Florida's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2
November 02, 2010
Trophy deer can show up anyplace in Florida, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails. Here, Florida Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for trophy bucks.
These days no region of the Florida has an exclusive claim on big bucks. From the Northwest down to the South Region, trophy class whitetails have shown up in recent times. As more and more hunt clubs are turning to good management practice, the trend should continue.
The best source for information about where big bucks have come from is the Florida Buck Registry. The FBR list provides enough information to pinpoint some "hot counties" where you can begin looking for your trophy.
The picks of best counties are based on the ones that have placed the most bucks on the FBR since 2002 that scored 130 or more points using the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system.
In case of the Wildlife Management Areas, the ones highlighted offer the opportunity for walk up hunts. At least a portion of their seasons do not require quota hunt permits.
No. 1 -- Bay County
Even though Bay County has deep sandy soil and swampland, it's still a haven for big bucks, especially north of Interstate 10. This year, as it was last year, it's in first place on our list, yielding 14 bucks of 130 or more B&C points during the period at which we looked. The habitat is a mixture of slash pine, sand pine, and titi bottoms, with a few oak ridges thrown in.
Bay County is west of the Red Hills region and doesn't have the heavy clay soils usually thought of as providing good nutrition for big deer. However, north of I-10 the soils are better than in its coastal regions. Good management of the habitat for deer in the county has offset a lot of deficiencies.
More and more hunt clubs are developing quality deer management programs and instituting restrictive antler size limits. They're letting the bucks get older and taking some of the does off the property so the herd is closer to the number of deer that the available habitat can support.
No. 2 -- Hamilton County
For the second year in a row, Hamilton County is in the second spot. Here, soil is the big determining factor for big deer. Good soil quality means good nutrition for deer and that translates into bigger bucks with bigger racks.
In Hamilton there's not as much agriculture as there is in some of the other northern tier counties. However, a lot of the land is in tree farms. When well managed such forestlands can provide good habitat for deer.
Another factor is good management by hunt clubs on private land.
No. 3 -- Jefferson County
Jefferson County is at No. 3 this year. Even though creeping urbanization in the Panhandle is overtaking many traditional hunting areas closer to Tallahassee, that upper tier of counties still is the place to go for big deer in Florida. This region often is called the Red Hills because of its clay-based soil, and stretches from Jackson County on the west over to Jefferson on the east.
As a result of these better soils, especially in areas where farmers use a lot of fertilizer on crops on which the deer feed, they have excellent nutrition, can grow to larger sizes and produce better antlers.
No. 4 -- Madison County
In the fourth spot this year is Madison County with 11 bucks of more than 130 B&C placed on the FBR list. Madison County has good soils, particularly north of I-10, and many hunt clubs are practicing good management that results in big deer. In Madison County, as in some of the other northern counties, you have real dirt with real minerals in it, and that's why you have bigger deer in those places.
No. 5 -- Leon County
Despite increasing urbanization around the Capital City, there are still places here to find a big deer, particularly around the quail hunting plantations in the county. Leon holds down the No. 5 ranking this year with 11 bucks over 130 points in our sample of big deer.
Despite its high human population, Leon County's northern location in the Sunshine State is part of the northern tier of counties that has better soils than much of the rest of the state. Here, good land management, including burning and the planting of food plots, creates habitat that's ideal for deer.
No. 6 -- Polk County
Much of Polk County continues to retain its rural character, so there's a lot of agriculture as well as some horse and cattle farms. On private land there's supplemental feeding of deer going on, whether it's deliberate or just access to livestock feed. That supplemental nutrition helps produce bigger deer.
Additionally, other than on public lands, the deer probably aren't getting a lot of hunting pressure. What hunting pressure there is tends to be managed through clubs and those hunters are being more selective and doing some direct management for big racks.
No. 7 -- Jackson County
Jefferson County settled in the No. 7 spot this year. The county is located at the eastern end of the Red Hills, with good habitat and good nutrition for deer. Here, as in many other places, hunt clubs are managing for quality deer. This area also is far enough from Tallahassee that urban sprawl hasn't reached it yet. In addition, there still is a great deal of agriculture here, which translates into good groceries for deer.
No. 8 -- Marion County
Marion County is No. 8 on this year's list. It placed eight bucks on FBR list.
There are large tracts of land under intensive management to produce good horses, and that translates into lots of inadvertent supplemental feeding of deer. Fertilization of pastures also means improved soils, and both those factors add up to one of the key ingredients in producing big bucks: good nutrition.
No. 9 -- Osceola County
At No. 9 with seven bucks on the list, much of the land in Osceola County is in cattle ranches and sod farms.
Although neither of those lend to good deer production without additional management, some agricultural practices associated with these land uses improve habitat for deer. Controlled burns are a good example.
