Trophy deer can show up anyplace in Florida, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails. Here, Florida Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for a trophy buck. (November 2007)
Photo by Ralph Hensley.
Big deer really can pop up anywhere. Florida isn't a state that's well known for producing big bucks. But every now and then, one comes along that makes the experts shake their heads.
And with the rise in hunt clubs that practice quality deer management programs, those experts may be shaking their heads more often!
Even here in the Sunshine State, there are trophy bucks to be hunted. It's often just a matter of finding them. Other times, it's a matter of being in the right places at the right times.
Biologists say that the three most important factors for developing big deer and big antlers are genetics, nutrition and age. One reason why Florida doesn't produce more really big deer is poor nutrition. Statewide, our relatively infertile soils produce small deer with small antlers because of the low mineral content in the vegetation they feed on. But a few areas with good soils and good deer numbers have the potential to produce a trophy buck or two -- or even more.
If you want a trophy-class buck, you need to hunt somewhere with a record for big deer. Areas that produced good bucks in the past are likely to do so again.
Fortunately, for information on where to find big deer in the state, we have a source to go to -- the Florida Buck Registry.
Established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, this registry gives hunters the opportunity to submit antlers from deer they have killed to be scored and placed on a list of big bucks taken in the Sunshine State.
By studying the FBR, we can get a picture of where bigger deer have been produced, historically.
And by looking at the bucks placed on the list over the past 10 years, we can see where the more recent trophy bucks have come from.
This is the best method we have for crunching the numbers of big deer taken from private land statewide. But it's not perfect.
Adding a buck to the registry is strictly voluntary. And since quite a few hunters don't want to publicize big deer, for a variety of reasons, any number of bucks that qualify for the FBR may be hanging on walls out there, but have never been placed on the list.
Nonetheless, the data we do have are complete enough to establish some "hot counties" where you can start looking for your trophy.
When we start examining the Wildlife Management Areas, things get more difficult. Most WMAs with the potential for producing big deer are managed under either the Special Opportunity Hunt or the Quota Hunt systems. For those WMAs, it's too late to get permits for this year. But information about those areas can give you an idea of where to start planning for next year's buck.
Most WMAs are open for foot traffic throughout the year, so you can spend this winter scouting for a good place to hunt next year.
However, each WMA has its own set of rules. Not all areas are open, and there may be regulations about where you can and cannot go during the different seasons. Read the brochures, and know before you go.
Green Swamp WMA
Located in the Southwest Region, Green Swamp is one traditionally a premier public-hunting area in the state, and comes in at No. 1 on our list. The area, which comprises more than 49,000 acres, sits in the corner of Lake, Polk and Sumter counties. The Withlacoochee River runs through the south end of the property.
Deer hunting on Green Swamp is by quota only during the first nine days of general gun season. After that, you need one of the daily permits, available on a first-come, first-served basis at the check stations each morning. There are 750 permits available for each day of the archery season, and a like number for each day of the general gun season.
Hunting with dogs is prohibited. Camping is allowed in designated areas by permit only. For more information about camping, contact the Southwest Florida Water Management District at 1-800-423-1476.
Eglin Air Force Base WMA
Eglin Air Force Base weighs in at No. 2 on our list of top public areas. The Natural Resources Division of the Environmental Management Directorate Division of Eglin AFB runs hunting on the base. The area is located in the Northwest Region.
Eglin Air Force Base is an active Air Force armament and training center that sprawls across Walton and Okaloosa counties. More than half the base's 464,000 acres are open for hunting. Hunting areas are provided for dog-hunting, still-hunting, and archery-only.
At Eglin AFB, it's possible to hunt the rut after some other areas have closed. Here, the rut generally occurs in late January and early February, so hunters on the base have a late shot at a big deer.
Number 3 on our list is Richloam WMA, located in the Northeast Region. At more than 56,000 acres, Richloam sprawls across Hernando, Pasco, Sumter and Lake counties.
Regulations for general gun season on Richloam are similar to those at Green Swamp WMA. A regular quota hunt permit is required for the first part of the general gun season, with 900 permits available.
After the first nine days, the WMA is open for hunters to walk in without a permit. During archery season, no quota permit is required.
Camping is allowed at designated sites only. For more information about camping, contact the Division of Forestry, Withlacoochee Forestry Center, at (352) 754-6896.
Half Moon WMA
Half Moon WMA, No. 4 on our list, is much smaller than the first three tracts we discussed. At only 9,480 acres, Half Moon is entirely in Sumter County, which lies in the Northeast Region. The Withlacoochee River forms the tract's western boundary -- which means, of course, that there's an associated river swamp on the area.
Deer hunting is allowed on the area during archery, muzzleloader and general gun seasons, but quota permits are required for each season. There are 75 permits available for each of two archery hunts, muzzleloading gun season, and each of two general gun hunts.
Half Moon WMA is one of those areas that have a three-point antler rule. A legal buck must have at least one antler with three or more points that are one inch or more in length.
On Half Moon, "antlerless" deer are does, and any bucks with antlers less than 5 inches in length.
In other words, all bucks with antlers more than 5 inches in length, but without at least one three-tined antler, are protected.
