In some parts of the state, deer season already has arrived. If you didn't have a chance to locate a lease or your plans fell through, you'šre probably feeling left out about now. But don'št give up; even if you didn't find a lease or put in for a public land permit, there still are places you can go to bring home venison this season.
To get a good statewide perspective on the deer population and on where you can go to bring home the venison, we talked to Cory Morea, the Deer Management Program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. One thing Morea said is that it's very hard to get any kind of a handle on what'šs happening on private land, because neither landowners, hunt clubs, nor individual hunters do any kind of reporting about what animals they take during the season. The FWC would like to change that by instituting a new reporting program, but so far that program has met with resistance.
"We don't have any method to estimate our statewide deer population," Morea said. "All we can really report on is our survey numbers of the previous year's harvest."
The tag and reporting system that biologists proposed would have made tracking deer numbers much easier.
"The idea was that we'šd have self-produced tags, since we don'št have a restricted bag limit like many other states," Morea said. "Then within a certain period of time after shooting a deer, each hunter would call a toll-free number and report the deer. That would have allowed us to better track harvest, and help us to better manage deer at the local level."
From this data, biologists would be able to tell where deer are taken, set harvest goals for areas, and see if those goals are being met.
This kind of reporting program is part of the overall effort to refine deer management in the state by changing zone lines and dates and get hunters into the woods during the peak of the rut in each area.
"We're trying to go from a statewide management approach to a deer management unit kind of approach," Morea said. "The biggest thing about the reporting program is it would help us track harvest and be sure our management goals are being met. It also would help us define harvest goals in the different areas of the state, and could result in hunters having more opportunities to take antlerless deer in some parts of the state, and fewer opportunities in other parts of the state. But due to the lack of support that's off the table right now."
Over the past few years, Morea said, biologists had been seeing some nice increases in deer harvest. This past season, however, they saw a trend that may signal a downturn for harvests in some areas.
"This is hard to document in the wild," he said. "But in captive deer facilities, we saw a severe outbreak of EHD, which is epizootic hemorrhagic disease. It's similar to bluetongue, but not the same disease."
Morea said biologists know some wild populations were affected by EHD outbreaks, but that they don't have any way to know how severe or widespread those outbreaks were.
"In some areas it could have been locally significant, but overall in the state of Florida it had a minor impact," he said.
This is the kind of situation in which having a reporting system biologists would be very helpful.
"It would certainly have allowed us to track the harvest to see how the it was affected,'° Morea said. "That would allow us to address any concerns with management changes if they were warranted."
Without that level of data, biologists have to fall back on what they'šve been using to track deer populations on private lands all along: anecdotal information from discussion with landowners and what they know about habitats in different counties in the state.
"The potential for an area to produce deer is based on the soil, and the soil doesn't change," Morea said.
As a result, barring either disease or major changes in the landscape in a vicinity, the areas that produce good numbers of deer are going to remain the same from year to year.
One thing about private land, Morea said, is that much of it is locked up and hard to access.
"Sometimes the land isn't hunted because the landowner just doesn't allow it," he said.
Basically, you either have to have a lease or know somebody to get onto a piece of private land.
When it comes to state wildlife management areas, the ones covered aren't necessarily the best in the state, or even in each region. Most of the best WMAs are that way because the FWC has very limited hunts on them, either through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since it's far too late to apply for either one of those hunt types, we eliminated WMAs that are managed entirely under either system. The WMAs we've mentioned here all have at least a portion of the general gun 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 FWC has realigned hunting seasons to more closely follow the rut across the state. This year they changed the dates on some of the WMAs. Dates on the WMAs do not correspond to dates on private land, and the new seasons are considerably different than they have been in the past. Be sure to check the dates before you go!
One good area is Apalachicola WMA. There's no quota permit required, and the area has a fairly long season. This is on national forest land that extends from Leon County, down into Wakulla and Franklin, 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, and it'šs an area that's very popular with people who like that sport. But there are places due to proximity of highways, private property, and the Tallahassee airport that aren't good for running dogs, so those areas that can be pretty effective still hunt areas.
Another area is Apalachee WMA in Jackson County. There are two parts to this WMA. Those are Zone A, which is 6000 acres off State Route 271 north of Sneads, and 2000 acres several miles to the north that is largely creek swamp and borders the Chattahoochee River. The smaller area is difficult to hunt because the access is so difficult. There are only a couple places you can get in unless you go by boat along the river.
