"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alligator Hunt Redux

The poor FWC. As if they don't catch enough flak from this program as it is. Anyway, if you submitted an application for a gator tag back in the middle of May, you must do so again beginning June 1st.

Please read below.

Dear Alligator Harvest Permit Applicant:

We regret to inform you that the alligator hunt application you submitted for Phase I may not have been recorded correctly. While preparing for the Phase I random drawing, FWC staff discovered a problem. Active Outdoors, the third party vendor that hosts the FWCs Total Licensing System, confirmed that there was a programming error on their end that caused hunt period choices in many cases to be recorded incorrectly in the data file. FWC and Active Outdoors staff tried everything they could to restore the original hunt period choices, but was unsuccessful. This means that the original applications we received must be set aside and new applications submitted.

Active Outdoors has corrected the problem in their system, and we have re-scheduled the Phase I Alligator Permit Application period to start June 1 at 10:00 AM EDT and go through 11:59 PM EDT June 14. Anyone who submitted an application previously will need to re-submit their application either online at http://www.fl.wildlifelicense.com or at any tax collector’s office.

In the event you are selected in the random drawing, Active Outdoors has informed us that they will be waiving the fee they would normally add to your transaction when purchasing your awarded permit through the Internet. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this additional application period may cause. As always, thank you for your continued interest in Florida’s alligator hunting opportunities.

A revised application worksheet detailing dates and other important information can be viewed at: http://www.myfwc.com/license/Hunt_Quota_LimitedEntryWorksheets.htm

Steve Stiegler
Alligator Management Program
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
620 S. Meridian Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600
Visit http://MyFWC.com/gators

I think I'll spend the next couple hours monitoring the outdoor forums. Oughta be some ripe commentary from the boys there!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Florida's Trophy Boars II

The thing about hunting wild boars is they’re tough to pattern, and the advantages hunters experience during fall deer or spring turkey seasons don’t really exist. Boars don’t rut, per se, and I’ve never seen one strut. What I’m trying to relay is, boars don’t possess those vulnerabilities other male game animals do. Harvesting a trophy wild boar really relies on a lot of variables lining up in your favor.

Last time I wrote about hunting boars, I discussed their virtue as a trophy. Some may disagree – a few did – and that’s fine. They may leave now. For those of you who want to learn more, let’s do a little brainstorming session on how to catch up with a prize pig.

Let’s start with their vulnerabilities. One, boars don’t rut, in the classic deer sense, because sows come into heat at throughout the year. That magical week or two when trophy bucks go nuts, doesn’t occur for the trophy boar. He gets his any time, day or night.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay vigilant in the presence of the lady-folk. Hanging with the kinder gender is always an opportune chance for Big Boy to come sidling by. Of course, it will behoove you to lay off the trigger finger until he does.

Ahh, but finding the females can be an issue in and of itself, especially on properties where they receive healthy diets of lead. Also, more often than not, the boars nosing around herds of sows lean towards the juvenile, college kid-like demographic. Not all that bright about things, but think they’re tough. I've pulled some big teeth out of this category, sure, but usually his cutters are short little things.

If nookie won’t do it, what’s the other way to a man’s heart? Food! Yes, sir. Oak hammocks in the fall are solid places to start. The thicker edges of wet-weather ponds in the summer. Palmetto flats in the winter. Fresh, new-growth grass patches in the spring. And the ladies are sure to be there, too. Corn feeders are money but are easily over-hunted. Orange groves – if you are allowed to hunt an orange grove in the fall or winter and want to kill a big pig, hunt this area viciously. The cover of the trees and the grassy irrigation ditches that run down the rows give hogs a false sense of security. Plus, they don’t mind chowing down on an orange or two. For that matter, any agricultural area is worth checking out.

Ahh, but a mature boar is more likely to feed at night, as is their nature. You could glass over hundreds of pigs in a lot of these places and not find that stud for the wall. I guess you could just give up, shoot a younger one, and have the taxidermist pull his teeth out a couple inches, no one would know.

