Michael Abell

Spring Breakin' Slow Hunt Style

Michael Abell
Spring Breakin' Slow Hunt Style

A whole lot of people ask me how we can afford to travel and hunt as much as we do. The truth is that we usually start by purchasing our hunts at chapter fundraisers for conservation organizations. By doing it that way, we almost never pay retail and our money goes to conservation, because the outfitters donated the hunt. This winter was no different, as we slogged through the sleet and cold weather we had spring break and warmer temperatures on our minds. We also had our eye on a hunt for Osceola turkeys and feral hogs down in Florida, during the annual Kentuckiana SCI Banquet. We bid on it and won it. Now it was time to plan the trip and dream about big toms, big boars and warmer temperatures.

It was soon time for our hunt and we packed the truck and rolled down to Florida the week of Aline's spring break. Prior to the hunt, we corresponded with the outfitters and they reminded us, that the hog hunting was good, but that the turkey hunting would be tough, because our trip was planned near the end of turkey season. Most of their birds had been hunted already and were educated at this point. We thought, "Okay, no worries, if we decide to give up on the turkeys, we can harvest a couple hogs, fill the freezer and head to the beach!

The trip was uneventful. We took our normal rig: pickup truck pulling a small cargo trailer with a chest freezer and our gear in it. Upon arrival our guide and his wife showed up and gave us a tour of the camp. It was more than adequate with 3 cabins and an outside entertaining area set three miles back from paved roads in the Florida swamps. Gorgeous trees covered in Spanish moss, alligators, waterfowl, and nature all around added to the atmosphere.  The cabin was one large living and sleeping area with a full bath and a screened in front porch. The camp ran off a propane generator and had endless hot water. We were so happy to be out of the cold weather and into this cozy little camp

Before dawn the next morning we were found ourselves hiking through the palmetto scrub woods, cypress swamps, and cattle pastures listening for a gobble. We decided to split up and cover more ground, so the guide went to a different area with Aline and I struck out on my own. That morning I saw turkeys at long range, but they were shy. We did get the toms to respond, but they did not want to come out in the open. They stayed just inside the cypress swamps tempting us to come in after them. This wasn’t our first rodeo and we knew that trying to sneak into tight cover, especially a swamp where your wading through water, would bust the turkeys out and ruin the spot. So, we stayed put on the field edges outside the swamp and remained patient. About 11:00 A.M. I got a gobbler out of the cypress swamp and up on a strut zone. I worked that bird all day and never got him in range. I called 3 of his hens to me, one I could have reached out and grabbed with my hands, but the tom never left the strut zone.

When I met back up with the guide and Aline, I learned they had no luck either. I told him the story of my day. He said the tom was a “boss" gobbler and no one had pulled him closer than 200 yards all season. It sounded like a challenge and I started thinking about getting my feet wet and moving into that cypress swamp ninja style. Bed time snuck up on us like a mountain lion. We didn’t hear it coming and boom, lights out. I suppose the previous day’s drive and the excitement of hunting today did us in before we could even think about seafood and beer on the beach.

The next morning dawn broke and brought with it an unwelcomed guest, cold harsh rain. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees, the wind picked up and the rain fell with an angry countenance. We abandoned hunting and rested. When the rain finally ceased beating the roof as if it owed him money, we went out for lunch. Lunch conversation immediately turned to hunting and we decided to hog hunt that evening. We had never hog hunted and Aline wanted me to go first, so she could watch it and see what it was all about.