The Choctawhatchee River WMA is owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Part of it is open to dog hunting, but historically only a few dog groups have used this area. Part of the beauty of this WMA is that it's surrounded by private hunting land, so you get the benefits of deer moving between private and public land. Hunters must be careful to stay on this slender WMA.
One word of caution is merited regarding the tract. If there's a lot of rainy weather, be careful entering the area. It is a floodplain, and the river level can rise quickly. Then everything can look different in a matter of just a few hours. Take a GPS unit so you don't get lost.
When it comes to private land in this part of the state, go west.
"We tend to have most of our depredation complaints in Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties," Morea said.
Another good county in that area is Walton. All four of those counties will be better north of Interstate 10 than south of it.
Also check out Jackson and Gadsden counties. Gadsden has always been a county that's known for lots of deer. And don't overlook Leon County, particularly north of Tallahassee.
NORTH CENTRAL REGION
There are quite a few WMAs in the North Central Region that have non-quota periods during general gun season.
Three units of the Big Bend WMA are open during the general gun hunting. Those are Hickory Mound, Spring Creek and Tide Swamp. On Hickory Mound, no permit is required after the first 16 days of the season. Spring Creek is open after nine days and Tide Swamp doesn't have a permit requirement at all. However, Tide Swamp requires a buck to have at least three points on one side of its antlers to be legal.
The habitat on all three units is primarily hammock, with some upland flatwoods and sandhill habitats.
Jena WMA, located in Dixie County, stretches along the coast south of Steinhatchee. It's under quota for the first nine days, but is open after that.
Another area to look at is Camp Blanding. The first seven days are under quota, but after that you can get onto the area by picking up a daily permit at the check station.
"That has traditionally been a good area, and I don't see why it wouldn't be again this year," Morea said.
Devils Hammock WMA also has possibilities, according to Morea. It is under quota, but some permits are available at the check station on a first come-first served basis.
When it comes to private land, Madison, Suwannee, and Hamilton counties are probably the best place to look for deer. These are counties with fertile soils and a lot of open land, including farms and timberland. Landowners tend to employ land management practices such as prescribed burning, which helps create a lot of good habitat for deer.
Richloam WMA has a good mix of habitats, with some bottomland hardwoods, some pine flatwoods, and scattered oak hammocks. There's good access, although the tract is notorious for having some flooded roads during rainy periods. Richloam is open for hunting without a permit after the first nine days of general gun season.
Three other areas to look at are Bull Creek, Lake George and Ocala WMAs. The first two days of the season on Bull Creek are under quota. After that it's first-come, first-served at the check station. It is also worth noting that Bull Creek has been renamed Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA.
On Lake George the first nine days have restricted access before opening the general hunting public for the remainder of the season.
On Ocala WMA, which also is on national forest lands, different units have different regulations. Also note that there have been boundary changes on the units. Check the FWC Web site for current regulations for each unit before you go.
If you're looking for private land, check out Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties. Also, Sumter and Osceola counties still are quite rural, with a lot of piney woods and timberland in the north and ranch land in the south. Featuring a wide variety of habitats in these counties, from dry prairies and more open savannah habitats in the north to agriculture and cattle ranches in the south, the area is good for deer. The habitats are just different from one another.
Green Swamp and Croom WMAs continue to be two areas where hunters can go for deer without a quota permit after the first nine days of the season in this region. But you 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 composed of primarily upland sandhill-type habitat. It has good road access throughout, and is easily traversed on foot. The only significant water on Croom is the Withlacoochee River. There are a few ephemeral ponds on the area.
In this region, Hardee and DeSoto counties are probably the best bets for private-land deer. These counties both have good habitat because they have a lot of low-lying wetland soils and larger private landholdings. As a result the deer herds in those counties are larger and have less hunting pressure on them.
The best WMAs here are Big Cypress and J. W. Corbett. Hunters who scout and put the time in to get to know the tracts have a good chance of success. These areas have good-sized herds and give up substantial harvests 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. They hold wetlands, pine rock lands, pine flatlands and cypress swamp. Big Cypress has more prairies with more diversity, because of its size. With more than 1/2 million acres, it's more of a challenge to hunt.
According to Morea, there have been some closures on the Stairsteps Unit of the Big Cypress WMA because of declining deer numbers. Also, a quota permit is required on two units during certain periods, so read the current regulations before you go.
For private land, have a look at Hendry and Martin counties in the South Region. There are a lot of private hunting preserves in Martin County, and Hendry County still has a lot of ranchland for cattle.