Take advantage of early season bow hunting on some great Florida public lands to put venison in the freezer or tag a trophy buck.
By Ian Nance
Florida’s bowhunters are a tough lot who have their work cut out for them. Hot, muggy weather, swarms of biting and stinging insects, overhunted properties, and the occasional named storm intensify the challenges of an already difficult pursuit. Despite all of this, thousands take to the woods to capitalize on an early opportunity to strike a doe or, hopefully, a trophy buck.
And it’s a fine time to be in the woods, conditions notwithstanding. In South Florida, archery season is tailored around the summer rut in this region. Come September in the Big Bend area, bucks are in full pursuit of hot does.
In Central Florida, bow season means the pre-rut as eager bucks abandon bachelor groups to rub trees and paw scrapes, susceptible to grunt calls and overflowing with testosterone. The Panhandle misses out on the heat, but when their October bowhunts begin, deer are keyed in on acorns and other autumn delights. Serious deer hunters statewide understand that archery tackle can put you on fantastic deer hunting.
For the most part, serious hunters are what you’ll find making the trek to the woods during archery season. The woods are not as crowded as the days when the muzzleloading or general gun crowds arrive. The deer haven’t yet been pressured by wandering bodies and rifle reports. Even still, where to go is always an important consideration. Some properties simply produce more than others.
Fortunately, Florida has one of the largest Wildlife Management Area (WMA) systems in the country, standing at nearly 6 million acres, according to Tammy Sapp, Communications Director with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Division of Hunting and Game Management.
“FWC is the lead manager or landowner on over 1.4 million acres and works in partnership with other governmental or private landowners on another 4.5 million acres,” says Sapp. “This network of remote and scenic lands is managed for conservation and recreation, including hunting. Healthy habitats and abundant game populations are the result of dedicated professionals — wildlife biologists, land managers, partners and volunteers — who work to ensure wildlife have the conditions needed to thrive.”
We asked Sapp if she’d shed some light on the best venison-producing public properties bowhunters should hunt this season. Here is what she had to share.
“Apalachee WMA has good deer numbers, though is a smaller area,” Sapp says. At almost 8,000 acres, it’s only small by Panhandle standards. This management area is split into three zones. Accessible by boat, zones B and C are thin strips of land that straddle the Chattahoochee River and don’t require quota permits.
Fortune favors the bold willing to work upriver and into the action. To the south rests Zone A, a wet piece of property consisting of longleaf pine uplands interspersed with ponds, wetlands and floodplain forest on the western border of Lake Seminole. Here, 200 no-cost “zone tags” are available first-come, first-served at the check station each day of each season.
Zone A has a decent road system, but some areas might be better reached by paddle craft. It is open to public access year-round but only by foot, bicycle or horse outside of a hunting season. Vehicle access is only allowed during periods open to hunting during daylight hours one week prior to archery season. Camping is prohibited.
In 2017-18, hunters harvested 26 deer from Apalachee Zone A, expending 501 hunter-days in the process, not shabby for bowhunting public land. Zones B and C don’t require hunters to check game. The harvest rates have been consistent over the last ten years of archery season, too.
According to FWC, Blackwater WMA, including the Blackwater Carr Unit and Blackwater Hutton Unit, is composed of more than 200,000 acres in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties and borders Alabama to the north. It is one of the largest state forests in Florida, comprising natural stands of longleaf pine, hardwood swamps, mixed loblolly pine, hardwoods and pitcher plant bogs. Some of the most beautiful stands of Atlantic white cedar in the state are found along the banks of the Blackwater River and its tributaries.
While the Hutton Unit requires a quota permit and the Carr Unit is quail hunting-only, the 191,651-acre Blackwater WMA is wide open to archers with the exception of a Field Trial Area in the western portion of the property. With this much land, there’s plenty of opportunity to get a drop on a deer before general gun opens, when half of the property will be run by dog hunters.
Harvest data for this property is incomplete. Only those participating in Family Hunts are required to check game. The roads and trails crisscross this entire management area. Camping is allowed at Bear, Hurricane, Karick and Krul Lakes, Blackwater River State Park and other designated campsites. Some overnight camps require a fee. Contact the Florida Forest Service for more information at 850-957-5700.
Juniper, Coldwater and Blackwater creeks descend through the WMA from Alabama, creating fertile grounds for big antlers. The rut kicks in during late January and early February, well after archery season; however, there’s also a unique primitive archery/muzzleloading season in mid-February, one of the latest deer hunts in the country.
Strike out on quota hunts elsewhere and still want to get away from people? Osceola WMA could be the ticket to bowhunting success. The place is immense, consisting of 266,270 acres of open pine flatwoods, sandhills and cypress swamps spread across Baker and Columbia counties. Harvest data is unavailable, probably because of the vastness and remote nature of this WMA. There aren’t even check stations marked on the FWC brochure for this area.
Osceola WMA doesn’t receive a lot of pressure during archery season, reports Sapp. Managed in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Suwannee River Water Management District, St. Johns River Water Management District and Florida Forest Service, this management area is part of the Osceola National Forest.
It is open to public access year-round, a benefit for scouting during the offseason, and improved roads navigate through the Big Gum Swamp Wilderness Area or dump you off at the Pinhook Swamp. On lands designated as Osceola National Forest, camping is allowed year-round but only for periods no longer than 14 consecutive days, except during general gun season when camping is allowed only at designated campsites. To the northeast of the property at John Bethea State Forest, camping is allowed year-round but only when in possession of a permit from the Florida Forest Service.
Managed in cooperation with the Florida Forest Service, St. Johns River Water Management District and Volusia County, Lake George WMA is on the east side of Lake George in Putnam and Volusia counties and consists of more than 39,000 acres of mixed hardwood swamp and pine flatwoods.
Archery hunting does not require a quota permit, and deer numbers at Lake George WMA are strong, reports Sapp. With the behemoth Ocala WMA on the other side of the lake, Lake George is often overlooked. The bulk of the property profile is thin, running north to south along the lake.
Camping is allowed at designated campsites by permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District (386-329-4404). Permits must be requested at least seven days in advance of the intended camping dates. The WMA is open to public access year-round, but motor vehicles shall be operated only on roads shown on the brochure map.
There are no check stations so harvest data is unavailable. As with Ocala WMA, it can be tough hunting, but the game is on-site. For the most part, the deer here rut from late September into November, according to FWC’s rut map.
“J.W. Corbett receives some hunting pressure but offers rut hunting during the archery season,” says Sapp. “Some” hunting pressure might be an understatement depending on the South Florida hunter who’s speaking.
Located in Palm Beach County, Corbett gets a lot of attention during deer season despite the heat and water that accompany a bow season that began in late August in 2017; however, that’s when the rut is for this deer population, and hunters are there to greet them.
According to FWC, “Corbett is in the transitional zone between the uplands of Central Florida and the nearly level Everglades. The most extensive natural communities on Corbett are pine flatwoods, freshwater marshes, wet prairies, cypress sloughs and domes. Hammocks are found in isolated locations throughout Corbett.”
A portion of the Loxahatchee watershed, Corbett grows nice bucks, especially for South Florida. Public access is open year-round with caveats, so be sure to check the brochure. Camping is allowed continuously starting 8 a.m. the day prior to archery season through general gun season at designated campsites. In August, that’s a tough bowhunter camping out there.
If you’re searching for a place to hunt with stick-and-string this season, give these places a look. And remember to check in at myfwc.com for re-issued quota permits. The odds are long for drawing a particular hunt, but you never know when you might get lucky.