By Michael E. Miller
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Like a large number of men in and around Copeland, Barefoot James went to prison in the Eighties for smuggling. (Illegal immigrants, rum, and marijuana have figured as traditional import items in the Ten Thousand Islands area, a place uniquely suited to smuggling because of its mazes of mangroves.) When he got out, he moved to Naples for a few years and worked as a boat builder.
"It wasn't worth it," he notes. "I wasn't happy." His unhappiness reached its nadir the night his wife took him to a Nature Conservancy banquet. Sometime around dessert he mentioned his fondness for hunting, naively believing that his kinship with animals and the land might find a sympathetic ear among enviro-diners. It did not.
Moving back to the pale-pink clapboard house where he was raised turned out to be an ineffective flight from hunting animosity. When he returned to his ancestral home, Barefoot James discovered he was walled in to the west by the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and to the east by the even newer Big Cypress National Preserve. He continued hunting, sometimes in open defiance of various bag limits, seasons, and license fees. Sometimes he gets caught, but tracking Barefoot James may be the toughest hunting in the Glades, generally requiring the use of a helicopter.
"Usually the federal people don't put you in jail," he muses. "They'll put you on probation for a while and make you drive to Miami and take a piss test. Driving to Miami is like being in jail."
According to recent estimates, only about 250,000 subsistence hunter-gatherers remain on Earth. Barefoot James may be the closest thing to that in South Florida. He derives most of his dietary protein from hunting. "I just don't get into the way they raise animals -- especially chickens," he says, oddly sounding vegetarian.
Sometimes hunting is more like an afterthought. A few days ago he was out meandering and stumbled upon a pig, which he brought home to fatten for New Year's. (Before the pig got very fat, a black bear crept up behind his house and swiped it.) Another time he was walking home at night and saw two Florida panthers mating in the moonlight. None of these brushes with mammalian wilderness would have happened if he didn't hunt, he claims.
More and more Barefoot James hunts purely as an assertion of individuality and tradition. "These woods were mine long before they were theirs," he says, referring to state and federal rulemakers. "I've got a right to them."
Robin Hood was first and foremost a critic of repressive game laws. Maybe in the future, South Florida hunters will stop playing by the rules and become quasi outlaws like Barefoot James. Or perhaps they will simply adopt his purist hunting style. A third of American hunters have already turned to "primitive" techniques like bow-hunting and black-powder musketry, which offer the quarry even better odds.
Another vision of the future lies a few miles north of Barefoot James's domain. If you turn off I-75 at the far western boundary of Broward County, head into the Seminole Indian reservation, and turn left before reaching what was once the World's Largest Bingo Hall, you'll find Everglades Hunting Adventures, one of 4000 commercial game preserves in the United States.
For anywhere from $500 to $3000, licensed guides at Big Cypress Hunting Adventures will pick you up at the airport, help you navigate a sheaf of liability release forms, and take you into a fenced, 3000-acre preserve for a day of hunting. In addition to trophy boars and Osceola turkey, you might get a shot at exotic fallow and sika deer, or even an emu.
Then you can have the carcass prepared on-site by a professional meat cutter and shipped home via FedEx or UPS. Business is booming, partly thanks to wealthy Northerners with the will to hunt but little room in their busy schedules.
"Like taking your gun to the zoo, huh?" Barefoot James observes. "Not much sneakin' up to that idea."
Back at the Forty Mile Bend check station, Orion is riding high once more when an old and empty-handed hunter stops to file his state-mandated paperwork and warm his hands on the last day of hunting season.
"See you next year," he says, climbing into a pickup. "If there is one.