Some very good whitetails have been taken on the WMAs in this part of the state. Here's a look at which of these public areas offer the best options for such a find.
By Carolee Boyles
Looking for a good buck in the North Central Region of Florida? Then you don't have far to go. There are a number of wildlife management areas in this part of the state that produce some decent bucks, sporting big racks and big bodies as well.
The North Central Region starts at the Georgia state line and is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It runs west to Madison and Taylor counties and then follows the Gulf coast south to Citrus County. From there it follows the southwestern edges of Levy, Alachua, Clay and Duval counties back to the Atlantic.
With all that ground, which includes 39 WMAs, what's the best way to identify where good bucks can be found? The best way is through the Florida Buck Registry (FBR).
Established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the FBR provides hunters with the opportunity to have antlers scored and placed on a list of big bucks taken throughout state. These are listed by FWCC regions, and by studying the list you can get a picture of which of those WMAs have historically produced big bucks. Looking at the bucks placed on the registry in the past five years gives us a better picture of where the trophy bucks have come from recently.
Although this is the best method we have for looking at the numbers of big deer taken on both public and private land statewide, it's not perfect. Adding a buck to the FBR is strictly voluntary. Since some hunters don't want to publicize big deer for a variety of reasons, there may be many bucks out there hanging on walls that qualify for the FBR but have never been placed on it.
In addition, there's one other limitation on using the FBR data in this way. When you're looking at the number of bucks produced on any given WMA, you're also looking at the length of time the WMA has been open. In other words, if a WMA has been open for 20 years and has only six deer on the FBR, it may not be as good an area as one that's been open five years but has four bucks on the list. Nonetheless, the data is complete enough to establish some hot WMAs where you can begin looking for your buck.
Hunting for whitetails on public land in Florida is requiring more and more planning. Most of the WMAs with the potential for producing big deer or a lot of 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. However, some WMAs do have "open" periods during which a permit is not required, and it's not too late to hunt on some of those. Plus, once the season is over, information about the restricted-access areas gives you an idea of which permits and quota hunts to apply for next year.
Many WMAs are open for foot traffic throughout the year, so you can spend the spring looking for a good place to hunt next year. However, certain caveats apply. Not all areas are open, and there may be regulations about where you can and cannot go during different seasons of the year. Read the brochures, and know before you go.
Photo by Charles R. Brower III
First on our list is Lochloosa WMA, which has 30 bucks on the FBR. The largest, scoring 150 2/8 Boone and Crockett Club points, was taken by Clifford Burnham in 1978. The most recent was a 121 4/8 B&C taken in 2001 by Tony Abreu, but the records stretch back into the 1960s, indicating that this has been a good area for a long time.
"For some reason, eastern Alachua County seems to be a lot better than the rest of North Florida," said Scott Johns, a biologist in the North Central Region. "The deer just seem to have a lot better nutrition in that area than do the deer in many other places."
There seems to be one area on the western side of the WMA that a lot of deer come out of.
"The soil conditions are just better there," he noted. "There are more minerals and nutrients available in the soil for the plants, and therefore the plants are healthier, and that transfers into bigger-bodied deer and bigger-antlered deer."
This year there are big changes on Lochloosa WMA. It has been divided into two areas, Grove Park WMA and a smaller area that has retained the name Lochloosa.
"Grove Park is a user-pay area, with 200 people allowed in it for $325 each," said biologist Jayde Roof.
The area is 20,333 acres in size.
"We had private lands that we leased," the biologist continued, in describing the old Lochloosa WMA, "and the money that paid the lease fees went away. So, in order to keep the area open to the public and allow people to hunt it, the commission had to create a user-pay area that would make up the lease payment. It will be an excellent area, and it will get better over time, because fewer people will be hunting it and access will be more regulated."
The new Lochloosa portion of the area is down to 11,149 acres and is mostly the area around Lochloosa Lake.
"We'll have our regular hunts there just like we always have in the past," Roof continued. "The only difference is that we have two dog-hunts there now, and 50 people can hunt in each of the two hunts."
The seasons on Lochloosa are pretty much the same as they have been in the past, but fewer people will be allowed onto the management area for each hunt.
Citrus And Hernando Counties
At No. 2 on our list, Citrus WMA has 19 bucks on the FBR. The largest one was taken in 1980 by Melvin Arline and scored 152 5/8 points. The earliest buck from Citrus WMA was taken in 1957, and Johnnie Rector took the most recent in 2000. That buck scored 116 7/8 B&C. A lot of bucks were taken in the 1980s and 1990s.
"The area is mostly sandhill habitat, which is not really known for growing great deer," said biologist Rick Spratt. "But historically there have always been a few good deer from year to year. And this past season we added 7,500 acres to the management area, and there were a handful of very nice deer harvested that probably would make the book."
He attributes the quality of the deer coming off the area
- deer with good age and maturity - to a conservative hunting regime and a short hunting season. But he pointed out that from 1957 until today is a long time to have only 19 deer on the registry.
"I wish I could say we're doing something to encourage big deer, but we're not," he explained. "It's not really great habitat, although there are little pockets of decent habitat. It's sandy soil for the most part, and all we're doing is planting some peas. It's just not quality deer habitat."
