Start here to get prepared for your first hunts.
The white-tailed deer is the most heavily hunted of all Florida’s game species. During the 2011-2012 hunting season, approximately 137,000 hunters in Florida spent more than 2.8 million days afield. In that time they took an estimated 136,000 deer in the state, using muzzleloaders, modern firearms and archery equipment. With a population estimate of more than 700,000 deer statewide, and the rate at which deer reproduce, there are plenty of deer around; the trick is finding them.
All of the white-tailed deer in Florida belong to the species
We actually have three subspecies of whitetails here: The Florida coastal whitetail is found primarily in the Florida Panhandle, the Florida whitetail ranges throughout the peninsula, and the Florida Key deer is limited to Big Pine Key.
Most of this is of little significance to hunters; venison is venison, whether you bring it back from a hunting lease in the Panhandle or harvest it on a wildlife management area on the peninsula. The one thing that is significant, however, is that the Florida Key deer is entirely protected; there is never a hunting season on Big Pine Key.
Before you hunt deer in Florida, whether on public or private land, you must purchase a hunting license, a deer permit, and any other permits that apply to the type of hunting you’ll be doing. For more information about hunting licenses in Florida, go to www.myfwc.com and click on the Licenses & Permits tab.
If you were born on or after June 1, 1975, you won’t be able to purchase a hunting license unless you first take a Hunter Safety course. This course is offered free of charge by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission throughout the year. To find out when a course is offered in your area, go to www.myfwc.com and mouse over Licenses & Permits. On the dropdown menu, click on Recreational Hunting & Fishing. Then on the left side of the page, click on Hunter Safety Requirement.
Besides taking this course, you also should be proactive at taking care of your own safety in the woods. If you plan to hunt from an elevated platform, tree stand, or anything else that puts you off the ground, purchase and use a safety harness. If you are planning to hunt on the ground—particularly if you will be moving and walking around—always wear safety orange. Although hunting is a demonstrably safe activity, even a very experienced and careful hunter may not see you quietly slipping through the woods in camouflage, and it’s important for hunters to know where each other are.
When you go deer hunting, you may use a muzzleloading gun, a modern firearm, or some kind of archery equipment, depending on what season is open. The FWC has established regulations for all these categories of equipment.
If you’re going to use a muzzleloading gun that shoots a single projectile, it must be at least a .40 (40 caliber) firearm. If you’re using a muzzleloading shotgun, it must be at least a 20 gauge.
When you use any kind of archery equipment, it must have a draw weight of at least 35 pounds. This includes compound bows, longbows, recurves and crossbows.
Florida regulations allow hunters to use any centerfire rifles or pistols for hunting deer. Just because something is allowed, however, doesn’t always mean it’s advisable. Legally, you can use a .22- 250 or a .223. Practically and ethically, however, a .243 is really the smallest caliber that most experts recommend for hunting whitetail. You can kill a deer with a smaller caliber, but your shot placement must be very precise in order to achieve a clean kill. Good rifle calibers for Florida deer include the venerable .30-30, .25-06, .270 and .30-06.
Regulations prohibit the use of any semi-auto firearm equipped with a magazine that holds more than 5 rounds. You also may not use full metal jacketed ammo, rimfire cartridges, or firearms equipped with silencers.
Where to Hunt?
Deer are found in every corner of the state, from Everglades in South Florida to the Central Florida scrub lands, to the piney woodlands of the Panhandle. They’re found on public land, private land, and in suburban yards munching on flowers. Opportunities for hunting them are just as varied as their habitats.
If you’re fortunate enough to have friends who own land, you may find you have a ready place to hunt for the asking; if that’s the case, you are among the few and fortunate. Today, most private land that’s good for hunting is tied up either in hunting leases or in hunt clubs. Either one can be a good opportunity for learning from more experienced hunters. That said, there’s nothing worse than a bad hunt club, especially for a beginner.
Florida hunters have a lot of opportunity to hunt on public land. Although much of the state is urban, we still have a lot of state- and federally owned land that is open for hunting. In addition, timber companies and other corporate landowners sometimes place large tracts into public use for hunting. The hunts on most of this land are administered by the FWC; a few parcels are managed by local agencies or by the federal government.
The public land that’s administered by the FWC is organized into units called wildlife management areas (WMAs). Some of them are only a couple thousand acres. Others are very large; Ocala WMA, for instance, which is roughly contiguous with the Ocala National Forest, comprises more than 385,000 acres.
Each WMA has its own set of regulations, and each one is different. Although we can offer general guidelines here, nothing we can cover in one article will tell you everything you need to know to hunt on Florida’s public lands. Read the regulations before you go.
