Monday, February 16, 2015

The Hilochee Osprey Unit Buck

Way back in early Fall my friend Mike Higman invited me to join him as his guest on a quota permit hunt he drew for Hilochee Osprey Unit near Lakeland Florida. It was a hard to draw tag (one of only ten) for a late archery hunt; I mean really late (Feb. 13-15). I happily agreed to join him and then kind of put it to the back of my mind as I pursued deer from September till the end of December. It was a deer season filled with tough breaks and failures as I detailed in my last post. By the time January had come I had conceded defeat in the deer department and turned my attention to hogs and predators; but come the second week of February I was reminded of my guest privilege for the Osprey hunt.

As I began assembling my deer hunting gear that I had packed away, it almost felt like I was doing something wrong. February is supposed to be that lull month; that time in which you wash away those haunting memories of deer season failures with thoughts of gobbling Toms in Spring. But here I was, getting ready to hit the deer woods with my bow once again.

The most difficult thing about this hunt was the timing. The Saturday of the hunt was on Valentine's Day. I took my wife on a Valentine's date four days early, complete with a card, flowers and chocolates and hoped it would suffice. I was really glad when I talked to Mike and discovered that we would be driving back home every evening. I had been a little worried about checking into a hotel in Lakeland with another dude on Valentine's day.

Mike picked me up at 4:30 a.m. on Friday morning and on the way he showed me three bucks that he had gotten on camera the week before, two big 8 pointers and a nice 7 point. That gave me a little bit of hope. I am well aware of the low success rates on Wildlife Management areas, add on archery and buck only, with a six point antler restriction, and you might as well be buying a Powerball ticket.

When we arrived Mike pointed me towards an area he had found some rubs at. I picked a random tree in the dark and had an uneventful morning. The FWC had been burning the entire area the day before so the landscape was freshly charred gall berry and brier fields separated by fingers of swampy cypress stands. It was difficult to find a tree that was big enough for a climber stand.

I did a little scouting in the afternoon and found a spot that was like a cul de sac of burnt brush surrounded by a cypress swamp. In the back corner, there were a couple fresh rubs and a pine tree just big enough to use my climber stand. I set up for a long afternoon sit. It was warm when I got up so I left my heavy jacket in the truck, thinking a light sweater would be fine for the evening, I was wrong. A strong North wind picked up and brought a chill that cut right to my skin. I began to shiver as the sun got lower in the sky. I remembered the old saying about if you keep your hands and head warm, your whole body will feel warm, so I began rummaging through my backpack. I found a pair of gloves for my hands and for my head I found a pair of red underwear that I put on like a ninja mask, with my face sticking out a leg hole. Yes, they were clean. I looked ridiculous but at least I felt a little warmer.

My boredom was soon interrupted by the sound of splashing coming towards me along the edge of the swamp. I stood up and readied my bow. As I began to see movement, my heart began pounding hard. For a second I thought I saw the head of a big buck, but then it morphed into the face of a mother raccoon, followed by three little ones. Long hours of staring intently at leaves and being freezing can make your eyes play tricks on you. They sniffed around the bottom of my tree for a few minutes and then began playing a game where they would climb the trees behind me and see which one could shake it the hardest. They continued this for the rest of the evening, eliminating my chances of hearing anything else that may have been coming.

As the sun set and last light approached I began looking towards the road to navigate the best path out of there. In my peripheral I caught something shining in the last gleams of sunset. There was a buck with tall light colored antlers walking majestically across the burnt field in front of me. This time my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. I was hoping that he would turn my way, but when I saw that he was cutting straight across the field, I made a noise to stop him. He stood there broadside with his antlers held high looking in my direction, I could see brow tines so I knew he was at least a 6 point and legal to shoot. I struggled with my gloves on to pull my range finder out of the pocket on my safety harness. He was still standing there broadside when I ranged him at 46 yards.

That's a far shot. I've never shot a deer that far away with a bow. But I do practice shooting a lot and a couple years back I switched from a 3 pin sight to a 5 pin. I practice out to 60 yards for fun and I can put an arrow in the kill zone consistently. I drew on him and settled my 50 yard pin a little low. I was steady and wasn't rushing. It felt so good that I thought to myself, "I'm going to take this shot." I released and it felt like forever as the arrow flew through the air. This slow motion moment was interrupted by a loud noise, "Thwack!" My arrow had found its mark. The buck jumped up and ran a little ways into the brush to my left. As I gathered my things together I heard crashing, then all was silent.

I got down from my stand and walked to where I had shot. Immediately I found some blood splattered on a leaf. That was all I needed to see. I marked the spot and went straight to the truck. The shot felt and sounded good, but being so far I didn't see where the arrow went in. When in doubt I will always back out. It was plenty cold to let him lay overnight, as evidence by the underwear on my face, which I remembered to remove before I met up with Mike and informed him that I had shot a buck.

It was a long night. I was too skeptical to get excited, especially after shooting a buck earlier in the season that I didn't recover. I knew this buck would either be the cherry on top of a bad season, or the nail in the coffin.

We arrived back early Saturday morning and Mike was so nice that he decided to help me find my buck instead of taking advantage of his limited window of time to hunt this area. We walked to the spot I had marked and there was my arrow sticking in the ground, covered in dried blood. I was a little surprised to get a pass through shot at 46 yards. We found a few more spots of blood before they led us into a stand of burned gall berry bushes that exuded a red substance from their charred stalks that looked just like blood. To make it more difficult, all the leaves were covered in a thin layer of frost that was beginning to melt, washing away any evidence of a blood trail. After an hour and a half of trying to pick up the trail, we began to grid search the area. With most of it searched, I was losing hope fast.

Hilochee Osprey Unit Buck
Mike went to post a message on a hunting forum to ask if anyone in the area had a tracking dog and I continued to search. Someone actually replied to his message and gave him a call. Meanwhile, I came to a thick hedge of brush and peered in, there my buck lay! I couldn't believe it! He had run maybe 50 yards and expired. I climbed into the thick brush and as I untangled his antlers from the branches I let out a holler of joy. I had harvested a beautiful 7 point with my bow on public land in Florida. The shot was a few inches back, I had gotten liver for sure. I definitely made the right call backing out for the night.

Mike was in his truck talking to the dog guy so he didn't hear me hollering. I pulled the buck onto the road in front of the truck. Mike informed the friendly hunter that we wouldn't be needing a dog after all.

My 7 point and a 10 point that I Euro mounted for my brother Jonny
I took the buck to the check station as Mike headed to his stand for a late morning sit. I was the first person to check something in and, as far as I can tell, the last. Besides that one buck, Mike saw a doe. I did have a group of hogs walk past me that evening right as I was getting settled into my stand, but by the time I put my release on, they were gone.

I was blessed. When I thought my deer season was over and done, I got a chance to turn it around in mid February. With all the different deer zones in Florida there are opportunities to chase antlers 7 months out of the year. I still haven't felt brave enough to try a deer hunt in August in South Florida though. Maybe this year. I spent today processing venison and finishing up a Euro mount of my buck. Now I'm feeling a little more confident heading into turkey season.    



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  2. it right behind the left shoulder exactly where he was aiming. The deer ran about seventy yards and of course fell down a gnarly ravine where we found him under a pine tree. After 12 hours of hunting the work was only beginning.
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  3. Although a majority of the land was charred, we did manage to see/harvest several deer within the burnt timber.  best hunting gear reviews