The first opportunity for hunters to pursue deer each year is with a bow, and Florida has many places for bowhunter, some where only bowhunting is allowed. Here’s a look at where to go and what to do for Florida public-land deer.
By Bob McNally
Marvin Hankemeyer is a quiet, polite, unassuming sportsman from Pomona Park, a town on the shores of the St. Johns River more famous for its bass fishing than hunting.
But in 50 years of hard bowhunting, mostly on public areas, Hankemeyer has earned a reputation as one of the most determined, diligent whitetail bowhunters in the Southeast.
When conditions are poor and few whitetails are seen, Hankemeyer invariably takes a buck or two, while during good years he typically scores on a really nice public-land buck with a bow.
Hankemeyer is so uncanny in his ability to find and harvest Florida deer with a bow that his reputation even caught the eye of state game officials at the public hunting areas he frequents. At first the officials thought Hankemeyer was up to something illegal. Then, after talking with him and watching him, they learned he is just a step above the rest of a very dedicated bowhunting crowd.
One of the things different about Hankemeyer is his diligence in scouting. His friends call this the “Marvin syndrome.” Hankemeyer can locate great Florida buck sign, but even while hunting over it, he still never stops looking and scouting for even better places. There never is a mid-day lull in deer camp for Hankemeyer, because when he leaves his tree stand, he’s walking and looking for new areas to hunt.
“I learned the importance of always finding better deer hunting places during a bow deer hunt years ago on a favorite public hunting place in Florida that I thought I knew well,” said Hankemeyer. “I’d found an incredible spot deep in a hardwoods stand that suddenly opened and there were about 50 persimmon trees growing. They were raining persimmons and the deer sign under them was incredible. I put up a tree stand, and that first evening I saw about a dozen deer, and I shot a nice buck.”
Hankemeyer tracked the buck through almost impenetrable briers, tangles and cat-claw bushes for about 500 yards. It was so thick that he had no intention of ever going back, but it got him to thinking about where to find deer on public land once hunters hit the woods.
Hankemeyer went back into the thickets, briers and tangles and found some of the most superb deer sign he’d ever seen in a public hunting spot.
“It occurred to me that the wounded buck would naturally head to the place he felt most safe — back in the thickets and tangles,” Hankemeyer said. “The place had an unbelievable amount of mature buck sign. It was a very tough place to hunt, but I found a few openings and some trees for stands. That next year my father and I hunted it and I shot a big 9-pointer while my dad took a 7-pointer. We also saw a lot of other good bucks.”
That trip changed Hankemeyer’s way of thinking about Florida deer hunting on public land. And over many years he’s taken plenty of whitetails, along with some nice bucks, on Florida public hunting lands.
Public Land Choices
Now Florida is a very populous state, but it’s blessed with a lot of undeveloped property, and there are huge wildlife management areas, state and national forests, and other public land available to target deer. Some of the areas offer remarkably good opportunities for bowhunters.
“This year marks the 75th anniversary of Florida’s WMA system, which is one of the largest WMA systems in the country at nearly 6 million acres,” said Tammy Sapp with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) “The FWC is the lead manager or landowner of over 1.4 million acres and works in partnership with other government and private landowners on another 4.5 million acres. These remote and scenic lands are managed for conservation and recreation. Florida’s WMAs offer a wide range of hunting opportunities.”
Many of the state’s public hunting lands operate under a quota permit system, whereby a hunt permit must have been obtained (usually free) much earlier in the year. However, many WMAs scattered around the state can be hunted during archery season without quota permits. In all of the state’s five regions there are choice public hunting properties requiring early drawn permits that hunters can apply for next season.
Many of the best spots for bowhunting are in the northern half of the state, including the Panhandle, which generally has a better deer population than south Florida.
Three good WMAs requiring drawn bow permits are Jennings Forest (24,000 acres, Clay and Duval counties); Thomas Creek (2,500 acres, Duval County); and Ralph Simmons (3,600 acres, Nassau County). All of these areas have creek bottoms and hardwood stands, and some quality deer.
Deer harvest data is only available from WMAs with check stations. Luckily Jennings Forest is one of only a few. Last autumn nine deer were taken by bowhunters, with 532 man-days of hunting recorded.
