Sunshine State Bow Season Preview

Sunshine State Bow Season Preview

With the archery season opening at the end of this month in southern Florida, here are some things to consider to improve your hunts in any part of the Sunshine State.(August 2006)

Taking to the woods in Florida with a bow offers some problems not common to other areas of the country.
Photo by William J. Bohica.

As any football fan will tell you, it's a long, long, time between the Super Bowl and the first pre-season game of the next NFL season. And for those afflicted with a case of football fever, the possibility of severe withdrawal symptoms is real!

Serious hunters can emphasize with them. Once spring turkey season closes, they too have an interminable wait before they can get back into the woods. That's one reason why the opening of archery season for deer ranks high on many hunters' lists.

Not only does it signal the start of another hunting cycle, but it's also a great time to get out early, before the deer feel the full pressure of the hunting season. The bucks are more relaxed in their movements, and hunters have an excellent opportunity to harvest a quality buck, even on public lands. In fact, the top non-typical Florida buck was harvested by bow hunter James Stovall on the Green Swamp West WMA in 1999, and scored a massive 207 5/8 Pope and Young points!

That's more than enough "horns" to make any hunter's heart skip a few beats. But even if a monster buck doesn't appear, hunters on private lands and some state wildlife management areas can also take antlerless deer -- an excellent opportunity to put some quality meat in the freezer. In addition, given the up-close-and-personal nature of bow hunting, it becomes an outstanding way to do some in-depth scouting for the following muzzleloader and general gun seasons.

There are a lot of advantages to getting in the woods during archery season. There are also a few drawbacks. You can't "get in the woods" without being outdoors, and bow hunters get the "full" outdoors treatment.

In the Northwest Zone, the archery season begins October 14, which is actually a very pleasant time of the year. The zones to the south present more daunting weather.

The South Zone opens September 9, while the Central 0 starts on September 23. Those are tough times to hunt. Summer's heat is still in full swing, and with the rainy season well underway, you can add standing water and high humidity to the forecast. That creates a number of challenges, and one of the most annoying is biting insects. Picking off ticks, painting chigger bites, and scratching every place a mosquito visited isn't a great way to end the day. Fortunately, this situation is preventable.

You can easily thwart ground crawlers like ticks and chiggers by spraying your boots and pants cuffs with a quality repellent spray. A thorough dousing also keeps most mosquitoes and no-see-ums from biting, but it doesn't do much to prevent the annoying little devils from buzzing around your ears, hovering in your face, or crawling around your eyelids. A better bet is a ThermaCELL.

This is a compact, relatively inexpensive unit that uses a small butane cartridge to heat and disperse scent from a small repellent mat containing allethrin -- a chemical copy of a naturally occurring insecticide found in certain flowers. Once the unit is turned on, it takes just a few minutes to disperse the scent and provide a mosquito-free zone for about 15 feet around the unit. If you're sitting inside that zone, you can wear shorts and a T-shirt!

It does work. I don't know anyone who has ever used a ThermaCELL that now goes into the woods without one. I know I won't. They're available at many sporting goods stores.

ThermaCELL also makes an equally small unit that dispenses a variety of game scents, like doe urine, that it spreads over a wider area than traditional wick dispensers.

While bugs are annoying, poisonous snakes can be downright dangerous. They're very active this time of year. In fact, early in my bow hunting career, I came within just a few feet of stepping on several, including a 3-foot cottonmouth, and a diamondback rattler in the 5-foot range with a head the size of my fist.

The latter encounter began my love affair with inexpensive plastic snake-proof leg guards. They're a comfort while picking my way to a stand in the pre-dawn, and can quickly be removed and stowed while I'm in the tree. Also, they're not expensive. But if you ever feel a slight rap on your leg and hear a sharp "tic" when a snake's fangs make contact with them -- as I have -- they become priceless. A poisonous snakebite in the deep woods can ruin more than just your day.

