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Watch: Turkey Hunter Calls in Florida Panther to 10 Yards

The hunter says the big cat nearly walked into his ground blind
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A Florida panther that was spotted in southwest Florida on Monday.
When Jason Francis took this photograph, the panther was standing only 10 feet away from him. Photograph by Jason Francis

Florida turkey hunter Jason Francis had a rare and heart-pounding encounter Monday, when he nearly called a panther into his ground blind. Francis thinks the only reason the big cat came so close was because it thought he was a hen. He captured the incredible run-in on video and shared the footage with Outdoor Life.

“I was using a diaphragm call, and I’m not even the best caller,” Francis says.

But he’s at least a good enough caller to fool a panther, right?

“Well, either that or it thought I was a wounded hen,” he laughs.

Francis explains that he was hunting at Babcock Ranch Preserve on Monday morning when he called in the Florida panther — a distinct subspecies of mountain lion that only exists in southwest Florida.

The state-owned Wildlife Management Area is only 20 minutes from Francis’ home in Punta Gorda, and he says it’s become one of his go-to spots. The public ground provides limited hunting opportunities, including a brief spring turkey season that lasts only six days and is managed through a public draw. Francis’ buddy had drawn a permit for himself and a guest, and he’d killed his bird on Saturday, so Francis went in with him early Monday morning before sunup.

“I was hunting by myself, and I heard four or five different gobblers that morning, but nothing came in,” Francis tells Outdoor Life. “I assumed that as soon as they hit the ground they stopped gobbling, so I just kept calling and making hen yelps every three to five minutes.”

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Francis had set up on the edge of a marsh with a creek running nearby and his back to an oak tree. His setup included a makeshift blind made of cloth and palmetto fronds, along with two decoys off to his left that were mostly obscured by the tall grass. Around 8:30 a.m., Francis was looking straight ahead where he expected a gobbler to approach when he heard a noise directly behind him.

“I heard a twig snap, so I turned around and see [this] panther coming toward me. It didn’t see me and just kept walking,” says Francis, whose cloth blind was completely open on the back side. “I’m like, he’s gonna walk into this blind.”

The panther was only 10 feet away when Francis poked his head up and grabbed his phone. He took a quick picture, expecting the cat to run away. When it didn’t, he switched over to video mode.

“I just sat there for a while, and you can hear me breathing in the video. My adrenaline was going crazy,” he says. “And you can tell in the video: He’s not looking at the camera. He’s looking right in my eyes.”

Eventually, the panther realized the hen it was stalking was something else entirely. Francis says he still isn’t sure if the cat recognized him as a human or if it was just confused. But after a minute or so, it slowly turned around and sauntered back into the woods.

Francis says he never even thought about reaching for the shotgun that was in his lap. He was more focused on capturing a video so his father-in-law, Ken Cook, would believe him.

A Florida panther stands next to a turkey decoy.
A screenshot from the grainy video Francis’ father-in-law recorded while turkey hunting in the same general area last spring.

Photograph courtesy Jason Francis

“Last year I was turkey hunting in the same general area, and I saw one cross a fire lane, so I told him and he said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But he believed me the next day when that same panther came up to his decoy about 30 to 40 yards away from him.”

Francis explains that his father-in-law caught that encounter on video as well. And while he can’t be sure it was the same panther he videoed a couple days ago, Francis says the cat he saw on Monday was noticeably bigger. (The cat could have grown over the past year, he admits.)

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It wouldn’t be all that surprising if Francis and Cook saw the same panther, since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated the statewide panther population at around 120 to 230 adults in 2017. After nearly going extinct in the early 20th century, the big cats are still on the endangered species list. The FWC also points out that most of the state’s breeding population is found south of the Caloosahatchee River, which flows along the southern border of Babcock Ranch.