OK, I’ll give my best secret on big wild boars – get some place you can see a fair distance so you can glass. This can be tough in Florida, but stay with me. In the very early moments of morning, wild boars will be trotting back to whatever hell-hole cover they hide in during the day. A lot of times, they’ll travel across the wide open to get there, whether it is a palmetto flat, sod field, or cow pasture. You probably won’t have a whole lot of time to shoot, but at least you can get a glimpse. If there is one pattern-able trait of these animals, it is boars tend to run the same routes in the mornings. Find the signs – rubbed trees, large tracks, and scat on well-worn trails. My first boar of any size was shot on a sand-tailing pile at a phosphate mine way back when. Looked like he was crossing the surface of the moon, but upon closer inspection, I could see the trails of years of hog crossing, and the rubbing posts where they would hit the heavy cover. Just this last spring while turkey hunting at Chassahowitzka WMA, a super hog wandered across an open burned pine cutover and down into the swamp first thing in the morning.

In the late evening hours, get back on those binoculars and scour the edges of swamps and hammocks and other feeding areas. Edge territory, as it is with deer, is very popular with boars. My biggest boar to date, the one that lords over my trophy room, was killed feeding along a trail on the edge of an oak hammock and a stand of palmettos it would take a bulldozer or a crippling case of insanity to get through. And I had seen him several times in this area during deer season, but was just too focused on rutting bucks to pay him mind. I remember, too, a few falls ago sitting in a hammock staring at a monster feeding right at dark on the edge of a grass field. Couldn’t thread the bullet through the small pines between us, but found later the obvious trail he used to get in and out of there.

As I said in the beginning, boars are difficult to pattern and aren’t compelled with stupidity by limited breeding seasons, but they do succumb to the same factors that lay low bucks and gobblers every year – sex and food, and some habit that satiates these two desires.

And as it is with the other two, a healthy dose of luck never hurt any hunter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

To the Squirrels or Whatever

Ummmm....there's nothing I can write here that won't make me sound like an insensitive plod, but what the heck?

In semi-related news, a raptor rehab center down the street is also suffering from suppressed feeding funds. Just saying. It's only gonna get worse when oil-covered squirrels start washing up on the beach. I heard the squirrel that chewed through the transformer causing the power outage in Mulberry last week made it here. Nicknamed him Sparky.

In full disclosure, I did raise a baby squirrel when I was young. It fell out of a tree, and I weaned it back to health on evaporated milk. When it got old enough, it ate everything. After a few months when it could run and play and bite like normal squirrels, I released it at my friend's house. Here's hoping it found a natural supply of peanut butter.

Squirrel rehab facility squeezed by economy, animal's status

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fun with Blackpowder

In the last three or four years I’ve really come to enjoy hunting with a muzzleloader. The reason is simple - I’ve been pretty successful in that time. The reason I’ve been successful is that my rifle has actually shot when aimed at live game. This hasn’t always been the case.

My first frontstuffer came to me wayyyyy back in 1998. It was a .45 caliber sidelock that my grandmother owned. I ran the loose powder, pushed the patch and ball down the barrel, and prayed the cap would spark the charge which it rarely did. It was maddening

No doubt this was my entire fault. All the literature I’d read about muzzleloading said to keep the weapon firing reliably took great care, and most 19 year olds don’t keep great care of anything. I did, however, manage to fire off three successful shots in a row at a very dumb spike before grounding him with the fourth. The Confederate Army would have been proud of my reloading skills and profanity in the interim.

The next muzzleloader was one of these fancy inlines that traditional hunters abhorred – maybe still abhor. You pulled a bolt straight back and on the pull of the trigger, it slammed forward on the primer. Equipped with a musket cap nipple, it did fire with greater reliability than the sidelock. Problem was it couldn’t hit the broadside of a bull elephant. I’d learned how to keep it clean, fed it powder pellets, and stoked it with expensive sabots that would allegedly extend its range out to 150 yards. Not that this mattered when it couldn’t hit paydirt at 40.

Even more maddening.

I missed a great boar with it in 2001. Following year I missed a doe. And finally in 2003, sitting in a very hot October treestand, it failed to fire on an eater sow that walked up to a feeder. The gun was lucky it wasn’t wrapped around a tree that day. My dad has gone on to miss several deer with it since.

