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Mostly True

Mostly True
Mostly True

Beastly encounters in the great outdoors.

Outdoor adventure stories tend to get much better with age and a mature shooter or caster is likely to be startled when one of his own accounts catches up with him years later and has been improved until it's unrecognizable although probably more dramatic than ever. The stirring prose in this account relates events I think took place although I'm not sure of them. You have heard of most of them before unless you were too young to have caught them the first time around.

The good part is that I accept no blame for any utter falsehoods, which takes me off the hook so to speak, and even the partial lies are educational if you walk in mud a lot and have been sunburned frequently. As I compose this material I recall the city editor of long ago who saw me across his cluttered desk and in two words summarized a faulty story I had turned in.

“Rumor bearer!” he snarled.

The best of sporting outdoor stories concern attacks upon hunters or fishermen by wild creatures, like the time I was attacked by a black bass, a stirring account I have repeated since I was a kid and which you must have read if you have kept your subscription paid up. I have tried to make it into a zippy adventure but a largemouth bass doesn't have much in the way of teeth. I was just paddling a leaky little boat while a friend threw an Al Foss pork rind bait at the creek shoreline. It was warm that evening and I trailed my hand in the water, whereupon the bass struck it and I was disappointed that he left very little mark. I believe it was the same fish my buddy caught on his next cast.

This is not nearly as exciting a story as the one about the Texas tarpon angler who was using heavy tackle many years ago and was drowned when a tarpon got him tangled and pulled him overboard. It is not even as good as the tarpon who resented being boated by two friends of mine, thrashed them out of the boat and then pounded it to pieces and swam away while they stood in four feet of water. Many rental skiffs used to be a little flimsy.

On one of my first Florida bonefishing trips I was wading a flat near Key Largo when I saw a strange threshing ahead and fled from a thing that looked like a waving sickle. I eventually learned it was just the fin of a big permit that was in very shallow water and pursuing crabs—or something. Wasn't an exotic shark at all.

The panther, whether the Florida version or the near-duplicate “mountain lion,” has often been pulled out of trees with ropes and runs from the hounds but he has the capability for pretty effective sparring and in recent years there have been some fatalities in the West—more cats and more people. The cougar makes a profession of sneaking and many a long-term cougar hunter has never seen one except ahead of the hounds. An old friend of mine got into trouble with a Western fish-and-game department when he shot one of the cats he said was coming for him. But before he could be taken to court for an illegal kill he pointed out that he had nailed the cat between the eyes with a deer rifle. His argument was that he wasn't that good a shot unless the cougar was close and coming. No charges. I don't know of any Florida attacks, but old residents of the Everglades country tell me that cougars used to be snarlingly disagreeable when caught pilfering chickens at night.

Having fumbled around the backcountry quite a bit, I have actually had a good view of a Florida panther in the wild only once and have never heard one that I know of. I guess I have heard a mountain cat once. At least it was a very strange series of sounds and came from a spot where there was plenty of cat sign. I am not going to describe it, as it was not particularly scary and sounded like some common human talking and laughing sounds. I was unable to hear any blood-curdling screams so my bird dog and I swore each other to secrecy. The bird dog has since died.

Whether he's in Florida or British Columbia, the most amazing thing about the panther to me is his ability to travel unseen in wild country, sometimes where there's very little cover. With a farm boy's outlook for such things, I am chilled to think of a 100-pound cat sliding unseen past me at close range in a swamp or on a mountain.

Hunting in Western mountains, another fellow and I rode horses along a narrow ridge and found ourselves in an impromptu rodeo, complete with blowing and snorting. The other hunter, who knew horses and mountains, said there was a cat nearby and after the horses settled a little, we found a cougar had passed us going the other way on the narrow ridge. The other guy, much more of a tracker than I was, located the sign threading through sparse sagebrush and scattered weeds. I do not like unseen 100-pound cats coming too close, even if they're friendly.

The South American jaguar seems to be more ill-natured then our cougar, but has all the sneaking capabilities in spades. I understand there used to be a few of them in southwestern United States but I sure don't have a recent count. Anyway, there used to be a jaguar killer who used a pretty well-built spear and used the term “fight” for his kills. I guess that he got a cat cornered with dogs and then the sport walked out with his short spear and said the jungle equivalent of “let's get it on!” I never owned that kind of spear. The name of the cat-sticker was something like Sasha Siemal but in a piece like this I don't have to get the spelling right.

