Tackling the Big Cypress

This huge expanse of southwest Florida offers a number of whitetail options, beginning at the end of this month. Here's a preview of the deer hunting action.

Photo by Michael H. Francis

By Kris Thoemke

From my tree stand, I could just make out the silhouette of my longtime hunting partner, Mike Cooper. I wanted to know if he saw the buck I had spotted less than a minute ago. A scattering of cypress trees blocked me from having a clean shot at what looked to be a nice 6-point buck as I scrutinized it through binoculars. Then Mike answered the question by shouldering his blackpowder rifle and taking aim. He had a makeable shot at the deer that we could both now see.

I watched and waited, expecting to see the puff of gun smoke and then hear the reverberating thunder of the report. What I saw was a drizzle of smoke and what I heard was practically no sound at all. Mike's rifle had misfired.

With my binoculars stuck to my eyes, I watched as Mike prepped for another shot. The deer was still in his range. In less than a minute he was ready to try again. But the result was the same - another misfire. By the time he was ready for a third shot, the deer was gone, having disappeared into the shadows of a small cypress strand.

The morning's excitement was over, but the beauty of this expansive swamp captivated me for another hour while I hoped another deer would wander along within shooting range. Later in the day, Mike discovered that a small piece of lint had kept the small charge of gunpowder in the cap from igniting the main charge in his barrel. We chalked that up to another lesson learned in the Big Cypress.

BIG CYPRESS OVERVIEW

Once occupying more than a million and a half acres, nearly all the land in southwest Florida, the Big Cypress Swamp dominated the landscape. Roadless and wet, the region was nature's domain, uninhabited until the Seminole Indians arrived in the mid-1800s. It wasn't until the mid-1900s that a few daring hunters ventured into the swamp.

By the 1960s things began to change. The western fringe of the Big Cypress Swamp was drained and developed as Golden Gate Estates and the now defunct Remuda Ranch Estates. To the north, agricultural operations chipped into the northern reaches of the swamp. But the core remained privately owned and minimally altered.

In the early 1970s, with the strong encouragement and support of sportsmen, most of the privately owned land was sold to the federal government. Management of almost half a million acres became the responsibility of the National Park Service (NPS). One condition of the federal government buyout was that the lands continue to be used for traditional recreational activities, including hunting. Because hunting is not allowed in national parks, Congress created the National Preserve designation to avoid a management conflict. Thus, in 1974 the Big Cypress National Preserve came into existence as the country's first such refuge.

Today, the preserve has added new land and now covers 720,566 acres of pine flatwoods, cypress strands and domes, prairies, hardwood hammocks and mangroves. Rare orchids, ferns and bromeliads grow in the cypress forests and on the live oaks of the hardwood hammocks.

It is home to the endangered Florida panther and West Indian manatee. It has a healthy population of Florida black bears, and seeing one is not out of the realm of possibility for the patient hunter perched in a tree stand. Overhead, you can see endangered woodstorks, bald eagles and ospreys and a host of raptors, herons, egrets and songbirds. It is an area rich with plant life and wildlife.

DEER HERD DYNAMICS

From the hunter's perspective, the deer population in the Big Cypress has its ups and downs. Joe Bozzo is a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) and monitors the deer herd in the preserve.

"Last year 160 deer were harvested over 14,000 hunter-days," he says. "In the preceding five years, the harvest was higher, between 250 and 320 deer per year, but hunter-days were only slightly higher."

Clearly, with the average number of days of hunting per deer hovering around 50 even in the best of recent seasons, Big Cypress is not an easy place to take a whitetail.

Deer utilize all of the habitats within the Big Cypress.

"The amount and duration of standing water doesn't seem to mean much to the deer or have an impact on the population," Bozzo notes. "We do aerial surveys and see deer throughout the preserve. Our surveys seem to indicate that the population has been relatively stable for many years."

With last year's decrease in the number of deer harvested, some hunters are wondering where the deer were and are speculating on the reasons for the decline. Some thought that the rut ended early last year and that by the time the hunting season began, most of the bucks had dropped their antlers. Thus, they surmised that their grunt calls and doe urine attractant seemed ineffective.

