By Ian Nance
While the weather can be cold or unpredictable, hunting and fishing options still abound in the winter months for Florida sportsmen and women.
With the holidays, snowbirds and unpredictable weather, life during Florida’s winter feels rushed and ever changing. For outdoor folks these months are particularly frustrating. The rut has slacked throughout most of the state. The ducks, once gullibly bombing into decoys, have become rocket scientists from hunting pressure, and anglers study the radar for signs of mercy from the procession of blustery fronts.
All this doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t excellent outdoor opportunities available throughout the Sunshine State, especially since winter is much less severe in Florida than in most other states.
PANHANDLE DEER HUNTING
Imagine chasing bucks at a time when the rest of deer hunters have long since packed it up for the season. Then imagine that those bucks are in the peak of the rut, which is exactly what is happening in the Panhandle.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Statewide Rut Map shows the whitetail rut in the Panhandle doesn’t crank up until late December. In fact, the peak rut for the farthest western counties isn’t until February. The beauty of this is evident to hard-core deer hunters who’re ready for one last road trip to pursue a big buck during his most vulnerable period.
Besides the timing of the rut, a few other variables make the Panhandle an attractive deer destination. One, the area is blessed with several fertile river drainages. This environment contributes to soil that is richer in nutrient content than sandier soils found in the Peninsula. As a result, antlers have a tendency to grow large. Also, hunting pressure is not as severe as in other regions of the state given the lack of large metropolitan areas. Productive leases and hunt clubs can actually be found at prices of a fraction of what an equivalent-size piece of land would be in south Florida.
In terms of acreage, public land access in the Pandhandle cannot be matched elsewhere in Florida. Escambia River and Choctawhatchee River wildlife management areas are massive tracts of land that don’t require quota permits. Apalachicola WMA, however, dwarfs them both with a whopping 581,290 acres spread over Franklin, Leon, Wakulla and Liberty counties. Running dogs is a popular tradition here, but crafty still-hunters will take to the rivers to access honey-holes clear of the hounds. Plus, the sheer amount of land makes conflicts unlikely.
NATURE COAST DIVER DUCK HUNTING
By mid-December, waterfowling in Florida can be frustrating. The ducks have been spooked by steel shot sent from hunter guns for several weeks, and good locations have been spoiled by pressure. Those interested in something different should consider heading to the saltwater of the Nature Coast.
From Homosassa north to around Yankeetown, wintering flocks of redheads, lesser scaup, buffleheads and mergansers dive in the shallow bays feeding on grasses and invertebrates. Even better, the hunting is largely unpressured because this is no place for rookies.
To start, the area has a lot of open water. When the action is hot, it is not hard to see ducks, but getting close can be a challenge. The best strategy is to locate travel paths and set up near islands close to where they pass or feed. This style of hunting lends itself to big spreads of large, visible decoys clipped to gang rigs. Shots tend to be far, and full chokes are best, and saltwater is tough on guns and gear.
Also, oyster bars are a menace, and winter tides sink and expose them at a rapid pace. Airboats and shallow-draft aluminum hull boats equipped with surface drives are ideal. Regardless, pay close attention to the tide charts and the wind. A strong Eastern blow can leave folks stranded as fast as the tidal cycles. Per usual for duck hunting, the nasty, overcast days are the most productive in terms of keeping ducks moving.
Now hunting divers on the Nature Coast is not for novices, but it’s as special a hunt as anywhere in Florida. Mornings bring waves of waterbirds, jumping mullet and occasional visits from dolphins — take a fishing rod in case the hunting is slow, as redfish and trout are plentiful. Duck hunt in this region to realize how the Nature Coast got its name.
SEBASTIAN INLET FLOUNDER RUN
Winter’s cold fronts trigger a migration of Southern flounder from the Indian River through the turbulent Sebastian Inlet to spawn offshore. Each year, anglers fill the inlet in hopes of scoring on these tasty flatfish; it’s the Florida version of a salmon run.
Shore-bound anglers cast from the rocky jetties of Sebastian Inlet State Park or the catwalk below the AIA bridge. Boaters anchor in the sweet spot between the bridge and where the river begins to channel into the inlet. Pros believe the best time to fish is when the clear ocean water rushes through the inlet at the end of an incoming and beginning of an outgoing tide.