Now an adult cougar will weigh something like a hundred pounds and they say a jaguar will sometimes get to more than twice that. The size of these things gives me a little case of the shivers when I know they can shift through the weeds a few feet away and not be noticed. Like some kind of outdoor nut I have a few times “felt” a cougar nearby—probably just a spicy bit of imagination that came on me as I stumbled around in known cougar territory.

I am a sucker for these stories, sometimes told a little hesitantly, of kids who “grew up” with a cougar and never saw it in all those years, despite knowledge of its rather spooky presence as a silent watcher and follower. There is the story of Bill Mathews, an old friend of mine who died just recently, and who climbed out of World War II bombers to become a serious outdoorsman in the West. Bill had a little Indian blood and always blamed that for his addiction to the open spaces.

For several years, Bill hunted deer in a mountain spot near Denver and was delighted to find that a cougar trailed him each season, apparently the same cat. At that altitude there was generally some snow and Bill would find exactly how he had been stalked. It was fun but one year when he stopped for lunch near a big, snowy boulder and he found where the cat had lain to watch him he noted that the tip of the cougar's tail had twitched back and forth in the snow.

“It was still fun but I began to be careful after that,” Bill said.

There is the bear thing. A black bear is ordinarily about as dangerous as a gray squirrel but they can get big and are not cuddly at all. In some of the National Parks they've had to remove bears from the highways where they had learned tourists have cookies and sometimes don't want to share evenly. I have heard a lot of funny bear stories, one of the best concerning the tourist-fisherman who found a bear digging into the luggage compartment of his Volkswagen and swatted him on the rump with a canoe paddle, whereupon the bear lunged forward forcefully and changed the shape of the entire car.

Of course grizzly bears should be covered in a different chapter and are constantly undecided whether to run from or at pedestrians. In Alaska, for example, there are a lot of streams where bears like to share the fish and the guides are armed. I fished with a guide-gunsmith who built a customized .45-70 lever-action rifle with a very short barrel. That's no varmint cartridge and the bullet is one of the real lead pumpkins. I used to deer hunt with a firearms expert who said the best defense against grizzly bears was a big shotgun with buckshot. His theory was that he wasn't afraid of any bear that couldn't see, taste or smell but the guide with the big rifle could make up his mind sooner and had done a lot of practicing. He had some guides working for him and they put on their stubby .45-70 along with their boots.

Although big (and not-so-big) Florida alligators are deadly on dogs of any size, they rarely attack humans. The word “rarely” does not mean “never,” and I have found them a little too large and plentiful in a few backcountry fishing spots. The really dangerous gator gets that way from familiarity with people, who have probably been feeding him. It is eerily possible to attract most sizes of gators by imitating a barking dog in true gator country. It's the gator's relative, the crocodile, who eats people in Africa and elsewhere. We have some in South Florida but I don't know how many or how big and I am a little short on croc biology. There is an old story of a man being killed by a crocodile in the 1930s near Miami.

In Central and South America there are occasionally some crocodiles that grow to great size. Some years back I read an article that tried to tell where the big ones were but big crocs are backcountry critters and you can't count too much on records.

Bob Cloaninger, who originated Trek International Safaris, once showed me around part of Honduras and had a story of a giant crocodile being killed near a backcountry village where it had been dining on various kinds of livestock. I'd read that there weren't likely to be very big ones in that neck of the woods but I went with Bob to where the hide was kept and as nearly as I could figure (not being a croc-measuring expert) it had been 26 feet long. I suggest that you now get up and step off 26 feet on the floor, which should give you a hint as to my attitude.

Despite the sleepy piles of them at various alligator farms, I am not too cozy around large ones and I have some friends who have been chewed a little from time to time.

Any really large water creature can be a bit dangerous to boaters. Long ago, I was running a small outboard through an Everglades creek and surprised a big manatee snoozing on a sandbar. He reared up over me and for a moment I thought he would squash me and the boat. Sure, they're peaceful vegetarians but they weigh a lot.

Most wildlife dangers are the result of accidents of one kind or another. There is the very true story of the bass angler on a Florida river who heard a disturbance on the bank and saw a raccoon leap into the water, followed by a good-sized gator. The doomed raccoon tried to climb into the little aluminum johnboat but was caught in the act by the gator, who pulled the boat over, its owner watching his tackle and other equipment heading down stream.

It's all a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And, after all, the experts say the most dangerous animal in America is the jersey bull.


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