"I know that we saw a lot of deer last year," Mike Cooper points out, "and few of them had antlers."

Bozzo doesn't doubt the observation, but he thinks there is another reason for seeing so many antlerless deer.

"There is a large number of does in the herd," he argues. "The Park Service has a say in the hunting regulations, and they don't want to have a doe season. Hunters have been asking us for a doe tag program, but that does not seem like it will happen."

Others speculate that because last year was wetter than normal in the Big Cypress the higher water levels and longer periods of standing water impacted the deer population.

"Again, our observations suggest that water levels don't make a difference to the deer," Bozzo counters.

The biologist has his own theory about last year's decline in the number of deer taken in the Big Cypress.

"One reason the harvest was down in 2003," Bozzo says, "is because all of the hunters in the Big Cypress are now hunting in the same areas. That is a result of the restrictions imposed by the NPS on where off-road vehicles (ORVs) can travel. This has concentrated the hunters, and they have thinned out the herd in these areas."

The wildlife biologist believes that hunters who hike a mile or more off the designated trials can reach places where the deer are spending time. The problem is that you have to be in really good physical condition to hike in th

is swamp.

One place where Bozzo is seeing proof of this is in the preserve's Deep Lake Unit. For year, this site has been designated archery and walk-in only.

"We never had hunters checking any deer out of here, because not many chose to walk in," he explains. "Since the designated trail system went into effect, more hunters are using the area, and now we see a handful of deer being checked out of this unit each year.

"Because this area has had so little pressure over the years, there are bound to be some trophy bucks in there," he adds.

OFF-ROADING REGULATIONS


If you plan to use an ORV to access the hunting in the Big Cypress National Preserve, there are some rules of which you need to be aware. The National Park Service requires that all ORVs be inspected and have paid a $50 ORV permit fee before they can enter the preserve. Operators of ORVs must be at least 18 years old, have a valid driver's license and obtain an ORV operator's permit from the Park Service. The operator's permit can be obtained by taking a free orientating course at the preserve's visitor's center. For more information, call (239) 695-1201 or visit www.nps.gov/bicy.

 

A TOUGH PLACE TO HUNT

It is more difficult to hunt deer in the Big Cypress than on most other public lands in Florida. To be effective in the Big Cypress, you need a swamp buggy, airboat or all-terrain vehicle to get to the places you want to hunt. Walk-in hunting off a public road has never been a very practical option.

In 2000, the NPS made sweeping changes in the use of ORVs in the preserve. In response to criticism by some anti-hunting environmental groups, the service began implementing a plan to control and limit ORV access. Decades of no control over where ORVs traveled left the prairies scarred and rutted. Viewed from the air, the sight was not pretty. Even some hunters who saw the degree of disturbance were surprised.

The idea of establishing designated trails was a compromise to allow continues ORV use and stop further disruption of sensitive habitats. So far there are no clear trends to indicate if the new rules have significantly changed use of the preserve by hunters.

Establishing designated trails and dispersed-use areas - places where there are no specific trails and ORVs can travel wherever they want - doesn't mean you can take your street vehicle off road. The terrain is just as tough as ever.

"Until you've been there, you won't believe how mean the Big Cypress is and how hard you need to prepare for a trip," Cooper offers. "Last year it took us 2 1/2 hours to go 2 1/2 miles. We know this because we tracked our progress using a GPS."

Having traveled on a variety of swamp buggies, I can tell you that even the Rolls Royces of the swamp provide a bone-jarring ride that saps the energy from you after a few hours of rolling over rutted trails and the uneven lumpy limestone rock that underlies the veneer of sand and mud.

TACTICS FOR TOUGH TERRAIN

Any deer hunter knows that the chances of success go up if you can find a good ambush spot in a location that funnels the deer movement. Those places are hard to find in the Big Cypress. Given the area's virtually flat terrain, you don't find funnels like passes through ridges or draws in valleys in Big Cypress.

