By Warren Rojas
A quick look around Rep. Dennis Ross' office in the Cannon House Office Building confirms that the Florida Republican would rather be in the great outdoors than the concrete jungle of Capitol Hill.
"I can sit in a deer stand for nine hours straight. A committee meeting, maybe about 30 minutes," the freshman lawmaker says dryly.
To hear Ross tell it, the various wildlife mounts scattered about his inner sanctum -- a collection which includes: a 10-point buck taken down with his Matthews Solocam compound bow; the first wild turkey he bagged with his eldest son, Shane; two feral male hogs ("We got 'em all over my district," he asserts.); and a coiled and bare-fanged rattlesnake representative of the 5-foot-4-inch predator he says he inadvertently decimated with his .308 Ruger rifle -- aren't so much mementos of successful hunting campaigns as they are stepping stones in the career of an avid sportsman.
"I was not raised in it. I married into it," Ross readily admits, touting his in-laws as a guiding force in his more-than-30-year love affair with game hunting.
"My wife's family, the mainstay of their diet is whatever they kill. They are true Florida crackers," Ross says, affectionately describing his father-in-law as "a game warden's nightmare."
But Ross' longtime buddy, Denny Rogers, gets the nod for getting the latecomer hooked on his true passion: bow hunting.
"Denny introduced me to archery hunting, and now the student has outperformed the teacher," Ross quips, estimating that he and Rogers routinely disappear into the Florida brush together for what amounts to wildlife therapy. "It's our diversion," Ross says.
While he says he tries to get out at least one morning per weekend whenever he's back in Florida's virtually landlocked 12th district, Ross' extracurricular calendar seems to revolve around the annual hunting trip (a 10-year tradition) he takes to Illinois each November with friends. That weeklong stag party transpires across an 800-acre soybean farm Ross and friends sublet for unfettered access to rutting bucks.
Ross openly praised his father-in-law's hunting prowess but remains fairly confident that the 150-class buck he dropped during a previous swing through Illinois (still being taxidermied) should provide undisputed bragging rights at the next family gathering.
Closer to home, Ross says he and his sons have donated their fair share of meat during the years to the Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry program, a faith-based initiative established in 1997 that accepts donated deer and elk carcasses, processes them and redistributes the reclaimed flesh to participating local food banks. The Ross men have also participated in similar fishing-related donation efforts.
Which is not to say they don't also enjoy the spoils of their animal tracking efforts around the dinner table. Ross insists that his family members feast on most of what they kill, touting as treasured family memories his wife's venison spaghetti, the smoked hog they served at his son Travis' high school graduation and the deep-fried wild turkey trotted out during the holidays.
An impromptu barbecue sometimes just falls into their lap.
Ross says that while they were out hunting, one of his boys killed a feral sow -- only to later stumble upon four, now-orphaned piglets. The young man volunteered to try to raise the sounder of immature boars for a year, but he ran afoul of the law after the errant swine broke free from their pen and wandered into town.
The local authorities were not pleased with the escaped animals, at which point the younger Ross offered to slaughter them ASAP. So the youth called a bunch of friends over to the family homestead and doled out one final dose of discipline to the hogs.
"When I came back downstairs, they were all eating ribs," the lawmaker says. And it sounds like the passion for pursuit has already taken hold of Ross' office in Washington, D.C.
Ross' chief of staff, Fredrick Piccolo Jr., went hunting for the first time with his boss and is proud to say he brought down one of the omnipresent boars almost immediately.
"[I] never hunted anything in my life," he says. "Got it with my first shot from about 50 yards with a .308 rifle."
"Most people shoot their first hog with me," Ross proudly states.
So what does the Florida native miss most about his home state?
"I honestly miss the outdoors," he shares, almost wistfully.
And what's the best part about being in the nation's capital?
(A straight shooter, through and through.)