Florida's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Trophy deer can show up anyplace in Florida, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails. Here, Florida Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for a trophy buck. (November 2006)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when "the state of Florida" and the term "trophy bucks" were never used in the same sentence.

That's all changed, however, as hunters and landowners have learned to keep deer herds at manageable levels, and protect the bucks as they get older.

The state's largest typical buck remains a 14-pointer Larry Furr killed in 1977 in Gadsden County. That deer scored a whopping 168 1/8 points on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system.

While there haven't been a lot of 160-class deer taken in Florida, every year a number of bucks are killed that score in the 140s and 150s.

For this issue of Florida Game & Fish, we've talked to wildlife biologists of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and consulted the Florida Buck Registry (FBR) -- the record book of trophy Florida deer -- to see where the big deer have been produced, and where they'll likely come from in the 2006-07 season.

TOP COUNTIES

No. 1 -- Marion County

Some might argue there are better counties in the state for killing an exceptional buck, but it's hard to argue with the facts. The FBR shows more than 250 racks on the list from Marion County, surpassing all other counties in the state.

Wildlife biologist Mike Abbott said that historically, most of the bigger deer in the county came from the Ocala National Forest or nearby privately owned tracts. But due to increased hunting pressure, the deer herd in Ocala is fairly young.

The bigger deer are coming off private parcels around the forest or the horse farms in the northwest part of the county. Abbott said some of the horse farms allow limited hunting of the wooded margins, where some excellent bucks are occasionally killed.

It pays to find the enclaves of well-protected private property and seek permission to hunt them.

There's no better example than James Cason's typical 12-point that scored a hefty 151 5/8, downed on private property Nov. 26, 2004. Cason's deer matured and developed not far from a busy area of the county.

In addition to the 382,000-acre Ocala National Forest, other public lands in the county include the 8,700-acre Ft. McCoy WMA and 2,900-acre Gores Landing Unit of the Ocklawaha WMA.

No. 2 -- Madison County

When all the 2005-06 deer are scored, there'll be well over 150 bucks listed on the FBR from Madison County. Among them are 55 that scored more than 125 B&C.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, few people mentioned Madison County as a big deer area. But in the ensuing years, hunting clubs and landowners who practiced quality deer management have demonstrated this county's potential.

Wildlife biologist Matt Pollock offered that Madison has good soil, particularly north of Interstate 10.

That means the county has clay in the soil, and there are nutrients. Farm crops and wild plants pick up the nutrients, which are passed on when deer eat the plants.

No. 3 -- Jefferson County

Wildlife biologist Arlo Kane noted that many of the things that apply to Madison County apply to neighboring Jefferson County as well.

Kane explained that the "red hills soils" of South Georgia extend through Leon County and into Jefferson.

To turn into trophy animals, bucks need three things -- age, nutrition and good genetics. The deer certainly get better nutrition here, due to the county's better-than-average soils.

While there are no public lands in the county, two things help account for the big deer over the years. For one thing, all the private land in the county that's available for hunting is leased, and just about every one of these areas has some sort of trophy-buck criteria.

There are also several plantations where deer and other wildlife are well protected. An invitation to hunt one of these areas is a prescription for trophy success.

No. 4 -- Bay County

If there's ever been a county with poorer-looking soil than Bay County, I'd like to see it. This coastal area has soil that's more appropriately referred to as sand. Yet it has given up exceptional bucks and keeps producing them, year after year.

One of the finest bucks ever killed in the county was taken in October 2002 during the opening weekend of the archery season, when Panama City resident Jayson Gay arrowed a 10-point that scored 138 2/8 Pope and Young Club points. Gay had seen the huge buck the year before and was fortunate enough to set up on the buck's trail that eventful morning.

There even have been a handful of FBR deer that were taken on public lands, but most have to come off private hunting leases.

Public lands open to hunting include the 21,000-acre Tyndall Air Force Base WMA, 12,400-acre Point Washington WMA and State Forest, 6,900-acre Pine Log WMA and 40,900-acre Econfina Creek WMAs.

No. 5 -- Jackson

Jackson County is in elite company, having posted just under 150 entries on the FBR. There is public land in the county, and some excellent deer are killed there every season. But the lion's share of the bigger deer are coming off private property.

Jackson County probably has as much or more agriculture as anywhere in the western tier of Panhandle counties. Farmers grow crops such as peanuts, soybeans and corn, and deer take advantage of those nutrient sources.

In the 1970s when deer hunting was gaining in popularity, a considerable amount of land was wide-open to hunting. That, as you might expect, is no longer the case. Leases in the county today command top dollar, and it's not too uncommon for hunters to pay $10 to $15 per acre to hunt deer.

Jackson County can also lay claim to having more bucks on the FBR Top Ten Non-Typical list than any other county in the state. The county's two listings are the late Henry Brinson's 29-point buck killed in 1959 that scored 186 B&C and Tommy Sims' 15-pointer killed in the 1994-95 season that measured 172 inches.

These two deer occupy the No. 3 and No. 7 spots, respectively.

Public lands in the co

unty are the 8,000-acre Apalachee and 7,400-acre Upper Chipola River WMAs.

No. 6 -- Sumter

Wildlife biologist Mike Abbott pointed to Sumter County as having better soil than some of the surrounding counties, and that translates to good things for its deer herd. When traveling through the county, you'll notice there are lots of live oak hammocks. Most years, that means tons of acorns for the deer.

As elsewhere, all of the available hunting acreage not owned by the state is leased by hunting clubs.

