Bowhunting opens early in South Florida and marches northward through the Sunshine State as the season progresses. Here's a look at why this occurs and what it means for archers.
By Carolee Boyles
The calendar says fall is just around the corner, but you wouldn't know it from the weather. The days are still hot, and even in the north of Florida only a hint of autumn is in the air.
But if you're a bowhunter in Florida, this is your time. Nobody has really been in the woods yet, and the deer don't know archery season is right around the corner.
"Traditionally, archery season is the early season throughout the country," says John Morgan, deer management section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). "Bowhunting is a harder kind of hunting, and hunters in archery season usually aren't as successful as gun hunters. So we give bowhunters 'first shot' before the gun hunters get out there."
Also, not as many people usually hunt with a bow as with a gun, so you don't have as much competition for space in the woods during archery season.
One big advantage of hunting during archery season is that you can shoot deer of either sex all season. However, spotted fawns are still off limits.
Bowhunting starts early in the south, at the beginning of September on private land, but occasionally as early as late August on selected tracts of public land. From there it rolls north, finally opening in the Panhandle in mid-October.
"Deer are born earlier in the south, and the rut takes place earlier the farther south you are," Morgan explains. "So in the south, where fawns are weaned earlier, we can allow hunters to archery hunt earlier without having to worry about taking a doe that's still nursing a fawn. Plus, people like to hunt during the rut, and in South Florida the rut occurs earlier, so we try to get people out there a little earlier."
Persistence can pay off with a buck like Charlie Tanner's 7-point 125-pounder. Photo courtesy of Charlie Tanner
As we already said, a big advantage to hunting during archery season is that there are fewer hunters in the woods.
"A lot of people like to get into archery because it's less crowded," Morgan notes. "They can enjoy hunting more for the 'getting away from it all' standpoint. It's not as much a social sport; it's quiet time by yourself in a tree stand for hours."
SOUTH REGION In the South Region, one area biologist Tim Regan suggests looking at is the Kissimmee River Public Use Area (PUA).
"Early in the season, it's pretty good for archery," he states. "Later in the season, there's a lot of airboat traffic on the river running to the private land."
Right off the bat, you need to know that you're going to need a boat at Kissimmee River PUA.
"There are a few places you can walk in to, but most of it you have to access by boat," Regan points out. "There's not a quota on the area, because the game there is 'self-regulating.' The area is a thin strip, and if there's too much pressure, the game leaves the PUA and gets onto the private land adjacent to it. So we didn't feel that a permit was necessary for it."
There's a little bit of everything on the PUA. The edges are pine and palmetto, with a good bit of open pasture and marsh, and oak hammocks along the river.
"A lot of it's like the Everglades," he continues. "You get into a lot of marsh-type habitats in the river bottom. The deer get down and feed on the marsh plants and the grasses that they like. That's why the hunting there is good early in the year. Then as there gets to be more activity during general gun season, the deer leave. They don't like the noise of the airboats."
One important thing to note about Kissimmee River is that the hunting regulations are different north and south of State Route (S.R.) 70.
"South of S.R. 70, hunters must adhere to the South Zone dates," Regan says. "North of S.R. 70, they must adhere to the Central Zone dates."
Two other areas Regan likes are the Okaloacoochee Slough Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA). Both of these tracts require a quota hunt permit.
"The OK Slough (as it is called locally) is basically a sawgrass/Everglades type system with pine, and some oak hammocks dotted through the slough," he says. "If you blindfolded someone and took them out on one of the little islands and then took their blindfold off, they'd think they were in the Everglades."
Along the eastern edge of the slough and at the north end, there are some uplands.
"There you get into the oaks and the pines and palmettos," Regan continues. "That's where most of the game is concentrated, and it's a very good area, with a lot of deer."
Properly called the John G. and Susan H. Dupuis Jr. WEA, Dupuis has what Regan calls a tremendous deer herd.
"Dupuis is about 22,000 acres in western Palm Beach and Martin counties," the biologist explains. "The habitat ranges from ponds and a marsh in the southwest corner to oaks and pines over most of it. But on the north end you have more oaks and oak hammocks."
Another area that can be good depending on the weather is Fisheating Creek WMA.
"If the water is low and all the animals are down in the swamp, Fisheating Creek has a pretty good deer population," Regan notes. "But if the water is up, it drives the animals out to the edge of the creek swamp and onto private land."
Four areas without a quota permit requirement are Corbett, Holey Land, Big Cypress and Rotenberger WMAs.
"Those are huge areas without a quota hunt," Regan notes. "But hunters need to scout them before they go, and how well they do depends on the water level."
SOUTHWEST REGION In the Southwest Region, the very best place to hunt is Green Swamp West WMA. This is the unit where James Stovall took the state-record buck in September of 1999. The Boone and Crockett Club scored the animal's rack at 207 5/8 B&C points.
Located in Pasco County adjacent to both Green Swamp and Richloam WMAs, Green Swamp West sprawls across more than 34,000 acres. The Withlacoochee River an
d swamp run through the WMA, and it has lots of cypress domes and hardwoods in the swamp and along the river. Farther upland, the area has some nice pine flatwoods and oak scrub, as well as improved pasture.
Don't expect Stovall's deer to be the last trophy buck to come from the tract, says regional information specialist Gary Morse.
"There are lots of big deer there," he suggests. "There's no doubt in my mind that Green Swamp West is the top public area for deer in this region."
However, there is a downside. Green Swamp West is a Special Opportunity Hunt, which means you must apply for it in the summer and then pay a fee for the hunt itself.
"This is going to be one of the hardest areas statewide to access," Morse cautions. "It costs money to go there. But the area is a phenomenal place to deer hunt."
Right behind Green Swamp West is Arbuckle WMA, which covers 13,500 acres.
