I remember when I was about 15 years old and caught my first big King Mackerel. I was on a drift boat out ofMiamimarina and was drifting a dead ballyhoo on a large feathered jig in about 100 feet of water over a deep reef. What I remember most was the initial strike as I made the mistake of keeping my reel in free spool with my thumb as the only tension on the line. Man! Did that burn when the line began ripping off the spool. Since then I have caught more King Mackerel than I can count and always suggest them as a great entry in to ‘kind of’ offshore fishing for those friends who have just gotten their first boat or just started upping their game when it comes to salt water fishing.
King Mackerel, also called Kingfish make there way up and down the coast ofFloridaand depending upon where in the state you are you can be pretty sure about what time of year the King Fish run in your area will take place. In the summer months the northern Gulf of Mexico and areas near the panhandle will have good numbers of fish, while during the winter monthsSouth Floridaand the Keys are prime King Mackerel fishing regions.
These members of the Tuna family are great fighters and I can definitely confirm from my first ever King Mackerel hook up that they will peel line off your reel at an amazing speed. Because the are usually found in good numbers and in relatively shallow water (60-250’) off South East Florida’s reefs and wrecks, (the gulf side might require a bit more running to find deeper water and structure) they are a very popular quarry. Trolling and drifting baits are the most common methods to catch King Mackerel with live bait fishing being my favorite.
Trolling spoons or feathers rigged with Ballyhoo are generally the most used methods but rigging the ballyhoo properly is the key to being successful using this method. It is vital that the bait resembles a fish swimming normally and not spinning. There are many products on the market that can assist you in getting a rigged bait out with a natural action or you can also buy pre-rigged frozen ballyhoo and just put a skirt (plastic or nylon covering) over it. Spoons and other types of deep running lures can work as well. Many people use planers, downriggers or various types of weights to work different areas of the water column when trolling. You can also troll live baits, but its very important to remember that you are now slow trolling for Kingfish and may even consider bumping your engine into neutral from time to time to let the bait swim and drop a bit deeper. When trolling or live baiting for Kings you also have the chance of catching numerous other types of game fish including sailfish, Dolphin and lots of other fun creatures.
Since I mostly do catch and release fishing when it comes to King Mackerel, I prefer to use a 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook, this can vary a bit depending upon the size of the fish that have been reported but it allows me to pretty much let the fish hook itself and is much easier to unhook as well. It’s very important to use a few a length of wire leader to your hook, at least 6-12 inches (although people prefer even longer) as Kings are known for their razor sharp teeth. Connect the wire to your monofilament with a small barrel swivel. If you are drifting dead Ballyhoo then just try and hook the bait through both lips or sideways through the bony part of the nose after you have snipped off the beak. The key is to have it drift naturally and almost like a wounded baitfish. If you are using live baits such as Pilchard, Pinfish or the like, the three most common hooking points are through the lips, sideways through the nose or just in back of the where the gills and body merge underneath. Keeping this bait lively and swimming is key. Some people like to place what’s called a stinger hook on a piece of wire attached to the main hook and then into the bait near the tail for fish that bite short. Since I practice catch and release, I’m not a big fan of this method.
These fish can range anywhere from a few pounds over 50 lbs so the range of tackle used can be wide. My preference is to use pretty much anything that can handle a good amount of 20-30 lb test line. Some people prefer heavier spinning rods while others like more conventional type tackle. With the stronger thinner lines available now no matter what your choice you should be able to have enough line to handle deep diving fish without sacrificing strength. If the fish seem to be finicky you can try lighter leaders and shorter wire. For trolling a good 30lb class outfit should serve you nicely.
To find fish, just always keep searching the horizon for birds diving on bait, this is always a good sign that fish are near. Tide lines and changes in water color are also a great place to try. Just remember to take notice of the depth, direction and area your are fishing when you do hook a fish as King Mackerel are likely to hold over a certain structure or water feature. Keep an eye on the GPS fish/depth finder so you can return to a spot that is producing and better understand the patter that is working. The same goes for drifting baits at certain depths and bottom will hold more fish.
Lastly, be very careful when unhooking or gaffing these fish as we have stated they have incredibly sharp teeth and can get a bit nutty when brought on board. Many a fisherman has suffered a nasty injury from a berserk Kingfish. These fish are great sport and reasonable table fare but not my first choice, great when smoked which is why large Kings are called smokers. If you want to get out and try some entry level off shore fishing of the coast ofFlorida, King Mackerel are a great way to begin.
I was checking my mail this week and was happy to see that many of the non-resident Wild Turkey Hunting permits I applied for in other states had started to arrive. It got me thinking that Turkey Season is just around the corner and that I had better start getting my gear ready and making some calls to see what public and private land was available for me to hunt. I thought about how I had the benefit of some very experienced hunters teaching me how to scout these incredible birds, and how finding birds during hunting season is not always as easy as merely sitting under a tree in the early morning hours and having birds fly down in front of you.
