Citrus WMA Whitetails

This North-Central Region public hunting tract has given up some good bucks over the years. And last season was no exception!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Earl Donaway will always remember Dec. 11, 2004. That is the day he took a trophy 10-point buck off the Citrus Wildlife Management Area in Citrus County.

"I was hunting the first muzzleloading hunt," Donaway recalls. "I was up in a climbing stand, and it was about 8 o'clock in the morning. It was during the rut, and this buck was chasing a doe. I heard the commotion behind me, and then I saw the doe running about 15 or 20 yards behind me. She came to a stop for a moment and then took off."

Like every good deer hunter who has spent enough time in the woods to understand a bit about deer behavior, Donaway knew to be still and keep watching that same spot. Sure enough, his patience was rewarded in just a little while.

"Shortly thereafter, the buck came right down the same path," he continues. "He stopped right where the doe had stopped before she took off."

It was cold that morning, and when Donaway brought his muzzleloader up, he had to put his left arm under the support bracket on his climbing stand and swing around to try to shoot behind him. When he put the gun up, the scope was fogged up, so he could not see the crosshairs. He could see the deer, but the image was fuzzy and not optimal for shooting. Nonetheless, because he could see the deer clearly without the scope and knew he had a clean shot, he centered the muzzleloader as best he could and fired.

"The deer took off and ran maybe 50 yards," Donaway says. "I waited about 30 minutes. When I got down, I walked to where I had heard it fall. I wasn't too sure how big a deer it was at that point."

What Donaway found is one of those unique stories that make for good late-night fireside tales in hunting camp.

"The deer had hidden in a little thick area, like a bedding area," he says. "When I found him, he was lying down like he was bedding. And his head was straight up and stuck between two little trees that made a 'V.' He was looking right back toward my stand from where I'd shot.

"I thought he was still alive when I first saw him," the hunter notes. "Once I figured out that he wasn't still alive, I walked up to him and started counting the points."

When Donaway got to 10, he knew he had a really nice buck.

"I took the deer to the check station and got the live weight on it," he says. "He weighed 162 pounds."

But this was not the only deer that Donaway took out of the Citrus WMA during the 2004-2005 season.

"I hunted there the last weekend, which was Jan. 8 and 9," he points out. "That weekend I shot a 4-point buck that weighed 125 pounds and had a nice symmetrical rack that was really pretty. It was a nice way to cap off the season. And when I took it to the check station, I found out that the big deer I killed was the biggest buck taken during the season."

He also gave a friend a shot at a good buck.

"I had actually found four different bucks when I was scouting," he notes. "I put a friend on another one, which he saw. It was a 6- or an 8-point, but unfortunately he missed it."

As you might guess from what has already been revealed, Donaway isn't a novice at hunting on the Citrus WMA. He had been trying for seven years to take a trophy buck off the management area.

"I've been hunting the area a long time," he admits. "Typically I make several trips a year to the area, which is about an hour and a half from my house. I start making trips in the spring, and do some scouting then. I'm also trying to find sheds that time of year."

Sometime in August, Donaway goes to the WMA again, this time to select the spots where he is going to hunt.

"At that time, they're already putting down rubs," he advises regarding the area's bucks. "That gives me an indication that there are bucks in the area. A lot of times I'll sight bucks then."

Donaway generally does not return to the WMA until the opening of archery season, which is around the middle of November. He hunts as much as he can during that season, because there are portions of the archery season that do not require a quota hunt permit.

"Then I always put in for quota permits for muzzleloading and general gun seasons to get whatever I can," Donaway explains.

After hunting the area for so many years, Donaway was getting discouraged with the idea of ever getting a really nice buck.

"I was just about to give up on the Citrus WMA," he muses. "I was thinking I was never going to get a trophy out of there. I don't know if it was endurance or stupidity, but it paid off."

CITRUS WMA

Take a look at the Florida Buck Registry, and you see a number of decent deer from the Citrus Wildlife Management Area. The biggest deer on the registry from the WMA is a typical that scored an outstanding 152 5/8 Boone and Crockett points, killed by Melvin Arline in 1980. Arline's buck is the biggest ever taken on public land in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's North-Central Region and ranks No. 9 among all bucks from public or private land killed in the region.

The next-largest buck from the WMA scored 128 2/8 B&C points and was killed by Jerald Reid back in 1965. When you look into the 100- to 125-point class of deer, you find another 18 Citrus WMA bucks on the registry. The earliest date any of these bucks was killed was 1957; the most recent date was 2003. Clearly, this area has been producing a few quality bucks for a long period of time.

According to Rick Spratt, the wildlife biologist who oversees the Citrus WMA, the area is good for deer because of the genetics of the herd on the property and because Citrus deer are able to reach older ages.

"The area is mainly sandhill/long-leaf pine/wiregrass habitat," Spratt says. "It's not really fine deer habitat, but age and genetics will get you good deer, and there are good genetics in the area."

Why are the genetics of the deer herd better here than in other places? That is something of a mystery.

"Nobody knows the answer to that," the biologist says. "There are certain pockets nationally that come to

be known as having genetics for higher quality deer. This area just has better genetics for some reason."

