Guests travel two hours outside of Orlando – some even flying in from overseas – to experience Lightsey Family Ranch and its guided hunts for wild hog, quail, turkey, deer and alligator in southern Florida.
Wildlife thrives among pines, bays, palmettos, oaks and rare cutthroat grass on the ranch’s fenced-in 2,000-acre hunting preserve near Lake Placid in Highlands County. The family business has grown to include an upscale lodge with 10 guest rooms and an esteemed in-house chef to host groups of friends, relatives and often business professionals who seek a thrilling hunt or natural retreat.
While orange groves and tomato fields may headline Florida’s agriculture industry, the state is also home to more than 175 hunting preserves licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Like the Lightsey Family Ranch, those preserves complement local land conservation efforts, diversify rural income, preserve land from development and offer sustainable hunts in habitats that support a diverse array of species.
“So many people never get to experience natural Florida, and that’s what we have here,” says Lee Lightsey, a Highlands County Farm Bureau member. “To be able to ride through my preserve to see 50 head of whitetail deer and Osceola turkey – there are not many places where you can go and see that almost every day. We’ve got the dream here, and we’re trying to get people to come and experience it.”
Florida’s Hunting Destinations
It was mainly word-of-mouth advertising that expanded Dr. Daniel Bontrager’s business from a few whitetail deer hunts per year to more than 20 guided hunts. A chiropractor by trade, Bontrager has parlayed his passion for wildlife and hunting into a lucrative operation.
At Bontrager Whitetails in Jackson County, guests spend anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000 per three-day hunt, generating economic activity to benefit the local economy and sustain Bontrager’s hunting preserve in the Florida Panhandle. The all-inclusive experience includes a literal taste of Southern hospitality, thanks to his wife’s home-cooked meals during a stay at their on-site lodge that sleeps up to eight guests.
Bontrager breeds and raises deer, genetically selecting them for the size and antler characteristics most sought after for trophy whitetail hunts. He also supplements their nutrition with peanuts, which are bountiful in Jackson County, the top peanut-producing county in Florida. As a result, he can offer his guests guaranteed hunts for bucks of all sizes.
The hunting preserve practices land and water management techniques that help the herd thrive on the preserve’s 240 acres, entirely bordered with 8-foot-high fences.
“Everything we do on the land is according to best management practices,” Bontrager says. “We are very much environmentally aware and certainly want to preserve those qualities to pass down to future generations.”
Environmental Benefits of Hunting
From an agricultural standpoint, hunting preserves and ranches benefit each other, says Fred Fanizzi, general manager of Quail Creek Plantation in Okeechobee County. He also manages a beef cow-calf herd on the property.
“A lot of what we do to enhance the estate and the sustainability of the wildlife helps the cattle,” he says, “and what we do for the cattle helps the wildlife with the controlled burning, rotational grazing and putting out of the mineral.”
For more than 20 years, Fanizzi has helped manage the working ranch and has witnessed both game and non-game species flourish, from Florida whitetail deer, Osceola turkey and quail to bald eagles, swallow-tailed kites and red-headed woodpeckers.
The ranch uses rotational grazing, which allows grass to recover before cattle are reintroduced to it. The practice helps quail find cover and wild turkeys build nests. Meanwhile, plantings of aeschynomene (a legume), various clovers, annual ryegrass and oats supplement the food source. Man-made water sources benefit cattle and wildlife alike.
“If you leave a piece of property untouched without some intervention, it would be less productive for agriculture, game and wildlife,” Fanizzi says. “What we are doing here to run cattle and to create a great environment for a population of wildlife is also preserving a place for endangered species to live. It has been a complete pleasure to share this lifestyle with a lot of people.”
Bontrager Whitetails: 5004 Bontrager Ln., Marianna, 850-526-8280
Lightsey Family Ranch: 545 New Boot Heel Rd., Venus, 863-464-0268
Quail Creek Plantation: 12399 N.E. 224th St., Okeechobee, 863-763-2529