A group of five of us applied for and were successfully awarded a group quota archery hunt at the beautiful St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of the Big Bend region of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
For those of us who primarily hunt in Florida’s zone C this hunt is a great way to extend the archery season. The down sides were only one of us had experience hunting in St. Mark’s NWR and there would be almost no time for scouting. With only a few days before the start of our hunt we set up camp at Newport campground located across from the Refuge HQ at 8046 Coastal Highway, Crawfordville, FL. I had reserved a site for our pop-up camper a few months earlier and campground host Mr. William Cole was very helpful and accommodating. Mr. Cole keeps the campground in fine shape working many hours a day to do so. Some sites have water, electric and sewer hookup while others just water and electric and some are primitive. The sites are not private but campground has a great canopy of mature trees providing shade and a decent atmosphere. The bathhouse is kept in good shape and has showers for campers. There is a game cleaning area and a boat ramp adjacent to the park. It's a great base camp location for accessing the refuge. The price for a site with water and electric is a reasonable $22 per night.
Most of the sites on this trip were occupied by hunters and as luck would have it for Douglas, one of the hunters in the group next to us walked over to our camp fire one evening and asked if we liked honey buns. Douglas had that look of a deer in the headlights, clearly not able to process what he just heard. To appreciate this you need to understand the back story. Douglas has a death wish, he will often eat honey bun purchased from any Jiffy store anywhere and washes down with a Mountain Dew. So when Douglas heard, " do y'all like honey buns", it was sensory overload. I have to admit, even I was surprised to say the least. But I was able to recover my composure and point to Douglas across the campfire and say, "this man loves honey buns and he would be happy to have one". With that our neighbor replied, "you can't just have one, you gotta take the whole damn box of them". Douglas was still unable to speak. I'm not sure he was able to even turn around and look at our neighbor, probably fearing he had died and gone to heaven and this is what the Angels would be saying to him. To make a long story short, a whole box of honey buns and related deadly snacks appeared and were gratefully accepted.
After dropping off pop-up we drove into the refuge to meet our hunting buddies to scout. First stop was a coastal area with both deer and hog sign. Three out of the five of us would hunt this area while Douglas and I went to scout a second area. We located a promising area with all the major ingredients; food sources, water, bedding areas, travel corridors. And as we prefer it was off trail. We did a quick look around, found some promising deer sign, identified a few setups and mark them with our GPS.
Fast-forward to the hunts, we had a promising first morning hunt with a spike and doe coming into our set ups. Unfortunately, the doe was missed when the arrow glanced off a palm frond that was in its trajectory. Not long after, a spike came into the set up. After a couple seconds of hesitation trying to determine if it was legal, it was allowed to walk by.
Over a few days of hunting, we didn't kill any deer or hogs. Douglas and I put in about five hunts and the rest of our group less than that. But I think we all agreed it was well worth the effort and a lot of enjoyment.
If you could imagine about a million acres of protected backwater and seagrass flats fed by countless springfed streams and one of America's largest and most beautiful rivers with miles and miles of protected and undeveloped shoreline and all of it with some of the finest backcountry and flats fishing to be found anywhere, then throw in many thousands of acres of state and federal refuge and wildlife management areas with great deer, hog and turkey hunting opportunities….. you would be imagining a place called Florida’s Big Bend region. From St. Marks NWR to the north and traveling south to Chassahowitzka NWR and anchored by the great Suwanee River and barrier islands of the Cedar Keys. There simply isn't any wilderness like it in Florida or the continent for that matter.
Now imagine a beautiful blue skies November day where you can backcountry fish and hunt all in the same day and all within minutes of one another. That's what happened a couple weeks ago thanks to an invitation to go fishing with my close friend Bob. It started when Douglas and I helped load our gear on Bob's airboat as the tide was still falling under perfect early morning weather conditions in Cedar Key. As Bob's house and the Cedar Keys disappeared from sight the wilderness shoreline of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge opened up. The Big Bend at low tide in the backcountry is sensory overload. There's just too much of interest to look at. The oyster bars, mud flats, creeks, islands, birds, sky is overwhelming. I snapped a few photos on our way to our fishing grounds however, the none of them seem to do justice to the experience.
