All-day I have spent looking at my watch. My leg shaking up and down in rapid succession at my eagerness for the clock to hit 5 PM. To pass the time, I have watched every possible video I could find on how to field dress an animal, how to butcher an animal, and recipes to make for wild boar. I know, I know, don’t count your chickens before they hatch and all that, but I couldn’t help myself. At 5 PM I was on my way to my first ever hunting trip and I couldn’t wait. Needless to say, it was not a very productive day for me at work.
I have always dreamt of what it would be like to go hunting. I had done a camping trip or two, and even gone fishing off the coast of Miami, FL. Heck I even had a fishing trip to Bimini Bahamas under my belt. There was something about hunting though that brought back all of those childhood daydreams of being a pioneer and hunting alongside Theodore Roosevelt or hitching a ride with Lewis and Clark in one of their wagons. There was this glamourous image I had created in my mind of what it would be like. I never really had anyone to go with, much less show me the ropes. My family wasn’t very outdoorsy at all and my dad didn’t like getting his hands dirty much less spend any time out in the woods or swamp.
It wasn’t until I got married and had my son that I met Uncle Manny. He is my brother in law’s, girlfriend’s father. I know a freakin’ mouthful. He has become one of my closest friends and my son has known him his whole life and affectionately calls him Uncle Manny. The name stuck and now that’s all he is known by throughout our family. Uncle Manny has been an avid big game hunter throughout his life. When I discovered this, I would ask him question after question on his experiences. One of the stories that stuck in my head the most was a bear hunt he did in Canada with an outfitter where they rode horseback into their hunting area and had to pack the meat out on horseback as well. While I may have had a candle light’s worth of curiosity for hunting, Uncle Manny came by and doused that small flame with gasoline. The burning desire to hunt just continued to grow.
I started to research first hunts, requirements for hunting, and basically consumed as much information as I could. I was still apprehensive as to whether I would like wild game or not, or if I would really enjoy the experience or if I had just built up this hype in my mind so much that it would turn out to be nowhere near as exciting as I imagined. So, I discovered that in Florida, no hunting license is required when hunting on private land for wild boar. I figured I can find an outfitter that would allow me to hunt on private property and see if I really do like it before committing 100% to gear and a hunting license. Hours of google searches over several days later and I found one that looked promising. I copied down the link and messaged it to Uncle Manny. I figured if he was interested in going with me, I would figure out logistics on the trip later.
Later that evening I get his reply. Not only was he in, but he had a good friend that lived minutes away in Fort McCoy, FL and we could stay with him. He would even be interested in tagging along. I couldn’t believe it. He called his friend Leon and he didn’t hesitate. Everything was arranged. About 2 months later and I would be on my first ever hunting trip.
The day was finally here. I was working from home that day and had my bag packed and ready to go by the door. Uncle Manny told me that he would be at my house at 5:00 PM sharp and we would hit the road right away, no lollygagging. If you know Uncle Manny you would know he wasn’t kidding. He may be retired Army, but there is nothing retired about his military discipline. He would leave me in a heartbeat.
All-day I could do nothing but think about this hunt. Re-watching field dressing videos I had seen at least 10 times already. I handled whatever questions came my way on my work messaging app and tried to complete a project or two before I had to leave but my brain just wasn’t in it. 4:58 PM and Uncle Manny was knocking at my door. As soon as I opened the door he looked at me with a crooked smile and asked me, “You ready?”
“Just about, let me shut down my PC and put an out of office reply on my email,” I replied.
He reached down to where my bag was laying next to the door and said, “You got two minutes.”
He then turned and walked toward his truck and tossed the bag in the back seat. I wrapped up my last email and by 5:01 PM we were on the road. It was a 5-hour trip with only one stop in the middle, so we ended up getting there a little after 10:30 PM. Fort McCoy is a very small community in North Central, FL. There are very few streetlights and literally none when you turn off the main road to go down the street that Uncle Manny’s friend Leon lived. I had never experienced a small town before. I had traveled of course, but always to big cities like New York and Boston. Right when we made this last turn Uncle Manny wanted to show me what far really meant in a town like this compared to what we were used to. He stopped his truck, looked over at me and said “This is Leon’s street. Look at what time it is. He is just up this road.” It was a little before 10 PM. It took us almost 40 minutes of driving in the pitch black to get there. This may not sound like a big deal, but 40 minutes was my commute from home to work on the whole opposite side of the city back home. This would be the commute for Leon just to get to the main road to then drive at least another 20 minutes just to get to a grocery store. An Hour drive just for groceries. There was no Papa John’s pizza delivery out here, and you had better make sure you didn’t forget anything on your grocery list.
