Best Big Buck States for 2014: Florida
October 31, 2014
Big bucks can turn up anywhere, and as more and more hunt clubs turn to good management, bucks have better nutrition and a better chance to reach full maturity.
The best source for information on big bucks in the Sunshine State is the Florida Buck Registry, though it's not perfect. Adding a buck to the Registry is voluntary, and since some hunters don't want to disclose where they killed their big deer, there may be bucks hanging on walls that qualify for the Registry but have never been placed on it.
Nonetheless, the data provides information on potential "hot counties" where you can begin looking for your trophy.
Although the Florida Buck Registry began listing deer back in 1996, we've only included information for the past four years to provide where big bucks are coming from now, not where they were coming from 20 years ago.
We've also narrowed our search down to deer in the 130-class and above. At one time there weren't a lot of bucks that size on the Florida Buck Registry, but today we have a big enough sample size of 130-class bucks for us to look at where they're coming from.
No. 1 — Jackson County
"Jackson County has long been known as a county that's capable of producing large antlered bucks," said Cory Morea, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC's) Deer Management Program coordinator. "It has very good soils, and it's in part of Florida that has similar habitat to south Georgia. There are a lot of agricultural activities, which can benefit deer, and it has a history of producing large antlered deer."
Jackson County is located at the eastern end of the Red Hills, with good habitat and good nutrition for deer. In addition, hunt clubs are managing for quality deer.
"Over the years, a lot of private landowners have promoted passing younger bucks and taking older bucks, and that tradition has allowed bucks to get to older ages," Morea said.
No. 2 — Bay County
Even though Bay County has deep sandy soil and swampland, it's still a haven for big bucks, especially north of Interstate 10. The habitat is a mixture of slash pine, sand pine and titi bottoms, with a few oak ridges thrown in.
"The north half of Bay County is the more productive part of the county," Morea said. "As you go further south you get more into pine flatwoods and sandy soils, which is less likely to produce larger deer."
More hunt clubs are developing quality management deer programs and instituting antler size limits. They're letting bucks get older and taking some of the does off the property so the herd is closer to the number of deer that the available habitat can support.
No. 3 — Jefferson County
Even though urbanization in the Panhandle is infringing on many traditional hunting areas close to Tallahassee, the upper tier of counties is the place to go for big deer in Florida. This includes the area of the Panhandle that has clay soils, from Jackson County on the west to Jefferson on the east.
"The northern part of Jefferson County is rich in high-quality soils," Morea said. "It has agriculture and a number of large quail hunting plantations with a rich heritage of managing the land intensively for wildlife, particularly quail. Managing for the early successional habitat for quail also benefits deer greatly."
No. 4 — Madison County
Madison County has good soils, particularly north of I-10, and many hunt clubs are practicing good management that results in big deer.
"Madison is similar to Jackson County, with good soils and a lot of farming activities," Morea said. "It's not a plantation landscape like in northern Jefferson County, but there's a lot of agriculture, and landowners are practicing harvest management to target taking older deer. Most of Madison County is productive, but the southern end has a little more sandy soils and is a little less productive."
No. 5 — Hamilton County
"This is a continuation of the situation in Madison County," Morea said. "There's some agriculture here."
Much of the landscape in Hamilton County, though, is in silviculture, which can also mean good habitat for deer. Much of the private land there is in the control of hunt clubs, which are managing their deer.
No. 6 — Alachua County
Much of Alachua County is in private property, where bucks have a chance to attain an older age. Although there's less row-crop agriculture now than there was in the past, and a lot of land has been converted to pine plantations, the county still supports a good deer herd with its fair share of big bucks. Plus, there's a lot of edges with a mixture of pine plantations, hardwood forest and prairie.
"Once you get into peninsular Florida, you're into sandier soils," Morea said. "The area that includes Alachua and Marion counties, however, has soils that are a little more productive. This area also has a number of landowners who have managed the properties for deer, and for older age classes of bucks."
No. 7 — Polk County
"Polk County has a lot of ranch land, and it's an area with good soils for south Florida," Morea said. "While they produce cattle, a lot of those habitats, and the edges of the pastures and the woodlots and bays are good for deer. Most of the ranches are good stewards of the land and are managing for wildlife. Landowners are allowing the deer to get older, so their antlers can grow to their full expression. This is a county that has produced some nice older bucks over the years."
Outside the management areas, hunting tends to be managed through clubs, where hunters are selectively managing for big racks.
No. 8 — Leon County
Despite increasing urbanization around the Capital City, there are still places to find a big deer, particularly around the quail hunting plantations.
"Southern Leon County is less productive and has sandier soils," Morea said. "As you get above I-10, you get into more productive soils and into the plantation-type landscape where there's a lot of management for quail, and that benefits deer. On the plantations, landowners manage the hunting pressure and promote taking older age class bucks."
No. 9 — Calhoun County
The heavier soils of Calhoun County, along with the associated agriculture, create good habitat for deer.
