Trophy deer can turn up anywhere. As more and more hunt clubs are turning to good management, bucks have better nutrition and a better chance to reach maturity.
According to Cory Morea, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Deer Management Program coordinator, hunters have learned more about trophy deer management, and have had increased interest in managing deer for older age classes and passing up younger bucks to let them grow.
"This has been done increasingly on private lands, many on private leases within Florida," Morea said. "We've also had antler regulations in place on a number of wildlife management areas (WMAs) for the past several years. This has resulted in more, larger bucks being taken."
The current move to statewide antler regulations also should have an impact on what hunters will see throughout Florida. The regulations, put in place last season on newly drawn deer management units, should protect most one and a half year old bucks, which should result in larger bucks.
"The DMU concept is about breaking up the state into smaller units for management purposes," Morea said.
"Because the state varies in terms of habitat production, land use, stakeholder preference and deer densities, the DMU model let us reach out to the public.
We can hear what hunters prefer for deer management, and as long as it's biologically reasonable, we do our best to try to match up the desires of the public with the hunting regulations and other management activities."
The whole DMU process is about including more public input in management decisions for deer in the state. During the development of the DMU system, it was revealed that the public was most concerned with deer population goals and antler regulation preferences.
The majority of hunters preferred antler regulations to protect one and a half year bucks from harvest. It's not trophy management; it's a delay in harvest to allow bucks to grow a little. And it should result in better bucks in the woods for hunters. It should also improve the buck to doe ratio.
"One of the things we heard from hunters is that they would like for us to improve the buck to doe ratio," said Morea. "Since we generally have lower densities and reproductive rates of deer in Florida than in many other states, we can't really harvest antlerless deer — does — to balance the sex ratio without causing the deer population to decline, possibly significantly."
Hunters want to see the deer population either increase or stay the same. In the DMUs with higher deer densities, the goal is the keep populations stable. In these units, there are more antlerless opportunities than in units where the goal is to increase the population.
Long term, the new deer regulations will have an impact on the size of bucks that hunters are able to kill. A five-year study showed that antler regulations protect one and a half year old bucks.
These regulations can also decrease harvest for a few years, but the harvest bounces back pretty quickly, while providing two and a half and three and a half year old bucks for hunters. Depending on area, hunters should see some substantial improvement in buck size over the next few years.
"It's not uncommon to go from a 5 1/2- to 6 1/2-inch spike at a year and a half old to a small 6 point or 8 point when the deer is a two-and-a-half year old," Morea said.
"They have a little more antler development because they're at least a year older, and they also have larger bodies. They may weigh anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds more in that two-and-a-half year old age class, which results in more meat for the hunter when they do take a buck."
Although he isn't predicting any particular downturn in the number of bucks taken for the next couple of years, Morea said it wouldn't be a surprise if that happened.
"We expect the number of bucks harvested to drop in the next couple of years," he said. "How much of a drop will depend on a lot of factors. A lot of private lands already have been doing this type of management, sometimes even at a higher level. Some of them have an 8-point or a 15-inch spread rule."
In areas with a lot of private land with these kinds of self-imposed regulations, hunters probably will see little or no change in harvest rates.
A preliminary look at last year's harvest in D2 (the Panhandle north of I-10) shows similar numbers to the 2013-2014 season. Morea says that the 3 points on a side regulation didn't cause a drop in harvest, probably because the area has a lot of private land where hunters are already under voluntary antler regulations. The data in D1, south of Interstate 10, tell a different story.
There was a significant drop in both buck and doe harvest in D1, probably because of the Apalachicola National Forest, where most bucks were typically harvested as spikes. Also, D1 has fewer private leases where hunters have been under voluntary antler restrictions.
"The take home message is that the way the new regulations affect the harvest initially will vary by DMU and by how private land has been managed previously," Morea said. "But generally we wouldn't be surprised to see a drop the first couple of years and then to see a rebound."
Another aspect of stricter antler regulations is an increase in antlerless harvest when legal, at least initially. It seems that hunters are trying to make up for reduced buck opportunities by taking a doe. That increased doe harvest is something else biologists have to consider.
"We have to be careful about the size of the doe harvest," Morea said. "That's something we considered when we adjusted the antlerless deer days in each DMU. We were expecting some of that shift, so to prevent overharvesting of does we dropped the antlerless deer take."
Weather can also affect deer harvest, but it has less effect in Florida than in many other states. According to Morea, the best opportunity for hunters to take a mature buck is during the first few days of season, before hunting pressure pushes them more nocturnal.
Otherwise, hunters should probably wait for the rut to get a trophy. Of course, deer move less in hot weather, and bad winter storms might also reduce movement, but in a state with the mild weather of Florida, it is not likely to last long.
"Generally speaking, weather is not going to greatly impact harvest of big bucks and older bucks in Florida," Morea said. "The level of harvest probably is more tied to mast production.
In years where there's a significant acorn crop and a lot of natural vegetation growth, hunters often take fewer deer in general because the deer don't have to move as much to meet their nutritional requirements."
Under these circumstances, deer actually may avoid certain food sources, such as food plots that hunters have planted in the woods. Hunters will often say that it is too hot and deer aren't moving, but deer move during the rut. Hunters simply need to determine the peak dates in their area.
Morea recommends hunters splitting up their efforts by spending a few days in the woods at the beginning of the season before concentrating on the rut. Regardless of whether it is hot, cold, rainy or clear, bucks are going to be moving more, and are more likely to move during the daytime during the rut.
Of course, the dates of the rut in the Sunshine State vary widely across the state, from late July in south Florida to the middle of February in the Panhandle. Fortunately, the FWC tracks the rut from one end of the state to the other and posts the information at www.myfwc.com as a printable map.
Most hunters, however, are interested in knowing where to find big bucks and why they are in those areas. Generally speaking, Morea says, hunters will find larger deer in north Florida, particularly north of I-10 and west of I-75 because of richer soils and more agriculture, which results in more and larger deer.
The three factors that lead to large-bodied, large-antlered deer are genetics, nutrition and age.
"You really can't impact the genetics," Morea said. "The two things you can impact are nutrition and age. Nutrition is difficult, particularly on management areas. Age is the next key factor.
If you have good soils and an area where you're letting bucks get older, that's where you're generally going to see the larger antlered deer being taken. We see that in agricultural areas with the good soils."
Besides the area north of I-10, better soils are located in Marion and Alachua counties, and around Lakeland in Polk County. However, the best source for information about finding big bucks in the Sunshine State is the Florida Buck Registry.
The Registry provides excellent information, but it is not perfect, as adding a buck to the Registry is voluntary. Some hunters don't want anyone to know where they killed a big deer, so there may be any number of bucks hanging on walls that qualify for the Registry that have never been included.
Several years ago, the FWC created a map of Florida that shows the number of bucks on the Registry taken in each county. And while the map was most recently updated in 2012, it nonetheless provides guidance for hunters looking for big bucks in the Sunshine State.