The limo driver straightened his tux and scratched his head. To the east the giant glow of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach urban corridor was clearly visible, a comforting sign of modernity. But brighter still and directly overhead lay Orion, the hunter's constellation. The air was unseasonably cold, there was blood on the ground, and the limousine was parked in the middle of the Everglades a long way from anywhere a limo should normally be.
One by one, eight hunters, including Kenny Cypress, son of the chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, emerged from the limousine and stooped to look at a dead three-point buck, the latest kill seen at the Forty Mile Bend hunter check station -- ground zero for the 1997 hunting season in South Florida. Some of the hunters wore camouflage fatigues and sidearms. Some carried cans of Budweiser.
"You know things are all right in America when a bunch of drunk rednecks and Indians can ride around in a limousine together and talk about deer killin'!" exclaimed Dave Balman, president of a statewide airboat association.
On their way to a Christmas party, the Indians had stopped by the check station to show off the limo. A chat turned into a joy ride, and the joy ride became a scouting party down nearby Loop Road, a favorite hunting corridor for whites and Native Americans alike. Meanwhile three men in an airboat showed up with the deer.
Bear, a visiting Cherokee, piled a few more two-by-fours on a campfire. After helping to remove the deer's jawbone with a medieval-looking instrument (the bone would be used to analyze the animal's age and diet), Balman went in search of a bowl of chili and launched into a yarn about a big-game addict he knows who bagged a world-record polar bear in Siberia, one of the newest stomping grounds for serious trophy hunters.
Hunting and fishing have been part of the human repertoire for eons, and limousine or no, hunting season has always been a chance to slip out of town for a frolic. But this year the partying has been subdued. Around the fire at dozens of Everglades hunting camps, the talk shifts early in the evening from tracking, stalking, and which shotgun load or rifle scope to use to a whole new set of social and political concerns, all of them centered on the meddling of wacko tree huggers, greedhead developers, and government geeks who are making South Florida hunters the newest endangered species.
It seems that Balman's polar bear yarn is just that: a fireside hunting tale for a chilly night. But the account segues neatly into another one -- how in the Sixties Balman stumbled across the vertebrae of a woolly mammoth not far from where he now sits stoking the fire. The bones bore unmistakable marks of human hacking, later confirmed by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And here the political subtext leaps to center stage -- what Balman was leading up to all along when he started in with the polar bear.
"The point is -- what I wish these anti-hunting assholes would figure out -- is that man does not live by veggies alone," Balman snorts. "Hunters have been a part of the Everglades for thousands of years. They were chopping steaks off that woolly mammoth. And they were doing it right here a long, long time ago."
The limo pulls away, bearing Kenny Cypress and friends toward their Christmas party in faraway Fort Lauderdale. If it weren't for this holiday hootenanny, Cypress might be out fire-hunting, the local term for jacklighting -- hunting at night with a spotlight. Because the practice is illegal for non-Indians, the hunters who stay behind settle back to wait for dawn; they watch Orion move across the sky.
Many Gold Coast urbanites are shocked to learn that hunting still goes on in the Everglades, but in fact it goes on with something of a vengeance. Last year between November 15 and January 1 hunters spent more than 15,000 "man-days" inside the 566,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve, emerging with 271 slain deer and 174 wild hogs. In the 60,000-acre J.W Corbitt State Wildlife Management Area in northern Palm Beach County, hunters this season have so far reported 83 deer and 173 feral hogs, the largest weighing in at 110 and 195 pounds respectively.
Between these two huntable public tracts are a scattering of other blood-sport destinations little-known to nonhunters: Terrytown, a 3000-acre small-game and bird preserve; Holey Land and Rotenberger wildlife management areas, contiguous chunks of land that lie just north of the Broward border and comprise more than 63,000 acres; Brown's Farm Wildlife Management Area, a small but until recently top-choice deer-hunting spot down a dirt road from Belle Glade in far western Palm Beach County; and the Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area near Lake Okeechobee, home to a highly regulated spring wild-turkey hunt, as well as a site of hunting for deer, hog, bobcat, rabbit, squirrel and -- though only a madman would eat one -- armadillo.
The largest hunting ground is also the least used -- a soggy object lesson in the accelerating disappearance of huntable land in South Florida. The Everglades Wildlife Management Area sprawls across 672,000 acres of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Last month, for the first time in six years, state wildlife officials allowed a brief and limited deer and pig hunt. The results were enjoyable for the few hunters selected by lottery to participate. By any other terms they were laughable; the harvest totaled four deer and no feral pigs. The South Florida Water Management District has flooded the land to record levels, and placards have sprung up around the perimeter: "All hunts canceled except migratory game birds."
