Florida's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Trophy deer can show up anywhere in Florida. But for producing big whitetails, some areas are in a class by themselves. Here, we take an in-depth look at what parts of the Sunshine State are best for a trophy buck. (November 2008).

The Florida Buck Registry confirms that big deer can pop up anywhere. Almost every county -- including unlikely candidates like Palm Beach County and even Collier County -- can boast at least one big buck.

Photo by H.D. Petrie

In the development of big deer and big antlers, the three most important factors are genetics, nutrition, and age. One reason why Florida doesn't produce many giant deer is poor nutrition. Our relatively infertile soils don't provide enough nutrients to grow such animals, so the result is small deer with less than impressive antlers. But a few areas with good soils, balanced deer numbers and landowners who practice good herd management have the potential to produce impressive bucks.

Do you want a trophy-class whitetail? Then you need to hunt someplace with a history of producing big deer. That's where the Florida Buck Registry comes into play.

Studying the FBR provides a picture of where big bucks historically have been produced.

When you start looking at the wildlife management areas, things get more difficult. Most of these state-run WMAs with the potential for producing big deer are managed under either the Special Opportunity Hunt system or the Quota Hunt system.

For those WMAs, it's too late to get permits for this year. But the statistics at least indicate which area you should be applying for next season.

Let's start by pinpointing the top public lands for producing big bucks, then move on to the top counties around the state.

Green Swamp WMA
Green Swamp WMA checks in as No. 1 on the list, but that's no surprise. It has been on the list a number of years in the past.

"Historically," FWCC Southwest Regional Biologist Jason Burton said, "Green Swamp does tend to have a lot of good deer coming off it. During last year's harvest, they had a couple of 12-points, a couple of 10-points and a whole slew of 8-points."

Burton said the most likely reason is the habitat that provides good nutrition for deer. "Green Swamp is a heavily used area, so it's not protected more than any other area would be," he added. "It has to come down to the habitat and nutrition."Eglin

Air Force Base
Eglin Air Force Base claims the No. 2 spot for 2008 on the list of top public hunting areas.

This huge tract is a bit of a quasi-WMA. Eglin is an active Air Force armament and training center that sprawls across Walton and Okaloosa counties, but more than half the base's 464,000 acres are open for hunting. The Natural Resources Division of the Environmental Management Directorate Division of Eglin AFB runs hunting on the base.

Because of Eglin's location in the Panhandle, it's possible to hunt the rut after some other areas have closed. The rut here generally occurs in late January and early February, so hunters on the base have a late shot at a big deer.

Richloam WMA
At No. 3 on the list is Richloam WMA, which shares a border with Green Swamp. According to biologist Jason Burton, that proximity is a key.

"The fact that both areas have good bucks and they're touching each other may indicate something about the genetics in the region," he suggested.

"One possible benefit to the deer in both areas is Green Swamp West, which is located just west of Green Swamp. It's a Special Opportunity area with an antler restriction, and that may be helping provide a refuge for high-quality deer.

"So there may be some genetic flow from that direction. However, if you want one simple answer about both Green Swamp and Richloam," he continued, "it would have to be the habitat -- the nutrition in the area may be enhancing their antlers.

"Any way you cut it, it comes down to good food."

Half Moon WMA
Half Moon is another tract that perennially appears on the list of top areas for quality bucks.

The Withlacoochee River forms the western boundary of the WMA, and there's an associated river swamp on the area.

On reason for bigger deer here is their age. Half Moon WMA has a three-point antler rule. In order for a buck to be legal, it must have at least one antler with three or more points that are one inch or more in length.

That permits the males to reach older age-classes, which in turn lets them grow larger racks.

Blackwater WMA
Although Blackwater WMA lies outside the Red Hills region of north Florida that provides the best soil conditions in the Sunshine State, it's still far enough north to have some of the heavier soils that characterize good deer habitat. This means better nutrition and bigger deer.

Blackwater WMA is another 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. All of this adds up to a lot of creek-bottom drainage areas with decent soils. In turn, that translates to opportunities for hunters seeking for a big buck.

Nassau WMA
This is the first year Nassau WMA has showed up on the list of best-bet public lands for big bucks. Even though Nassau lies east of the more fertile Red Hills area, its soil fertility is likely what's producing some better deer in that area.

"It's not reasonable to say that Nassau WMA has better genetics than anywhere else in Florida," FWCC North Central Regional Biologist John Ault pointed out.

"You're not going to get a 180-pound deer on the sands of Florida. But if you go to an area with good soils, you get better deer."

Ault said that you can get little patches of good soils in other areas of the state as well as the upper tier of counties like Jackson, Leon and Madison in the Red Hills.

Located to the north of Jacksonville near the Georgia border, Nassau WMA benefits from such a situation.

Fort McCoy WMA
Ft. McCoy WMA also is new to the list this year. This area is located in Marion

County and is relatively small, at just more than 8,600 acres.

You need a Recreational Use Permit on this area, which means the hunting pressure is very limited.

On the other hand, the tract has produced a number of bucks that have made the FBR -- impressive for such a small area.

Alachua County
Alachua County is first on this year's list for big-buck potential, based on past performance regarding Florida Buck Registry entries.

