By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
For Vance Wood, Conservation Enforcement Officer with Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, helping new or less experienced hunters achieve success is one of his main endeavors.
Those opportunities occur in a variety of ways but none quite like Wood’s interaction with Dan Collins in the China Grove community of Pike County.
Collins was in the process of rekindling his hunting career when he purchased a piece of property adjacent to Wood’s farm. A neighbor on the other side of the property alerted Wood that somebody was on the property, and Wood hopped in his truck to check it out. When Wood arrived, Collins and a friend were exiting the woods.
“He told me he had just bought the place,” Wood said of Collins. “I said if you did that, you’ve probably got the deed with you. He said, ‘I sure do.’ I said, ‘Really.’ He reached in and pulled the deed off the dash of his truck.
“We have had the biggest laugh about that and have become great friends. I couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.”
After Collins put up a variety of game cameras around his place, he discovered a big buck was hanging around a swamp on his property, which began a four-year obsession with the whitetail.
“Every time he’d get a picture of the buck, he would call me,” Wood said. “So many times, he had just missed the deer. He may have hunted a place two or three days and then had to go home, and the deer showed up the next day. They were playing cat and mouse.”
It got to the point reminiscent of Jerry Clower’s famous coon-hunting tale where John asked somebody to “shoot up here in amongst us. One of us got to have some relief.”
“Dan told me, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’” Wood said. “He said somebody has got to shoot this deer. It was him and that deer.”
Wood received a call that one of their neighbors, Doc (John) Martin, may have shot the buck Collins was pursuing. Wood sent Collins a text, and Dan said if Doc killed it, it was fine with him. At least, it would be over.
“I go over and look at the deer, and it wasn’t the buck,” Wood said. “Dan was doing cartwheels again.”
Collins had hunted when he was a teenager and some when he was in college. However, his hunting disappeared when he started a family and a computer software company. Then about nine years ago, he was invited to go deer hunting with an outfitter in Pike County.
“I got to know the outfitter and the people of Troy and really enjoyed it,” Collins said. “I think it was my third year of hunting up there that I told them if they see some land available to let me know.
“That’s when I bought the parcel next to Vance, and he asked me for the deed. We’ve laughed so hard about that. That was probably the only single day that I’ve ever had a deed in my car. He asked me for it, and I had it. I’m sure he thought there was no way this guy was going to have a deed.”
The property Collins purchased had an old farmhouse that he deemed too nice to let go. He started refurbishing the farmhouse.
“North Pike County became a pretty significant part of my life,” said Collins, whose business and home are in Tampa. “I love it up there. I fit in a lot better in south Alabama than I do in Tampa.”
Collins said he started hunting the big buck the first year he bought the property, and it was the only good deer on the place at the time. Since then, with intense management, the deer population has improved significantly.
“I made it my pursuit to hunt that deer,” he said. “He lived in one small swamp. As Vance can attest, we hunted him every way you can. We’ve got a half-dozen different stands for different winds, different food plots, everything you can imagine. They don’t get old and big like that by being stupid. I realized he was probably spending most of his time on 5 acres, and I just can’t get the guy.”
After Collins spent three hours sweating before he got the news that Doc Martin hadn’t taken his buck, he said the pressure was on as he headed to Pike County for a four-day hunt, and he knew conditions were in his favor.
“You never really know, but the moon was right; the weather was as good as it was going to be during my trip,” he said. “I had the right wind. I told Vance that I wasn’t nervous when the deer showed up because my blood was pumping that whole hunt. The deer were on their feet and moving. Everything was right. We had done everything we could. I can’t say I knew I was going to have a chance, but I knew it was the best chance I was going to have the rest of the season.
“When he stepped out, like always, he came from where you don’t expect them. We thought he would come out of the swamp, but he came from the top of the hill. I took my time and made a good shot. The way he ran, I couldn’t tell that he was hit. He ran back uphill when I expected him to run downhill into the swamp.”
Collins squeezed the trigger at 5 p.m. and gave the buck plenty of time before he got down out of his stand.
“I looked for blood, and the first thing I saw was what looked like a chunk of flesh,” he said. “I thought it was a piece of his shoulder. I had shouldered one with a bow earlier in the season that I didn’t recover. Then I reached down and grabbed it and realized it was a giant spot of blood that was soaked in the sand. I went to where he went up the hill, and I could see blood splattered all in the sand.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get him, but I knew this was over. It was a long, long journey getting there. I just started bawling. I knew it was over. I knew it wasn’t a ball and chain I was going to be carrying another year.”
Instead of taking any chances, Collins backed out and called Wood and neighbor Drew Brooks to help look for the deer. Wood brought along his tracking dog, Dee Dee, and the deer was quickly found 60 yards up the hill.
“I enjoyed being along for the ride,” Wood said. “Seeing a 40-year-old man get excited about a deer makes me feel good. Now he’s just happy and grinning from ear to ear. You always want to see the hunter be successful. But success isn’t always measured in the harvest. It’s the totality of circumstances, how everything comes together. It’s not just walking out and shooting a deer. It’s the painstaking hours you put into it. Some people are lucky. Others really put a lot into it. To see somebody put as much effort as Dan did into that deer, it makes me happy as a Conservation officer to see him realize the fruits of his labor.”
Collins admits his obsession with the buck was not easy on his young family, but he had to see it through to some sort of resolution.
“I told my wife that I’ve got to finish this one way or another,” Collins said. “I’ve got to see this through until this deer is dead, even if it’s not me. This deer had haunted me for four years. I wanted it to be over. I can’t keep doing this, but I can’t give up.”
The buck is at the taxidermist, and the mount will soon be placed at the farm in China Grove next door to Wood.
“What I appreciate about Vance is that he embodies what I think a game warden should be,” Collins said. “He’s a good guy. He understands the role of a game warden is not to play gotcha. It’s to be stewards of the resources. If we want this to continue for new generations, we’ve got to recruit new people.”
After taking the buck he’d chased for four years, Collins was compelled to post the following on Facebook.
“Our outdoor world is a magical place, providing countless opportunities for family and friends alike to establish timeless, generational traditions that bring one another together. No matter the age or life circumstance, the outdoors offers a chance to form common interests and bonds that ensure that however life changes, we can set aside our stresses, get back to the basics, and retreat to common ground upon which we can perennially connect and spend precious quality time together.
“I encourage you to take advantage of the resources we have in this great country and on this planet, make an effort to create new outdoor traditions and learn about our ‘real’ world, take a part in conservation, leave it a better place than when you arrived, and to preserve what we have by passing on those traditions and values to generations to come.”