The hunting season on the area is set up to allow deer to get some age on them. Although the antler rule is the same as the rest of Florida -- one antler must be 5 inches long or longer -- both general and muzzleloading gun seasons are very short and quite restrictive.

CITRUS WMA BUCKS ON THE FLORIDA BUCK REGISTRY
HUNTERYEAR TAKENB&C SCORE
Melvin Arline1980152 5/8
Jerald Reid1965126 2/8
P.B. Flowers1960125 7/8
John Bailey1957120 2/8
Bobby Denton1965118 3/8
Johnnie Rector2000116 7/8
Russell Bailey1988115
Joe Ossmann2000115
Greg Prior2003114 4/8
Michael Norris1989114
Tony Macri1986110 7/8
Ray Layton1997109 7/8
Charles Goodwin1998106
Tony Macri1987107 2/8
Melvin Arline1980152 5/8
Jessi Williams1998107 2/8
William Allen Jr.1987105 4/8
Jeff Gores1995102 6/8
Ralph Giordano1997102 2/8
Jeff Hahr1977101 6/8
Randy Johnson Jr.1978100 1/8
According to the Florida Buck Registry as of Jan. 15, 2005

"Overall, it's a very conservative hunting regime," Spratt notes. "There are four days of general gun season and four days of muzzleloading annually. There is an extended archery season, but archery is less efficient for harvesting deer. All of that allows more bucks to get to an older age."

During 2004-05, archery season ran from Nov. 13 to Dec. 5, which is slightly over three weeks. To participate, hunters had to have a special quota hunt permit for the first nine days, but after that the WMA was open for walk-in hunting.

Citrus WMA, which is located in Citrus and Hernando counties, has grown some over the past couple of years. Two years ago, it covered just 41,294 acres.

"We added two parcels that the Division of Forestry purchased," Spratt explains. "Now it's 49,042 acres, after the additions. That took place prior to last hunting season, so the two additional parcels have been hunted two years now."

Although the area is mostly sandhill habitat, it's not all uniform, which makes it more interesting to both hunters and deer than it would be as a monoculture.

"There are oak hammocks scattered here and there," Spratt describes. "There are some edges that hunters might want to check out, and several lakes."

In fact, although Bull Sink, Mansfield Pond and Five Mile Pond are quite small, Stage Pond and Horse Lake -- both located at the southern end of the WMA -- are pretty decent-sized bodies of water.

"The habitat is actually really diverse," Donaway notes. "Some areas are hardwoods with very large oaks and a lot of acorns. Other parts of it have a lot of longleaf pine. The sandhills give it a hilly terrain. There are several ponds but no wetlands."

Biologists do a good bit of management on the Citrus WMA for both deer and other s

pecies of wildlife.

"We plant iron and clay peas in the summertime, and winter rye in late winter," Spratt says. "The winter rye is primarily for turkeys, but the deer also utilize it. There are about 70 acres of food plots -- approximately 35 two-acre food plots. Not all of them get planted every year, but they are in existence."

In addition, the Division of Forestry, which owns the tract and is responsible for its management, conducts prescribed burns on the area on a regular basis.

"We do some exotic-plant control, including cogon grass," Spratt says. "We also do some timber stand improvement. That means we remove encroaching oaks that have gotten too far above the kill zone for fire. They've gotten so tall that a regular prescribed fire won't kill them. We use chain saws or tree cutters to bring them down."

Trends indicate that the land which makes up the Citrus WMA is going to be under increasing pressure in the future.

"The area around the WMA is becoming more and more developed," Spratt says. "That area is becoming more and more of an island. Citrus County is growing and growing. We had actually experienced a decline in the numbers of deer since 1999. We've just had a little upswing recently, which we think is partly related to protecting does on the WMA."

Spratt does not foresee any changes in hunting seasons as a result of the increased human population in the area.

"We won't make any changes as long as protecting the does has the effect that we want it to," he adds. "And it appears that it is having the effect of increasing the population index. But if the population index starts to significantly decline, then we may have to regulate the hunting season further."

During general gun, muzzleloading and archery seasons, hunters also may take hogs if they like. According to Spratt, there are no size or bag limits on hogs on the area.

Access to the Citrus WMA is easy for hunters. The area is located 14 miles north of Brooksville, one mile west of Inverness, and 8 miles east of Crystal River. State Route 44 is on the north, SR 480 on the south, SR 491 to the west, and SR 581 on the east.

"The area is wide open," Spratt acknowledges. "There are 15 designated entrances. There's one check station, and hunters need to go there to check all deer or hogs taken on the area."

There are a number of both improved and unimproved roads on the area, as well as many foot trails that hunters can traverse.

Camping is permitted in the Citrus WMA in designated campsites only. The Division of Forestry regulates camping, and a daily fee is required. Hunters can set up hunt camps 14 days prior to the opening of archery season. Hunt camps must be removed by 6 p.m., six days after the end of small game season. A daily campsite fee is required whether the camp is occupied or not. A permit is available for archery and small game seasons in lieu of the daily fee. For more information, contact the Withlacoochee Forestry Center in Brooksville by calling (352) 754-6896.

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