The evening came quickly and as we stalked up to the blind, there were already hogs out feeding in the field. We had no way to get to the blind without pushing them off, so we moved quickly, pushed them off and got set up. The guide said that after we quieted down the hogs would come right back, and they did. As a novice hog hunter, I was not sure what a shooter looked like. I found myself thinking, “There’s no antlers and I bet the little ones taste better”, just then a big boar walked out of the swamp and into the field. He was popping his jaws and all the other hogs gave him space. The light was fading fast and my initial impression was that a black bear walked out into the field. I was taken back when I glassed him and saw the frothing mouth and blood on his shoulders. The guide said he'd just been in a fight with another boar. Now, I didn't think I'd get excited about shooting a hog, but daggumit, I got pumped up. I slowly moved my rifle to my shoulder and ever so quietly put the crosshairs on its neck where the guide said to shoot and took the slack out of the trigger. What followed was the most deafening sound I'd ever heard come from a rifle . . ."click!" I had unloaded the chamber of my rifle before climbing up the ladder into the blind for safety but had not put a round back into the chamber. After we all got done giggling at my rookie mistake it was almost dark. Thank God the boar didn’t run, maybe he thought another boar was snapping its jaws at him as he looked in our direction. He eventually looked away and I made a very accurate shot and put him down where he stood. After the shot, we had a good laugh at my expense. Then we went down and inspected the boar. He was tremendous. I continued to giggle to myself about the mistake as we skinned and quartered that hog. I tell you what, when I stop getting that excited about hunting and killing becomes routine, I will quit hunting. That click was hilarious, and the fact that I still get so excited that I make a simple mistakes keeps me young.

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The next morning, we decided to hunt a different location and met up with the rancher. We toured some of his property, while stopping occasionally to sneak in a call, in hopes of getting a response from a gobbler. All the properties were a mix of pasture, swamp, and coastal Florida jungle. Some had turkey sign, some didn't, but the rancher insisted all held birds. After the tour we got a chance to talk to him and man was he a character. He was one of those men who'd done it all: cattle rancher, bee keeper, farmer, general contractor, and a father of 10. The rancher and I started talking and telling stories and before I knew it, Scott and Aline were looking at their watches and looking at me as if to say, "SERIOUSLY! How long are you going to stand around and chew the fat! There's hunting to do!" When we finally got back in the truck and set out to hunt some more, I told them that I could have listened to the rancher all day.  I told them that once his generation is gone, we will lose that knowledge. I loved listening to his stories. Aline said, "Well, I'm glad you loved the stories because you stood there for 3 hours listening and never turned your head. You're sunburned on just one side of your face." And for the second time in two days, I laughed so hard (at myself) that I almost wet my pants.

As we were driving away, Scott and I talked about not hearing any birds gobble today. He said we'd most likely been around birds, but Osceolas live in swamps with bobcats, cougars, black bears, bald eagles, alligators, and monster sized raccoons. So, unless they are out in an open field where they can see, they keep quiet and don’t give away their position to predators. We had a tough time trying to decide where to hunt that afternoon. I then tried to convince Scott we should try again to kill that big boss gobbler I had seen on Monday. He reluctantly agreed, and we hatched a plan for the end of the day. Scott would sit on the opposite side of the field from the strut zone and call with a visible set of decoys. His job was to keep the boss tom’s attention. I would slither down into the edge of the cypress swamp and try to flank the tom from an oblique angle. Aline decided she was happy to be away from all the talking men and she would hunt on her own, so we dropped her off at an adjacent field on the way. Upon arrival, I snuck into the swamp, just me and my shotgun. Scott sat up on the field's edge across from the strut zone with his decoys and called. Aline was about 350 yards behind us in an adjacent pasture with a full set of 4 decoys. After about an hour, I heard a gobble. It was the big boss tom. I thought, “Springsteen your mine.” The name came out of the cobwebbed recesses of my mind and it stuck. Springsteen wasn't coming anywhere near decoys. He'd come out of the swamp into the strut zone and strut his stuff. I could almost hear him say, "Hey, Ladies, look at me, you come to me, I'm the boss." I quietly thanked the Lord that Springsteen came out of the swamp at all, but he was 175 yards away in open pasture. I sat down on a stump in the swamp and thought about it. I changed the plan and texted Scott, "Keep calling to keep his attention. I'm going to belly crawl flat as a flounder across the pasture and shoot him in the face." Scott's calling kept Springsteen's attention, while I moved slow and low, dodging cow patties and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. Thirty minutes later, Springsteen was still strutting. I was exhausted and afraid to raise my head too far. Still flat on my belly, I guessed I was inside 60 yards, which was my maximum effective range I tested my Winchester Super X2 12 gauge and my Hevi-Shot Blend 4,5,6 - 3 ½ inch round. I took a deep breath and decided to crawl another ten yards or so, but before I moved I took a very tiny peek at Springsteen. “Oh shit, he saw me!” I had no time to think. I pulled the gun up to a prone unsupported position, put the bead on his head and “let-her-eat”. The blast of the big shell rocked me and when I looked up, Springsteen was doing the death dance. I sat up, dripping with sweat, covered in cow poop, exhausted and exhilarated. Then I heard whooping and hollering. I looked back, and Scott was so happy he was dancing. I paced it off at 72 steps and ranged it at 61 yards. It was the longest shot I’d ever taken on a turkey. The turkey had a nearly 12" beard and his spurs were just shy of 2", one of the largest mature gobblers I’d ever taken. Aline met us at the truck and we marveled at our success.

