Florida's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Florida's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Deer can be found in every corner of Florida, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places to bag a deer this fall. (October 2008)

No question, Florida has deer and plenty of them. They seem to know when opening day comes around and find ways to make themselves scarce, but biologists say that every county in the state has at least a decent deer herd. Thus, no matter where you live in the Sunshine State, you have plenty of opportunities to bring home some venison.

Where are the best prospects are for bagging your buck or doe this season? To find out, we talked to biologists across the state for their recommendations for where to go this fall, on both public and private land.

One thing all those biologists told us is that every year, it's getting harder for them to make any kind of predictions about private land.

That's because they no longer have the same level of information about hunt clubs and private lands that they were once able to accumulate.

In the past, each region was responsible for issuing antlerless deer tags to private landowners, and biologists had a pretty good grasp on what the deer herd in the counties was doing. Several years ago, however, the state moved the antlerless deer program to the Tallahassee office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Ever since, regional biologists have lacked that close connection to what's happening on private land. So while they can make some general comments, they can't provide a specific level of information about the state's wildlife management areas.

The WMAs we picked for this article are not necessarily the best in the state or even in each region. Most of our top WMAs are kept that way by offering very limited hunts, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system.

Since it's already September, it's far too late to apply for any of those hunts. The WMAs we're looking at here all have a least a portion of the season open for either walk-up hunting or with a daily quota permit.

NORTHWEST REGION
Regional biologist Cory Morea said the first place he would send any hunter without a quota permit is the Blackwater WMA.

"I'd suggest this area for archery season particularly," he added. "It's a large area and really underutilized.

"It has a robust deer population and is a good area during general gun season as well."

Toward the east, Aucilla WMA is also a good bet.

"It's another area with a good deer population and a diverse habitat," Morea noted. "It has a smaller still-hunt area, but this year, the area will actually be about 5,000 acres larger."

Not to be forgotten is Joe Budd WMA. Although all hunts require a quota permit, half those permits are given out at the check station on the Thursday before the hunt.

"Joe Budd is always popular because of the robust deer herd, as well as the number of quality deer that are taken out of the area," Morea offered.

When you start looking at private land, FWC biologist Arlo Kane said that the areas north of Interstate 10 are better than south of the highway.

"Jackson County and Gadsden County are the best counties to the east," he said. "They have a lot better habitat in the clay hills area, where there are better soils and a lot of agriculture. And Holmes County actually has some good deer in it -- it's coming along pretty well. It has some good habitat."

At the far western end of the Panhandle, the portions of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties north of I-10 all are good as well, Kane added.

"You're talking about a lot of deer there, but not necessarily high-quality deer," he cautioned.

"That area probably has the highest density of deer in the state."

NORTHEAST REGION
Biologist Mike Abbott said that very few WMAs in the Northeast Region still offer portions of the deer season that are not under quota.

For hunters who don't have a permit, however, he said the best bet is probably Bull Creek WMA.

"Initially there's a quota, but then it opens up to the general public," he pointed out. "There's only one way in and one way out. That gives us some level of access control and has allowed us to have a little better deer herd.

It's a well-managed piece of property, and the habitat is in good shape, with a reasonable deer population. And on this property, there are opportunities to get away from people."

The next best place, Abbott said, is probably the Lake Delancy Unit of Ocala WMA.

"I think it has a fair to good deer population, but it's probably more fair than good," he confessed.

When it comes to private land, Abbott warned, deer densities in any given county can be localized.

"If you have good-quality habitat and lower hunting pressure, you can have a locally high deer herd," he explained.

"But also, you can go not too far away and have the situation change in the opposite direction, with a very low deer population." You need to look more at the set of conditions, rather than at entire counties.

"You need to look at the amount of deer habitat that's available, the quality of that deer habitat and the amount of hunting pressure." Abbott said.

"All of those factors play into the numbers of deer that you're going to have."

In large measure, habitat is based on soil composition. There are a couple of soil types -- and thus, habitat types -- that hunters should look for.

"Good deer habitat is usually in an earlier plant successional stage," he said. "That means there may have been some thinning or some clear-cutting going on. So you have grasses and forbs and brushy low plants, as opposed to a mature pine stand that has a closed canopy so you're not getting sunlight reaching the ground."

