An exotic hunt on a Florida island
Once a year, hunters with muzzle-loading rifles stalk the rare sambar deer at St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge
Apalachicola, Florida — In 1907, a New York doctor, patent-medicine salesman and one-term congressman bought St. Vincent Island for $12,500 and set about turning the palmetto and pine-fringed preserve into a “wildlife emporium.” Dr. Raymond Pierce built trails, cottages, barns, dams and sluice gates to create duck ponds. He grew vegetables and raised cattle. And he also imported a menagerie of exotic Asian antlered beasts including sambar deer from India, a prized trophy for big-game hunters.
Hunting on St. Vincent NWR
This year’s sambar hunt is sold out, but there are two other annual hunts on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Check the refuge website for more information. Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website for state hunting regulations, license and permit information.
- Permits: 250 (75 remain)
- Check in: Wednesday October 30, 2019
- Archery hunt dates: October 31-November 2
- Check out: November 3
Sambar hunt (Sold out)
- Permits: 200
- Check in: Wednesday November 20, 2019
- Sambar hunt dates: November 21-23
- Check out: November 24
Muzzleloader hunt (Sold out)
- Permits: 250
- Check in: Wednesday January 15, 2020
- Hunt dates: January 16-18
- Check out: January 19
More than a century later, the Pierce family is long gone from St. Vincent, but the sambar remain. The island today is a national wildlife refuge offering all manner of recreation like hiking, bird-watching, fishing and hunting — sambar deer in particular. Each fall, over three days, 200 sportsmen and women with muzzle-loading rifles or bows are permitted to stalk the elusive sambar. Only one other public property in the country, in Texas, holds a sambar hunt. Hunting on St. Vincent, though, is a thoroughly unique experience.
“I’m looking forward to the hunt and a sambar dinner,” said Neil Gudgel, who’ll hunt the island in November for the first time with a few buddies. “It’s not been over-hunted. The animals shouldn’t be stressed. It should be pretty good meat. I’m just looking forward to having a good time with my friends.”
Hurricane Michael roared across the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018 and forced the cancellation of that year’s sambar hunt. The refuge suffered substantial damage with washed-out roads, a ripped-apart dock and check station and saltwater-trashed generators, UTVs and trucks. There was a silver lining, though.
“All three of our hunts last year were cancelled, so there has been been no hunting on St. Vincent in two years,” said Bradley Smith, a biological technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while cruising the island’s sandy lanes during a late September tour. “So this should be a good, successful season.”
Wolves, gallinules and deer
Few Florida refuges — few locales anywhere in the state, for that matter — top St. Vincent’s wild beauty. The nine-mile long island, surrounded by shallow waters abounding in crabs, oysters, mullet and flounder, anchors Apalachicola Bay’s western edge. No bridge joins St. Vincent to the coast; most visitors cross narrow Indian Pass by boat or kayak. A large cedar and pine “cabin” with assorted out-buildings inhabits the southeastern corner. Two hunt camps, with check stations and freshwater pumps, sit on each end of St. Vincent. The bulk of the island is given over to twice-logged slash pine forests, pristine beaches, fresh and saltwater ponds, alligator sloughs and bay-side marshes. A stunning array of cabbage palm trees line Tahiti Beach.
St. Vincent was logged extensively in the 1940s and the 1960s. The Service prescribes fire to manage the island’s various habitats every few years; more than 5,000 acres — nearly half the island — was burned this summer. Views there are obstructed only by saw palmetto and tall grasses and afford clear shooting lanes.
Smith, the biotech, pointed out St. Vincent’s plentiful wildlife during the recent morning tour. An adult bald eagle hunted from a newly dead oak tree (a hurricane victim) near the southwestern-most beach. Smith says the island is home to 10 bald eagle nesting sites. Two white-tailed does crossed B Road, the main east-west drag, as did a pygmy rattlesnake. Lake Three and its canal offered a wealth of wildlife: common gallinules, tricolored herons, cattle egrets, American alligators in the rushes, bald eagles and osprey in the distance. Dragon flies and fritillary butterflies gamboled. Other butterflies, and the season’s migratory birds — the reason for the refuge — are expected once the weather cools.
A pack of rare and endangered red wolves lives on the island, though the adult male was recently killed, possibly by an American alligator. Smith says the wolf’s radio collar lies un-retrieved in a pond popular with alligators.