Leon had a studio apartment built on the second floor of his Barn. We got there late and didn’t want to wake them, and Leon had left us the key to the barn and the studio upstairs anyway. We offloaded just our clothes and went upstairs. The studio had been prepared for us with fresh linens on the two queen-sized beds on either side of the room. The furniture was this heavy solid wood that really made you feel like you were in a log cabin in the middle of the woods somewhere. The air conditioner was on full blast, so the room felt crisp and cool as soon as you walked in and it had a woody, almost nutty smell. Down a narrow hallway, there was a full kitchen and bathroom complete with running water and a stand-up shower. It was one heck of a mancave to say the least. We were tired from the drive and decided to go right to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up around 7 AM. Out of respect for how nice Leon and his wife had left the studio for us we made our beds and even swept up some of the dirt we had trekked in the night before. Even though we were up early, our outfitter was close-by and we had signed up for a half-day hunt in the afternoon through sundown. We had some time before we really had to get ready. We went downstairs and walked over to the main house. Before we got to the door Leon’s wife greeted and welcomed us in. She greeted Uncle Manny with a big hug that had the weight of the far too much time that had passed since their last meeting. She then greeted me with the same exact warmth, as if we had known each other for years.
Their home and property are beautiful. The house sits in the middle of a littleover 3 acres and the property bumps right up to the shores of Lake Ocklawaha. Fun fact, Lake Ocklawaha was originally the Ocklawaha river but in the early 1900s, the Army corps of engineers were tasked with building a waterway that went from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1961 they completed the Rodman Dam in service of this endeavor, but due to legal trouble President Richard Nixon abandoned the project and it has been left undone ever since. There have been some movements to remove the Rodman Dam to return the area back to its original riverbed, but none have gained any serious steam.
Across from where the lake meets their property is the road frontage which is always quiet, and then there is a sliver of land owned by a neighbor which was maybe 50 to 75 yards wide. Just beyond that is the Ocala National Forest. You could do all the public land fishing and hunting you could ever want without being more than mere minutes from your home.
What was more impressive than this was the incredible collection of trophies Leon had collected over his life as a hunter. As we walked in, we were greeted first with his Turkey grand slam birds. He had one of every subspecies of turkey found in the US. As you continue to enter you can see different waterfowl, all kinds of big game from around the world such as a Tahr, Red Stag, White Tail Deer, a Black Bear, African Warthog, Baboons, I mean this was hunter mecca.
As I am admiring the amazing collection Leon comes out from a back room. Leon is a little older than Uncle Manny, on the shorter side, very skinny and had salt and pepper hair, a little more salt than pepper. His personality and heart could fill the length and width of his property. He came out with a huge smile and a ton of energy. He was like a car ready for a drag race, revving to go and waiting for the green light.
He and his wife had prepared a full breakfast for us. We ate and drank coffee in a dinette that overlooked the lake. At my insistence, Leon recounted some of his favorite hunting stories and pointed out the stories of a few of members of his collection. These were stories I had only seen on TV. He has hunted in Africa, New Zealand and all across the US. I mean I don’t know how he didn’t have his own TV show with how much he knew about hunting and all of his incredible experiences. What really got me psyched about the coming hunt was his answer to my favorite question for a hunter, especially a hunter with this much experience with different quarry. I asked him if he could only eat one game meat for the rest of his life and never have any other type of meat again, what would it be. His answer? Wild Hog! Uncle Manny was in agreement too. I was stoked! If we were successful today, I would be bringing home some high-quality game for my family.
