My father, Oscar Branch, spent all but two of his 86 years at or within about a mile of the place where he was born in northeastern Toombs County. The other two years were spent just across the Ohoopee River in the part of Tattnall County, where his wife was born and reared. He was a farmer by vocation, not just occupation, skilled with tools from axes to tractors.
His ties to the land went beyond fields to forests and streams and the creatures for whom these places were home. An avid hunter and fisherman, he had a firm ethic about both harvesting and conserving wildlife. His two sons wove that ethic into their own value systems.
Oscar Branch was not a big game hunter. He went on a couple of ill-fated deer hunts soon after the reintroduction of deer produced a sizeable population, but did not take to that sport. Until disabilities intruded, he was an excellent wing shot, hunting quail, doves and the occasional duck or two in season.
He had some rules about harvesting any and all wildlife. First, “don’t kill it unless you plan to eat it.” He disapproved of shooting things just for the fun of it. Second, “stop when you get a mess.” “Mess” was defined by how many or how much it would take to feed the family a meal. His measure was a “mess,” not the how many he was allowed to harvest by the Fish and Game Commission. Third, “leave seed for the future.” He knew the locations of coveys of quail all around and when the number of quail in a covey was reduced to six or so by hunting or predation, he stopped hunting that area so that some birds would survive to reproduce the next year.
“Mess” also applied to fishing. He knew parts of the Ohoopee River, Pendleton Creek and Reedy Creek as well as he knew the soils of his fields. In those places, few people could “out-fish him” although some might catch more. When he and family members fishing with him had caught a mess, it was time to go to the house. “Do up your poles; we’ve got enough,” he would say.
Waste of game appalled him. When the water level in creeks dropped so low that they no longer flowed, some people used builders lime to harvest fish. Those that were not taken also died. He hated “limers,” even reported to the law a cousin whom he caught in the act. Following his standards, I have spent hours looking for doves and quail that did not drop on the spot when shot. “If you shoot it down, find it.”
Daddy was rather strict about his principles. Crows can be pests. So I thought it was OK to kill one and did so at age 16. He said nothing, but his look told me that I had thought wrong.
Part of game conservation was careful hunting, including marksmanship. He was deadly, shooting his single-shot Stevens 22-caliber rifle with its open sights. Occasionally, he would kill a squirrel or two for the frying pan, always with a head shot. The first squirrel that I shot was not a head-shot, rather a gut-shot. It fell out of a tree, but struggled away in the bushes while I was trying to reload. “Take your time, son. Just wait for a good shot,” he counseled. A good shot meant a head-shot.
The “mess” measure was flexible. It was necessary to harvest more game when feeding many people. Families gathered for meals. Gatherings at the home of my maternal grandparents numbered six to 10, most of them with keen appetites. Gatherings at the Branch homeplace — and they were frequent — numbered 20 or more, some of whom were described by Mother as “bottomless pits.”
Sometime in the late 1940s, Daddy discovered that the Hammock Lakes off Pendleton Creek were teeming with redfin pike. My brother Jim and I joined him and Uncle Ray in catching a big mess, 150 in two days. These became the center of a fish fry for the Branch clan at Sherm’s Fishery on the Ohoopee. There were all sorts of side dishes, of course. At the end of the meal, there were few leftovers. No fish were wasted.
There were exceptions to the “Don’t shoot it unless you plan to eat it” rule. Various “varmints” could be and should be killed. Anything that preyed on Mother’s chickens was enemy to the family. Hawks, foxes, opossums, even snakes became targets for the Remington 12-gauge shotgun, sometimes in the hands of my Mother. She killed one hawk, injured a few others and scared many into a high speed exit. She was fierce in defense of her “biddies” with strong support from the rest of us who treasured the eggs she cooked for breakfast and her fried chicken at any other meal.
As was true with my father in his later years, I am no longer able to hunt and would be able to fish only under perfect conditions. Reflecting on lessons learned over seven decades of hunting and fishing, I again am struck by how right he was with the rules that constitute his wildlife ethic. He was right about many other things, too.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.