It doesn’t matter if you go home with game or not,” said Jay Leonard, a hunter from Crawfordville, Florida. “I just enjoy getting out in the woods.”
Leonard’s sentiments were echoed by the other hunters participating in the first National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF)/Wheelin’ Sportsmen event hosted on District land.
The Wheelin’ Sportsmen group is dedicated to providing people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. The group organizes hunting and fishing events, recreational shooting and other outdoor activities. More than twenty events are held throughout Florida each year.
The District became involved with the Wheelin’ Sportsmen when Mike Blanton approached the District’s executive director, David Moore.
“I try to find land that, because of size and/or location, gets little or no public use; yet still needs controlled game management,” said Mike Blanton, Wheelin’ Sportsmen regional coordinator for Alabama, Florida and Georgia. “I contacted the District believing that a partnership between the NWTF/Wheelin’ Sportsmen and the District would help with some of their small parcels of land and provide opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the great outdoors.”
David Morgan, District land use specialist, and Paul Elliot, District senior land management specialist, worked with Blanton to coordinate the October hunt, which was held on the District’s Serenova Tract in Pasco County.
“This is the first time we’ve partnered with the Wheelin’ Sportsmen, and we are really happy with how the event turned out,” said Morgan.
The District is planning to partner with the Wheelin’ Sportsmen for two more events — a turkey hunt in March and a fishing event in May. Morgan says he already has three volunteer groups lined up to provide meals for the turkey hunt.
The hunters, who were pre-selected through an application process, used specially equipped crossbows supplied by Horton Crossbows. During the hunt, each hunter also has a volunteer guide.
The guides were just as excited as the hunters to be out in the woods.
“I’ve hunted since I was five, so I’ll take any excuse to be in the woods,” said Hugh Knight, a volunteer guide from the Brooksville chapter of the NWTF. “This isn’t really a chore, this is fun.”
“About 45 minutes after we got out in the woods this morning, a wild turkey flew into a tree. About ten minutes later he came right to the ground,” said Jeff Travis, a volunteer guide who got involved because his brother is friends with Blanton. “Maybe an hour after that a couple of does came around. They were on the other side so we couldn’t shoot at them, but it’s still nice to see.”
The opportunity to be in the woods and the fellowship with others are what the hunters say they enjoy most about these events.
“If it wasn’t for events like this, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go,” said Gary Rogers, a first-time participant from Lakeland. “Some of the places you can’t get into.” Because the Wheelin’ Sportsmen events allow hunters to use specialized all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), the woods become accessible. ATVs are generally not allowed on public lands.
“I was really surprised at all the equipment they have — like the special rigged-up ATVs,” said Jim Phethan of the South Creek Foxhounds.
The South Creek Foxhounds were one of two equestrian/volunteer groups that provided lunch for the hunters. Both groups work with the District throughout the year to maintain District land. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse maintains the Serenova property.
The Foxhounds served up a gourmet brunch on Sunday while the Posse took a “wilder” approach to the lunch they served on Saturday.
“Gary actually donated some wild game — elk, venison and wild hog,” said Karen Michalak, Pasco County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse. “Since it was a hunt, we thought it would be fun to have game.”
On the first day, David Grethe took a shot at a deer and missed, which made him the target of many jokes at lunch. But Grethe, who took the ribbing with good humor, got the last laugh the next day when he was the only hunter who shot a deer.
“They couldn’t call me ‘Mr. Missy’ again. They said I totally redeemed myself,” said Grethe with a grin.
“I never hunted until I lost my legs,” said Phillip Yon, who lost both of his legs from the knee down to a circulatory disease. “I’ve done a lot of things I never did until I became disabled.”
While hunting is one of Yon’s passions, so is helping others. When he’s not hunting, he runs his own non-profit organization, Advanced Technology for Challenged Kids.
“We get surplused equipment from the state government and businesses as they are upgrading their systems,” said Yon. “We refurbish them and give them to kids with disabilities or kids with low income.”
Yon and Pete Metzger, another hunter who took part in the event, are now going to be giving back to the organization that helps them get out into the woods. Blanton signed them up to be local coordinators who will assist him in organizing more events throughout the state. Yon’s region will be northern Florida and Metzger’s region will be central Florida.
Blanton is sure the two will be huge assets to the organization.
“It’s going to be real easy for Phillip and Pete to get volunteers because they are disabled themselves and can talk about their experiences with the organization,” said Blanton.
For more information about participating in future events, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation web site at www.nwtf.org.
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