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The morning hunt was over, and it was time for some food and a change of clothes, for me at least. Over lunch we decided to give the turkeys a break and go after a hog for Aline. We moved into an area where the hogs "root" around this time of day, in the deeper darker cooler recesses of the swamp. To our surprise there were already hogs feeding. Aline got her gun up on the sticks and was ready to shoot, but alas they were all sows and small boars, so we continued into the stand. I was very happy that it was a double ladder stand, so we could sit together. The afternoon went well and with the thermacell working we didn’t even get a mosquito bite. We also didn’t get a hog. They were all small boars or sows, so Aline let them walk.

Thursday dawned with a new plan. Aline would go with Scott down by the cypress swamp, where I killed Springsteen. I'd seen another gobbler in there and we thought with "the Boss" gone that maybe the other gobbler would come out to play. I got my assignment, "Sit in the ladder stand on the big field 200 yards away and keep watch with binos. If you see a bird text us." I was very happy to help the guide get Aline get a bird and the game plan seemed tight. We saw hen turkeys. We saw hogs. We even saw bald eagles. But we did not see a tom turkey all day. Aline was hunting her pretty little heart out and was getting no cooperation from the toms. The Rancher had been tracking our progress and was feeling sorry for us.  After talking with Scott, he took us to one of his pastures late that afternoon that had not been hunted in years. This parcel of land was mostly swampy jungle that bordered a big cow pasture full of cattle. Every patch of mud or sand had turkey or hog prints on it - sign were literally everywhere. We left that area alone and went back to the same double ladder stand to hunt hogs until dark.   We saw many hogs, but nothing Aline wanted to shoot. Thursday ended with three exhausted humans and no harvested birds or swine.

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Friday morning before dawn, we snuck through the swamp the rancher showed us the day before. Aline and Scott set up on a patch of dry ground about the size of a tennis court. They put the blind in thick vegetation and put out a 4-decoy spread. After helping them get set up, I turned south on a game trail. It was still dark, very swampy and the jungle was thick. I decided to go at least 300 yards into the watery thick stuff, so as not to influence the last day of Aline's hunt. I finally found a small patch of sandy high ground out of the water, which was also the confluence of 5 game trails. I tucked my little one man blind into the bush and sat down to rest a minute. Then I it, the buzzing, the swarm of mosquitoes was enormous and dear Mary Mother of God they followed me into my blind. At first I tried to swat at them, but they were big enough to stand flat footed and breed a chicken. I could have used a tennis racquet. Swatting was futile. So, I scrambled to get my thermacell running. The time passed in slow motion while it heated up. In desperation, I broke open some thermacell pads and started rubbing them all over myself – Oh no, dear God, that burns. My skin is on fire! Okay, even for a Ranger this sucks. Breath deep, relax it will pass, you’re a badass, soak it up. I sat back and let it happen, drifting off to my happy place. I’m not sure how long it burned and the mosquitos feasted, but by the time the sun illuminated the wonderfully green vibrant jungle the pain was gone. The thermacell filled the blind with the pest repelling vapors and I was able to marvel at God’s creation through the windows of my blind without the bloodsucking hummingbirds buzzing around me and landing in my eyes. The jungle was alive with beautiful birds and lizards everywhere. Dawn seemed to set the entire swamp in motion and it buzzed. An hour or so past quickly after the sunrise as I watched the flora and fauna. I was shaken back to reality by the vibration of my phone. Aline’s text read, “6-8 small hogs ran past our blind, but no shot”. We exchanged texts and she lamented that there were no turkeys answering their calls.

