By Wade Nolan
-- Three Florida Black Panthers have been recently sighted in this swamp. Like me, they're here for the hogs. The terrain is mottled with high and low spots. The elevated hammocks resemble a chain of islands that reach through the tangled swamp. From the air, they remind you of the black squares of a checkerboard, connected by their corners. The dry hammocks offer a bounty of edge habitat. Dry meeting wet and live oak flats meeting palmetto thickets. This edge is the key.
This dawn I'm not alone in the swamp and here the morning hunt is not a novel idea.
The full moon is streaking through the Spanish moss, which shrouds me like lacy curtains. Tawny brown oak leaves that fell last fall carpet the ground. They are as fragile as corn chips, and they give away with every footfall on the swampy hammock. At eye level is a palmated frond of a tall palmetto. This is the plant that dominates the Florida landscape. The giant leaves resemble a folded paper fan. It stretches out toward my face like an upturned hand.
The hammock is bathed in a chorus of morning sounds. Swamps are not quiet places. On the contrary it is almost deadening with the morning calls of woodpeckers and blue jays. Thrushes are flitting around under the canopy with the noisy Neotropical songbirds and wrens. Bugs are on the breakfast menu. Spring is a busy time and all must eat daily to keep the cycle in motion.
Without warning, an Anole lizard, we call them Chameleons, charges across the palmetto frond directly at my face. His charge across the reverberating frond sounds like he is racing across a snare drum at me. I jerked my head sideways to avoid this yet unidentified attacker and then make him out at 12 inches. He has successfully caught his breakfast ... a black fly that wasn't paying close attention. I enjoy his presence and compliment him on his morning hunt with a nod. This morning we are both swamp hunters.
Like the non-native chameleon that was brought here from a distant Caribbean shores long ago, my quarry was brought here in the holds of Spanish ships over 400 years ago. The early explorers routinely kept small wild boar with them. The plan was to release them on islands to free-range and reproduce. Future sailors could stop and hunt them and procure an easy supply of pork.
This morning I also have eating in mind as these Florida hogs still taste as good today as they did 400 years ago. I have come with a bow and arrow. My plan is to intercept the black hogs as they move from hammock to hammock along the narrow connector points.
Going undetected in the swamp depends upon my ability to outsmart not the hog's eyes, but its nose. My set-up is downwind of the hog trail. A few fronds of palmetto shield my outline as I lean against the twisted oak trunk and survey the dense cover ahead for movement.
I anticipate that the hogs, which travel in family packs like wolves, will be moving together.
Hogs are not experts at stealth. They usually give away their approach because they grunt and croak at each other as they move through the underbrush. Their best defense against predators is their nose. That "rooter" can smell as efficiently as the nose of a white-tailed deer.
Like Indians of old, I have chosen to use a bow. Like the owl I watched earlier, which is a fast striker, my bow shoots a flat 306 fps ... faster than the swoop of the predator perched above me. Its compression molded limbs are very efficient when it comes to launching my arrow with sufficient kinetic energy to penetrate a hog's thick shoulder. My bow is the result of a long line of engineers who connect back to a man named Fred Bear. Bear got his inspiration from a man named Art Young who knew America's last wild Indian named Ishi. I feel that heritage in my left hand as I grip this improved ancient weapon.
The wild hogs who own this swamp have cutter tusks that are whetted by the lower canine. Their tusks are spooky sharp. They use them in dominance battles. My system for inflicting damage is a broadhead that can leave a 2-inch cut. Like the boar's jaws my "cutters" open upon impact.
Two Osceola gobblers sound off on a hammock further to the west. I can faintly hear their backpedaling wings as they fly down to begin another hunt for food and hens. It seems that we are all hunting this morning.
I hear the approach of the hogs because of a grunt. Now I am ready. Like a bunch of school boys dashing for the bus, the hog herd dashes into sight as if on a mission. Their path takes them to within 16 yards, but they don't slow until they are almost out of sight. One boar hog separates from the group and wanders into a swampy low spot carpeted with Arrowhead and native Irises. I leave my hide and with the wind in my face, creep toward the black hog with my bow ready.
The herd stops 50 yards further away. As I leave my spot and start the stalk, I feel a new connection with the hunt. My breathing is deeper and my senses more honed. I stoop and assume an pose that I didn't have to summon ... like my next breath, it is already there. My eyes dart and scan for other hogs that might give away my stalk. Again, this isn't a planned strategy; it is an ancient one that wells up on its own.
My steps are calculated and slow. Stop in the shadows. Move when its head is down. I felt alive and connected. It is as if this hunt, which I am an actor in, is being replayed from an old film archive. The hunt is part of who I am. I released the "hunt gene" when I took up my position along the trail in the dawn light.
At 18 yards, I can hear the hog produce faint grumbling sounds as it roots. The wind still brushes my face as I draw my bow. The arrow finds its mark, and the hog spins to identify the danger. I freeze after the shot, my camo blending with the sun now streaming through the canopy. The boar collapses while still surveying the swamp. The swamp is full of morning hunters. This morning he lowered his guard in the age-old game of the hunter and the hunted.
Editor's note: To find out more about Wade Nolan's outdoor adventures, go to www.wadenolan.com.
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