Deer can be found in every corner of Florida, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places to bag a deer this fall.(October 2007)
Photo by D. Robert Franz.
It's no secret that Florida has plenty of deer. Though they often seem to vanish like smoke in the wind when opening day comes around, every county in the state has at least a decent deer herd. And there's plenty of opportunity statewide for hunters to find those whitetails.
To find out where the best prospects are for bagging your deer this season, we talked to biologists across the state to get their recommendations for where to go on both public and private land this fall.
Lt. Stan Kirkland, FWC Regional Public Information Officer for the Northwest Region, said that hunters should be looking at Eglin Air Force Base, Apalachicola, and Choctaw-hatchee wildlife management areas (WMAs).
"I'd put Eglin at No. 1, Apalachicola WMA as No. 2, and Choctawhatchee River WMA as pretty much neck and neck with Apalachicola," Kirkland surmised.
"Eglin is a vast area and it has a good game management program. The other two are lands owned by the water management district and are pretty much accessible only by boat. But they have a lot of land to hunt."
One great feature of Eglin Air Force Base is its 8,000-acre archery-only area. "That's an enormous area to be archery-only," he noted.
According to Kirkland, some areas of Eglin Air Force Base are closed because of safety concerns.
"Sometimes, some excellent deer cross from those closed areas into the open areas," he added.
Apalachicola WMA is just a few acres short of 582,000. It's in Franklin, Liberty and Leon counties, and is familiar to many hunters throughout the state.
"This is an area that's been one of the lynchpins of our system over the years, and typically has drawn hunters from central and south Florida as the seasons have closed down there," Kirkland explained. "One of the good things about this area is that the deer herd seems to be growing slightly. For a number of years, the herd here seemed to be suppressed for whatever reason, but now it's making some gains. People are seeing more deer, and seem to be seeing more racked deer."
Since Apalachicola is located on national forest land, it's managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which has an aggressive burning program.
"The burning program is the one thing we can do that's not expensive, but is beneficial," Kirkland said.
"Fire removes plants that tend to be hard and pithy, and are not as nutritious for deer. Areas that have been burned have a lot of plants that are young and tender and which the deer feed on."
In the eastern part of the area south of Tallahassee, some oak ridges near the airport are walk-in only, and those are good places to look for deer.
"And the west side of the area along the Apalachicola River is just incredibly beautiful, particularly down near White Oak and Cotton landings," Kirkland said. "There are some hardwood drainages down by the river. It's one of the prettiest places in Florida."
Be aware that the Florida Scenic Trail runs diagonally across the area, from near Medart in the north and west, and that hikers use this area. Camping is allowed on the area.
The Choctawhatchee WMA covers 57,299 acres in Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties.
"This area is owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District," Kirkland pointed out. "It stretches for 35 or 40 miles along the Choctawhatchee River in a narrow corridor from near the Alabama line to Choctawhatchee Bay. It has a hardwood drainage and with typical mast species."
There is limited access by road, so the best access to this area is by boat. A portion of the area is still-hunting only. The rest is open for the use of dogs during deer season. Two areas -- East River Island and the Holmes Creek Unit -- are open only for archery and muzzleloaders for deer.
"One good thing about this area is that the rut is a little later -- in mid- to late January -- in the Panhandle," Kirkland acknowledged. "There's no quota on this area during that period, and the season runs through the end of January, with an 11-day archery/muzzleloader season afterward."
In the Northwest Region, the western three counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa are probably the best bets for deer. The better areas lie north of Interstate 10, where there's a lot of agriculture.
"These counties have some of the highest deer populations of anywhere in the state," said biologist Arlo Kane. "One of the next highest is Gadsden County. Jackson County also has quite a few."
Jackson County has a lot of agriculture, too. And though there's a good bit of agriculture in Gadsden County as well, this area is getting over into the Red Hills region where the soils are better.
In the Northeast Region, biologist Mike Abbott likes Half Moon, Seminole Forest, and Tosohatchee WMAs.
"I don't want to suggest that other areas aren't good hunting, but those three really stand out," he offered.
"One reason these areas have higher density is partly good habitat management. Access control also plays a large part in it. There's one way in and one way out past the check station."
Half Moon WMA, located in Sumter County, covers 9480 acres. This area follows the Withlacoochee River about 8 miles east of Inverness. There are 75 quota permits for each of two archery hunts, one muzzleloading gun hunt and two general gun hunts.
Seminole Forest has been a good area for a long time, Abbott said.
"It has a good deer herd, and the success rate is pretty high on the area," he noted. "The area is 12,524 acres. The area has a daily limit of two bucks, and it's not rare to see someone come out with two nice bucks in the back of their truck.
"The deer on the area have good body size, good antler development, and I think that's probably because of the good habitat."
Managers have done a good bit of burning a
nd other work on the area, which should improve the habitat even more in the years to come.
