Ozzie Gonzalez was hunting one morning in the Big Cypress National Preserve when he heard the unmistakable growl of a Florida panther in the brush behind his swamp buggy.
As he sat atop the vehicle scanning the wet prairie in front of him, the cat emerged from the thicket carrying a large bird in its jaws. Gonzalez was transfixed.
“There is no place in the world like this,” the 45-year-old Miami native said.
It was a watershed moment for an avid sportsman who grew up hunting and fishing in South Florida’s wild lands and waters. Not long after that, Gonzalez ditched his longtime career skippering sport fishing charter and private boats and formed Everglades Nature Tours with longtime companion Merijo Attong and colleague Erik Lorentzen. The company offers airboat, swamp buggy, canoe, kayak, pole boat and walking tours, and guided hunting and fishing excursions in the Everglades and Big Cypress.
“We’re not some airboat that rides around in the Everglades,” Gonzalez said. “We get in-depth.”
Or not, if the guests just want to shoot photos and quietly contemplate the natural landscape.
On a recent hunting trip to a remote section of the Big Cypress north of Tamiami Trail, Gonzalez planned to bag a buck using a muzzle-loading gun. Muzzle loaders, or black powder guns, are challenging because the hunter can only take one shot before reloading. The shot is very loud, and it’s unlikely a deer or hog would reappear in the area for quite awhile after the blast.
Gonzalez was ready, his gun loaded and primed as he sat dressed in camouflage on his buggy, at the edge of a soggy prairie ringed by cypress domes and slash pine. He had taken many deer from that spot previously, but apparently he wasn’t the only one. Since last year’s hunting season, someone had constructed a blind directly across the prairie from where he was parked.
It was a cloudy but otherwise pleasant morning listening to the calls of owls, hawks and wading birds as the sun rose. A hen turkey puttered out of the brush along the edge of the open grass, but there was no sign of a gobbler. The mosquitoes were bearable with an application of insect repellent.
Gonzalez waited and watched hopefully for the appearance of a buck. But after about 2½ hours with no joy, he decided to relocate. He fired up the buggy and steered slowly north on a designated trail, delighted to spot deer tracks and an extremely fresh bear print on the path.
“A bear!” he said. “That was right now.”
But despite the positive signs, the hunter encountered neither deer nor bear, so about noon, he turned around and cruised slowly back to the hunter check-in station at Monroe Station on Tamiami Trail. He would venture out another day — maybe to hunt, maybe just to enjoy the ambiance.
“The smell, the vegetation,” Gonzalez said. “Louisiana has swamps, but they’re all stagnant. This isn’t stagnant. It’s moving water. It’s clean. I don’t think there’s any other place you can fish in the back country and go hunting for the rest of the day.”
If you go
Visit EvergladesNatureTours.com or call 305-510-3802.