“Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.” — William Faulkner, “The Bear”
You can still catch glimpses of the way things used to be in the Old, Deep South when vast stretches of forest harbored huge numbers of black bear, panther and wolves, not to mention hog and deer.
Such glimpses are mainly found in national wildlife refuges now, like Panther Swamp and Noxubee in north Mississippi, Bayou Cocodrie and Tensas River in Louisiana.
A new book by McComb author Jim McCafferty provides first-hand descriptions of the way things used to be — “Hunting Bear and Panther in the Old South: The Writings of Dr. Henry J. Peck of Sicily Island, Louisiana” (Canebrake Publishing Co. 116 pages, softcover, $12.95).
McCafferty — who has written previous books on 19th-Century Deep South hunters — kept coming across articles in old outdoor magazines signed only with the letters H.J.P. He did some sleuthing and discovered the author was one Dr. Henry J. Peck, 1803-1881, of Battleground Plantation, Sicily Island.
Peck wrote detailed articles about hunting in the virgin hardwood forests of his time. McCafferty’s book contains Peck’s writings on wild hogs, bears, “tigers” (panthers) and deer. While the articles on bears and panthers are from an era now past, the ones on hogs and deer are still timely.
“This treatment of whitetail deer hunting in the Mississippi River lowlands of the Old South is as helpful on that subject as any modern article you may read,” McCafferty writes in the introduction.
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The son of a Methodist preacher, McCafferty, 66, spent his childhood in the Delta, where he learned to hunt and fish.
His earliest memories involve pond fishing and trotlining with his dad, the late Rev. James McCafferty. He also did a lot of hunting, and heard intriguing tales about the old days.
“I grew up in the Delta and I heard those stories as a boy,” McCafferty said. “I was a boy in the ’60s. There were plenty of people who remembered when Roosevelt came down for a bear hunt.”
(McCafferty told that story in his children’s book, “Holt and the Teddy Bear,” about President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunt with local guide Holt Collier in 1902.)
Later, when he lived in Oxford, McCafferty devoured old issues of magazines like Forest & Stream, American Field, and Turf Field & Farm.
“I spent so much time copying articles out of those magazines,” he said. “There’s so many stories about bear hunting in Mississippi.”
The same applies to Louisiana, as Peck’s writings show.
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Sicily Island is a small town amid a unique piece of geography near the confluence of the Ouachita and Boeuf rivers northwest of Vidalia, La.
Peck’s plantation was named Battleground due to the belief that it was the site of the last big battle between the French and the Natchez Indians. Peck said his property was covered in lead bullets and spent ordnance.
The broader area is a mix of bluffs and waterfalls, bottomlands and oxbow lakes.
Peck calls the region “the finest and most delightful hunting ground on the continent — not excepting the boundless prairies, extending from western boundaries of Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri, to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. ...”
McCafferty has had a lot of experience hunting in the Delta, be it Panther Swamp or Noxubee NWR. And he’s done the work of exhuming writings like Peck’s to give the rest of us a vivid account of the old days.
“Much of Dr. Peck’s literary work apparently has been lost,” McCafferty writes. “Fortunately, his articles on bear, deer, panther, and wild hog hunting that form the core of this book survive. They are priceless pieces of southern hunting history, for Peck writes as an actual hunter — not as a mere observer.”
McCafferty is far from finished in his quest to mine outdoor writings from earlier times. He has more books in the queue, like hounds waiting for the chase.