If you listen closely, you can hear the leaves rustling, meaning deer season is just around the corner. If you don't have a place to hunt yet, you're almost too late. Nonetheless, even if you've put it off, there are places you can go to bring home some venison this year.
There's no question that Florida has plenty of deer. No matter where you are in the Sunshine State, there's an opportunity to bring home meat. Of course, it helps if hunters pursue their sport in the best areas, but determining the best areas is hard as, according to Cory Morea, Florida Fish and Wildlfie Conservation Commission Deer Management program coordinator, deer management isn't measured by annual changes.
"It's really difficult right now to make any predictions for this fall on a scientific basis," Morea said. "We're just now getting into doing track counts, and even those aren't going to show much variability from year to year. It's more about monitoring trends for at least three years."
Generally speaking, Morea said, Florida had favorable rainfall in the winter and early spring, which is good for the deer population in the state.
"There's no reason to think that the upcoming season won't be a good season," he said. "The only thing that's new that will be in play this year is that much of the state will come under antler regulations that will impact harvest at least for a few years, until the buck population builds up."
At that point, harvest rates should return to the level hunters are accustomed to seeing.
NEW DMUs, NEW REGULATIONS
Zone D, in northwest Florida, was split into two Deer Management Units (DMUs), each with its own set of regulations. The rest of the state now has been divided into a series of DMUs — effective this year — to improve the ability of biologists to manage deer statewide.
"Last year, the Commission approved the split for Zone D into two units with different antler regulations and different antlerless deer take opportunities," Morea said. "That was based on stakeholder input. Then we continued that process this year as the Commissioners approved similar regulations throughout the state."
Zone A will be three DMUs, Zone B will be one unit by itself and Zone C will have six DMUs within its borders.
"Now there are a total of 12 Deer Management Units in the state," Morea said. "This coming season the entire state will be under antler regulations designed to protect year-and-a-half old bucks from harvest, while allowing the harvest of two-and-a-half year old and older antlered deer."
Information on the new Deer Management Units can be found at myfwc.com under the "Hunting" tab.
Along with the new DMUs, biologists also have been working on new antler regulations for a number of years. All of these changes have been brought about in part because of a change of philosophy and mindset of hunters over time.
"Hunters have been asking for change," Morea said. "We developed a public outreach that allowed stakeholders — particularly hunters — to provide much greater input into the deer regulations."
In fact, Morea believes that hunter opinion and input may lead to additional changes in deer regulations in the future. According to him, there has been a shift away from wanting to protect does and harvesting bucks in all age classes.
"What we've seen over time is that more and more hunters have requested that we change that to where there's some consideration of antlerless or doe harvest, combined with protecting more young bucks so that there are more bucks in the population," Morea said. "Essentially we're shifting from taking any deer with antlers to taking those that are a little older."
In fact, this trend is nationwide. The proposed regulations had very good support of hunters, up to 60 and 70 percent in some DMUs. Of course, the new regulations differ between DMUs, with the intention of protecting 18-month-old bucks from being harvested to allow them the chance to grow.
"We have two standard sets of antler regulations," Morea said. "One is three points on a side or a 10-inch main beam. The other is the forked antler rule, with two points on one side."
With all of these changes, it stands to reason that the overall goals of the FWC with regard to deer hunting also have changed. Of course for years, the agency didn't make many significant changes to deer management, instead leaving it to the discretion of individuals on private lands, while managing public lands based on input from local stakeholder groups.
Morea said that biologists could tell that hunters had different wants and needs in regard to deer management in the state, so they expanded the stakeholder approach from the public land to encompass the entire state, particularly the people who purchase hunting licenses each year.
"Now the Commission has specific goals and objectives for each Deer Management Unit," Morea said. "We developed those based on input from stakeholders."
All of these new management strategies tie back to the 10-year Deer Management Plan, which was approved by the Commissioners in 2008. As the goals of the Commission have changed, the process has gone fairly smoothly.
"We've had a lot of positive input from hunters and other stakeholders," Morea said. "Of course, hunters participated most in that process.
Many hunters, even if they disagreed with the majority thought, appreciated the opportunity to discuss their preferences for deer management; they were happy to see that the agency was taking hunter opinions into consideration at that level."
