By Ford Walpole

Since a wealthy Northern banker donated it in 1936, beautiful Bulls Island has been part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Known for its breathtaking Boneyard Beach, the 5,000-acre island is a favorite site for birdwatchers, hikers and school groups. Yet for two weeks a year, the first weeks of November and December, archery hunters set up camp on the island, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1950s.

During the weeks of the Bulls Island hunts, sportsmen may leave their vehicles and boat trailers overnight at Garris Landing, an otherwise daylight-only parking area. Hunters may charter a ferry with Coastal Expeditions. You are encouraged to point your craft north, as the creek gets rough and smaller boats often capsize while improperly tied to the floating dock. For hunting rules and regulations, visit https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/regulations/cape-romain-national-wildlife-refuge-hunt.pdf.

On a cold and overcast November morning, Tom Hatley picked me up at Garris Landing and navigated his center-console Scout through the creek maze to the island. For the past six years, Tom, a retiring hall-of-fame baseball coach, has volunteered with United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W) during the Bulls Island archery hunts.

For years as a USF&W employee and now as a volunteer, Tom’s old friend Wayne Tucker has assisted hunters in various ways — clearing roads, cutting firewood, driving folks to-and-from their stands and perhaps more important, sharing meals and camaraderie, a pastime requiring a thicker hide than any of the island’s whitetails.

I have only been at the camp for a few minutes when Wayne muses aloud that he needs a hat on his head in the cool morning. “No. You need a mask!” quips Ben Carroll of York.

“They are actually pretty calm this morning,” Tom pointed out, emphasizing the intensity of the good-natured banter.

For decades, the Carroll boys — Ben, Billy, Pete and Bobby — have been camping and hunting on the island. “We got a school credit in biology for coming down here,” Ben recalls.

“If you want to talk to my dad, his ashes are in that fire ring over there,” Billy gestures to the sacred ground where Neil Carroll keeps spiritual watch. Pete shows me a video of this year’s camp pet, a friendly and curious juvenile bobcat. Ben shares impressive photos of harvested quarry: “I killed a 17” eight-point buck the same morning that Scott Bailey killed a big one. Scott’s wife said he ain’t mounting no more deer. Scott said he guesses he’s getting divorced.”

The story emphasizes the Carrolls’ approach to the Bulls Island experience. The campground plays host to jokes, meals and all-around fun. The hunt, on the other hand, is solitary and serious. These fellows are in the woods early and they sit late into the morning. They return to camp for lunch and head back to the woods much sooner in the afternoon than your typical still-hunter. On the same island where colonists and indigenous Sewee served on lookout for pirates, the archers keep watch for whitetail deer from climber tree stands.

“Shoot. There are some hunters you never see; they practically spend the whole week in the woods,” Hatley adds with admiration.

Sumpter Marion Cassells, III is the current patriarch of the Bulls Island campers. His father came down from Easley every year. “My daddy was part of the first group that hunted in 1955. It was so cold that first year, the ponds froze over. My brother Robbie and I started coming since 1961. They used to bring us over on shrimp boats. Daddy pulled me out of school for the week. ‘He’ll learn more down there than he will up here,’ the principal said.” The Cassells camp has expanded over the years, attracting family and friends.

The elder Cassells and Sumpter’s mother were serious archers. “My momma was the state archery champion in ‘57 and ‘58. They used to practice in the house shooting golf balls at the fireplace. They stood me up in a chair to shoot a bow that was twice as long as I was tall.”

“Sump Daddy,” as Sumpter is affectionately known, encouraged his old friend Rex Barnes to make a return trip to the island. Barnes first came with Sumpter’s father in 1956. For many years, Barnes, now retired, sold propane and could not manage the time off work during his busy season, so the reunion with the old hunt camp was particularly special. His son was heading over later in the week. “I haven’t taken a deer off this island but I’ve stuck plenty that helped feed the alligators,” he chuckles.

Barnes recently discovered a 1960s photo of Sumpter Marion Cassells, Jr. that captures the spirit of the Bulls Island archery hunt. He stands on a sand dune against a backdrop of a saltmarsh hummock. Dressed in olive coveralls with an old-school camouflage jacket and bow in hand, he proudly depicts an image of yesterday’s Carolina sportsman in his proper element.

The previous generation hunted more primitively. “We brought our bows and arrows, a canvas tent, a Coleman stove, a Coleman lantern, a sleeping bag and a cooler,” Sump Daddy recalls.

“As you can see, these boys aren’t hurting too much now,” Wayne notes.

“Wayne sure don’t look like he’s hurting for food; that’s for sure,” Pete Carroll snaps.

The still-primitive facilities include a bathroom with flushing toilets and running water with a reverse-osmosis system. Hunters now equip portable camp showers with on-demand, propane-fed hot water. Wayne refers to the Cabela’s Outback Lodge Tents as condominiums.

“We eat better than anybody else eats at home and better than most people eat at restaurants,” adds Sump Daddy, who has hunted the same live oak for 55 years.

This year’s November’s camp held only about 40 hunters. “We usually have 75,” Wayne notes. Cassells remembers an article in Field & Stream magazine, the publication of which caused 300 hunters to descend on the island. For a while afterwards, USF&W administered a draw-only opportunity, but once applications leveled off consistently, all hunters who now register typically receive permits.

Besides submerging the island beneath tidal waters, Hurricane Hugo tremendously altered the island. Massive pine trees snapped like twigs and, once cleaned up, the formerly tunnel-like roads are now open and clearer. “Before Hugo, you couldn’t look up and see the sun,” Billy Carroll reminisces.

“The sun never hit the ground on this island,” Sumpter concurs.

The pre-Hugo archers all describe an enormous pine tree that spread a canopy over the campground. “Three men couldn’t spread out and reach around that tree,” Rex Barnes remembers.

“Yeah. It was as big as Wayne,” Billy Carroll teases.

“I counted 190 rings on that pine. For years after Hugo, we all hacked fat lighter off of that downed tree,” Sump Daddy says.

Wayne Tucker reflects on his motivation to devote two weeks of his year to the Bulls Island hunts. “I love coming over here being with these boys. When Hurricane Irma came, Billy Carroll called me and offered for me and my family to come stay with him in Rock Hill. He usually calls me on Thanksgiving and Christmas, too.”

During down time, Wayne and Tom take advantage of their location. “You really have the best of both worlds as far as fishing,” adds Wayne, an angling fanatic. “You have good inshore creek fishing and great surf fishing on Boneyard Beach.” Largemouth bass once abounded in the duck ponds before Hugo breeched the impoundments and converted the island’s interior waters to brackish.

“As we cover the island’s road system via all-terrain vehicle, Tom Hatley notes, “This is the part of Bulls Island the tourists don’t make it to. We see a lot of bald eagles and alligators,” Tom Hatley points out. “You have seven miles of beach with no houses; that’s why I love it!”

 

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.