It’s a lot easier these days to get a great lay of the land as the Internet and programs such as Google Earth can give you a great idea of possible hot spots where the Wild Turkey may want to roost, or even where they may want to go during various times of the day. This can be especially helpful if you are hunting public land and can see the probable entry points less experienced hunters who will invariably push many birds to where you can lie in wait. There is however no substitute for boots on the ground and the ability to read sign and deduce potential patterns. Get comfortable with that area if possible, knowing the terrain, water sources, types of trees and wind patterns for certain times of the year. This all should be done well in advance of the actual Wild Turkey season. Driving around the area, if possible is a great way to cover distance and with the use of a good pair of binoculars allow you to find birds and determine a ratio of Gobblers, Jakes and Hens in that flock. Remember that Jakes quite often like to associate in small bachelor groups.
Take your time and enjoy the day, as the area you are in may be showing dozens of birds at one time of the day while looking barren just an hour or two later. I once noticed group of Osceola Turkey in Florida showing up just before noon in a particular field just before the season opened. I created a brush blind and on opening day sat there for an hour until my very punctual friends showed up on the opposite site of the field and worked their way right to me. I didn’t use a Turkey decoy or Turkey call, I just waited and within 45 minutes noticing them, had a nice bird.
If you know you are in an area that has a flock of Turkey, spend some time patrolling the woods for sign. A sure sign of a tree that is popular for roosting will have Turkey droppings and feathers scattered below the branches of the tree. Mark this tree on your GPS so you can find it on an aerial map and be able to get stealthily near it when it comes time to hunt. Even before the season begins it’s a great idea to sit a few hundred yards away in the morning to hear any gobblers that may be vocalizing at first light. You may also hear them actually flying down as well. You can also do the same in the evening just before dark to hear or see birds that may be heading to those trees to roost. Just don’t get so close that the Turkey then may begin to see this area as dangerous.
Strolling through the woods you need to keep your eye out for areas that have been scratched by Turkey looking for food. An area that has leaves on the ground that have been pulled back by birds feeding on bugs and grubs is actually quite easy to spot and usually will have a good number of tracks as well. Remember that scouting in the summer when insects and corn, etc are plentiful may be a bit easier than scouting in early spring, but remember Turkeys are eating all year long, so adjust your scouting a little bit as needed for the time of year. Scouting a week or two before the season should give you an excellent idea of their current pattern and allow you choose an area for your Turkey Blind. Although Wild Turkey tend to use the same trails and patterns in the Spring as they do in the Fall, keep in mind any changes in food availability, water, construction and adjust accordingly.
Okay, we covered enough to give you a good idea about the habits and patterns of the elusive Wild Turkey, however there is one more tactic to employ and could quite possibly be the most important of all. The night before you are going to hunt it is a good idea to get to the woods an hour or so before dark and do a bit of watching and listening.
More than likely knowing where a flock of Turkeys are roosting for the evening will give you a great idea of where they will be at first light. “Putting the Birds to Bed” as it is most often called is the method that allows you to be set up in a blind or close proximity to where the birds will fly down in the morning. As dusk falls in the woods you should be listening for the beat of wings as the birds fly up into their roosting tree. This is a sound that once you hear it, you will never mistake it for anything else. Keep an eye open for birds coming in from an unexpected angle. If they are on the ground and you can see them, then more than likely they can see you too, so stay still and wait for dark before leaving. You may also listen for Gobbles, yelps, purrs and all other Turkey sounds coming from a particular spot seemingly without changing distance. Once it’s dark, it’s a good bet they are in the roost for the night.
Try and get to the Turkey woods about an hour before first light and slowly make your way to either your blind or another good spot to wait. If you plan on using decoys, make certain you set them out with as little motion or noise as possible. Try and walk to your blind in the shadows along a tree line as well. This is especially important if it’s a clear morning with a bright moon. Then listen and look, because if everything goes well, you’ll be at the diner about 30-60 minutes after sunup having a cup of coffee and telling tall tales about your Spring Turkey hunting adventure.
The dictionary defines an advantage as something that is a beneficial factor, and as Hunters and Outdoorsman we are always looking for some tool or knowledge that can give us an edge. Sometimes the advantage is not so much over those animals we are hoping to harvest, but over other hunters competing on limited resources. This is especially important when one is hunting on public land. I recently had the opportunity to try a product that not only was instrumental in a successful Antelope hunt near Gillette, Wyoming, but it more than liekly saved me from a substantial fine for trespassing as well! The good folks at HuntingGPSMaps.com provided just such a product.
Hunting GPS Maps provides a chip that goes easily in most Garmin gps devices that have color screens and expandable memory, in my case the Garmin Montana 650t hand held gps. This bit of technology not only allowed me to determine which areas were public or private land, but it helped me find smaller parcels of public land which hunters without this chip would never have known about. It was on one of these smaller, lesser-known blocks of state land that we harvested a beautiful Wyoming Pronghorn Antelope.
During one of our morning hunts, my buddy and I noticed a cloud of dust and flashing colored lights coming towards us on an old dirt road. Within minutes we saw the officers leading 2 other hunters towards their vehicle. It seems that not all land is created equal, and much public land is not a perfect square! Our Hunting GPS Maps chip kept us from making a fatal error; it accurately showed us where we where in relation to private land that may have had an irregular shape. The other guys were not so lucky and more than likely paid a hefty fine for trespassing on the land that we had considered hunting before purchasing the chip. I actually think that the cost of the fine would have more than surpassed the cost of the chip…and my GPS!
