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Okeechobee: Hunters’ Paradise
A dwindling number of regions in fast-growing Florida have the vast open stretches of pasture, forest, prairie and swamp of Okeechobee in the Sunshine State’s heartland. Though dedicated mostly to agriculture, those thousands of acres of undeveloped land represent Shangri-La to the outdoors enthusiast– a haven for wild hogs, deer, turkey, alligator, ducks, quail, and other game.
A mandatory vacation stop for increasing numbers of hunting tourists is Little Lake Lodge– a remote camp located about a half-hour’s drive north of Lake Okeechobee operated by outfitter Bob Hayes. It is highly possible here on the lodge’s carefully-managed acreage to bag a wild hog and a trophy Osceola turkey on the same day. I know this because I was here a couple weeks ago when it happened.
Well before dawn that morning, Hayes had escorted Tim and his nine-year-old son Hunter– both of Chapel Hill, N.C.– to a blind adjacent to a gobbler travel route in a nearby pasture that the guide had discovered during pre-season scouting.
While Hunter sighted his 20-gauge and the three listened to the woods’ melodic waking sounds, Hunter’s mom Julia and I boarded a swamp buggy back in camp with hog hunter Jesse of Rhode Island, his wife Elle and their guide, Logan.
Jesse, a lifelong hunter, wanted to celebrate his 30th birthday by harvesting his first wild hog which he hoped to turn into pork tenderloin, bacon and sausage for the freezer. Unlike Jesse’s native New England where there are no hog hunting opportunities, Florida is riddled with the animals. Descendants of livestock brought here in the holds of Spanish galleons in the 16th century, the wild porkers are considered a nuisance by farmers and ranchers because they tear up pastures and destroy crops in their insatiable rooting for food. They are also very prolific.
“One hog will breed once every two months and have five to six pigs each time,” said Logan. “They are multiplying faster than we can shoot them.”
The five of us bumped along in the swamp buggy on a rutted dirt path into a pasture and Jesse loaded his rifle.
“Take your best opportunity,” Logan told the hunter.
Good thing Jesse was ready because about ten minutes into the ride, we all spotted a black hog trotting along a fence line about 100 yards away. Logan gunned the engine to close the distance but, despite the noisy pursuit, the animal for some reason began running toward the buggy.
Jesse aimed and fired, dropping his quarry in its tracks: a sow about 150 pounds.
“I love hunting,” Jesse said. “A lot of meat and you don’t have to go shopping.”
After posing for pictures with his prize, Jesse and Logan loaded it onto the buggy and we headed back to camp where Logan would dress it.
Jesse seemed not quite able to believe the brevity of his hunt.
“I’m used to sitting in a tree stand and not seeing anything for days on end,” he said.
Julia kept shooting anxious glances toward the camp’s entrance gate. She had tried texting her husband and son to check the progress of the turkey hunt but had heard nothing.
Julia explained that this wasn’t just ANY turkey hunt: the family has been spending all their vacation time for months to help Hunter accomplish his dream of a wild turkey grand slam– bagging all four U.S. subspecies in a single year. The youngster, who’s been involved in the sport since he was a pre-kindergartener, had so far taken two of the four: the eastern and the Rio Grande. The family was here to check off the Osceola– found only in Florida– and would then head to Nebraska to complete the slam with a Merriam.
A little while after we bade goodbye to a smiling Jesse and Elle, Hayes’ pickup pulled up to the lodge and Julia rushed over to greet the party.
At first Hayes and his clients acted like they were disappointed, but then they began to smirk as Hayes opened a large cooler to reveal a hefty gobbler with at least a 12-inch beard– a trophy by any measure.
“Oh Hunter, I’m SO glad!” Julia said, hugging her son.
Recounting the hunt, Hayes said they never had to use any calling devices to summon the bird. It just ambled by the blind on a well-worn travel route, and Hunter shot it from 20 yards.
The family drove back home that afternoon, planning to get the Osceola mounted and confident of completing their nationwide quest.
Little Lake Lodge has no more openings for the 2017 spring gobbler season, but hunters are invited to reserve for next year. There are plenty of hog hunting slots open now. Call 954-448-0015.