By: Bert Rico
After my first hunt I started to take in more and more information about hunting. I stumbled upon quite a few TV shows and books on the subject. My favorite book was one written by Steven Rinella titled MeatEater. After reading this book I discovered he had a TV Show of the same name on Netflix and MyOutdoorTv which was awesome. I binge-watched all of it. I had contracted the Public Lands bug bad. I was enamored with the challenge it presented and could only imagine how rewarding it must be if you are successful on a completely DIY public lands hunt. The only problem is everything I read about public land hunting seemed to point to western hunting. I started to research public lands closer to home and In Florida, the two that seem to be the most popular are Big Cypress National Preserve (AKA The Everglades) and Ocala National Forest.
While I was researching public land hunting I was invited by my hunting mentor, Uncle Manny, for a group hunt which would turn out to be Eddy’s, my brother in law, first hog hunt as well. It was a private land hunt with another outfitter we hadn’t been to before. While we had fun and it was incredible to be a part of Eddy’s first experience hunting, it was one I probably wouldn’t go back to. They passed off the hunt as a hog hunt on a private ranch having problems with hogs, but it was a high fence hunt where the hogs were penned in and we were each successful in our group. I don’t want to diminish their outfit, but it just really wasn’t as rewarding as my first experience was.
What that experience did do though, was solidify that desire for a DIY hunt. I read that hunting Big Cypress was one of the more challenging hunts in Florida, at least for deer. Not because the game wasn’t abundant, but because of the hunting pressure in previous years. The pressure had gotten so bad that it is the one place where hogs have been all but eradicated in the state. About a week after my second hunt I called Uncle Manny and asked him if he would be interested in a DIY public land hunt. HE WAS IN! not only was he in, it would be his first public land hunt as well. He had always hunted leases and with outfitters in the past. That year I put in for a quota permit for the general gun season for deer in the Big Cypress. I wanted to take on what I understood was the most challenging hunt in my home state. In Florida the permitting is slightly different than other states. We don’t get deer tags, we get a deer permit which is similar to an over the counter permit, and we can apply for quota hunts which basically gives a limited number of hunters access to specific areas. In some cases, it is the only opportunity to hunt that area, in others, it is an early opportunity before the flood gates are opened to any and all hunters with a permit. After several months of waiting, we learned we won the permit and it was time to gear up. The weeks leading up to the hunt included many screenshots and pictures back and forth of gear we had bought, were buying, or wanted to buy but knew our wives would be hunting us if we did.
The day before the hunt I drove the hour and a half down to Uncle Manny’s house in Miami so we could get an early start on our scout day and to be able to set up camp during the daylight hours. The drive there was uneventful. It’s about 2 hours away from his house and after about 30 minutes there is nothing but Lillie pads and sawgrass on either side of the road with an alligator or two sprinkled in. The last leg of it is a dirt road that crosses under Interstate 75. As we pull in we stop at the game warden’s hut to check-in. It was a small wooden shack that looks like it has been there forever, but not sure how it had survived the recent hurricanes. It was slightly larger than the average garden shed.
I have noticed that people are either weary of game wardens or nonchalant about them. I really don’t have a clue why that is the case. I have learned that they tend to be a fountain of information. Many hunt the same area so they may not give you specific hunting spots, but you can glean some pretty good tips from them. Places to pay special attention to or places to stay away from. In this case, our game warden was an older man very tall and skinny with a thick southern accent. He has hunted the Big Cypress for most of his life and was able to tell us that while our quota permit allowed for Hog, it was likely that we wouldn’t see one. Between hunters, alligators, and bears, there aren’t many left in the area. Deer however he said were plentiful, but they were skittish and wary. It was a nice area to take your rifle for a walk though. While the Big Cypress is a national park, it is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, so our game warden went over the rules of the wildlife management area and went over what size buck is allowed for harvest. In this case, we were allowed to hunt a buck only with a minimum of 2 points on one side of an inch or longer. Basically, a forkie and up, no spikes, button bucks, or does.
We filled out our check-in paperwork and paid for the campsite rental and drove on to find an open tent site. After looking at the trails we would be walking we opted for a tent site near the end of the camp area and close to a walk-in only trail that led to the northwest area of the WMA. We unloaded and set up camp. We found some dry wood throughout the campsite and piled it up for a fire later that evening. We got our rifles and orange vests and set off scouting. The entrance to the walk-in only path was about 300 yards from our camp and there was a rusted old gate that was locked. you have to veer off to a small footpath to the left of the gate. As soon as you make it to the other side there is a large puddle that spans the width of the path and then some. It looked pretty deep too in that we would be soggy walking through it so we opted to walk through a muddy area off to the right through some tall Brazilian Pepper trees. Once we make it to the other side you walk another 10 feet or so and you hit a giant clearing with pines, sawgrass, palmettos, and palm trees lining either side of the path. We took a minute here just taking in the vastness and wildness of the landscape. This is actually where I took the picture of Uncle Manny staring off into the landscape that is now my logo for this blog.
