Unusual setting makes for unique spring gobbler hunt

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OCALA, Fla. - In addition to being a must-read collection of hilarious short stories centered on hunting and fishing, the book "Never Let A Skinny Guy Make Sandwiches" by outdoors writers Gene Mueller and Bob Denver has a title that lends itself for tweaking to fit various outdoors situations.

For Mount Carmel native Carm DeFrancesco and I, the working title of any collaboration we would do about our trip on a spring gobbler hunt to Florida earlier this year would have to be "Never Let A Non-Turkey Hunter Do The Scouting." In this case, the non-hunter was DeFrancesco's former football teammate at Villanova University Rhudy Holly, who manages his family's nearly 800-acre Micanopy Zoological Preserve near Ocala.

This private preserve in central Florida is located in an area that is known worldwide for its horse farms. The sleepy town of Micanopy is not only the oldest inland settlement in Florida, but its unique architecture and quaint appearance served as the location for the 1991 feature film "Doc Hollywood" staring Michael J. Fox.

Holly is an avid hunter of African big game, but at the Micanopy Zoological Preserve he oversees a staff whose mission is devoted to the wellbeing of the non-native wildlife, most of which are native to Africa and Asia. Both the climate and landscape are ideal for the majority of species at the preserve, and many are free roaming.

"Our focus is on captive propagation and preservation of both unique and rare ungulate species, as well as supporting in-situ and ex-situ conservation projects through developed partnerships and alliances," Holly said. "In many cases, some of these animals would be extinct if it were not for facilities such as ours, and there are some species that have a larger population in captivity than they do in the wild.

"Although I'm a hunter, we do not sell any of these animals to hunting preserves, but deal with major companies, such as Disney, which want to display various species in a natural setting for people to enjoy. We also sell to some private individuals here in the United States and in the Middle East who want a particular species to roam in a natural setting on their property."

Among the species calling the Micanopy Zoological Preserve home this spring were Roan antelope, Asian greater one-horned rhinoceros, dwarf forest buffalo, Beisa oryx, blue duiker, Jackson's hartebeest, Eastern white-bearded wildebeest, anoa, Eastern bongo, greater kudu, suni, zebra, giraffe, bontebok, common duiker, hogs and assorted primates. Many of them seemed to find the two turkey hunters roaming the property as interesting to observe as they were to the hunters.

Roaming freely on the grounds from time to time as gate crashers are alligators, including a nearly 7-foot beast that was killed a few days before our hunt. Also present are water moccasins, the most poisonous snake in the United States, but at least none of the Burmese pythons migrating north from the Everglades have reached the Ocala area.

In the spring the preserve is also overrun with a population of Osceola wild turkeys that fly in every morning off their roost trees outside the boundaries of the fenced-in property. Knowing that his former teammate is an avid turkey hunter, Holly extended an invitation to hunt his property.

DeFrancesco, knowing that I need an Osceola to complete my Grand Slam of the four wild turkey subspecies, invited me to join him. It all seemed too good to be true, but as soon as we scouted the property we knew this would be our most challenging spring gobbler hunt.

Because of the needs of its inhabitants, there is relatively little tree cover to hold turkeys at the Micanopy Zoological Preserve. In addition, the entire preserve amounts to one very big food plot, meaning that there was no way to pattern where the flocks would be feeding from one day to the next.

In spite of the challenges, DeFrancesco downed a bird the first morning and then held his ground to allow me time to close on the flock. While I was making my move, however, he needed to finish the gobbler with a second shot as the first had only rolled the bird.

Over the next three days, 70 yards was the closest I got to any gobbler, and that was too far for an ethical shot. When the hunt was over, and with the opening of this year's Pennsylvania spring gobbler season more than five weeks away, neither DeFrancesco nor I had any regrets. We knew we had experienced not only the most unique - no, make that unusual - turkey hunt of the year, but of our lives.

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