It’s that time again — deer season. There’s no question that Florida has plenty of deer, and plenty of hunters who will be looking for them. Virtually anywhere in the Sunshine State there’s an opportunity for you to bring home some venison.
That said, it’s also true that some areas harbor better deer herds than others. Since a hunter’s goal is to bring back some venison, your best bet is to go where the deer are.
To find out where the best prospects are for bagging your whitetail this season, we talked to biologists across the state to get their recommendations for both public and private lands this fall. One thing they all told us is that it’s getting harder and harder for them to make predictions about private lands. That’s because they don’t have the same level of information about hunt clubs and private lands that they once did.
In the past, when each region was responsible for issuing antlerless deer tags to private landowners, biologists had a pretty good handle on what the deer herd on private land was like. However, since the state moved the antlerless deer program to the Tallahassee office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission several years ago, regional biologists no longer keep such close tabs on what’s afoot.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have good survey data capability on private land,” explained Corey Morea, Deer Management Program Coordinator. “We do a random sample survey of hunters and that gets us to harvest effort and harvest, and we extrapolate from that to come up with overall harvest. Anything beyond that is just guessing.”
Overall, the FWC feels that the deer population is stable statewide. Morea said the spring drought probably didn’t have a dramatic effect on the deer herd.
“Deer are pretty much adapted to the local climate, and they’re able to tolerate it,” he said.
As far as the wildlife management areas are concerned, the ones we picked for this article are not necessarily the best in the state or even in the region. Most of Florida’s top WMAs are kept that way by having very limited hunts, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since you are reading this long after the deadline for applying for those hunts, we eliminated WMAs that are managed entirely under either system.
The WMAs we are covering all have at least a portion of the season open for either walk-in hunting or hunting with a daily hunt permit available at the check station.
There’s one other thing you should know: The FWCC is looking at hunting seasons across the state. Beginning back in April, the FWC began considering possible changes to deer hunting zones and dates. The purpose of any changes would be to better align season dates with the period of the rut in different parts of the state. Under the resulting proposal the state would be divided into five zones instead of three, and the dates would vary somewhat from existing hunting season dates. Those changes are not slated to take affect until the 2010-2011 hunting season on private lands, and even later during the 2011-2012 on public lands.
In the Northwest Region, one tract with a non-quota period and a good deer population is the Aucilla WMA in Jefferson and Taylor counties.
“That area has a pretty good deer population and a variety of habitats,” Morea said. “Habitat includes hardwood bottoms, cypress domes and some pine plantations. Between the variety of habitats and the good population levels, that area should offer a quality hunting opportunity without having to get a quota permit.”
On Aucilla, there are both still-hunt and dog-hunt portions.
“So that area offers the flexibility of both of those options,” Morea noted.
Don’t overlook Joe Budd WMA, which is always an excellent area. Although it doesn’t have a general gun season, Joe Budd has archery and muzzleloading gun hunts through the period when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting.
“It does require quota permits, but a lot of them are walk-up permits,” Morea offered. “Year in and year out, this is a quality area that hunters look forward to hunting. It has a variety of habitats and a lot of topography, which is rare for Florida. Since this area has gone to 3 points on a side, it’s starting to build up a larger population of mature deer. It’s always a good area.”
The third area Morea recommended in the Northwest Region is Blackwater WMA.
“It’s a large area where hunters can find spots that don’t receive a lot of pressure, if they look a little bit,” he said. “It has some beautiful longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, and there are drains that go through the area that are thicker and provide a lot of good funnels for hunters to set up on.”
One more spot to try is the Choctawhatchee River WMA.
“There are no quota permits required, and the area has a longer season that hunters can enjoy,” Morea explained. “Because it’s along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that hunters like to get into. It has enough area that hunters may be able to find a spot that’s not receiving much pressure.”
The counties in the Northwest Region that produce the most deer are those in the Red Hills area, and those with agriculture.
“You’re talking Leon, Gadsden and Jackson counties,” said biologist Arlo Kane. “Look north of I-10, where there’s good soil near the borders with Alabama and Georgia. In Jackson County, there’s a lot of agriculture, which produces good deer.”
Ironically, these areas produce not only a lot of deer, they produce the best deer in the region, as well.
Other areas with high deer populations are farther west. However, these counties aren’t going to produce the quality deer of the area around Tallahassee.
“There we’re talking Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties,” Kane added. “Again, look north of the Interstate. Those are the areas where we have the highest deer populations.”
For public land, biologist John Ault suggested looking at Snipe Island, Tide Swamp and Spring Creek. All three of these are units of the Big Bend WMA.
“Snipe Island is a
good area because it has a short season,” Ault said. “It has a nine-day quota hunt, followed by 14-day period with no quota permit needed. However, the habitat is not as diverse as some other areas in the region.”
On Tide Swamp, the first nine days are under quota, and for the next 16 days, you have to get a daily hunt permit from the check station. However, after that it’s open for the rest of the season.
According to Ault, Spring Creek is very similar to Tide Swamp. It’s under quota for the first nine days but is open for the rest of the season.
All three units are located in Taylor County.
When you start looking at private lands in the North-Central Region, biologist Scott Talley said the best soils for growing numbers of deer are in the north, including Madison and Hamilton counties. He also suggested looking in Levy County, in the area around Otter Creek, Gulf Hammock, and Fowler’s Bluff.
“There are some pretty good areas there and there are some pretty good deals to be had on tracts of land for people to purchase for hunt clubs,” he noted.
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