Not all the cowboys in the country and not all the big dreams come from Texas. The state of Florida has its share of both, and those who go South seeking only glitter and gloss may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Florida boasts not only genuine cowboys, but a profusion of game even wilder than the mink on Miami Beach.
There is a large deer population in Florida and black bears grow to 300 pounds; big-tusked boars are almost as large. Rabbits, foxes, bobcats, raccoons and opossums are so abundant that seasons on them are open all year round. Florida's quail and dove shooting can hold its own with the best in the country, and wild turkeys are now so plentiful that there are two open seasons.
This happy hunting ground is the direct result of a realized dream. For generations the vast, swampy interior of the state—some two-thirds of Florida's entire land area—was as inaccessible to most people as the inner recesses of Palm Beach's Everglades Club. Tales of the terrors that lay between the twin strips of civilization along Florida's east and west coasts read like the billboard outside a Times Square horror picture. There were poisonous snakes, deadly scorpions, man-eating alligators, quicksand so perilous it sucked men beneath its surface in seconds and even mysterious and hostile Indian tribes.
How many of these stories were true is anybody's guess, but in the two decades following World War II, a group of 20th century cowboys managed to transform much of the "wild" interior into rich, fertile habitats where men, livestock and game thrive side by side. As a result, Florida has emerged not only as a cattle-producing region, but also as one of the top hunting states in the country.
Florida's modern cowboys are a blend of pioneer frontiersman, southern gentleman and Yankee entrepreneur that has no counterpart elsewhere in the U.S. Most are second- and third-generation Floridians, neither aristocrats nor Crackers but solid middle-class types with roots sunk deep in the land, the church and the community.
None is more typical of the group than Doyle Carlton Jr., a gangling native son who at first glance might have stepped from the pages of a Bonanza script. That is until his soft, southern speech and courtly plantation manners suggest recasting him as Ashley Wilkes in a modern version of Gone With the Wind.
Both impressions belie the shrewd, serious business mind and the dedication to a single goal that has shaped Carlton's life. Ever since he followed his first bobcat trail into the Everglades, his sole dream has been to tame and reclaim Florida's interior, not simply for himself but for the future.
"Even as a young pup," Carlton said recently on his 43,000-acre ranch in south central Hardee and De Soto counties, "I never got tired of just plunderin' around out here, thinking of all this land going to waste. I never liked to see anything wasted, especially land. Central Florida wasn't even any good for hunting then. The cover was too thick.
"You can set a covey of quail right on top of 100 pounds of the best quail food, but if the birds can't get through the cover to it, they will starve just the same as if there were no food there at all. That's true of most game. It was a real sorry sight to see all this land with so little able to live on it. I kept thinking of how much could be done with it if someone just took the trouble.
"After we got out of high school most of my friends took their first paychecks and put them down on second-hand jalopies. I took mine to the Wauchula bank and put it down on a piece of land. I wasn't as mobile as the others, but I sure felt like a man of property. I guess the feeling agreed with me, because I've been buying land ever since.