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Hunting Deer in Florida

After Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill broke up their dramatic combination in favor of solo shows, Texas Jack spent the end of 1876 and the early months of 1877 writing about his life as a hunter, cowboy, and scout. Several magazines and newspapers published Jack's words, and the most prominent of those was The Spirit of the Times weekly newspaper. Calling themselves "A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage," the Spirit of the Times was the most popular sporting journal in the United States. Texas Jack wrote for or was interviewed in the Spirit of the Times seven times, with this piece about his time in Florida after the Civil War being the first. It was printed in the March 3, 1877 edition:

Hunting Deer in Florida by TEXAS JACK

Philadelphia, Feb. 23, 1877

Dear SPIRIT: As I promised to tell you something about deer hunting in Florida, here goes. Immediately after the collapse of one of the great parties to what is styled ‘the late unpleasantness’, leaving Old Bob Lee and Ulysses to arrange matters, I picked myself up and lit out with all speed back toward the ‘Lone Star’ State. Reaching New Orleans, I got aboard an old smack that intended to cross the Gulf. As I was in a good run of the sour end of luck, a violent sou'wester struck us, after which the old hulk leaked so badly we had to abandon her, and after a day and night's lively tossing on the "briny," we fetched up standing on the sandy coast of West Florida. The sailor boys struck up the coast to Pensacola, and were soon on deck again, back to the Crescent City, but as I had weakened considerably in regard to "a life on the ocean wave," hearing there was good hunting in the country, and as I had never starved at that business, it being just my long suit, I concluded to camp on the Peninsula and struck upcountry to the northwest portion. I soon had an outfit—double-barreled shotgun, ammunition, and salt—and started into the "primitive business," that needs neither wealth in lands, nor capital in money.

Texas Jack

I don’t know if it will be particularly interesting to you, but it was to me at the time, the peculiar manner of hunting with trained dogs. This section of the country is a desolate pine forest, low rolling sandhills, covered with tall trees, beneath which grows a kind of light prairie grass. The ravines are from fifty to two hundred yards wide, so thick with underbrush that you couldn’t stick a butcher’s knife into them, and so swampy that they would bog a saddle-blanket, and are generally bordered by an open savannah that gives a beautiful shot at the startled game as they break for the hills. Occasionally there is an island formation of can “tussocks,” or dry spots, around ancient stumps of trees. These the deer seek to lie on in the daytime, and if it were not for the “bell dog,” a regiment of Pinkerton’s detectives would never ‘tumble to’ or spot his graceful lordship. When the deer are not in the brush, where they feel safe, they are hard to approach, as the pine forests are like thinned-out parks, and a clear view can be had, sometimes for a mile or more; a horse, therefore, won’t do for the woods and much less for the edges of the boggy swamps. So from camp “shank’s pony,” the “bell,” and “slow track” dogs are our reliances.

Two men with hunting dogs in Lake County, Florida

When the swamp is reached where we intend to drive, the “bell dog,” with his little bell around his neck, is started down the center, and we separate, one hunter of the party on each side; the “bell” is thoroughly trained to go slowly, and by the tinkling, the hunters can keep opposite him, and each other; and if delayed by any obstruction a signal (a particular cluck) he will stop til ordered on. “Slow Track” is trained quietly to follow at the hunter’s heels until a shot is fired, which is his signal for business.

Group of Florida hunters, with their dogs and catch

Slowly we creep along, guns cocked, eyes strained forward, watching for a startled break (some old bucks are mighty cunning, though I have seen them sneak out a quarter of a mile ahead), when by the hasty rattling of ‘Bell’s’ warning we know he has scented, then a startling yelp, a racket in the brush, and “Look out! Here they come!” “Which side?” works up the “fever,” when, like a streak of greased lightning, deer and dog come tearing into view, and then —“Well, that depends,” as Indian Tom says. If the deer stops suddenly and reposes, all right; if not, “Bell’s” tinkler is stopped with leaves, and he is sent to the rear, and “Slow Track” is ordered to the front. With great delight he goes to scenting for blood, and, if none is found, hide yourself in shame, for all the photographs of disgust imaginable will be pictured on that dog’s “physog;” but if successful, and you have made a hit, a low whine of laughing pleasantness tells the tale.

Florida hunter with his dogs

Just in advance of us goes “Slow Track,” following the bloody trail as cautiously as if stepping on eggs, and happy in visions of a feast on paunch, blood, and entrails. Thus we proceed, until the wounded animal is found, “Slow Track” careful not to raise him out of gunshot.

When dispatched, his heart and liver (with some sweet potatoes we always carry) form an immediate lunch, which is invariably enlivened by the jealous wrangling of “Bell” and “Slow Track,” whose rivalry is bitter and eternal. A Florida Returning Board could never settle their disputed rights.

The deer is hung up in a tree, where he can be reached with a packhorse and the hunt proceeds. If you have no packhorse, do as I have done; ‘tote’ him on your back to camp, five or ten miles. It is hard on the back, but good for the appetite. A wounded deer is seldom lost with a “Slow Track,” and a humane hunter will always secure the wounded, if possible. I have lost many a fine day’s hunting in trying to find a wounded animal.

Mounted hunters from Florida with their hunting dogs

The deer are the whitetail species and are seldom more than four or five in a band, and twenty-eight is the most I have started in a day’s drive. The dogs mostly trained are the ordinary deerhound or a crossbreed of same with a spaniel or some kind of water dog.

Hunting in other sections of the state varies from this mode. Further south, and along the small islands, no dogs are used. We lie in wait near the “licks” or “water holes”’ and I have sat perched in a small palmetto scrub tree that grows there for hours and hours, and got no deer; in fact, not a shot but one — that is, show out for shelter when the sun came up. There is but little science and less fun in that, so I did not follow it long.

Fire hunting is a midnight sport, where the boys stay “out all night / til broad daylight / and go home with (out sometimes) deer in the morning.” I have known several of the “natives” that lost valuable milk cows, and it is well to pursue your hunting far from the settlements, owing to the prejudices thus produced. Owing to the peculiarly wild construction of the country, I believe deer will exist for many years to come.

Gopher tortoise

Well, this is getting too long to particularize other game, but there are bears, catamounts, panthers, wild hogs, turkey, and all variety of waterfowls, alligators by the thousand, and the stupidest of all living creatures, though excellent eating, much prized, and generally weighing from twelve to eighteen pounds, named the ‘gopher,’ but why I could never tell, for I never saw one “go for” anything. He is hard to describe, a sort of a turtle, lives on the high, dry sandhills, seems never to explore ten feet from his hole, and whose general mode of life is a conundrum. They are caught by ‘pitting,’ a pit being dug near their holes, into which they tumble, and are incapable of making any exertion to get out. A pitter was once asked, “What are you digging for?” and answered, “Gopher.” “Will you get him?” “Get him? Course I’ll get him, I’m out of meat.” The men who hunt for them are considered as lazy as they. As the same feeling is gradually coming over me and maybe affecting you, I will close with “so long” for the present.

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