Enough was enough. One fateful day I walked into the Bass Pro Shop in Orlando and purchased a Knight Disc Rifle. This was a thoroughly modern outfit. A closed bolt protected the disc and 209 shotgun primer from the elements. A heavy rifle, it lessened some of the blow from the .50 caliber projectile, making it easier to shoot. Stainless barrel, synthetic stock, and fiber optic sights – Davy Crockett I am not. I topped it with a Bushnell Banner 3-9X 40 scope and was ready to roll.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The 209 primers would leave a ring of crap near the breech, ruining bullet seating after the first shot. Groups on paper looked like you’d spun me around in circles on a baseball bat before firing. I just resigned myself to believe blackpowder hunting wasn’t my bag.

A couple years later I ran across an article detailing this very problem. Remington – many thanks to them – introduced the Kleanbore primer. Topped with two of Hodgdon’s 50-grain 777 pellets and a Barnes-250 grain Expander MZ bullet, I was large and in charge. It was like in Jeremiah Johnson when he found Hatchet Jack and his Hawken. Went from starving to Happy Pilgrim.

My first kill was a Cedar Key coyote. The next, a solid Manatee County 8pt. Two years ago I plugged a small 8 and two fine hogs, including a 100 lb. boar that literally rolled into the palmettos he was hit so hard. Never a miss or a misfire. And it was then I learned to enjoy the cap-and-boom-and-smoke sensation of hunting with a blackpowder rifle.

(Knight has since, tragically, gone out of business. Luckily I have enough of those orange discs to last generations of Nance hunters to come – assuming one day muzzleloaders aren’t ignited by lasers.)

Now, some, and rightly so, will argue I’m violating the original intent of the blackpower season, and this rifle isn’t much different than hunting with a centerfire. Really, I’m OK with this. One day I’ll probably sneak back to a sidelock – and I’ve seen some modern flintlocks that really intrigue me – but I only have so much time to hunt, and I want my rifle to fire and fire accurately.

So there we go. I’ll never pretend to be an expert on the subject, but here are a few tips to pass along for those looking to extend their season or play around with a new hunting tool.

1. Keep your barrel clean in the offseason – the new propellants that have largely replaced true blackpowder burn cleaner, leaving less corrosive residue. But, the plastic of sabots can gum up a barrel. Point is, pay close attention to your barrel. Clean it soon after season is over or after extended shooting periods. If not, I’ve had breech plugs become so stuck I thought the gun would be ruined.

2. Figure out how much/how often to clean – some more in the know than I may fall out of their chair reading this, but I’m very casual about cleaning during the season or at the range. Run a jag, sure, but I’ve fired numerous shots with little accuracy problems. Maybe I’m just lucky, but these newer guns and projectiles just aren’t as picky as they used to be. Now, if you’re looking to shoot small groups to impress your friends, you may want to rethink this.

3. Mark your ramrod – when you seat your first charge, take a knife or marker and make a line on your ramrod. In the future this will serve as your gauge to ensure your bullet is seated at the correct depth or that there is no other charge down that barrel, Mr. Three Fingers.

4. Check the local laws – In Florida, pretty much anything goes – scopes, sabots, whatever. Not all states are so forgiving. Last I knew Georgia didn’t allow scopes. My rig has detachable mounts for just this purpose.

Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot more I can think of at the moment; it’s like hunting with any other tool. Know your limitations of what you and the gun are capable of.

There is one thing, though, that’ll get you excited after a few muzzleloading seasons that other methods of hunting sorely lack – that acrid smell of sweet smoke that lingers in the dry fall air.

And spying that antler poking up through the grass as it all clears away.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

TWL Classics - My Gator Hunting Journal I

Originally Published May 2009

I figured it was something I should do one day. I’m not a huge fan of bugs or humid August nights, or even really lakes, but as a hunting Floridian, I felt I needed to get with the program and apply for a gator tag. And wouldn’t you know it? I was drawn over a number of other, more wanting applicants. The Forces That Be granted me a 1st Phase, Polk County license. So, it’s incumbent upon me to chapter this whole experience from start to finish.

The Application Process

Though Florida has been offering gator hunts since 1988, the computerized application process was about as primitive as the reptile itself. This year, it evolved. 2009 was the first year the FWC has relied on a random draw. To the best of my understanding, 2008 was a first-come, first-serve debacle. Servers seized up, hunters got angry, and the FWC was ridiculed.

(Honestly though, if they’d not switched to a random draw, I would not have bothered; some may complain, but it is an egalitarian process, that can’t be argued.)