CAMP BLANDING WMA
At third place on our list, Camp Blanding WMA has long been known as a good place to hunt. There are 12 bucks on the FBR from Camp Blanding, the largest of which was taken in 1984 by Lester Culver and scored 126 6/8 points. Most of the bucks taken from Camp Blanding were killed during the 1980s, and all scored less than 125 B&C points. The trend was to consistency rather than monster bucks, and even that has tailed off in recent years.
At Camp Blanding, part of the reason for better deer is a good prescribed-burning program.
"We've been doing that for many years now," Johns noted. "And before we had a prescribed-burning program there, the military kept it burned back because of their ranges. Plus, the habitat is just a lot better than in other places."
Camp Blanding offers a good mixture of different habitat types.
"Black Creek runs through the area and provides a good wetland habitat," Johns said. "Then there are hardwoods, and directly adjacent to that are the uplands, with longleaf pine and wetlands."
Because of the burning, the plants stay in an early successional state and are succulent, have more nutrients, and are more attractive to deer.
Camp Blanding was closed to hunting for some time after the events of 9/11, because the area's main purpose is to serve as a Florida National Guard training area. More recently parts of it have reopened to the public.
"The still-hunt area north of State Road 16 is planned to be open for hunting season," Johns offered. "South of SR 16 there will be no hunts. The military has never given us a specific reason for that. What they've said is that as long as we have troops in Iraq, the south side will be closed - that it's a security issue, not a hunting issue."
The entire area is secured by military police. There is no public access to the area except during hunting season.
Because of its special mission, be aware that Camp Blanding's status for hunting could change on a moment's notice at any time.
GULF HAMMOCK WMA
There are eight bucks on the FBR from Gulf Hammock WMA. All of them were taken during the 1980s and 1990s, which may indicate that this is an area that produces bucks consistently. On the other hand, there is a five-year gap since the last deer was placed on the list.
"This area has a lot of caprock, which is rock that's right at the surface," Roof pointed out. "There's a lot of traditional timber management on the area. What produces the bigger deer there may be that they live longer, and that the area is less accessible. The area is dog-hunted, the roads aren't as good, and the deer have more swamp and thick places to hide in."
HOLTON CREEK WMA
There are four bucks on the FBR from Holton Creek WMA. The largest deer on the registry from Holton Creek scored 147 B&C points and was taken by Kenneth Weas in 1997.
"The deer herd on Holton Creek is staying about the same," Johns noted. "With the population so high and the harvest so heavy, we see a lot of deer coming out of there, but not necessarily a lot of big deer."
The hunts on Holton Creek are different from those on most other WMAs because they're mobility-impaired hunts.
"Therefore, both bucks and does are legal to take, so you have a more balanced sex ratio," Johns asserted. "This probably results in a little higher quality deer."
The habitat on Holton Creek is composed of basically river bottom hardwoods, such as pignut hickories, swamp chestnut oaks and other typical river swamp trees.
"It's not necessarily good for deer year 'round, but it's good for deer in the fall," Johns said. "I think that's one reason we see elevated harvests on the area. We get a lot of deer on nearby properties coming into the river bottom and taking advantage of the mast crops that are there."
CYPRESS CREEK WMA
Cypress Creek WMA seems to be consistent, but it doesn't produce a large number of trophy bucks. The largest deer on the FBR scored 126 6/8 points and was taken by Taylor McCullers in 1995. The other three bucks on the registry came during 1964, 1971 and 1978.
Located in northeast Hamilton County on the Suwannee River, Cypress Creek is a small area that's a lot like Holton Creek.
"It's a swamp habitat environment, with a lot of hardwoods and mast-producing trees in the area," Johns said. "It has a real tall overstory, and there's a lot of variety in that area for the deer. In the past, a lot of big deer have come out of there."
However, because Cypress Creek is such a small area, biologists don't do any track counts or other surveying for the deer.
"We control the number of hunters by quota permits through Tallahassee," Johns explained. "But we really don't know what's coming off the area just now."
There are a couple of hunt clubs that border the upland portions of the WMA, making it difficult for the public to gain access to the area from there.
"There's only one road on the very southern end of the area," he added. "The management area is very narrow and long, and you can only park on the one end of it. Most of the hunting pressure is on that one end.
"There are a few trails up through the area, but most people don't explore them much," the biologist continued. "Access is just very limited since there aren't any public access points along any major road."
TIDE SWAMP UNIT
BIG BEND WMA
There are four bucks on the FBR from the Tide Swamp Unit of the Big Bend WMA. William Pelt took the largest, which scored 122 3/8 B&C points, in 2002. Two of the other three were taken in 1999 and 2000, which may indicate that this is an improving area for big deer.
"We've been doing a lot of prescribed burning to help the habitat," biologist Gerald Williams offered. "Since we've been doing that, we've been seeing a significant increase in the number of large deer. Also, we've been planting food plots for the deer."
Biologists have been planting food plots for about five years, and they've increased the prescribed-burning schedule at about the same time.
As its name implies, Tide Swamp is in a coastal salt marsh area, but there are some uplands on the WMA.
"We have some longleaf pines, some sand pines and a lot of hardwoods," Williams said. "About a third of the area is salt marsh and the rest is uplands."
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