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Hunting Big Bucks in Florida

By Tony Young

What Florida hunters can learn from the take of a jaw-dropping, 200-pound whitetail.
Jack Levine poses with a Leon County,FL, buck whose weight and amazing rack raised the bar for Florida deer hunters.

When Duluth, Minnesota native Jack Levine, Jr. moved to Florida in 2007, he thought his days of harvesting trophy whitetails were over. But what happened on a sunny, cool afternoon in December 2013 forever changed his mind about Florida deer hunting.

Levine had been an avid Minnesota deer hunter since age 10. Over the years, Levine claims to have taken probably 20 better-than-100-class bucks, five of which would score in the 130s. As a commercial taxidermist, he has also taken in quite a number of northern bruisers since he got started in that line of work in 1988.

After moving to Tallahassee, Florida, Levine continued his deer hunting passion with a couple of good hunting buddies. He and his friends experienced some success on Wildlife Management Areas in the Panhandle, including the Apalachicola National Forest, Box R and St. Vincent Island.

But before the start of the 2013-2014 hunting season, Levine underwent some surgeries that forced him to hunt a little closer to home. He and his wife, Dorothy, live in Leon County on five acres and on more than one occasion, he had spotted a few does crossing through their backyard. That gave him an idea.

Levine decided he would try hunting the back corner of their property, which was left natural and undisturbed. He bought a blend of some “throw-and-grow” rye, clover and rape and put it out after first scratching the ground with a root rake. He made a mineral pit the size of a large scrape by pouring a mix of Deer Cane on a section of exposed dirt, and also began broadcasting corn to further encourage the local deer to make a stop at his place. Then, he picked out a mature longleaf pine to hang his Summit climber, from which he was able to see over the thick understory of the hardwood bottom.

One other thing he did was to make sure the deer had something to drink on his property by recessing a “kiddy pool” with a plastic liner in a low spot in his yard. Levine said in doing that, the deer now didn’t have to jump the farm fencing to go over to his neighbor’s pond to drink.

As the season went along, Levine had enjoyed watching the does feed under his backyard setup, and had even seen a few racked bucks that were too young to take for his taste. But by the way the deer had recently started acting and with seeing more bucks during daylight hours, he knew the rut was in. On December 12, a calm day with temperatures in the 50s, Levine shimmied up the pine and used a rope to hoist up his .50-cal. muzzleloader.

He wasn’t up the tree for long before five does came in to feed on the green patch and scattered corn. About an hour before dark, with the does still feeding, Levine said he looked up and saw a massive set of horns coming toward him through the brush. He got his gun up, looked down the barrel and waited until the deer stepped into an opening.

When all the black smoke cleared, lying on the ground was a 200-pound Florida monster, Levine’s first-ever muzzleloader kill and the highest-scoring buck he had ever taken.

Author with 8-pointer taken on a 26-acre lease in Jefferson County, Nov. 2013.


I learned of the kill, which occurred just a few miles down the road from where I live, by Kayne Billingsley, a deer processor who Levine and I both use. He arranged for Levine to get me the buck’s antlers to score, and the rack is the heaviest set of bone mass that I’ve ever put my hands upon in the nearly 10 years that I’ve worked at and scored deer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission.

The brow tines might have been a little short in comparison at only four inches long, but the main beams were two feet long and six inches in circumference coming out of the head! Additionally, the rack had an inside spread of 18 inches with G2s and G3s that were all right around 10 inches long.

The main frame eight-point grossed more than 150 Boone and Crockett points with a net score and entry into the Florida Buck Registry of 14438 inches. And for those who don’t know, that is one heck of a score for an eight pointer, considering there are not as many tines (points) to measure and add up as there is for a 10- or 12-point buck.

“I just love it down here,” Levine said. “We thought we had a lot of deer back home, but I tell you what, I see more game down here on a consistent basis than I ever did in Minnesota. And then to be able to take a buck-of-a-lifetime like that, after hunting hard up there for forty years, it’s just amazing. I think the hunting in Florida is phenomenal.” Yet many Floridian hunters leave the state each year and head north or west in pursuit of larger-antlered deer. But as Levine and other such hunters have learned, Florida can produce some fine bucks. Even though the soil in most of the state is sandy and poor in regards to the nutrition our natural vegetation has, there are some things we can do to better our chances of growing and harvesting more quality bucks. Whether you hunt a small tract of land or are a member of a hunt club that leases a large chunk of property, supplemental feeding can help to offset Florida’s poor soil and level the playing field when it comes to growing antlers.

