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

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Florida Deer Season Primer

Wow, we officially have one of the weirdest deer seasons in the nation. With careful planning, one could hunt Florida – and the rut in Florida – from July to February.


Not all WMA’s are up to speed carving out their schedules and budgets to align with these new seasons, so I caution you to check the FWC website for individual WMA rules.

I just wanted to present a brief rundown of the new zones and what the hunting there is like. It won’t be perfect, I can promise, because the state is comprised of a wide variety of unique ecosystems and habitats, to speak nothing of the varied rut dates.

(All dates are for the 2010-11 campaign)

Zone A

Archery: July 31 – August 29
Crossbow: August 30 – September 2
Muzzleloader: September 4 - 17
General Gun: Sept. 18 - Oct. 17, 2010 and Nov. 20, 2010 - Jan. 2, 2011
Antlerless Deer: November 20-26

Zone A is the old-school South Zone, but the dates have been changed dramatically. The rut in the area is as haywire as can be. In Sarasota County, the rut tends to fall in mid-October. Around Immokalee, it can be as early as August. Indeed, a few Novembers ago I harvested a doe here that was very much pregnant, sadly. In Big Cypress, depending on who you talk to, deer breed anywhere from July to September.

Much of the land down here is private, though Big Cypress, Holey Land, and Fisheating Creek are popular WMA’s. It’s wet, flat, and thick in these places. Swamp buggies, where allowed, are popular modes of conveyance.

Generally speaking, the bucks don’t grow especially large in body or antler, though plenty of Local Legends are pulled from the woods each year. Despite this, these areas provide unique hunting experiences. It’s wild. Florida black bears and panthers are found in force here, as well as serpents of varying and increasing varieties. Wild hogs are plentiful, as well. A fine buck from this area is a trophy worth celebrating, and a Big Congrats to those hunters who fight these elements and the heat to bring one to the check station.

Zone B

Archery: October 16 – November 14
Crossbow: November 15 - 19
Muzzleloader: November 20 – December 3
General Gun: December 4 – February 20
Anterless Deer: December 26 – January 1

The creation of Zone B probably had as much to do with the season realignment as any other influence. The rut typically falls in January or early February. Last year at Upper Hillsborough, the rut was cranking up in mid-January. Hunting private land near the Green Swamp a decade ago, bucks were starting their pre-rut after Christmas. And turkey hunting near Polk City two years ago, I watched a spike run does ragged in April. Go figure.

The Green Swamp and Richloam are the big draws in this region. Both grow big deer, but hunter pressure is often exhausting. These areas are thick with cypress swamps and palmetto flats. Also within this zone is a fair amount of scrub habitat and private ranches with cow pastures and citrus groves that offer a change of pace, if granted access. The zone is narrow, for sure, but represents the FWC listening to public input to place a large number of hunters in the woods during peak rut times.

One can expect some nice deer coming from this area, and with the change of the deer seasons, I expect bigger ones will be in the magazines before too long. James Stovall took that super non-typical in Green Swamp West back in 1999. The largest deer I have seen in Florida was feeding alongside 471 that runs through the Green Swamp - a huge 10pt. In the Swamp, hunters have a variety of strategies. Some hunt the creek bottoms and thick lowlands; others claim hanging a stand high in the pines of a palmetto flat is the way to score.

Zone C

Archery: September 18 – October 17
Crossbow: October 18 - 22
Muzzleloader: October 23 – November 5
General Gun: November 6 – January 23
Antlerless Deer: November 20 – 26

Want me to generalize about this zone? Heck, no! This region represents more than half the state and ecosystems of all sorts. We have scrub and coastal habitats, agriculture and river systems. You’ll find the majority of hunting leases and clubs in this area – and decent chances to tag a nice buck.

Chassahowitzka, Guana River, Half Moon, Jumper Creek, Arbuckle, and Three Lakes amongst others, are well-known WMA’s. Chassahowitzka and Three Lakes host dog hunts and are large pieces of property. Dog hunting is very popular along the Nature Coast from Hernando County up through the Steinhatchee area. Levy County is loaded with game of all varieties. Towards Mayo and inshore, the deer population thins out, despite the amount of undeveloped land. Probably has something to do with the biblical swarms of mosquitos, and a Cracker Season. The Jax area has plenty of leases, and I get a text or two from friends each season of nice bucks harvested up there. SR-60 from the Polk County line through Yeehaw Junction out to Vero, has a ton of deer – and private ranches, many of which are quite pricey to hunt. Alachua, Clay, Gilchrist, and Putnam counties are also known for super bucks.

Much of this land I have not hunted. I spent years hunting Manatee and Hardee Counties and can attest to the size of the bucks that can be grown here - nothing that'll make the Midwest deer hunter weepy, but big enough to excite most hunters. Unfortunately, a lot of it is locked up by phosphate companies – tragic given the amount of game there. Levy County is one of my favorite places to hunt. The deer don’t grow exceptionally large, but there are lots of them, and the place is wild. Chazz is similar, though hunting pressure is high and the deer respond so – still, someone pulled a 200+ pound buck from there last year, according to a few rumors.

