For decades, this Panhandle county has yielded some good whitetail bucks and has a long deer season. That sounds like a prescription for hunting success. Let's have a closer look. (January 2007)
Photo by Mark Werner
If you took a map of the northern tier of Panhandle counties, you'd be hard pressed to find a place where more big deer are killed each hunting season than Walton County.
The reasons for its big-deer reputation aren't rich soils, or some introduced genetically superior deer, but good management on the part of private and public landowners.
The county sits almost midway between Pensacola and Tallahassee, stretching from the Alabama line down to the Gulf of Mexico. It is home to roughly half of Eglin Air Force Base, one of our nation's most important development and testing bases. Interstate 10 also bisects Walton on an east-west axis.
Deer season in the Panhandle is later than in the rest of the state, so hunters can target the rut. This year, the general gun season on private lands in the northwest Florida is Nov. 23-26 and Dec. 9 through Feb. 14. It's followed by an 11-day archery/muzzleoader season, Feb. 15-25.
Wildlife biologist Arlo Kane has worked in Walton and surrounding Panhandle counties for more than 15 years and knows it as well as anyone. Generally speaking, he said the land south of I-10 tends to be sandy and extremely poor in nutrient quality, particularly the closer you travel to the Gulf of Mexico.
North of the interstate, soil quality is much better. That's where you find a fair amount of agriculture, such as soybeans, peanuts and cotton. It's also where hunting clubs or leases occupy every available acre of decent deer habitat.
Early in his work as a state biologist, Kane was responsible for the antlerless deer permit program for private landowners. The number of clubs applying for permits grew steadily in Walton County, which he saw as an indication the owners were interested in good deer management.
Also, most landowners or clubs understand that a huge part of having bigger deer is letting the younger deer walk.
"I can tell you, 20 to 30 years ago, there wasn't as much interest or understanding about letting bucks grow older and mature," Kane said. "Then, if it had antlers, it was a dead deer.
"Now though, just about every hunting club has rules in place that allow them to shoot only the biggest. That's why so many big deer are killed there."
Another change that's come to Walton County -- and the rest of the Panhandle, for that matter -- is fewer hunters are using deer dogs these days. Complaints about deer hounds getting onto lands where they're not wanted, changing land-use patterns and development have resulted in less land being open to dog-running. The bottom line is, many former dog-hunters have switched to still-hunting.
The biggest deer ever taken in Walton County was reportedly killed in 1958, although that hunt's exact day, month and location are no longer known. That big typical 10-point rack measured 16 4/8 inches wide and scored 146 4/8 Boone and Crockett Club points. As far as certified kills go, the biggest from Walton County found on the Florida Buck Registry is Delbert Spence's 16-point non-typical from Feb. 9, 2004. That buck scored 145 3/8 B&C points.
If you look at the list of Walton County bucks on the Florida Buck Registry, it has several dozen impressive entries. Another thing you'll notice is that quite a few of those deer were killed from mid-January to the end of the season in February.
That's also the time of the rut, when big bucks are chasing does and are most vulnerable. From Walton County west to Escambia County, the rut is at its zenith from mid-January through mid-February, which is the latest it falls anywhere in Florida.
Looking at the Walton County bucks on the FBR, two names jump out at you -- Glen Cumbie and Delbert Spence, both of Defuniak Springs.
Cumbie killed the second-largest Walton County buck ever on Jan. 3, 2002, when he downed a monstrous typical 11-point that scored 138 5/8. He has two other bucks on the registry: a 10-point he killed on Jan. 25, 1995 that scores 129; and a 12-pointer scoring 123 4/8 that he downed on Jan. 8, 1993.
He also has a spectacular 8-point rack that has yet to be scored, but he figures it'll score close to 130 B&C. All of Cumbie's big deer were killed after Christmas and close to the rut.
Cumbie's hunting area is similar to other leases in the region. He and some buddies control a tract in the northern part of the county. The gently rolling area is covered mostly with pines and hardwoods. Cumbie's club maintains its own food plots.
He's also a member of that generation of deer hunters who still love to hunt with dogs, but he has accepted that times are changing.
Another hunter who typifies hunting success for big whitetails is Delbert Spence. The 79-year old retired horse farrier has a spectacular seven trophies listed on the Buck Registry; his last was the 16-point non-typical mentioned earlier. He killed that buck while heading out on a hog hunt with a friend, when he spied the deer standing in a field.
Spence's hunting acumen is no stranger to long-time readers of Florida Game & Fish. His hunting exploits have been featured twice in this magazine, the last time in our November 2004 issue. In addition to that big non-typical buck, his other deer -- spanning five decades -- include an 11-point that scored 134 2/8, a 10-point measuring 124 4/8, 11-point scoring 122, 11-point measuring 115 4/8, 8-point scoring 114 6/8, and a 9-point that scored 109 3/8 B&C points.
The affable, easy-going Spence loves to hear deer dogs run in the fall. However, he too is a realist and understands that Florida -- and his area of the Panhandle -- have changed.
"I've dog-hunted all my life. Still-hunting ain't for me, but I'm for any way people can get into the woods," he pointed out.
While there are plenty of other big Walton County deer on the FBR, one in particular stands out for its size and sentimental value. That deer was a picture-perfect 10-pointer taken by Monica Harris of Port St. Joe. Her deer, killed on Feb. 9, 2003, scored 134 6/8 B&C.
Harris' story was also featured in Florida Game & Fish. That weekend, she and her husband Wayne, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,
were hunting a Walton County farm. They were hunting in February during the rut on a rainy, cold morning. With the hunting season winding down, she simply wanted to fill an antlerless permit and put some meat in the freezer.
