In the mood for a last-minute outing for some venison? These WMAs in the North-Central Region can accommodate you with a walk-up hunt this month. (December 2006)
Blackpowder and bowhunters have likely put away their primitive weapons and by now, the early season flood into the woods for general gun season has slowed. But there is still plenty of hunting available for deer hunters in north-central Florida, thanks to non-quota hunts on select wildlife management areas.
In seven public tracts in the region, you can quench the urge to bag some last-minute venison.
"A lot of hunters might not realize it, but there's still plenty of hunting opportunities after the quota hunts are over," says Scott Johns, a regional biologist in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Olustee office. "These WMAs are prime examples. That means if you wake up one morning and you want to go hunting, you don't need a quota hunt permit to go and hunt.
"A classic example is Osceola. A few years ago, a bunch of Navy boys were docked over in Jacksonville and they wanted to go hunting, but had nowhere to go because it was a quota hunt. So we started evaluating the quota permit use in Osceola and found that it was not being utilized to its fullest extent. So we eliminated the quota hunts for the still-hunt areas on Osceola; and now people can just get up and just go to Osceola if they want to."
Here's a detailed look at the seven public hunting areas in the region that offer quota-free hunting in December.
At 266,270 acres, this public tract located in Baker and Columbia counties is one of Florida's largest WMAs. It has three primary landowners: The U.S. Forest Service controls most of the acreage, while the Florida Division of Forestry and Suwannee River Water Management District manage smaller portions.
Most of the habitat is what we call pine flatwoods dominated by palmetto and longleaf pine. Normally, the soil is relatively moist, but this year, a dry summer impacted that.
Underneath the pine trees, this WMA has an abundance of herbaceous growth (fleshy plants that wither after each growing season, as opposed to persistent plants such as trees that grow woody stems).
There are also a lot of scattered wetlands, as well as a couple of river drainages composed of several big creeks that run into the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers.
Additionally, there are a couple of large swamps, including Big Gum on the south side and Sand Island Bay in the northwestern corner.
About a third of the acreage in Osceola is set aside for dog hunting. Johns estimates it at about 80,000 acres. The rest is devoted to still-hunting.
"Osceola has fairly low productivity as far as deer are concerned," Johns says. "The deer population is low to moderate -- not as high as we see on some of our other areas.
"On Osceola, though, on the lower end there's not a whole lot of deer out there, relatively speaking. But there is a good opportunity for folks who know where to hunt. The best places on Osceola to hunt are where a wetland habitat exists. That is where a wetland, maybe a mature pine forest and an immature pine forest, would come together -- where three habitat types merge together. But it's always associated with a wetland.
"That's because of the needs of deer. They usually use the wetlands for feeding and escape cover. They come up on these flatwoods at night -- these berry and palmetto areas -- which they don't use much during the day. But they use them occasionally during the night. They also use it for bedding areas."
Some of the best deer killed on Osceola are taken on the few remaining oak ridges found in the southern portion of the WMA. Creek bottoms and cypress heads also provide some of the best success.
The most successful hunters on this huge WMA put in enough legwork to penetrate its interior portions.
"It takes a lot of man-hours to learn how to hunt Osceola," Johns adds. "Most of the hunters who take deer get way inside and away from the roads.
"You can imagine on 266,000 acres there are miles and miles of roads. A lot of people just ride, spend a lot of time just riding around. Since that's not the safest way to hunt, we don't recommend that. But that's what a lot of people have started doing because of the low deer population.
"There are some really nice deer -- just not a whole lot of them. But there's a few nice ones killed out of there every year. I don't want to give the impression that it's a place that you should just ignore. There's so much land, and there is a pretty good opportunity to see a deer. But the big deer are pretty rare.
"They are killed by those people who put in the time and put in the effort to do the scouting, and know where to hunt. They figured out those places to hunt, so they do harvest a nice buck from time to time.
"The most successful hunters will scout out an area, especially during archery season, and adjust their stand site during muzzleloading season. A lot of them kind of use archery as a scouting season, fine-tuning the deer's movements and fine-tuning stand locations."
Over the years, Osceola WMA has placed three whitetails on the Florida Buck Registry, the biggest being Jack Tarr's 1974 buck that scored 143 6/8 Boone and Crockett points.
CAMP BLANDING WMA
In terms of its makeup, Camp Blanding's deer population is the total opposite of Osceola's. This 56,197-acre tract in Clay County is home to a good population of whitetails and offers north-central Florida hunters one of their best opportunities for taking home venison.
"It has a lot more carrying capacity," John explains. "It has more of the oak trees, and the soil is in better shape there. It's also a military base, and people can't get onto it at all times of the year. This protects the deer herd from illegal harvest -- unlike Osceola, which has 64 roads, so there is an opportunity for illegal activity to occur.
"There is a very high deer population. There are a lot of bucks over there. It's going to be good on the still-hunt side of Camp Blanding this year."
That's because of another factor that bodes well for hunters. This fall is the first time in five years that the southern portion of Camp Blanding is open to hunters. That part of the military installation was closed immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so the deer
living there have not seen a hunter for half a decade.
Camp Blanding is comprised of mostly sandhill habitat and pine flatwoods like Osceola. There are plenty of planted pines, mature pines, turkey oak ridges and bottomland hardwoods. This WMA is divided into two sections; the smaller northern portion is set aside for dog-hunting for a pair of one-week hunts. The remainder is for still-hunting.
"You can do your scouting over at Blanding and find these little oak groves," Johns recommends. "On the south range there's a lot of them, and over there, the deer are really tuned into the mast production. When the acorns start hitting the ground, they get really active.
