Other than the worldwide and deadly COVID-19 pandemic, it was a perfect morning for Paul and I to be spring gobbler hunting on Florida public land. We had the trailhead to ourselves in Devils Hammock WMA in Levy County. We had come close to connecting with more than one Osceola gobbler here the week before and had a good idea where they were roosting, so our confidence was high. Keep in mind the Osceola, Meleagris gallopavo osceola, which occurs only in the Florida Peninsula, is widely considered the most challenging to hunt of the six wild turkey subspecies. They aren’t as vocal as the Eastern turkey, and often come in without making a sound. But I had my lucky wing-bone call that I made from an Osceola gobbler I killed a decade ago. This call is so powerful, simply having it in my vest is strong medicine. Yelping with it would be a death sentence for any gobbler that heard it, so I also brought my best camera to document the hunt.
Before first light we eased our way to the edge of a creek bottom where we thought the gobbler would be enjoying his last dreams of hot hens before departing this world thanks to a deadly pattern of 12-gauge Federal TSS turkey loads. In short order, a gobbler fired off within 50-75 yards, so we knew we were in the perfect spot! We quickly set out a few decoys and settled into our blinds with great shooting lanes into the bottom, from where we hoped he would soon come strutting into our set-up.
Just as I finished readying my calls and gun, we heard another turkey, a hen, fly down between us and the gobbler. It was disappointing, but we still had hopes of calling him and his girlfriend our way. But he flew down and moved just south of us. He answered our best slutty hen yelps, but it was with that dreaded, “I’m here and I’ve got plenty for you too, baby, come on over.” He gobbled his invitation multiple times as he and his hen moved away.
Ok, time for Plan B. After whispering back and forth, with Paul using the phrase, “Those bastards” multiple times, we decided to move and set up in the area we last heard him. I’ll save the reader further disappointment and just come out with it … no, we never saw him, or even got him to gobble again. After an hour or two we packed up our gear and moped back to the truck. But little did we know the morning’s excitement wasn’t over.
After stowing our gear, as responsible Back Country Hunters and Anglers members, we began picking up trash in the parking area. Paul found a spent 16-gauge shotgun shell and explained they usually have purple hulls, something I didn’t know. A few minutes later, he said “Here’s another one.” As he picked it up, with disbelief we both realized that instead of a 16-gauge shell, he was holding a used purple tampon applicator! With a look of horror of in his eyes, Paul quickly dropped it. After grabbing a disinfectant wipe to dispose of the applicator and sanitizing our hands like our lives depended on it (though I never touched it), we both got a really big laugh out of his misfortune, noting how similar the two objects appear from a distance.
Lessons Learned / Gear:
The deer hunting gods sent us plenty of photos and videos of decent Florida Public Land bucks leading up to archery and through the gun seasons. However, as soon as the archery season started and throughout gun season those bucks were no where to be seen. Yes, the heat, rain, wind, moon, insects, conspired to make many hunting days miserable.
After the "living hell" of archery season, as Paul L. described it, I still had hope for the last hunts of the gun season.
on one of the last hunts, Paul R. and I set out with our 30-06 and .308 "deer" rifles with absolute confidence. That confidence quickly waned and was sliding towards despair after one of our last morning hunts and of sitting and sitting high in a tree with out seeing a thing.
I decided to walk and stalk for hogs and look for buck sign later that morning....who knows I may even see a buck, I foolishly thought. I cased my 30-06 and loaded my walk and stalk rifle of choice, a short barreled AR-15 with Hornady .223 Full Boar ammo. I chose an old logging trail through some open swamp and hammocks that terminated at the marsh. I like the old logging or tram trails as they are sometimes called. They were constructed long ago to log the hard to reach areas in the swamps. Typically 8' to 10' wide and about a foot higher than the surrounding swamp, they make great pathways to access hard to reach areas and are heavy used by deer and hogs. Often these logging trails connect oak and pine hammocks with large ancient Live Oaks and palmetto thickets that provide food and bedding.
The sow and piglets in the video were following a logging trail that connects multiple oak hammocks. The hogs almost always seem to take the easy and direct route where deer will at times avoid using the logging trails if they sense danger.