Ditto for Brown's Farm, where signs announce the permanent closure to hunting "effective at dusk on Sunday, Nov. 30, 1997." The land is now a filtration marsh for polluted water, part of the ongoing Everglades Restoration Project. Hunters fear the mammoth federal and state effort will also gobble up the Holey Land and Rotenberger preserves, marking the effective end of hunting in Broward and southern Palm Beach counties. Officials say these fears are groundless.
Despite the shrinking number of places to hunt, the sport endures in South Florida, regardless of -- or because of -- yet another fact. The historic Everglades, that region south of Lake Okeechobee not devoured by sugar cane or walled off by urban sprawl, may rank among the hardest places in the world to hunt.
If you spent one full day in the Everglades hunting white-tailed deer and wild hogs, your chance of killing something would be less than three percent. By comparison, a hunter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has a better than 50 percent chance of success for deer; in California, 19 percent. Game in the Everglades is not only relatively scarce but unusually shy. Meanwhile it would be hard to design a natural environment less accessible to humans or less conducive to sneaking up on or tracking anything, a fact the U.S. infantry discovered in its nineteenth-century dress rehearsal for Vietnam known as the Seminole Wars. But more on this later.
The landscape isn't the only impediment to success for the South Florida hunter. Before you can hunt, you must purchase (cash only) a state hunting license ($12.50), plus a wildlife management area permit for hunting on public lands ($26.50). If you plan to stalk the elusive wild turkey, yet another permit is required ($5). You may also want a state waterfowl permit ($3) and migratory bird permit (free), but both are virtually worthless unless accompanied by a federal duck stamp ($15). For the obsessive personality, there's the Lifetime Sportsman's License ($1050).
The cash outlay for licenses is a minor obstacle, though. Once in the woods, the South Florida hunter faces an avalanche of regulations, some of them confusing and obscure. You can shoot a gun from an airboat, but the boat has to be stopped. But you can't even transport archery equipment in an airboat. Chasing foxes with dogs is okay as long as you don't kill the fox. You can't chase hogs or deer with dogs, but if you wound one, you can use a dog to track it down and kill it.
Each state wildlife area has different seasons, different bag limits, and confusing borders. Most do not appear on standard road maps, and all are off the beaten track. In the case of Big Cypress National Preserve, which spans portions of Dade, Collier, and Broward counties, a long-standing feud between the feds who own it and the state officials who manage its game has made permissible hunting behavior doubly confusing.
One professional hunting guide tells how he spent weeks scouting the woods and trails around his house on the western verge of Big Cypress last year. He flew over the country twice. The day after hunting season opened, he found himself near a dirt road north of I-75 raising his rifle to shoot a deer. Suddenly a man with binoculars emerged from the underbrush and started blowing on a whistle. The deer took off.
Confrontations with anti-hunting activists are actually rare in the Everglades, as are accidental hunting fatalities. But tales of protesters beating on pots and pans to scare off game, or of the mystery man in a white van who went around slashing swamp-buggy tires, take on important symbolic value for hunters. Somewhere along the line, hunting became marginalized, and hunters became cultural villains instead of neighborhood heroes. Perhaps the shift occurred when the fish called dolphin started showing up on South Florida menus under the less incendiary name mahi-mahi. Or perhaps it occurred when America, which was primarily rural at the time of its founding, finally became overwhelmingly urban.
When Dick Houghton first set foot in Big Cypress, he was thirteen years old, and nearly one-third of American men hunted. Today, at age 65, Houghton and his fellow blood sportsmen represent only seven percent of the adult population. There are half a million fewer hunters now than there were a decade ago.
Like most South Florida hunters, Houghton hates the National Park Service and most environmentalists. Flying across the Glades in his airboat, he looks the part of the high-tech redneck: camo fatigues, cell phone, loaded pistol, and a generous carnivore's paunch. The strange thing is how Houghton sounds more and more like a tree hugger the longer he talks.
He and his hunting confreres did as much as anyone to block oil drilling in Big Cypress in the mid-Seventies. (The effort failed, and today Exxon maintains a sizable complex of wells and processing stations deep inside the preserve.) More recently he fought the park service to retain his position as one of the last 225 property owners inside the vast wilderness.
Arriving at his camp -- a neat one-story bunkhouse that he built in 1960, complete with running water, TV, and solar-powered ceiling fans -- Houghton switches from airboat to homemade swamp buggy for a tour of his domain. The rutted trails created by swamp buggies have long been of concern to environmentalists. But apart from aesthetic blight, Houghton contends the roads do no harm. Far more damaging, he points out, is the broad, three-and-a-half-mile-long pipeline right-of-way built by Exxon and known to hunters as "I-95." The oil company also maintains at least fifteen miles of hard-packed access roads that pass near his camp.
A couple of deer flare up from a cypress hammock, and Houghton reminds a fellow hunter that this particular section of buggy trail is the remnant of an ox-cart road that once extended all the way to Lake Okeechobee -- further proof of man's long-time links to the Everglades and the hunter's place here.
"There are not a lot of people hunting out here who are rank amateurs," Houghton offers, spotting a wild hog up ahead. "They're dedicated hunters who really like to hunt. You have to be, or you'd get frustrated and go home for good. Most Everglades hunters are ecologists by temperament and necessity. Shit-kickers though they may be, the majority of them are very good people."
They are also almost universally good mechanics, and not by coincidence. Rounding a curve on Turner River Road, tourists from Kyoto may suddenly think they have encountered a Marine expeditionary force. What they are really encountering is a group of hunters heading into the Glades for the weekend. At first glance the camouflage and armament look scary, and the rugged vehicles -- swamp buggies, airboats, four-wheel all-terrain vehicles -- look jarringly incongruous against nature's backdrop.
But hunters know that when the Everglades stops being just a backdrop, machinery is crucial. Unless you're prepared to slog through waist-high water for several hours in any direction, you need a swamp buggy or airboat or ATV to get to where the animals are. (A few hunters use bicycles with fat tires.) Because there are no swamp buggy or airboat dealerships, you have to build one yourself out of aircraft or auto parts. Inevitably there's the question of what to do when it breaks down twenty miles from the nearest road. The answer, of course, is to fix it while standing in mud and dust and clouds of mosquitoes.
Even with a garage full of expensive, cantankerous machinery, plenty of slogging is inevitable, as the law prohibits shooting from either swamp buggies or moving airboats, or even carrying loaded weapons in them. One sure way not to kill wild hogs or white-tailed deer or Osceola turkeys is to make a lot of noise, but walking through water is louder than walking through dry woods. Houghton has often picked up the trail of an animal and followed it optimistically to where it vanished in a slough or waterlogged saw-grass prairie. Tracking, a difficult art under optimal circumstances, becomes a fast approach to psychosis in the Everglades.
Though the terrain is flat, the variety of Everglades vegetation is a hunter's nightmare. If you are carrying a shotgun, you will surely see deer across a saw-grass prairie and you'll need a rifle with a telescopic sight. If you are using a rifle with a scope, you will invariably encounter your deer at close range in brush country, where you need a shotgun with open sights.
If you are lucky enough to kill something, there's the conundrum of what to do with it. Veteran Evergladesmen recount the tale of a hunter who passed out while dragging or floating a 300-pound boar toward the nearest trailhead. Several tell of stepping in "pot-coral" -- underwater potholes formed in the oolitic limestone that may break your ankle or simply keep you anchored to the spot for hours, even days.
The special challenges of South Florida hunting go unappreciated by nonhunters, Houghton gripes. What really riles him, though, is the state of his customary hunting ground. All around his camp, water is killing oak and pine hammocks and flooding game habitat. The culprits: engineers at the South Florida Water Management District and complicit officials with the National Park Service. Under the guise of re-establishing "historic" water levels in the Everglades, they're flooding the Big Cypress to serve urban interests, Houghton believes.
"Ha!" he says. "The South Florida Water Management District is cranked, started, and driven by Big Agriculture, my friend. These are the jackasses who screwed up the Everglades in the first place, and now they've been put in charge of 'restoring' it? That's idiocy. What they're working up to is creating an urban-water storage area. They want two feet of water over this whole preserve, and anything else they tell you is a damn lie.
"As for the park service, they don't know how to handle a place where hunting is legal. They're fundamentally anti-use. They'd like nothing better than to see hunting outlawed here forever. I think the writing's on the wall."
The town of Copeland has nearly ceased to exist. It shows up on fewer and fewer road maps every year, and these days not a single highway sign points north from the Tamiami Trail toward the town's main thoroughfare, a forgotten stretch of Route 29 with one functioning business. There, at the Copeland Market, the cashier may or may not tell you how to find Barefoot James, one of the last and best Everglades hunters.
Barefoot James has a general dislike of shoes, but so do lots of South Floridians. What earned him his nickname is the fact that he hunts barefoot, a practice that amazes even veteran sportsmen south of Lake Okeechobee. There are other practices that make the stocky 35-year-old a rarity: He hunts alone. He disdains airboats and swamp buggies; he uses a canoe or simply "meanders around" the swamps. One of his recent sorties lasted seven weeks.
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.
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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.