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Windfall in the oak scrub: seemingly desolate scrub habitats become game magnets in the fall.

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Florida has looked drastically different in the last two million years, sometimes with more land mass exposed and often with a lot less. Several times, only little islands poked out of the sea. In the Florida of today, these spots are what we now call scrubland.

Oak scrubs--with their sugary, white sands and their stunted, gnarled vegetation--look dry, desert-like, and not very hospitable for wildlife and, for much of the year, they are only sparsely inhabited by big game. However, when the scrub oaks drop their acorns, and this usually happens before live oak and water oak acorns are even close to ripe, these scrubs become game magnets! Whitetail deer, hogs, and turkey congregate in their vicinity. And fortuitously, this is usually in the midst of archery season!

There are actually a wide variety of scrub oak species, yet the animals seem to favor all their acorns. Despite that, certain trees are preferred and the sign below each tree gives a good idea of how much game it is attracting. Sometimes, the tracks and trails litter the sugar sand so overwhelmingly that it is difficult to tell the direction of travel and even which species is leaving the sign.

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The difficulty of hunting the scrubs with a bow arises from their very nature. The scrub oaks are the largest of the trees and they are spindly and stunted, not in the least suited for treestands. Occasionally, one will grow tall and strong enough to accommodate a stand or maybe a pine will be located conveniently nearby, but most often this is not the case and hunters are faced with a choice between hunting where a stand can be placed or hunting the heaviest sign. Happily, there are three options the ardent bow hunter can employ to permit him or her to hunt where the game is most concentrated.

The first is simply a ground blind. It can be cut out of a palmetto clump or from dense oak limbs or it can be a store bought pop-up blind. Most scrubs offer very limited visibility so, with the quiet footing the sugar sand provides the game and the inability for the hunter to see approaching animals from afar, careful and continuous vigilance is required to allow the archer to be ready in time to take advantage of any opportunity. Popup blinds have a side benefit if a young or novice hunter is being brought along in that stillness is not as such an absolute requisite. Quite a bit of movement behind its walls can occur with no detriment to the hunter's chances. If a fall turkey is desired, the use of a ground blind may be the most predictable tactic.

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The second option is still hunting. The same sugar sand that silences the game's approach to a waiting hunter, allows the stalking hunter to move with very little noise throughout the scrub terrain. By staying near oaks and other vegetation to avoid being silhouetted, taking only a step or three at a time, and watching, listening, and waiting for the most part, the still hunter can have some remarkable and exciting encounters. Deer and hogs, bent on discovering and eating acorns, will often pass within feet of a stationary hunter. Turkeys are less likely to be taken unaware by a still hunter, but sometimes the cover offers a chance where a hunter glimpses a bird passing between thicker patches and can be ready for a shot where the gobbler emerges. Quail, too, like the scrub oak acorns and are fun and delicious targets for the still hunting archer.

The third scrub-hunting method is the utilization of stepladder stands. These can be as simple as just a six- or eight-foot stepladder or the ladder can be improved with the addition of a platform or seat or both. A coat of drab colored paint (applied well before season to reduce unnatural scent) helps render the ladder less obvious. If you do add a platform, keep in mind the legs form different angles from the top so the hunter is balanced in a position slightly to the step side of the very top. Placing the platform on the side away from the steps seems easiest, but will result in a much less stable stand. Ropes can be added to guy the stand left and right in case the feet of the stepladder are resting on soft substrate or sand. Personally, I have found the addition of a ten- to twelve-inch platform to the last step before the top provides all the footing needed and does not restrict me from climbing directly up the ladder. However, sitting on the top leaves my legs cramped and uncomfortable and makes standing up a bit of an awkward and shaky ordeal. To overcome that difficulty, I elevate the top about eight inches by adding a second eight inch wide platform above it. These ladders are light to carry and fast and easy to set up. They offer the extra benefit of allowing an archer to hunt places most stand hunters cannot. A prong or hook that permits the archer a convenient place to hang or rest the bow while still keeping it quickly and quietly accessible is a worthwhile luxury.