The jungle started to quiet down around 10:00am and I thought about taking a nap. Just then, I heard a rush in front of me and coming through the swamp was a sounder of hogs. They were on the move and obviously had a place in mind they were heading too. I tried to get my rifle up in time but could not get a bead on the running beasts. I yelled at them to get them to stop, but they ignored me and continued to trot on by. Without hesitation or any real thought, I simply push my blind over and ran after them. They were making so much noise they didn’t realize they were being followed at a trot. We didn't run too far and they stopped. So, I stopped. I immediately decided to shoot the last hog in line, maybe they would get confused and I could get two. I shot and the hog fell dead where he stood. The rest bolted for the security of the palmettos and I did not get a second.  Shortly after the gunshot, Scott called me to ask what happened. I told him I shot a hog and I was going to sit tight in case the other hogs circled back. They didn’t.

Aline texted me that they'd decided to go back to the truck to get her rifle and then they were going to spot and stalk hogs. I told them which way the hogs ran off and that I was going back to the truck to get my knife and drag harness. I also told them that I would be wearing blaze orange and that I would walk back into the swamp, field dress my little hog, and drag him out, before the meat spoiled in the hot swampy water. On my way back to the truck, I saw a small red dot in my peripheral vision to my left. My heart started pounding. What luck another turkey! I started to slowly angle towards it and raise my rifle. Still not sure what I’d seen I continued cautiously, when the jungle in front of me exploded. A heifer the size of a Volkswagen almost trampled me. I dove out of the way cursing and watched her red ear tag bouncing as she ran away. Holy shit what a day so far. I almost shot a cow. That’s a new one.

I made it back to the truck without further incident, donned my blaze orange safety vest and grabbed my drag line. Then I headed back into the swamp to get my hog. The jungle around me was quiet now, except for the buzzing of insects, it seemed as if all the larger creatures had found some relief in the shade and bedded up. Soon after I had that thought, I caught the ever so small glimpse of red out of my peripheral vision. I thought, “You’re not going to get me again you kamikaze moo cow heifer.” I slowly turned in that direction, not sure what I’d seen. Then the red spot moved. Oh my God, it’s a tom turkey. I played it cool and kept walking as if I hadn't seen him. He froze at first, but then he turned to walk away, slowly, very slowly at first, as if he thought he could sneak away. The moment he turned his head away and couldn’t see me I wheeled, raised my gun, and shot. In the commotion of the moment I’d lost sight of the tom. When I looked where he was standing in the thick jungle, there was nothing. I was sure I'd missed him, because there was silence. Normally, when you shoot a turkey, they flap around, similar to a chicken in a barnyard that has been separated from their head. Just to confirm, I walked over where I last saw the turkey, because it was so thick I could not see where he would be laying if he were dead. Sure enough, there laid another mature Osceola gobbler! I suppose the rifle bullet put him down, dead as a doornail versus the death dance I’m used to when using a shotgun.

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Just then, my phone rings...it's Scott... and the exchange goes like this:

"Hey, Man, did you need to put another bullet in your hog?"

"Nope."

"Why did you shoot again?"            

"Turkey."          

"No way!"          

"Yep."

"You're kidding me?"

"Nope."

"You shot a turkey wearing blaze orange walking down a trail?"

"Yep."

"At what range?"

"30."

"I don't believe you!"

"Okay, in about 10 minutes you'll see me walk out of the swamp to the trucks. I’ll be the guy dragging a pig and carrying a gobbler. You'll know it's me because I'm wearing blaze orange!"

At that, Scott hung up on my smart ass.

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The hunt was officially over that afternoon. I was sad that my beautiful bride did not harvest a hog, nor a bird. But sometimes that’s the way it goes. She had passed on several hogs and she normally kicks my butt during deer season, so maybe I have the family “swamp mojo”. We packed up the camp and headed to the beach for a day or two. After all, it was spring break.


Recipe

Here’s what you need, “soup to nuts” to serve up your own turkey hog hunt

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – (# of days) x (what you get paid daily) until you get it done = ???

