Florida's Top 5 December Public Deer Hunts

Florida's Top 5 December Public Deer Hunts

Looking to bag a buck on public land this month? If so, these WMAs should be among your destinations. (December 2005)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

There was a time over the last couple of decades when parts of Florida just did not have that many deer. All you had to do was sit by Interstate 75 headed north out of Florida and watch the weekend exodus of hunters to Georgia, South Carolina and anywhere else that welcomed non-resident hunters.

Times have changed, though.

While we all know Florida, and just about every other state in the country, is selling fewer hunting licenses these days, deer have never been more plentiful. They are not only all over the forests, both public and private, but they are on practically every farm. In some areas, they make a nuisance out of themselves consuming shrubbery around homes at night. Yes, times have improved for the deer hunter in Florida.

Many deer hunters today have turned to private leases or hunting clubs, and for good reason. There are fewer hunters around, you can generally pick your own area and it is easier to put in place quality deer hunting rules.

If you do not want to pay the dollars to belong to a hunting lease, Florida has over 100 wildlife management areas open to the public, most for the cost of a hunting license and a $26.50 WMA permit. Let's take a look at some of the WMAs open to hunting this December where you do not need a quota permit that have put some racks on the Florida Buck Registry for trophy deer. First, however, we will look at the larger list of WMAs that can be hunted this month

In the Northwest Region, there is an abundance of public areas open to hunting. A few of these WMAs are Apalachee in Jackson County; Apalachicola in Franklin, Liberty, Leon and Wakulla counties; Choctawhatchee River in Bay, Holmes, Washington and Washington counties; Joe Budd in Gadsden County; Tyndall AFB in Bay County; and Eglin AFB in Okaloosa and Walton counties.

The North Central Region has more WMAs than do some other states. Those areas where you see both dog and still hunters this time of year are Big Bend's Hickory Mound, Snipe Island, Spring Creek and Tide Swamp units in Taylor County; Camp Blanding in Clay County; Citrus WMA in Citrus and Hernando counties; Lochloosa in Alachua County; and Osceola in Baker and Columbia counties.

There is an abundance of WMAs in the Northeast Region as well. These include Bull Creek in Osceola County; Half Moon in Sumter County; Juniper Creek in Sumter County; Lake George in Putnam and Volusia counties; Richloam in Hernando, Pasco, Sumter and Lake counties; and Ocala in Marion, Putnam and Lake counties.

In the Southwest Region some of the more high-quality areas are Avon Park AFR in Polk and Highlands counties; Croom WMA in Hernando and Sumter counties; Green Swamp in Polk, Sumter and Lake counties; and Hiloochee in Lake and Polk counties.

In the South Region there are several public areas, but most have rigid quota permit requirements. Big Cypress in Collier, Dade and Monroe counties is large and draws a considerable number of south Florida hunters, but has less deer.

Assuming most hunters can hunt only a finite number of days, it is necessary to hone down the list for the best odds for expending that time. The following five highlighted public areas almost guarantee you a shot at a nice buck deer this season, assuming you can spend several days on them.

Eglin Air Force Base WMA sprawls over 464,000 acres near Niceville in the Northwest Region and is home to a host of weapons system testing programs for the Air Force. The military does not use all of the base for testing, though. They allow hunting on 280,000 acres and it is hard to imagine a more productive area.

Wildlife biologist Justin Johnson has worked on Eglin since the early 1990s and said their deer harvest is excellent. Eglin sells about 4,000 hunting permits annually and the deer harvest may run as high as 1,000 animals a year.

"We have pretty tight controls on about 100,000 acres with locked gates and check stations," Johnson explained.

Johnson added that about 60 percent of the base is open to dog running, which is still a popular way to hunt in the Panhandle. Most of the area's hunters are drawn from a two-or three-county area around the base. One dog hunt zone, Unit 16, has a quota this season of 375 hunters, but there are 56,000 acres in the section open to run on.

Of the base's 15 management units, some like Unit 9 are reserved just for bow hunters. That Unit has 8,000 acres and has been aside for archers for the last four years. Johnson said the quality of deer on the unit has improved each year. The year after it became a bow hunt area Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kenneth Davis, who lives in neighboring Fort Walton Beach, arrowed an exceptional 10-pointer that scored 126 2/8 Pope and Young Club points to qualify for that organization's all-time record book.

This past season archer David Brooks of Niceville spotted a nice buck in a dog-hunt section on the base and bided his time until he could hunt the area after the dog season closed. As a result he downed a really fine typical 9-point that later scored 124 3/8.

Department of Defense employees and military personnel can hunt on a 2,000-acre parcel on the main base next to the runways. Last season Johnson was driving by the area and found the largest buck, weight-wise, he had ever seen on the base. The 8-pointer weighed 190 pounds and had just been killed by a vehicle.

Most of Eglin's habitat is classified by biologists as "sandhills," which means longleaf pine/turkey oak woodlands trailing into titi creek bottoms.

Both a mobility-impaired and youth hunt are offered on the WMA at the end of each hunting season. These events are held in areas ordinarily closed to hunting. Both hunts accommodate 50 hunters and since these coincide with the February rut on Eglin, they generally yield some true trophies.

Just a short drive to the east is Tyndall Air Force Base WMA near Panama City. Tyndall covers about 21,000 acres, with 14,000 open to hunting. Like Eglin, Tyndall simply requires a hunting permit. For the last several seasons Tyndall hunters have killed roughly 250 deer. Last season, which was affected by a fairly warm winter, saw the harvest drop under 200 animals.

