This northwest Florida county produced a couple of outstanding bow kills last season. Here's a look at the deer and the county.
By Silas Crowley
For hunters, one of the most interesting phenomena of the last three to four decades has been the rise of interest in archery hunting. In Florida the number of archers has reached a plateau at around 25,000, and it would seem that archery-killed trophy whitetails would come from all of Florida. In some years that may be correct, but for the 2002-03 season, a surprising Panhandle county led the state.
Bay County, which touts itself as a mecca for beach worshippers along the Gulf of Mexico and contains Panama City, gave up two gorgeous trophy bucks last season to stick-and-string hunters.
On the opening morning of bow season, Panama City archer Jayson Gay arrowed a 12-pointer that scored a remarkable 138 2/8 typical Pope and Young (P&Y) points. A few days later young Fred Myers arrowed a big 11-point that scored 123 5/8 P&Y.
Myers' buck would have easily made the minimum score of 125 typical P&Y to qualify for that club's all-time record book, had it not been for an abnormal 2 3/8-inch point on the left antler. Under the P&Y scoring system, that point caused just enough of a reduction in the score to miss the record book. While Myers looks hardly old enough to shave, his 11-pointer is just one of a half-dozen trophy bucks he's taken by bow.
These bucks should actually have come as no surprise. Just a couple of years ago I saw a big 10-point killed by a rifle hunter in Bay County that, when dressed, had the grist-encapsulated remains of a broadhead and 7 or 8 inches of an aluminum arrow near its kidneys. That deer scored in the low 130s and had it not been for a poor hit would have been one more Bay County archery-taken trophy.
Fred Myers took his 11-point whitetail in Bay County on Nov. 14, 2002. The rack scored 123 5/8 P&Y points. Photo by Silas Crowley
Few hunters, and truthfully most wildlife biologists, who are not familiar with these deer would pick Bay County as one of the best places in the Sunshine State in which to take a trophy buck by bow. After all, it would stand to reason the more agriculturally rich counties along the Florida-Alabama line are better choices, but Arlo Kane has some pretty logical ideas as to why Bay is a bona fide trophy deer county.
Kane, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) biologist who works out of the Northwest Region office in Panama City, handles the Herculean task of coordinating with just over 625 hunting clubs and landowners across the Panhandle in managing their deer herds. Last year alone, Kane and staff mailed out more than 12,500 antlerless deer permits to these groups. Due to his activities, he knows Bay County as well as anyone.
Bay County is certainly deceiving in terms of producing trophy deer, according to Kane.
"Bay County is in the group of counties along the coast that really are poor overall in terms of habitat," he said. "This coastal habitat is typically sandy and doesn't hold nutrients well. You can fertilize and after a couple of rains, whatever you put out is gone."
Even the best naturally occurring forage, which inland might meet the 16 to 17 percent threshold level for protein needs for deer, is woefully deficient in Bay County and similar coastal counties.
"Typically, you're going to find plants they feed on day in and day out such as smilax, gall berry, blackberry, honeysuckle and grape only have about 8 to 10 percent protein content. That's the reason why we recommend a burning program on these lands. Fire not only is used as a tool to open up the woods, but it at least temporarily increases the nutritional quality of plants," Kane explained.
At one time the vast majority of woodlands outside of the Panama City and beaches area was managed under the FWCC's Type I and II Wildlife Management Area (WMA) set-up. Much of Bay County is owned by St. Joe Timber Company. St. Joe, along with another smaller timber company, which has since sold their lands, was content to leave their Bay County holdings almost wide open to public use. That is no longer true.
Because of the value of their land to hunters, all the WMA lands east of U.S. 231 in eastern Bay County were pulled from the WMA system years ago and leased to hunting clubs. Two years ago St. Joe did the same thing in pulling all its lands from Moore's Pasture WMA, and most of what was Point Washington WMA. The bad and good of those land changes are that hunters have less public land available to them, but literally dozens of opportunities to join hunting leases were created, albeit at a handsome price in most cases.