After spending a quick moment taking this in, we walk to the right of this clearing and notice a small slough with plenty of bushes for cover. This looked like a good place for a sit and see what we could see. It being so close to camp though we decided to note this place as a potential hunting location with a good watering hole and we kept walking. We got about a mile in where we noticed some deer sign. There were several rubs in the area and it looked like it was all on the right of the path. To the left was some very thick saw palmettos that did not look like a pleasant walk for us or any animal taller than a hog. We veered off the path to the right and noticed an old rusted tree stand that someone had left. We took it as a good sign that this was a decent place to hunt. obviously someone else had thought so as well. Next to the tree stand was a decent sized pond surrounded by a tree line of pine and palmettos. There were some cranes and noisy ducks in the pond. Location 2, dubbed the rusty tree stand, looked better than location 1. I marked it on my GPS and we headed back to the path. We walked another quarter-mile before Uncle Manny spotted a hunter in a tree stand ahead and a little to the left of the path. We didn’t want to blow out any deer he may have been hunting so we backed out slowly and decided to go back to the rusty tree stand and just hunt there the rest of the afternoon. Rookie Lesson number 3: Don’t set your tree stand up near a path on public land. Not everyone may be so considerate in backing away and you are blocking the path for other hunters to continue to a spot deeper into the woods.
The afternoon was pretty uneventful. We sat on the ground up against a pine tree and we were obscured by some palmettos. The wind was in our face and we spent the afternoon glassing the tree line on the other side of the pond. We got right up to last shooting light before we called it quits and started the mile or so walk back to camp. Now, I am a city boy who happens to love the country and the outdoors. I was not used to the outdoors though and didn’t register how dark it gets and how fast it gets that damn dark. I am man enough to say, there was a good amount of apprehension walking in the dark and more than a thought or two of bears and alligators on my mind. Of course, this was not verbalized at all to Uncle Manny who I am pretty sure only had dinner on his mind. He walked through the damn woods like it was his back yard.
Once back at camp I started the fire and whipped out the aluminum foil. We were going to make hunter’s pie. Most people call it hobo pie, but my son called it hunter’s pie since he had first seen it on a MeatEater episode I was watching and it just stuck. Basically, you season some ground beef any way you like and add any kind of root vegetables and seal it up in an aluminum foil pouch and toss it in the fire to cook. Rookie Lesson number 4: If you plan to cook over an open fire some hunter’s pie. Make sure to bring some long metal tongs or other utensils. It’s not fun fishing it out with sticks and bare hands. After eating we called it a night.
We woke up at about 4:30 AM. We threw on our camo, blaze orange vests, and boots. I am a coffee freak and will drink hot coffee even if it is 102 degrees out. So I started to fiddle with my camp stove and try to make us some coffee. After about 5 minutes of fumbling my way through the grogginess and trying to get the stove set up, Uncle Manny tosses me an iced coffee from the cooler and says, “put that crap away, let’s get out there.” Realizing that this was a faster way to get the caffeine in my system and it was cold which would help with the hot humid morning here in the swamp, I toss the camp stove back in the truck and we head out. After walking through the dark once without issue and the fact that I was not 100% awake just yet this walk wasn’t as nerve-wracking for me. That is until on our walk, about halfway to the rusty tree stand, there is this incredibly loud fluttering and the sound of a tree branch snapping back into place after a weight just left it. My soul felt like it exited my body and I must have convulsed 3 times and reached for my pistol on my belt. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, I realized it was a damn turkey buzzard that had been scared by my groggy and sloppy stomps and flew away from its roost. As soon as I realized that, all I hear from behind me is a deep giggle from Uncle Manny. No words. No witty quip. Just a giggle that said all he needed to say. I wouldn’t be living this story down any time soon.
The rest of the day was uneventful. We got totally skunked. No sign of deer at the rusty tree stand. Somewhere near the middle of the afternoon another hunter noisily walked right behind us and never noticed we were there. It was so bad that I got to thinking if I was good enough with my .308 to shoot one of the ducks from this distance just to bring some meat back to camp. It would have to be a headshot, of course, otherwise, it would ruin the meat. Was that even legal? When is waterfowl season anyway? Your mind tends to wander on an uneventful sit and no internet connection. We decided to head back to camp for lunch. While eating lunch we decided that we would go a bit deeper and see what else we could see now that the hunter in the stand that was right off the path would surely be gone. Rookie Lesson number 5: Don’t be afraid to change your tactics mid hunt. Go with your gut.
After lunch and a quick nap, we walk back out into the woods and we pass rusty tree stand. We keep walking for another mile or so and we find another clearing. This one has a slough to the right a nice natural chokepoint and another slough to the left. As we look down we can see some fresh deer tracks in the mud and an older panther track. Great, I was worried about bears and alligators on that dark walk back to camp, but I totally forgot about panthers. Anyway, the place looks incredibly promising. We sit near the slough covered by some saw palmettos and start glassing. At this point, I whispered to Uncle Manny, “You know what? I would be happy to just see a deer. I don’t care if it is a shooter or not, just seeing one would be great.” He smiles and nods in agreement. The last shooting light is upon us and we don’t see anything, but the new location is promising so we are excited about the next day. It was technically our last full day to hunt. we had a permit to be out there all week but were only able to get enough days off for a 4-day hunt. we would only be able to hunt the morning of the 4th day and we would need to break down camp and head home. We head back to camp excited for the possibilities of the new spot.
We wake up bright and early the next day and head over to our new spot. It’s about 2 and a half miles from camp. Once we get there we decide to try out the opposite side of the trail and we sit just in front of the tree line and behind some palmettos. The morning is starting to get brighter and as soon as the early morning haze clears up Uncle Manny who was sitting to my back left taps me on the shoulder. I look up and to our right are two does walking no more than 40 to 50 feet from us. The wind was in our face so they couldn’t smell us at all. I slowly raise my phone to my chest so I can record them. The larger of the two does sees us and starts to blow and huff at us. she would take a few steps, stop then blow at us again. She started to stomp at the ground in front of her and blow and huff some more. It was absolutely incredible. I couldn’t believe there was a real wild deer in front of me. She knew something was off about the bush we were sitting in and gave us a bit of a show. Both make their way off into the tree line opposite us pausing and looking in our direction every few steps. This right here was worth it. This moment would have been enough for me to come back again. Even if it wasn’t a successful hunt, it was a great freaking time. There was no way to describe that feeling. Once they were gone there was a notable sigh from both of us and a whispered chuckle. Uncle Manny then whispered, “there you go, you got to see some deer.” I sure had.
The morning got hotter and the sun was beaming down on top of us. Uncle Manny suggested we back into the tree line and take advantage of some shade. We actually decided to walk a few more yards away from the choke point and around a small bend in the tree line. We get comfortable and no more than about 30 to 45 minutes later a doe and a buck walk right in front of us and stop. The buck was no more than 30 to 40 yards from me. I slowly grab for my rifle fighting the instinct to just snatch it and shoot. I aim and see two points on either side. It’s a forkie. Just as I see that Uncle Manny confirms that it’s a shooter and says “When you are ready, take the shot.” I am shooting without a shooting stick or anything to rest my rifle on but he is close. His body is obscured by tall sawgrass so I decide to aim for the center of his neck. I steady my breathing and slowly squeeze the trigger. The roar of the rifle blast is replaced by the splashing of the buck dropping into the slough. The doe runs a few steps and stops to look around. She had no clue we were there or where the buck was. If we would have had an antlerless deer permit we would have tagged out that day. It wasn’t until we emerged from the tree line that she ran off.
The impact of the rifle round had severed its spinal cord and the buck went down instantly. We walked around the area we last saw him and took us a minute to find him in the sawgrass. I was the first to see him and I called over to Uncle Manny, “He is right here!” and I just stood there staring at him. I couldn’t believe I had my first deer. My first DIY Public lands hunt was a success. Uncle Manny snapped me out of my thought and grabbed hold of one of the buck’s antlers and said “What are you waiting for?” as he dragged it to a better location to clean out the deer. I gut the deer and keep it’s heart to try a recipe I had saved from a wild game cookbook I had at home. We grab a sturdy looking branch that was a good length and tie the deer’s legs and head to it. We left half our gear there so we wouldn’t have to haul back so much weight and Uncle Manny offered to come back for it while I quartered the deer back at camp.
We hoist the deer on our shoulders and start the 2-and-a-half-mile trek back to camp. While quartering it we got a few visits from fellow hunters around camp curious to see who had shot a buck and to give their congratulations. One hunter looked relieved. He had been hunting a 10-point buck he had seen on his trail cams and was certain I had shot it. We decided to pack it up that day and head home for some venison steak. The meat being so fresh meant that it was tough, but it was the sweetest tasting steak I had ever had. For the next year, I would smile whenever we had a bit of that deer. Every bite was a memory from that hunt.
What was your first public lands hunt like? Please feel free to leave a comment below, I would love to read about it. Also, if you would like to support our blog please give us a follow on Instagram or Facebook, or visit our merch section for some graphic tees, hoodies, and other hunting-related streetwear. Thank you for reading and happy hunting!