Sunday, June 24, 2018
Human Interest

Hunting for connection: A father and his sons bond over a wild sport


The sun had barely risen as Jeff Gonzalez surveyed his small collection of shoes. He ignored the steel-toed safety boots he wears to work every day and slipped on a pair of old black flip-flops instead.

Jeff wears shoes only when safety or decorum requires. After a long day working, his shoes are the first thing off.

Just after 7 a.m., he, his two sons and their hunting equipment were loaded into his SUV. His wife handed him a tin of muffins she'd made that morning. He kissed her goodbye and climbed in the truck.

As he backed out of the driveway in Clearwater, Jeff slipped off his flip-flops and kicked them to the side.

The car was still. The boys slept or stared out the window.

For half an hour, they drove over highways and bridges framed by the steel and glass towers that surround Tampa Bay. The buildings slowly melted away, replaced by squares of sod farms stretching beyond sight from the cracked, empty highway they traveled for another hour or so.

On either side, deep within the thick orange groves planted there, past stubby palmettos, wild hogs ambled — fat sows and football-sized piglets. Alligators basked in the sun next to shallow ponds, disappearing under the still water when they heard an approach. White boxes were laid out for bees to build hives and make orange blossom honey. Insects whined and birds clicked and whistled to one another.

Jeff first placed a bow in his sons' hands before they learned long division. The boys have shot deer, boar and birds together since they were about 6 years old.

For Jeff, it's a chance to span the gaps between him and his sons. There is so much that distances them: age, social circles, school, work. But hunting remains a steady hobby, a trip the three can plan together every few months.

"I hope as long as I'm physically able, we'll hunt together," Jeff said. "I hope the two boys carry on our family tradition with their kids long after I'm gone, like my brother and I still do."

• • •

Jeff's tough, tanned feet were still bare when, around 10 a.m., he climbed a metal ladder to the platform of a swamp buggy that was sinking in the mud at a cattle ranch in Charlotte County.

Their guide, Rick Leslie, sat at the steering wheel, a cigar smoldering in one hand. Jeff and Rick have known each other four or five years, as long as Jeff has brought his sons here.

The swamp buggy, an Army green platform elevated above a diesel engine and four wide black tires, bounced over tree branches and divots in the mud track between trees and dark green feeders, which draw hogs in the morning and evening with a smattering of sweet yellow corn. About 5 feet from each feeder was a stand, a seat about 10 feet up and strapped to a tree trunk, where the hunters would wait for hogs to wander by. Depending on where the hogs snuffed for corn and whether they stood still, the hunters could have an easy or nearly impossible shot.

That was one of the rules, Jeff said. Never take a shot that would wound an animal rather than kill it cleanly. To do so would be cruel.

Nobody wore insect repellent or sunscreen. Boars have an exceptional sense of smell, and the scented lotions would have driven them away. Instead, the smell of wet dirt, body sweat and insect-repelling candles back at the base camp lingered on the hunters' clothes. Mosquitoes swarmed around the top of the buggy, large, black and ravenous.

The hunters traveled along a wide path in the forest, passing a couple of feeders, when a small pig scrambled alone out of the underbrush.

Jeff, still barefoot, and Zack half-hopped, half-climbed off the swamp buggy, and dashed off after the animal. They figured it had been separated from its mother and wanted to make sure it was safe.

"He's still not wearing shoes, is he?" Rick said, taking a drag on the cigar.

Matt shook his head.

Rick chuckled. "Dumb and dumber."

Zack returned, followed a few minutes later by Jeff. No pig, but no regrets either about running on rough ground and spiky palmetto fronds.

They cruised through meadows, pausing to let cattle herds meander out of their way.

"Hello, No. 77!" Rick called to a cow lolling in the grass, spotting the number on the teal tag on her ear.

"So," Rick said after they emerged from the dank woods into the pasture. "Matt, you going to be a professional baseball player and support us all?"

Matt smiled a little and looked away. Jeff, sitting next to him, stared at him, waiting for an answer. Jeff thinks Matt will turn hunting into a career, becoming a cameraman for a hunting show. But even he isn't totally sure.