Zone D

Archery: October 23 – November 24
Crossbow: November 29 – December 3
Muzzleloader: Dec. 4-10, 2010 and Feb. 21-27, 2011
General Gun: Nov. 25-28, 2010 and Dec. 11, 2010 - Feb. 20, 2011
Antlerless Deer: Dec. 26, 2010 - Jan. 1, 2011

Before we start, know I have zero experience in this range. But, I do know they harvest, generally, the biggest bucks in the state from this area. Not surprising since it is essentially Southern Georgia and Alabama. Leases and public land are available. Late season muzzleloader hunts have long been popular and available. Pushing aside my Central Zone bias, this area, too, could be the reason for the season shifts.

The rut dates fall in line with those of SW Georgia and Eastern Alabama the closer one approaches these states. The prime time across this zone ranges from October through February.

With little urban development, this section of the state harbors a great deal of agriculture, and thus, deer. Each year, hunters take 130-150 class bucks with greater regularity than the rest of Florida. I do wish I knew more about Zone D beyond what I read in Woods & Water. The hunting seems top-notch; the wind just has not blown me that way. Yet.

I, again, encourage you read the individual WMA’s regs for your area. Florida is blessed with an abundance of public land, and I have not taken the time to read ALL of the brochures. If nothing else, this can serve as a guide towards how the season will shift in the future. For all the abuse the FWC takes, I do believe they have done their best interpreting public input and translating that into hunter-friendly zones. It is not perfect; with all the variance in rut dates, it won’t be, but the FWC has done an admirable job adjusting to accommodate deer management and hunter happiness.

Never an easy task.

Rut Dates Panhandle
Rut Dates Peninsula

Sunday, August 29, 2010

World's Toughest Land Animal

More lists!!! Gotta say, I think this is certainly a passable roster of baddies. I'd be curious to learn the outcome of a pitbull-wolverine fight. Wouldn't be pretty, I'm sure.

And just to say, too, it is an excellent example of a solid blog post of this sort - data, reasoning, and YouTube clips. Comprehensive. Well Done!

World's Toughest Animal

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Invasive Species or Whatever

From DailyFinance.com, a Top Ten list of invasive animal species in US territories. Living in Florida, a state thriving with exotics, I find this list somewhat specious.

How does the cownose ray - indigenous to both the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts as well as the aquarium at Tropicana Field - make this list and the wild hog does not? I guarantee feral pigs endanger more than a $4 million oyster industry.

As for the pythons. I'm not sure I buy the concept of the Super Snake; maybe it will happen, and future generations of hybrid serpents will learn to chow down on the ubiquitous armadillo which, legend has it, are thought to be descendants of a pair that escaped from a zoo in Cocoa, Florida several decades ago.

Starlings - and not the rock pigeon? I would add Muscovy Duck, but I guess they don't inflict much economic impact unless you hit one with a Prius or Miata. Actually, the good ol' Mallard is a nuisance in FL where they are interbreeding with native mottled ducks. These are not your migrating mallards causing the problem. These are domestic ducks that inhabit city parks or are purchased as Easter presents and released. This hybridization could result in the extinction of the mottled duck in this area.

Coyotes and Geese I kinda understand - I'm betting some Canadian folks may say the same for Wild Turkey. I believe it's in Ontario where they are having problems with an overpopulation of wild turkeys in cities.

Anyway, Top Ten lists are fun to pick apart and analyze - especially when a wildlife authority like DailyFinance.com seizes the reins. If you have any other suggestions for this list, let us know!

10 Invasive Species that Cost the U.S. a Bundle

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Deer Under Trampoline

Yes, the most unimaginative blog post title ever written.

Mom sent me this in an e-mail. I think I am ditching my ground blind this year and toting one of these into the woods. I wouldn't recommend belly flops.

Or cannonballs.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gator Tales

African hunters claim an angry Cape buffalo stares at you like you owe him money. I can’t say for sure if this is true, and I don’t want to ignite a chest-thumping contest of any kind, but I will testify that this alligator looked like we owed him money, would burn our houses down, and abscond with our wives. He was PO’ed, brother. Those fiery red eyes reflected in the spotlight beam. His mouth poised open with rows of pearly whites ready to strike. His back arched out of the water like a defensive Halloween black cat. If he’d blown a five-foot flame from his mouth, I would not have been surprised in the least. Mother Nature could not construct a surer sign to say “back off!”

Of course, I probably would look the same if I had two treble hooks in my side. We found this guy fairly quickly, swimming across the open lake. As we neared, the big motor was switched off, and the trolling motor was eased into the drink. At a range of forty yards, the first snatch hook was laced over his back, and the fight was on.

