Scouting the late-summer forests is a welcome ritual for outdoorsmen, particularly deer hunters.
The broader the property, the harder we look for that forgotten, out-of-the-way corner or thicket where a big buck can grow old without detection.
Sometimes these outings turn up things we don't expect. Sometimes the things we find are as cherished as a trophy buck.
One of my favorite finds was a vintage Buck knife left behind on U.S. Forest Service property 14 years ago. It was inscribed with its owner's initials, and it has faithfully cleaned countless deer. Its owner would be proud.
In the 1980s, while scouting near the Savannah River in Beech Island, I noticed something protruding from the soil under a tangle of privet. I had to crawl on my belly to reach it - and plucked out a monstrous, palmated shed with eight points on just one antler.
Other things you might find while scouting are old home sites - complete with plants that have outlived the families that once dwelled there. Iris bulbs and garlic can often be found in autumn - and transplanted to home gardens to enjoy.
The oddest thing I ever found was in a creek bottom behind an abandoned gas station near a crossroads called Longtown in Fairfield County, S.C.
I was a teenager, and just learning to hunt. It was late September. A friend and I were scouting, without guns. We parked at the gas station and hiked down a ravine, where a well- beaten path meandered along the creek.
It looked like the superhighway of deer.
After about 100 yards, though, we noticed cigarette butts and malt liquor cans. Then the trail crossed the jagged creek on a bridge made from scrap lumber.
In a clearing beyond the bridge was a semicircle of rusted chairs, a 50-gallon drum with a fire pit underneath, and a table fashioned from plywood and saw horses.
Piled on the table, and covered with clear plastic anchored with rocks, were dozens of five-pound bags of Piggly Wiggly cane sugar. On the ground were empty sacks of feed corn.
My friend Sid and I looked at each other in disbelief. It was a moonshine still, complete with glass jars and a metal tank bristling with all the requisite copper tubes.
I thought it was kind of cool. Sid thought we'd better leave, or we would die.
We wondered if the moonshiners had seen my car parked at the old gas station. Perhaps they were there waiting for us. Maybe they had cut our tires. What if they were related to the local sheriff?
We retraced our steps, listening for the sound of human voices. My old blue Torino was fine. We climbed in, fired up the engine and spun gravel as we watched the gas station grow smaller in the rearview mirror.
We never returned to hunt "Bootlegger Creek" that season, but a few years later, we hiked down there again, and found no trace of the still.
To this day, each time I encounter a well-worn footpath somewhere in a desolate, unfamiliar forest, I wonder if there are moonshiners at work somewhere beyond the next creek bend.
While it has nothing to do with putting game in the freezer, the experience was just one small part of the library of memories that makes our pastime so enchanting - and so difficult to describe to those who never spend any time in the woods.
SMALLMOUTH RUMORS: Anglers are continuing to catch fish in the Savannah River shoals that look suspiciously like smallmouth bass - a species that, according to fisheries professionals, doesn't live here.
There is always a possibility they could have been introduced to the rocky area with fast-flowing water. South Carolina biologists tested one fish in July and it proved to be a native redeye bass.
Georgia officials, however, are still suspicious there could be smallmouths in the river. Ed Bettross of Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division recently sent a fish away for genetic testing.
Anglers such as Matt King, meanwhile, are still wondering.
King, while wading near the city Waterworks Pumping Station, landed a fish recently that looked suspiciously like a smallie.
"I wish I had kept it, but no - I turned it loose right after snapping a picture," he said.
The concern among biologists is that smallmouths would compete with - and potentially eliminate - the important native redeye bass that has thrived there for countless centuries.
HUNTING DAY: As part of National Hunting and Fishing Day activities, Fort Gordon will hold a Kids Fishing Derby and Shooting Day on Saturday at the Claypit Lakes and the Tactical Advantage Sportsman's Complex.
The Fishing Derby will be open to the public for children 3 to 15 years of age, with registration at 7:30 a.m. and fishing from 8-11 a.m. Weigh-in is at 11 a.m. Refreshments will be served.
Kids should bring one rod and reel. The first 300 kids will receive a free T-shirt. Trophies will be awarded.
Shooting Day activities include rifle firing and skeet. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Call (706) 791-5078 for more details.
Also Saturday, an Outdoor Adventure Day for Youth will be held 8 a.m.-2 p.m. at McDuffie Public Fishing Area, with kids fishing events, archery, air gun, Laser Shot hunting simulator and an Education Center exhibit. Contact George Atnip at (706) 595-1684, for more information.
Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.