Sopchoppy, FL: The Ultimate Gator Retreat

For more than fifty years, the President of the United States has enjoyed the seclusion and beauty of Camp David to entertain dignitaries from other nations, for meetings that require a more tranquil atmosphere, and to simply relax. The Florida football team has a Camp David of its own and it’s every bit as peaceful, relaxing and serene as that more famous place in the Catocin Mountains.

Churchill, Reagan, Thatcher, Kennedy, Begin, and al-Sadat haven’t ever visited but Sopchoppy, Florida is quite the retreat and it’s becoming the home away from home of the Florida Gators.

Tucked away in the Florida panhandle, Sopchoppy is the outdoorsmen’s paradise. Boating, camping, canoeing, fresh water fishing, floundering, frog gigging, exploring, all kinds of hunting, outdoor photography, salt water fishing — the area has it in abundance. It doesn’t really matter what you like to do. If it is done outdoors, it probably can be done in Sopchoppy and the surrounding area.

Sopchoppy is the home of Leonard and Peggy Tartt and their son, redshirt sophomore guard Jim Tartt. Leonard and Peggy are only too proud to host members of the Florida football team and the staff at their Wakulla County farm. Their offer has already been taken up by several current and former members of the team.

Lance Butler, Brian Crum, Corey Hobbs, Todd McCullough, Drew Miller, Brandon Siler, James Smith, and Phil Trautwein have all enjoyed at least one trip to Sopchoppy as guests at the Tartt family farm.

Despite being only 32 miles from Tallahassee, the Gators feel right at home in the Wakulla County swamps, Alligator Point, Alligator Harbor, or another favorite Gator hangout — the Tartt family home — where setting the table for a fantastic meal has long been a favorite pastime. It is in the process of achieving legendary status among the Florida team.

To a man, the players who have visited Sopchoppy say that Leonard and Peggy’s cooking is one thing that is certain to keep them coming back- and coming back often.

“Leonard Tartt will cook you whatever you want,” Jim Tartt proudly says of his dad. “Deer, barbeque, whatever … he can cook it and it’s always the best cooking you’ve ever tasted.”

While members of the entire team have yet to make the trek to Sopchoppy, the Tartt family has had a hand in feeding them all. The meat for the cookout was supplied by the members of the squad after another successful hunt in the woods of Wakulla County.

“Crum has been hunting with Jim several times,” Leonard Tartt said. “In fact, Crum killed a big eight-point buck last year off of highway 27, Lance killed an eight-point, and Jim killed a ten-point. They’ve killed several deer. If you go over to Crum’s apartment, he has that deer head hanging on the wall in his apartment. Jim, Brandon, James Smith, and Todd McCullough killed a huge hog. I don’t know how much the thing weighed, but it was huge.”

“Before the Outback Bowl game last year, we got together with Todd McCullough’s dad and took all of the meat and had a wild game cookout for the team under the stadium,” he added. “We had alligator meat, wild hog, and deer. Todd’s dad cooked forty whole chickens and my wife cooked five or six gallons of deer chili out of the deer meat. Those kids ate everything. I had the deep fryer and Todd McCullough’s dad had the grill. We picked up some baked beans from Sonny’s and Macaroni and Cheese and we just had a big cookout. It was funny, because some of the kids came over after the cookout and said, ‘Mr. Tartt, we haven’t had any cooking like this since we left home’”

Jim figures to spend a lot of time next to a guy who hasn’t exactly experienced southern living — left tackle Phil Trautwein. Trautwein hails from Voorhees, New Jersey, a small town just 20 miles outside of Philadelphia with a population roughly 65 times that of Sopchoppy (population 450).

Weapons are probably used a little differently in New Jersey, especially right outside of Philly. But, don’t bother having the Wakulla County Chamber of Commerce send out a brochure either to Trautwein. He excitedly said that he didn’t get to do enough while there. He is eager to take on more of Sopchoppy.

“It was fun,” Trautwein said with a huge smile. “I’m from New Jersey, where there aren’t a lot of farms. It was a lot of fun. I haven’t gone fishing with him (Jim) yet, but I kind of went hunting. He let me shoot a bow and arrow. It was pretty fun. It was stuff that I had never done before. He was crazy. He’s fun. I know that one time when Hobbs went for his visit, they went up to go frog giggin’. I’ve never done that. I would love to do that one day.”