He was winding down the tour near Mallard Marsh, when, suddenly, in a flash of dark brown, a sambar deer bounded across G Road. Sambar have “bellies like ponies and Mickey Mouse ears,” Smith says. Adult males, like the morning’s interloper, readily produce six-point racks. They resemble elk with bulky bodies and long, thin legs and weigh upwards of 500 pounds. They hail from India, China, Cambodia and Nepal and how they arrived at a wildlife refuge halfway around the world is a story unto itself.
Exotic animal emporium
Dr. Pierce hailed from Buffalo, New York, where he created a thriving medical business. He built the Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute, a private hospital. He also patented a number of tinctures and nostrums, including Pleasant Purgative Pellets (a laxative) and Favorite Prescription which allegedly cured asthma, poor blood and what he called “female weakness.”
The millionaire doctor bought St. Vincent from a Confederate brigadier general in 1907. He soon acquired four sambar — three does and a buck — from the New York Zoological Park, as well as other deer from Japan and antelope from China. Eventually, 1,500 deer (mostly white-tailed), 1,000 wild hogs and 300-plus cows roamed the island. Dr. Pierce died in 1914. A sales prospectus described the island as “the only perfect and complete hunting and fishing preserve left in this country.”
After years of failed efforts to sell the island by a South Florida land speculator, the Loomis brothers, Henry and Alfred, bought it for $140,000 in 1948. They fully transformed St. Vincent into an exotic animal emporium, importing zebras, black bucks and elands from Africa. Avid bird hunters, they also brought in ringneck pheasants, wild turkeys, Asian jungle fowl and bobwhite quail.
The Loomises, according to a 1969 article in Florida Wildlife magazine, wanted to unload St. Vincent, but not to a developer. The Nature Conservancy bought the island in 1968 for $2.2 million and soon sold it to the Service, which promptly turned it into a wildlife refuge.
The Service, as part of its mandate, decided to rid St. Vincent of non-native animals. But the sambar (and the wild hogs) weren’t removed. “The sambar proved too elusive,” according to the Service’s 1987 annual narrative report, and couldn’t be captured. Locals, though, say the prospect of out-of-state hunters filling hotel rooms and restaurants helped convince federal authorities to let the sambar remain. Service biologists later determined that the island can support a population of 75-100 sambar and hundreds of white-tailed deer. In 1987, St. Vincent hosted the first public sambar hunt in the country.
“A good time on the island”
Smith stopped the beat-up Ford F-150 near Oyster Pond. A low dune topped with moss-draped oaks and saw palmettos hugged the road’s landward side. Swampy swales full of thick vines and needlerush covered the seaward side.
“That’s a big old pond. It’s popular with sambar,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of oak trees for mast. We usually get consistent harvests here.”
More than 2,300 hunters applied for the 200 muzzler-loader permits to hunt sambar. In years past, they’ve come from as far afield as California and Austria. Check-in is Wednesday, November 20. Thursday, a half-hour before sunrise, the hunt begins. It ends each day at 3 p.m. Check-out is Sunday.
Hunters hike or bike to their preferred hunting spot, pulling rifles, crossbows, tree stands and provisions in a cart behind. They are allowed one sambar (either sex) and unlimited hogs and raccoons. They must field-dress game in the woods and may have Service personnel pick up their quarry along a nearby road.
Many hunters dock boats near the campsites at Indian or West pass. Others charter. Some come out for the daily hunt and return to the mainland at night. Most camp. Quiet time begins at 9 p.m. No booze.
Gudgel, 64, has applied to hunt sambar a half-dozen times. In 2018, he got lucky — until Hurricane Michael hit. All 2018 permit winners got first dibs this year.
“I don’t have high expectations for this hunt,” said Gudgel of Panama City Beach who has hunted in Idaho, Turkey and South Africa. “I’m just looking forward to having a good time on the island with some friends and a chance to harvest something.”
Hunters, on average, take a dozen sambar a year. A wildlife management area along the Gulf Coast of Texas is the only other place in North America to publicly hunt sambar. 2018 was its first season. Hunters can otherwise pay upwards of $10,000 to bag a sambar on private, fenced ranches in Texas or a free-range ranch in California.
Stalking sambar is almost beside the point to the Service’s Smith.
“It’s a place to go hunting, fishing, maybe connect with nature, and meet some nice new people. It’s a family friendly event,” he said upon returning to Indian Pass. “You’ll have a really unique experience. It’s something special. It really is.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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