Florida's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks
September 30, 2010
Trophy deer can show up anywhere in Florida. But for producing big whitetails, some areas are in a class by themselves. Here, we take an in-depth look at what parts of the Sunshine State are best for a trophy buck. (November 2009)
Big deer can pop up anywhere in Florida. Almost every county in the state can brag of at least one big buck, including such unlikely candidates as Palm Beach County and even Collier County.
This is confirmed by a look at the Florida Buck Registry, which keeps track of big deer that hunters kill in the state. In fact, if you want a trophy-class buck, the FBR listings can help you locate a good place to go. To kill a big buck, you need to hunt somewhere with a history of producing big deer.
Established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the FBR provides hunters with the opportunity to have antlers from deer they have killed scored and placed on a list of big bucks taken in the state. By studying the registry we can get a picture of where big bucks historically have been produced.
Although the FBR began listing deer back in 1996 and includes many racks from even earlier, here we've only looked at bucks scoring more than 130 points on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system that were taken during the past few years. After all, we want to know where big bucks are coming from now, not where they were coming from 15 years ago. That's particularly important since six counties -- Hillsborough, Flagler, Orange, Taylor, Volusia and Wakulla-- all have put typical bucks scoring 130 or more B&C points on the FBR for the first time.
When we start looking at the wildlife management areas, things get more difficult. For these tracts, we asked the FWC biologists for their picks by region of the WMAs most likely to give up some big bucks.
Most of the WMAs with the potential for producing big deer are managed under either the Special Opportunity Hunt system or the Quota Hunt system. For those tracts, it's too late to get permits for this year.
However, information about those areas gives you an idea of where to start planning for next year's buck. Many WMAs are open for foot traffic throughout the year, so you can spend the spring doing some scouting for next year as well.
You need to be aware that each WMA has its own set of rules. Not all areas are open, and there may be regulations about where you can and cannot go during different seasons of the year. Read the brochures, and know before you go.
No. 1 -- Bay County
This one's a sleeper. You really wouldn't think of Bay County, with its deep sandy soil and swampland, as being a haven for big bucks. However, it's No. 1 on our list, with 13 bucks of 130 B&C points or more.
Bay County is in the Panhandle, but it's west of the Red Hills region and doesn't have the heavy clay soils associated with good nutrition for big deer. The habitat is a mixture of slash pine, sand pine and titi bottoms, all of which are poor deer habitat. A few oak ridges break up that pattern, providing better range for deer.
However, north of Interstate Highway 10, the soils are better, and good management can offset a lot of deficiencies. More hunt clubs are developing quality deer management programs and instituting restrictive antler size limits. They're letting the bucks get older and taking some of the does off the property so the herd is closer to the number of deer that the available habitat can support.
No. 2 -- Hamilton County
This year, Hamilton County moves up to No. 2. Here, it's all about the soil. Good soils mean good nutrition for deer and that translates into bigger deer with bigger racks.
In Hamilton County, there's not as much agriculture as there is in some of the other northern tier counties. However, a lot of the land here is in tree farms. Such tracts, when well managed, produce good deer habitat.
Another factor is good management on other private lands. Much of the private property is controlled by hunt clubs, many of which are doing an excellent job of grooming the habitat for deer. They have instituted quality deer management programs, and are letting bucks get some age on them.
No. 3 -- Jefferson County
Jefferson County comes in third place this year. Despite increasing urbanization in the Panhandle, particularly in many traditional hunting areas closer to Tallahassee, this upper tier of counties still is the place to go for big deer in Florida.
This includes not only Jefferson County, but also the entire area of west Florida that has clay soils. This region often is called the Red Hills, and stretches from Jackson County on the west over to Jefferson on the east.
As a result of these better soils, especially in areas where farmers are using a lot of fertilizer on crops on which the deer feed, the animals have excellent nutrition and can grow to a larger size and produce better antlers.
No. 4 -- Madison County
Much of what applies to Jefferson County also can be said of Madison County. The county has good soils, particularly north of I-10, and many hunt clubs are practicing good management that results in a balanced and healthy herd.
In Madison County, you have real dirt with minerals in it, as opposed to the sandy base found farther south.
No. 5 -- Leon County
Despite increasing urbanization around the Capital City, there are still places here to find a big deer, particularly up around the quail-hunting plantations to the north of Tallahassee. Despite its urban character, Leon County is part of the northern tier of counties that have better soils than much of the rest of the state.
Here, good land management, including controlled burning and the planting of food plots, creates habitat that's ideal for quail, and also for deer.
No. 6 -- Polk County
Much of Polk County is still rural, so there's a lot of agriculture and some horse and cattle farms. On those private lands, there's supplemental feeding of deer going on, whether it's deliberate or just leftover livestock feed. That supplemental nutrition helps produce bigger deer.
This is also the highest-ranking county not found in the northern tier or Panhandle counties.
Plus, outside the region's WMAs, the deer aren't getting a lot of hunting pressure. What hunting takes place tends to be managed through clubs, using selective harvest rules and doing some direct management for big racks.
No. 7 -- Jackson County
At the western end of the Red Hills, Jefferson County also has good habitat and nutrition for deer. Here again, hunt clubs and their management programs for quality deer dominate the landscape.