There are a number of ranching operations where trespass laws are rigorously enforced. Those open-terrain areas serve as sanctuaries for deer.

There's also considerable public land open to hunting in Sumter County. These areas are the 56,400-acre Richloam, 10,500-acre Jumper Creek, and 9,500-acre Half Moon WMAs.

No. 7 -- Nassau County

Although this county is not historically known for lots of big deer, Matt Pollock noted that it's seeing some nice deer now. The reasons, the biologist said, involve a combination of factors, including hunting groups who practice good deer management and a surprising amount of agriculture.

"It certainly doesn't hurt, either, that the soil is a little better than some other places," he added.

Public-hunting lands in the county are the 13,900-acre Nassau and 3,600-acre Ralph E. Simmons WMAs.

No. 8 -- Pasco County

Pasco County has experienced tremendous developmental growth over the last decade, but still has good whitetail habitat.

Biologists say the best hunting is near State Route 41 to the northwest of Dade City, and farther east in the Withlacoochee State Forest area.

There's still a good bit of ranch land, and most of these areas have lots of deer. Features you tend to see in these areas are live oak hammocks and scattered cypress heads. Such areas are great places to hunt, particularly during the rut, which peaks in late October.

There are also plenty of traditional pine and saw palmetto flatwoods, which most Florida hunters are accustomed to seeing. These areas can become unbelievably thick and of little value to wildlife unless they're burned on a periodic basis.

There are two public areas in the county: the 34,300-acre Green Swamp West Unit and 5,200-acre Upper Hillsborough WMAs.

TOP WMAs

Camp Blanding WMA

At first glance, it may seem odd to predict that a number of trophy bucks will come off the 56,200-acre Camp Blanding WMA this year -- but not when you factor in that most hunting there has been restricted since the 9/11 attacks. Earlier this year, Florida National Guard officials reached an agreement with the FWCC to open a good portion of their training base to hunting once again.

Giving bucks a chance to mature is critical for producing trophy deer, and the 2006-07 season should offer hunters a shot at whitetails that have been unmolested for four seasons.

Hunters will see some changes to their former hunting areas, however.

The dog-hunt area has been moved north of SR 16, and two nine-day quota hunt periods are planned for the that area. A total of 325 quota permits were issued for each hunt.

All still-hunt opportunities -- including archery and muzzleloading action -- have been consolidated south of SR 16. Legal bucks in the still-hunt section must have at least one antler with three or more points. On the dog-hunt side, legal bucks need only have 5-inch antlers.

Hunters need to keep in mind that the purpose of the base is to train National Guard troops. The changes and reconfigurations of old hunt areas were necessary so that hunting will not interfere with that mission.

Ocala WMA

The Ocala WMA covers 382,000 acres in Marion, Putnam, and Lake counties. Not only is it big, but also it's one of the most popular WMAs in north-central Florida, resulting in a lot of hunting pressure.

Biologist Abbott described over half the area as "scrub habitat" with scrub oaks, saw palmetto, and sand pines. Most years, deer get plenty of quality mast in this habitat. He suggested scouting areas where clear-cuts abut the scrub.

Other areas to target are pine flatwoods that had controlled burns within the last year or two.

Eglin AFB WMA

Eglin AFB doubles not only as an Air Force armament and training center, but also as a great hunting area in Walton and Okaloosa counties. Roughly 65 percent of the base's 464,000 acres is open to hunting.

Eglin has something for all types of deer hunters. There are dog-hunt, archery-only, and still-hunt-only areas. Some of the regions are managed for quota hunts and have check stations, while others are open all season.

One area that has gotten rave reviews, however, is the 8,000-acre archery-only area. On February 18, 2004, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kenneth Davis arrowed a 10-point buck that scored 126 2/8, thus qualifying for the P&Y All-Time Record book.

Last season, David Brooks of Niceville downed a fine 9-pointer that scored 124 3/8, missing the P&Y benchmark of 125 by less than an inch.

Here, unlike in other areas of the state, October and November are not the months of the rut. On the sprawling military base, the rut kicks into full swing in early February.

Choctawhatchee River WMA

The Panhandle has some tremendous public places to deer hunt, and one of them is the 57,300-acre Choctawhatchee River WMA in Bay, Holmes, Washington and Walton counties.

Some hunters don't like the Choctawhatchee River area because it stretches for more than 30 miles along the river and in most places extends only a quarter to a half-mile from the water.

That can be a plus, however, for those who are motivated to hunt here. Almost all access to the area is by boat. But the entire area is open to hunting, and you generally don't hear or see another hunter.

The East River Island and Holmes Creek units of the WMA are open only to archery and muzzleloading hunters.

Green Swamp West Unit WMA

Several years ago, the FWCC decided to turn the Green Swamp West Unit WMA into a special-opportunity area and sell a limited number of permits for hunting on the 34,300 acres in Pasco County. Legal bucks had to have at least one antler sporting four points or more.

Wildlife biologist Victor Echaves remembers people laughing and saying no one would pay the $100 fee for such a hunt.

"That first year when people saw th

e size of some of those deer, they quit laughing," he pointed out.

One of those bucks that got everyone's attention was James Stovall's state record non-typical that scored an unbelievable 206 P&Y points. That is the highest-scoring buck ever killed in Florida, regardless of the hunting method.

Permits for this area are now in great demand. There are two archery hunts, with 54 hunters allowed on each, plus three general gun hunts with the same number of hunters allowed on each.

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