Very slowly walking and watching with the wind in my face, I was feeling good to be out of the tree stand. Seeing fresh deer and hog sign made me think that even the deer gods might shine on me. I still hunted the logging trail for approximately 1-1/2 miles until the trail ran out against the marsh, actually a game trail continued to a nearby island but the island was too thick to approach quietly. After a few detours and exploring a couple side trails I turned and headed back.
I moved a bit faster as the wind was not favorable and I doubted that I would see any game. However, not a 1/4 mile from my truck a hog bolted out of the swamp and in the split second it took to shoulder my rifle the hog was out of sight into an oak hammock and palmetto thicket. I jogged down the trail until I was downwind of the thicket then moved extremely slowly toward the palmettos. As I make it the edge of the thicket, stopping with each step to look and listen, I saw a palmetto frond slightly move approximately 30 feet away. I shouldered my rifle and looked through my scope set at 1.5 power I saw the online of the black hog standing under the palmettos. I placed the red dot on the hog and squeezed the trigger. The Hornady .223 Full Boar hollow point found its mark and the hog tumbled over. I approached slowly and saw that it was a small to medium sow and took a second shot to end it.
The next weekend brought with it the last hunt of the deer season and I was determined to kill a buck. Paul R. and I decided to hunt an area where some very nice bucks had recently showed up on camera. We carried our climbers in and set up about 200 yds away from each other. I was so determined to kill a buck that I brought my 30-06 rifle, sure that having my "deer" rifle in the stand would be looked upon with favor by the deer gods. I climbed to about 30 feet in a large and tall pine to ensure that my scent would not be an issue. No bucks presented themselves along the swamp edge or small clearing and trail I was watching but early in the evening I heard some splashing coming towards me along the swamp edge. Sure my prayers and commitment had paid off, I was already looking through the 3x9 scope for the big buck but he had already morphed into a big black boar hog. I put my crosshairs just behind his shoulder and took a quartering shot. The 168 grain Hornady Precision Hunter bullet dropped the hog in its tracks.
And so that's how my "deer" season went. And I have come to accept that the hunting gods may have determined that I will forever be roaming the swamps and hammocks in search of wild and invasive hogs to kill..... so be it.
I'm thinking of building an AR-15 in .300 blackout to help with that effort.
Paul with a sow he arrowed one evening at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
The arrow went through the hog on a diagonal entering the side and passing through and breaking the rear ham bone. The hog ran a few yards.
Paul was set up on the edge of a small oak hammock with swamp on three sides when he heard the sow coming through the swamp.
The weather has been unseasonably hot this September and early October. As Paul put it, "a living hell." Now, Paul is from Colorado, and not acclimated to the misery. In fairness I think it was just downright miserable. Even the morning hunts were hot. By the time we hiked in the 2 miles to our setups and climbed up in our stands we were soaked. But that was often the easy part. Then came the kamikaze yellow flies and or mosquitoes and the gnats that made you fantasize about calling in a napalm run on your coordinates to bring the misery to an end. You had to cover as much exposed skin as possible to deal with it — and did I mention our Thermacells and deet had no effect on the gnats....in fact we now wonder if it is a perverse attractant.
But yet Paul and I went back time and time again. We even had another buddy from Gainesville join us on a couple hunts. Why did we? What is wrong or right with us? Are we simply the last of the dinosaurs, a generation that still believes in going to the wilderness to kill something and drag it home for dinner? These and other questions will be pondered over the campfire next month in the San Juan Mountains National Forest of Colorado in pursuit of Elk. At least it will be cold.
An “interesting” find during this weeklong hunt was a den of pigmy rattlesnakes residing within inches of our trail to our tree stands. Upon discovery of the snakes....by nearly stepping on them, we relocated our trail.
In the photo above we observed two male pigmy rattlesnakes fighting for dominance....apparently on mating activity per our buddy that works for the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. BTW-the museum is well worth your time if you’re in the area.
Other Recommended Gear:
No trophy deer yet on camera but this a very nice public land buck by our standards
There is still some high water but its receding fast.