Two of the best bow-deer WMAs in the north-central region not requiring quota permits are Raiford (9,000 acres, Bradford and Union counties) and Lochloosa (11,000 acres, Alachua County). Lochloosa is an especially beautiful spot, as it completely surrounds Lake Lochloosa, famed for its stellar largemouth bass fishing. In fact, it’s easy to plan an autumn bow/bass fling on Lochloosa.
In Florida’s northeast region, Lake George WMA (39,000 acres, Volusia and Putnam counties) is an unusual public hunting area that somewhat traces the east shore of this superb bass lake. It’s broken into numerous blocks of public access bowhunting land (no special bow permit required), interspersed with private land and winding roads through some beautiful live oak upland habitat. Access is good, and campgrounds are spotted near lakeshore areas. Hunters are advised to carefully review the WMA map before hunting to ensure private lands are not trespassed, and there are several properties bordering open WMA land that are closed to hunting.
Lake George WMA spreads out nicely from lakeshore, with live oak habitat to swampy drains, creeks and fields offering whitetails a range of cover and food sources.
“Deer change their locations and habits all the time, through the seasons of the year,” explained Hankemeyer. “A deer is naturally mobile, according to its food preferences and the amount of hunting pressure put on it. This is why I never stop scouting when I’m hunting. I wear comfortable, rubber-sole hunting boots on my stand, so that when I get down I can walk comfortably. I’ll commonly walk several miles in a morning just looking at property and checking new places.”
Hankemeyer uses deer trails and tunnels through thickets to reach choice hunting areas, even using binoculars to spot deer in overlooked areas.
He calls this “back-track” hunting because he just keeps moving back toward the direction he sees deer. Sometimes it takes several days of stand hunting to locate the best areas, and it’s common to relocate a stand a number of times before the best site is discovered.
Often the very best places, in the thickest, most impenetrable cover, are honeycombed with trails, along with rubs and scrapes. However, getting into such spots takes extra effort and brush busting.
In south Florida, J.W. Corbett WMA (60,000 acres, Palm Beach County) and Big Cypress WMA (730,000 acres, Collier, Miami-Dade, Monroe counties) are two of the best public spots to take a deer with a bow, according to Wes Seitz, public hunting area biologist for the FWC. The Picayune Strand State Forest and WMA (76,000 acres, Collier County) is also good.
To hunt these three massive areas, all a bowhunter needs are standard hunting licenses (WMA, archery and deer permits), for the deer season, which runs Aug. 26-Sept. 17. There are check stations on the Corbett and Big Cypress areas, where hunters must check in and out, and check harvested game. But check-ins are not required daily, which allows hunters to camp on designated areas for many days and hunt without daily check-ins.
Both the Corbett and Big Cypress areas have produced some quality bucks, according to Seitz, with some dandy 8- and 10-pointers collected.
Corbett WMA is especially popular because the last nine days of the bow season are open to either-sex deer harvest, whereas the beginning of the bow season only allows legal bucks. Corbett also has a higher deer density, with food plots designed and paid for with money from the National Wild Turkey Federation, which benefits turkeys, deer and many other species.
In addition to the early bow season, Corbett is open to archery deer hunting during the general gun season, running Nov. 4 to Jan. 1. South Florida has cooler weather at that time, making bowhunting more comfortable.
The Picayune Strand State Forest and WMA is essentially a quota hunt spot, except in bow season when there is no archery quota. The area was largely closed to public access as reconstruction of the site was conducted. But much of it is now open, though getting around Picayune can be difficult because vehicles must stick to designated roads and trails, and there are a lot of wetland areas.
Florida’s northwest region is where bowhunters can really range, covering ground far and wide on massive WMAs that offer some good bowhunting opportunities. But archers must be dedicated and work hard to be consistently successful. Often deer are scarce in many areas, but found in comparatively high concentrations due to the remoteness of habitat or high-quality whitetail foods. Some of the better WMAs in the region open to non-permit archery hunting include Apalachicola River (83,000 acres, Franklin and Gulf counties); Apalachicola (582,000 acres, Franklin, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties); Escambia River (35,400 acres, Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties); and Choctawhatchee River (57,700 acres, Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties).
Many of these massive WMAs contain large rivers bordering oversize hardwood swamps. Hunters who use boats to access such remote locations often are on the right track to pinpointing whitetails. But it still takes work and dedication. But then no one ever said bowhunting Florida deer was easy, which makes success all the more sweet.