"Yeah." Matt, like most 15-year-old boys, doesn't like the spotlight much.

Zack, 17 and much less shy, cut in. "Well, I'm planning to win the Lotto when I'm 18."

Rick guffawed. "Going to share a little bit?"

"Of course," Zack replied, seeming surprised it was even a question. "I'll buy this whole place."

• • •

Waiting for the evening hunt, the men talked about light, easy things. The boys practiced shooting at a nearby target, a wooden boar with deep wounds hollowing out its middle, as other hunters and guides filtered in. Lightning crackled in the distance.

"You know what my wife said?" Rick asked Jeff. " 'Don't bring him back injured. Make sure he's dead. He ain't worth nothing injured.' "

Jeff laughed. "Injured just costs her money."

The four shared a bounty of vanilla wafers, Oreos and the muffins Jeff's wife had made.

Jeff pulled a thin red arrow out of his bow case. He used the arrowhead to scratch a bug bite on his calf. There was quiet. Then Jeff listened as Rick slowly talked about his 22-year-old nephew, who died in a car accident on his way home from July 4 fireworks the Wednesday before the hunt. Rick's nephew was riding a motorcycle when a woman in a van whipped a U-turn, slamming into him.

He had rushed to the scene of the accident a few minutes away.

"When I saw the ambulance driving away slowly, I knew." He trailed off.

After a pause, Jeff finished for him: "There wasn't anything they could do."

Jeff looked at his two sons. They aren't much younger than Rick's nephew. He got up slowly and went to his truck to start gathering supplies.

Matt said something to Rick that Jeff couldn't quite make out, but he heard Rick's raucous laugh. He smiled to himself.

• • •

Jeff shot a boar the first night of the hunt as he walked to his stand, lodging an arrow near the hog's armpit, piercing its vital organs. The animal weighed about 70 pounds.

The hunters are allowed two boars per hunt, but shooting a sow results in a $150 fine and removal from the property.

It was Jeff's first boar at that property in the five years they've hunted there. Matt used to tease Jeff about his zero kill record.

Zack was happy when he heard that his dad had finally shot something. Matt wouldn't be able to make fun of Jeff anymore. Zack hoped Matt's luck would run dry that weekend, though Jeff wanted both boys to go home with a kill. When asked about his kill, Jeff was quick to remind others that Matt had shot prize-winning boars there before.

Neither of his boys shot anything that first night. They waited while Jeff skinned the animal and cut off pieces of lean meat. Around 10 p.m., the three headed back to the Holiday Inn Express after a quick stop at McDonald's. They talked little, exhausted from the long day.

The men were back in their stands by 6:15 a.m. They waited until the sun had fully risen, leaving about 10 a.m. Boars are nocturnal. There's little point in sitting in a stand under the burning Florida sun all day, Jeff said.

They headed back to the stands for their second and final evening hunt. Jeff waited, leaning forward in his stand, his bow across his lap, a red arrow fitted to the string. The metal arrowhead had two wing-shaped blades on either side that flick out on impact. Jeff ran his thumb along the arrowhead idly.

A few hogs wandered into the clearing, just feet away, an easy shot. Among them, a thick, shaggy boar snuffed at the ground for corn. Jeff hesitated, considered. Jeff's sons were in stands nearby. The group might head toward the boys next, he thought. His hands stayed at rest, and he watched the big boar go.

Jeff didn't take the shot.

• • •

It's not the first time Jeff has purposefully missed a kill. He hates outshooting his sons.

Besides, he insists, hunting isn't about killing. It's about the wait, about spotting an animal after long periods of patience. It's about disappearing into the woods with his sons for just a little while.

Zack hates when Jeff misses kills for their sake. He tells his dad to take the shot, any good shot, and not worry about them. Jeff told his sons he had seen boars on Saturday. He didn't mention the shot he never took.

Zack will probably have kids someday, Jeff said. And someday, he'll probably miss a few shots for them.

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