Though this doesn't seem like a good bet to find big deer, the numbers don't lie: Hunters have put a total of 133 bucks from Alachua County on the FBR.

"It's all about the soil types," biologist Ault re-emphasized. "Alachua County always shows up high on the list of big deer, and the only reason I know for that to happen is for the soils to be better."

In addition, virtually all of Alachua County is privately owned, which means it doesn't get the hunting pressure of public land. Bucks have a chance to attain an older age.

Though there's now less row-crop agriculture than there's been in the past, and though a good bit of land has been converted to pine plantations, the county still supports a good deer herd with a fair share of big bucks.

Plus, there's a lot of edge effect: a mixture of pine plantations, hardwood forest, and prairie. That means a lot of browse for the deer.

Jackson County
Despite increasing urbanization in the Panhandle -- particularly in many traditional hunting areas closer to Tallahassee -- the upper tier of counties in Florida is still the place to go for big deer. This includes Jackson County, with its clay soils. This region, often called the Red Hills, stretches from Jackson on the west over to Jefferson County on the east.

As a result of these better soils -- especially in areas where farmers are using a lot of fertilizer on the crops on which deer feed -- the bucks have excellent nutrition and can grow to a larger size and produce better antlers.

Osceola County
Much farther to the south on the peninsula, Osceola County still comes in at No. 3 on the list.

Here, much of the land is in cattle ranching and sod farms. Though neither use 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 natural habitat for deer.

In addition, a number of ranches, either intentionally or as a by-product of their livestock management practices, provide supplemental feeding for deer. That also improves the nutrition of the deer herd.

Bay County
Though Bay County is in the Panhandle, it lies west of the clay soil region, borders the Gulf Coast and contains Panama City.

None of those situations point to it being prime deer country. Additionally, the flora is a mixture of slash pine, sand pine and titi bottoms -- all pretty poor deer habitat. The only natural bright spot is the presence of some ridges dominated by oak trees.

Despite these drawbacks, Bay County regularly yields some big bucks.

Its good habitat and herd management offset a lot of those deficiencies. More and more hunt clubs and hunting leaseholders in the county are developing quality deer-management programs and instituting restrictive antler size limits. They're letting the bucks get older and taking some of the does off the property, so that the herd is closer to the number of deer that the available habitat can support.

Leon County
This year, Leon County moves up on the list to No. 5. Despite increasing urbanization around the state capital that lies in its central region, there are still places here to find a big deer -- particularly around the quail-hunting plantations in the northern reaches of the county.

Also, Leon lies in the heart of the northern tier of clay-soil counties. Good land management, including burning and planting of food plots, creates conditions ideal for deer.

"Leon County is part of a group of counties that have good soils," John Ault reiterated. "The fact that they're all together makes a really good case for the fact that those better soils produce bigger deer."

Pasco County
"For the most part, Pasco County is still a very rural area," Jason Burton noted, "so there's a lot of agriculture and a lot of horse and cattle farms.

"On those private lands, I think there's probably supplemental feeding of deer going on, whether it's deliberate or just livestock feed. I have an idea deer are getting some supplemental nutrition that way."

Plus, Burton he doesn't think that other than on WMAs, the deer are getting a lot of hunting pressure in this county to the north of Tampa.

"What hunting pressure there is tends to be managed through clubs," he added. "So on private lands, hunters are probably being more selective and doing some direct management for big racks."

Hamilton County
In Hamilton County it's also all about the soil.

"You're getting soils that are more like those up in Georgia," Ault said. "Real dirt."

But in the last decade, the number of bigger deer turning up from here has probably grown faster than anywhere in the state. That suggests that hunters and landowners are also doing more habitat management.

In Hamilton County, there's not as much agriculture as in some other northern tier counties. But a lot of the land here is in well-managed tree farms that provide good deer habitat.

Another factor is good management by the hunt clubs that control most hunting leases in the county.

Jefferson County
At the eastern end of the Red Hills, Jefferson County also has good habitat and nutrition for deer.

Here too, hunt clubs are managing for quality deer. In addition, this area is far enough from Tallahassee that the rampant growth taking place in Gadsden and Leon counties hasn't yet reached this far.

Calhoun County
New to this year's list this year is Calhoun County, which comes in at No. 9. Once again, soil and nutrition lie at the heart of its success.

Adding to its benefits is the lack of any population major center -- thus, it's a rural landscape -- and the presence of the Chipola River drainage.

Bucks here have plenty of refuges and can get old enough to achieve maximum antler growth.

Madison County
Much of what applies to Jefferson County also is true of Madison. The county has good soils, particularly north of I-10, and many hunt clubs are managing for quality bucks.

"In Madison County, as in some of the other northern counties, you have real dirt with real minerals in it," said biologist Ault. "And that's why you have bigger deer in those places."

Gadsden County
Gadsden County is traditionally one of the places where hunters find big deer. Good soils, large tracts of undeveloped land and a substantial agricultural base provide good conditions for producing big racks.

Despite the county's proximity to Tallahassee and its increasing urbanization, this remains a good place to look for big bucks. It's also worth noting that back in the 1970s, it yielded Larry Furr's state-record typical that scored 168 5/8 Boone and Crockett club points.

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