Most clover varieties and brassicas, like turnips and rape, don’t grow real well in most of Florida, because the pH level in our sandy soil is too acidic. But in the northern part of the state that touches Georgia and Alabama, where the soil has some clay in it, you can have some success growing it, and according to the Quality Deer Management Association, those varieties contain up to 18 percent protein.

Protein is a key ingredient in growing big racks. Wheat and rye can grow well most anywhere in Florida because they don’t require as high of a pH, and most varieties have 17 or more percent protein. That is what I plant in the fall for my deer and turkeys, and in North Florida, the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension Service says it’s best to wait until after October 1 to put it in the ground. I always broadcast twice as much fertilizer as I do plot seed, and I apply lime to my patches at least every three years. Besides making your plot come up better, the fertilizer and lime also make it taste sweeter, which helps to draw in and keep game on your tract of land.

Early-season rub, probably made in August.


Now just about every private land deer hunter in Florida feeds corn, because we all know the game love it and it’s the cheapest thing we can fill our feeders with. But, did you know that corn is only nine percent protein? If you’re trying to grow big antlers, that’s not really helping in that regard. Besides that, when you feed corn, you’re also feeding every squirrel, bird and raccoon in the area —and if you happen to be in bear country, like so much of Florida is, you are also feeding and drawing them in. Not only can that prove to be dangerous, but in most cases, when you have bear, you stop seeing a lot of deer.

Let me offer a solution and a better quality alternative. Soybeans. Yes, it is more expensive than corn, but would you believe that soybeans are 40 percent protein? Now that will help antler growth. And they are too bitter for most bears’ and other critters’ taste. All that you will be feeding if you switch over to soybeans is deer, turkey and an occasional rabbit. So, when you really think about it and do the math, you wind up not spending any more money on soybeans as you did corn, because you are only feeding the game you are targeting. You give your deer a lot more protein intake to grow better racks, and you avoid most bear issues. It’s a win, win, win situation.

If you don’t have a bear problem and you’re dead set on feeding corn, but really want to try to improve your deer herd’s antler growth potential, at least consider switching to soybeans in the spring and summer months when the bucks are growing their antlers. And for your warm-season food plots, try planting it. Soybeans grow well in Florida and the sprouted greentop contains 18 or more percent protein. After Levine harvested his trophy backyard buck, it was later learned that the deer had spent most of its days on a much-larger neighboring tract of land, where it was fed protein pellets its entire life. When I scored the buck’s antlers, I guessed he was at least 5.5 years old or older. But when Cory Morea, the FWC’s state deer biologist, examined the jaw bone, he estimated the buck to only be about 4 years old based on the amount of wear on the teeth. If so, that is some pretty good supporting evidence that Florida can produce some large-antlered deer if they are allowed to get to an age where their antlers are fully developed.

“Bucks usually reach their maximum antler potential after 4.5 to 6.5 years,” Morea said.

So, the biggest thing we hunters can do to increase our odds of being able to take mature bucks on a piece of property year after year is to pass on shooting younger bucks and give them the number of birthdays they need to reach maturity.

Photograph of the author's small plot of wheat, rye and oat grass.


“Antler development comes down to three key factors: age, nutrition and genetics. Of these, age is the easiest for hunters to manage for by passing on younger bucks,” Morea said. “Nutrition can be increased by good land management practices that disturb the soil or puts sunlight on the ground. Mowing, prescribed fires, roller chopping, disking and other land management practices promote good forage production for deer. Supplemental feeding and food plots can also help if they cover about three percent of the land area. Genetics are really complicated and not easily managed in free-ranging herds.”

And you don’t necessarily need a large piece of land to find hunting success, if, like Levine, your property happens to be in the right spot. All you have to do is put in the time bettering the habitat, and if the adjacent properties aren’t getting hunted much and you let the young bucks walk, you have a real good chance of seeing them again next season when they are bigger and a year older.

As far as Levine goes, he’s already very optimistic about next season. After this past deer season closed, he has already spotted two more big bruisers crossing through his backyard.

“Deer season can’t get here quick enough,” Levine said with a smile. “I love hunting Florida!” FS

First published Florida Sportsman June 2014