"If I had to kill a deer to stick in my freezer, I would be at the gate at Camp Blanding waiting to get in. There are some really nice deer that come out of Camp Blanding. In fact, we have a 6-point rule over on the south post: not a 6-point, but a three-on-one-side rule. We have that area hunted under a quality deer format."
Some bragging-sized deer have come out of Camp Blanding. Among those listed in the Florida Buck Registry are Lester Culver's 125 6/8 B&C from 1984; Steve Roy's 125 7/8 B&C from 1987; and the 125 1/8 B&C buck taken in 1988 by Roy Aguilar Jr.
BIG BEND WMA HICKORY MOUND UNIT
This 14,427-acre tract located in Taylor County is 20 miles west of the city of Perry and has not produced any FBR candidates over the years. In fact, FWCC biologist David Nicholson labels its deer population as average for the state.
"Quantity would outweigh quality there," he says. "Quantity would probably be fair because sometimes you do get fairly good hunting pressure. So sometimes the deer don't obtain that older age-class.
"Hickory Mound would not be your first choice if you're trying to kill a big deer."
This unit of the Big Bend WMA consists of pine flatwoods, coastal hardwoods and cypress swamp. It is mostly hardwood hammock areas with lots of oak trees. The bottomland, hardwood forest-type terrain is usually pretty wet.
Dog hunters primarily use Hickory Mound, although some still-hunters scout out prime locations for their tree stands as far away as possible from sportsmen running dogs.
BIG BEND WMA, JENA UNIT
At only 12,522 acres, Jena is the smaller sister to Hickory Mound, but has produced at least one buck that made the FBR. Nancy Olson shot a deer there in 1985 that scored 108 7/8 B&C.
Nicholson is not high on still-hunters' prospects on Jena, though, because of the high dog traffic and poor overall deer population.
Jena consists primarily of coastal hardwood, cypress swamp and pine plantations.
"Jena has a fairly diverse mix of habitats, ranging anywhere from pineland forest to upland oak habitat to bottomland hardwood habitat," he notes, adding that the areas the deer utilize vary, depending on the time of year, weather patterns and food availability.
"In a year where you've got a good acorn crop, they are going to be in those hardwood hammock areas. In a year when you don't have a high mast crop, then they may be more concentrated in either upland or oak-pine habitats that are burned on a frequent rotation."
BIG BEND WMA, SPRING CREEK UNIT
At 14,600 acres, this Taylor County public hunting property is similar in size to Hickory Mound and Jena, but supports a better whitetail population.
"I would put the Spring Creek deer population at average to slightly above average," Nicholson says. "If you we're going to try to kill a quality deer, that would be the one unit of Big Bend that I'd send you to.
"I think it has something to do with the soils and the habitat. In the past, that area was a dog-hunt area. Beginning last year, it was converted over to a still-hunt area. Even under fairly heavy hunting pressure, it was always producing quality deer. In that whole region, even if you get out of the management area, you see some quality deer coming from it. I think it mainly has something to do with the quality of the soils. The minerals and stuff in the soil kind of translates into the forage, which actually promotes greater antler growth."
The biologist also said the WMA has some remote areas a hunter can get in to find older age-class bucks.
The terrain there ranges from upland pine to sandhill scrub with some hardwoods, bottoms and marshy areas. Most hunter success centers around transitional zones where different types of habitats meet, especially with a hardwood and bottomland component.
Spring Creek claims two spots on the Florida Buck Registry: Heath Sadler downed a 100 4/8 B&C buck in 1999; and Jeanne Atwell killed a 153 4/8 B&C non-typical in 1997.
BIG BEND WMA, TIDE SWAMP UNIT
The fourth Taylor County unit of the Big Bend WMA, Tide Swamp is the largest at 19,538 acres and the best in terms of surrendering big Florida deer.
There are four bucks on the state registry from this unit. In 2002, William Pelt bagged a beauty that scored 122 3/8 points. David Miller is the proud owner of a pair of registry trophies -- 113 3/8 in 2000 and 104 3/8 in 1999. And Stuart Flowers documented a buck scoring 103 1/8.
Although the native coastal hardwoods, pine plantations and lowland hardwood swamp provide good habitat for deer, in recent years FWCC officials have helped in a big way by planting food plots and routinely conducting prescribed burns. A portion of this tract borders the Gulf of Mexico, so about one-third consists of salt marsh.
"Tide Swamp is another high-quality area," Nicholson adds. "I would probably rank it up there similar to Spring Creek. It's probably above average in quality, and average to slightly above average in quantity. It has a long history of being a still-hunt area and managed more as a quality-hunt experience.
"It's got some very remote areas in it. That's one of the components that's allowed some of the deer to reach an older age-class."
MALLORY SWAMP WMA
A 29,463-acre tract located in Lafayette County, Mallory Swamp is probably the most physically challenging WMA in north-central Florida.
The area is dominated by hardwood hammocks and dense vegetation that resulted from a 2001 wildfire. And it is extremely wet, which discourages many would-be deer hunters.
"It's an old wetland-type complex that is in various states of being restored," says Nicholson, whose agency manages the unit in conjunction with the Suwannee River Water Management District. "It was an area that was burned up in a fairly large wildfire, and it's in various states of restructure.
"A lot of the timber was burnt off. There are still a lot of old pine tru
nks standing up from the burn. It's just kind of nature's way of regeneration. It can actually benefit some critters, such as deer. It puts that food base back on the ground. But it makes the hunting very challenging, especially if you were a still-hunter, because you don't have any trees left to hang a stand in."
Mallory Swamp's deer population is about average in size and quality compared to the rest of the region.
General gun season in this region is Nov. 11, 2006 through Jan. 21, 2007. Generally, the bag limit for deer is two antlered bucks per day. But be sure to check the regulations on each individual WMA and unit, because the laws can vary significantly.
For more information, go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site at myFWC.com.