Four of us applied, I was chosen. We selected 1st Phase Polk County as our first choice, Lake Hancock 2nd, Lake Parker 3rd, and Polk County 2nd Phase fourth. We really didn’t read the rules well for the Polk County tag, though, which restricts the permit-holder from hunting in lakes that have their own set number of tags - like Hancock or Parker - meaning that though they are in Polk County, these lakes were off-limits to us. We assumed otherwise. Oh well, we live in lake-infested central Florida, we should be able to find some public or private pond with a lizard in it.

Each permit allows the hunter two gators which must be properly reported after harvesting. Additional hunters may assist the permit-holder, but only after purchasing an additional alligator trapping agent license. Really, this is a team sport. Our hope was for more than one of us to draw tags to increase our harvest. As it is, two gators is a lot of hide and meat.

While the actual act of filling out an application was simple and straightforward, waiting on the results was somewhat maddening. The FWC, in a classic governmental screw-up of establishing a deadline that can’t possibly be kept, was a bit late to reveal the results of the draw, eliciting howls of derision from the faithful on Internet forums. Never mind the fact the FWC had to sort through thousands of applications and enter them into a brand new system, the agency endured the cyberspace equivalent of being dragged into the streets and flogged.

And true, I was anxious and frustrated too. At first it showed I didn’t even apply. Then the computer – which I became openly hostile to - said I’d been drawn, but not for what phase or lake. Scouring the Internet forums, tales were being spun of some applicants pulling two permits, a tauntingly evil glitch, and others going to pay for what they thought was a successful draw, only to be denied. I’m guessing other computers were being cursed at besides mine. A mass e-mail was sent out Friday the 19th assuring applicants that yes, there were problems, but FWC was fervently working to amend them, and thanks for your patience.

By Monday the 22nd, the waters calmed and the ship seemed to be righted. I paid for my tag and eagerly await the information packet and CITES permits in the mail. I’m strongly considering attending the optional orientation meeting at the fairgrounds in Tampa for no other reason than to watch the vindictive crowd verbally assault some poor biologist over the system screw-ups.


I’m not one to dive into an endeavor like this without some research on where to go, and what to expect. Unfortunately - and yes, I will blame the FWC for this - I didn’t find help to be a common commodity. My biggest query was to discover which lakes in Polk County we could hunt without leaving in shackles. The Polk County permit allows the holder and his agents to hunt public lakes, but they must be outside city limits. I guess the good citizens around Lake Hollingsworth would be troubled by bangsticks torching off at midnight. I had my guesses on where to go, but really wanted a Voice of Authority to tell me yes or no.

I e-mailed the FWC for some help to which, a week later, nary a reply. I called the Lakeland branch of the FWC thinking they’d be of the most help. Instead, I was told to contact – wait for it – the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (!), where the woman in animal services was more than flabbergasted by my request. She did, however, direct me to the agriculture division, and here’s where I found some help.

I discussed a few potential hunting locations with a gentleman who knew a great deal about the gator hunt program. He seemed amused by my depth of questioning, and at one point even asked if I’d ever been in trouble with the Man in Green. I told him no, just minding my P’s and Q’s. We tossed about ideas, and I hung up the phone wanting to send him a bouquet of flowers for his assistance.

He also shared with me a website with data about all the lakes in Polk County – Polk County Water Resources Atlas. You could learn just about anything you’d ever want to know about a particular body of water in Polk County. Other than, of course, the number of gators that are in it.

That’s going to take some field work.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TWL Classics - Touristing through the Florida Aquarium

Originally published February 2009

The surest way to smoke out a Yankee at a zoo or aquarium - one who is not already sporting that fashionable maize and blue Wolverines sweatsuit - is to gaze into a snook tank and declare the fish here don’t get as big as the walleye back on Lake Huron, and see if you get any nods or other agreeing gestures. Or, maybe they’ll flush wild and spit out something incriminating like one dude did staring at an overgrown bullhead cruising amongst the bass and bluegill at the freshwater display – “look at the shark in there," he said with authority.

Why I’m obsessed with pointing out Northerners, I’ll never know.