"Deer go where there is food," says Cooper. "And there are many, many places like this in the preserve. You can scout an area before the season begins and locate some deer. But when the season opens and you come back, the deer may be gone. There are no guarantees."

One approach that hunters use during archery season is to look for deer forage plots around the edges of the prairies.

"Deer are roaming more freely and will be out in the open, especially since the sound of gunfire hasn't yet spooked them," Cooper explains. "Once gun season begins, the big bucks that hang around head into the thick cover provided by the smaller cypress trees around the edges of the cypress domes and strands, even though there is still some standing water in these areas."

To find deer under these conditions, getting your feet wet may be the best idea.

"There probably won't be any trees you can use a climbing stand on," Cooper notes. "What you want to do is walk through the cypress and surprise a deer."

To do this, you have to walk very carefully and slowly.

"It won't be the rustle caused by stepping on dry leaves on the ground that gives you away. In the swamp, it is the splash in the water," he concludes.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Hunting in the Big Cypress National Preserve is under the control of the FWCC and the NPS. The FWCC operates the area as a wildlife management area (WMA). All hunters must purchase a $25 WMA stamp in addition to their hunting license (unless you fall under one of the exemptions that exclude you from buying a license). You may also need a $5 archery or muzzleloading permit. These permits are required for hunting during the archery-only and muzzleloading-only seasons.

Within the Big Cypress there are six management units: Bear Island, Turner River, Corn Dance, Deep Lake, Loop and Stairsteps. The FWCC allows hunting in all units, but the NPS controls ORV access, thereby effectively limiting where hunters can go.

While no changes to the current ORV policy have been announced by the NPS, the agency does reserve the right to alter the rules at any time. You should check the regulations immediately before heading to the Big Cypress to determine if there have been any last minute changes.

Presently, ORVs are allowed in the Bear Island, Turner River and Corn Dance units, but all prairies are walk-in only. Stairsteps is open to airboats only. The Deep Lake and Loop units are walk-in only. A one-mile buffer zone parallel to a portion of U.S. 41 through the preserve is closed to ORVs. Also, the NPS prohibits use of ORVs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Archery season runs from Aug. 30 through Sept. 28 in all units. From Nov. 15 through Jan. 4, Deep Lake is open, but hunters are required to obtain a no-cost sp

ecial quota permit. These are good for one of the three hunts that run Nov. 15-23, Nov. 24-30 and Dec. 27 through Jan. 4. Two hundred permits are available for each of the three time slots.

Muzzleloading hunting is allowed in all units except Deep Lake, and the season runs Oct. 4-19. Hunters in the Bear Island Unit need a special quota permit for the Oct. 4-12 period. A daily-use permit, available at the check station, is required during non-quota days of the muzzleloading and general gun seasons in Bear Island.

General gun season begins Nov. 14 and ends Jan. 4. There is no general gun season in Deep Lake. A regular quota permit is required in the Bear Island, Turner River, Corn Dance, Stairsteps and Loop units for Nov. 15-23, Nov. 24-30 and Dec. 22 through Jan. 4, but not for other dates.

For all management units in the Big Cypress, the daily bag limit is one deer and the season bag limit is two deer. Hunters must check in and out of the same check station and have a check station pass on their person when hunting. Bucks with one or more antlers with at least 5 inches visible above the hairline are legal to take.

Hunting in the Big Cypress is not for the faint of heart. It can be hot, wet and buggy, especially during the archery season. First-time hunters are cautioned to carefully plan their trips. It is easy to become lost or to break down.

Let someone know where you are going before you venture into the Big Cypress and when you plan to return. Every year, there is at least one search-and-rescue effort launched for hunters who go in but can't get back out without help. Two miles from a paved road might not sound like a big deal until you have to walk out through the swamp. Those are likely to be longest two miles of your life.

The tradeoff for the rough terrain is a true wilderness hunting experience, a chance to experience the dazzling beauty of the swamp and, if you are lucky, at shot at a Big Cypress buck.



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