Florida's 2010 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 in which to bag a deer this fall...

Deer season is just around the corner. If you don't have a place to hunt yet, you're almost too late. Nonetheless, even if you've put it off, there are places you can go to bring home some venison this year.

There's no question that Florida has plenty of deer. No matter where you are in the Sunshine State, there's an opportunity for you to bring home meat.

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 where to go on both public and private land this fall. One thing those biologists all told us is that it's getting harder and harder for them to make predictions about private land, 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 in the area, biologists had a pretty good handle on what the deer herd on private land was doing. 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 happening on private land.

"We don't have any method to estimate our statewide deer population," said Cory Morea, FWCC Deer Management Program Coordinator. "All we can really report on is our survey numbers of the previous year's harvest."

Based on those numbers, Morea said deer numbers in the state are as good as they've ever been.

"We don't see any reason why the upcoming season shouldn't be a good harvest year," he said. "Overall, the cold winter shouldn't have affected them, although it may have delayed some of the early, lush vegetation that comes out in spring, so there may have been a delay in the boost of nutrition they get from that. But they should have caught up with that by summer."

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 each region. Most of Florida's top WMAs are kept that way by having very limited hunts on them, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since you are reading this in September or October, far too late to apply for either one of those hunts, we eliminated WMAs that are managed entirely under either system. So the WMAs we've mentioned here 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.

Also keep in mind that the FWCC has realigned hunting seasons to more closely follow the rut across the state. Dates on the WMAs may not correspond to dates on private land, and the new season dates are considerably different than they have been in the past. Be sure to check the dates before you go!

NORTHWEST REGIONOne good area is Apalachicola WMA, said FWCC information officer Stan Kirkland.

"There's no quota permit required, and it's a fairly long season," he said. "The national forest is almost 583,000 acres. It's near Tallahassee, and extends from Leon County down into Wakulla County and Franklin County over to Liberty County. It's an enormous area with a good road system.

"Much of the area is open to the use of deer dogs," he continued, "and it's an area that's very popular with people who like to run dogs. But there are places due to proximity of highways, private property, and the Tallahassee Airport that aren't good for running dogs. So there are some areas that can be pretty effective still-hunt areas."

Expect to see bear sign on the area, as the population of those animals is growing. They aren't a threat, but you may see evidence of them.

Another area is Apalachee WMA.

"This land is in Jackson County," Kirkland said. "There are two parts to this WMA, Zone A, which is 6000 acres off State Road 271 north of Sneads, and 2000 acres several miles north of that that's largely creek swamp and borders the Chattahoochee River. The smaller area is difficult to hunt because the access is difficult. There are only a couple places you can get in unless you go in by boat along the river."

The Choctawhatchee River WMA is owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

"A portion of it is open to dog running, but there aren't many dog running groups that use the property," Kirkland said. "Much of the area is still-hunting area. The area is 57,300 acres and stretches through four counties: Bay, Holmes, Washington and Walton. The best access is by the river."

Part of the beauty of this WMA, Kirkland said, is that it's surrounded by private land.

"You get the benefits of deer moving between private land and public land," he said. "You have to be careful to stay on the WMA, but deer move back and forth freely."

One word of caution: if there's a lot of rainy weather, be careful entering the area. It is a floodplain, and the river level can rise, so everything can look different in a matter of just a few hours. Take a GPS unit so you don't get lost.

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 of time when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting.

It does require quota permits, but half of them are walk-up permits. 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 varied topography, which is rare for Florida. Since this area has gone to a harvest rule requiring a buck to have at least three points on one side, it's starting to build up a larger population of mature deer.

In this region, good counties for private land hunting are Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton, particularly in the portions north of Interstate 10.

"There's a lot of agriculture in these areas, which means good places to hunt," Kirkland said. "Moving east, Jackson County is good b

ecause of the agriculture there. Gadsden County has a history of probably more deer than any other county in the Panhandle. It's always been a county that's known for lots of deer. And Leon County has all the plantations, particularly north of Tallahassee."

NORTH CENTRAL REGION

According to biologist Rick Spratt, there are quite a few WMAs in the North Central Region that have non-quota periods during general gun season.

"Hunters took a good number of deer off Citrus WMA in a fairly small number of hunt days," he said.

