North Florida'™s Late-Season Bucks

North Florida'™s Late-Season Bucks

As hunting season wears on in this part of the Sunshine State,

you need to match your hunting strategies to the conditions.

Here are some things to keep in mind.(January 2008).

Photo by Michael Corrigan.

Daylight broke, and I was settled and ready for action with my bow in hand. Perched 20 feet up in a live oak tree, I waited and listed for deer.

It was February 20, and temperatures were in the mid-50s. My stand was situated on the fringe of a shallow one-acre sinkhole fringed with live oak trees.

The small sinkhole did not hold water, but the tiny depression maintained moist soil, and smilax (greenbrier) vines were thriving.

When I first stumbled onto this late-season food source, everything else in the landscape appeared brown and spent. But the evergreen quality of the greenbrier stuck out, reminding me of a green leafy salad in a brown wooden salad bowl.

Deer had literally carved out trails through the head-high thicket of greenbrier. Deer sign -- in the form of tracks, droppings, beds and fresh browse sign -- was bountiful.

A few old rubs and one fresh scrape were visible from my stand location and within bow range, but those did not really matter.

I knew lots of deer were feeding on the food source. And with the late-season North Florida whitetail rut in full swing, I knew the bucks would be hanging around close if the does were eating here.

One hour after daylight, five mature does and three yearlings entered the salad bar. Three bedded down almost immediately, and the others began to browse feverishly.

The wind was perfect. I watched them for over two hours before the first buck, a young forkhorn, made his appearance.

He made a beeline for one of the mature does and displayed typical rutting behavior. A chase ensued through the maze of trails until all at once, the young buck stopped dead in his tracks and went on the alert.

I instantly thought he had winded me. Quickly testing the breeze with my wind checker made me think otherwise. I could tell the buck's attention was focused in a direction away from my stand location.

Gazing through my binoculars in the direction the buck was looking, I saw a healthy 6-pointer come into view on the opposite ridge.

This buck entered the greenbrier thicket with a hasty purpose and walked with an aggressive posture toward the forkhorn buck.

The younger buck wasted no time exiting the playing field and happened to choose a trail less than 15 yards from my stand. The 6-pointer followed, to make sure the young buck got the point.

As the dominant buck reached the edge of the thicket, I stopped him with a single doe bleat and delivered a razor-sharp broadhead.

The buck spun around and headed back into the security of the greenbrier patch. He barely made it to the opposite ridge before collapsing.

I took a moment to regain my composure from the excitement. This was the third buck I had taken in four years of hunting this location, and it proved that hunting a natural food source late in the season works when trying to connect with North Florida bucks.

Find the food, and you find the does. Find the does, and when the rut is on, the bucks are close by.

It's a concept that has worked well for me over the years. And if it's applied with a little old-fashioned scouting effort, you too can score on bucks during North Florida's late season.

Don't give up on trying to harvest a North Florida buck during the months of January and February. Although most quota hunt periods are long over, cold weather and diminished hunting pressure are two big reasons to take to the field.

Need more reasons than that?

Consider this: The whitetail rut does not occur until January for much of the northern Sunshine State -- and areas further to the west experience primary rutting activity during the middle part of February!

North Florida regions that experience a January rut often have a secondary rut in February as well. Does that were not bred in January come back into estrous about one month later.

So hunters who throw in the towel after Christmas may well be missing out on some of the best opportunities of the year.

Late-season hunting certainly does not come without its challenges, but this time of year still offers an excellent chance to get a last crack at a whitetail, whether it is a doe for the larder or a buck for the wall.

In this part of the state, even some public lands offer late-season opportunities. Here are some tips on how to hunt in the late season, along with some wildlife management areas where you might want to try out those tactics.

WHERE TO GO?

Most North Florida WMAs have closed to deer hunting by the end of December. However, others stay open through much of January.

A select few offer a 10-day archery and muzzleloading season that typically begins in February.

Joe Budd WMA is located in Gadsden County and offers an excellent late-season archery and muzzleloading option. The season runs from Jan. 12 to 28 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only.

Considering that the archery-only season for this area starts in December just prior to the late bonus season, whitetail bucks have experienced very little pressure by the time January rolls around.

Joe Budd WMA operates all hunts under a special quota permit requirement to limit the number of hunters. That means the events offer "quality" hunting experiences. If you weren't lucky enough to draw a special quota hunt for Joe Budd WMA this year, you still have a chance to hunt this well-managed hunting ground.

A limited number of zone tags are issued to hunters by random drawing at the check station at 2 p.m. every Thursday prior to each three-day hunt period.

I have participated in the weekly drawing for a number of years. Historically, the odds of drawing a 3-day zone tag have been good.

At times when I didn't draw a zone tag, I still managed to obtain

one through sheer determination. I simply show up at the manned check station late on a Saturday morning and wait for hunters with tags to exit the area.

Invariably, some hunters turn in zone tags after a Saturday morning hunt, due to having other weekend commitments. Since zone tags are good until Sunday, those that get handed in early at the check station are provided to other hunters on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cory Morea is a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist who works the North Florida region. He pointed out that in this area, the whitetail rut occurs primarily between late-December and mid-January.