Let me repeat that: Before you set foot on any piece of Florida’s public land, download a copy of the regulations for that area and read it! You can find all the information for the state’s WMAs by going to the FWC website at www.myfwc. com. Mouse over the Hunting tab and click on WMA Brochures on the dropdown menu.
At one time, most of the state’s WMAs were open during hunting season for anyone who wanted to come onto the property and hunt. Over the past 20 or so years, however, the FWC has developed a philosophy of trying to provide the best quality hunts available for as many hunters as possible. This has led to more intensive management of these properties, and different kinds of hunts on different areas.
To hunt on any of the state’s WMAs, you must have both your hunting license and a WMA permit, regardless of what kind of hunt you’re going for. If you’re planning to go during a limited hunt such as a Special Opportunity Hunt or a Quota Hunt, you need to apply for a limited entry permit during a specific application period.
Special Opportunity hunts are those for which hunters must pay $5 for each application they submit. Then, if they are drawn, they must pay a larger, but still modest, fee to participate; these fees range from $75 to $125 per hunt. Hunters may submit as many applications for any given hunt as they would like.
These Special Opportunity hunts are high-quality hunts, with only a few hunters on large tracts of land. The application period generally is from May 1 to early June for fall hunts.
Quota hunts are more numerous than Special Opportunity hunts. Both the applications and the permits for Quota hunts are free, and Quota hunts are available for many different types of hunts. Here again, you need to read the individual WMA brochures to find out exactly what each Quota hunt entails. The application for Quota deer hunts usually runs from June 1 to June 30 for hunts during the fall of the year.
Types of Quota hunts include archery hunts, muzzleloading gun hunts, general gun hunts, youth hunts, family hunts and mobility-impaired hunts. All of them have their own requirements and specific guidelines.
To learn more and apply for Special Opportunity or Quota hunts, go to Licenses & Permits at www.myfwc.com and click on Limited Entry/Quota Hunts.
On quite a number of WMAs, part of the deer season is under quota and part of it is open for people to hunt at will. To find out which WMAs have non-quota (open) periods, go to www.myfwc.com and mouse over the Hunting tab. From the dropdown menu, select WMA Brochures. Scroll down the page to the link that says “WMAs that allow hunting without a quota permit.”
Recreational Use Permits are designed to provide revenue to landowners whose property is managed under the WMA system so that those lands remain open for public hunting. If you think of a Recreational Use Permit as an annual hunt club administered by the FWC, you won’t be far off the mark. Once a permit is issued, the permit holder can renew it for the next two years, making it essentially a three-year permit.
As of June 1, 2013, only four WMAs were being managed under Recreational Use Permits. The cost of the permits ranged from $206 to $475 per year. To learn more and apply, go to the FWC website at www.myfwc.com. Mouse over the Licenses & Permits tab and click on the Limited Entry/Quota Hunts link. Scroll down the page and click on Recreational Use Permits link.
Statewide, deer hunting is allowed from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset. Many authors have explored the nuts and bolts of deer hunting, both in magazine articles and in books; a quick internet search will find you literally hundreds of resources. Generally, however, Florida hunters go after their deer in one of three main ways: from an elevated stand, from a ground blind, or by stalking.
You’ll find literally dozens of different tree stands on the market. The two basic types are ladder stands and climbing stands, and each has its fans. Hunters also build platforms and shooting houses in trees, or freestanding on legs. Stands of this type commonly are placed overlooking planted food plots, corn feeders, or paths where deer travel.
A tumble from an elevated stand can badly injure or even kill you. Use a safety harness or other means of preventing a fall.
Ground blinds are placed in the same types of locations as elevated stands. They often are easier for bowhunters in particular to use, but deer are much more likely to see or smell a hunter sitting in a ground blind than they are to notice someone sitting in a tree.
For hunters who like to move, slipping slowly and quietly through the woods a few steps at a time is a good way to hunt. If you’re going to hunt this way, always wear safety orange. The deer won’t care and hunters in trees will be able to see you.
Some rural Florida residents have a long tradition of hunting deer with hounds. Although this type of hunting is far less prevalent than it was in the past, a small percentage of hunters still participate. To use deerhounds today, you must register your pack annually with the FWC and abide by strict rules about how and where you can run your dogs. For more information about hunting deer with hounds, go to www.myfwc.com and mouse over the Licenses & Permits tab. On the dropdown menu, click on Recreational Hunting & Fishing. Then on the left side of the page, click on Deer Dog Registration.
After the Kill
Harvesting your deer is only the first step in the process of hunting. The ethical hunter gets the deer field dressed and cleaned as fast as possible, and either to a processing facility or into a cooler. Again, many authors have covered this topic, and many resources are available for the novice hunter who wants to learn to care for his or her game the right way. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman August 2013
By Carolee Anita Boyles