Oak hammocks also are good, he noted, and are something else you should look for.

"As far as soils are concerned, get away from the deep sandy flatwoods," he advised. "Some of the soils going up through western Marion County have clay subsoils with sandy loam topsoil, and those are pretty productive and have some reasonable deer habitat."

All of Osceola County in the southern part of the region is a good bet.

NORTH-CENTRAL REGION
"There are all kinds of places you can go hunting without a permit after the first nine days," said biologist John Alt. "But they won't be of the same quality as Andrews or Jennings Forest. You can't have an area open for a 57-day general gun season and have the same quality that you do on an area that had a nine-day season."

Both Alt and biologist Matt Pollock suggested Tide Swamp and Spring Creek.

"Both of these areas are units of the Big Bend WMA," Pollock said. "Tide Swamp is under quota for the first nine days, but it's open for the other 49 days of the season.

"It's a good area to hunt. Spring Creek has the same format."

Although Camp Blanding is under quota for most hunting seasons, hunters in the archery-only area need just a daily hunt permit that they can pick up at the check station.

Are you looking for other good places for archery season? Alt recommended Goethe, Raiford or Log Landing WMAs.

"There's no quota during archery season on any of these areas," he pointed out. "They're all pretty decent places to hunt.

"Log Landing will be open for the first time this coming year. It's a walk-in area and should be pretty good."

When it comes to private land, biologist Joe Prenger said that some of the best areas he's seen are in Levy County.

"Levy County has some big contiguous blocks of forested land. There are big landowners there who are in the Forest Stewardship Program and doing a good job managing for timber and wildlife," he emphasized. "We're also working with a landowner group in the Watermelon Pond area who is very aware of land management and how it impacts wildlife."

Prenger said some of the northern counties are also good for deer.

"My general sense is that Madison, Hamilton and Suwannee counties are in pretty decent shape," he said.

"There's a lot of agriculture, and some good soils."

SOUTHWEST REGION
"Our prime areas for numbers of deer are typically Green Swamp WMA and Croom WMA," explained biologist Jason Buron. "Both those areas offer periods with no quotas."

table#specialTable {padding: none;background: black; font-family: Arial,Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align: left;font-size: 11px;}table#specialTable tr {color: red; background:blue;}#specialTable td {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #cccccc; color:black;border-right: 1px solid black; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noright {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: none;border-left: none; border-bottom: 1px solidblack;}#specialTable td.noleft {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: 1px solid black;border-left: none; border-bottom:1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noborder {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #669966;color: black ;border-right: none; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable th {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #ffffff; color:black;font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align:left;font-size: 9px;}#specialTable tr.offcolor td { background: #ffffff;}#specialTable tr.footer {}#specialTable td.footer {}#specialTable h3 { margin: 0; padding:0;font-size: 15px; border-bottom: 2pxsolid #669966;}.bottom { 2px solid black;}

Top Counties By Region

CountyRegion
EscambiaNorthwest
Gadsden Northwest
JacksonNorthwest
OkaloosaNorthwest
Santa RosaNorthwest
HamiltonNorth-Central
LevyNorth-Central
MadisonNorth-Central
SuwanneeNorth-Central
MarionNortheast
OsceolaNortheast
DeSotoSouthwest
HardeeSouthwest
OkeechobeeSouth

Burton added that the two areas are very different from one another.

"Croom," he described, "is primarily upland sandhill-type habitat. It's attractive to people who like to keep their feet dry. And it's easy to reach, right off I-75, very accessible.

"There are large roads through it, so hunters can typically get within a mile of anywhere they ever want to reach. It's easily huntable. And there are lots of nice big pine trees to hang your stands on."

Croom is bordered by the Withlacoochee River, and there's a narrow river swamp along the edge.

"The swamp is really a small flood plain," Burton pointed out.

"It accounts for only about five percent of the area. There is some cypress swamp in it, but the majority of people hunt in the uplands."

Green Swamp WMA, as its name suggests, is almost all swamp.

