The leaves are falling, and Florida nights are getting cool...in the Panhandle, at least, where the change of season is more in line with the rest of the South than it is far down the Florida peninsula.
With the change in the weather, the Florida deer-hunting season lies just around the corner and the Florida deer herd is strong and healthy. Most parts of Florida have plenty of deer, indeed, and no matter where you live in the Sunshine State, opportunities abound for you to head out to deer camp and bring home some venison.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, deer populations this season across Florida appear in much the same condition as they have for several years.
"Our harvest survey has indicated a stable harvest for the last few years," said Cory Morea, who serves as the state's deer management program coordinator. "We feel pretty comfortable in saying that our deer population in the state has been stable in size. With our rainfall improving, we hope that will have a positive impact on productivity."
DEER MANAGEMENT UNITS
Florida's deer-hunting regulations are parsed across four deer hunting zones defined by the FWC. On state-maintained wildlife management areas, deer hunting regulations often differ from the surrounding areas.
Across some deer management units this year, Florida hunters will see changes in hunting regulations. On deer management unit Zone D, these changes impact both private and public lands.
"We have set up two deer management units within the zone," Morea explained, "and there are new antler regulations and changes to the antlerless deer days."
Those changes, he added, go back to the FWC's Strategic Plan for its white-tailed deer herd.
"The purpose of the Strategic Plan is to allow us to manage deer at more local levels," he said. "It's based on stakeholder input. Public input drives changes in deer management at the deer management unit level."
Morea also suggested hunters in the rest of the state should expect to see additional changes in deer-hunting regulations over the next couple years. The eventual goal of the project, he said, is to manage Florida's deer herd at a more local level, based on the preferences of hunters.
For more information about Florida's deer management unit project, go to the FWC's website at www.myfwc.com and mouse over the "Hunting" tab. Select "Deer" on the dropdown menu and click on "DMUs" where you'll find much more information on the project.
NEW ZONE D REGULATIONS
Morea's insights point to major changes this season in the deer-hunting regulations in Zone D, the Panhandle.
One change is the boundary between Zone D and Zone C. Zone D has been modified to include the portion of Wakulla County located south of U.S. Highway 98, east of Spring Creek Road and west of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers.
In Zone D, Interstate 10 now is the dividing line between the two deer management units. Bucks harvested south of I-10 in DMU-D1 must carry antlers with at least 2 points on one side, and each point must measure at least 1 inch long.
North of I-10 in DMU-D2, the minimum antler requirement now is 3 points on one side, and each point must measure at least 1 inch long; or one antler must measure 10 inches or more along its main beam.
The new rules in both DMUs also includes an exception for youth hunters. Hunters 15 years old and younger may continue to harvest bucks that have just one antler measuring 5 inches or more.
The regulations surrounding antlerless deer-hunting days — so-called "doe days" — also have changed. In DMU-D1, the antlerless season was reduced to four days, consisting of two weekends — the weekends after Thanksgiving and Christmas. In DMU-D2, antlerless deer season was lengthened to eight days, distributed across four weekends — Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, the first weekend of muzzleloading gun season, the third weekend of the general gun season, and the weekend after Christmas.
And on private lands within Zone D during antlerless deer season, does may be harvested as well as bucks with antlers that measure less than 5 inches long. Hunters may not take spotted fawns at any time.
For more information on deer hunting regulations this season in DMU Zone D (and all Florida deer-hunting zones), visit the Commission's website at www.MyFWC.com/Deer.
FINDING YOUR DEER THIS SEASON
Deer hunting data and other statistics with regards to white-tailed deer in Florida clearly demonstrate the Panhandle holds more deer across its private lands than anywhere else in the Sunshine State.
"That's the area where we have the highest number of complaints about deer damage on farm crops and landscaping, and the most deer/vehicle collisions," Morea said. "This is particularly true north of I-10. Based on those indicators, the most deer can be found in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties."
Heading east, the agricultural areas of Jackson and Gadsden counties hold good deer numbers, too.
"Then there's kind of a swath that goes from Jefferson and Madison counties through Hamilton, Suwannee, Columbia and Union counties," Morea said. "It goes down through Bradford, Alachua, Marion and Clay counties. There's kind of a path through there where we have a lot of depredation permits, which is an indicator of density. The other county that stands out is Polk County."
Many deer hunts on Florida's WMAs take place where the FWC restricts hunts through the Special Opportunity system or the Quota Hunt system. Since this article won't come out until it's too late to apply for either one of those hunt types, we eliminated from our list those WMAs that are managed entirely under either system.
But it is the WMAs where many deer hunters get their only chance to hunt Florida whitetails. The WMAs in our "best" list for hunting all have at least a portion of some season — general gun, muzzleloading or archery — that is open for either walk-in hunting or hunting with a daily hunt permit, available at the check station. And the rankings are based on hunter effort — from least to greatest per deer killed.
