When you think of bowhunting in Florida, deer hunting is not likely to be the species that comes to mind. Florida is the go-to state for bowhunting the Osceola turkey, countless hogs, gators and more bowfishing action than you can handle. But it’s rarely considered a top deer hunting destination. That is, unless you’re looking for a place to deer hunt rutty bucks in the smokin’ hot days of summer. That’s right! Florida is the only place in the country where you can hunt whitetail deer in the month of July. Better yet, in various parts of the state these bucks are already rutting in the first week of August. So when the opportunity for bowhunting Florida deer came my way this summer, I jumped at the chance to beat the off-season blues by chasing bucks in the Sunshine State.
Battling the Elements
It had been over a decade since the last time I’d hunted in Florida, but I still remember the hum from mosquitoes that settled over the swamp as the sun would set each day and the little devils would rise. It was one of those experiences I found myself promising God I’d never do again if he would just get me out alive. With this hunt scheduled smack in the middle of summer, I figured the swarm of ‘skeeters would be just as bad – likely worse. It would only be a 4-day hunt, but I packed Thermacell units and refills like I’d be hunting for a month. I was determined not to let those bloodsuckers ruin my hunt.
The idea of bowhunting Florida in the middle of the summer also causes one to consider the obnoxious heat that tends to send most sound-minded folks headed for water sports, the beach, fishing, or something cooler than sitting in a treestand or ground blind. Yet, that’s exactly what the plan was. On this trip, we’d be putting the brand new ESW (Early Season Whitetail) gear from the crew at Sitka Gear to the test. This line of clothing was designed for your warmest weather hunting adventures. The company wanted to put it to the test in some of the hottest and most humid conditions in the country. That would be Florida.
Day 1 of my hunt started off with me wading through the swamp to get to a Lone Wolf stand my guide had pointed out through the onX app on his phone. He had driven me in as close as possible without spooking any deer. I was a little concerned at first at how close to the hunting areas we were driving in the buggy, but after seeing a few gators in these same waters, I was okay with the ride. The area had experienced daily rains for the last month, leaving much of the ranch covered in eight inches or more of water.
The sounds of the swamp waking up in the morning is an impressive experience. It clearly confirms just how many creatures call this place home. Shortly after the sun came up, I had several does come into the food plot in front of me and feed their way through. An hour later a hog cruised by 150 yards out. Later in the morning another bunch of deer came by within 15 yards of my stand. The group included does, fawns, and a little spiked buck. I saw a pile of turkeys throughout the morning coming and going across the field, but the bucks were a no-show. I climbed down around noon and headed back for lunch.
That afternoon I sat in a ground blind with my buddy, Eric Whiting, in hopes of catching deer on their way from bed to feed for the evening. Shortly after we climbed into the blind I looked up to see a big hog coming across the field, headed our way. I figured it was the same hog I had seen earlier in the day making its way back out. I scrambled in my chair to position for the shot and let an arrow fly. Sadly, my arrow went right underneath the hog. It was a few yards further than I figured, and I didn’t give it enough. We saw a bunch of does and fawns that evening, but the bucks continued to be scarce.
Fortunately, friend and writer, Tony Peterson, made good on the hog that came his way that evening. Not one to ever pass on pork, Tony sent an arrow flying and shed first blood of the hunt. Outdoor writer, Mike Shea, also found himself in the middle of the action on that first evening and managed to kill one of the target bucks for the week.
Stuck in a Rut
The amount of water on the ranch during our hunt made things difficult. Access was severely limited. Stands that were normally easily accessible by foot were now flooded. Camp organizer, Mike Massey, had his hands full trying to shuffle hunters around to the limited high-ground hunting opportunities. And when we did find stands that were huntable, getting to them was another whole issue. The conditions were brutal on equipment and vehicles. Getting swamped and stuck soon became a daily occurrence. The tractor and toe chains got a good workout during our hunt, no doubt.
Over the next few days, the conditions went from bad to worse. The rains continued, the bucks laid low, and we were plagued by vehicles getting stuck and breaking down. It was comical at times. But it was the stuff that makes for genuine hunting camp memories. In fact, the atmosphere at camp is what made the week such a unique experience. We watched gators sneaking through the shallows just 4o yards from the back deck, fed the camp owl by hand, and told hunting stories late into the night. Punched tags or not, a good hunting camp comes down to how you handle things when the conditions are beyond your control. We had a great group of guys that knew how to have fun despite a tough week in the deer woods.
A Look at the Gear
Living in the south, I’m always looking for better gear for hot-weather hunting. Sitka seems to have figured it out with their new ESW gear. The ESW pant is a technical hunting pant that is easily one of my new favorites. It features a 4-way stretch polyester that handled the elements remarkably well throughout the week. On extreme heat hunts like we had in Florida, you’ll appreciate the body-mapped mesh ventilation in the gusset and pockets to keep you cooler. The company also added Permanent Polygiene Odor Control Technology to help minimize the funk that often comes with hot weather hunting.
The ESW Shirt is also built from a lightweight stretch polyester and features mesh pits for ventilation, silent snaps, and the same odor control as the pant. The system also includes the ESW gloves. I really liked the feel of these gloves. They’re a technical shooting glove that gives you plenty of comfort and protection, yet allows you to do the things you need to do without having to take your gloves off.
Aside from the ESW gear, one of my favorite new pieces of gear used during this hunt would be Sitka’s new Bow Sling. I’ve used a number of bow slings over the years, none quite as slick and simple as this one. With the weather and conditions as bad as they were throughout this hunt, it was nice to know my bow was protected from the mud and crud, as well as from bouncing around in the back of the swamp buggy.
And of course, the Thermacell was a lifesaver. Mosquitoes will run you out of the swamp in Florida. It’s nothing short of miserable for the hunter without a Thermacell. When bowhunting Florida deer – and anywhere else in the south – I’ve learned to never leave home without it. I used the MR450 unit throughout the week. It provides a 15’x15′ zone of protection. Just remember to turn it on, and get it warmed up before you head into the swamp.
Bowhunting Florida Deer – Conclusion
Regardless of the fact that the majority of us never notched our buck tag in Florida, this hunt opened our eyes to new opportunities that abound in the swamp when you travel to the deep south. And despite some tough conditions and slow activity from the local deer herd, our trip south for bowhunting Florida deer brought plenty of good times and camp camaraderie with a great group of guys that know how to roll with the punches when it all goes south.