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Not even Swamp Ape legend deters hunters from flocking to Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge

Chiefland, Florida – If ever there was a time to get out and into the woods and hunt, this pandemic-riven season is surely it. But beware the Swamp Ape.

The what?

Swamp Ape. Skunk Ape. Moth Man. Whatever you call it, some Big Bend hunters swear they’ve seen a large half-man, half-beast creature prowling the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Andrew Gude, refuge manager, felt compelled to address the reports - or myths - in the 2020-21 hunt brochure:

“There is no taking of Swamp or Skunk Apes,” it reads.

Gude is skeptical of the beast’s existence, though he remains open to the possibility. And he doubts fears of any hairy, smelly, eight-foot tall creature will keep hunters from heading into the refuge’s swamps and pine forests and a much-needed opportunity to distance themselves from their Covid-infused daily lives.

Man with grey hair in wetsuit holds large red fish in left hand and harpoon in right. Main standing on boat platform in open water
Andrew Gude, refuge manager at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Andrew Gude

“There’s a trend, overall, and an uptick in hunters here at the refuge,” Gude said recently. “Hunting allows folks to go out and maintain distance from other people. You don’t want to be around anybody else anyway.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently expanded opportunities for hunters and anglers at 147 refuges and hatcheries nationwide. The Service added 1.4 million acres the year before. More than 4 million acres, overall, has been opened to the rod and gun crowd.

In addition, more than 110 new or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities - new species, acres, and times to hunt and fish - will be offered to more closely align federal and state rules.

More than 2.4 million “hunting visits” took place during the most recent fiscal year - up 2.3 percent over the previous year - according to newly released statistics from refuges across the country.

Hunting and fishing generate millions of dollars in revenue for states each year via the sale of licenses, tags and excise taxes on firearms, ammo and sport fishing equipment. The money helps state wildlife agencies manage their public lands and at-risk species.

“When I first moved down here I mandated that we get as close to state rules as we can,” said Gude, who arrived at Lower Suwannee nine years ago. “We probably have the most hunting opportunities of any refuge outside of Alaska. We have 200 days of aggregate hunting - the number of waterfowl, deer, hog, turkey and small game days combined. And north Florida has a huge hunt culture. We’ve always been pretty popular here.”

The refuge covers 53,000 acres of salt and freshwater wetlands, cypress swamps, hardwood forests and old pine plantations - enough varied habitats to satisfy the most discerning of hunters and fishers. Unlike most refuges created to protect wildlife, Lower Suwannee was established in 1979 to ensure the water quality of the famed Suwannee River. The fresh water mixes with the Gulf of Mexico’s salt water to create a fertile estuary that nourishes sturgeon, migratory shorebirds, wading birds, and waterfowl, while attracting commercial and recreational fishermen.

The refuge straddles 20 miles of the Suwannee River (“way down upon the Swanee River”) and 30 miles of relatively untrammeled Big Bend coastline. It’s riddled with hiking and paddling trails, old logging roads, boardwalks, and fishing piers. The nine-mile Nature Drive offers easy access to prime hunting and fishing grounds. A week before archery season began, in late September, hunters were doing recon and hauling in deer stands.

Greg Lang already knew where he wanted to go. He has lived in nearby Cedar Key for 35 years and hunts, fishes, bikes Lower Suwannee maybe 60 times a year. Deer. Turkey. Ducks. Hogs.

Man kneels in woods with hunting rifle. Man wears bright orange vest, black shirt, comoflauge pants and hat with light on hat. Hog lays immobile next to him
Greg Lang hunts, fishes, hikes or bikes Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge dozens of times each year. Photo courtesy of Greg Lang

“I stepped on an alligator crossing a creek once,” said Lang, vice president of an environmental engineering firm. “The old-timers tell me I was really lucky I stepped on his head. If I’d stepped on his back, he would’ve grabbed my leg.”

He continued, “That place is very special. It’s a lot of wet swamp, some of it very thick. It gives me more of a challenge. There’s a couple of spots close to the Suwannee River near some oak hammocks where the acorns are starting to drop. All in all, it’s a challenging place to hunt.”

Archery season got off to a rousing start this year. Gude’s cell phone, whose number he readily shares, has been blowing up with hunters asking all sorts of permit, season, access and tree-stand questions. Calls from Tampa, Sarasota, Gainesville, Georgia. Seems people are keen to get out of the house and into nature and, temporarily, leave Covid behind.

“I am absolutely sure that this health emergency makes people appreciate the beauty around them and what they can do to stay healthy,” said Lang, a longtime member of the friends’ group that supports the Lower Suwannee refuge. “Bottom-line, if you spend more time in wilderness you’re healthier.”

As long as you don’t come across the Swamp Ape. Similarly hairy sightings have been reported in the Everglades and the Okefenokee too. Thirty-five years traipsing across Lower Suwannee and Lang has never seen the legendary creature. He’s not certain it exists.

“I want to believe in it,” he said, “but this is the Redneck Riviera so most of us who play outdoors look and smell like Swamp Apes anyways.”

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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