To be fair, the three biggest rubes in the joint were hovering by the drake pintail, flashing photos to the point the bird’s gonna need a corneal transplant. But, we got some mighty fine pics of him, some woodies, some hoodies, and a beautiful ruddy drake. The ladies couldn’t believe how they got rigged up with such gumps. Duck season never stops, baby.

We’d come to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa for Valentine’s Day. The facility itself is not a large place. If you didn’t stop to photograph, or gawk cupped-hands-on-the-glass into the otter tank wondering where the sleeping weasels were, you could pile through in ten minutes or less. But you’d be cheating yourself of a fine experience.

We’ll start with the ducks. For the average duck hunter, your observation time of living, breathing, caring birds is quite limited, usually within the fleeting moments it takes to see them, miss three times, and watch them zip toward distant horizons. Unlike deer hunting where you can watch plenty of game pass without firing a shot, noting various habits and idiosyncrasies, all ducks go to Heaven. So the highlight for the hunters in the group was getting pickpocket close to the waterfowl as they swam underwater and slept and preened.

I’d say after that, the mangrove exhibit is pretty cool with its monster bull redfish and sheepshead larger than I’d previously laid eyes on. Sparing no expense, the staff also populated the tank with mullet and sail cats, which is about like tossing a couple donkeys in with the antelope at Busch Gardens. A few snook and magnum mangrove snapper peered from beneath the arching mangrove roots. The whole scene will get you cranked up for some Tampa Bay flats fishing.

Many other Florida “name” sportsfish were represented too: tarpon, permit, amberjack, yellowtail snapper, grouper of several flavors, black drum, marlin, barramundi – kidding, seeing if you were playing attention. The tropical reef fish added the color, and the sea dragon and sea horse display was especially remarkable, though I guess they have somewhat sissy eyes since flash photography was prohibited.

Really, the only disappointing leg of the tour was the shark display, which is usually the moneymaker at such attractions. For one, the species of shark included blacktip, whitetip, nurse, sandbar, and something called a “zebra shark," though it had spots and was about as tough looking as it sounds. I’m not asking for Jaws, but at least throw a sand tiger in for some teeth. The freshwater displays were as frightening and awe-inspiring – maybe that’s why that Yankee mistook the bullhead for a shark.

Two, we caught the “shark show," becoming passengers on a doomed voyage aboard the submersible “U.S.S. Tampa," which I thought to be a rather uninspired name. The acting, and I use that term in the loosest sense possible, was cringe-worthy, second hand embarrassment. Not that I could have done better, but still.

Now stay with me, my powers of wordsmithing aren’t strong enough to totally relate this experience to you, but I must try. The “captain” – and I hope I don’t get him fired telling this – guided us through our journey with as much enthusiasm as a guy who’d just spent Valentine’s Eve alone in a bathtub pounding eight dollar bottles of Shiraz. When his pre-recorded engineer warned him of engine trouble, the response clearly broke with maritime etiquette and protocol. “Yup” sounds near-mutinous.

After what seemed like an hour of watching, well, let’s just come out and say it, the lamest sharks of the ocean swim in circles, a yellow cage was lowered and two female divers entered. One wore a mask equipped with a microphone so she could speak to Capt. Excitement and his passengers about these denizens of the deep while the engineers repaired our engines, wink, clearly under the belief our sense of whimsy was still intact. Trying to breathe and talk into that contraption made it sound like she suffered from a severe sinus infection.

“This is the zebra shark, haaaaaaaacccccckkkkkkkk, native to Indo-Pacific waters, uggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh.”

And so on.

The other lady had no such apparatus but came equipped with a yellow and black striped stick, we were told, to traffic the leviathans away, just in case one lunged at her, more than likely to have its head petted.

So the first lady yammered on about exploring this infinite abyss while the other woman stared blankly into the brine, back turned towards us anxious passengers. A quick, heavily related side note, if I ever am in an actual wrecked submarine and my choice is to stay aboard with screaming children or brave sharks - any shark - I’m going for the swim.

Anyway, Talking Diver asked Mute Diver if she was ready to leave the cage. When there was no response, Talking Diver put her hand on Mute Diver at which point she played startled, unnerved no doubt that the mighty zebra shark may yank her out of the cage, gumming her to death with those sandpaper teeth. She hoisted and thrust that black and yellow pole as a Masai hunter would man a spear to fend off a charging giraffe. It was quite a performance.

