Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Florida game ranch offers hunters a chance to get away from it all

By Susan Cocking
McClatchy Newspapers
Posted on Wed, Aug. 16, 2006

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. - At Deer Creek Ranch, visitors are welcome to stalk a herd of exotic game animals with either gun or camera. And if they just want to soak up the Old Florida atmosphere, that's OK, too.

The 300-acre property offers hunting for trophy bucks seldom seen in public or private hunting grounds. But the new owners also are marketing it as a weekend family getaway - far from ringing phones, Game Boys and shopping malls.

"You can come up, ride around, take pictures, build a campfire," said Rob Boswell, a Wellington veterinarian who owns the ranch with two partners. "It's private. When you book it, it's yours. It'll be you and the manager."

If riding around taking photos from a Polaris ATV is not enough excitement, property manager Brandon Story will guide guests on a hunt for mega-whitetails, as well as exotics such as axis, fallow, sika, Barasingha, red stag, blackbuck and Pere David deer. There are also Asian water buffalo, wild pigs and native Osceola turkeys. About 400 animals roam the property.

Formerly called the Double H Exotics Ranch by the previous owners, the property is enclosed. But Boswell insists the hunts do not provide an easy kill.

"I took a guy on an axis deer hunt, and it took 2-1/2 days to bag his deer," he said. "They get back in the swamp, and it's done. You have to pattern them determine their habits, but if you spook them, the pattern is blown. Then you have to figure it out all over again."

An advantage to tall fences, he says, is that he can control the development of the herd to grow the largest animals.

Bagging a Deer Creek trophy is not cheap. A Pere David goes for $4,000; an axis deer $2,000-3,000; a buffalo for $3,000; turkey, $2,000; and a whitetail buck - $6,500. Boswell says native deer are more expensive to hunt than the exotics because they are much larger than an average Florida buck.

The ranch does not book pig hunts, but that doesn't mean a hunter can't kill one.

"If you come on an axis deer hunt and you see a pig, you shoot him free of charge," Boswell said.

Boswell has never hunted the ranch because "if you're trying to build up a reputation and a business, you can't kill the animals yourself." His strategy is to let the herd reproduce and avoid introducing animals raised by commercial breeders.

A hunter since boyhood, Boswell's job as a vet is treating prized horses. The 47-year-old sees no conflict between his profession and his avocation.

"One is a domesticated animal; one is a wild animal. We care for domestic animals. Wild animals fall prey to disease, overcrowding and malnutrition," he said. "It's my responsibility to feed the animals and to harvest them."

Deer Creek has yet to host eco-tourist visitors, but several hunters have been successful.

James Gilchrist, a Wellington show horse farrier, says he bagged sika, axis and fallow deer during several hunts last summer.

"It's tough hunting," he said. "The axis are pretty tricky. You've got to slip around on them. They get in the swamp and hide from you. I ended up in chest-deep water and got a shot on him from 150 yards."

Gilchrist said he got the meat processed and is awaiting completion of a mount from the taxidermist.

Rob Keefe, who runs a Sarasota alarm company, recently won a hunt at Deer Creek in a raffle at a Lakeland outdoors expo. Accompanied by a nonhunting friend and a Miami Herald photographer, Keefe shot a trophy axis buck.

"We made a ground blind behind some cabbage palms about 5:30 in the morning," Keefe said. "As the sun was coming up, more and more animals started coming in. Then some axis deer came in around a pond - four or five does with a lone buck. We decided to go ahead and take him."

Keefe said he shot the deer from 140 yards with a Ruger 7-millimeter with a scope. The deer is now being mounted by a taxidermist and the meat processed for barbecuing.

"A beautiful deer. A real nice place," Keefe said. "I had a real enjoyable time. I'm talking about going back."

A recent riding tour of the property aboard the Polaris revealed all the game animals touted in Deer Creek's promotional literature.

Two monster red stag led a herd 100 yards from a guest cabin, their iridescent antlers backlit by the late afternoon sun. Behind them stood a couple of axis deer, and lurking in the dense woods on the edge of a pasture were the fallow and sikas.

Crossing into tall grass, the Polaris flushed two osceola hens and a chick. In another open field stood a cluster of six buffalo, milling around like domestic cattle, and a very unhappy Pere David buck that growled at the noisy vehicle and its four occupants.

The ATV crossed a dirt road, scattering more exotic deer, then entered a gate into a fenced forest, dense with cabbage palm and pine.

Here, Boswell said, he has to segregate the whitetail from the exotics because "the exotics will kick the whitetails' butts." Rounding a cabbage head into a field, the riders encountered a whitetail doe and two fawns at a feeder.

Feeders scattered throughout the property contain pellets formulated especially for deer. Some hold cracked corn for the turkey. Periodically, oranges are distributed to supplement the animals' diets. Workers burn and mow to encourage new plant growth.

Boswell, who loves to visit the ranch with his wife and two children, said his preference for hosting hunters vs. sightseers is "50-50."

"As I get older, I lean toward the eco-tourist," he said. "But I need the hunter. Hunters appreciate animals even if they don't have a gun with them."

Boswell's objective is to book just enough visitors to pay for upkeep.

"I'm not interested in a lot of people. This isn't my business," he said. "We think it's a beautiful piece of property. We'd love to have the income pay the expenses."

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