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Forecast By Carolee Boyles

If you listen closely, you can hear the leaves rustling: deer season is just around the corner. If you don’t have a place to hunt yet, you’re almost too late. Nonetheless, even if you’ve put it off, there are places you can go to bring home some venison this year.

There’s no question that there are plenty of places to find Florida deer. No matter where you are in the Sunshine State, there’s an opportunity for you to bring home meat.

To find out where the best prospects are for bagging your deer this season, we talked to Cory Morea, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Deer Management Program Coordinator. Morea said the deer management unit project is progressing as planned.

“By the end of 2012, we had the statewide survey done, and early in 2013 we had a series of public meetings in the Panhandle to get public comments on deer management in that area, particular for Zone D,” he said. “Then we had a stakeholder group develop goals and objectives based on those comments, and now we’re working on rule proposals.”

The eventual goal of the project, Morea said, is to manage Florida’s deer herd at a more local level, based on the preferences of hunters. Even though the FWC is basing their new rules on what hunters are telling them, this won’t mean a wild patchwork of opening days and odd season lengths.

“We aren’t looking to change the season dates by deer management unit,” Morea said. “We’re going to keep that at the Zone level. The units are primarily for deer population level management. We also considered other preferences, such as antler point restrictions.”

Right now the FWC is working on Zone D; after that they move to Zone A, and then Zone B and Zone C.

For more information about the deer management unit project, go to the FWC’s Web site and mouse over the Hunting tab. Select deer on the dropdown menu. Under deer, click on DMUs and you find much more information on the project.

Last year, Morea said, Florida had an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

“We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence about it, such as hunters saying they saw fewer deer than they had previous seen,” Morea said. “This isn’t statewide, but it’s in pockets here and there. Prior to that we also had several years of drought conditions.

“Between those multiple years of drought and the EHD outbreak, the deer population may be depressed, at least in some local pockets. As a result, one thing we’ve been telling hunters — particularly on private lands where they’re managing the populations on the properties they hunt — to be mindful of the doe harvest.”

In other words, this isn’t a good year to kill lots and lots of does.

WHERE THE DEER ARE

Private Land

Biologists say that it’s getting harder and harder for them to make predictions about private land. In the past, when each region was responsible for issuing antlerless deer tags to private landowners in the region, biologists had a pretty good handle on what the deer herd on private land was doing. However, regional biologists no longer keep such close tabs on what’s happening on private land.

On the other side of the coin, the FWC is using a telephone survey to measure hunter success each year. This provides an estimate of the total number of deer killed in each county. Based on that survey, biologists now can make an educated guess as to where hunters will find deer during the current season.

“The counties that are steady producers stay pretty much the same from year to year,” Morea said. “It’s the counties that have good soils and good land management practices that are beneficial to deer and that promote older age-class deer. The productivity is higher on those areas with better soils, and as long as they’re not overharvested there will be more deer.”

Morea noted that the northwest portion of the Panhandle, particularly north of Interstate 10, holds some of the best producing deer lands of the state. He particularly mentioned Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties as having high deer numbers.

Moving east, Jackson County and Gadsden counties are good because of the agriculture found there, and Leon County has a lot of quail plantations, particularly north of Tallahassee; this means good conditions for lots of deer also. Farther east still, Madison, Suwannee and Hamilton counties still are in the upper tier and have good soils; Gadsden County historically has been one of the best places to look for deer anywhere in the state.

As we go down the peninsula, Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties all are good for deer, as are Sumter and Osceola counties. These areas all have quite a bit of rural Florida left in them, which means good deer lands. As you move from north to south through these counties, you pass through piney woods and timberland in the north to ranchland in the south. There are a lot of oak hammocks throughout the region, and water and cypress strands and domes interspersed throughout that part of the state.

In the Southwest Region, take a look at Hardee and DeSoto counties. These counties support some of the higher deer densities in this region. They both have good deer habitat because they have a lot of lower-lying wetland soils, and both counties are still in a lot of larger private landholdings. The deer herds in those counties are larger and have less hunting pressure on them.

In the South Region, have a look at Hendry and Martin counties. There are plenty of hunting preserves in the county, and a lot of cattle land in Hendry County that presents some good opportunity if you know someone there.