The Hunting GPS Chip can also assist you prior to your hunt as it can give you a better understanding of not only which land is public and private, but allow you to find newer or easier access points to that land. You need only plug the chip into a computer or card reader to view the maps and create a plan of action for your hunt. After the hunt you can also plug the chip in and view any waypoints you logged, which are invaluable for future reference and scouting.
Just like the guy with the British accent trying to sell you something on late night Television I get to say, “But wait! We’re not done!” Along with additional features such as topographical maps, trails, roads and much, much more the folks at HuntersGpsMaps.com also added property owner’s names and property boundaries. This came in very handy one morning as we had met a father and son sitting in their car by the side of the road staring at about a dozen Antelope about a ¼ mile into private land. The little boy, who was about 14 years old looked like he was getting sadder by the minute. Now here is a very cool feature of this product, I saw the land owners name and matched it with a sheet provided by the local hunter’s information center that had the phone numbers of land owners who will allow hunter’s to trespass in order to hunt for a fee. We outlined a route for them to take on their paper map, and having done our good deed for the day, we continued our quest to hunt only public land. There are occasional updates which are great as land can change hands frequently.
Now I’m not completely saying that this bit of technology is going to take the place of a professional Guide or outfitter, after all, you still need to know how the animals move, where they want to go and other crucial factors, but the people at HuntingGPSmaps.com have definitely made it easier for the average Joe to get out on his own a bit and learn on the fly. This year I’ll be back in Wyoming for Antelope, perhaps Montana for Elk, or any number of species that I never attempted because I didn’t know where to hunt on my own. If you are the kind of guy that just wants to get out there but can only afford to hunt public land, this is an invaluable tool. If you have permission to hunt private land you can easily see the boundaries and perhaps keep away from the border with public land. I used that method to sit and wait for the masses hunting Osceola Turkey in Florida to push a flock of birds into the private ranch I had access to. Do it yourself hunts are just one of the many reasons this chip is so useful, but there is something also to be said for just plain old knowing exactly where you are and where you shouldn’t be!
I used to love those rare occasion when I was heading home from a day of fishing and skirting the edge of a squall line when I saw a small tail begin to descend form the clouds and slowly get bigger and longer until it touch the ocean. Waterspout! Everyone would turn and star in wonder, that is until it seemed like the damned things was chasing us. Waterspouts are routinely seen over South Florida’s coastal waters, especially the warm waters of the Florida Keys. What is a waterspout? Well, it’s actually a tornado that occurs over water, and just like its Midwest terrestrial counterpart, it can come in all kinds of sizes and strengths. In South Florida the winter and spring are relative dry times of the year but come summer and fall when the water is warm and perfect for feeding storms most waterspouts occur, although they can form during any time of the year. They can form when layer of cooler air blows across areas of warmer water blowing it up from beneath. They can also form during periods of relatively fair weather or along the edges of storms and are often called fair weather waterspouts.
Just like a tornado, although generally not nearly as powerful, a waterspout is a potentially dangerous force of nature and can cause considerable damage, especially if they move over land as tornadoes. They have the power to flip boats and tear apart docks in addition to blowing debris all over the place. Research that has been done over the years have shown that waterspouts have their own life cycle, that is, there are 5 separate stages to their existence. When we are on our boats and marveling at the small funnel cloud seemingly beginning to descend from the cumulous or cumulonimbus clouds, we don’t realize that there have already been 2 stages of the Waterspout that have already taken place but can’t be seen from water level. The reason for this that a waterspout actually starts at ocean level and begin a journey upward. Tornadic waterspouts are a bit different as they develop and move down from the cloud level whereas the fair-weather waterspout moves from surface upwards.At the start of the third stage we can see what is termed the “spray ring” which is that area in which the swirling winds draw the surface water upward. This base of a waterspout is very dangerous and can produce gale force winds or in many instances hurricane force winds. Although looking at these waterspouts often mesmerizes us, the base is exceptionally dangerous to boaters and you need to bid a hasty retreat to a safe area.
It’s quite often difficult for weather radar to pick up or detect waterspouts and weather spotters and eyes on the water are often the best way to alert others to their formations. Of the five stages in the lifecycle of a waterspout the first is a disk shaped light coloration on the water’s surface (one of the reasons the initial stages are not often seen unless by air), then forming a spiral band that rises from a dark spot that encircles the light patch. As it strengthens a noticeable funnel or spray vortex rises from the water’s surface to the cloud above. Waterspouts of this type rapidly develop and dissipate, having life cycles shorter than 20 minutes.
It’s important to take proper safety precautions around waterspouts such as listening for warnings by listening to NOAA weather radio. Keep vigilant and watch both the sea and the sky especially in and around areas underneath a squall line or cumulous clouds. If you spot a waterspout do not liner to view it up close and head at an angle way from its apparent path quickly and if it’s in your way do not try and go through it. Waterspouts are a great sight to behold, but only if safety is practice first.