Bike unloaded and ready for another sweat drenched 6 or so mile ride to swap out game camera SD cards. Its early September and the humidity and temps are both in the 90's and the ride will be made even more miserable....I mean FUN! .........and made even more fun by the addition of mosquitoes and yellow flies! I also never see anyone else out here.....how lucky am to have this refuge to myself!!!
A flooded trail crossing
For bow hunters (bow hunters is another name for gluttons for punishment), these beautiful summer days in July and August are to be cherished if you can appreciate and endure very hot temperatures with sweat drenching humidity (in between the numerous thunderstorms), yellow flies, mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, active alligators, snakes and all the other beautiful flora and fauna that surrounds you as you bike and hike with eyes burning from your sweat, and your heart beating out if your chest.
It's a test of wills and strength. It's definitely mind of matter. Your mind wanders and you ponder the meaning of life and why you don't have one, in moments of weakness you even question why you are out here but then you snap back and go through mental checklists...did I remember the SD cards, how pissed you are that your snake boots are no longer waterproof, why you have no friends that will go with you, etc. Then you settle into a groove, conserve energy when you can, focus on your surroundings, the next location to scout, next game camera to replace the SD card, drink regularly from your packs hydration reservoir, etc., and re-discover that this is where you belong, This is real life for you. And this makes you a better hunter.
To add to the fun this year, August is wet and getting wetter. Over the top of your boots wet.
Valuable pre-season scouting tools:
What makes a great Public Lands- Osceola Turkey hunt?...hint- it may have nothing to do with a trophy bird.
Osceola Turkey hunting on Florida's public lands can be challenging, frustrating, exciting and everything in between. And most often, you end your hunt, without bagging a turkey but having learned something and experienced some new territory.
It was with many years of hard earned public land Osceola Turkey hunting experience that I invited my 15 year old nephew who had never been turkey hunting on public land nor bagged a turkey, to join me on opening day of the 2019 Spring season.
We set out at 4:30 AM on our way to a WMA near Cedar Key FL that only has a very limited number of walk in permits available. Not long after 5AM we were standing in line waiting for the check station to open at 5:30. I could have chosen public lands without a quota system but I had observed some turkeys during the winter hog season and earlier in the week a buddy and I went out and listened for gobblers one morning. Having seen and heard some turkeys I felt I had a pretty good idea of the general area a gobbler or two may might be roosting.
With our quota permits secured we drove to the area I wanted to park and geared up. The night was quiet and without moonlight. I used my Garmin GPS to navigate us to the palmetto fan blind I had built a couple weeks earlier in an area I was just getting to know but had never hunted turkeys before. During one of my hog hunts I had found a beautiful area of Live Oaks and other hardwoods with minimal understory adjacent to a large cypress swamp where I thought the turkeys might be roosting. After a 20 to 30 minute walk in I found my blind and set out a Jake and two Hen decoy about 15 yards in front of us.
We settled into our blind that backed up to a very large and very old Live Oak tree and waited for sunrise.
When the first light began to illuminate our decoys and the woods around us I was pleased with our set up….but were there any gobblers in the area??
When a bit more light had flooded into the understory, two gobblers went off. Sebastian and I looked at each other and I whispered to him to keep that both gobblers were pretty close and to keep his hands low, beneath the blind and make as few movements as possible.
I took my box call that I had been chalking and made a soft tree yelp. The gobblers gobbled back, confirming that one was about 50 yards away and one a bit further. One of the gobblers was a stronger gobbler, the older dominant bird I guessed. A few more yelps from by box call kept them interested and I was feeling good until, about 30 yards to my left I watched a hen sail down from her roost towards the dominant gobbler…..darn!! A minute or two later I heard the gobbler fly down towards the hen….double darn.
I still had the stronger bird, gobbling but felt that all too common feeling of dread when a receptive hen is between you and him. And sure enough after some more gobbling he moved off and away from us with his hen.
I leaned over to Sebastian and said that the other gobbler was still in the area and may now feel safe enough to come into our set up. Sure enough after 20 or 30 minutes of calling with occasional relaxed yelping and contented feeding sounds, a young gobbler came sneaking into to our set up. He snuck through some palmettos and flanked our Jake decoy, who had a longer beard than his. He kept a cautious distance of about 10 or 15 feet from our decoys. I whispered again to Sebastian, “when you have a clear shot, put the shotgun scope crosshairs on the base of his neck and kill him”. The turkey took a few more steps, let out another gobble and after the turkey straightened back up, Sebastian fired.
