Hundreds of hunting enthusiasts gathered last weekend at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland for the 14th annual Florida Big Buck Expo. The hunting exhibition offered seminars on hunting tactics and gave attendees the chance to try out new gear — and to pick the brains of their fellow hunters.
Hunting season is still a few months away, but it's never too early to start planning out your trips. Crossbow season begins Sept. 16 in parts of Tampa Bay, while muzzleloaders are permitted mid-October or November depending on your location. General gun season begins in early November and December. Dates vary by zone, so be sure to check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website.
In anticipation of hunting season, here are five bits of wisdom gathered from some of the expo's most accomplished hunters for your next deer-hunting excursion.
Don't get too complacent
If you find a great spot, there's nothing wrong with camping out for several hours at a time. But in general, a bolder approach yields the most success, said longtime whitetail hunter Ron Spomer.
"Be an aggressive predator, like a wolf or a cougar or a bobcat," he said. "They don't sit around and wait for things to come to them. Most whitetail hunters in the last 30 years especially have gravitated toward sitting in a stand in a box or in a tree and waiting for the deer to come by."
Staying in one place for too long leaves your scent around the area and eliminates hunting opportunities you might have found with a more aggressive mindset. "Don't just wait for things to happen," Spomer said. "Make something happen."
Chuck Echenique, an experienced hunter who lives in Tampa, said his most important tactic is to study aerial maps. There's no reason to go to an area without first learning about its layout, which helps determine what you'll find there.
"Nothing beats getting on the ground and knowing your terrain," he said. "What I always tell people new to areas, the first thing to do is look at your maps and identify areas that you think are going to be holding game."
Be proactive with binoculars
Much of the deer hunting habitats near Pinellas and Hillsborough are thick or marshy, which dissuades hunters from venturing out. But Spomer said proactive binocular use can overcome the problem by helping you pick out deer through small openings.
"The mistake is, people use the binoculars after they've seen a deer," he said. "And that usually means the deer's already seen them and it's running away."
Be obsessive about staying scent-free
One of the best-known hunting principles is that deer are ultra-sensitive to human scent. Echenique knows how to remove as much smell as possible: He washes with unscented soap, which contains chlorophyll. And he uses scent-covering sprays that contain silver and enzymes for killing bacteria and other odor-causing agents.
Echenique also wears rubber boots, washes his clothes in scent-free soap, and uses Arm & Hammer unscented deodorant. While hunting, he tries to avoid making contact with anything.
Study how areas change over time
Cory Morea, the deer coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said his agency is conducting a deer tracking survey around Big Cypress National Preserve to better understand deer behavior. The results may have implications for how deer are hunted in South Florida.
"We want to understand how deer characteristics have changed over the years compared to the studies done in the '90s," Morea said, referring to the last time a major study was conducted in the area.
He said that while the survey is in its early stages, it has already revealed that Florida panthers are the deer's primary predator, a change from the 1990s when bobcats were the top deer killers.
"That's a big shift in dynamics," Morea said. "When we model deer populations and talk about sustainable use and hunting opportunities, it helps us understand how deer may be taken by hunters at a sustainable level in the future."
Other quick tidbits
• Look for habitats where different types of terrain converge. Deer like to be close to food, water and cover within a small area.
• Be patient with a location. Echenique said many hunters give up on spots too quickly because they don't see deer movement, even if there are signs of deer nearby.
• Come prepared with lots of water. Florida's weather is extreme for deer hunting, and it's essential to have ample water for a day spent in the wilderness.
• Always be prepared to hunt, even when walking to and from your spot. "The minute you leave your vehicle, you're hunting," Echenique said.