August 15, 2018
I'm well versed in the ways of mosquitoes. In my home state of Minnesota, we've got standing water everywhere, and that means throughout the spring and summer we deal with aerial bloodsuckers in plague-level numbers.
But we've got nothing on Florida.
I found this out after accepting an invite to hunt summertime whitetails with some folks from Sitka Gear to test out their new Early Season Whitetail lineup. Unsure of what to really expect, I boarded a Palm Beach-bound plane with a few days left in July. The Sunshine State offers the earliest whitetail season in the country, and the goal was to see if the new duds could handle jungle-like conditions.
The first afternoon, long before we could set out to our stands, the cookie-cutter, day-after-day thunderstorms moved in. We sat on the porch while watching the rain fall and a six-foot gator periscope his nose and eyes out of the water, not 40 yards from the deck. With the memory of the gator fresh and nothing to lose (and not much to do), fellow-scribe Brodie Swisher and I made a quick loop with a swamp buggy to see if we could find a hog.
We found three, and Brodie took the lead. If it weren't for some roosted turkeys that putted their disapproval and eventually spooked, I'm confident we would have sent some carbon through the air at one of the feeding porkers. During that short stalk, we waded through knee-deep water, while getting rained on above, and the mosquitoes were so thick we were inhaling them regularly. It felt like hunting on another planet.
A hot, wet planet where humans don't belong.
Focusing On The Deer
The first morning I clamped a Thermacell to my stand and prayed to any and all gods who might lend an ear that it function perfectly. In the predawn gloaming, the constant drone of mosquitoes became general in my ears and I thought of the Seminoles and the earliest settlers of the region dealing with them and couldn't - still can't - fathom how they coped.
At first light, I started seeing does and fawns in the food plot. An hour into it and a forky slipped in and started scent-checking them. With no need to produce youngsters in relation to the seasons like in most whitetail territories where actual winter occurs, the prime rut happens in August so it was just starting to ramp up, much like it does in the last week of October in more traditional deer states.
Eventually the sun fully breached the horizon and the mosquitoes flew back to whatever fresh hell they spend their daylight hours in, and it grew as comfortable as it could. At 11 Mike Massey, organizer and point-man for our trip, picked me up and let me know I'd be back there in the evening.
When I returned, he instructed me to sit a different stand on the same plot since the wind had switched. A few familiar faces entered the field, but no bucks. At one point the splashing of hooves in the water brought my attention to the swamp behind me, and I spotted a black hog rooting her way through the palmettos.
With half of an hour of light left, the does in the plot picked their heads up in unison as if they could only operate in synchronicity and pricked their ears toward my direction. I clipped on and got ready to draw. The sow walked in, and within a few seconds she was squealing her way into the cover, only to splash a few times and grow still not 40 yards from my stand.
That same evening, the third writer on the trip - Mike Shea - would run a well-placed arrow through a stud of a buck. Florida for all of its misery, was producing for us at the very least.
A few days into the hunt, Shea casually said to me as we were discussing how difficult things had become, "This is just one of those Murphy's Law hunts." He was referencing the multiple break-downs we'd had with vehicles, the pigs that a few of the hunters had hit and lost, and the near-misses we were having with the mature bucks on the 3,000-acre property.
Like the gathering cloud banks in the evening that would deliver an inch of rain in an hour and a serious clouds-to-ground electrical show, a bad-luck front had settled over us. We couldn't quite get the hunting right and everything that we needed to plow through the water in order to reach our hunting areas seemed to break down with every foray into the jungle. It was as if Mother Nature herself was wagging a constant finger in our faces to let us know that humans and their machinery might belong somewhere, but here was not that place.
It was, quite honestly, a nightmare. At least when viewed through the perspective of hunting success, it was. It was also one of the most memorable trips I've been on as far as company and the overall experience. A better crew we could not have had, and I cringed multiple times thinking about some of the media members I've hunted with who would have demanded an early trip back to the airport after day one.
At least for me, the worst parts of the entire trip could be summed up by riding on top of a swamp buggy to pick up a few hunters and hearing something thump into the floor. I looked at Chris Derrick from Sitka Gear, and didn't think anything of it until I realized back at camp that what we'd heard was my brand-new rangefinder bouncing off of the buggy and settling in with the gators at the bottom of the swamp.
That thump punctuated the trip for me personally, but by the time we were saying our goodbyes we were planning round two for Osceola turkeys next spring. We'll probably go, because our entire group was comprised of bowhunters and if there is one thing we are good at it is maintaining optimism where very little should exist, and for forgetting how miserable we were at times by somehow splicing into our memories the times when we laughed so hard we cried and we just shrugged off the bad stuff as part of deer hunting. Because it is.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Florida in the summer. Golf, Disney, fishing, you-name-it. I wouldn't, however, recommend it to hunters who require a high level of comfort, or who possess a low level of tolerance for severe discomfort.
It is an experience unlike anything else out there in the whitetail world. That carries some weight for the deer-obsessed, but be warned - the swamps don't want you in them. You're an uninvited visitor and will be treated as such by the residents. Accept that for what it is and you'll find plenty of redemption in the craziness of it all. And you just might run into some fresh pork, or if you're really lucky, a rutting buck splashing his way past your stand in search of an amenable girlfriend.
Things could be a lot worse than that.