"Arbuckle has been managed for quality deer hunts for years," Morse says. "It's located east of Avon Park Bombing Range, and is a mixture of pine flatwoods, scrub and bottomland hardwoods. It has one of the highest deer population densities of any management area and offers very good deer hunting."
The reasons for the high deer density on the area include good habitat and good management.
"The FWCC limits hunter access, and it limits the number of deer taken off the area," he points out. "Plus, the variety of habitats that are on the area allow the animals to flourish."
Unlike Green Swamp West, Arbuckle has regular quota hunts, although last year they had a twist that makes them easier to get onto than most such restricted hunts.
"Last year the archery hunts on Arbuckle required quota-hunt or daily-hunt permits," Morse notes.
So if you didn't draw a quota hunt permit, you could show up early in the morning and pick up a daily hunt permit for that day.
NORTHEAST REGION In the Northeast Region, the best bets for archery deer are Bull Creek, Lake George, Relay and Three Lakes WMAs.
Lake George WMA's 35,000 acres are located in Putnam and Volusia counties. The area is mostly flatwoods habitat, with some streams and wetlands in it. In the area right around Lake George, you see some cabbage palm hammocks and hardwood habitats. The Division of Forestry does the primary management on the property, so expect to see some logging.
This area was greatly impacted by wildfires during the summer of 1998 but has largely recovered, as has the deer hunting. There's a good system of roads on the management area, so access to the interior is easy for the most part.
Last year the archery hunt on Lake George didn't require quota permits, but check before you start out to be sure that hasn't changed for this season.
Relay WMA, at 11,300 acres, is located in Flagler County. This is another area that didn't require a quota permit last year but was open for hunters to walk in.
The habitat on Relay is mostly upland pine plantations, with some wet flatwoods. The tract is another area that was heavily impacted by the wildfires. The forage continues to be good in areas that were burned, so the hunting should be good on the area. The area is criss-crossed with unimproved roads, so access to the interior is quite good. Up through the center of the WMA, a road parallels almost the length of a major power line; hunting should be good in this right of way.
On Bull Creek, in Osceola County, the habitat is pine-palmetto flatwoods with scattered cypress domes, bayheads and mixed hardwood creek swamps. The Florida Trail runs through the area, so caution is in order if hikers are in the area when you're hunting. Several creeks, including Crabgrass and Bull, traverse the area.
You can access the interior on one of several unimproved roads, but the network of roads isn't as extensive as it is on some of the other WMAs. Plan to walk if you want to get back into the deep woods.
Last year a quota hunt permit was required during the first two days of the WMA archery season. On the other days only a daily hunt permit, available at the check station, was required.
Three Lakes WMA is another area with a split season. You need a quota hunt permit during the first two days, but after that you can enter without one. There are several closed areas on the unit, and the Florida Turnpike runs through the middle of the area.
NORTH CENTRAL REGION In the North Central Region, biologist Scott Johns says Andrews, Twin Rivers, Camp Blanding, Tide Swamp and Jennings Forest WMAs all have had good archery harvest rates over the past 10 years or so.
"All of those areas are good for early season deer," he notes.
Twin Rivers WMA covers about 9,300 acres and borders the Suwannee River in Madison and Hamilton counties.
"This area has really come on strong in the last few years," he points out. "There are always a few high quality deer taken out of here. Two years ago, there were 54 deer harvested off the area, but last year it dropped back down to the low 30s."
Like some of the other areas discussed, Twin Rivers has a dual quota system. Some of the permits are issued through the regular quota system, but others are available at the check station on the days of the hunt.
"There's usually a line in the morning," Johns says. "The hunting on that area is so good that sometimes people sit around the check station and wait for someone to come out so they can go in."
Right along the Suwannee River the habitat is swampland. In the upland areas, there's been a lot of prescribed burning going on.
"One unique thing about the area is that it's near a power plant," Johns adds. "We've been planting a lot of the power line rights of way through a cooperative effort with the power company. They are big steel towers with rights of way that are probably 200 feet wide, so we have a lot of room in which to plant food plots."
On Jennings Forest WMA, near Jacksonville, the habitat is primarily sand hills with longleaf pines and turkey oaks.
"There are a lot of sandy areas on it, but also a lot of hardwood swamps," Johns continues. "And there are a lot of gallberry flats as well. There's a very good mix of habitats in the area, which leads to a lot of food variety for the deer. As a result, there are a lot of really nice-sized deer taken off Jennings Forest.
"It's a hunt that's always high in demand, and that always fills out."
The hunts on Twin Rivers are administered entirely under the quota system.
One area that's not under quota for archery is the Osceola WMA.
"Osceola isn't as good an area as some of the others we've been talking about, but if you're a hard-working hunter, you can find a good area to hunt on Osceola," Johns cautions. "We're planting a lot more foot plots on there than we have in the past. The area is more than 250,000 acres, so there's plenty of room for hunters who didn't draw quota permits."
All the good deer hunting on Osceola is based around the hardwood creeks and drains.
"The headwaters of the St. Marys River are in the Osceola WMA, and anywhere you can find water and hardwood swamps and some pine flatwoods that come together, you're in a good area to start your scouting," the biologist notes.
The other WMAs Johns mentions, Andrews and Camp Blanding, are well-known archery hunting areas.
"Andrews has probably been hunted since the early 1980s, and maybe even before that. And Camp Blanding has been hunted since the 1960s. Both of them always have a pretty good harvest, and there's always a chance at a good-sized deer at Camp Blanding. There's a greater chance of scoring a trophy deer on Camp Blanding, but a greater chance of seeing a buck on Andrews. So it depends on what you're going for," Johns concludes.
Hunts on both areas are quota hunts, so you need to apply for them ahead of time.
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