The gobbler fell in his tracks. The 12 gauge Mossberg pump turkey shotgun topped with a Vortex 3x9 scope and loaded with 3”turkey loads was deadly. The turkey was dead within a second or two, an excellent clean kill.
After congratulating Sebastian on his kill and snapping a few photos he carried his prize bird to the check station. No it wasn’t a trophy gobbler, but for Sebastian and I it was far better than a trophy bird, it was a great hunt public lands hunt and his first Osceola Turkey. And for me a reminder that it can be just as exciting to call a turkey in as it is to pull the trigger.
After a few more hunts and four more dead hogs shooting a Daniel Defense M4 platform with a few modifications and shooting Hornady Full Boar .223 ammo I have a few observations. First to put my comments in context, I typically hunt public lands and hunt well off the beaten track, often walking for miles through swamps and hammocks, stalking hogs. The M4's light weight , and carbine length, lends itself to the type of hunting I do.
Impressions of the Hornady Full Boar .223 ammunition:
Having shot hogs with a number of different weapons from arrows to 250 grain, .50 cal black-powder rounds, I decided to try a couple different M4 / AR-15 set ups.
I'm in the process of setting up a used Daniel Defense M4 carbine I found in a local pawn shop, chambered in 6.8 SPC. I'm setting it up with a Leupold 3x9 VX-R firedot scope, installed a 3.5 pound trigger and a free float M-Lok handguard. As soon as I have killed some hogs with it I will post my impressions.
In the interim I set up a Daniel Defense M4 short carbine in 5.56. I installed a 3.5 pound CMC trigger, light, and a 1x4 Steiner illuminated reticle scope.
Impressions after killing 5 hogs:
This 202 pound Boar was stopped with a .223 Hornady Full Boar round while on the run with one well placed shot.
Smaller hogs are great targets for a well placed .223
This photo of the thick plate (1" to 1-1/2" thick) covering a large hogs vitals and shoulder is where you don't want to shoot a large hog with a light caliber round.
Ok, It's late August and It's still wet, very wet and of course hot and humid. Other than that its perfect scouting weather. Trails that are typically dry are soaked.
On public lands where we hunt, walking or biking is the only way in and out.
My favorite scouting gear has become my chest pack. Made by Hill People Gear.
It is comfortable and holds the essential gear you want close.
You can bike, hike, and shoot your bow or rifle with it on. The back zipper pocket also fits a full size semi auto pistol or revolver with an approx. 5-1/2" barrel. My Ruger Redhawk in .44 Mag with a 5-1/2" barrel fits well. I highly recommend this chest pack.
We have been collecting some deer and hog photos as well. here's a photo of a typical 100 pound hog. we are seeing lots of hogs all sizes and the deer are making a good showing as well.
Well, it is that time of year, getting hot, mosquitoes, ticks, snakes, gators, etc....did I mention hot?
Keep in mind this is public lands, not easy access, lots of walking, often wet, always hot this time of year with an abundance of blood sucking insects and a few other creatures that will bite you if you give them that opportunity. Have I mentioned before that I don't like venomous snakes and alligators much?
The main goals:
>Set a couple game cameras, see whats out there and how the deer and hogs are developing.
>Scout favorite areas but also find new areas that look promising.
>Locate trees suitable for ambushing deer and hogs from climbing tree stands during archery and rifle seasons.
The oak hammock above is a small hammock that I found about a mile off trail. It has the elements I'm looking for:
>A nice amount of oaks (acorns in the Fall).
>It is not too large, maybe 2 or 3 acres or so. I prefer the smaller hammocks as the deer and hogs will often provide me a shot if I set up in the right place.
>Backs up to a swamp on one side, providing an edge.
>Open areas with low vegetation for good visibility and shot corridors.
>A good climbing tree or two.
>Can be approached from down wind when the wind is from the North, NW, NE.
In an upcoming post, I'll discuss the scouting gear I think is essential.