January 23, 2019
At times I wonder how a whitetail like the desert-dwelling Coues deer, an animal sharing similar physical traits of Florida’s bucks, is revered in the hunting community while the Sunshine State’s deer are dismissed as puny and unworthy despite being every bit as challenging, if not more, than whitetails found throughout their range. We need a better public relations firm, I suppose.
True, Florida is not where one travels for Boone & Crockett (B&C) bucks. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t pop up every twenty years or so, but the Top-10 list of best bets for trophy bucks won’t include this state. Still, each year in certain areas, hunters clobber a few bucks that are within smelling distance of the record books.
To help hunters locate these areas, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Florida Buck Registry Viewer was launched in mid-2017. This handy resource is an online ESRI-powered GIS Viewer that displays information about bucks entered into the Florida Buck Registry program, established in 1982 to provide hunters with a record of the number and quality of whitetail taken in Florida. The minimum antler score is 100 B&C inches for typical antlers and 125 for non-typical antlers. The viewer can be found at ocean.floridamarine.org/flbuckregistry/.
By entering a time frame from 2012 to 2017, let’s analyze the top three counties for a trophy Florida whitetail based on the number of Registry bucks harvested during those seasons.
Marion ranks as the number one county in which to find trophy bucks. In November 2015, Rick Moyer shot a buck that taped an impressive 164 B&C. Over the last five years, Marion County hunters have logged 130 Florida Registry bucks scoring an average of 112 B&C.
Centered in Ocala, Marion County is representative of Florida at large with a wide variety of habitats ranging from scrublands and subdivisions to river bottoms and horse pastures. A combination of agriculture and river-fed soils helps grow bigger deer. The fertile Oklawaha River divides the eastern third of the county from the rest, and the Withlacoochee meanders along its southwest border, each harboring fine bucks.
Generally speaking, finding hunting land in this county is not all that tricky. Private lands, of course, are tougher to access. A couple of outfitters can be found online. Be sure to review testimonials and references before booking any hunt. Leases are often available in late spring after turkey season finishes. These tend to be advertised word-of-mouth, but an online search and paying attention to social media and online forums can unearth potential honey-holes.
Expect to pay more for your own slice of rented heaven than you might in other counties or states. Land in this area is in high demand. Also, before leasing, find out why others might have vacated the premises. Running dogs is still popular in parts of this area, and it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Furthermore, poaching is often problematic around the small communities close to the Ocala National Forest. The big deer are here and so are the people.
The Ocala National Forest represents the best every-day opportunity for hunting Marion County. The Ocala Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is 385,349 acres split between Marion and adjacent counties. It’s divided into four management units: Pipeline, Hopkins Prairie, Lake Delancy and Church Lake. Each has its own set of rules. Some require quota permits while others are a free-for-all. Read the brochure carefully before hunting the WMA.
Camping is allowed in Ocala WMA throughout the year, though the use of trailers or self-propelled camping vehicles is prohibited except in designated campgrounds. This is also bear country, and there are plenty of them, so take the necessary precautions. Much of the WMA is pretty thick and the deer can be twitchy from the pressure, but big bucks inhabit these lands, no doubt.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
The trophy potential is evident with even a cursory look at a map of Osceola County. On the northern and western borders are the Kissimmee River and the Chain of Lakes, which comprise the Kissimmee’s headwaters. Traveling east until you reach the headwaters of the St. Johns River in Indian River County is old Florida prairie, a mixture of flatland cattle ranches, expansive orange groves and scattering sunsets. The land is pockmarked with assorted ponds and wetlands — it’s where northern whitetails would come to retire (if they could).
However, the orange groves and cattle ranches you can almost forget about hunting unless you’re family or some close semblance to kin. Leases do become available, but they are top-dollar in Osceola County, more so typically than in Marion County.
On the plus side, there is ample public land in Osceola County. On the downside, it’s some tough hunting. Portions of the Kissimmee Public Use Area (PUA) and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes Area are in Osceola County. The properties are open throughout deer season, and intrepid hunters annually pull nice bucks from there. But, the majority of access is by boat, often by airboat in order to reach back marshes and locations apart from the main waterways.
Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA is over 23,000 acres and is a popular spot for more-traditional methods of hunting. Over the years, it has experienced higher success rates than other local WMAs, which includes Three Lakes. If you look up “romp-and-stomp” in the dictionary, Three Lakes WMA is referenced there (not literally). The place is large, over 56,000 acres, but it gets crowded with 625 hunters allowed in during deer season. The Prairie Lakes Unit between Lake Jackson and Lake Marian is a coveted draw when applying for limited-entry permits.
Triple N Ranch WMA is the crown jewel of the area but drawing one of a handful of Special Opportunity permits is daunting. The success rates are high, so some folks have no qualms shelling out the cash to enter multiple applications to improve their chances. It’s still cheaper than a lease, I suppose.
Osceola County is much like Marion in the sense that there are big bucks and various public land opportunities. Hunting here can be frustrating, but worth it. Just ask David Holland. In 2013 he took a 143 B&C buck with a firearm. The county has produced 126 Registry bucks since 2012 with an average score of 110. Even driving through Osceola County in the Fall, you half-expect to see a stud buck running does in the middle of a pasture. And you actually just might.
Jackson County is a quiet Panhandle area that just so happens to border the trophy-rich states of Alabama and Georgia. The Chipola River bisects the county right through The City of Southern Charm, Marianna. While Jackson County is the third and final entry on our list, it offers a unique late-season opportunity for a trophy Florida buck. But first, to the stats.
While Marion and Osceola have entered more bucks into the Registry over the last five years, Jackson’s average trophy buck is bigger. According the Viewer, 103 Registry bucks have been submitted from Jackson County with an average score of 120 B&C, easily besting the other entries. And while the numbers aren’t available, I’d submit your odds are better at harvesting a trophy here since the Panhandle doesn’t receive quite the hunting pressure of the other two counties.
By comparison to those counties, leases tend to be cheaper in the Panhandle. For those unwilling or unable to spend the money — do not worry. Apalachee WMA is one of the county’s go-to public land areas. In 2017, 79 deer were harvested from Apalachee WMA. The place is split into three zones, so read the rules carefully.
The Chipola River WMA is another draw in the area. The Altha Unit, however, is limited on quota permits, so save those preference points if you wish to hunt there. Camping is prohibited in Apalachee, but Chipola allows it at designated sites.
While Julio Besu’s 160-inch archery buck taken in 2014 was arrowed in October, the unique aspect of hunting this area of the state is the late rut. Often referred to as the Alabama Rut in the abutting lands of that state and SW Georgia, the breeding season in Jackson County can extend into January and February, long after it’s shut down elsewhere in Florida. The deer seasons reflect this, too, with a General Gun Season lasting until February 17, 2019, and a special Muzzleloading Gun Season running February 18-24, making this one of the last opportunities in the nation to harvest a whitetail buck.
Admittedly, even under the best of conditions, trophy deer hunting in Florida tough. The terrain, limited access to affordable private land, and crowded public properties all conspire to keep the walls of your trophy room barren. Nonetheless, worthy bucks do live here. When you run across hunters who’ve been able to unearth these Sunshine State beasts from the swamps and timber, tip your cap, for they’ve accomplished much in the world of hunting even if few beyond our borders will appreciate this.