When these stands are placed in a clump of scrub oaks or palmettos that barely comes up to their top a hunter feels ridiculously exposed, but amazingly, if the hunter is careful with his or her movement, most game will not notice the stand's occupant. Turkeys are an exception again and to fool their eyes the hunter needs to be mostly hidden by branches. I usually use eight-footers, but several years ago I invited a friend to hunt with me. I had scouted the scrub that morning and the sign was incredible, suggesting as close to a sure thing as exists in hunting. I called and asked him to bring a stepladder if he had one. He arrived that afternoon with a four-foot wooden stepladder! Deciding to work with what we had, we placed it in a four-foot high patch of scrub. He had a spike buck pass him twice without noticing him (our rules protect young bucks) and he arrowed a nice boar all in a two-hour hunt!

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The sugar sand is fine white quartz and is a reminder of the scrub's geological origin; it once having been the sand of the seashores of these islands of the remote past. Interestingly, when these islands formed from rising waters, species inhabiting them were cut off from other breeding populations and evolved in their own direction forming many unique animals and plants. Therefore, quite a few of the I life forms found in the scrub, the descendants of the survivors from the ancient islets, are found nowhere else. So the scrubs not only supply sport to the hunting archer, but they also hold many fascinating secrets for the naturalist within him or her. They are much more full of life than it would seem at first glance. The plants, lizards, snakes, birds, and insects all add to the enjoyment of a sit in the scrub. Towhees and thrashers flip the leaf litter about in their quest for bugs. Mockingbirds have combats between themselves and chase cardinals from areas they have claimed. Six-lined racerunners zip around and appear impervious to the heat. Cicadas buzz and blue-gray gnatcatchers flit among the oak limbs. Blue jays gather acorns and accuse each other of being thieves. Wasps are continually busy on the grey-green oak leaves. Velvet ants scurry over the blindingly white sand.

The scrub terrain bestows both challenges and gifts to archers on a blood trail. The fallen leaves under the oaks hold and display the blood well, but the dry, porous sand can absorb blood quickly leaving less to manifest the trail and the desert-like environment causes the blood sign to dry quickly, rendering it less obvious. On the sand where these factors come into play, the tracker is compensated by hoof prints that usually register distinctly and if the trail is taken up fairly soon, the running tracks show up darker than the white surface sand and can let the tracker see the fleeing animal's course yards ahead. One other impediment to blood tracking sometimes can be encountered. Some scrubs are home to British soldier moss which is a pale green lichen with bright red tips. To a hunter searching for specks of blood, an expanse of this lichen can add confusion, making one see blood sign where it isn't and possibly miss seeing a tiny droplet that is present.

The game animals encountered most regularly in the fall scrub are hogs. Bowhunters can ask for no better game animal; they are plentiful and can become engrossed enough in feeding to give an archer an excellent chance on a stalk. There are many incredible cooking methods for hogs, but I thought to include one here that turns into two vastly different meals. First though, let me remind you the temperature in the bow season can be pretty high and the paramount consideration with the hog meat is to get it on ice as quickly as possible. This one step does a lot for the taste of the meat. Here is the cooking suggestion:

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Take the quarters and back straps from the cooler and wash them and pat them dry. Rub them with Italian dressing and your favorite seasonings (Montreal Steak Seasoning is pretty good). Place them in a baking bag with potatoes and vegetables and make the little cuts in the bag as directed in the instructions. Bake at 275 degrees for four hours. Remove from the bag and have a superb meal. With a little experimentation you can find the seasonings and accompanying vegetables you prefer most or you can vary them to change the meal from time to time. The juice from sour oranges or mojo sauce can be substituted for the dressing. Here is the best part: Unless you are cooking for a gigantic group, if you baked all four quarters and back straps there will be plenty of meat left. A day or two later, pull this meat from the bones and place in a crockpot. Add two cans cream of celery soup, 16 ounces grated Cheddar cheese, one package cream cheese, and half a bottle of wing sauce. Cook on low for several hours. The pork will fall apart into tender, stringy bits and the flavor is unbelievably great. We call it buffaloed hog.

The white sugar sand that is characteristic of scrubs shows up distinctly on aerial photographs and consulting photographs for areas you are considering hunting is beneficial. Also, topographic maps can provide clues because the scrubs are almost always at the highest elevation of the locale. It is worthwhile to take the time to locate oak scrubs because they offer some of Florida's most predictable and exciting bow hunting.
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Author:Lewis, Tim
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Oct 1, 2016
Words:1827
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