She got much more than she bargained for when she sat on a field and watched as the big buck walked out in shooting range. Her deer meant all the more to her and her family because she had just been given her deceased twin brother's Ruger .243 rifle. She made her shot with it count.
For hunters who don't have access to private land, Walton County has four public areas open to hunting: Eglin Air Force Base, and the Choctawhatchee River, Point Washington and Lafayette Creek wildlife management areas.
It seems as if Eglin AFB has been there forever. In World War II, it was known as Eglin Field, but the boundaries haven't changed. It's huge, stretching over 464,000 acres in Walton and Okaloosa counties. This is an active military base with a lot going on, but hunters have access to roughly 280,000 acres in the Eglin AFB WMA. Sitting close to the Gulf of Mexico, most of the base is what biologists call sandhill habitat. There are longleaf pines, wiregrass, turkey and blackjack oak ridges and titi bottoms. Deer certainly do well there.
Wildlife biologist Justin Johnson works out of Eglin's Jackson Guard Natural Resource Office and oversees the base's hunting program. It's his job to provide different kinds of hunting for all the sportsmen who visit Eglin. Year in and year out, the base sells about 4,000 hunting permits at their Niceville office.
Hunting is allowed on 15 management units on the base. About 60 percent of the area is open to deer-dog running, and it's heavily utilized. A special permit is required to hunt some of the dog-hunt areas. Johnson said these permits sell out every year.
There are check stations on some management units. Other areas do not require check-in, or check-out.
One of the most interesting units on the base is the 8,000-acre archery-only unit next to Duke Field. This area is just over the line in Okaloosa County, but has some extraordinary opportunities for serious archers. Fort Walton Beach resident Kenneth Dwanne Davis arrowed a big 10-pointer on Feb. 18, 2002, the last day of the season. His deer scored 126 2/8 Pope and Young Club points and is one of only a handful of deer from Florida to ever make the P&Y All-Time Record book.
David Brooks of Niceville almost matched Davis when he killed a 9-point with his bow on Feb. 13, 2005. His deer scored 124 3/8, falling just a smidgen below the P&Y minimum of 125 points.
Justin Johnson and his fellow natural-resources staffers go beyond what is expected in their jobs. In addition to their standard season, they hold a special hunt for 50 disabled hunters and 50 kids. The hunts are closely supervised and held after the close of the regular hunting sessions in closed areas, where deer numbers tend to be high. To say the hunts are popular is a huge understatement.
"When we started out, we could just about find a spot for everybody that applied. But that's not the case any longer," Johnson admitted. "For instance, we got over 200 applications last year for the youth hunt."
This season, Eglin's remaining hunting days are Dec. 9 through Jan. 1, Jan. 20-28 and Feb. 15-25, which straddles the late-season rut. On Eglin, the rut is generally in high gear during the end-of-the-season disability and youth hunts.
Johnson added that the harvest on Eglin has been down a little the last two seasons, having peaked during the 2003-04 season.
"I don't know why the harvest has been off some. But track counts show the herd is healthy, and I believe the harvest will be back up this season," he said.
Deer hunters in south Walton County can hunt the 12,400-acre Point Washington WMA. Most of the area is south of U.S. Highway 98 and it's sandwiched between Sandestin and Panama City Beach.
Capt. Scott Lindsey, a Panama City Beach resident who hunted Point Washington last season, estimated that he saw 50 to 55 deer, the vast majority of them does.
"Deer were pretty predictable. They'd come out in the morning and afternoons," Lindsey said. "You find a place where there's a lot of sign, and they'll cross there."
If there's any knock on the area, Lindsey said it's all the "extra" human traffic on the area. He suggests getting well away from the main road to enjoy your hunt.
The Florida Division of Forestry is the lead managing agency for the tract and has a good rotational burning plan in place to keep the area open and the habitat in optimum condition for wildlife.
The remaining portion of the 2006-07 hunting season for modern firearms runs Dec. 9 through Jan 31, followed by an 11-day muzzleloading gun/archery season Feb. 15-25.
The Choctawhatchee River WMA stretches for more than 25 miles along the river in Walton, Washington, Bay and Holmes counties. Nearly all of the 57,300-acre area is flood-plain hardwood habitat or marsh. It was bought years ago by the Northwest Florida Water Management District to protect the river.
Unless you happen to be in a hunting lease or know a landowner whose property borders the area, the only access to the area is by boat. For a hunt, of course, that requires a bit more preparation and planning. Because of the nature of the topography, it is also smart to carry either a compass or GPS unit when entering the region.
The on the plus side, the area's long deer season allows you to hunt the rut, which usually falls in January. Until the last four to five years, most hunting pressure here was light, but that's changing. Hunters putting in a little extra effort to get away from crowds have made things a little busier on the tract during the last few hunting seasons.
One note of caution regarding hunting during prolonged rainy weather: Small changes in water levels in the river and swamp can change the appearance of the area, and make getting back to a boat difficult. Plan accordingly.
The hunting season continues on the area from Dec. 9 through Jan. 31, with the 11-day archery/muzzleloader season following.
This is the first year Lafayette Creek WMA is open to public hunting. The area is small, at just 3,160 acres, but likely to have some good deer.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District owns the Lafayette Creek tract, and it is one of four public areas to be adding a "family hunt" format this season. The family hunt provides groups of one adult and up to two youths the opportunity to hunt together as a unit. All that's needed is a no-cost family quota hunt permit. A total of seven family-hunt quota permits are issued for this season.
The archery, muzzleloading gun
and general gun hunts are open only to those with quota permits.