Although Citrus WMA is under quota during general gun season, there is no quota required after the first 9 days of archery season.

Biologist Dan McDonald suggested the Spring Creek Unit of Big Bend WMA.

"This area has a 9-day quota, but after that it's open to anyone," he said. "Another area is the Tide Swamp Unit of Big Bend WMA. There isn't any quota on that area, and it probably has the most deer of the areas around here."

Tide Swamp has a three-point rule, which helps to produce good deer as well as lots of them.

The habitat on Spring Creek and Tide Swamp is similar.

"It's primarily hammock, but there's a lot of upland flatwoods and sandhill habitats on both of those areas," he said. "They're both really pretty areas, and there have been some good deer harvested out of both of them."

When it comes to private land biologist Kris Cathey said Madison, Suwannee, and Hamilton counties are probably the best place to look.

"These areas have very fertile soils, are very productive, and also have a lot of rural landscapes still intact, with lots of active farm and timber lands still in production," she said. "The majority of the private landowners I've worked with in these counties are very hands-on and active in their land management, and use a lot of wildlife friendly conservation practices, such as prescribed burning. There seems to be far less pressure for hunting access on these lands, perhaps because there are fewer urban areas nearby."

NORTHEAST REGION

Richloam WMA is another area Spratt suggested.

"This area has a good mix of habitats," he said. "There are some bottom land hardwoods, some pine flatwoods, and scattered oak hammocks. This area is large -- more than 58,000 acres. There's good access, although Richloam is notorious for having some wet roads during rainy periods. There have been sunk vehicles on named and numbered roads during wet seasons."

No permit is required on Richloam during archery season. It's also open without a permit after the first 9 days of general gun season.

"This area is open to dog hunting," Spratt said. "The rut seems to be later than in other parts of the state, and there are some good quality deer here as well as a good quantity."

Three areas biologist Mike Abbott recommended are Bull Creek WMA, Lake George WMA and Ocala WMA. The first nine days of Bull Creek and Lake George are under quota, but after that no permit is required for the remainder of the season.

There's no quota requirement for the Pipeline Unit on Ocala, but there's also a lengthy dog-hunting season there. On the Lake Delancy and Hopkins Prairie Units you need a permit during the first nine days, but after that they're open.

When it comes to private land, biologist Mark Aselson suggested looking in Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties.

"Sumter County also is still quite rural," he said. "And Osceola County has a lot of rural Florida left."

As you move from north to south through these counties you pass through piney woods and timberland in the north to ranchland in the south.

"There are a lot of flatwoods type soils into the southern part of the area, but there aren't as many trees," Aselson said. "There are more dry prairies and more open savannah type habitats, with more agriculture and cattle ranches the further south you go."

From one end to the other the area is good for deer. The habitats are just different from one another.

"There are a lot of oak hammocks strung throughout, and there's water and cypress strands and domes interspersed throughout that part of the state," the biologist said.

SOUTHWEST REGION

Green Swamp and Croom WMAs are two areas where hunters can go for deer without a quota permit after the first nine days of the season, although you'll need to stop and get a daily use permit at the check station on Green Swamp. Hunters generally take quite a few deer out of Green Swamp WMA but you can expect to put in a lot of work to get them.

Croom is primarily upland sandhill-type habitat. It has good road access throughout, and is easily accessible on foot. The only significant water on Croom is the river. There are a few ephemeral ponds on the area.

For private land, take a look at Hardee and DeSoto counties. These counties support some of the higher deer densities in this region. 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 larger and have less hunting pressure on them.

SOUTH REGION

According to biologist Wes Seitz the best hunting sites here are Big Cypress WMA and Corbett WMA.

"Those are the best places to go in the South Region for hunting with no quotas," Seitz said. "Hunters who scout and who put the time in have a good chance of success."

These areas 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.

"Both these areas have similar habitat, although Corbett is closer to urban areas and is smaller," Seitz said. "They're wetlands, pine rocklands, pine flatlands and cypress swamp. Big Cypress has more prairie and more diversity in it because of its size, so it's more of a challenge."

If you're going to hunt private land, have a look at Hendry and Martin counties.

"Martin County has some odd zoning politics going on right

now, but there's still plenty of hunting preserves in the county," Seitz said. "There's a lot of cattle land in Hendry County that presents some good opportunity if you know someone there."

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