A stout 7-foot rod and spinning reel combo slinging a sliding-sinker rig is the standard-bearer for the flounder run. A 2-ounce weight positioned above a swivel tied to a 25- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader allows the bait to remain low in the water column as the current increases with the tide. Finger mullet are considered the premier baits though some prefer mud minnows and mojarras.
As flounder are ambush predators, casting to different spots and slowly retrieving the bait is effective. Anglers tossing jigs tipped with mullet strips or shrimp hold their own among the crowds. The trick is to keep the bait close to the bottom without getting hung on the rocks. The water pumps fast out of Sebastian Inlet, a strange contrast to the many flounder resting on the bottom.
CENTRAL FLORIDA HOGS
Green Swamp WMA is the epicenter of central Florida public land hog hunting. Radiating from that point are opportunities that don’t require quota permits, such as Richloam and Jumper Creek WMAs. Polk County is swarming with hogs, though public land access becomes troublesome. Three Lakes in southeast Polk is a popular WMA. For those traveling by water, the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes area holds hogs for those who can reach them. Beyond these, Avon Park Bombing Range has plenty of pigs for those willing to pay for the hunting permit.
Hog hunting during the winter months in central Florida is fantastic. The animals move well during drizzly rains before a cold front and under the bright blue skies after the weather has moved out. Plus, deer season has mostly peaked throughout this area and hogs provide an added opportunity to hunt in pleasant conditions.
Public land hunters should focus on well-worn trails near oak hammocks or swamp bottoms that border palmetto flats or wet-weather ponds. Areas that have been freshly rooted are also prime locations. While hogs move far and wide, during dry conditions it’s worth checking out cypress stands and creek bottoms with water still on the ground.
Truth be told, private land hunters are in the catbird seat. A corn feeder is simply the most reliable way to put pork on the ground, though even these can be worn out quickly as hogs have a keen sense of smell and distaste for human stink. Stalking through small orange groves near thicker woods is extremely effective for those with access.
As far as guided hunts are concerned, few are as economical and accommodating as hog hunts. Some operations tailor hunts for those who wish to run dogs, still-hunt, stand-hunt or a combo of the three. Be sure to do some research, however. There is a preponderance of small, fenced properties that sell hog hunts where the hogs have been caught or trapped elsewhere and released a couple of days prior. There’s nothing necessarily illegal about this, but questions of the sporting value of such operations are germane.
While some folks fret over the impending winter, Okeechobee bass anglers are downright giddy. Through December and January, largemouth bass are transitioning from deeper waters to the edges of the marsh to spawn where they’ll reside through the cold months. When they reach the shallows and breeding instincts turn on, the bass become aggressive and rods bend.
For the hottest big bass action on Okeechobee, anglers work the northern and western marshes. Lakeport, Fisheating Bay, Moonshine Bay, Monkey Box and Bird Island are all known producers. Search areas with lily pads, reeds, hydrilla and Kissimmee grass, as these are places where bass feed and take shelter. On brighter days after a cold front, they prefer to tuck into thicker cover to stay out of the sun.
As a result, it’s important to have the necessary tackle to heave them from the thick stuff. Professional bass fishermen who flock to Okeechobee every winter for high-dollar tournaments use 60- to 80-pound braided line to prevent breakoffs on big fish in the grass mats. It might sound like overkill, but an 8- to 10-pound bass draped in waterweeds can pop substandard fishing line easily.
As for baits, golden shiners have likely caught the most trophy bass in the lake over the years, and that tradition lives on, especially with guides working with novice clients. For artificial fiends, the trick is to trigger a reaction strike. Soft plastic swimbaits and topwater frogs rigged weedless and worked over submerged vegetation achieve this goal. When the lunkers are holed up in the vegetation on those sunny days, a 1 1/2-ounce weight and worm or a crawfish-shaped bait will poke through the weeds.
During December and January, the weather in Florida has as much chance of being gloomy and gray as it does being sunny and bright. The same goes for outdoor people. You can count yourself out or get out to take advantage of one of these opportunities when winter arrives.