The upshot is that virtually all the hunting clubs today in Bay and surrounding counties are better educated about deer management and many practice some type of quality deer management (QDM). These programs generally protect the younger bucks and allow them to mature. The bucks taken by Gay, Myers and even the one killed by the rifle hunter that carried the broadhead are classic examples of the benefits of letting bucks mature.
"One thing that apparently is happening in Bay County during the archery season is that enough of these older bucks are showing themselves around food plots or feeders and the archers are good enough to take some of them," he said. "Why we don't see this in other counties further inland I'm not sure, but these deer have been active during the summer into early fall, which we call the pre-rut.
"It doesn't take these older deer long to get an education. They virtually disappear by the time gun season comes in, but then we hear reports about some of the trophy bucks being killed later during the season, mostly during the rut," Kane added.
Kane said the hunting clubs in Bay and other counties are putting a lot of emphasis on removing some does, shooting fewer bucks and, in some instances, setting strict bag limits of two or three bucks per member. The end results are much-improved buck- to-doe ratios and more bucks having the chance to grow trophy antlers.
A decade or so ago Kane said it wasn't uncommon to look at all of the deer harvest information from hunting leases or landowners after the harvested deer had been aged from jawbone samples and to find that less than 1 percent of the deer were 5 1/2 or 6 1/2 years of age. That age, biologist say, is the "peak" for antler development and body size.
Today, however, the percentage of older deer is slowly changing, and for the better. When archery hunters are routinely able to kill P&Y-class bucks in Florida, that's proof something is working.
er thing Kane said many Bay County hunting groups are doing is putting in food plots and feeding their deer. The majority of clubs do both. With over 30 inches of rainfall annually, plots of such deer foods as Alyce clover, iron and clay cowpeas, and perennial peanuts provide needed nutrition to deer, not to mention creating great places in which to locate a shooting house or tree stand.
One of the least beneficial things that a lot of hunters do, at least for their bucks, is feeding them corn. Corn feeders do attract deer and a host of other birds and animals, but corn provides little in the way of nutrition. Corn is rough 70 percent carbohydrates and 7 percent protein. The corn does put fat on animals, but falls short of what bucks need for antler development. Soybeans are much higher in protein, and Kane said an increasing number of hunters who fed corn in the past are switching to a mixture of soybeans and corn.
Both Gay and Myers hunt private lands that are models for QDM. Members of their respective groups let the young bucks walk, take the number of does recommended by the FWCC, and use food plots and feeders. Their successful hunts last season were remarkably similar.
Gay is 30 years old and has bowhunted for more than a decade, but had never taken a buck before last season. However, he certainly broke his drought in great form. He had hunted only six to eight minutes the opening morning of the archery season before the huge 12-point with a 17 4/8-inch inside spread came slipping by, apparently headed back to bedding cover. His 138 2/8 P&Y buck is the third-largest whitetail ever downed by an archer in Florida - quite an accomplishment for someone who had never taken a buck by bow.
Gay credits his good fortunes to a scouting trip he made to his hunting area at the close of the 2001-02 season. Gay and a friend, to whom Gay refers as the perfect hunting partner because that individual never hunts, have a 680-acre tract all to themselves. It was during the rut when he made his scouting trip and right off the bat found where a buck had left lots of sign, including scrapes and several large rubbed trees. All this was in proximity to a well-established trail leading off into a swamp of ti-ti and large pines. Gay knew the area held as much promise as any place he had ever hunted.
Three weeks before opening day of last season, Gay ventured back into the area. He saw that deer were still using the same trail and noticed some large tracks, but there was no way to know if that was a bruiser buck was working the area, or he was seeing the evidence of a bunch of old does. He found a big red oak tree perfectly suited for a stand near the trail and the swamp. He put up a 20-foot ladder, cut a few limbs, and with his lock-on stand secured, eased out of the area.
