For the past five years, my wife and I have headed for Flagler Beach, Fla., and become short-time snowbirds.
The temperatures are a bit more reasonable, and the only white stuff we walk on is sandy beaches. It’s amazing how quickly I got used to having the Intercoastal Waterway exactly 10 steps from the back screened-in deck of our rented condo and the Atlantic Ocean about a half-block out the front door.
Nothing changes for me here, other than not getting to walk on hard water. I still maintain telephone and Internet contact with the ice fishermen and bait shops who supply me with up-to-the-minute information needed to give you current fishing conditions. I even manage to do some warm-weather hunting; and, of course, fishing while we’re here.
My daily routine is simple. About 7 a.m., I fish in my “backyard” until about 9, then breakfast, followed by preparing for Daily Gazette articles until lunch. Afternoon activities vary, but I’m sure to be back fishing by 3 to 4 p.m.
I’d like to tell you about my recent Florida small-game hunt that began in a bait shop.
On one of my weekly visits to Big Al’s Bait & Tackle shop in town, I meet and talk with a lot of other snowbirds and residents, and generally exchange fishing stories. On my third visit this year, I met John, owner of a small farm in Putnam County, in the bait shop parking lot. Our conversation was generated by my New York state license plates, and he said he has relatives in the Syracuse area. Our talk was all about fishing, at first, but when I saw the Winchester .30-30 in the back-window gun rack of his truck, I had to bring up hunting.
I asked if he had any turkeys on his property. Unfortunately, he said he hasn’t seen any in quite some time, but asked me if I am a rabbit hunter. He said that he has a 35-acre field behind his house, and guaranteed I could get a limit of cottontails there easily. The Florida rabbit daily limit is 12, and there ‘s no closed season.
He also said he has a 20-acre hardwoods area that has a decent gray squirrel population if I am interested. Lots of rabbits and lots of squirrels — I was definitely interested. He had only one stipulation. Knowing I was a writer, I had to promise to use only his first name and only the county in which he lived.
I just happened to bring my new used, inexpensive, 28-gauge American Arms side-by-side by the Spanish company of Heranos and Grulla. Just before leaving for Florida, I found this gun in Beecroft’s Shooter’s Supply in Schaghticoke, and bought it for rabbits and squirrels. This would be my first hunt with it.
The next morning, I was knocking on John’s door at 8 a.m. He handed me a rough map of the property and pointed to the trail leading through the hardwoods, and mentioned something about cider southern squirrels, and wished me luck.
I was about 25 yards from the woods when I saw two squirrels running for the trees. Time to load the gun. It’s not hard to get use to hunting small game in February in a short-sleeve camo shirt, light orange shooting vest, light pants and knee-high snake boots. I love the heat; but not the snakes. I know from turkey hunting experiences that Florida’s got ’em. I learned that you should be aware of every step before taking it, and before sitting down, look carefully.
My first set-up was only about 10 to 15 yards in the woods. It wasn’t long before I heard the chatter. Sitting on a limb about 15 feet up, at what turned out to be 14 steps away, was a gray squirrel. I slowly shouldered the gun, and the little Spanish 28 had its first kill. A quick retrieve, and I made a slow, 75-yard stalk, then sat again.
When hunting in Florida, watch out for the morning sunrise. Once those warm rays of sunlight start to filter through the trees and hit your face, eyelids are hard to keep open.
I don’t know how many bushy tails I might have missed in that 15-minute nap, but obviously, I didn’t snore, because when I opened my eyes, there were two grays feeding about 20 yards from me. Both barrels barked, and there were now three in my game bag — a double for my double.
When squirrel hunting at home this way, I may see two, three or sometimes four squirrels feeding together, but when I made my way quietly up a short hill in the road, there were at least nine to 10 feeding about 50 yards away. Backtracking quickly, I started my hands-and-knees stalk through the woods to get closer.
That “close to the ground” stalk through the thick brush and along the edge of a swamp was a bit nerve-racking, but fortunately, there were no snake encounters.
It took me about 20 minutes to get in range, and I settled in behind a downed tree within 20 yards of the squirrel herd. What happened when I pulled the trigger on the modified barrel was a first for me in my 40 plus years of chasing cottontails. Aiming at a pair of grays feeding no more than 12 inches apart, I got them both with one shot and missed a third with the other barrel.
Anxious to get after the rabbits, I decided to leave the woods and head for the field to see if it was as good as John said it was.
A limit of 12 rabbits a day without a dog seemed a bit surreal. However, when I got to the end of the road and saw several rabbits hopping around the edge of an old but producing bean field, my confidence rose. When I saw there was an old auto/truck graveyard around the edges of the field, I really got excited.
Years ago, I hunted a similar woodlot in Rensselaer County. We did some tire kicking to get the bunnies out from under the cars. This was going to be fun, and it began with a rusty ’54 Chevy. All I did was open and slam the door, and out from beneath came two rabbits. I took the closest one. The other ran under another car.
Kneeling down, I could see the rabbit had stopped under the front fender of the other car. When I got a clear shot, I took it. I don’t know how many pellets of my Winchester No. 6 shot hit the rabbit, but I do know that quite a few dented that front fender.
Within the next hour, I kicked a few tires and banged on few old vehicles and collected six more rabbits, and still had more than half the field/cars to cover.
Now, five squirrels and eight rabbits were in the game bag on the back of my shooting vest, and it was heavy, so I decided to rest on the tailgate of an old Ford pickup, have a drink and eat a PBJ sandwich.
I was enjoying the sun and my lunch when out from under the truck hopped a rabbit. It didn’t know I was there until I dropped two shells in my shotgun, closed the barrels and slowly raised it to my shoulder. That was number nine.
It was about one o’clock when I busted number 10 which also came from under a car. I decided I had more than enough, especially since it was in the mid-70s and humid. I also knew I could have limited-out on both rabbits and squirrels. Besides, if I left then, I’d be back in time to catch the falling tide of the Intercoastal Waterway, which I’d found to be the best fishing time.
I thanked John, and he took both the squirrels and rabbits and told me to come back the next afternoon and come hungry. He was going to introduce me to a mixed meal of cider squirrel/rabbit southern style. I did return, and my stomach and I did really enjoy the meal.
Click here to find this recipe. We’ll use it for next year’s Bunny Bowl.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently announced that the 2012 hunting season had the lowest number of hunting-related shooting incidents on record. There were 24 personal incidents, with just over half being self-inflicted.
Two fatalities occurred during the deer season in which the individuals were shot by members of their own hunting group. There were no hunting-related shooting incidents reported during the first youth hunt for deer held during the Columbus Day weekend.
The governor and DEC commissioner both thanked the committed efforts of the volunteer Sportsman Education instructors.
It was also reported that since 1960, the number of hunters has declined 20 percent, and the incident rate has plunged more than 70 percent.