he decided how much to cut off. "Oh, that's simple. First, we take your own knife and open it up. Then, we measure from the end of the shirt to the tip of the blade, and that's where we cut the arch. You got a knife," he asked. I proudly pulled out the only knife I had. It was a long bladed fishing knife, since my lawn mowing money limited me to one for both purposes. "Hmmm," he smiled. "That one will make a good cutter. A boy of your size will lose his shirttail above the navel. If I were you, I'd take a penknife into the woods. Don't let them catch you missing a deer with that one in your pocket. The draft could be cold on an early morning hunt," he added.


After a few years of hunting at the camp, I enlisted into the Navy in 1966 and by the time my tour was over and I had returned to hunting, the years had caught up with Mr. Emory and the camp. After his death, things kind of disintegrated. My dad died, shortly after I went into the service, and one of the camp's senior members took his own life rather than suffer through the cancer notice he had been given. Following Buck's divorce, the camp was sold.


I often wonder who owns the camp and if all of those shirttails are still hanging as grim reminders of marksmanship gone awry, and if the wives of the new owners bring pies on Thanksgiving and collect pine cones for Christmas decorations. I still continue to cling to those memories and traditions, although without the luxury of that fine camp. I've hunted in many other camps, but none seem to measure up to the collection of personalities and nostalgia that rest in my collective memories of those early days of deer hunting.


Several years ago, I lost a shirttail to my brother-in-law, who became familiar with the disadvantage of a large knife after I introduced him to the tradition the previous year. He got my shirttail, but it was measured with a very short knife, thanks to Mr. Emory and the round stones that hold the sum and substance of my youth.