Opening morning started poorly for Gay and for a few minutes things only seemed to get worse. First, he was late getting to the woods and had to hurry to his stand. When he positioned himself high above the forest floor and pulled out an arrow, he realized his release was missing. For some archery hunters that wouldn't have been a big deal, but Gay had practiced with the release and knew things wouldn't be the same if a shot presented itself. That still begged the question of whether the release was under the tree, on the trail or back several hundred yards at his truck. Lady luck finally smiled on him when he spotted the release at the base of the tree. Finally re-positioning himself in his stand, Gay wondered what else could go wrong.
He thought for a few minutes about the day's weird start, before and catching sight of movement off to his left, maybe 60 or 70 yards away. At first the hunter could not even tell what had made the movement, but then he saw a patch of brown. Looking through the oak foliage Gay could see a deer was easing along the trail toward him, but not much more than that. At 20 yards Gay got his first clear look at this deer and his heart almost jumped out of his chest. He knew this was definitely a "shooter buck." Their club rules required any buck they take to have at least a 15-inch inside spread.
Gay watched as the buck kept walking by him, then when the big 12-pointer reached an opening and paused, Gay let an arrow fly. The buck was only 15 yards away, but the broadhead hit him squarely through the chest. Gay said the buck jumped six to eight feet into the air, and when he came down he was headed back the direction from which he had just come. His buck ran 50, 60, then 70 yards and seemingly disappeared.
Experienced bowhunters advise giving an animal 30 minutes as a rule before beginning your search, but Gay was on the ground and searching in 20 minutes. He walked 40 yards and found some blood, then more sign, and finally he spotted his buck lying off the trail to the left. By 6:30 a.m. he was back at the camp, facing the agonizing two-hour wait for his hunting buddies to come out.
"I wore a trench around my truck during that time walking in circles looking at my deer," Gay mused.
Gay realizes just how fortunate he was.
"If I never see another deer, that'll be okay. I've had the chance to do something most hunters only dream about."
A wildlife biologist aged the buck at 5 1/2 years old and said that rack-wise it was certainly in the peak of condition. Two seasons ago Gay had seen a big 10-pointer not far from where he arrowed his deer. He wonders if that was the same deer, or if not, what this archery season might hold.
His bow kill earned him not only third place on the prestigious list of P&Y deer taken in Florida, but also the satisfaction of knowing his deer was the largest-scoring buck killed in Bay County last season by bow or gun. And at season's end, his deer ranked among the top seven or eight deer taken in the entire state by any hunting method.
Fred Myers is only 26 years old, but he's no novice when it comes to archery. He began hunting with a bow when he was 14 and he's taken half a dozen nice bucks over the years, including an 11-pointer during the 2000-01 season. That one missed being a P&Y animal by the slightest of margins.
Maybe it says something for his likeable personality, but Myers had an invitation to bowhunt last Nov. 14 on private property in Bay County and he knew the area well enough not to turn down the opportunity. He opted for an afternoon hunt on the side of a ridge, and with the wind to his advantage, put his stand in a tall pine. He began hunting at 3:30 in a drizzling rain but didn't have to endure the conditions for very long.
"The deer came in so fast it really surprised me," Myers said. "I was sitting there and nothing was going on and all of a sudden this buck came in from behind me. He really came in quick."
Myers said he barely had time to stand and draw his bow as the 11-pointer stood six yards away from the base of his tree. The arrow found its mark and penetrated through the deer's upper body. Myers said the bu
ck ran off but collapsed in a heap a short distance away.
Myers' 11-point had an unusual feature called "crab claws" in its rack. Though common in mule deer, it is rarely seen in whitetail antlers. The last paired points and the beam tips on each antler grew close together and when you stand back and look at the rack, you begin to see why the term crab claw is used.
It will be interesting to see over the next few seasons if Bay County continues to give up quality bucks to archery enthusiasts. With the interest in bowhunting and deer management at an all-time high, my guess is it will.
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