____ Florida Non-Resident 10-day hunting license $46.50 + turkey permit $125 = $171.50

____ Gas $600 (KY to FL and back, plus two weeks driving about 50mi a day)

____ Turkey and hog hunting equipment – you should already have it

____ Guided hunt and/or access to land approximately $1,500

____ Clothes and boots –  you should already own it

____ Blind –  you should already own it

____ Pack –  you should already own it

____ First Aid Kit –  you should already own it

____ Food & Water – Breakfast $8; Lunch $8; Dinner $25: $41 per day x 17 days = $697

Total Cost:  $2,968

Directions:

Note: it’s legal to hunt turkeys with a rifle in Florida, although we hunted them with shotguns as usual. If while hog hunting a turkey presented itself, I wasn’t going to pass it up. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website is super easy. You can easily acquire your licenses and permits there. There is no fee for hog hunting from the state, if you have a hunting license you’re good to go. Finding an outfitter is easy, if you start the year before the hunt and not the winter right before you want to go. Some outfitters have flat rates, like $1,500 for 5 days. Some have a $200 per day price for guided hunts without food and lodging and a $300 per day price for guided hunts with food and lodging. The cost is usually lower if you buy the hunt at a conservation organization’s chapter fundraiser, so you can save money there. We bought this hunt at the Kentuckiana SCI Chapter annual banquet.  We’ve also bought hunts at RMEF and NWTF fundraisers. Anyway, you’ll pretty much need to pay for a guided hunt or find access of some kind. I recommend a guided hunt, simply because there’s not that much Osceola habitat that is public land, so you’re really paying for access in addition to the guide’s services. Also, finding an outfitter/guide who also offers hog hunting is a good idea in my opinion, if you’re planning on spending an entire week down there for spring break. If not hog hunting, then perhaps you’d have a plan to spend the remainder of the week on the beach with family after you harvest your bird. Since I live in Kentucky, the drive was the least hassle and cost efficient. Flying with firearms is always a hassle and if I can avoid it, I do. Also, having your truck with you allows you the flexibility to do more things if the weather’s bad or you tag out early. Feral hogs are surprisingly good table fare and worth the effort. Also, driving will give the option of bringing a chest freezer, which is my favorite technique for maintaining my meat on trips and enjoying the days after I harvest an animal, without worrying about the meat spoiling and the hair coming off a cape. Spring mosquitoes in the area are a sumbitch, so I highly recommend you bring lots of spray and at least one thermacell device per person. The turkey calls you use for Easterns will work on Osceolas, but don’t expect them to be as vocal. Your normal turkey gear and shotgun will work great. If you want you can bring a rifle and turkey hunt with that, it’s perfectly legal in Florida. I recommend calibers no bigger than 7mm x 08 and no smaller than .22WINMAG, but that’s up to you. I hunted the hogs with 7mm x 08 and used Barnes X bullets. They put the hogs down and the turkey too, although I didn’t intend to use the rifle on birds. I am a big fan of the Hevi-Shot blend turkey loads and have used them almost exclusively for a long while. Patterning your turkey gun to figure out maximum range and minimum range is very important. Yes, I said minimum range. All too often, turkeys are missed at point blank range, because hunters are using “super full turkey chokes” and a “flight-controlled wad” type shell. This combination doesn’t really start to open until about 15 yards. The closer the bird is when you use this type combination the smaller your shot pattern. In fact, inside of about 7 yards, the shot is still in the wad and I recommend you shoot center mass of the bird versus the head if they’re that close. Food and water could be more expensive or cheaper, just depends on how you roll. If you decide to do the daily rate, with no room and board, then you need to add a campground or hotel cost. All in all, this is a very fun hunt and a great way to fill your freezer if your elk or deer season didn’t go well. The turkey is a trophy, as there’s not that many Osceolas. The hogs can be shot in good numbers and the meat is excellent. Just make sure you wear latex gloves when butchering the hogs and cook the meat to the same specifications as farm raised pork. If you have a fully guided hunt that includes hogs, your outfitter/guide should do the field dressing for you and offer to take it to a local processor as well. Just remember that even though the risk is slight, feral hogs can carry disease. This was a good time and the beach was not far away.