Critters can cause problems, but just the inherent heat and humidity can too. The human body requires both water and certain electrolytes (salts) to function properly. Both are expelled through the pores through perspiration, and this process is accelerated under these weather conditions.

It's very important to stay properly hydrated, and smart hunters carry an adequate amount of water for the day. That means a minimum of at least 2 quarts. The really smart guys also include one of the sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade, because those contain the needed electrolytes. Just having these with you is not enough -- you need to maintain a moderate intake of both during the course of the day. Heat and humidity are very manageable if you maintain that steady intake of fluids.

With a little forethought, dealing with the early season is fairly simple. Here are some areas where you might want to put that into practice this year.

SOUTH ZONE

A primary reason for the staggered bow hunting seasons from south to north is the rut. Wildlife managers try to adjust seasons to allow hunters to be in the woods during the rut. But just what portion of the rut can bow hunters experience? It varies. But in the South Zone, just trying to pinpoint the peak of the rut is pretty variable in itself!

"In this region, we can have some deer in rut, and some fawns born, just about any month of the year," says Jen Williams, the Public Hunt Area Biologist for the South Zone. "To say there is a true peak of the rut is not really possible. Just like bass in Lake Okeechobee, they can breed throughout the year. Our studies show that a bit over half the rut will normally occur in June and July, so bow hunters may not be getting in on the maximum rutting activity. But there will be some rutting activity during the September 9 to October 8 archery season -- although how much can vary from year to year."

Deer populations can also vary, d

ue to the fact that South Florida does not have the rich soils that promote good growth. Also, periodic episodes of high water can adversely impact populations. High water is currently resulting in lower than normal populations on the Everglades, Holy Land and Rotenberger WMAs. Williams rates the populations in Big Cypress and J.W. Corbett as "moderate," noting that Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area currently has a fairly high number of deer.

While the bow-hunting picture in the South Zone isn't as good as other areas, there are some bright spots.

"The biologists who score the racks from this region note that some of the best racks come from Dinner Island Ranch and Dupuis," Williams explains. "These are both managed as low-quota areas, but those hunters who obtain a permit will be hunting on some of the most productive lands in the region."

For those unable to obtain a permit, Williams notes that the J.W. Corbett WMA is managed for larger numbers of hunters and has a better deer population than those areas impacted by high water.

CENTRAL ZONE

Moving northward, the bow-hunting picture brightens considerably.

"In the central region, the peak of the rut historically occurs from mid-September to mid-October," offers FWCC biologist John Ault. "That has also been backed up by studies. We biologically tested over 900 does taken on lands in central Florida, and the results indicated that the greatest number of does were impregnated within that time period. The rut will overlap that period, but this is the historic peak, and with the archery season running from 23 September to 22 October, hunters are right in the middle of it."

For bow hunters, that's upbeat news -- and Ault has even more.

"I have no indication at all that the deer population within the Central Zone has undergone any decline in the last five or six years. That doesn't address individual small areas of WMA or private lands. It's an overall assessment of the region. But the deer population is certainly not declining."

Combine a stable deer population that, research indicates, is already at high levels with a season during the peak of the rut, and it's clear that bow hunters do have an edge over firearms hunters in this region. Bucks during the peak of the rut are far less wary when they're running around chasing does. Given that archery is the first season of the year, the bucks haven't yet encountered legions of hunters. That's plenty of reason to grab a bow and head to the woods. There are a number of public land areas in the zone where you can do just that.

"The FWCC has a whole spectrum of wildlife management areas that range from very restrictive to wide open," Ault says. "They can't all be managed for trophy bucks only. The public wouldn't stand for that. What we can do is create quality opportunities in some areas and less restrictive access in others. We try to create the environment on the lands we manage that will give hunters that choice."

One way to create a better trophy opportunity is to set greater restrictions on antlers for harvesting bucks in order to protect yearlings and 1 1/2-year age-class deer. In this region, Camp Blanding and Half Moon WMAs now require that a buck have a minimum three points on at least one side, and that each point be at least one inch long.

