Florida's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
September 30, 2010
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 2009)
It's that time again -- deer season. There's no question that Florida has plenty of deer, and plenty of hunters who will be looking for them. Virtually anywhere in the Sunshine State there's an opportunity for you to bring home some venison.
That said, it's also true that some areas harbor better deer herds than others. Since a hunter's goal is to bring back some venison, your best bet is to go where the deer are.
To find out where the best prospects are for bagging your whitetail this season, we talked to biologists across the state to get their recommendations for both public and private lands this fall. One thing they all told us is that it's getting harder and harder for them to make predictions about private lands. That's because they don't have the same level of information about hunt clubs and private lands that they once did.
In the past, when each region was responsible for issuing antlerless deer tags to private landowners, biologists had a pretty good handle on what the deer herd on private land was like. However, since the state moved the antlerless deer program to the Tallahassee office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission several years ago, regional biologists no longer keep such close tabs on what's afoot.
"Unfortunately, we don't have good survey data capability on private land," explained Corey Morea, Deer Management Program Coordinator. "We do a random sample survey of hunters and that gets us to harvest effort and harvest, and we extrapolate from that to come up with overall harvest. Anything beyond that is just guessing."
Overall, the FWC feels that the deer population is stable statewide. Morea said the spring drought probably didn't have a dramatic effect on the deer herd.
"Deer are pretty much adapted to the local climate, and they're able to tolerate it," he said.
As far as the wildlife management areas are concerned, the ones we picked for this article are not necessarily the best in the state or even in the region. Most of Florida's top WMAs are kept that way by having very limited hunts, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since you are reading this long after the deadline for applying for those hunts, we eliminated WMAs that are managed entirely under either system.
The WMAs we are covering all have at least a portion of the season open for either walk-in hunting or hunting with a daily hunt permit available at the check station.
There's one other thing you should know: The FWCC is looking at hunting seasons across the state. Beginning back in April, the FWC began considering possible changes to deer hunting zones and dates. The purpose of any changes would be to better align season dates with the period of the rut in different parts of the state. Under the resulting proposal the state would be divided into five zones instead of three, and the dates would vary somewhat from existing hunting season dates. Those changes are not slated to take affect until the 2010-2011 hunting season on private lands, and even later during the 2011-2012 on public lands.
In the Northwest Region, one tract with a non-quota period and a good deer population is the Aucilla WMA in Jefferson and Taylor counties.
"That area has a pretty good deer population and a variety of habitats," Morea said. "Habitat includes hardwood bottoms, cypress domes and some pine plantations. Between the variety of habitats and the good population levels, that area should offer a quality hunting opportunity without having to get a quota permit."
On Aucilla, there are both still-hunt and dog-hunt portions.
"So that area offers the flexibility of both of those options," Morea noted.
Don't overlook Joe Budd WMA, which is always an excellent area. Although it doesn't have a general gun season, Joe Budd has archery and muzzleloading gun hunts through the period when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting.
"It does require quota permits, but a lot of them are walk-up permits," Morea offered. "Year in and year out, this is a quality area that hunters look forward to hunting. It has a variety of habitats and a lot of topography, which is rare for Florida. Since this area has gone to 3 points on a side, it's starting to build up a larger population of mature deer. It's always a good area."
The third area Morea recommended in the Northwest Region is Blackwater WMA.
"It's a large area where hunters can find spots that don't receive a lot of pressure, if they look a little bit," he said. "It has some beautiful longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, and there are drains that go through the area that are thicker and provide a lot of good funnels for hunters to set up on."
One more spot to try is the Choctawhatchee River WMA.
"There are no quota permits required, and the area has a longer season that hunters can enjoy," Morea explained. "Because it's along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that hunters like to get into. It has enough area that hunters may be able to find a spot that's not receiving much pressure."
The counties in the Northwest Region that produce the most deer are those in the Red Hills area, and those with agriculture.
"You're talking Leon, Gadsden and Jackson counties," said biologist Arlo Kane. "Look north of I-10, where there's good soil near the borders with Alabama and Georgia. In Jackson County, there's a lot of agriculture, which produces good deer."
Ironically, these areas produce not only a lot of deer, they produce the best deer in the region, as well.
Other areas with high deer populations are farther west. However, these counties aren't going to produce the quality deer of the area around Tallahassee.
"There we're talking Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties," Kane added. "Again, look north of the Interstate. Those are the areas where we have the highest deer populations."
For public land, biologist John Ault suggested looking at Snipe Island, Tide Swamp and Spring Creek. All three of these are units of the Big Bend WMA.
"Snipe Island is a
good area because it has a short season," Ault said. "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."