It was 7am as we headed out of Boynton Beach Inlet in South Florida for a crack at the schools of Mahi (dolphin) that were reported to be prowling the weed lines that had blown in with the mild easterly winds. It was pretty calm despite a few passing rainsqualls that moved by along with a small waterspout that just couldn’t seem to touchdown. It was the beginning of another wonderful day fishing on “The Wet Spot” along with my close Captain Mitch Dinnerman and our friend Bob Crapo. Bob and I began preparing the rigs while we all kept an eye out for Patches of Sargasso weed and diving birds. Our initial plan, as usual was to troll rigged baits until we had fish around the boat and then begin to through chunked baits at them. Our rigs were the basic for trolling for Mahi (Dolphin), ballyhoo rigged to swim without spinning, with or without a colored skirt such as an Ilander. A rigged ballyhoo is probably the most often used bait for trolling, as this is due to the fact that it’s easy to rig and easy to use and most importantly very effective for a variety of species such as Mahi (Dolphin), King Mackerel, Sailfish and Tuna among others.
We found a weed line only a few miles offshore with only one other boat working the area and began to troll, this was not at all a joyous experience as there were many tiny patches of weed that kept fouling our rigs and it became a never ending battle of clearing one line then putting it back out, only to have to bring in another to repeat the process. This quickly became tiresome, quite boring actually when the sound every offshore angler longs to hear, the sound of the clicker indicating line leaving the spool quickly, Fish On! I’d love to say that battle was epic, one for the ages, but unfortunately a 3 lb dolphin is not quite the stuff legends are made from. We released this undersized fish unharmed and decided to go further offshore in hopes of getting away from the vast amounts of patchy weed in order to troll up something bigger.
After Trolling around some current lines and smaller patches of weeds for time we noticed several birds searching the surface and then diving, we then noticed fish breaking the surface. After a few minutes it was determined they were Skipjack Tuna and although lots of fun on light tackle we decided not to re-rig with feathers and try for some. About 20 minutes later and about 15 miles offshore we saw a floating lobster pot buoy with a lot of rope hanging down from it near a relatively large carpet of Sargasso weed. We immediately hooked up! Again not an overly impressive battle but a nice Dolphin (Mahi) came over the side in just a few minutes, this time a bit bigger but still only about 9 lbs. We were hoping for those in the 20-40 lb range. As it was a beautiful flat calm day and we had plenty of bait on board, we decided to chum using some chunks of pilchard and other baits we had and it wasn’t long before swarms of small Dolphin (Mahi) were darting out from under the weeds like squadrons of fighter planes going off on a mission.
If you have never seen Dolphin all lit up hoping to feed in the brilliant blue offshore waters you are missing one of fishing’s grand spectacles!
To catch Dolphin by chunking them is relatively simple, depending on the size but for these school-sized fish a spinning rod with 15-20 lb test line and pretty much any fish sized appropriate hook will do the job. They key to this type of fishing is to keep the fish around the boat. To do this you can either keep one hooked fish in the water as the others will swarm nearby hoping for a snack, or just keep chunking pieces of bait into the water, but just enough to keep them interested. This type of fishing is not rocket science although finding the fish is usually much more difficult than catching them.
You never know what type or size fish you may encounter when drifting around these offshore weed patches and you should be prepared for anything. Frequently we will catch a small jack or baby tuna and rig it up and drop it down a bit deeper for a shot at a big Dolphin or Wahoo. It’s important to practice conservation when catching a lot of school sized Dolphins and you need to pay attention to size restrictions and catch limits, as it’s very easy to limit out if the fish are around. You don’t need to take home every legal size fish you catch, just take what you need and try your best to release the others in good shape, circle hooks help in this area. Who knows, the ones you release today might become that giant Bull Dolphin of a lifetime in a few years!
It wasn’t until my buddy Dave came down from Wisconsin to hunt the elusive Osceola Turkey with me that I really noticed how difficult a time I had living in South Florida and trying to find new and exciting areas to hunt. Most of the prime hunting land down here is either privately owned and leased to Hunt clubs for more money than I can afford, or if public land, part of a quota hunt system that is kind of liking hitting the lottery for the best wildlife management areas. Since almost all the land we hunt in Wisconsin is privately owned, I decided to learn how to make some of the same arrangements to hunt private land in Florida too. This is not to say that I don’t take my share of game hunting public land, but when you have set up nicely in a blind for Turkey and several sets of inexperienced hunters come clattering through the area you have worked a bird in close, well, it gets a bit frustrating. One such group came crashing through the brush with a big aluminum ladder to sit in trees, go figure!
It’s not easy without connections or introductions to gain the privilege of hunting private land or on someone’s farm, but it can be done. Remember, you want to hunt private land, and the owner’s of this land have little or no incentive to allow strange people to traipse about carrying weapons. All the methods to obtain permission to hunt private land are based primarily on one important factor, you and your personality. Being well-mannered and showing a consideration for the land owner’s concerns as well as safety can get you the combination to that locked gate that you have driven by a hundred times on your way to the public hunting areas.
The key to getting started hunting on private land is to first go on a scouting mission and find the areas and particular lands you wish to hunt. Drive around some areas and look for animals on that land. How many times have you been driving by and seen flocks of Turkeys or Deer mulling about on some private farm. Once you do this one can then go about the task of discovering who the land owner is. Most of the time this may be done merely by checking the name and address on the mailbox in front of what looks to be a primary residence. If you get the name and or address, the Internet may be a great method to check your information as much of this is public record. The next step is to make contact with that person.
