The Hunted

Tracking animals in the Everglades is a tiring, maddening business. Which is just how a decreasing number of hunters like it.

A pair 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 in them.

"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 the Turner River Road, a tourist from Kyoto may suddenly think he or she has encountered a Marine expeditionary force. What he or she is 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 raw mechanization -- swamp-buggies; airboats; four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles -- looks jarringly incongruous against the backdrop of nature.

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 each direction, you need a swamp-buggy, airboat, or ATV in order to get to where the animals are. (A few hunters use bicycles with fat tires.) Because there is no swamp-buggy or airboat dealership, you have to build it 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, there is still plenty of slogging, as law prohibits shooting from either airboats or swamp-buggies, or even carrying loaded weapons in them. One sure way not to kill wild hogs, white-tailed deer, or Osceola turkeys is to make a lot of noise, but walking through water is inherently 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 sawgrass prairie. Tracking, a difficult art under optimal circumstances, becomes a fast approach to psychosis in the Everglades.

Though flat, the variety of Everglades vegetation makes it a hunter's nightmare. If you are carrying a shotgun, you will surely see deer across a sawgrass prairie and 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 woke up to find he had passed out while dragging or floating a 300-pound boar toward the nearest road or trailhead. Several tell of stepping in "pot-coral" -- invisible, underwater potholes formed in the oolitic limestone that may break your ankle or simply keep you anchored to the spot for hours or 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 long-time hunting ground. All around his camp, water is killing oak and pine hammocks and drowning 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.

"Ha!" says Houghton. "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 got 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 dislikes airboats and swamp-buggies, and instead uses a canoe or simply "meanders around" in the swamps. One of his recent sorties lasted seven weeks.

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