By the time we got done with breakfast and my rookie hunter interview of both Leon and Uncle Manny, it was time for us to get ready and go. My sister in law worked at Bass Pro at the time so she got me my first camo. I didn’t know if it was necessary or not as we were hunting from tree stands that day but I was wearing it with pride. We arrived at the outfitter’s property right on time. We pulled in right as the property manager and our guide for the day were opening the gate. We pulled in and started grabbing our daypacks and our rifles. I was borrowing Uncle Manny’s .300 blackout AR, I still love that Rifle. The guide and manager went over the ground rules and told us we would be driven to three different parts of the property so we would have a better opportunity at being successful.
We pile into a UTV and take off down a trail through the trees. As we turn our first corner a medium-sized hog and 2 smaller hogs dart across the trail. This is a great sign. I immediately get that giddy feeling in my stomach. After a minute or two we arrive at the first stand. This is my stop, our guide walks me through the trees and the bushes and about 100 yards into the brush there is a clearing with a feeder and off to the left is the stand. I tie a rope to my bag and rifle and climb up to the seat. I start hauling up the bag and rifle and no sooner than untying them and getting situated do I see a huge sow, a medium-sized boar with 2 other medium-sized sows and a piglet. I couldn’t believe my luck. My first reaction is to get a few pictures of them. I then ready my rifle and as I start to look down the scope I think to myself. Do I really want this to be it? Have it end so fast? I pull this trigger and my first hunt is over. I decide to not pull the trigger. I mean I saw 3 hogs on the way in from the UTV and here I have 5 more within minutes of sitting down.
I sit in the stand quietly donating blood to bird-sized mosquitos waiting for my next opportunity. After 15 minutes I am kicking myself. If I were to tell Uncle Manny I saw 5 Hogs, had a clear shot, and I didn’t take it because I didn’t want it to end, I think he would make me walk back to Miami. To make matters worse after an hour of sitting there regretting my decision, I can hear pigs rolling around in some mud puddle behind some bushes to my back left but I couldn’t see them. Almost as if they were teasing me. I continue to sit and wait. And sit. and wait some more. I can hear some rustling to my 5 o’clock. I look over my shoulder and I see a spotted hog. I couldn’t get into shooting position without spooking it but I was able to snap a quick picture. He was a little smaller than I would have wanted but at this point, I was not going to let another shot slip by. Another 15 minutes and I can see what looks like the same group of hogs from earlier making their way back. I get excited! They are coming right back to the feeder. I get the big girl in my sights. She is making her way back when all of a sudden she stops and starts smelling the air. CRAP! She is smelling me. I know it. I can feel the wind at the back of my neck. It is now or never. I aim at her head because I didn’t have a clean shot at her heart or lungs. Just like I practiced with Uncle Manny at the range. I steady my breathing and slowly squeeze the trigger so that the shot surprises me. Nothing. Rookie lesson number 1: When you are ready to take a shot. Chamber a damn round.
Surprisingly the sow isn’t moving. She is cautiously smelling the air and looking around. She isn’t coming any closer, but she isn’t running off either. I try to chamber my round slowly like you would on a bolt action. I pull the action back, let the round come up and out of the magazine and into the chamber and I slowly let the action go back into place. I put her in my crosshairs and slowly squeeze the trigger again… CLICK. It misfired. Well not misfired, but it wasn’t chambered correctly because the round wasn’t seated correctly. Rookie lesson number 2: You can’t slowly and quietly chamber a round like you would on a bolt action for an AR. You need to pull the action back and let it do its job. The click I just heard was louder than any round I would have fired. At least to my ears. I realize what I did wrong. I pull the action back catching the ejecting round and I let the action go successfully chambering a round now. That sound though was enough to cost me my second chance at that sow. I felt like the biggest loser on the face of the earth. Not only had I decided not to shoot on my first opportunity I missed my second opportunity because I didn’t think to chamber a damn round when I got into the stand. I was in shock and was just totally down on myself.