"Calhoun County is similar to northern Bay and southern Jackson counties," Morea said. "It has good soils and agriculture, but the landscape is more broken up into hunting leases than some of the other counties."
No. 10 — Osceola County
"This area has a moderate habitat that's managed for cattle operations, and managed heavily for hunting as well," Morea said. "Landowners here have a long history of promoting sound deer management practices, and have focused on taking older bucks when possible."
While sod farms and cattle ranches don't lend to good deer production without additional management, some of the agricultural practices associated with these land uses improve habitat for deer. In addition, a number of ranches — either intentionally or as a by-product of their livestock management practices — provide supplemental feeding for deer, which also improves the nutrition of the herd.
Most of the WMAs with the potential for producing big deer are managed under either the Special Opportunity Hunt system or the Quota Hunt system. For those WMAs, it's too late to get permits for this year. There are, however, some areas that might open for archery or muzzleloading only, with a few that allow firearms as well. Remember that each WMA has its own set of rules, so know the rules.
No. 1 — Apalachee WMA
Apalachee WMA is located in the Northwest Region in Jackson County right along Lake Seminole and the Chattahoochee River. This area is only 7,900 acres so it won't support a lot of pressure, but it produces some good bucks.
"This is an area that's managed heavily for early successional habitat to benefit quail and deer," Morea said.
Apalachee WMA is divided into zones. If you're hunting Zone A during general gun season and before December 23, you must have a quota permit. For the rest of the deer hunts you can pick up a first-come, first-served zone tag available at the check station on the day you're hunting.
No. 2 — Blackwater WMA
"This area is heavily hunted, but it's a large area and it does produce some large antlered deer each year," Morea said. "It's one of many areas in the Panhandle that will be going to three points on a side this coming season."
Blackwater WMA encompasses more than 191,000 acres in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. Archery season, muzzleloading season and parts of general gun season are open for hunting without a permit.
No. 3 — Chipola River WMA
Chipola River in the Northwest Region is another relatively small area, covering only a little more than 9,000 acres in Jackson and Calhoun counties.
"This is an area that's difficult to access," Morea said. "It's primarily accessed by small boat, such as a canoe or johnboat; there are a few limited areas where you can access it from land. It's a narrow corridor that follows the Chipola River watershed. You have to put in a little work to hunt it, but it has some pretty habitat. If you can get into the area away from the common access points, there's good hunting; it does produce some nice bucks each year."
This area is open for general gun, archery and muzzleloading; permit requirements vary depending on which unit you're hunting.
No. 4 — Kissimmee River PUA
The Kissimmee River Public Use Area is located in Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee, Osceola and Polk counties, in the Southwest Region. It covers more than 30,000 acres along the Kissimmee River.
"A number of nice bucks have come from this area over the years," Morea said. "It receives a lot of hunting pressure, but it also produces some nice large antlered deer each year. The deeper you go into the area, the more likely you are to encounter older bucks. The area benefits from good habitat and from good habitat management on adjacent lands as well. "
Kissimmee River PUA is open for archery, crossbow, general gun and muzzleloading gun seasons. No permits are required for this area.
No. 5 — Green Swamp WMA
Green Swamp WMA, in the Southwest Region, has daily hunt permits available first-come first-served at the check station. The first nine days of general gun season are under quota; after that, pick up a daily hunt permit as you enter.
"Green Swamp is an area that receives quite a bit of hunting pressure, but hunters do succeed in taking large antlered deer out of there each year," Morea said.
Green Swamp is challenging to hunt, but a good road system helps. The area covers roughly 50,000 acres.
No. 6 — J. W. Corbett WMA
J. W. Corbett is slightly more than 60,000 acres, and is entirely in Palm Beach County. It's primarily pine flatwoods, cypress domes and ponds.
"This is the second year with a forked antler regulation in place," Morea said. "This is one of the more popular areas in south Florida, and hunters take a few nice bucks off it each year. We expect to see that trend continue as the forked antler regulation protects the yearling bucks and allows them to be recruited into the older age classes."
Access to Corbett is better than on some of the other southern WMAs. A series of trails run off a road into the interior, providing the best access on any of the south Florida areas.
No. 7 — Escambia River WMA
The Escambia River WMA comprises more than 35,000 acres in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. This is a long, linear area that runs along both sides of the Escambia River.
"This area can be difficult to access," Morea said, "but it does produce some larger deer each year."
Some of the best access to this area is by boat; numerous landings are available throughout the area.
Escambia River WMA is open for archery, gun, muzzleloading and late archery/muzzleloading seasons. No permits are required to hunt.
No. 8 — Joe Budd WMA
Although the 11,000-acra Joe Budd doesn't have a gun season, it has archery and muzzleloading hunts through the period of time when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting. It requires quota permits, but half of them are walk-up permits.
"Joe Budd has always been known as an area that produces nice antlered deer," Morea said. "It's had a 'three on a side' regulation in place for several years now, so it's a good area to hunt. It has some beautiful habitat."