Jim taught the some of the guys how to gig and clean the bullfrogs. They freaked out a little when Tartt showed them how to slit their backlegs. They took the meat back to Gainesville, where Jim showed them how to cook and enjoy the tender white chunks of meat at a cookout.

Good eatin’.

Jim has certainly picked up some tips from Leonard, who worked as a cook on the north Florida coast when he was young. In fact, as we spoke, Leonard and Peggy had just polished off a meal that featured Blackened Red Snapper.

Sopchoppy is as much a team building, bonding, and teaching tool as it is fun.

Who knows? Maybe Meyer and the staff will consider making Sopchoppy a reward for players who are absolutely living right, Gators style. You know, sort of like the stripe on the freshmen helmet? Sopchoppy — the ultimate Gators vacation destination.

Freshmen Jarred Fayson, Jamar Hornsby, and Dustin Doe are self-proclaimed country boys. Fayson grew up with grits serving as his favorite food. I guarantee you that he could feast on some quality grits at the Tartt farm. You can bet they get an invitation. Fellow freshmen classmate Corey Hobbs has already taken the trip.

“Sopchoppy is probably the country boy’s heaven,” Hobbs said with a grin that rivaled Trautwein. “It is the nicest place that I’ve ever been to. One day I’m going to move there or somewhere like it. The town is probably about as big as this (media) room and it’s wonderful. It’s back in the woods and there’s nobody there. You can just hang out and go fishing and relax. I was there for some flounder giggin’ and some frog giggin’. Jim is very good at that. I don’t know how he does it. I hunt and fish and I try to do all of that stuff too. So, I’ve done it before and it was nice to get back out there.”

Jim Barrie’s parents are Florida graduates and veterinarians. Barrie laughed when I jokingly asked if his parents might be able and willing to render an assist as taxidermists for the team. After all there’s nothing to save after a hunting trip.

“My parents have no problem with hunters,” Barrie said. “They’re not like that. But, they probably won’t be doing that. They’re a little busy … Corey (Hobbs) is my roommate. It’s (Sopchoppy) a crazy place. That’s all I know. I don’t know much, but it’s legendary apparently. I might have to stop by.”

These guys do have fun. Things get a little crazy. As each one of these guys returns and polishes their hunting and fishing abilities, maybe it will inspire some friendly competition? They are obviously jockeying to get into the action.

“I’ve got a little catfish pond on the farm and it’s full of bullfrogs,” Leonard Tartt stated. “In one 14-foot aluminum boat — Lance Butler, James Smith, Corey Hobbs, Brandon Siler and Jim with their gigs and their headlights on giggin’ these bullfrogs. Five of them in this little boat. You could only see about two inches of this boat sticking out of the water. All that I could think of is having to call Coach Meyer and say, ‘Coach, you lost five of your players. They’re at the bottom of my pond.’ If he’d have seen them, he wouldn’t have believed it. Seriously, they were only a few feet from the shore. They could have waded through if they’d gone in. But, I shined my light on them and said, ‘What in the world is going on here? Some of you need to get out of that boat.’”

Tartt, Miller, and other members of the squad spent quality time this summer grilling out. Chickens, steaks … it didn’t really matter. There should be plenty of hunting opportunities to put food on the table in the future too.

“I drove up the other day and I counted fourteen deer standing in one of the fields, four of them were bucks,” Leonard Tartt said. “Jim and I planted a dove field, so if they get a day off from practice, it’s only two-and-a-half hours up here they zip up here and go dove hunting.”

Ronald Reagan would have felt right at home in Sopchoppy. He spent more time at Camp David than any other president. Reagan had a tremendous passion for the outdoors. Camp David afforded him the opportunity to ride horses, walk the surrounding land, or work in the woodworking shop. It’s unknown if the former Eureka College football player would accompany the Gators giggin’ or floundering, but the “Gipper” loved target shooting, football, baseball and Camp David.

Sopchoppy has become the Camp David for the Florida football team and the Tartt family has helped make it the home away from home of the Fightin’ Gators.