My Last Deer Hunt in the Bottomland Hardwoods
Article and photos by Russell A. Graves
When my son and I walked into the woods, it was hard to believe that this would be the last season we’d hunt this 210-acre piece of bottomland hardwoods in Fannin County. Things are changing quickly.
The first domino fell 10 years ago. Loggers came in and clear cut-all of the ash and many of the oaks. In the ensuing years, most of the trees grew back and created a tangle of greenbriar, wild grapes, oaks and ash that, in places, were impenetrable. After the initial shock of clearcutting, the deer and other wildlife triumphantly returned.
Once again, the dozers are back at the doorstep. This time, it’s for good. Soon, all of the trees in this piece of bottomland will be razed, and then, within the next couple of years, it along with 16,000 acres of what used to be old growth bottomland will be inundated with the waters of a dammed Bois d’Arc Creek.
The new lake, called Bois d’Arc Reservoir, is designed to provide water for parts of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. The $1.6 billion project also includes an immense pipeline that will carry water southwest towards the suburbs.
The lake project will forever change the place where I’ve hunted each year since I was just five years old, so for one last time, my 14-year-old son and I hunt the property together.
Our last hunt here is part of a bigger story—a creek’s cultural, natural and historic importance to a rural part of Texas. Over the past few years my brother and I have canoed every navigable bit of the creek and some that aren’t. Along the way, I’ve photographed the area, collected stories from people who’ve lived and hunted along the creek, and tried my best to document this part of Texas before it is gone.
As creeks go, Bois d’Arc is a big one. With headwaters around the soft, white-rock washes east of Whitewright, Bois d’Arc meanders quietly through deep, black dirt and cuts an impressively wide valley northeast through Fannin County before it empties into the Red River just northwest of Paris. The upper and lower parts of the creek have places where the water runs relatively clear because of its rocky bottom and steeper flow. Along the creek’s long midsection, the topography flattens, the current slows, the bottom muddies and so does the water.
Virtually no one lives along the creek’s edge because of its propensity for occasional flooding. Therefore, most people identify the creek only where the highways intersect it. While I can’t say I know the creek better than anyone else, I can say that I know it well. For the past 40-some-odd years, my brother and I have floated, fished, hunted and explored most of Bois d’Arc.
While my family’s lineage doesn’t go back to the original county pioneers, the Graves have been in the area for some time, starting with a land transaction my uncle made back in the 1960s, when he was the superintendent of Whitewright schools. When he bought the land which then became my granddad’s home, and several hundred additional acres a half-mile away in the Bois d’Arc Creek bottom, parts of my extended family slowly filtered into the area. In 1979, my parents made our permanent home atop a black-dirt hill overlooking the Bois d’Arc Creek valley.
Well before 1979, I’d spend summers, weekends and school breaks at my grandparents’ house. Trips to PawPaw’s almost always included trips to the creek. My brothers and cousins and I would float the creek and run trot lines for catfish, follow coon dogs through the damp woodlots, or catch grasshoppers for fish bait off the “blood weed” that grew in the small clearcuts in the ash woods where PawPaw cut firewood.
Around Halloween when we’d take a hayride through the bottoms, my dad would tell us that we were in search of the “Bois d’Arc Creek monster,” referring to the campy, 1970s docu-flick, “The Legend of Boggy Creek. We’d all shriek when my dad would shine his spotlight in the weeds, and we’d see a pair of eyes glowing eerily and staring back. While now I know we were seeing cow or deer’s eyes, I relive those memories every time I head to the creek.
Black mud and murky water make a good poultice for the soul, and on four occasions — separated by just a few months — Bubba and I have launched a canoe to float Bois d’Arc and slip through the sluggish creek to learn all we can about the tributary.
The politics of lakes, water law and eminent domain are complicated, and I do not profess to be an expert at any of them.
Depending on which account is accurate, somewhere between 62 percent and 90 percent of the old-growth hardwood bottomlands in Northeast and East Texas are gone. A 50-year lake-building frenzy helped precipitate the bottomlands’ demise, and, soon, 16,000 acres of the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek bottomland will soon be gone as well.
I am not anti-growth, nor am I a staunch environmentalist who thinks that all wild lands should be left alone. Instead, I believe that there should be a happy medium — a way to conserve water so that a new reservoir isn’t needed every decade. The needs of rural people and places should be considered just as important as their urban counterparts. The Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex needs water, and the area needs the prosperity. However, a workable compromise could slow the destruction of these bottomlands.
That thought lingers with me as Bubba pushes the canoe from the mud and takes his seat in the back of the Old Town 18-footer. Soon we are cruising through placid water dappled with splotches of light and dark from the arching canopy of hardwoods.