This area also is far enough from Tallahassee that the rampant growth taking place in Gadsden and Leon counties hasn't yet affected the county. Finally, there still is a great deal of agriculture here, which translates into good groceries for deer.
No. 8 -- Marion County
Marion County is horse country. There are large tracts of land under intensive management as grazing land for horses, and that translates into lots of inadvertent supplemental feeding of deer. Fertilization of pastures also means improved soils. All of those conditions add up to one of the key ingredients in producing big bucks: good nutrition.
No. 9 -- Osceola County
In central Florida's Osceola County, much of the land is in cattle ranches and sod farms. Although neither one lends itself to good deer production without additional management, some agricultural practices associated with these land uses improve habitat for deer. Controlled burns are good examples.
In addition, a number of ranches provide supplemental feed to the deer, while others have plenty of spillage of grains that the whitetails utilize. Either way the deer eat well in this region.
No. 10 -- Alachua County
In Alachua County, in the north-central portion of the peninsula, has the advantage of good soil composition. Most of the county is in private property, which means it doesn't get the heavy hunting pressure. Bucks have a chance to attain an older age.
Although there's less row-crop agriculture now than there has been in the past, and a good bit of land has been converted to pine plantations, the county still supports a good deer herd with its fair share of big bucks.
Fortunately, many of the pine stands provide a lot of edge effect where they meet hardwood forests and prairies. That means a lot of browse for deer.
Upper Chipola River WMA --Upper Chipola River is a relatively small WMA covering only a little more than 7,000 acres in Jackson County. General gun season is short, comprising only Thanksgiving weekend and Dec. 12 through Jan. 1.
Choctawhatchee River WMA -- Not only is the Choctawhatchee River WMA on our list for lots of deer, it's also on our list for big deer.
"Because it's along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that hunters like to get into," said biologist Corey Morea. "It has enough area that hunters may be able to find a spot that's not receiving much pressure."
Choctawhatchee River WMA covers more than 57,000 acres in Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties. As its name implies, it follows the course of the Choctawhatchee.
There is no permit required for any of the general gun season.
Richloam WMA -- The Richloam WMA shares a border with Green Swamp WMA. The fact that both areas have good bucks and they're touching each other may indicate something about the genetics in the region.
One possible benefit to the deer in both areas is Green Swamp West, which is located just west of Green Swamp. It's a Special Opportunity area with an antler restriction, and that may be helping provide a refuge for high-quality deer. So there may be some genetic flow from that direction.
But the bottom line regarding Richloam is its habitat. Quality forage on the property helps enhance antler development on the property.
Richloam WMA covers more than 58,000 acres in Hernando, Lake, Pasco and Sumter counties.
A quota permit is required during the first nine days of the season, but the WMA is open for walk-up hunting after that.
Jumper Creek WMA -- Jumper Creek WMA is located in the Withlacoochee State Forest in Sumter County. It contains a lot of swamp, and the deer have plenty of area to hide in and get some age on them.
At more than 10,500 acres, Jumper Creek supports a good bit of hunting pressure. Its northwestern border follows the Withlacoochee River -- hence the preponderance of river swamp -- and Jumper Creek runs through the center of it.
You must have a quota permit to hunt on Jumper Creek during the first nine days of the season, but after that it's open to the public for hunting.
Snipe Island Unit -- This is another area that shows up on both lists of places for lots of deer and places for big deer. Snipe Island is one unit of the Big Bend WMA, and is located in Taylor County. It covers more than 11,600 acres.
"Snipe Island has a nine-day quota hunt, followed by 14-day period with no quota permit needed," said biologist John Ault. "However, the habitat is not as diverse as some other areas in the region."
Tide Swamp Unit -- Again, this area shows up on both our lists for this year. And it, too, is a unit of the Big Bend WMA. The area is more than 19,500 acres in size and is located in Taylor County.
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.
Green Swamp WMA -- Historically, Green Swamp is an area that has produced a lot of good deer. The most likely reason is habitat that provides good nutrition.
The area encompasses more than 50,000 acres in Lake, Polk and Sumter counties, and includes a variety of habitats, such as river swamps along the Withlacoochee River. There are also upland areas with oak hammocks that provide good deer forage in years of high acorn production.
A quota permit is required during the first nine days of each season, but after that all you need is a daily quota permit from the check station.
Croom WMA -- Not far from Green Swamp, Croom WMA also has a hardwood swamp along the Withlacoochee River, as well as extensive uplands and oak hammocks. Croom covers more than 20,500 acres in Hernando and Sumter counties.
A quota permit is required during the first nine days, but after that it's open for anyone who wants to hunt.
Big Cypress WMA -- Big Cypress is located in Dade, Collier and Monroe counties. The habitat on the Big Cypress, which covers a massive 565,000 acres, is mostly swamp, with sawgrass sloughs running through it. Stands of pine flatwoods, or hardwood hammocks and cypress domes complete the landscape.
The deer herd on the Big Cypress is fairly decent, with hunters taking a consistent harvest of animals off the WMA each year. Access for hunters to the Big Cypress can be difficult because the area is so wet.
J. W. Corbett WMA -- This area covers more than 60,000 acres, and is entirely in Palm Beach County. It's primarily composed of pine flatwoods, cypress domes and ponds.
Access to Corbett is better than for other southern WMAs. A series of trails run off a road that penetrates the interior, providing the best access on any of the South Florida areas.