The Shooting at Phillips Swamp
“Paul!!! Get over here!!!
The yell from the other side of Phillips duck swamp on the opening night of the 1979 duck season sent shivers up my spine.
I had grown up with Ted Phillips since sixth grade and there was rarely an adventure I had from that point on where he wasn’t involved. We had spent most of our time at each other’s homes as kids. My folks had 20 acres and a pond and his folks had an 80 acre farm with a fantastic duck hunting swamp.
Our places were two miles apart and the farms in between were all home to us. In those days we worked helping out local farmers baling hay and other farm chores and as neighbors they allowed us to hunt and trap their fields and woods. It was a wonderful time to grow up as a West Michigan country kid.
I knew Ted well and that tone in his voice was one I had never heard before but knew it meant trouble!
But to tell this story properly you’d have to go back a year to the previous November. The November of 1978 I had just returned from Alaska back to my hometown of Buchanan. My Dad had moved there for work 16 months earlier and so I had spent my Sophomore and part of my Junior year of high school away from the farms.
I had returned that fall with a cast on my foot after breaking it in an “Alaskan” football game. Ted had gathered our crew and had us set up for a homecoming duck hunt on his swamp. In those days wood ducks would pour in like rain to this beautiful piece of heaven. Of course “shooting hours” were not something we paid much attention to as kids, and anyways, this was “our” swamp.
The hunt was going great with guys spread out along the thick shoreline and in the water where the brush broke up into small sections of open water.
Because I had already ruined two previous plaster casts in my last days hunting the Alaska salt flats for ducks, I stayed out of the water and decided to hunt the northwest edge of the swamp on the shore.
This side of the swamp was owned by a farmer who had allowed us to hunt his ground.
Out in front of me in the swamp was Ted and another lifelong friend Chris Hemminger. Because it was so thick we couldn’t see each other but could sure see the ducks falling from the sky!!
As the moon rose I shot my final shell, again paying no attention to shooting hours. As I made my way into the woods to retrieve my final duck of the night I was blinded by a flashlight. The flashlight then shined on a badge inside the coat of our local CO or what others called the Game Warden, Another CO was kindly retrieving my duck for me. Damn it!!
The officers took my license and began recording my info into their violation book. “Who else are you out here hunting with?”, one asked. “ I don’t know anybody out here, I’m hunting by myself.”
“You can make it easier on yourself if you help us out”, he urged.
“Yeah, I’m sure but I don’t know anybody out here” I said.” hoping that Ted and Chris could hear us talking and would stay quiet.. I didn’t know at the time, but both of them had heard and had crouched down into the water to remain hidden.
Again the CO said, “you’re just gonna make it tougher on yourself. We could let the judge know you cooperated, what’s the name of the others out there?”
“I’d love to help you but I was just out here hunting on my own and I…….”, my sentence was interrupted by Tommy Lear yelling from across the swamp. “Paul, where you at??”
I didn’t say another word. The walk back to their vehicle was quiet.
Spring came, Summer passed, and an early Fall rainstorm filled a low spot in the wheat field west of the swamp. The day before opener we were scouting and saw mallards dropping into this flooded spot. What’s one day early in the big scheme of things?? Bellying up to the water we jump the flock and birds hit the ground. As we are just finishing picking them up Chris happens to look down the long field road to the south and sees a DNR vehicle coming our way. No cast this year, I’m gone!! As we run the tree line towards the big swamp Teds hat flies off, I try to grab it as I run behind him. On the run I slow, lean down and miss. Just then Chris runs into me and knocks me down from behind. Damn this is funny but we’ve got to get the hell out of here!! Hat retrieved, we make it into the swamp and get in over our waists in the thickest stuff we can find.
We can hear them walking and talking but they can’t find us. “Come out of there”, they yell, “we know you are there”. We say to each other “Ummmm nope, that’s not happening. They want us theyre getting wet.”.
Don’t know how long it was but they finally left and we made our way back to the farmhouse.
Opening morning was great and uneventful. We all took naps and headed back to the swamp for the evening hunt. My Dad and neighbor Omar were joining us. As they set up on the tree line east of the swamp, Ted headed around to the far west side, Chris went to the south and I headed into the water directly east of Ted but across the swamp.
As the time got right for birds to fly, Ted yelled over to me and said that he heard somebody moving in the woods. I yelled back, is it Ricky Ranger?
No reply came. “Ted, what’s going on??”
Again no reply.
I started easing my way towards my shore when I hear Teds yell. “Paul,!!! Get over here!!!”
The race was on. I was in waders and was moving as fast as I could through the waist deep water. I knew it’d be quickest if I could make it to my shore and get to Teds Ford Bronco that was sitting in the woods and drive that around the south end of the swamp through the woods to get to his side. I make it to the Bronco and started it up.
Ted heard the engine roaring and tells the guy that has the semi auto 9 mm trained on him, “they’re coming and your in trouble”. The guy says, “well I’ll shoot them too. Drop that shotgun.” The guy pulls Teds Grandpas double barrel twelve from his hands and pulls the forearm off and breaks the gun down.
At gunpoint the guy walks Ted back to the guys truck. We didn’t know it then, but this guy was the guy that had recently moved in from Chicago and who’d built a home up by the road on the north end of the big swamp. He considered us trespassers, though we weren’t on his property.
As they neared the guys truck this guy told Ted to get in. Ted turned around to face the guy. The guy yelled “get in.” Just then Ted pushed the guy backwards to the ground with the guys poncho flying up over his face. Ted turns to run and just as he rounds the corner of the truck he hears the shot and feels the pain in his thigh.
I roared the Bronco across the land bridge at the end of the swamp. Chris and my Dad are running into the woods towards Ted. I leave the engine running and jump out. I see Ted running through the woods towards us yelling that he’d been shot and the guys behind him. I see my Dad run past Ted and cover his retreat. Chris runs to the next tree and both have their shotguns pointed the direction in which Ted has come. I race towards Ted and can see his pants are drenched with blood. “He shot me” was all Ted could say.
I helped Ted into the Bronco and had to yell at my Dad who was continuing to work his way towards the expected direction of the danger.
Chris and My Dad return to the truck and we race out of there and head back towards Teds farmhouse. Ted kept saying , “Paul don’t let my Dad go down there, he will kill the guy!””
We headed for the hospital and the State Police met us there. The guy had gone directly to the police station and reported what he had done immediately after the incident. The police took him into custody.
The following weekend we hunted a neighbors swamp four or five miles away. Ted made it in with crutches and we had one of our best hunts ever.
The case made its way through the court system and Ted was awarded a small amount of cash in a civil suit and used it to buy a used truck that he and my Dad used on a trip across the country to visit Alask the following Spring.
There have been many years of hunting since that Fall and the crew has matured and learned the value of following the game laws and why they are so important to the overall welfare of the herds and flocks of our great state. While at this point I can’t say that I’m proud of skirting those laws, I wouldn’t change a thing about the way I grew up or the times I spent with the guys I grew up with.
The picture that accompanies this story shows me on the left, Chris in the middle, and Ted on the right after a goose hunt in 1980, a year after Ted was shot.