Since bucks are on the move looking for does, he suggested focusing on travel corridors between food plots, pinch points and saddles between ridges.

"Joe Budd WMA has a plethora of small hills and valleys," Morea said, "and savvy hunters can take advantage of topographic features that force bucks to move through areas in predictable ways.

"Joe Budd also offers lots of planted food plots, but they are utilized mostly at night by deer. Hunting staging areas and travel corridors tend to produce better results than hunting the edges of food plots."

Apalachicola WMA still-hunt area, located in Wakulla County, is a broken corridor of land located along the east side of the Ochlockonee River. The area is open to General Gun hunts through the end of January. Then a 10-day non-quota archery/muzzleloading gun hunt opens on Feb. 15.

Late-season hunting pressure in this area has typically been low, but the area can hold good numbers of deer.

Whitetails often bed in the still-hunt area to escape pressure associated with dog-hunting that occurs in the surrounding management area.

Even after dog-hunting season closes, bucks ride out the rest of the season in the still-hunt area. Lots of tributaries and sloughs lead from the river and extend into this region of the WMA. This makes access to buck hidey-holes an easy task with the use of a small boat or canoe.

The still-hunt area is also home to a unique variety of white oak called the overcup oak, not found in the more southern portions of the state.

Its nuts drop early in the hunting season, but the acorns from this tree are extremely rot-resistant. During years where mast production is heavy, deer feed heavily on overcup acorns well into February.

Apalachee WMA in Jackson County fronts the western shore of Lake Seminole. This area offers a generous late-season, non-quota general gun season from early December all the way to Feb. 11.

This area provides lots of marsh habitat that is loaded with aquatic vegetation. Waterfowl love it, but so do whitetails in the late season when mast crops are used up.

The WMA is home to several islands and slivers of high ground that bucks use to escape hunting pressure.

A small boat or canoe comes in handy here, allowing the savvy hunter to penetrate areas that others on foot cannot.

Eglin Air Force Base is located in Walton and Okaloosa counties and offers about 280,000 acres of accessible terrain. General gun season extends to Jan. 27, and a late-season archery/muzzleloading session continues from Feb. 14 through 24.

Due to the close proximity of the Gulf of Mexico, much of the area offers sand hill habitat. Here, ridges of turkey and blackjack oak fringe stands of mature longleaf pines. Much of the acorn mast is gone by the time the late season rolls around, and deer have already switched to browse plants such as greenbrier.

Justin Johnson is the lead biologist for Eglin. "Hunting food sources is a good idea," he suggested, "since the bucks will be where the does are.

"But the primitive-weapon hunt period falls in line with the peak breeding phase. Bucks are actively chasing does during this period, so hunting areas with lots of deer traffic in the middle of the day can produce good results."

Johnson also suggested that hunters consider penetrating deep into "walk-in" areas to escape competition and reap the benefits of less pressure.

Robert Brent WMA is situated near the town of Hosford on the border of Gadsden and Liberty counties. This area is largely underutilized, in spite of its general gun season that extends to Jan. 31, and its archery/muzzleloading season that runs from Feb. 15 through 25.

This region has experienced lots of timber harvesting over the years. Much of the habitat may not appear ideal for whitetails, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Herbaceous and woody plants in various stages of succession provide a smorgasbord of browse for deer that call this WMA home.

However, these grown-over clearcuts can be thick and vast. You need to do some serious scouting to figure out what deer are feeding on in them. In this WMA, scouting the edges of clearcuts with a focus on locating deer sign mostly associated with does can narrow down the areas to hunt

Moving back to the east, Osceola WMA in Baker and Columbia counties is one of Florida's largest tracts of public hunting land. Its general gun season extends into early January. About two-thirds of the property is closed to dog-hunting and designated for still-hunting only.

Most of the habitat consists of longleaf pine with a palmetto ground cover. The deer population in this WMA is considered sub-par, but hunters who put in time scouting can produce consistently.

Focusing on "edge" habitat where pine flatwoods meet wetlands is a solid strategy for this area. There are a few creeks that drain to the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers, along with a few large adjacent swamps where deer tend to concentrate their feeding activity. Look for areas that have been recently burned and produce a variety of succulent browse. Those burn areas that terminate adjacent to a wetland are great places to begin your scouting efforts.

These WMAs are just a few that offer late-season hunting opportunities during the months of January and February. A total of 18 such WMAs in the northern portion of the state offer archery/muzzleloading options in February. Most do not require a quota permit. A full list of these can be found in the 2007-08 Florida Hunting Regulations booklet, available wherever hunting licenses are sold. That information can also be accessed on line at www.myfwc.com. Then follow the link to "Hunting."

DON'T GIVE UP!

I'm still amazed at how few hunters take advantage of North Florida's late season to harvest a buck. Arguably, the possibility of connecting with a buck gets better and better as the season wanes. With some areas in the peak of the rut during February, I can think of no b

etter reason to be in the deer woods right up to the last day of hunting season!

Don't overlook North Florida's late-season deer-hunting opportunities. Hunt hard and don't give up.

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