Though the weather is still scalding, it's time for deer hunters to prepare for the archery season in the Sunshine State. Here's a primer on what to do and where to hunt this year.
By Carolee Boyles
It seemed like a perfect spot for hunting a pig. I was tucked up against a tall tree, watching a food plot as the sun came up. I could hear some piney woods rooters in the brush, and I knew it was just a matter of time before one walked in front of my bow.
But I wasn't the only creature out looking for a meal that morning. About three dozen mosquitoes were using my arms and legs for a landing strip. Fortunately, I had come prepared; I was wearing a bug suit, and although the mosquitoes kept landing and trying to bite, they couldn't get through to my skin.
Finally, three nice black sows meandered out of the bushes. I picked one, put the pin right behind her shoulder, and released the arrow. She flinched, ran about 15 yards, and lay down.
Bowhunting starts early in Florida. In South Florida, there isn't even a hint of fall in the air when the season opens; the weather is still miserably hot. In northern Florida, the weather cools off during archery season, but there are still plenty of hot days that time of year.
Warm-weather bowhunting problems can be divided into two main categories: arthropods and climate. In addition, there are a few other miscellaneous difficulties that don't fit either of those two groups but that can and do have an effect on archery hunting in the heat.
Mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, biting flies and other assorted insects and their kin all abound during hot weather in Florida. Their effects may be immediate, as in the case of mosquitoes and biting flies, or they may not show up until later. Ticks and chiggers fall into this latter category.
First, let's deal with flying insects. You can't do much to prevent them in the wild, but you can find ways to avoid them. The most obvious method to keep all insects off is to use a repellent. But in a bowhunting situation this isn't always practical, since most repellents that contain Deet also have an odor.
Photo by Charles Brower III
One solution to this problem is to use a bug suit. Although there are a number of them on the market, I've had the best results with Bug Tamer brand. Bug Tamers are two layers thick, with an open string mesh layer underneath and a thin camouflage fabric on top. The string mesh is thick enough that insects landing on the outer layer can't reach your skin.
In addition, most bug suits are quite cool compared to regular hunting clothing. You can wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt under a bug suit and stay cool without getting chewed up.
For chiggers and ticks, the solution is not as simple. The key is to keep them out of your clothes to begin with. If you tuck in your shirt and your socks and tie your boot strings down tightly, you can keep most of them out, although nothing is going to be 100 percent effective.
Depending on your hunting situation, you may be able to reduce the population of chiggers and ticks in the environment. This is a long-term project; in order for you to have any effect on them, you have to have year-round access to your hunting land, and permission to manage the property. But regular controlled burning, when done on a prescribed management schedule over a period of several years, sometimes helps reduce the populations of ticks and chiggers in the environment.
In any hot-weather situation, your first concern needs to be maintaining the fluid level in your body. Even in high-humidity situations, you lose a great deal of moisture through sweat. If you fail to replace those fluids, you leave yourself open to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and, in extreme cases, death.
The first line of defense against heat-related problems is to carry water or a sports drink with you - and drink it. Don't fall into that trap of "If I don't drink, I won't have to run behind a bush." No, you won't - but you may wind up making yourself seriously ill at the same time.
Carry water with you every time you go hunting, no matter what the conditions are or how close you're going to be to your base of operations. Don't worry about keeping the water cool; although cold water certainly tastes better than warm water, just drinking water is enough to help you keep cool while you replenish fluids.
You're going to sweat in hot weather, and that means extra care when you're preparing for the hunt. Many hunters use cornstarch or baking soda to cut down on odor, putting one or the other in their boots to keep their feet dry and odor-free, and putting it under their waistbands or other places their clothing may bind and rub. Another tip is to apply anti-perspirant to your feet just before you put on your socks and boots to prevent odor.
None of this will keep you from sweating. So the next step is to apply a cover scent or a scent-killing spray to your clothes. Or try wearing some of the new hunting garments that absorb and hold in odor.
Don't overlook your hat either. Apply cover scent or scent-killer around your hatband, because when you sweat, the odor is going to get into your hat.
Many hunters swear by scent-free and scent-killing soaps and laundry detergents. Certainly, anything that gives you an edge over an animal's nose is a good thing, since the deer can smell you much better than you can smell him.
One of the most notable climate-related problems in the Sunshine State is the way humidity and heat cause glasses to fog, particularly when you're wearing a facemask. You can use one of those no-fog chemicals on your glasses - if you can remember to do it - or carry a camouflage (not a white) piece of fabric or handkerchief to wipe your glasses down from time to time.
With time and experience, you may find that the style of facemask you use makes a big difference in how badly your glasses fog up. One general rule of thumb is that masks with wire around the opening that can be contoured closely to the wearer's face cause fewer problems than those with openings that are edged with binding.
One problem unique to certain parts of South Florida is high water in swampy areas. There's not really anything you can do to solve the problem. About the only thing you can do is get a small boat or a canoe and use it to get to islands or high spots where deer may be holed up to stay out of the water.
If you're going to hunt in this way, plan to get to the island early. If you can manage to be there at least an hour before the start of legal shooting, do so. That way, you can move slowly into the swamp so you don't perspire heavily, and so the whitetails have plenty of time to forget the noise of your passage.