I’m not sure if the good captain returned everyone to port safely and in time for a one o’clock tiki bar appointment; Carolyn found a convenient escape hatch and discovered, lo and behold, we were not actually underwater!

Unfortunately, we missed the penguin show. Penguins are funny. I’m told it is pretty good, although my reliable source tells me they poop every thirty seconds. Frankly though, if the penguins turned cannibal on one another, it’d still be adorable.

We made one last pass through the joint, visiting again with the ducks and actually catching the otters awake, being ottery. Through the freshwater exhibit, past the touch tanks and back out into the real world, ready for lunch and a drink, left to wonder how big those walleye really get.

(All snarky comments aside, if you are in the Channelside area of Tampa, swing by the aquarium; it truly is a neat place for a sportsman to visit and a fine date location for the significant other. Teachers get in free!)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

TWL Classics - Highway Hypnosis

Originally posted October 2008

As I sit here writing this, waiting on camo to finish drying for my trip to Georgia this weekend, I keep looking out the window at my Dodge Mega Cab. I can hear it bellowing like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

“Feed me!”

Yeah, it’s got a Hemi and an unfortunate thirst for petrol. But as I told the salesperson, who couldn’t wait to move this thing off the lot, I’d drive a Prius or hybrid of some kind, but can’t imagine its utility in the Georgia clay. Or hauling gear and deer out of the woods. My guess is he’d not run across much of that reasoning before.

Anyhow, this is the new truck’s maiden voyage to the lease. My last truck, a ’98 Dodge Ram Quad Cab, was a 10-year, 180,000 mile veteran of countless hunting adventures. Unfortunately, my mechanic told me three years ago that I had two years left with that truck before the wheels would come off. Literally. No point arguing with the actuaries; I’d reached that point where it was no longer safe to make these long hauls. I told people that if my truck broke down on one of those old country roads, I’d grab my rifle and backpack, shift the ol’ gal into neutral, and roll that sucker in a ditch for whoever wanted it and hike to the nearest town.

So as the only fool who’d buy a gas-guzzler in this day and age, I set about looking for a new conveyance and conned myself into believing that buying one of these remarkably reduced priced giant trucks - as opposed to an even more moderately priced truck like my first one - was the way to roll. That’s the sort of astute, send-me-to-the-poor-house financial mind I possess. But I did buy used. While I’d liked to strip those first few virgin miles off on my own, the pleasure of doing so does not trump the pain of paying an extra twenty large for that honor.

The new Ram is three times the vehicle the old one was. 4WD, four normal doors, huge back seat, leather interior, a near essential button to move the gas and brake pedals forward and back, a sunroof, and all kinds of other bells and whistles, including a LCD display where you can toggle between a compass, outside temperature, and miles per gallon. I avoid this last one as much as possible.

Really, it’s not the fuel economy that bothers me; it’s the price of fuel. The old truck got near identical mileage, but hunting trips were much cheaper. I remember the last place I saw gas for under a dollar. Barnwell, South Carolina in 2001. Everyone pitched in $5 and called it even.

Wow, I’m sounding old! Whatever the price of gas, I’m about to pay it. It’s the opening of rifle season in the Peach State, and I intend to crack down a doe or two that have been feeding in the soy bean fields before the echoing of shots across the state riles them up too bad. The weather is supposed to be nice. And I look forward to hopping on I-75, hitting the cruise control and singing some country to the state line. I’ll reach Valdosta and try to recount the drive from Panasofkee. Highway hypnosis strikes me hard on the Interstate, and my mind just wanders, which should absolutely scare the bejeesus out of other motorists. If you see a towering silver Ram in your rearview with the driver sporting a blank stare and crooning Shania…I mean, George Strait, please clear the left lane, I probably don’t see you.

In Thomasville I’ll snap out of it for a quick bite. Do I get a Frisbee-sized cheeseburger from What-a-Burger or maybe run to the Border? Not sure I care too much for either choice, but it’s my last opportunity at food I don’t cook for myself for a couple days.

After Thomasville is a scattering of small towns, or map dots, that differ little from one border to the next. I remember being younger in Lakeland complaining of nothing to do. Come check these places out. It seems here you work and sleep. And it’s hard work. And it’s poor work. It’s why I have a difficult time during election years listening to politicians lie at warp speed about their knowledge and sympathy of the lower class. Of all the lower class, it’s here that is most often ignored, and at times, I can’t tell if they prefer it that way or not. Rural is much different than urban living. The urbanites tend to believe there are easier ways to be poor and count on the government to provide that.