On Tide Swamp, the first nine days are under quota, and for the next 16 days, you have to get a daily hunt permit from the check station. However, after that it's open for the rest of the season.
According to Ault, Spring Creek is very similar to Tide Swamp. It's under quota for the first nine days but is open for the rest of the season.
All three units are located in Taylor County.
When you start looking at private lands in the North-Central Region, biologist Scott Talley said the best soils for growing numbers of deer are in the north, including Madison and Hamilton counties. He also suggested looking in Levy County, in the area around Otter Creek, Gulf Hammock, and Fowler's Bluff.
"There are some pretty good areas there and there are some pretty good deals to be had on tracts of land for people to purchase for hunt clubs," he noted.
The two areas biologist Jen Williams recommended are Bull Creek and Ocala WMA. The first nine days of the Bull Creek season are under quota, but after that no permit is required.
Williams also likes Ocala WMA, but she doesn't particularly recommend one unit over another one.
"There's no quota requirement for the Pipeline Unit on Ocala, but there's also a lengthy dog-hunting season there," she said. "On the Lake Delancy and Hopkins Prairie units, you need a permit during the first nine days, but after that they're open."
There also are two new areas opening up in the Northeast Region this year that hunters may want to check out. Although there is no data to indicate what they're going to be like, the fact that they're new may mean a golden opportunity for hunters to get into an area they haven't seen before.
"These areas are Lake Monroe WMA in Volusia County," Williams began. "The other is Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and it's a big area in Polk and Osceola counties. Neither one of them require quota permits."
Some of the better counties in the region, according to biologist Mark Aselson, are Volusia County and parts of Marion County.
"There are some heavier soils in parts of Marion County," he explained. "And some of the landowners and hunt clubs in Volusia County have decent deer populations."
Portions of Lake County also have good deer populations, Aselson confirmed.
"But remember that some portions of counties are better than other portions of those same counties because of habitat and the amount of development," he concluded.
"Green Swamp and Croom WMAs are the best two where hunters can go for deer without a quota permit," said biologist Jason Burton. "There are only a few other areas in the region with non-quota periods. One is Chassahowitzka WMA, after the first nine days, and another is the Kissimmee River Public Use Area."
Chassahowitzka WMA has deer, but it's never produced the numbers of the other two WMAs because it's a very wet area.
"You have to be willing to walk through cypress swamp to get back to most of it," he said.
Although Green Swamp WMA also is hard to hunt, the biologist said there's better road access.
It's also a bigger area, roughly 50,000 acres," Burton said. "If you want to hunt in the swamp, just keep walking, because you'll get there. Just follow the mosquitoes."
Hunters generally take quite a few deer out of Green Swamp WMA.
"Some of the biggest deer in this region come out of Green Swamp, but you can expect to put in a lot of work," Burton said.
Burton doubts that the spring drought had much of a negative effect on the deer herd in Green Swamp.
"The biggest thing is that if we stay dry, hunters will be able to get into Green Swamp better," he emphasized. "Whether that will factor out to more deer, I don't know. But if it stays dry the only place that will have water will be the swamp, so the deer will be concentrated there. There isn't anywhere else for them to go."
Croom, on the other hand, is primarily upland sandhill-type habitat. It has good road access throughout, and is easily accessible on foot. Burton thinks the spring drought probably won't make any difference in this area either, even if it persists into the fall.
"The only significant water on Croom is the Withlacoochee River," Burton said. "There are a few ephemeral ponds on the area, but I wouldn't expect drought conditions to have much impact."
Kissimmee Public Use Area is hard to hunt unless you have an airboat.
"It's a long, narrow strip along the Kissimmee River," Burton described. "Hunters do take some deer, but we don't run a station there. I think it would be pretty low on my list."
When it comes to private lands, regional biologist Jeff McGrady pointed to two counties -- Hardee and DeSoto.
"They support some of the higher deer densities in this region," he said. "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. So the deer herds in those counties are more dense and are subject to less hunting pressure."
In the South Region, Big Cypress and J. W. Corbett WMAs have long been the best places to go if you want to kill a deer, and that definitely is still the case.
"Big Cypress and Corbett WMAs are the two main areas in the South Region for hunting with no quotas," said Wes Seitz, FWC South Region public hunt areas biologist. "They have a good herd size and there's a substantial harvest every year. Although you're competing with a lot of other hunters, you still have pretty good chances of bagging a deer. Hunters have a lot of land to explore on both those areas."
When it comes to private lands, nothing beats Okeechobee County, just because it's big and has so little development.
"Okeechobee is still the best area for hunting on private lands," agreed Laura Knipp, FWC South Region private lands biologist. "Male deer go into rut later than in some other places. It's a good environment because there's more vegetation. It creates a better opportunity for hunters to get their deer during hunting season."