On Tyndall, when you purchase a hunting permit, you are allowed to take one doe until a pre-determined number of unantler deer are taken. According to Jack Mobley, the biologist on Tyndall, they have a 3-point on a side antler

rule for bucks.

"Anything less than that must be allowed to walk," he said.

Tyndall's hunts start during the archery season with a week-long hunt, then the base is open to archers Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Next the area is open during the state three-day muzzleloading hunt. When the gun season opens at Thanksgiving, only shotguns and primitive weapons are allowed.

This tract is long and linear, situated on a sandy spit of land with East Bay and part of St. Andrew Bay on the north and the Gulf of Mexico on the south. Tyndall has an aggressive prescribed burning program, something Mobley believes has been a key to their hunting program.

"Everyone knows the value of burning to improve habitat and browse for deer," he noted.

Hunters tend to have their own places they like to hunt year after year, but you cannot go wrong on the base by hunting the oak ridges, especially when acorns are falling. All you have to do is look around the ridges for deer tracks to see which are the most used.

Some hunters find it a bit disconcerting while others enjoy being surprised occasionally by a black bear or two passing by their stands. No one knows how many bears call the base home, but they are seen, particularly early in the season before cold weather sets in. But, of course, there is no bear season and the critters are protected.

For information about Tyndall AFB WMA and its hunting seasons call (850) 283-2641.

In the North Central Region the top-producing public area for big bucks is the 11,150-acre Lochloosa WMA. There are 30 trophy bucks listed on the FBR from this tract. The trouble is, there are strict quota requirements for that area's two hunts. Citrus WMA is next in the region with 21 trophy entries, but except for a few days of archery season early in the year, it is a quota area as well.

One area that you can hunt during December in the region is the 266,000-acre Osceola WMA northeast of Lake City. The Osceola area has produced a handful of nice bucks for the Buck Registry and there are likely many more that have never been measured.

Osceola is located on national forest property and, as you might expect, is covered by mostly pinewoods with scattered cypress heads and swamps. Portions of Osceola are thick and tough to hunt, so it is important to scout and find open areas the deer are using.

One good thing about Osceola is that general gun season runs from Nov. 12 to Jan. 8, providing action throughout December And, by this month, no quota permit is required to hunt here.

A friend of mine who hunts Osceola told me that he looks for several things when deciding where to hunt. First, he does not like hunting where other hunters had been, because he believes that big deer learn to pattern hunters and change their habits when pressured. The other thing he looked for, as simple as it sounds, was deer sign. He tried to zero in on movement from one type of habitat to another, such as going from a stand of pines to the cover of a swamp. Once such a trail was identified, he set up his stand accordingly and always seemed to take four or five deer a year.

As large and rough as the area can be, the Osceola is a prime area for getting lost. Experienced hunters take a compass and it is probably not a bad idea to invest in a hand-held GPS unit that allows you to back track on your trail.

In the Northeast Region the No. 1 area noted for big deer is Ocala WMA, with 39 racks on the FBR. Among those was a buck that scored 153 Boone and Crockett Club points and was taken by Robert McIntyre in 1996. That 12-pointer tied for No. 15 on the all-time list of typical bucks to come from the Sunshine State.

Ocala is large by any standard, stretching over 382,400 acres. Deer dog-hunting is still popular in north Florida and most of the Ocala is open to running dogs. The exceptions are the Hopkins Prairie and Lake DeLancy Units.

Wildlife biologist Mike Abbott knows the Ocala area as well as anyone and said portions of the area have good soils, which should mean bigger deer. The trouble is, hunting pressure is such that it is a fairly young deer herd. But, even the young bucks tend to be loaded with fat reserves.

"Probably 70 percent of Ocala is what we call sand pine scrub, which is sand pine, scrub oaks and scrub palmetto," Abbott said. "Whether it's acorns or palmetto berries, deer typically have plenty to eat."

Abbott noted that one thing that is clearly good for the Ocala deer herd, but is generally despised by hunters, is clear-cutting. Most hunters look at the forestry practice as creating worthless landscapes, when in reality they provide young succulent browse for deer, plus fertile ground for scrub palmetto and scrub oaks to grow.

To hunt during the general gun season from Nov. 12 through Jan. 8, a quota permit is necessary only for the first nine days of the season.

Unlike most WMAs in the state, camping is allowed at designated sites during the hunting season. Some of these campsites are so popular they resemble small communities.

If you're looking for the best big deer public area in the Southwest Region, that honor goes to Green Swamp WMA. A total of 28 bucks from the area are on the Buck Registry. It was 16 hunting seasons ago that the record Green Swamp buck was killed, a huge typical buck taken by Pete Wyrosdick that scored 150 7/8 B&C points.

Wildlife biologist Victor Echaves works Green Swamp and said with its proximity to Lakeland and Tampa, it gets a lot of hunting pressure.

"I think the area has shown in the past that it can grow big deer, but the way things are now they simply don't get a chance to mature," he opined.

Still, there is no plan to cut back the daily quota of 750 hunters, but he said it would have to be drastically reduced to give the bucks the chance to reach older age classes and have trophy antlers.

Green Swamp is composed mostly of pine forests, with pockets of cypress and swampy bottoms. The Withlacoochee River traverses the WMA on the south side. Some hunters who know the area well choose to hunt the edge between the river and pine forests.

The hunting is first-come, first-served after Nov. 20 for the 750 daily permits during the general gun season on Green Swamp. The action then continues through all of December, ending on Jan. 8.

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