Striking the second snatch is always tricky. You don’t want to cross the streams, you might say, and risk popping both lines when he gets to spinning. But you have to get another one in, for one measly line is not enough. We managed to do so after a few adrenaline-boosted attempts. Alongside the boat, it took my second stab with the harpoon to sink the point under his thick skin. Really irritated now, the gator went into the Death Roll, snapping his jaws and slapping his tail against the hull. He wheeled up one fishing line like a yo-yo, snapping the tip of the big rod.

I slid a 44 Mag. round into the chamber of the bangstick and waited for him to be maneuvered for the shot. Upon contact, the round severed the steel cable attaching the harpoon point to the rope and buoy. It would be akin to me flicking a cigarette butt out of the boat and burning one of the fishing lines – I couldn’t do it on purpose in a 100 tries, if not more.

Shocked initially by the percussion, the gator soon came to and thrashed his way off both catch lines, which were now a tangled mess, not a problem if the harpoon line was still attached. He beat a retreat to the bottom of the lake as we scrambled to re-rig.

Thankfully, if not shockingly, he re-surfaced as the last knots were secured to a new pair of snatch hooks. One cast later, the fight returned. This time, though, when he was brought starboard-side, the bangstick met no interference, and the gator was hauled aboard without further incident. Eight feet, four inches, the alligator was a little bit bigger than the average.

In a sport that requires boats and spotlights and fishing lines, stories like this are rather common. The first phase of gator season is over. When the season resumes, I’ll probably be busy with other pursuits. But what a season so far. I’ve kept tabs on other friends and their excursions this last week – quite the collection of tales of successes and woes.

- Harris took a crew out Monday night. They were mostly novices. After several tries and breaking a rod in the process, they managed to land a small 6-footer. Ready to call it quits for the night, the engine would not crank. They had to paddle 4 miles back to the ramp. At one point an airboat passed by – well, that didn’t happen. Harris didn’t get to bed until 5 in the morning.

- Cole, as someone tends to every year, got a ticket from the FWC boys for not having functioning navigation lights. After the safety check and typical kibitzing over the quality of the throw cushion, the officers were kind enough to point that bunch towards an area teeming with big gators. The lizards were there, but attempts to get one were unsuccessful.

- Jack and Krunk set out Saturday night. They lost a big one early and had seen several other trophy-quality gators. Unfortunately, they too ran into motor troubles and had to use the trolling motor to get back to the ramp. (Jack did end up with a 10'10" and a 9'9" before the phase closed.)

Our best story came Tuesday night. The rain skirted us on the east and west, but we stayed dry. Unfortunately, the storm was shaped like a trawl net, and we were swept up by the southern end of this misery. We hauled rear to a small concrete bridge for refuge from the lightning and downpour. With only four feet of clearance from the lake surface to the underside of the bridge, it was a tad claustrophobic. Worse still was the menacing herd of prehistoric-sized spiders clinging to the support beams.

I’m not a spider fan, especially at eye level. Some of them looked like they could take out a mallard, no trouble. This was as close to being buried alive I hope to ever be. Even that mercy arrives faster, as we were stuck there for around an hour. Who cares about lightning and ravenous gators? Spiders are infinitely worse, in my book. I did not sleep well that night.

If you’ve never been gator hunting, I suggest purchasing a trapper’s tag and buddying up with someone with a permit. If not, there’s always next year.

It’s fun.

I promise.

TWL Classics - The Last of the Elephant Hunters

Originally Published September 2008

When I was young, I dreamed of Africa - of swatting down elephants with the big bore double barrels in the company of other legendary ivory hunters like Karamoja Bell or John “Pondoro” Taylor.

The dust of the stampede. The mad dash to dodge the charge of the herd. Slamming the last two cigar-sized rounds into the breech and touching off the shots that save your rear end from being ground into the African soil.

After the hunt, we toast to success through the flames of a mopani campfire. We drink to past hunts, to old stories, to friends present, and to those we’ll never hunt with again. After a while, I’ll stagger on to bed with visions of tomorrow’s elephants.

It’s not like I’ve had anything against elephants, then or now, but for this boy, the adventure of wandering the land chasing wild creatures has always...well, I just don’t know any other way to be.

For me, a dozen years later, Africa is farther away than it ever has been. Even back when I was a kid, large scale ivory hunting was 50 years extinct, as it should be. Today, you can still hunt elephant, and from what I’ve heard and read they’re exciting, challenging hunts, but it’s a rich man’s game of slapping down big bucks and posing for a picture beside a tremendous animal laid low by a puny bullet. In reality, there is not much need for an elephant hunter anymore.

Many people find it odd the devotion of my life spent chasing animals. Some folks are interested, some are repulsed, and many others just don’t understand. While I’m certainly not embarrassed, being a curiosity is not one of my favorite things, so I avoid the topic as much as possible in a general crowd. And even attempting to explain this passion is near impossible, although I’ve certainly taken a stab at it.

