After a long, hot summer, the weather in the northern part of the state finally is starting to cool down. Leaves are crunching underfoot and the sunlight is taking on that golden hue that says fall is coming. Down south it's still hot, but one thing is clear — deer season is just around the corner.
Thankfully, the Sunshine State has many places for hunters to bring home some venison, and, even better, the state has plenty of deer.
"From year to year, it's difficult to say what's going on with the deer population," said Cory Morea, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Deer Management Program coordinator. "We look at trend data, and really want to look at three- to five-year trends when we're making management decisions. On some of our WMAs, we are doing spotlight counts and on some we'll be doing track counts. We also do aerial surveys to get our populations indexes and come up with harvest recommendations on some of the WMAs."
Though not completely tabulated, the annual harvest survey provides concrete data about the number of deer taken each year statewide and individual deer management units (DMU). The 2015-2016 season was the first year that most of Florida was under the new deer harvest regulations; the Panhandle has been under those regulations for two years now.
"We expected the buck harvest to drop the first couple years under these new antler regulations," Morea said. "After that, the buck harvest should rebound."
Last season, it was a pretty good season in regard to both sightings and harvest, according to anecdotal information from hunters, with many looking forward to seeing the results of the new antler regulations.
Along with the stricter antler regulations, the FWC also reduced the number of antlerless deer days in the state.
"We did that for a couple of reasons," Morea said. "One is that when we asked hunters what they wanted the deer herd to look like, one of the things they said was that they wanted to see more deer. They felt that the population could come up. So one reason for the reduction in antlerless deer harvest opportunities was an effort to reduce the take of does, and to either stabilize or start increasing the deer population in management units."
In addition Morea explains, biologists know that when the stricter antler regulations are implemented, there tends to be an increase in the antlerless deer harvest. However, last year everything points to the antlerless harvest being about what was expected.
One thing that may have affected the 2015-2016 deer harvest a bit in some parts of the state was the weather.
"We had some significant rain events that — depending on where you were — could have impacted hunting opportunities and access, just because of the amount of water on the landscape," Morea said. "Other than that, nothing stood out. We heard the normal reports across the board that some hunters were not seeing the deerthey are used to, and others were seeing more than they were used to. It was the spectrum of reports that you expect during hunting season."
After the changes in the rules that took place for the 2015-2016 season, Morea doesn't expect to see any more major rule changes in the near future.
"Part of the 10-year deer management plan was to work with hunters and other stakeholders, and to have them more involved in the decision making as far as deer management regulations are concerned," Morea said. "The goal is to go at least five hunting seasons after major changes are implemented, based on hunter feedback and input. Then we will go around again, and do surveys and outreach meetings with hunters to find out how they view the previous five years and how they would like to continue managing deer in the future. Right now, we're in that five-year, post-implementation process; we're two years into it for Zone D, and one year into it for the rest of the state. Those changes need time to impact the deer herd on the ground."
The antler regulations, of course, differ between DMUs. In some areas, the rule is three points on a side or a 10-inch main beam. In other areas, it's a forked-antler rule, with at least two points on one side. The intention of these new rules is to protect 18-month-old bucks from harvest so they have an opportunity to grow up.
To find information about the Deer Management Units, go to www.myfwc.com. Mouse over the "Hunting" tab and click on "Deer" in the drop-down menu. The link to the DMU information is right under the photo of the deer at the top of the page.
WHERE TO HUNT
There are many places on both public land and private land to go for deer. Biologists have some hard data for public land because many areas have check stations where volunteers collect information on deer killed. Historically, private land has been more difficult to assess, since there is no mechanism to count deer killed. Over the last several years, however, post-season surveys have begun providing information about private land.
As for wildlife management areas (WMAs), some are better than others for deer, as age, nutrition and genetics all impact deer herd characteristics.
"The nutrition on some WMAs is better than on others," Morea said. "If an area has more productive soils and more early successional habitat, it's generally going to have higher nutritional levels for deer than other areas. Those factors make an area better able to support more deer, as well as larger deer."
Areas with better nutrition — and hence better deer — get more pressure, or are more coveted during the draw process, which limits hunters with quotas. Quota areas typically have higher populations, as well as more bucks.
In broad terms, Morea says, the better areas are in the northern part of the state, but that doesn't mean the south part of the state doesn't have good deer.
"There are some fine deer taken off WMAs in the southern part of the state," Morea said. "There also are some areas in north Florida that have some real sandy, poor soils for nutrition. That's why we have set up the DMUs."
Of the many DMUs throughout the state, Morea says that Zone D, particularly D 2 north of I-10, seems to have a larger deer population than most other parts of Florida because the area has some of the best soils in the state. In fact, a lot of agriculture is grown in that part of the Panhandle, and the way deer have been managed over the years — even before the inception of the DMU system and the new antler rules — has helped foster larger numbers of deer in that part of the state.
"A lot of private hunting leases and landowners were managing for similar harvest characteristics," Morea said. "This is also the part of the state where we receive the most complaints about high deer numbers as well."
As a result, DMU D 2 has more days when hunters can harvest antlerless deer than other parts of the state, which should result in more deer taken during the hunting season. According to Morea, the goal for that part of the state is to stabilize the population. To help, the state offers a deer depredation permit program for farmers who are having negative impacts by deer.
Of course, deer are spread throughout the state, but the entire northern tier of counties has the highest deer populations because of the soils and the agriculture. Marion and Alachua counties are good bets in north-central Florida.
In central Florida, hunters should look at Polk County, as the area has good soils and a tradition of producing deer. At the south end of the state, there are sections of DeSoto, Highlands, Glades and Hendry counties that are undeveloped.
"There are a lot of large acreage tracts that are being managed well for deer, and have been for years," Morea said. "Those areas produce a good many deer each year, but you're not going to get the numbers that you do farther north."
That said, there are plenty of places to successfully hunt deer in Florida, both on private land and on public land. Although the data aren't complete for either category for the 2015-2016 season, 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 at www.myfwc.com under WMA Harvest Reports. In the case of public land, only WMAs with check stations report the number of deer harvested on the area; for other WMAs, there isn't much the FWC can say. What is available, however, can be sorted by season, year, region, hunt number and more to find out how many deer were harvested on particular WMAs.
Post-harvest survey information also is available on the FWC website, with links to private land reports for the 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015 seasons (the 2015-2016 season may be posted by the time this article appears in print). These reports show harvest data on a county-by-county basis, organized a number of different ways, for all of Florida.
Overall, Morea says, biologists are pleased with the new antler regulations.
"We've made it through the first year — and the second year in Zone D — with the new regulations," Morea said. "Hunters are adjusting to them. It's an exciting time to be a deer hunter in the state and to see and experience these changes. It will be exciting to see how the deer populations change over the next few years."