It is predictably quiet on the creek, as it always has been. Even though Fannin County has many small towns and a modest population of 34,000 countywide, there’s hardly any development in the floodplain. As such, the creek creates thousands of acres of wilderness made up mostly of white ash trees growing in the deep, flat soils and a variety of oaks that grow in the higher, sandier elevations.
Periodically, we pass by a huge bois d’arc tree from which the creek gets its name. The area and its abundant bois d’arc trees were noted by the Red River expedition of 1806. About 30 years later, Anglos settled the area along the creek.
Bailey Inglish established a permanent settlement when he built a timber blockade on 1,250 acres along the creek. The original town he platted was known as Bois d’Arc, but in 1844, the town was renamed Bonham in honor of the fallen Alamo hero, James Butler Bonham.
Another Alamo hero, Davy Crockett, purportedly considered settling along the creek after the Alamo, as he wrote to his family in Tennessee extolling the richness of the area along “Bodark Bayou.” Legend has it that he even wrote his name on a huge sandstone face that overlooks the creek on its upper end.
On our trips we see white-tailed deer staring at us curiously from the bank or the occasional beaver chewing on a soft willow as we silently drift past. Over the years, we’ve seen animals along the creek that aren’t even supposed to exist in Fannin County, if you believe most biological texts. I’ve seen badgers and Bubba has seen river otters in the creek on at least three different occasions. After seeing these animals over the years, it makes me wonder what other species live in the wilderness.
We pass a few signs of human impact, like the remnants of a rock weir dam where, in all likelihood, water was impounded for an old railroad line. We also pass a spot in the woods where, in 1982, my PawPaw felled the final trees and cut a quarter-mile road through the woods all the way to the creek. It was a feat that, as I recall, was celebrated by our family as if we’d just completed the Panama Canal.
Ten or so years ago, the bottomland was ravaged by the first round of clearcutting. Logically, the clearcutting makes sense —landowners, who know their land will be taken under the guise of eminent domain, sell off all of their timber to make additional income before their land is sold to the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) for the lake project. Emotionally, it was hard to see such large patches of the woods I love disappear.
Now in the final stages of the lake construction, the trees that were either spared or had grown back have been razed once again. Considering the entire footprint of the lake, I estimate that probably 12,000 acres of woods have been destroyed.
To be fair, though, the water authority has set aside mitigation land. The Fannin County Leader (a local newspaper) reported that, “…the purchase of the Riverby Ranch in Northeast Fannin County was done by NTMWD at a price of $35 million dollars in 2010 and includes 2,693 acres of property currently enrolled in a USDA Wetlands Reserve program. In addition to the 6,500 acres of land expected to be needed to replace wetlands property, NTMWD also expects to plant around 1,350 acres of bottomland hardwood trees. As the 2,693 acres of restored wetlands was done before NTMWD purchased the property, it cannot be used to offset any wetlands needing replaced by the new reservoir.”
On our four canoe trips, we never paused in one place for too long. Mostly we floated. Accompanied by gars that flanked our canoe, we talked about our memories we made along the creek. These memories and experiences have ultimately shaped who we are and where we’re headed.
On the opening day of the 2018 season, my son and I sit in a homemade blind that’s elevated about the surrounding yaupon and greenbriar. We watch the slivers of trail that cut through the oaks and watch for movement. We see a doe or two and watch squirrels scramble for acorns, but this morning it’s pretty quiet.
Soon, we climb down from the stand and I walk my son around the place. Far in the distance we can hear the bulldozers pushing trees down on land that belong to the last of the holdouts. While he’s hunted this place plenty of times, I’ve never taken the opportunity to show it to him through my eyes.
First, we walk over to the dilapidated ladder stand I built when I was barely older than him. Two years later, I killed my first buck ever from it. Then we walked over to an old cistern that was choked by brush. My grandpa always told me that gangsters dumped a body there back in the 30s. I don’t know whether the story is true or not, but it always held a macabre fascination for me.
Soon we walk to the concrete cross erected by an amateur historian when his research showed a small cadre of Confederate soldiers were likely buried under an immense grove of red oaks. Then we head over to the pond where we still fish and duck hunt.
Before we know it, it’s well past lunch and we’ve explored the property. I hope he remembers this tour because by the end of 2019, this place won’t be the same.
In the county, some, including elected officials and many town folks, support the lake project citing the increased economic activity during construction and the potential for tourism once the lake is complete. The rural dwellers like my family and others seem generally opposed. Progress that comes with eminent domain doesn’t seem like progress at all.
Local rancher Garry Mills encapsulated the sentiment well when he said, “When a resource is extracted from one area and sent to another where value is added, it’s the ultimate user of that resource who benefits. Everyone else is left holding the bag.”