No. 10 -- Alachua County
In Alachua County, which holds down the No. 10 spot, it's all about the soil.
For its more southerly location is has quite good soil composition. In addition, the bulk of Alachua County is in private property, which means it doesn't get the hunting pressure of public land. Bucks have a chance to attain an older age.
Although there's less row-crop agriculture now than there has been in the past and a good bit of land has been converted to pine plantations, the county still supports a good deer herd with its fair share of big bucks. Those pine plantations offer a lot of edge habitat where they abut hardwood forests or prairies. That means a lot of browse for deer.
The Upper Chipola River WMA is a relatively small area, covering only a little more than 7,000 acres in Jackson County. General gun season is short, comprising only Thanksgiving weekend and December 11 through January 1.
Quota permits aren't required for this area.
The Choctawhatchee River WMA is a much larger area than Upper Chipola River. It covers more than 57,000 acres and sprawls across Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties.
Because it's along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that are good for big deer, and has enough area that hunters may be able to find a spot that's not receiving much pressure.
There is no quota permit required for any of the general gun season.
Richloam WMA covers more than 58,000 acres in Hernando, Lake, Pasco, and Sumter counties.
"Richloam allows dog hunting which may turn some hunters off, but it still produces big bucks and not necessarily in front of dogs," said biologist Rick Spratt. "Big bucks are usually too smart for that and are more successfully taken during the rut when they are chasing does. Richloam is bordered by a large piece of private property that has very light hunting pressure on one side, Green Swamp West, which is a special opportunity area with antler restrictions on another side, and the Baird Unit which has very short seasons comparatively on yet another side."
That said, however, one simple answer about why Richloam produces big deer is the habitat. The nutrition provided by the flora in the area enhances their antler development.
A quota permit is required during the first nine days of the gun season, but then the tract is open for walk-up hunts.
Bull Creek WMA in Osceola County also is a good bet for big bucks. The WMA covers more than 23,000 acres.
"This area tends to have a good deer herd," said biologist Mike Abbott. "With the three point on a side rule, I believe a hunter's chance of killing an older and therefore heavier deer, and likely with a better rack, is enhanced."
All bucks taken here must have at least three points on one side of its rack.
Bull Creek is under quota the first two days of the season, but after that all you need to do is pick up a daily pass at the check station.
North Central Region
Camp Blanding WMA covers 56,197 acres and is a military training facility used by the Florida National Guard.
"Camp Blanding WMA is located in Clay County and is part of the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center," said biologist Scott Johns. "The WMA consists of a dog hunt area, an archery only area, and two still hunt areas. Although a few really nice deer come out of the dog hunt area, the two still hunt areas will be your best chance to find a big buck.
"Since Camp Blanding is not open to scouting, make sure you review some aerial maps, and look for the vegetation that would indicate the creeks on the area," he continued. "Camp Blanding is crisscrossed by multiple creeks, and these are the key to finding big bucks on the area. Hunters who get off the roads and explore the interior creek bottoms will be most successful in finding big buck sign."
The Tide Swamp is one unit of the Big Bend WMA. The area is more than 19,500 acres and is located in Taylor County.
On Tide Swamp, the first nine days are under quota, and for the next sixteen days you have to get a daily hunt permit from the check station. However, after that it's open for the rest of the season.
The Spring Creek Unit also is a portion of the Big Bend WMA and is located in Taylor County. It comprises more than 14,000 acres.
"Both these areas receive a moderate amount of pressure, harvest success is good, and quality deer have been harvested from these areas over the past few years," said biologist Daniel McDonald. "In addition, this will be the third year of antler restrictions on Tide Swamp and it's our hope that antler quality continues to increase. Both of these areas also have deep, remote hammocks that few hunters venture into. Those who do generally harvest a quality deer."
The Croom WMA contains a substantial hardwood swamp along the Withlacoochee River, as well as extensive uplands and oak hammocks. Croom covers more than 20,500 acres in Hernando and Sumter counties.
A quota permit is required during the first nine days of the season, but after that it's open for anyone who wants to hunt.
When it comes to big deer in the South Region, biologist Wes Seitz said his first choice would be J.W. Corbett WMA. This area is slightly more than 60,000 acres, and is entirely in Palm Beach County. It's primarily pine flatwoods, cypress domes, and ponds.
Access to Corbett is better than on some of the other southern WMAs. A series of trails run off a road into the interior, providing the best access on any of the south Florida areas.
Seitz's second choice for big bucks is Big Cypress WMA, located in Dade, Collier and Monroe counties. The habitat on the Big Cypress, which is more than 565,000 acres, is mostly swamp, with sawgrass sloughs, stands of pine flatwoods, hardwood hammocks and cypress domes interlaced in the terrain. Access to the Big Cypress can be difficult because the area is so wet.