Even so, a hunter is a label I identify with more than any other, which no doubt sounds silly to others. And I guess it is. Few people in this country need to subsistence hunt. I am clearly not starving. Still, every autumn, hunting is about the only thing on which I can honestly concentrate.

This season is right around the bend, and I don’t need the calendar to remind me; there are clues everywhere for those who have the senses. The green grass of the summer is starting to look old. Acorns are budding up and falling from the oaks, and the days are getting noticeably shorter as the sun tracks a slightly different path west, the light shining brighter off waxy leaves in the afternoon hours.

More than this though, I know the season is coming because when I lie down in bed at night and wait for sleep, if I listen closely, I can hear the coyotes howling down in Hog Valley. I can hear the crackle from the burning tip of a pre-dawn cigarette as I stand in knee-deep water waiting for the sunrise and the first flight of teal down on the Big Lake. Lingering amid the cattails listening to the flocks of coots chat amongst themselves, and the splashes of feeding bass and gators, I watch to the east as the sun rises into the clouds of a winter front, scattering purples and oranges across the sky and reflecting across Okeechobee. A shot echoes across the marsh to remind me of why I’m there. But at this point, it is not loud enough to wake me up.

Yes, the fever is running high now. Only February will cure me, and rather forcefully too, I may add.

If I were so inclined to explain myself and elaborate on why I am so compelled to load up my truck and drive to distant places for game, I guess the best answer would be the freedom of it all. Being able to roam. Making decisions of consequence and living with these choices. Even though there are game laws, your days and actions are guided by your own sense of morality and ethics and little else. After all, once you send that bullet or arrow on its way, there’s no calling it back.

When you spend as much time in the woods watching life work itself out as I do, you gain enough humility to see the world in a different perspective. For instance, these experiences a field have tamed my adolescent notions of having control over everything - no matter how far in advance you plan or how much money you save for a trip, there’s an inherent chance that the days will be ruined by weather or something else unforeseeable. A hunter can’t go into the woods and expect Nature to fall into his line. You have to stay adaptable and in a good mood - and thankful for even having the day to consider it.

Hunting can also cure those afflicted by some sense of being “right all the time”. More times than not, showing up and being patient is more successful than detailed scheming and plotting and speculating.

These conditions very much make me the person I am. Hell, even my flare-ups of social anxiety can be partially diagnosed from a pastime comprised of hiding oneself.

Also, I love seeing new places and meeting new people. I certainly benefit from jumping off the Interstate and the repeating cartoon background of Golden Arches, Motel Sixes and Cracker Barrels. I’d rather eat some greasy Back Road Diner fried chicken and catfish off a lunch buffet than ever step into a chain restaurant again. The towns – Otter Creek, Red Feather, Olar, Coleman, Newton’s Crossroads – may not sound too romantic, but they ring beautiful in my ears.

But as much as simple things pleasure me, and no matter how much solitude I may crave in the woods, taking a big deer is much smaller than the experience of sitting around the campfire shooting bull about it and other hunts past.

A decade ago we got together religiously every second weekend of November. We camped in tents and drank moonshine and cooked steaks on the oak fire. We all got hangover drunk telling the same stories everyone had heard before, added with a new nugget of falsehood or embarrassment at the cost to the victim of the tale. Of all the things wasted on my youth, I’m proud to say the lessons learned and the lifelong friendships made around these fires were not discarded.

And as hard as I tried to hold on to these days, they were inevitably taken away. Us younger guys graduated school and got jobs. Some of the older guys have retired or moved to other states. The land in Central Florida we hunted is no longer available, taken away by a company too worried about lawsuits.

So I moved on, too, with a new crowd in Georgia. Things, of course, are different. We don’t drink to the point of incoherence at night, and as much I enjoy these guys, we don’t have the history. I’ve found a seafood shop in a neighboring town, so a cooler full of raw oysters and a couple of Blue Gills are an acceptable alternative that will keep a crowd awake and stories flowing. We no longer huddle around a small portable TV to watch a Florida game, rather we flip the remote to the satellite-fed unit in the two story house we occupy during the fall. And it’s a right fine time.

Some things remain the same in all camps though. Every morning that Early Riser will bang around making noise before the alarms go off as you’re trying to squeeze out the last few winks of sleep you’ll have for the next sixteen hours. If you’re lucky, he’ll yell out, “it’s thirty degrees with a slight wind out of north, get ya some coffee." You cling to your comforter like a life raft in a frigid Pacific sea. Eventually, though, you get dressed and plunge into the darkness with the same “whoosh” of doing a cannonball in a cold pool. A new day is about to begin and it is important to be out to meet it on time. Plus, you have a mile to walk and a tree to climb.

By January I’ll have spent at least a solid month-and-a-half worth of days actually hunting. At the end of the season I’ll be ready to make peace with the deer and ducks and start shaking with anticipation of spring turkey in March.

