By Carolee Anita Boyles
A guide to understanding Florida’s array of “off brand” legal game.
Sighting in for a coyote hunt. When rifle hunting predators in Florida, be sure of your target, and be sure you’re on land where it’s legal to do so. Mostly private leases and ranches this time of the year.
Mention varmint hunting to the seasoned outdoors person and the talk will turn to prairie dogs, coyotes in the snow, and other critters of the mountains and prairies. Even many seasoned varmint hunters don’t realize that Florida, too, can be a good place for this style of hunting. The Sunshine State has its own varmints, some of which are common to other parts of the country, and some of which are unique to the South. All of them can provide some off-season activity for the Florida’s hunters.
First, a little about the word “varmint:” It’s an odd sort of word, a carryover from times past when certain animals were regarded as threats to agriculture, livestock or even human health, with no regard for any intrinsic value to the wild. And in some cases, farmers will tell you, some of these creatures (and even whitetail deer) still are a problem for crops, young chicks, and other agricultural enterprises.
We can’t quite call them “small game,” either. Unlike quail, squirrels and rabbit, which are true small game and inarguably excellent table fare, these other species aren’t exactly thought of as something for the table. Hunters may have justifiable reason to reduce populations of some of these species, but state game managers are cognizant of each native creature’s role in the big picture. Others, like the coyote and nutria, aren’t native to Florida—their depredations on native fauna render them worthy of varmint status.
Regardless of whether you call them varmints, small game or something else, knowing more about these animals can add sport and perhaps even a few surprising dinners to your hunting year.
As challenging as calling turkeys can be, calling these species can be even more so. A coyote or bobcat may come straight in, or it may circle all the way around you, sniffing the air, catching your scent and disappearing before you even know it’s there. A proper setup and close attention to details such as wind direction and cover scents will increase your success.
Coyote (Canis latrans)
Coyotes are native to the western United States. Their presence in Florida is partly due to a range expansion into habitat niches formerly occupied by the red wolf and by other wild canids. Humans also have moved them around, releasing them into the wild here; in the early 1900s, hunters brought them here for hunting with dogs. They’ve been established in northwest Florida since at least the 1970s, and started appearing in numbers in south central Florida by the 1990s.
Average weight for a coyote is between 20 and 30 pounds; a coyote looks a lot like a medium-size German shepherd. Their fur usually is gray-brown, but you may see a darker individual. They also can be very noisy, howling and barking as a group at night.
Coyotes are a pest of agriculture, where they feed on vegetable crops as well as preying on small livestock. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) currently is looking at the feeding habits of coyotes in both the urban and the rural environment, in part to see how much they prey on ground nesting birds such as quail and turkey.
Coyotes may be active during the day or at night, but you’re most likely to intercept them during the low-light hours around sunrise and sunset. Even if you hunt and kill quite a few of them, you most likely won’t reduce the population any; studies have shown that a coyote population can withstand up to 70 percent loss of individual animals without any significant reduction in numbers. In fact, studies have indicated that the loss of only a few individuals may result in an overall increase in the reproduction rate of a population.
You may run into an occasional coyote when you’re in the woods during deer or turkey season, but finding them incidentally isn’t a very efficient means of hunting them. You’ll see more of them—and have more fun hunting them—if you use a call to get them to come to you. You can use a mouth or handheld call, but you may not use recorded or electronic calls in Florida.
Calling coyotes is an art, much like calling turkeys. Much has been written about calling coyotes, and about the best calls to use. You may want to try a coyote howler, a fawn bleat, or a rabbit squealer to bring the tricky canids close to you. Full camo is a must when hunting coyotes; they have great vision and are good at spotting anomalies in the woods.
Florida has no closed season on coyotes, and no specific regulations regarding the choice of firearms or bows used to kill them; according to our statewide hunting regulations, you may use all legal rifles, shotguns, muzzleloaders, crossbows, bows and pistols. Two of the best rifle calibers, however, are .223 and .22-250, and for a real challenge, try taking them with a bow and arrows.
Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
The bobcat is a very secretive little cat that is widely distributed in Florida. It is probably much more common than most people realize because it stays out of sight so well. It’s even fairly common in many urban and suburban areas.
Like most cats, the bobcat hunts by sight and mostly at night. It eats rats, rabbits, squirrels, small opossums and raccoons, and an occasional feral cat. It also can be hard on ground-dwelling birds such as quail, thrashers, towhees and robins. Although bobcats are by nature fearful of people, they can become habituated to people if they learn to associate humans with food from garbage, cat food, or whatever else someone leaves out that’s good to eat.
As with coyotes, you may run into them now and then in the woods, but they’re so shy that you won’t see many. Also similar to coyotes, calling them in is probably the best way to hunt them. Only mouth or mechanical calls are allowed; no recorded or electronic calls are permitted in Florida.
Bobcats may be hunted and killed from December 1 to March 1, although you may chase them year-round with dogs. You may use all legal means for taking them, although the calibers mentioned for coyotes are good ones. Many hunters also like shotguns loaded with number 4 buckshot. Do not take a bobcat pelt out of Florida without first getting a tag for it from the FWC.
Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
Although an adult raccoon is only about the size of a small dog, its strength and bad temper when cornered are all out of proportion to its size. Add to that the ability to carry and transmit the rabies virus for up to 6 months while exhibiting no symptoms and you have an animal to be treated with utmost respect.
Anywhere you go in Florida you will find raccoons. They are common everywhere, including in the urban and suburban environment, where they can become a serious problem, particularly if fed. When someone feeds raccoons and they lose their fear of humans, they may take up residence in an attic or under a shed and become very destructive, as well as serving as a reservoir for rabies.
Traditionally, raccoon hunting is done with hounds that follow the scent of the ‘coon and put him up a tree. The dogs then will bay at the base of the tree until the hunter gets there and either calls them off or kills the raccoon. Some of the breeds of dogs used for raccoon hunting are Blueticks, Redbones, Black and Tans, and Beagles, although other breeds can do the job. Having hunted raccoons this way, I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot of fun even if all you’re doing is chasing the ‘coon up a tree and calling off the dogs.
In Florida, you’re allowed to hunt raccoons at night, but you may use only .22 rimfires (excluding magnums) or single shot .410 shotguns. During the day, you may use all legal means to kill them. Do not move raccoons from one place to another without a permit from FWC. There is no closed season on raccoons in Florida, and no bag limit. Do check regulations specific to Florida’s public Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).
Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
The crow is the one migratory species open for Florida varmint hunting. Crows are large, black birds with hoarse, cawing voices.They are common throughout Florida, both in the country and in urban areas. They are frankly pretty nasty birds; they will each just about anything, including garbage, carrion, and young chicks and other birds which they steal from nests. They are quite aggressive and are capable of chasing away other, larger birds including owls and hawks.
Crows can be very destructive, particularly in agricultural areas. They have a reputation for pulling up sprouting grain (such as corn), and for feeding on cultivated nuts and fruits. They also can be hard on waterfowl and other ground nesting birds, since they sometimes break open and eat eggs, and also eat nestlings and fledglings.
One way to hunt crows is to observe where they roost at night and hunt along their flyway to and from their roosting area. Crows spend the night in communal roosts which may hold anywhere from a couple dozen to a couple thousand crows at any given time. If you position yourself along a flyway to and from a roost—particularly in the morning—you may be able to call some of them away from the main flock and in your direction. Another way is simply to locate areas where crows are feeding and set up and call them. Either one of these techniques can produce a lot of crows until the birds get wise to what you’re doing and shy away from where you’re set up; then it’s time to move.
As with coyotes and bobcats, crows are best lured in with mouth calls. Calling crows is a bit harder than calling coyotes, however, because you’re likely to be calling for an extended time with a lot of volume. You also may want to consider getting crow decoys that you can put either on the ground or in a tree.
Because crows are migratory, seasons and bag limits are set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rather than by the FWC. Season dates aren’t set until early fall, but usually run about the middle of August through the middle of October on Saturdays and Sundays, and from the middle of November until the middle of February. Because crows are migratory, you must use a shotgun, plugged as you would plug it for waterfowl.
Besides these four species, there are few other species that can be considered “minor” varmint species you can hunt. The opossum (Didelphis viriginiana) is Florida’s only marsupial. Opossums will eat about anything, including garbage, pet food and vegetables in the garden.The FWC’s hunting regulations state that hunting opossums at night is allowed, but only with .22 caliber firearms or .410 shotguns. During the day, you can take them by any legal means. You can hunt them year ‘round.
The nutria (Myocastor coypus) is an aquatic rodent from South America. It’s been in Florida since the 1950s, although it doesn’t appear to be widespread. Most reports are from the Tampa Bay area. The main problem with nutria is the damage the species can cause to native coastal wetlands. The FWC imposes no season or bag limit on nutria, but allows hunters to use all legal firearms and bows to harvest them. FS
Now That You Have It, What Do You Do With It?
Although we don’t think of “varmint” species as raccoons and opossums as tablefare, our ancestors didn’t waste anything they killed except, perhaps, skunks. With that in mind, we went in search of some recipes for making some of these critters edible.
Crock Pot Coyote
2 lbs. coyote meat
16 oz. apricot preserves
1 cup BBQ sauce
1 small onion, chopped
Salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste
Put it all in a crock pot and cook for 6 to 8 hours or until tender. Serve with rice.
Backstrap of 1 or 2 bobcats
Seasoning to taste
Cut backstrap into bite-sized pieces. Soak in buttermilk overnight. Sprinkle with seasoning and dredge in flour. Deep fry in peanut oil.
Note: You can use this same recipe for breast of crow.
1 raccoon, skinned, clean and quartered
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups water
2 carrots, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large potatoes, cubed
Put meat and water in large pot and simmer until meat just starts to get tender. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Discard water.
Bone meat and cut into 1 to 2 inch cubes.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Put meat back into pot and add (fresh) water and vegetables. Simmer until meat and vegetables are tender.
1 opossum, cleaned thoroughly with head and tail removed
Corn bread stuffing
Soak opossum in salt water overnight. Remove from salt water and rinse thoroughly. Stuff with corn bread stuffing, fasten opening with skewers and place in roasting pan.
Add 2 tablespoons of water to bottom of pan and roast in 350 degree oven, basting every 15 minutes with pan drippings. Cook until tender and browned. Skim fat from pan drippings before serving as gravy.
First Published Florida Sportsman February 2014