Fall is a great time to be a sportsman or woman in the Sunshine State, as there are so many hunting opportunities from which to choose.
With its excellent fishing, many people forget about Florida as an outstanding hunting destination — except when alligator or Osceola turkey season begins. However, sportsmen enjoy abundant opportunities to hunt a variety of game birds and animals on one of the largest and most diverse wildlife management area systems in the country.
For most sportsmen, hunting comes down to one animal — white-tailed deer. Antler seekers can hunt deer from the Panhandle pine forests to Everglades marshes. Florida offers ample opportunities to put meat in the freezer, but doesn't usually produce monster bucks like some other states.
"The soils in Florida are relatively poor in that nutrients are readily leached out of the soil and not available for uptake by plants," explained Cory Morea, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Deer Management Program coordinator. "Therefore, the quality of deer forage in much of Florida is lower than in other states. These areas tend to contain higher quality habitat to support deer growth and reproduction."
Sportsmen could bring home venison from anywhere in the state, but the Panhandle counties usually produce the most nutritious forage for deer, so population densities remain high. One of the best wildlife management areas to bag a deer in Florida, Joe Budd WMA, covers 11,133 acres of Gadsden County on the Georgia line northwest of Tallahassee. The 191,651-acre Blackwater complex and its associated units in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties also produce good deer numbers.
"Traditionally, the best areas for hunting deer are in northern and central Florida," Morea said. "Higher quality forage and abundant agriculture in Jackson, Gadsden, Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosas counties support higher deer densities."
Some other good WMAs for deer across the state include Apalachee in Jackson County, Camp Blanding in Clay County, Spring Creek in Taylor County and Arbuckle in Polk County. One of the biggest WMAs in the state, Big Cypress covers 728,274 acres of southern Florida between Miami and Naples.
Folks also have options hunt the massive national forests in Florida. The largest national forest in Florida, Apalachicola covers 581,290 acres in the Panhandle southwest of Tallahassee. Fed by several rivers and numerous smaller streams, the Apalachicola offers diverse habitat ranging from pine forests and fields to bottomland hardwoods. The area can produce some deer exceeding 200 pounds, but most bucks weigh about 120 to 140 pounds.
In northeastern Florida, the Osceola National Forest includes 190,932 acres in Columbia, Baker, Bradford and Hamilton counties near Lake City. Down the peninsula, the Ocala National Forest covers 383,689 acres. Both areas can produce good numbers and some big deer.
The Ocala National Forest borders Lake George, the second largest freshwater lake in Florida. On the northeast side of the 46,000-acre lake near Deland, Lake George WMA covers 39,642 acres of mixed hardwood swamps and pine forests. The area can produce good deer and offers small game and waterfowl hunting.
While watching for deer, hunters might also bag wild hogs across the state. On private property, sportsmen may kill feral pigs all year long without limit. Many landowners encourage hunters to shoot pigs on their properties. In addition, most public properties allow sportsmen to take hogs as a bonus while hunting other legal game, but check the regulations first.
"Wild hogs occur in all 67 Florida counties within a variety of habitats," Morea said. "They prefer oak-cabbage palm hammocks, freshwater marshes and sloughs and pine flatwoods. Wild pigs eat plants and animals and feed by rooting with their broad snouts. They may disturb the soil and ground cover vegetation, leaving an area looking like a plowed field."
Gray squirrels remain abundant throughout Florida, but local populations can vary from year to year. The hardwood or mixed forests in northern and central Florida typically offer the best squirrel hunting.
Many places that offer good deer hunting also hold many squirrels.
"Many Florida WMAs provide small-game hunting opportunities," said Tony Young, FWC spokesman. "The Choctawhatchee River and Apalachicola WMAs are popular with squirrel hunters. In general, areas with a large number of squirrels contain semi-mature to mature forests with numerous species of nut producing trees and shrubs that provide food and shelter."
A swampy strip along the Lake George shoreline holds squirrels. Other good WMAs to bag bushytails include Jumper Creek in Sumter County, Green Swamp in Lake, Polk and Sumter counties, Seminole Forest in Lake County, Marshall Swamp in Marion County and Upper Hillsborough in Pasco and Polk counties.
Rabbit populations also vary widely. Look for brushy fields with plenty of nutritious green vegetation. In central and southern Florida, watch for rabbits along grassy ridges bordering drainage or irrigation canals supporting agricultural operations.
The best waterfowl hunting traditionally occurs along the St. Johns River and the associated waters of its 1,888-square-mile watershed. At the southern end of the Atlantic Flyway, waterfowlers usually bag blue- and green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, shovelers, mergansers and other species. Some deeper lakes and bays attract redheads and canvasbacks.
"Approximately 20 species of waterfowl regularly winter in Florida," explained Andrew Fanning, FWC Waterfowl and Small Game Management Program coordinator. "Ring-necked ducks and blue-winged teal are the staple of Florida waterfowl hunting. Teal and shovelers frequent shallow marshes. Large numbers of redheads winter on the Gulf Coast. Scaup, also called bluebills, congregate in brackish marshes and lagoons. In addition, mottled ducks, wood ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks and fulvous whistling ducks live in Florida year 'round."