This year it’s bow and muzzleloading with Dad in Manatee County. Hopefully, ducks, grilled pork chops, corn tortillas and Bud Heavy down on the Big O with Beavis and Lance the Romance. Deer, pigs, turkey and some steamed clams up by Cedar Key with who knows who’ll show up. And, of course, oysters and trophy deer in Georgia with the New Crew.

For fifteen seasons I’ve tried to keep this pace, but I’m not sure how much long I can maintain this routine. This schedule is not too conducive to the needs of a successful career, health, marriage or family, all things I want one day. I’ve always wished this hunting lifestyle meant more than it really does, but responsibility and reality are tough foes to battle.

For the moment, though, I have this season. And as a bonus, most of the Old Crew is assembling at a family farm in North Carolina for a week to help reduce a herd of deer that are destroying crops. Of course, that is our stated reason for going. But there are other purposes too.

At night we’ll toast to the success of the hunt through the flames of an oak campfire. We’ll drink to past hunts, to old stories, to friends present and to those we’ll never hunt with again. After a while, I’ll stagger on to bed with visions of tomorrow’s elephants.

It’s not like I’ve had anything against elephants, then or now, but for this boy, the adventure of wandering the land chasing wild creatures has always...well, I just don’t know any other way to be.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Key Deer

“Wait! Turn down that road," I yelled to Dad. “OK, let me take the shot!”

Yes, I am guilty. I was hunting out of a truck - in a neighborhood, for an endangered species nonetheless. What kind of punk would do this?

Well, this sicko finds it absolutely necessary to go on a photo safari every time I venture to the Florida Keys, and today the camera was getting hot as my quarry was out in force.

The Florida Keys possess some of the most fascinating and unique attractions this country has to offer. From the living coral reefs to the world-class fishing and the history and party life of Hemingway’s beloved Key West, the Keys are an extraordinary destination. It’s only fitting that a truly special species of deer inhabits this paradise. Amidst the mangrove jungles, coral islands, marinas, and restaurants of the Lower Keys lives the smallest of the whitetail subspecies, the Key deer.

Standing only a couple feet tall and tipping the scales at a meager 45 to 75 pounds, the diminutive Key deer inhabits Big Pine Key, No Name Key, and several smaller islands between Marathon and Key West. As an avid deer hunter and student of their habits and history, I can never resist the urge to visit with these wonderful animals when in the area. The fact they are there to see is a great story in itself.

Centuries ago, it’s believed that deer made their way to the tip of Florida over a land bridge thousands of years before the ocean sculpted the state into its present shape. As the Wisconsin Glacier melted, the sea level rose and the Florida Keys were formed, resulting in a population of deer geographically severed from the genetic ties of other species of deer.

In their isolated and subtropical habitat they feed on mangroves, palm berries, and other native plants. With natural freshwater scarce, they rely mainly on pools of rainwater in the limestone to survive. Key deer are the ultimate testament to the whitetail's adaptability. Centuries of hurricanes, sweltering heat, and geological phenomena have been unable to eliminate the Key deer. Man’s influence has been more severe.

Today it’s difficult to imagine the Keys without the tourist traps and hotels, but at one point, the islands served as outposts for exiled Native Americans, outlaws, pirates, and people trying to scratch out a living on the abundant natural resources from the surrounding waters. The deer provided a convenient source of food; however, it wasn’t until Progress made its way to the Keys that the deer population really began to suffer.

The building of Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900’s, an ambitious project connecting Miami and Key West by rail, brought hungry workers and development to the area. After the demise of the railroad in a hurricane, roads were rebuilt and the automobile was introduced to the Keys, consequently bringing tourists and more inhabitants to the islands. The resulting over-hunting and loss of habitat from the increasing human population left less than 40 deer by the end of the 1940’s.

Thanks to the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 and its first manager Jack Watson, the deer’s numbers rose to around 400 animals by 1978. The population dipped again to 250 to 300 animals in the early 1980’s due to another boom in travel and development as a result of the completion of the Overseas Highway, a series of new bridges created to replace the old roads. Due to these low numbers, Key deer are afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Human interaction remains the biggest threat to the Key deer. Deer that have become accustomed to roadside snacks are susceptible to vehicle accidents. Animals fed at houses run the risk of being attacked by dogs, and large numbers of deer that congregate around feeding sites leads to the transmission of disease. To combat these problems, state regulations make feeding Key deer a misdemeanor offense. Deer fences around undeveloped areas have been erected and speed limits are strictly enforced to minimize the potential of vehicle collisions which kills a number of deer along U.S. 1.

Residents of Big Pine Key, whose livelihood is largely dependent on tourism, view Key deer as both a benefit and a nuisance. The money from tourists who visit the refuge is an essential part of life, but day-to-day life activities are interrupted by slow speed limits and visiting drivers seeking a picture of the deer.

Visits from September to March will yield sightings of bucks with hard antlers perfectly proportioned to their dwarfish size and from April to June, does give birth to fawns weighing two to four pounds.

When looking for deer, be respectful of other drivers and locals who are not sharing the experience. The deer are quite approachable and easily photographed from the road, but its recommended people do not exit their vehicles when viewing or photographing the animals.

While I can safely say there will never be a hunting season on these small deer, any deer hunter who travels the Keys for other pursuits owes it to their craft to visit and learn about the Key deer.

For more information, contact the National Key Deer Refuge at P.O. Box 430510, Big Pine Key, FL 33043-0510 or visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services website at www.fws.gov

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Nuge

This story of Ted Nugent's no contest plea to illegally baiting deer in California brought to mind a blog post I started in a Georgia deer camp a couple Decembers ago that remains unfinished. The piece is still just a trifling. I've edited, re-edited, shelved, and unshelved this article so much my hard drive is wrinkled...I just can't make it fly like I want. Anyone who writes knows the feeling.

So, what the hell. Let's just spray it out now since he's currently relevant.

You have to hand it to the Nuge. While his TV show, The Spirit of the Wild, is little more than a pimp program for his sponsors, watching it you get the sense Uncle Ted will whack just about anything that ambles out. Does, yearlings, big bucks, it doesn’t matter; the mystical flight of the arrow always strikes the pumphouse accompanied by a cacophony of catchphrases, praises, and thanks from the Backstrap Hunter for being able to pluck the Great Beast from the Protein Tree. Or something to that effect.

Talking about the 2nd Amendment and hunters’ rights, he’ll do just about anything, too.

Yes, to call Mr. Nugent outrageous is a tad of an understatement. Not surprisingly, the Motor City Madman is perhaps the most controversial member in our hunting village, but he is no idiot. His outspokenness for hunting and the Second Amendment may rankle some in and out of this community, but don’t let his antics confuse the importance and effect of what he preaches.

The genius of Nugent is his touch with a common thread of thought amongst the average gun owner and hunter. On an episode of Spirit a year or so ago, he made his feelings known at a town hall assembly, in no uncertain terms, that he prefers a dead, gunshot criminal over a dead, gunshot victim.

The interviewer was noticeably taken aback, and mostly speechless, lacking the skill-set necessary to cope with this unique bluster. But in listening to Nugent, what he said is nothing I’ve not heard all of my life from hunters and gunowners and their thoughts on the Second Amendment. It’s not polished enough for the media to take seriously and at times is downright redneck-ish, but it’s there, and to underestimate it would be a mistake.

This is the power of Nugent, this rally-the-troops presence. His public image secures his forum, and his anti-elitist prose endears him with those who don’t possess his spotlight.

There are a multitude of lobbyists and gentler spokespeople that fuel the inside fight for the right to bear arms and outdoors interests, but few can summon the passion with their PC rhetoric as Mr. Nugent can with his – as he sees it – “tell it like it is” strategy.

Nugent is, for better or worse, the predominant voice of this silent majority, those that can’t make their way onto a Versus TV show or in the pages an outdoor rag. Those whose piecemeal thoughts feed the forum fodder. If the proverbial garbage hits the fan over assault rifles, handgun bans, hunting restrictions or any related subject, count on Nugent to be at the forefront, blowing the horn, waving the flag, and leading the charge. He is a leader.

Be thankful Uncle Ted is a member of our family tree.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gator Bangsticks

Happiness is a warm bangstick. I’m not sure this is something John Lennon really explored, but I can attest to its validity.

Over the course of my hunting career, I’ve come to accumulate cool gear - stands that climb trees, rangefinders, rifles that’ll group penny-sized shots at awesome distances, and fiber optic sights and red-dot scopes. Heck, I even own two .44 Mag. handguns, so I can’t really explain why a Dirty Harry on a stick impresses me so, but it does.

I purchased my bangstick a month ago in preparation for this gator season. I, as I always do when shopping, spent ample time cogitating on what I wanted – though I had no clue what I needed - comparing prices and whatnot.

The winner was Central Florida Trophy Hunts. They offered a .44 Mag powerhead on a 5ft powder-coated aluminum pole for $145 plus Uncle Sam. I was drawn to this product for the price. And the fact I would not have to assemble anything, my talent for doing so lost when I missed that day of shop in 7th grade.

The design is simple - a .44 caliber stainless hollow steel cylinder with grooves on the outside for rubber O-Rings. This constitutes the chamber. The “firing pin” is located in the base. It is simply a conical protrusion. (BTW – words like "protrusion" and "cylinder" are about as technical as I can get.)

So the deal is, the cartridge slides into the chamber and the chamber is pushed into the base until the O-Ring grabs the edge to hold it in place. A gap is left between the primer and firing cone. An R-Clip is set through a drilled hole to act as the safety. When it comes time to discharge the round, you pull the R-Clip, and thrust the end of the stick at the sweet spot in the gator’s head, in line with the spine and behind the eyes, best it’s been explained to me.

How does it work? Well. Very well. The 8 feet 7 inch gator Sunday night rolled up three snatch lines and a harpoon rope. The first .44 severely dimmed his lights. If you know anything about gators, though, you know he was still smoldering underneath. Indeed, it was not a perfect shot, and he went to acting up again. The second hit was much more gratifying – as Kate Hudson remarks in Almost Famous, “The truth just sounds different.”

It’s a pretty small sampling size, for sure. While I don’t have tags myself, I did get the trapper’s license that allows me to hunt with anyone with a CITES. I’m sure I’ll secure a call or two more before season’s end and put Bangstick Betty to work again.

The one whiff with this product is a lack of flotation. With its rubber handle, it would be hard to lose your grip, but in the melee of a hooked lizard, who knows what could happen. I remedied this problem by scissoring 8 inches of a red Styrofoam pool noodle to secure to the shaft.

After all, sadness would be a sunken bangstick.

Monday, August 16, 2010

August Scallops

“Something is amiss,” I gently pondered...actually, my thoughts were much more profane and desperate as I gazed down and noticed the depth had quickly given way to the shallows.

“Stay on that throttle!”

I’d been paying too much attention to skating the edge of a rainstorm, but as I observed the fleet of scallop boats, I realized the divers were wading knee deep water, slogging sticky-feet about the flats. Everyone was stuck in this trap. Luckily, I chugged the Bayrider to happier waters without destroying the lower unit or seagrass beds. Just a month ago this was 6 feet of drink, run dry now by powerful outgoing tides.

The scalloping was worth it. Man, oh man, this has been one heck of a clam season. Once again, we found ourselves off Ozello, and after two months of Open Season, the scallops are still thick.

And they are HUUUUUGGGGGGEEEEE. The shells resemble something from the fossil records; all covered in barnacles, some ¾ the size of my palm. The meat is comparable in size to sea scallops you see in restaurants. It’s amazing how fast they grow in just a month.

This has been one of the busiest years I can recall in Homosassa. The Shop Vacs are lined up and down the River siphoning Scallop Goop. The Springs are LOADED with partygoers and other revelers. I dare say the economy in this area is doing right well, considering.

The one down side is the heat. Oppressive. But that should not be enough to keep you in port. Scallop season lasts until September 10th.

From the FWC:

Recreational harvesters are limited to two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or one pint of bay scallop meat, per day during the open season. In addition, recreational scallopers may possess no more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or ½ gallon of bay scallop meat, aboard any vessel at any time. Bay scallops may be harvested only by hand or with a landing or dip net. They may not be harvested for commercial purposes. Recreational harvesters need a Florida saltwater fishing license to harvest bay scallops, even when scalloping from shore.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Great White Shark vs. Lunatic on Paddleboard Video

Sharks were a lot more fun when they were mindless killing machines and everyone feared them. I feel like my innocence has been stolen. Thanks, Discovery Channel.

And Chuck Patterson.

Me my Shark and I from Chuck Patterson on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August Deer Rush

Remember those old SAT questions where they’d give you four words like dog, cat, mouse, and toilet and you’d have to choose the one that didn’t fit? I pondered a comparison last weekend. Heat, thunderstorms, summer, deer hunting. After Morning One, you could have replaced “thunderstorms” with “sleeping in” and it would still fit better than “deer hunting.”

It was my bachelor party arranged and assembled by Brother T. Yes, a bachelor party held after my wedding. The plan was to bowhunt a friend’s ranch in Sarasota County for three days. Good man, Brother T. In the mornings and afternoons, stand hunting. During the day we’d drive the ranch scouting and seeking the random hog. The whole premise was exotic. Deer hunting in August! I love exotic challenges.

Now before we start dissecting the negative, let’s address the positives. For starters, it is a gorgeous 8,000-acre ranch that I’m very thankful to hunt. Mostly the open of Florida prairie, the land is flat as a board and dotted with wet-weather ponds, islands of palms, palmetto flats, and scrub oaks stands. The back forty consists of tall pines and broom sedge that is about as close to Old Florida Cracker as I can imagine a place can be these days. Since this is a working ranch, the natural habitat is also broken with a citrus grove and numerous cow pastures and sod fields. Near the Gulf of Mexico, the poetry sunsets are among the best you’ll find in Florida.

The wildlife is abundant. Hogs churn up the ditch bottoms and creep across pastures. Turkeys flock and run down the roads in front of the truck. Whistling ducks feed in the reeds and sandhills are just about a pestilence in the sod. Deer, once almost non-existent here, swarm the fields in the summer mornings and evenings. Bachelor groups of bucks feed in the wet-weather ponds. The females herd up like pronghorn. Both genders are legal with a bow this time of year, but the main objective was a mature buck in velvet.

I’ve hunted summertime velvet bucks in South Carolina, but that was with a rifle. The bucks there flood the soybean fields in the evenings, and with a scoped rifle this is no big deal. Approaching the Florida Summer Buck with a bow was daunting. For one, narrowing down where the deer would feed is next to impossible with the buffet of goodies available to them. We had corn feeders, but the hogs and turkey are more likely to visit these stations than Mr. Tines. The size of the land is intimidating, too. Without any major contours in the land, the traditional strategies of hunting funnels and similar features were moot. Deer just oozed out of the woods into the fields. Picking a bow stand...just imagine the frustration.

The water was prohibitive. This year’s summer rains had left the ranch soggy. Getting back to the better locales would have been a sticky, anger-the-cowboys mess. I’m thinking particularly of the out-of-the-way pine stands where the older bucks on the ranch tend to hole up.

Really, the primary obstacle was the heat. As one might imagine, it was stifling. Since I can not keep a stand there on a permanent basis, I toted a climber down two weeks prior to the hunt and hung it in a location I’d scouted and knew to be reliable for bucks year-round. Anyone who has used a climber in temperatures over 70 should cringe when I tell them the temperature reading from my truck Friday morning read 82. For me, hunting in the 90 degree evenings was out of the question. I wore a lightweight leafy outfit, a sweat wicking shirt, and board shorts; it still didn’t help much. If that wasn’t enough, the herds of vicious mosquitoes chased me up the tree and were quite enough to induce a Panic Sweat. I may pen a movie script based on this experience. Skeeters 3-D.

Anyway, the Therma-Cell did finally kick them back to a dull roar, and I managed to catch Shut Eye as I waited on dawn. My big plan for the stand location was simple. Behind me was a thick swamp where I knew bucks bedded. Ahead was a green cow pasture and pond where I knew they fed. I sat in a strip of cabbage palms and pines that separated the two regions where they mingled between both.

I’d shaken out C’Mere Deer when I placed the stand. I figured since we were hunting deer on a feeding pattern before the acorn crop, I should sweeten the deal. Could go ahead and name it, C’Mere Cow. After sunrise, the bovines were slipping around the stand, feeding in the long bahiagrass raising all sorts of mooing hell.

It was a beautiful morning, and as hard as I tried, I just could not get comfortable in the heat and humidity. Then the texts came from the others. No one was seeing much from the stand. Harris missed a small hog – well, he’d rested the lower cam of his bow on his leg before the shot, and his arrow limped out and into the mud. We labeled the incident an equipment malfunction. Not sure if that’s accurate, but we rolled with it. PJ missed a doe on his first-ever bow shot. Sure, the doe was 45-50 yards away. He’s hooked on bowhunting now, though. Brother T had whacked a boar with awesome cutters and wetters that he should mount, but most everyone was on the move back to their trucks. Trace, who was hunting a stand a couple hundred yards away, texted that he was ready to call it after seeing a flock of hens and poults, and I agreed to meet him.

As the weekend progressed, everyone saw antlers, both velvet and hard-horned, but the sightings came from the cabs of vehicles. The enthusiasm of stand hunting perspired out of almost everyone midway through Saturday. The hogs were not cooperating, either. The ranch hired a young cowhand for the summer, and he’d been running dogs at night. Just doesn’t take much pressure before a hog’s ears perk at the sound of an engine. Cole arrowed a nice boar Friday evening, and that was our total swine count for the weekend.

The Florida season starts so early now because of the variance of the rut in the South Zone compared to other places around the peninsula. Towards Big Cypress, Immokalee, and other areas down there, the rut is happening now. The rut on this ranch is in October – sometimes when you’re gerrymandering a hunting zone, you pick the best highway boundary you can and make a go of it.

I didn’t bother to stand hunt again after that first morning. My excitement level just could not be amped up to the appropriate November level. Call me weak, whatever. I never gained confidence in my stand location, anyhow. I thought, perhaps, I’d have better luck cruising the property and spying a buck to sneak up on or come back later with a pop-up blind. It just didn’t work out that way.

I’m curious to spend the next few weeks online researching what others did this summer to tag velvet bucks down south. By the time next August rolls around, I’ll probably be ready to beat the heat again, hopefully better prepared.

And hopefully I won’t have to get married again to create a reason for the trip.

(BTW besides the hunting conditions and wimpiness on my behalf to hunt, the trip was awesome. Thanks to everyone who made it happen. Just a blast!)

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Hog Rut?

I get the occasional e-mail and see it all the time on blog trackers. Someone asks or Googles, “When do hogs rut in Florida?”

The answer is they breed year-round, and a rut - as you would think of deer - does not appear to exist. Sows come in and out of heat throughout the year and boars take advantage. I dare say you may notice an abundance of larger boars with sows in the Spring, but this is usually the result of the sudden arrival of fresh food in the open after a winter of rooting and scrapping out what they can find.

Also, sows have been known to have up to three litters a year, though two is more likely, and once is the most common-place.

In full disclosure, I have read some reports that hogs do have peak breeding cycles in northern states, usually occurring in the late winter and early summer; however, it’s not the same as the deer rut and probably not the surest way of bagging that trophy boar.