1. Joe Budd WMA
Joe Budd Wildlife Management Area in Gadsden County is always a good place for deer hunting. It doesn't have a general gun season, but deer hunters at Joe Budd WMA enjoy archery and muzzleloading gun hunts through the period of time when the rest of the state is open for general gun hunting. Hunting here does require quota permits, but half of the permits are "walk-up" permits.
Joe Budd WMA has a variety of habitats and varied topography, which is rare for Florida. Since this area now requires hunters to observe legal bucks with three points on a side, it's starting to build up a larger population of mature deer. Joe Budd is slightly larger than 11,000 acres in size.
2. Apalachee WMA
Apalachee Wildlife Management Area is a deer-hunting site that's been around quite a while. It's located in Jackson County, alongside Lake Seminole and the Chattahoochee River. Part of the area supports planted fields, which means good hunting. The entire area is only 7,900 acres, so it won't support a lot of pressure, but it could be a good place for archery hunting.
The first portion of the general gun season at Apalachee WMA is under quota. Permits are required for the remainder of the general gun season and for archery and muzzleloading gun seasons in the form of first-come-first-served zone tags, which are available at the check station on the day of the hunt.
3. Spring Creek WMA
Spring Creek is located in Taylor County. The area covers 14,000 acres.
A quota permit is required during muzzleloading gun season and the first nine days of the general gun season. Archery season, and the rest of the general gun season, are open with no permit required. During general gun season, some parts of the area require permits, while other parts are open for specific periods. Be sure to read the area information brochure carefully to guarantee you're in compliance with current hunting regulations.
4. Arbuckle WMA
Arbuckle Wildlife Management Area in Polk County is a good place to deer hunt despite the fact the habitat doesn't seem very conducive to a good deer population. It features scrubby upland habitat with a lot of sandhills. Antler restrictions apply.
Hunters must carry a permit to hunt Arbuckle WMA. They're available first-come-first-served at the check station on weekdays only (weekend hunts fall under the quota system). The area is slightly larger than 13,500 acres.
5. Hickory Mound WMA
The Hickory Mound Wildlife Management Area stretches across more than 14,000 acres of Taylor County, much of it in coastal swamp habitat. The first 16 days of the gun season on Hickory Mound are under quota. After that, the area is open for hunters to enter at will. Archery season also is open with no quota.
6. Econfina Creek WMA
Econfina Creek Wildlife Management Area is a 41,000-acre area located in Washington, Bay and Jackson counties. Hunting regs here provide for both dog deer hunts and still-hunting zones. And a portion of the WMA is set aside for mobility impaired hunters.
The permit requirements that apply to this area are somewhat complex. During archery and muzzleloading gun seasons, some parts of the WMA are open for hunting and other parts are under quota permits. Check out the regulations before you hunt to ensure you're hunting within the permit requirements.
7. Tide Swamp WMA
Tide Swamp Wildlife Management Area is similar to both Hickory Mound and Spring Creek WMAs. It's low-lying habitat covers a little less than 20,000 acres, primarily made up of hammocks, with upland flatwoods and sandhills in the inland portions of the area. No quota permits are required.
One minor change is in place this year on Tide Swamp for deer hunters. Hunters no longer are required to enter and exit the area through a designated check station.
8. Three Lakes WMA
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area is a large hunting area in Osceola County. Stretching across more than 63,000 acres, it holds a moderate population of deer. Portions of each season are under quota permits. On other days hunters must stop at the check station and pick up a daily permit.
While deer hunting at Three Lakes, use care not to stray onto the Prairie Lakes Unit of the WMA. The Prairie Lakes Unit is under quota permit for everything but small-game hunting. You'll be hunting illegally if you cross over onto that piece of property during the non-permit period of the local hunting season.
9. Camp Blanding WMA
Camp Blanding Wildlife Management Area is located in Clay County and is part of the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. The WMA consists of a dog deer-hunting area, an archery-only area and two still-hunting areas. Camp Blanding is not open to scouting, so make sure that you review aerial maps and topographic maps to identify the areas where creeks are found. Camp Blanding is crisscrossed by multiple creeks, and these are key to finding deer on the area.
10. Big Cypress WMA
Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area is among the largest of Florida's public-hunting areas. Yet, while it covers more than 711,000 acres in Collier, Dade and Monroe counties, deer hunting on the WMA is restricted to bucks only. Because its habitat is less productive than other areas, hunting regulations protect the does. The FWC doesn't allow doe harvest even during archery season on the area.
Big Cypress WMA has wetlands, pine rocklands, pine flatlands and cypress swamp, with a good bit of prairie and a lot of diversity. It's a good mosaic of south Florida's typical native habitats. The area around Bear Island stands at a bit higher elevation than the rest of the area. And be forewarned that access into much of Big Cypress can be difficult because the area can be so wet.
The face of deer hunting in Florida is, indeed, changing as it looks like regulations will be tweaked over a long period of time to help deer hunters who are speaking out to the hearing ears of the FWC. Learn the new rules; hunt with patience, skill and good ethics; and put firearm safety above all else when you hunt Florida whitetails this season.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '