By Michael E. Miller
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Clemons tells the story like a fireman describing a battle with a big blaze, shaking his head while sitting at a homey table inside the Swamp Water Café, a diner-style restaurant on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. He employs phrases such as "trophy hawg," "big ol' fella," and "fair chase." As he is about to finish, a hearty waitress with a dirty-blond ponytail clears his plate of Indian tacos. "That pig should have had me," he says. "It was the hog from hell."
After nearly 40 years of hunting, Clemons believes he can read a wild boar's mind based on the way the wind blows. He is able to wrestle an alligator and escape with just a scrape, and navigate the Everglades in the eerie black of night. His freezer has been filled with gator jowls, squirrel, and snake. ("One thing people don't know," Clemons says, "is how good rattlesnake tastes.") Under his fingernails is the dirt that comes from working the land.
Clemons has the hardened exterior of a man who lives by cold Darwinian law. He seems bothered — or perhaps simply uninterested — in traffic jams, small talk, and hurt feelings. "I like the isolation," he says. "Out here, we don't have all those issues." He can seem primitive and brutal, but is also unwaveringly principled.
"[Mark Clemons] may not look or act like it, but he's an incredibly smart guy," says Schneider, the real estate agent from the bow hunt. "His philosophies are deep and wide."
The guide was born August 1, 1960, to Arthur Clemons, an outdoorsy tomato nursery worker, and Nell Gavin, a pretty, slender homemaker who could hold her own on fishing trips. He was the youngest of three boys in a working-class family that lived just west of the Palmetto Expressway.
Arthur, an orphan, had grown up in the mountains of Kentucky during the Great Depression and was deathly poor. Things were so bad that at times he was forced to shoot and eat squirrels. This had a long-lasting effect. As an adult, he refused to hunt.
But the family sometimes trapped lobster in the Keys during the summer. Mark recalls that when he was four years old, an uncle named Don heaved him into the water during a fishing trip to teach him how to swim. At first, he flailed and choked. "You're scared and you're crying," Mark remembers. "But it's over in a second."
Five years later, the family moved to a more isolated, rust-colored, one-story house near the beach in Bonita Springs. As a scrawny nine-year-old, he shot his first gun with his brothers, Brett and Wayne. Aiming at a soup can, he pulled the trigger. The recoil was so strong it knocked him over and he began to cry. I never, ever want to do that again, he thought.
"It was always competitive between us," says his older brother Brett, who now prefers computers to hunting. "We were raised outdoors and were constantly beating the crap out of each other. "
By age 12, Clemons was living in the "one-stoplight town" of Naples, shooting birds from the sky. As a hobby, he caught rattlesnakes with nets in the winter months with his father. They sold the snakes to Ross Alan Institute for serum, and researchers paid them a dollar per foot for the rattlers and $100 an inch after 10 feet. "It was big money back then," Clemons says. "All I could see was dollar signs." He quit after a hissing, six-foot-seven-inch viper struck his boot and nearly killed him, he says.
As a teenager at Naples High, he hung with the "gear heads," drag-raced, and snuck out at night to meet girls, though he never got into much serious trouble. (A few years later, he would have an upsetting brush with the law.) He had friends, but he "always understood animals better than people," he says.
In the late Eighties, he began leading sightseeing charter tours through the Glades on swamp buggies, four-wheel vehicles with raised bodies for maneuvering marshy areas. "He knows the Everglades like the back of his hand," says his sturdy, good-natured, chain-smoking wife Rita. "And he's real ethical about hunting."
During a tour one day in 1989, his buggy broke down 20 miles from any road. There was no cell phone reception on the ground, so he climbed a tree and called for help. He and his crew were rescued by helicopter before nightfall, he says.
Soon he started Everglades Adventures, a business in which he guides hunts for alligators, hogs, and doves on private land. He leased about 24,000 acres of McDaniel Ranch, on County Road 833, just north of Big Cypress.
In July 1992, while living in Naples, he was charged with illegal disposal of solid waste — a third-degree felony — after he admitted to using heavy machinery to bury a mobile home as part of a cleanup effort. If convicted, he would have had to surrender his firearms permit and retire as a guide. After some publicity, clients stopped showing up. He earned less than $2,000 one year. "Overnight, my business was history," he says.
The case was dropped at the request of the prosecutor, who determined that wildlife officials with a personal vendetta had lied about Clemons. (Several years and many court hearings later, he won a $280,000 judgment in federal court.) "There was a concerted effort to target me," he told the Naples Daily News. "I don't think there's any question about that."