Of course, I’m generalizing, romanticizing, and I’ll descend from the soapbox. There is some real beauty out here, especially in the winter when all the toil of the harvest is complete, and at night the stars shine through the bare branches of the pecan orchards. You drive these unlit back roads, avoiding kamikaze deer, round a bend and all of a sudden a tiny township is lit up with the greens and reds of Christmas lights. A few bundled-up citizens stand in front of the gas station, their breath rolling out into the night.

Everyone here moves at a different pace. In the grocery stores, gas stations, and on the roads, life is much slower, difficult for an impatient guy like me. Getting behind some jalopy cruising ten under the speed limits is torture. Or some piece of agricultural machinery that’s taking up most of two lanes. You can get as red-faced, spittle-emitting angry as you’d like, but as you pass the offender, he’ll almost invariably give you a quick wave and smile, as will most local passersby.

Why the hurry I’ve never been able to explain to myself. I never get to camp in time for an evening hunt. And besides, I’ll barely step out of the truck before being implored about dinner plans, where I’m gonna hunt, where I’m gonna sleep, and so forth – all of this before I have time to unpack, pour a quick drink, and enjoy being back in camp.

Well, the dryer is done doing its thing. For the first time this season I get to pack a rifle and warm clothes. Don’t think it’s going to be quite cold enough for the thermals or for stocking up on clam chowder and chili to bring the body temperature back to normal. All my gear will stash away comfortably in the new truck, I’ll get some new tunes on the iPod, and then go gas her up.

Tomorrow, rubber will hit the concrete, and I’ll put her in the wind. The drive will fly right on by, which is unfortunate.

It’s often the most relaxing aspect of the adventure.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Florida's Trophy Boars I

We were bumping south on a dusty berm road in Hardee County, taking a midday drive around the property before the time arrived to roost gobblers. At a ninety-degree turn in the road, ahead we spied a sow and her orange and black piglets feeding on new-growth grass on the border of a pine and palmetto thicket. This buffet of grass ran a few hundred yards along the pines; solid chance another piggie or two could be in the open on this cool Spring day.

I exited the vehicle and snuck through the tall dog fennel until I could glass the length of the opening. Standing with another sow was a large boar.

From 75 yards, I could see the Mick Jagger curl of his lips and the dried, graying mud caked across his black back. His ample manhood kept his tail from falling between his thighs. In short, he was a shooter. What fortune!

The crosshairs of the Browning BAR settled on his upper shoulder. The trigger came tight, and the mud on his left shoulder exploded as if a M80 had been ignited in an ant pile. Perfect shot! The hogs scattered, my boar ripping into the palmettos. The sow with the babies stampeded around, snorting and agitated until all her offspring retreated to safety.

I never found that hog. We scoured the palmettos for blood smears and wandered down several trails but came up empty. This was no novice group searching for spoor. Of course, with a wounded boar and the angry momma sow nearby, trailing with a discerning eye was a might uncomfortable. Terribly disappointing.

Wild boars possess what rappers and rhyme artists spit about these days – swagger. It’s that attitude of being a bad motherscratcher. The swollen shoulders. The toothy sneer. A mature wild boar is a stud, and you know it when you see him. Adaptability, body structure, and demeanor all play a role in the wild boar’s rough reputation. Besides bovine and the occasional black bear, the boar is liable to be the biggest beast a Florida hunter will happen upon in the woods.

And wild hog hunting is a staple of the outdoor business in the Sunshine State. For the sake of this column, though, let’s not worry about sows and lesser boars; let’s think trophy, for a trophy hog is one of the Wild’s finest prizes. A true monster ranks, in my book, right up there with a boss gobbler or a ten point buck. It just does not receive the same respect in certain hunting circles. This is wrong.

Let me explain why.

One, wild hogs, where they are hunted regularly, are among the most persecuted of Florida’s game animals. (OK, technically, they aren’t defined as game animals in many places, but you know what I mean.) They can be hunted year-round on private lands, and cattlemen and ranchers despise them, which means they aren’t exactly trophy managed like deer or turkey. More than one rancher has told me a good hog is a dead hog. Corn feeders, night permits, dog hunters – it’s a free-for-all for private land swine.