"During May of 2007, there already had been one wildfire on Seminole Forest," Abbott said. "So the landscape is going to be a little different on part of the area for this hunting season. But give it a year or two, and the growth on the burned area will make great habitat and be good for the deer."
Tosohatchee is a large area of 30,701 acres along the St. Johns River. "A lot of the area is flatwoods," Abbott said. "The area has a good road system."
One unique regulation on Tosohatchee involves bag limits.
"When you get a quota permit on Tosohatchee, you can shoot a buck and a doe," Abbott explained.
On other WMAs, you need an antlerless deer permit to take a doe.
"When we first started with Tosohatchee, it had a very high deer population," Abbott said. "In order to have a liberal harvest of does, they used that mechanism for doing it.
"Biologists discovered that on that area, they could have that kind of a hunt and maintain a good deer population. It seems to work on Tosohatchee."
When it comes to private land in the region, Abbott likes Sumter County and Marion County.
"Sumter County has some pretty nice soils, so hunters take nice deer there," he said. "Portions of Marion County have some pretty nice soils with better water retention. That's horse country, and there's a reason why all those horse farms are there."
Camp Blanding WMA, as always, is a top-drawer location for bringing home a deer. Along with this area, district biologist Scott Johns recommended Jennings Forest and Twin Rivers WMAs.
"Last year, Camp Blanding was open to hunters for the first time since 2001," Johns said. "There were more than 450 deer harvested from that area last year. Although this year shouldn't be that good, I expect it will still be a good year."
There are two still-hunt areas on Camp Blanding, as well as a dog-hunt area to the north of state Route 16.
"The artillery impact area is right in the center of the two still-hunt areas," Johns said, "and the deer use that as a safe refuge."
Jennings Forest is an area that has improved over the past few years.
"We now have an antlerless deer harvest on the area," Johns pointed out. "This area is all quota hunt, and people who apply for a quota hunt can put in for an antlerless deer permit too. There's a good number of deer on Jennings Forest, and our track counts have shown that the population remains consistently high."
Twin Rivers WMA, located on the Suwannee River in Madison County, is under quota, but also has 30 daily-use permits for hunters who arrive at the check station early in the day during a quota period.
"It's such a high-quality area that people start lining up for permits the night before a hunt, and some people sleep in their cars," Johns said.
"It's an area that's long and thin, and there are a lot of hunting clubs around it. So the deer are able to walk back and forth between the hunting clubs and the WMA and benefit from the feeding that the clubs are doing."
Prescribed burning leads to a lot of habitat diversity on Twin Rivers, which also contributes to a good herd.
"There is river swamp and a lot of restored native habitat," Johns added.
Biologist Chris Wynn said some of the best habitat for deer on private land can be found in the northern tier of counties. That includes Madison and Hamilton counties. However, that doesn't mean good pockets of deer can't be found elsewhere.
Year after year, two WMAs in this region rise to the top of the list of public lands that produce impressive records of giving up whitetails. These are Arbuckle and Avon Park Air Force Range WMAs.
Arbuckle consists of 13,500 acres surrounding the lake of the same name in Polk County. The WMA straddles the Lake Wales Ridge, where the sandy soil supports bayheads, sand pine scrub terrain and cypress domes.
The area has quotas for the firearms season and for weekends during the archery and muzzleloading sessions, but first-come, first-served daily permits are available on weekdays during the primitive weapons hunts.
Avon Park near Frostproof is another of the military installations that is open for deer hunting. In total, it covers just shy of 219,000 acres. But all of that is not open to hunting.
To be legal, bucks on the base must have at least 3 points on one side, and no modern rifles can be used to hunt.
The base gives up between 150 to 200 whitetails in an average year. Due to land management on the post, deer habitat is excellent.
As for private lands in this region go, Pasco County is the traditional hot area for deer. DeSoto County in the area of Arcadia, particularly around Fisheating Creek, is also a good area for deer on private land.
Biologist Mike Anderson said that one of the best WMAs for deer in the South Region is Dinner Island Ranch.
"Most of Dinner Island is improved pasture, dotted with live oak hammocks throughout," he described it.
This area is fairly new for hunters, having been acquired by the FWC in 2003 and first opened to hunting during the 2004-05 season.
"Dinner Island has a nice deer herd, with some good quality compared to other areas in the region," the biologist continued.
"It's a limited hunt, with restrictive quotas. The first year, hunters took 41 bucks, and 24 the second year. Last year, they took 41 bucks again."
Another area to look at is J.W. Corbett WMA. "Historically, it's one of the nicer areas on the region," Anderson noted. Hunters took 123 bucks off Corbett last year. Big Cypress also is a good area to look for deer.
"This is the area where hunters took the most deer last year," Anderson pointed out. "Hunters killed 238 bucks during the 2006-07 season."
As for private holdings, Hendry County has always been good in this region.