Another potential problem is snakes. The truth is, you can't do much about snakes except watch out for them and avoid them. Also, remember that your best first-aid tools against snakebite are your car keys and your cell phone. If you get bitten, don't chase the snake down and kill it. If you can make a quick identification of its species, that's good, but moving around a lot will only spread the toxin through your body more quickly. Move a safe distance away from the snake, sit down, and call for help.
CHANGES IN THE HUNT
Besides having to deal with heat-related problems while you're hunting, you must also hunt differently if you're a hot-weather bowhunter. The heat and humidity affect the deer in the same ways they affect humans, which means whitetails behave significantly differently during hot weather.
Scout shady places. The deer don't want to be out in the sun any more than you do. Hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Unlike what deer do during the middle of gun season when they remain active in the middle of the day, they bed somewhere cool during this time of year when the weather is so hot.
On the other hand, if you're deep in the woods, you may not want to go all the way back to hunting camp, or all the way home. You might elect to just move out of your hunting area and then do what you can to stay cool right where you are. Get an inexpensive hammock that you can string between two trees, and stretch out during the hot part of the day to rest. Think of what you are doing as setting up a base camp so you can go right back to the stand when evening gets close.
One serious consideration for the hot-weather bowhunter is what to do with the animal once you have it down. You don't have the luxury of hanging it somewhere, even overnight. If you don't deal with it almost immediately, you're going to have spoiled meat on your hands.
One way to get an animal out of the woods quickly is to take a small cart - kind of like a lightweight wheelbarrow - so you can carry stuff out easily. Such a cart is easy to make with conduit or heavy-duty PVC pipe, and you can put bicycle wheels on it so it's easy to push around in the woods.
Another technique is to carry a small cooler containing several one-gallon plastic bottles, filled with water and then frozen. When you get an animal, put the bottles inside the body cavity after you've cleaned it. If you get your deer during a morning hunt, forget about hunting in the afternoon and just get the carcass out of the woods.
The bottom line is that hot weather need not keep you from bowhunting. Yes, you have to make a few adjustments to what you do and how you do it. But with the right preparation, bowhunting during the heat of late summer and early fall can be as rewarding as hunting any other time of year.
WHERE TO GO
So with all your preparation done, where are you going to go for your archery-season venison? Fortunately there are a number of wildlife management areas that are open for bowhunting.
To find out which WMAs are among the best for archery season, and which areas of the state offer good opportunities for deer on private land, we surveyed biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Their opinions reflect the harvest data and survey information, as well as their own observations on WMAs and private land.
In the South Management Zone, where archery season starts early, biologists suggest taking a look at Glades County. There, some big landowners are doing a lot of heavy-duty management. If you are fortunate enough to get a chance to hunt on private land, you might find some surprising bucks there.
Two public tracts that are worth hunting are Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area and J.W. Corbett WMA, which are adjacent to each other. Dupuis WEA has had a forked-antler rule in effect for harvesting bucks, but this year it's switching over to a minimum of three points on at least one side. The hunts there are short and controlled.
J.W. Corbett boasts an archery-only zone.
In the Central Management Zone, biologists suggest you take a look at private land in Madison and Alachua counties. Up in Madison, the soils are similar to those farther out in the Panhandle, so you are looking at better habitat, more deer and better bucks. There is a good bit of timber there, and hunt clubs in that area do well with their deer management programs.
In Alachua County, you are getting into an area that is just short of matching the habitat of the Panhandle region but still has a bit better productivity. Farther down the state, look at Osceola County, which biologists think probably has the best deer herd in the Northeast Region.
In terms of WMAs, Camp Blanding is a good bet, while Jennings Forest is another. Since the two areas are contiguous, deer move back and forth between them.
Camp Blanding is a fairly large area, and one on which biologists are able to do some management for deer, including planting food plots. Jennings Forest is a smaller tract, but it produces a fair number of deer.
Other areas to look at are Bull Creek, Arbuckle, Seminole Forest, Babcock/Webb, and Green Swamp WMAs. Green Swamp is close to the Tampa/St. Petersburg metro area, and the adjacent Green Swamp West WMA is where James Stovall took the state-record non-typical whitetail buck several years ago.
In the Northwest Management Zone, the FWCC is getting a lot of farmer complaints about deer depredation, which of course means there are a lot of deer. Two areas where there are plenty of deer are the northern portions of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The soils in these northern counties tend to be heavier and more clay-based than in the rest of the state, which means the plants growing there contain more minerals and the forage is more nutritious. What it amounts to is that this area can support more and larger deer.
One public tract to look at in the Northwest Management Zone is Blue Water Creek WMA. At one time this area was called Champion International. Today it's a user-pay area, which means you must purchase a recreational use permit to have access to the property. Biologists say it has a very good deer herd, with a significant number of nice bucks.
Another good area is Joe Budd WMA, which has been around just about forever. Joe Budd has only archery and muzzleloading gun seasons, with a unique method of distributing quota hunt permits. Half the permits are given out by random drawing over the summer, and the other half are given out on the Thursday prior to each hunt weekend on a first-come, first-served basis.
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