I sat there distraught just staring at the .300 blackout round in my hand in utter disbelief. How in the hell was I going to tell the two seasoned hunters that came on this trip for my sake, that I missed two opportunities? I prayed hard at that point for one more opportunity. I couldn’t go home empty-handed. This would be a total failure if I went home empty-handed at this point. I had made a deal with myself to not get upset if I didn’t come home with meat for my freezer as this was hunting not catching. I knew it was a possibility. But I could never have prepared myself mentally for two missed opportunities. It never occurred to me at all. As I am sitting there, I here rustling below me. A Boar pops its head out of a bush. He is almost right below me, so I didn’t want to reach for my rifle and spook him. He was looking directly at the feeder. I am able to quietly reach on the seat next to me for my phone and snap a picture. As I do so, he slowly walks over to the feeder and discovers some corn that had been knocked on the ground by some squirrels earlier in the day. He is about 70 or so yards from me. He is facing totally away from me so I don’t really have a shot at any vitals. My round is chambered, and my crosshairs are right on him. I just wait patiently for a good shot. He finishes up the corn and turns a full 180. He is now facing me head-on and notices one last piece of corn on the ground. He lowers his head and I squeeze that trigger and the round hits him dead center on the back of his neck. He stiffens and immediately drops. Once he does he begins to convulse. I think he is suffering not factoring in that the round completely severed his spine at the neck and I take two more shots at his now exposed belly to where his heart would be.
Once he stops convulsing my whole body begins to shake. I almost feel like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe I HAD DONE IT! After two missed opportunities on a half-day hunt I was able to still come home with some meat. I need a minute to gather myself and stop my nerves from shaking my whole body. I tie up my rifle and bag again and lower it to the ground and start my climb down. As soon as my feet crunch the leaves at the foot of the ladder, my guide emerges from the bushes.
“Congrats! That’s a damn good shot there!” he excitedly whispered to me. He then snapped my picture with my first ever Wild Boar on my first ever hunt. We dragged him back to the UTV and drove back to camp. Uncle Manny and Leon were still out there and hadn’t taken a shot yet. The guide hung the boar up on a game hanger and I asked him if I could clean the hog since it was my first hog. Not only did he say yes, but he taught me what is still the fastest way I have ever seen to clean large game.
At the end of the day Uncle Manny got a shot at a decent size sow as well and Leon got a shot opportunity but was just a little bit high. We cleaned and iced the meat and unplugged the cooler to allow the moisture to drain. You want the meat cold, not wet. We wrapped it up by grabbing a quick bite at a local diner we had seen on the way in and went back to Leon’s homestead.
Days 3 & 4:
We still had two days on our trip and Leon and his wife really went out of their way to make sure we had a great time. Leon started off the morning with some skeet shooting and was determined to make a waterfowl hunter out of me as well. We had lunch at a community center where he and his wife volunteer time in the kitchen to cook for the community. Funny enough on the way out we were gifted a cooler full of prawns someone down at the nearby K.O.A. had caught but was tired of cleaning. The afternoon he also took us out on his pontoon boat and we did a little bit of freshwater fishing and he showed us around the lake. This was absolutely one of the most treasured experiences I have ever had and both Leon and Uncle Manny really went out of their way to not only bring in a new hunter into the community but make my first hunt something I would never forget.
I do have to mention that it is no small thing to take a life, any life. I could give all of the textbook answers about conservation but that wouldn’t be effective in explaining hunting to new or non-hunters. If you are a meat-eater, especially if you are a foodie that enjoys preparing your own food and gourmet meals, there is no closer relationship you can have with what you eat than by hunting your own meat. When you bite into wild game you taste more than the food. You taste in the experiences in obtaining that meal. You taste the rollercoaster ride of missed shot opportunities, bad decisions, and finally a successful hunt. I realize hunting is not for everyone, but if you eat meat today, I encourage you to give it a shot. There is a purity in the experience that I can’t quite put into words. It’s easy to go to the grocery store and pick up that neatly plastic-wrapped package with clean cuts of protein, and never give a thought to how that meat got there. It is easy to not think of the animal that gave its life after living on a farm for your next meal. The level of appreciation and gratitude for my food has grown 10-fold because of hunting.
If there was any lingering doubt that I was now a newly minted proud hunter, it was all gone a week later when Uncle Manny made me his world-famous Wild Boar Meatloaf. Nothing has ever tasted better.
What was your first hunt like? I would love to hear about it! leave a comment below. You can also sign up for our newsletter in the footer to stay in the know on upcoming blog posts.