Other methods to restrict hunter access are through a quota permit system and a shorter season. Some areas in the Central Zone fall into this category, and Ault rates a couple of them as top bets for this year.

"Andrews WMA would be one of my top picks," Ault says. "It's a small area, about 45 minutes west of Gainesville, but it has a great hardwood and pine habitat. There aren't any special antler restrictions, and the basic statewide 5-inch rule is in force, as well as allowing antlerless deer. But it has stiff quotas, a short season, and traditionally experiences a very high hunter success ratio."

Also on his list is Jennings Forest WMA, near Jacksonville. This is another quota hunt area, but it has excellent habitat. The Division of Forestry has a good burn program that helps maintain it.

Twin Rivers WMA is another spot that shouldn't be overlooked.

"The soil quality and habitat here is some of the best in the region," Ault points outs. "Some of the biggest deer in the Central Zone come from here, and we've had 1 1/2-year-old bucks that weighed 150 pounds, which is great growth for a Florida deer."

For those hunters who were tardy in their pre-season planning, Ault rates the Osceola WMA as one of the best bests. There is no quota for bow hunters, and you can walk right in. Although the deer density is not as high as in many of the more restrictive areas, Ault sees good deer come out of here every year.

NORTHWEST ZONE

While South Zone bow hunters can count on some rutting activity, and central Florida archers see significant rutting activity during their seasons, the same can't be said for bowmen in the Northwest Zone.

"The rut in the northwest region can vary quite a bit between the Panhandle and the eastern portion," says FWCC biologist Cory Morea, who has been studying whitetails in this region for seven years. "But typically, there is little rutting activity going on in this region during archery season. The peak of the rut generally occurs in December and January. And with the bow season running from October 14 to November 12, most of it will arrive after archery season.

"What bow hunters here will encounter," he continues, "might be a bit of pre-rut activity. But generally, you're looking at bucks that are still in their bachelor groups and going about their normal daily feeding behavior."

That may disappoint some, but it shouldn't. The Northwest Zone has traditionally ranked as the top deer areas in Florida, and regularly produces not only large numbers, but also some of the biggest bucks taken each year. The reason for that is simple -- the soil is excellent, there is a lot of agriculture, and the numerous private hunt clubs have begun management programs to improve the quality of the deer herd. That has proven to be good news for hunters, and this year looks to be no different.

"Overall, the deer population in this region is very stable, and we have even seen an increase in the western portion of the region," Morea notes. "Considering that we had a good deer herd to start with, that's not bad. Anytime you place limits on the hunters and then improve the forage available to the deer, it's going to benefit the herd not only on that land, but on all the surrounding lands."

That philosophy is becoming increasingly incorporated into the FWCC management programs on a number of region WMAs. Those areas that have recently moved to requiring three points to a side for bucks are portions of Elgin AFB, Bluewater Creek, Robert Brent and Joe Budd WMAs.

Trying to pick the top bets in this deer-heavy region is difficult, but Morea puts Joe Budd right at the top for archers.

"This is a very good habitat," he emphasizes, "with a mix of open fields, ravines and creek bottoms. It has an excellent deer population, and hunter access is very restricted. It is open only during bow and muzzle loading seasons, and they are under a quota. The deer don't get a lot of pressure, and the hunter success rates are normally very high."

Another excellent spot is the Box-R WMA. This is also a three-points-to-a-side area, and has a quota permit system.

Those who failed to acquire the necessary quota permits should check out the Appalachia WMA. There is no quota here, although one portion does require a Zone Tag, which is available each morning at the check station. There are normally 200 tags available, which are seldom given out during archery season. Two zones require no tag at all, and hunters can walk right in.

For those suffering withdrawal symptoms from last hunting season, getting in on the early archery season can be a sure cure.

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