Although technically not part of the St. Johns system, the 9,815-acre Guana River WMA, near the St. Johns delta in St. Johns County, offers some good shooting. This managed wetland close to the Atlantic Coast north of St. Augustine includes Lake Ponte Vedra, a 2,300-acre brackish impoundment, and several smaller ponds.
The largest St. Johns River tributary, the Ocklawaha River, flows into the system north of Lake George. In this area, many people hunt Rodman Reservoir, Crescent Lake and Orange Lake. Lake George itself holds many ring-necked ducks. The large lake might also attract scaup, redheads, ruddy ducks and canvasbacks. Along the wooded shorelines, sportsmen might bag wood ducks and occasional teal, pintail or wigeon.
Farther south, the marshes between Sanford, Cocoa, St. Cloud and Fellsmere, hold many teal, mottled ducks and divers. Upper St. Johns Marsh WMA sprawls over 120,386 acres of the river basin near Cocoa. It traditionally offers some of the best waterfowl habitat in the state. Many people also hunt the marshes near Puzzle Lake, Lakes Jessup, Winder, Poinsett or Washington. The Kissimmee chain of lakes provide good hunting south of Orlando.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville offers good duck habitat. The area traditionally attracts the largest concentration of wigeon and pintails in the state. Hunters might also bag teal, mottled ducks, scaup and ring-necked ducks.
The T. M. Goodwin WMA, and its associated Broadmoor Marsh Unit near Fellsmere, offers hunters more than 6,600 acres in the upper St. Johns River basin. The state intensively manages the properties to provide quality waterfowl hunting.
"Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes are often the best open public duck hunting lakes," Fanning said. "The Stormwater Treatment areas and T. M. Goodwin offer the best quota hunt opportunities, with ducks per hunter numbers averaging around three. These lakes and managed areas contain large amounts of the submersed aquatic plants, which is a great food attractor for waterfowl."
Better known for its quality bass fishing, Lake Okeechobee also offers some excellent duck hunting. The largest freshwater lake in Florida, "Big O" covers about 730 square miles. Relatively shallow and weedy, the lake holds abundant ducks in the winter. Sometimes, flocks of scaup numbering nearly 100,000 can be seen sitting in the middle of the massive lake.
Panhandle river delta wetlands can also provide good duck hunting. The marshes hold teal, mottled ducks and other species. Wood ducks fly through the cypress trees. Some excellent hunting for redheads, scaup and other divers occurs in the bays, particularly in the Apalachicola area. Hunters might also try the Lake Wimico area near Port St. Joseph. Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia line near the Chattahoochee.
While in the marshes looking for ducks, sportsmen might also keep an eye out for snipe. Florida contains some of the best snipe habitat in the eastern United States, although most folks ignore these diminutive shorebirds with long bills. Most snipe hunters walk the marshes, soggy fields or lake shorelines hoping to flush the swift, erratic fliers. When flushed, they typically don't fly far, so be sure to note where the birds land and jump them again.
Doves also provide excellent action for wing-shooters. For most people, the dove opener in September marks the beginning of a new hunting season, but some of the best hunting occurs later in the fall as cold fronts push migratory birds south.
"Winter weather up north will determine how many migratory birds will find their way into Florida later in the season," reported Mark McBride, FWC biologist. "Planted dove fields are the traditional choice, but food plots and rights-of-ways on state WMAs offer good opportunities for dove hunting when fields are not producing birds. Special opportunity dove fields at Teneroc WMA, Allapattah Flats WMA, Frog Pond WMA, Hilcohee WMA and Caravelle Ranch WMA can offer great hunts, but most WMAs offer good dove hunting for those willing to forgo the dove fields and find birds using out-of-the-way areas."
Florida traditionally offered some of the best bobwhite quail hunting in the nation, particularly in the Panhandle pine savannahs. However, wild quail numbers across the Southeast have declined. Where quail find excellent habitat, though, they reproduce in good numbers, despite predators or other factors. Fortunately, the state instituted several quail habitat enhancement programs on some WMAs.
"The bobwhite quail population in Florida is stable to increasing," said Greg Hagan, FWC northern bobwhite coordinator. "In general, dry and unfavorable conditions currently exist across a large portion of the state. This has potential to impact land management activities such as prescribed burning. A bobwhite likes early successional habitat."
The best wild quail hunting probably occurs on the Fred C. Babcock-Cecil M. Webb WMA, an area covering 65,758 acres in Charlotte County. Bird hunters might also visit Three Lakes, Triple N Ranch or Herky Huffman-Bull Creek WMAs.
With wild quail populations low, many people visit private commercial hunting preserves. In these preserves, sportsmen can hunt pen-raised quail for longer seasons. Some of these preserves also offer opportunities to hunt pen-raised ducks, pheasants, chukar and other birds.
Whether pursuing a Boone and Crockett whitetail, a bounding bunny or a snipe, hunters enjoy abundant opportunities to bag a lot of game all over the state. They just need to get out, do some scouting to enjoy this fabulous time of year.