When Bob brought the airboat to rest perfectly positioned on a sandbar in a creek no wider than about 20 feet across we baited our hooks with cut mullet or mud minnows and cast to the rock formations that are found in many of the creeks in the region. There are countless creeks with countless areas where the current has scoured the bottom and ledges exposing craggy, swiss cheese-like limestone formations where the redfish often reside during the low winter tides. Some of these spots are coveted and held in confidence within a close knit group of trustworthy men. It goes without saying that experiencing this type of fishing is a privilege.
Within a very short time we had each caught our limit of legal sized redfish with a couple of them pushing towards the upper size limit. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon Bob expertly piloted the airboat into creeks where we continued to catch many redfish. In those few hours we caught and released over 50 fish. Bob is one of those rare individuals that has earned the skills and expertise necessary to navigate the backcountry and handle boats of all types and sizes with expert precision and its all coupled with his great attitude.
By midafternoon we had our fish cleaned boat washed and Douglas and I were on our way to spend the last few hours before sunset hunting. After a quick switch from fishing to hunting gear we set off into one of our favorite swamp and hammock areas. We each went separate ways and set up approximately a quarter mile from each other with a fairly thick swamp between us. I chose a palm tree in this swamp with a view of the edge of a hammock to climb. Not long after I was set up I heard that familiar rustling of palmettos that a hog will make when he's looking for acorns or tubers. In a minute or two a large black boar hog came into view about 40 yards away. With the density of trees and brush I was only afforded temporary and narrow shot windows. As soon as the hog entered one of those windows and turned broadside I squeezed the trigger of my rifle. The shot was well placed and the hog fell over in place.
When I fired, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a buck running away from the sound about 50 yards further than the hog. Perhaps the buck had come into my grunt call but hung up about 70 or 80 yards away as the younger bucks will often do? I don't know how long he'd been there but he stopped his run at just the right moment and just the right place to give me a narrow window of opportunity. I put the crosshairs on his vitals and squeezed the trigger. That shot found its place also and the buck fell over in his tracks. The bullet had hit a shoulder and passed through his heart, an instant kill.
This is a short video clip of the expert air boat piloting that Bob did to maneuver through the mudflats while avoiding the oyster bars. You can also get an idea of the pine and palm hammocks that grow in the salt marshes on this section of the Gulf Coast. Spectacular scenery!
I may call the Hoginator’s vehicle the “rusty” Nissan Pathfinder but his vehicle has also been the “trusty” one. My 1995 4Runner on the other hand started out the hunting season running a bit rough and that progressed to miserable then in short order to intolerable by the end of archery season....and that was after the air conditioning failed while on a camping trip in June..in Florida!
Back to the shop it went recently to be diagnosed. I had already resigned myself to the bad news I was sure to receive….yes the injectors are clogged with rust as well as the fuel filter (3rd fuel filter in 4 months) and the gas tank is severely corroded and needs to be replaced. And that is exactly what I heard.
A new good quality fuel tank later, and hundreds of dollars, the 4Runner is running like a buck in rut and my pursuit of the wild life has resumed with greater than ever confidence in my 20 year old SUV. By the way all repairs on 20 year old 4Runners will cost some magic number between $300 and $800 dollars. Be warned that is not a ceiling, you could easily spend more. Just repeat after me, you can't put a price on love.
No matter how “cheap” you buy one it may not remain inexpensive for long. Still in all, and when or if the repairs slow down, it will be a low cost vehicle to own…assuming I live long enough. Just remember, you can't put a price on love.
Lesson learned: If you purchase a 20 year old vehicle that has been sitting for a long while in the Florida temperature extremes with little to no fuel in the tank, inspect the tank and fuel system, it may have significant corrosion problems.