PUBLIC LAND

When it comes to state Wildlife Management Areas, the ones listed here aren’t necessarily the best in the state or even in each region. Most of the state’s best WMAs are that way because the FWC has very limited hunts on them, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since this article won’t come out until too late to apply for either one of those hunt types, we eliminated WMAs that are managed entirely under either system from our list; the WMAs we’ve mentioned here all have a least a portion of the general gun season open for either walk-in hunting or hunting with a daily hunt permit, available at the check station.

To arrive at this list, we looked at last year’s harvest data, and the number of man-days that it took for hunters to harvest that number of deer. Then we divided the number of deer into the man-days to arrive at a harvest index that indicates the relative difficulty of harvesting a deer from each of the areas. These data do not take into account the size of the various areas; on some areas with a low index number—meaning it didn’t take many days for a hunter to harvest a deer—the opportunity may actually be quite low because the area is so small. Nonetheless, this list gives you a idea of where to begin looking for a place to hunt this fall.

CAMP BLANDING WMA

Camp Blanding WMA is located in Clay County and is part of the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. The WMA consists of a dog hunt area, an archery only area, and two still hunt areas. Since Camp Blanding is not open to scouting, make sure you review some aerial maps, and look for the vegetation that would indicate the creeks on the area. Camp Blanding is crisscrossed by multiple creeks, and these are the key to finding deer on the area.

ROTENBERGER WMA

Rotenberger is typical of south Florida habitat, with a lot of water, small islands, and plenty of sawgrass. This area shares boundaries with Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA and Holey Land WMA, making this a large contiguous piece of ground that’s open for hunting. Although the general gun-vehicle season is under quota, the general gun-walk season is not; archery and muzzleloading gun seasons also are open.

JOE BUDD WMA

Joe Budd WMA in Gadsden County is always a good place for deer. Although it doesn’t have a general gun season, Joe Budd has archery and muzzleloading gun hunts through the period of time when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting. It does require quota permits, but half of them are walk-up permits.

Joe Budd has a variety of habitats and a lot of topography, which is rare for Florida. Since this area has gone to three points on a side, it’s starting to build up a larger population of mature deer. Joe Budd is slightly more than 11,000 acres.

APALACHEE WMA

Apalachee WMA is an area that’s been around quite a while. It’s located in Jackson County right along Lake Seminole and the Chattahoochee River. Part of the area has planted fields in it, which means good hunting. The entire area is only 7900 acres, so it won’t support a lot of pressure, but it could be a good place for archery.

The first part of general gun season is under quota. Permits are required for the remainder of general gun season and for archery and muzzleloading gun seasons, but they’re first-come, first-served zone tags available at the check station on the day you’re hunting.

HOLEY LAND WMA

Holey Land is very similar to Rotenberger WMA, with the same sort of swampy habitat. It’s quite a bit smaller than the other WMAs in the South Region, covering only 35,000 acres. It’s located in Palm Beach and Broward counties, and is bordered on the south by the L-5 Levee and the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA. Rotenberger WMA is on its west border.

This whole area is sawgrass prairie interspersed with some tree islands. To get to the tree islands, you can walk in or use an ATV. There are some paths and trails through the sawgrass, but there aren’t any roads.

If you walk in, expect to get wet, and expect difficult walking. The muck soil tends to stick to your boots, which makes the walk tiring.

ARBUCKLE WMA

Arbuckle WMA is located in Polk County, and is a good place to hunt despite the fact that the habitat doesn’t seem too conducive to a good deer population. It has a scrubby habitat, with a lot of sandhills. The entire area is uplands. There are antler restrictions on the area.

You need a permit to hunt Arbuckle WMA, but they’re first come-first served at the check station on weekdays only (weekends are under quota). The area is slightly more than 13,500 acres.

SNIPE ISLAND WMA

Snipe Island is part of Big Bend WMA. It’s a good area with a short season; 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.

Snipe Island is located entirely in Taylor County, and comprises more than 11,000 acres.

HERKY HUFFMAN/BULL CREEK WMA

This area, located in Osceola County, tends to have a good deer herd, in part because of its the three points on a side rule. Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA area covers more than 23,000 acres. It’s under quota the first two days of the season, but you can get a daily permit at the check station after the first two days.

THREE LAKES WMA

The last area on our list is Three Lakes WMA. This is a big area in Osceola County, more than 63,000 acres, with a moderate population of deer. Parts of each season are under quota; on the rest of the days you must stop at the check station and pick up a daily permit. Don’t stray over onto the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes WMA. The Prairie Lakes Unit is under quota permit for everything but small game, and you are hunting illegally if you cross over onto that piece of property.

Don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!