"There's a lot of swampland and a lot of flatwoods," Bur

ton said. "It's heavily used, and is more of a rugged-type hunt. You're going to have to work harder. It's fairly accessible, but not to the extent of Croom. The road system isn't as extensive."

Regional biologist Jeff McGrady said that the hunting season on Croom is relatively short, but that only the first nine days are under permit.

"That area historically has had a pretty good deer population," he added.

The conditions in Green Swamp can change a great deal, based on weather events.

"It can be a fairly dry area," Burton said. "But if we've had a lot of rain or a couple of tropical storms, you can expect to be wading. During archery season, you need to be prepared for mosquitoes, deer flies and what have you, especially when there's water.

"It can be really rough before the first couple of frosts."

McGrady noted, however, that the deer population on Green Swamp is more moderate than good, and that on that area, the deer density is not as high as on some other areas.

Burton admitted that in the Southwest Region, making any predictions about private land is really tough.

However, he said that hunting near any of the WMAs should be good because of the management that's taking place on those areas.

As good places for deer, McGrady suggested private land in Hardee and DeSoto counties.

"Both those counties have good deer habitat," he said, "and they're two of our least-developed counties.

"That contributes somewhat to their having higher deer populations. Most of the private lands are in large holdings and typically have very light harvest on the properties by virtue of their size. So there's just less pressure on the deer herd in those counties."

table#specialTable {padding: none;background: black; font-family: Arial,Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align: left;font-size: 11px;}table#specialTable tr {color: red; background:blue;}#specialTable td {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #cccccc; color:black;border-right: 1px solid black; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noright {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: none;border-left: none; border-bottom: 1px solidblack;}#specialTable td.noleft {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: 1px solid black;border-left: none; border-bottom:1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noborder {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #669966;color: black ;border-right: none; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable th {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #ffffff; color:black;font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align:left;font-size: 9px;}#specialTable tr.offcolor td { background: #ffffff;}#specialTable tr.footer {}#specialTable td.footer {}#specialTable h3 { margin: 0; padding:0;font-size: 15px; border-bottom: 2pxsolid #669966;}.bottom { 2px solid black;}

<td colspan="1" class="noborder"3.

BEST WMAs FOR 2008 DEER HUNTS

# WMA Region Acres
1.BlackwaterNorthwest191,148
2.AucillaNorthwest47,532
Joe BuddNorthwest11,039
4.Bull CreekNortheast23,646
5.Ocala WMANortheast392,408
6.Big Bend WMA/Tide Swamp UnitNorth-Central19,538
7.Big Bend WMA/ Spring Creek UnitNorth-Central14,600
8.Camp BlandingNorth-Central56,197
9.GoetheNorth-Central48,442
10.RailfordNorth-Central9,141
11.Log LandingNorth-Central1,147
12.Green SwampSouthwest49,768
13.CroomSouthwest20,595
14.Big CypressSouth565,848
15.J.W. CorbettSouth60,288

SOUTH REGION
Biologist Mike Anderson said that for numbers of deer in the South Region, he would recommend Big Cypress WMA and J. W. Corbett WMA.

"As of just the end of December last year, hunters had killed 268 deer off Big Cypress and 150 off Corbett," he said.

Both of those areas have liberal seasons, with no quota permits required except for the first nine days.

There was a good bit of management going on in those tracts this year, as well.

"There have been a lot of prescribed burns on Corbett this year," he said, "and it remains to be seen what kind of f

ires we'll have on the Big Cypress. Corbett has had a little higher water than last year, but it's dropping quickly."

Anderson said that Florida Power and Light has also done a lot of construction on the power lines going through J. W. Corbett.

"That interfered with some of our hunts last year," he noted. "Hopefully, it will all be done by the time the season opens. But there's not much we can do about it."

After a couple of lean years --because of deer losses and a poor mast crop due to hurricane damage, as well as other factors -- Tim Regan said that the 2008-09 season looks like it will be a better year.

"The deer made a pretty good rebound. And then last year, there was a super-heavy mast crop, once the trees that didn't get knocked over recovered," he described.

"If hunters are going to look for deer on private land, the county that looks the best is Okeechobee, just because it's so big and not developed.

"As you get toward the coast, there's more and more development, so the center of the state is better. There's just more wild land and more native habitat."

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.