One challenge for the FWC has been communication from the agency to hunters. According to Morea, the FWC needs to do a better job of providing information to hunters about the unique challenges of managing deer in Florida. He says that magazines and hunting shows have popularized certain management techniques that don't apply to Florida, and could actually be detrimental to the herd in the state. Over the next year, biologists will be working at reaching out to hunters with information about which techniques do and do not work in the Florida setting.
"Hunters need to understand that our productivity is lower than in many other parts of the country," Morea said. "Our deer densities are lower as well."
As a result, the Commission needs to be much more careful with allowing antlerless deer harvests in Florida than biologists do in other states.
"Our number one concern is that it's really easy to overharvest does in Florida and cause a population to decline," Morea said. "One popular idea is that you take does and pass up bucks, and that makes bigger bucks. But that isn't necessarily the case in Florida."
Taking that approach in Florida, according to Morea, would just reduce the number of deer without increasing body size. All of this could mean changes in the antlerless deer harvest in the future.
"We could change the doe harvest in the different management units, based on the stakeholder goals," Morea said. "We're attempting to reduce the antlerless deer take in many of the Deer Management Units in an attempt to either maintain or increase the deer population."
Even with the low productivity in Florida, the resource base is sufficient to allow for a larger deer herd; the population isn't anywhere near the carrying capacity of the landscape in the state.
"We're not aware of any areas that are near biological carrying capacity," Morea said. "There are some areas where we're having social carrying capacity issues or cultural carrying capacity issues. But in general we have a cup that's partially filled and there's a lot of room to pour in more water."
WHERE TO GET YOUR DEER
With all of that said, there are plenty of places to successfully hunt deer in Florida, both on private land and on public land. Although the data isn't complete for either category of land, hunters still have plenty of resources for finding out success rates in different parts of the state.
The FWC has harvest statistics for both public land and private land posted on its website. In the case of public land, only WMAs with check stations report the number of deer harvested on the area. The available information on the website can be sorted by season, year, region, hunt number and other criteria.
In each region, two or three WMAs stand out as being better than the others in that area. Part of what makes certain WMAs better than others is the harvest that the Commission allows on the areas.
"The better areas usually are those where we have a more conservative harvest format," Morea said. "That's usually accomplished through a combination of shorter seasons, quota permits and antler regulations. On those better areas, we have a harvest format that has allowed the deer population to have expanded over time to a higher level so that harvest rates are much better than on some of the other areas. Typically, those areas have limited hunting pressure and conservative hunt formats that result in higher deer populations for hunters to enjoy."
Improved success rates go along with this formula, which means that a hunter expends less time in the woods to come home successful. Morea said that success rate, which shows how much time is required to take a deer, is a better measure than total harvest.
In other words, when looking at hunting opportunities (whether on public or private land), it's not just about how many deer killed on the property in the past couple years. It's also about how long it took hunters to kill those deer. In some cases, a weeklong hunting season on one WMA is a much better hunting opportunity than a month-long season on another WMA. Taking a hard look at the data accessible from the website will provide lots of info about the best places to go to find deer on public land.
Until a few years ago, tracking the deer harvest on private land was very difficult. For the past few years, however, the Commission has been tracking private land deer harvest; this information also is available on the FWC website, dating back to the 2011-2012 season. These reports show harvest data on a county-by-county basis, organized a number of different ways, for all of Florida.
"We do an annual deer harvest survey of hunters," Morea said. "It's done to get statistically reliable results at the statewide and Deer Management Unit level. We also break it down to counties."
LOOK HERE FOR DEER
With all the possibilities for bringing home venison this fall, there's one area to which Morea said hunters should pay special attention.
"When you mention quantity of deer and deer management issues together, the area that comes to my mind is the Blackwater area in the Panhandle," Morea said, meaning not just the WMA or State Forest, but the entire geographic region. "There are good soils and a lot of agriculture in that area. The deer population in that area has been increasing, and as a result there have been a lot of deer depredation issues there. There's also been a lot of concern from hunters about the use of deer depredation permits in the area. So that's an area where we encourage legal hunting activity to try to reduce antlerless deer versus having the farmers use the deer depredation program."
Even better, some agriculture takes place within Blackwater WMA, providing opportunities for hunters to help farmers by harvesting deer. It's almost like a food plot in the middle of the WMA, and the FWC encourages hunting to protect the crops. Of course, throughout the state, there are other areas just waiting for hunters to walk through; the deer are there.