Just walking up to the door with a bottle of scotch and knocking used to be the preferred method of securing consent on hunting private land, but today it may not only end with a no, but it may also end with a few dog bites and a butt full of bird shot! This method only puts the landowner on the spot and is uncomfortable for both parties, and if he or she is not having a good day, your chances are slim to none. By having the address of the owner you can construct a letter merely introducing yourself and telling a bit about what kind of person you are, without directly asking for an answer on the subject of hunting private land. You will of course mention that you’d like to stop by and discuss the possibilities, but don’t ask for definite answer.
You can communicate with the landowner via mail, email or by telephone, if they have responded with any of the above mentioned forms of communication, and if the mood seems friendly and inviting, you may then ask if there is a convenient time for you to stop by for a visit. When discussing the possibility of you hunting private land, be as friendly as possible and try to pick up any signs that will help you understand the landowner better. If you notice he is a hunter as well, talk about hunting and how you would be willing to hunt on days when he will not be hunting himself, and that you will not hunt any prime times such as opening day if he wishes. Try and make the conversation light and easy for the owner to say yes to this request.
You would hope that this becomes a long term prospect and you will be able to hunt that land for years to come, so don’t forget this person at Christmas or any other time when you can reaffirm your budding friendship and gratitude for the privilege of hunting private land. There have been many times when a land owner has seen a flock of Turkeys working a neighboring farm and has made a call to his neighbor on my behalf in order to secure a day of hunting on that property. Remember, you are not just hunting private land; you are making new friends, so keep in touch even if it isn’t hunting season and on occasion, it doesn’t hurt to offer to help with some of the chores!
There is great hiking across the entire USA in every type of terrain one could imagine, but as fall turns to winter many of us are either not up to the challenge of winter hikes or just plain old do not relish the idea of “snotsicles” hanging from our noses and sticking hand warmers in places that hand warmers were not meant to be. For those who prefer winter hikes in temperatures that rarely drop below “oh god its cold level” consider the Florida Trail. The Florida National Scenic Trail is approximately 1,400 miles long and is easily accessible from most parts of the state. This popular trail system is perfect for those who like to indulge in some fun day hikes and loops and also for those who want something a bit longer or more demanding. The Florida Trail passes through or near some incredible State Parks and other scenic ecosystems and parks. We will break down the Florida Trail into regions and mention a few of our favorite hikes or Wildlife Management Areas, but there are many, many more. This is just to wet your appetite.
In the South Florida Region where I live, theBig Cypress National Park holds some of the best hiking and most incredible habitats in the state. Depending on small changes in elevation you will come across a variety of different environments includingCypressstrands, hammocks, sawgrass prairies and of course the vast swamp known as theEvergladesencompassing it all. The trails are all quite passable during the dry season and go through many WMA’s (Wildlife Management Areas) as well as utilizing the tops of levees used to control water flow. The open prairies give way to dense tropical foliage and then back to prairies and swamp depending on the elevation of the area.
You can easily access some of the best parts of the Florida Trail from Miami and Fort Lauderdale merely by heading about 45 mins west on either I-75 or US 41, this should take you to the North or South Section of the Big Cypress National Preserve which boarders the northern part of Everglades National Park. My Favorite part of the Trail can be accessed off of I-75. This part of Big Cypress has an abundant amount of wildlife that includes Whitetail Deer, Black Bear, Various Bird life, many American alligators and even the endangered Florida Panther. Big Cypressis in fact BIG! With over 730,000 acres of subtropical terrain including hardwood hammocks, sloughs and cypress swamp to name a few of the types of terrain possibly encountered. You need to determine what you are seeking to determine what time of the year would be best for your hike. If it’s in the wet season, bring plenty of insect repellent.
Central Florida Hikes also offer a great deal of variety in habitats from the vast prairies inhabited by the generations of Cattleman and Ranchers that have worked this part of the state to the hardwood hammocks and the rivers such as the St. John that cross the state. One of my favorite hikes along the Florida Trail is found in the WMA of Three Lakes, found about 45 minutes fromOrlando, Get off at Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike and you are just about there!
This area is surrounded by many lakes such as Lake Kissimmee and during the wet season can make for a very interesting slog through parts of the trail. This part of the Florida Trail passes through many palmetto prairies and pine flat woods transition frequently into open scrub, a favorite area of the feral hog. The marshy areas in this region are also an incredible area for bird watching hikes as it is a vital wintering spot for both Sand hill Cranes and Whooping Cranes. The three lakes WMA is a great place for a quick overnight or weekend hike and has quite a few sections that will loop around so you won’t need to double back. Each loop is about 5.5 to 6 miles in length and maps can be had from each of the trailheads. The North and South loop trails are found within the adjacent Prairie Lakes Unit. Wildlife consists of feral hogs, Whitetail deer, Wild Turkey and birds of prey such as the Bald Eagle and the elusive Caracara.
As you move more towards the Northern regions of the state the flat prairies begin to turn into more hilly terrain and Pine forests become more of the norm. The hills may hide numerous ponds and lakes with small rivers cutting gullies and ravines into the landscape. This part of Florida is well known for its underground rivers and aquifer. Sand dunes and scrub are abundant in this area. The Ocala National Forest has abundant rolling hills featuring open forests of longleaf pines and oak trees and many areas of scrub, sand dunes and wiregrass. This is perfect habitat for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, indigo snake and gopher tortoises as well as deer, hog, black bears and armadillos. If you are hiking this area during the hunting season be sure to wear blaze orange for safety.
Use the numerous signs to figure out where you are as this part of the Florida Trail is well maintained, but remember you may be passing through floodplain forests, which could make following the trail a bit more difficult. Towards the extreme North section of the Florida Trail, it will go along Cross Florida Greenway through the Rodman Campground and along the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was originally a project to connect the Gulf of Mexico to theAtlantic Ocean before it was cancelled for environmental reasons.
The section of the Florida Trail that cuts into the Florida Panhandle (upper northwest part of the state) offers some of the highest elevations inFloridaand allows hikers to roam along the edges of theGulf of Mexico. The estuaries and frequent transition from high forest and woods to low marshy areas make this a great area to view wildflowers and many other types of incredible Florida plant life. The parts of the Florida Trail in and around Apalachicola are perfect for shorter day hikes and passes through some astonishing terrain. The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is worth the effort but permits are required for overnight camping.
Just a bit north of the Wildlife Refuge is the Sopchoppy River. This river flows through the Apalachicola National Forrest and the Bradwell Bay Wilderness through the town of Sopchoppy. Bradwell Bay is not a “Bay” in the common sense; it is more of a recess land surrounded by hills and is mostly swampland. This is a beautiful area but keep an eye on water levels or it can be a very wet hike.
A lot of you who have been following my articles are probably wondering how someone who lives in Miami, Florida can be writing articles about hunting, fishing and travel across the globe. Well, the plain truth is that I accrued a ridiculous amount of frequent flyer miles over the years and am lucky enough to have friends in strange and remote places that really like me, go figure. One of my best realizations lately though is that most of the places I am enjoying are within a 2-3 hour flight or drive of where I live, which brings us to a place I had never been before, other than driving through it. Today we talk about the Texas Hill Country.
If you’ve ever driven between Austin and San Antonio in Central Texas you have undoubtedly passed some high rugged hills, gorgeous canyons and several rivers while going through some of the most charming and picturesque towns Texas has to offer. I flew into San Antonio and after a quick stop at Bass Pro Shops, (c’mon, did ya think I wouldn’t stop at one of my happy places first?) I began heading north along US 27 and passed towns and cities such as Kerrville, Bandera, Fredericksburg and finally my destination of Mason. A good friend worked it out so I could spend time at a beautiful ranch just outside of Mason, complete with pool, tennis court and cabins with breathtaking views, and enough Deer,Turkey and Hogs to make even me drool with envy. Due to the unusual 105-degree summer heat wave, I spent a good portion of the middle of the day in a nice air conditioned truck traveling to some of these quaint towns and was amazed at what they had to offer, and the incredible friendliness of the people.
Bandera, known as “cowboy capital of the world” was great, it reminded me of what I had always imagined Texas to be when I was young, but had only experienced Houston and Dallas. Main Street was store after store of the old west, with Arkey Blues Silver Dollar saloon becoming my favorite watering hole. From Bandera we move up towards Fredericksburg with its rich German heritage that can be felt at the many Bistros and restaurants that line its main drag. When in Fredericksburg Brats and Beer are a must. Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of World War II hero of the Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz as well as the National War of thePacific Museum. Just about 15 miles north of this city is Enchanted Rock, a large granite dome that is visible for miles around and a favorite spot for hikers and rock climbers. But the little town of Mason soon became one of my favorites.
Mason, Texas, as many of the other towns in the hill country has a rich history and storied past. A drive along any roads in this area will eventually bring you by some historic marker signifying and event or place of interest such as an original homestead or the site of an Indian massacre. If you pass any of these markers and have the time it would be well worth the effort to get out of the car and think about what you are looking at. Keep yours eyes peeled if you are hiking a bit off the road as I have found several Native American arrowheads in this area. If you are taking this drive near dusk or dawn have someone on Deer patrol as I have literally seen hundreds of deer in just a day or two in Mason County.
The town of Mason itself is not huge but it is the county seat and has several stores and restaurants that are well worth the visit. If you are looking for a great breakfast (or any meal for that matter) a stop at the Willow Creek Café is a must. I highly recommend anything on this menu and you are also sure to get a bit of the local flavor as it seemed to me this was the local’s place of choice. For lunch you can always get your fill of genuine Texas BBQ at Coopers. The food is great and served on a piece of paper, by the pound and carved as needed. I seriously over ate here. I hope to try out some of the other fine restaurants on my next trip to Mason.
Two more must see’s in and around Mason Texas are Country Collectibles and the Eckert James River Bat cave. When I stepped into Country Collectibles I felt like I was transported into a different dimension. There were artifacts such as Indian Arrowheads, and many, many links to the old west, however my favorite was a stuffed Baboon that leered down on me from high perch. There were just so many things to see that I knew I’d have to return. The also have a fine collection of Hill Country Topaz in this shop, and the proprietors were more than gracious enough to give me a brief explanation of how these gems came to be in this part of Texas and the special Lone star cut that is found at the bottom of them. A must see if you are passing through or in the area for some of the finest hunting inTexas.
The Eckert James River Bat Cave is an amazing sight, but make sure you get there before dusk or you may miss the excitement. This cave is home to a very large population of Mexican free tail bats which exit the cave every evening to forage for insects and mosquitoes. It is certainly a sight to see as wave after wave of these critters swarm out of the cave to feed. From mid-May to mid-October the Bat cave is open to the public Thursday through Sunday evenings from 6-9pm. There may be a small fee and there are benches as you await the bats.
The more time I spend in the Hill Country of centralTexas, the more I learn that each and every area of this great country has something special to offer. Mason, Kerrville, Bandera and Fredericksburg were once just places I would pass through to get to somewhere else, the have now become my destinations. Since these areas are largely based on hunting economies, many of the ranches in this region are opening resort like amenities to hunters and adventure seekers, and I hope to be able to tell you more about them in the coming months. For now, when you are passing small towns on your way to another destination, stop and enjoy the local flavor and meet the people. You never know what wonderful things you may encounter along the way!
Having lived in South Florida for the past 30 years I am constantly questioned as to what time of the year is the best to visit the many national parks and wildlife management areas that have become so popular with visitors from all over the world. Normally my answer would be anytime you can get here is a great time to visit but then I have to question them on what activities they are coming for. Between the coral reefs, the Florida Everglades and a host of other venues your activities can range from incredible wildlife photography safaris to scuba diving or snorkeling in the fabulous Florida Keys or hunting and camping trips in areas rich with wildlife. If you know what you want to do once you get here it will be a lot easy to decide on what time of year you should come. Floridians claim to have two seasons, the wet season and the dry season, and each has its own unique activities to offer.
The rainy season in South Florida usually starts around the end of May and continues for 5-6 months until the around end of November, and you can take it from me, its not always fund to have to chew the air before you swallow it! The air is hot, thick and very humid. During this period Florida accumulates close to 70% of its total rainfall that can be between 35-45 inches of rainfall. This is the perfect time for those who love the ocean to visit some of the parks catering to snorkeling and undersea adventures. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park located at Mile Marker 102 of the Overseas Highway in Key Largo; one of the upper Keys is only about an hour south of Miami and a favorite destination of those who want to jump on one of the many snorkeling and Scuba Diving boats for a visit to the warm colorful reefs. Biscayne National Park that is closer to Miami, and the Dry Tortugas, accessible from Key West are also great for those inclined to a water adventure. With the Summer months, the water tends to be a bit clearer, the seas a bit calmer and a bit warmer averaging in the low to mid 80’s. During the rainy season ocean activities are a bit more comfortable as you can minimize your encounters with roving bands of mosquitoes. Boat tours of the Everglades at Everglades National Park and Flamingo are also very enjoyable and a great way for the family to stay cool and not venture too far away from Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
Substantial amounts of rainfall have a profound effect on the wildlife in areas of the Everglades such as Big Cypress National Park located west of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The high rainfall in turn causes higher water levels that allow wildlife such as the American Alligator, various Turtles and other species of fish that they feed on, to scatter over an increasing larger area of the great swamp. For this reason those interest in Photography may have to cover more ground and have a slightly more difficult time getting pictures of wading birds, Deer, Turkey, Black Bear and other wildlife common in the Florida Everglades. For those that are interested in Hiking and camping, the heat and swarms of Mosquitoes can make this time of year a bit more difficult and uncomfortable, and afternoon thunderstorms are almost a guarantee, but provide for a very green landscape with a countless number of plants and flowers. Did we mention the Mosquitoes could be unbearable this time of year?
The Dry season in South Florida is by far the busiest time of the year, as not only the Snow Birds (as the season residents of Florida are often called) return but the migrating hordes of birds making their way to their wintering grounds brings bird watching enthusiasts from all over the world to Florida’s National Parks. Birders and wildlife photographers take advantage of decreasing water levels, which have the opposite effect from the rainy season. Less available water tends to cause birds, animals and fish to congregate in specific areas where the water levels are higher such as canals used for Florida’s water management system or ponds caused by the falling water levels. It is in these areas that wildlife will be the most plentiful and provide an outstanding opportunity for wildlife photography and Bird watching. It is no wonder that Florida’s dry season between December and March brings with it the majority of visitors to the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress National Park. It should be noted that it is at this time that hotels, motels and campgrounds are also the busiest and can command some high fees. Advance reservations are definitely suggested.
Most of the same activities that are available during the rainy season are also available during the dryer months however the swarms of Mosquitoes will be more tolerable. The cooler temperatures make it easier to navigate the many trails in South Florida’s parks and one of my personal favorites is an area known as Shark Valley, Located about 70 miles east of Naples on US 41 if traveling from the west coast or about 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike to the east. This 15 miles looped road is a favorite of bike riding enthusiasts and wildlife photographers as the paved loop is easy to navigate with birds and wildlife lining the bordering canals within feet of the road. It is very common to see large American Alligators sunning themselves as if posing for a great picture. The park also has a wonderful guided tour via tram complete with guide pointing out the many things that an untrained eye may miss.
Whether the rainy season or dry season is the right time of year to visit South Florida’s incredible parks depends entirely what your goals are. Anything you might require such as boats, kayaks, bicycles or snorkeling equipment are easily rented at any time of the year, but if you take from a 30 year resident of the area who loves both seasons, I feel the rainy season might be better for water sports and snorkeling, and the dry season for wildlife photography and hiking. But the best time of year to visit is any time you can get away and leave your troubles behind!
While so many of us are grabbing whatever little bit of summer that is left by hanging out at the beach or the local swimming pool, there are those that are quietly preparing for the upcoming hunting season. These folks are trying to gain every little edge they can, which means more than just checking your equipment and wondering where in the basement you put your hunting boots or walking through your local Bass Pro Shops or Cabela’s to see what sales are going on to buy the newest equipment for this season. Here are some great tips to help you gain an edge over your quarry, and over the other guy who just doesn’t think about putting in a bit more effort.
One of the first thing hunters need to do is to decide how they are going to hunt this season, and if you are planning on being one of the growing number of bow hunters heading into the woods this year, you will have to take even more time for preparation. Practice, practice, practice; and look over your equipment to replace anything that may be worn or troublesome before it causes you aggravation. You need to get out and shoot at least once or twice a month, I prefer shooting outdoors, but if you can only get to an indoor range, so be it, but remember, there isn’t any wind indoors. The key to successful bow hunting is knowing what your comfortable distance to your target is and being able to accurately judge that distance accurately. At the range you will have your distances marked for you but remember that you are shooting flat. If at all possible try shooting from a tree stand outdoors to more precisely simulate your hunting situations. A rangefinder is of great help if you are having trouble correctly judging distances. When you are sighting in your bow get a good idea of how small corrections on each sight pin changes your shot. I have gone back to using only one pin that is sighted in for 20 yards which is an easy shot for me and I am very accurate with only slight trajectory changes from this one pin. After 30 yards, I am hesitant to take a shot in wind beyond 20 yds as my average ability could make this an irresponsible shot. One or two pins should cover most situations with dedicated practice. If you don’t have a range finder, count out the comfortable yardage from your stand and place a marker there for some idea of distance when hunting.
Whether you are hunting with a gun or a bow, it is important to practice from where you will be hunting, this means the tree stand or the ground blind, not in the exact spot you will be hunting. I tend to frown from practicing in the exact spot you plan to hunt as even though it may be a while before you use that spot to hunt, why take the chance on polluting the area with scent, or giving the critters something to get nervous about. If you do go to place your tree stand or ground blind in the woods, (and perhaps place a trail cam), then bring along your weapon by all means, and make certain you have adequate shooting lanes and are comfortable with the stand, Also remember that the prevailing winds may be a bit different by the time hunting season rolls around, so take that into consideration when placing your tree stand or ground blind. If you are hunting on public land and must remove your blind each time you hunt, try marking your trail with tape, reflecting tacks or something that will assist you to find your spot. Also become proficient in setting up your ground blind or tree stand in the dark. This you can do in your backyard or a local park, the quicker and quieter, the better.
I have recently begun hunting with my Ruger Super Red hawk .44 cal handgun with leupold scope, and god only knows that I need lots of practice with this. I will try to get to the range a few times a month before season opens to know what my comfortable shooting distance is and how many yards out I feel I can take a responsible shot. I’ve used the term responsible shot a few times in this article, there is nothing sensible in taking a shot that requires more luck than skill. If you aren’t reasonably certain you will make a clean kill, don’t take the shot, there is no feeling worse when hunting than wounding an animal that you will not be able to harvest. If you are planning on hunting with a rifle or shotgun, practice at the outdoor range and know the distance and comfortable range for the weight of the bullet you will be using. The folks at Bass Pro Shops have helped me a lot with instruction on various techniques for using my Ruger Super Red hawk, and I now feel comfortable out to 35 yds. Funny, all I had to do is ask for some assistance at the range, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
It is so important to do some serious scouting well before the season opens not only to familiarize yourself with the area so you can easily and safely get to and from your stand but to also learn what animals are frequenting the area. In addition to placing a few inexpensive trail cameras in the area, you may want to take some walks or sit in an area that you have found deer sign so as to actually see some of the deer moving about. This is done well in advance of the season as we do not want to pollute the actually area we would like to hunt. Take a leisurely walk through the woods and look for deer scat, deer scrapes and converging game trails. These are usually great spots to place a trail camera. My good friend and hunting buddy Dave Sumner, owner of Turkey Dave’s Footrests and Flirty Girty Panfish jigs in Wisconsin always has a hot cup of coffee ready in the early morning hours when I visit. This and an extra set of binoculars and then we are off to ride around the local farms and fields in order to see what the coming dear season may hold for us, (before he kicks my butt in a “friendly” round of golf). The point is; do your homework, see where the deer want to be, and with the camera, when they want to be there. Look for a good tree or area for your tree stand or ground blind and perhaps cut some shooting lanes.
OK, so the key tips for a successful deer hunting season are practice, practice, practice, make sure you are skilled enough with your weapon of choice and the maximum comfortable distance for taking a shot whether it be bow hunting or rifle. Familiarize yourself with the area you wish to hunt, including scouting possible locations for a tree stand or ground blind. Place trail cameras at those areas in which you have found substantial deer activity, such as deer scrapes, game trails and bedding areas, this includes scouting the area from time to time with binoculars in advance of the hunting season. If you put the time and effort into preparing properly, you will not only give yourself the best chances for harvesting a great buck, but you will more than likely have a nice end of summer and be ready for an even better fall!