Blackwater WMA is located in the Northwest Zone in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. It's a huge area, comprising more than 191,000 acres. A number of creeks run through the area, all of them eventually connecting with the Blackwater River, which also traverses the WMA.
There are 75 management-area permits available for both the archery and muzzleloading gun seasons.
General gun season gets a little more complicated. You must have a quota permit if you're hunting during the first thirteen days or the last seventeen days of general gun season; there are 1,800 permits available.
Also, there are 400 quota permits available for each of two dog-hunting sessions.
Home of the University of Florida, Alachua County doesn't seem like a likely place to find big deer. Yet it's No. 1 when it comes to the number of deer on the Florida Buck Registry in the last 10 years.
What makes Alachua County so good for deer is that much of it is private property and it has top-notch soils that are a bit better than in many parts of the state, which results in better productivity and better nutrition for big bucks.
There's less row-crop agriculture now than there has been in the past, and a good bit of land has been converted to pine plantations. But the county still supports a good herd of deer with its fair share of big bucks.
According to biologists, the genetics for big deer are also present. There's a lot of edge effect with a mixture of pine plantations, hardwood forest, and prairie. That means a lot of browse for the deer.
Jackson County came in at No. 2 on our Big Bucks List.
Despite increasing urbanization in the Panhandle, particularly in many traditional hunting areas closer to Tallahassee, Jackson County is still quite rural, with a lot of industrial timberland and private farmland.
In Jackson County, as in much of the northern tier of counties, the nutrition available for deer is better than in some other parts of the state. This is partly because the soil is better, especially in areas where farmers are using a lot of fertilizer on the crops the deer feed on. If you can get access to private land, this is an excellent county to hunt in.
In Osceola County, No. 3 on our list, much of the land is in cattle ranching and sod farms. Although neither terrain lends itself to good deer production without additional management, some of the agricultural practices associated with these land uses -- such as controlled burning --improve the habitat for deer.
In addition, a number of ranches provide supplemental feeding for deer, which also improves the nutrition of the herd here.
Bay County may have some of the state's most beautiful beaches, but it doesn't seem like a likely place for big bucks. Still, it comes in at No. 4 on our statewide list. In terms of nutrients, the county's coastal soils range from sandy to downright sorry, which also makes its position on the list somewhat surprising.
The habitat is a mixture of slash pine, sand pine, and titi bottoms -- all pretty poor deer habitat -- with a few oak ridges thrown in.
However, good management can offset a lot of deficiencies, and what's happening in Bay County is proof of that. More and more hunt clubs and hunt leases are developing quality deer-management programs and instituting rules such as a one- or two-buck bag limits and restrictive antler size limits. They're letting the bucks get older and taking some of the does off the property so the herd is closer to the number that the available habitat can support. All of this results in bigger, better bucks.
Hamilton County is another place county that doesn't stands out as a likely area for big bucks. Here, there's not as much agriculture as there is in some of the other northern tier counties. But a lot of the land here is in silviculture, which can provide good deer habitat if the forests are wisely managed.
What's going on here is good forest management on private land. Much of the property is controlled by hunt clubs, and many of them are doing an excellent job of managing the deer herd. They have instituted quality deer-management programs and are giving the herd a lot of supplement food, while also letting bucks get some age on them.
Much of the land in Pasco County lies in sandhill communities on ancient sand dunes. However, those areas have a lot of oaks that provide acorns for deer to browse on, providing the nutrition they need to produce big antlers. There's also a lot of cattle ranching in the county. Improved pasture is not great for deer, but cattlemen tend to burn native range on a rotation basis. That's good for deer.
A few years ago, few people would have thought of Jefferson County as a place for big deer. However, the Red Hills soils of south Georgia extend into Jefferson County, providing forage with better-than-average nutrition for deer to feed on. And here, hunt clubs are managing for quality deer.
Additionally, this area lies far enough away from Tallahassee that the rampant growth taking place in Gadsden and Leon counties hasn't reached this far -- yet.
Despite increasing urbanization, there are still places here to find a big deer. That's particularly true in the northern portion of the county around the quail-hunting plantations.
Despite its urban character, Leon County is part of the northern tier that features better soils than much of the rest of the state. Here, good land management, including burning and the planting of food plots, can create habitat that's ideal for deer.
Gadsden County is traditionally one of the places where hunters find big deer. The combination of good soils, large tracts of undeveloped land, and a substantial agricultural base continues to provide good conditions for big deer.
Despite the county's proximity to the state capital and its increasing urbanization, this remains a good place to look for big bucks, particularly if you can get onto private land.
It is worth noting that Gadsden did produce the state-record typical rack that
scored 168 5/8 Boone and Crockett Club points. But Larry Furr took that buck 30 years ago, in 1977.
Much of what you'll find in Jefferson County also applies to Madison County. Although this has not traditionally been a place that hunters thought of for big deer, a number of factors have placed the county in the spotlight.
The county has good soils, particularly north of Interstate 10, and hunt clubs are managing for bigger deer.
Madison County produced the largest whitetail taken in Florida last season. Sylvia Green downed a buck that scored 163 7/8 B&C points and claimed No. 3 on the all-time list of typicals from the Sunshine State.
Find more about Florida fishing and hunting at: FloridaGameandFish.com