On public land, they get as pressured as deer and react in similar fashion. Adult boars seek out the deepest hollers when the guns pop off. Hunters may waylay sows and small boars, but the big boys are few and far between at the check stations. Then, when they think they are safe, on many WMA’s packs of mutts run ‘em around the swamp in fights to the death. The wild boar is a marked man, and the law affords him far fewer protections than a deer.

Next, while hogs may not be savvy like deer or ultra-tense like turkey, mature boars are no dummies. They are adaptable and quickly figure out how and when to adapt. Their eyesight is pitiful, but their sense of smell is unmatched. You may still find plenty of sign, but an over-hunted hammock or corn feeder will soon be vacant of daylight swine. A hog’s hearing is more than adequate; I’ve witnessed some large boars react to vehicle noise from surprising distances. Most people think of hogs as dim-witted because they are used to seeing and shooting naive 80 pound sows.

Also, finding a set of trophy teeth is difficult and depends a lot on luck. Thanks to the various genetic influences that comprise a boar’s DNA, large hogs may not grow tusks to brag about, especially if they are a generation or two removed from Ol’ McDonald’s farm. Teeth can be broken and nigh impossible to judge unless a cur is holding a boar by the ear. Field judging a boar’s trophy potential usually occurs when you are standing over him.

Finally, the largest boars are allergic to daylight. The prime times - aside from instances like my opening story – are right at first light and just before complete dark. Without a doubt, dog hunters routinely pull the biggest hogs from the midnight woods. But gun and bowhunters are more than used to flipping through game trail photos and seeing that rascal mowing down the corn at 2 AM.

(I shouldn't have to spell out the trophy value of a boar any further now, do I? Seems we've covered the variables that define any other trophy - relative scarcity, difficulty to hunt, and luck.)

Naturally, boars are not specters or inviolable goblins. Next time I’ll offer some tips for hunting down these critters. To each is own, but I still think the wild boar commands a little better press than he currently receives.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To The Jersey Devil or Whatever

I had no idea there existed a scaly, demonic beast that terrorized the residents of New Jersey - at least one not named "Snooki."

I love mythology and creature features of all breeds. Spent many a morn in the stand letting the imagination roam, hoping Bigfoot or Chupacabra would wander by my ambush. Best I've ever gotten was drunken poachers, but I remain vigilant, though I haven't approached the subject of what I'd do if this happened. Wet myself is as good a guess as any.

My fascination with otherworldly wild things kept me dry and shoreside for years until I mustered up the intelligence to realize a long tentacle wouldn't snake out of the depths and yank me into a beaky maw. Took me twenty-some years to reach that point, but mission accomplished.

But who is to say what really dwells in our forests and oceans? The experts? The same people who tell us panthers don't exist east of the Mississippi or north of Florida?

The coolest thing about the story of the Jersey Devil - besides the mutating potential of the soil, where are you, Erin Brockovich? - is some think this hideous fiend may be our very own soft-eyed whitetail with crazy antlers. Makes sense to me. Folks once thought manatees looked like mermaids, too. But here's hoping this theory is never proved.

Jersey Devil: Horrific Fantasy or Genetic Mutant?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ESPN Outdoors Turkey Camera

Turkey cameras? Carolyn just rolled her eyes. She has been a suffering gobbler widow for a couple months now. The early, pre-dawn mornings of me staggering around in the dark fighting with rubber boots, trying to be quiet and let her sleep, unsuccessfully. The lonely weekends. The ceaseless beer-fueled conversations with my buddies. And, of course, the hours of outdoor TV. "Enough!" I could hear her teeth grit.

It's true, though, that the fine folks at ESPN.com have introduced "The Turkey Cam."

Basically, it's a live feed of a tripod feeder. I've seen a couple toms, a few hens, and a small buck chew through the corn, but all I can ever think about when I watch this is whacking through the swarm of squirrels that bounce on and off the metal can all hours of the day. They are almost too fat to climb the trees now. I swear I saw one slide down a tree trunk, it's grubby little claws shredding back the bark as it stripper-poled down to the ground.

Check it out, if you are allowed.