What every hunter ought to know about Florida’s early fall hunting seasons

October “Outta’ the Woods” by Tony Young

Football season is in full swing, and the 2016-17 hunting season’s crankin’ up! In Zone A, they’re already into general gun season, but for the rest of us, I’d like to cover the rules and regulations regarding three hunting seasons that are just around the corner: muzzleloading gun, gray squirrel and the first phase of dove.

Muzzleloading gun season

The beginning of muzzleloading gun season immediately follows the close of crossbow season in each zone. Season dates run Nov. 19 – Dec. 2 in Zone B, Oct. 22 – Nov. 4 in Zone C and Dec. 3-9 in Zone D.

In some areas of central Florida, including the counties of Hamilton, Columbia, Manatee and Hardee, the muzzleloading gun season actually occurs at the same time as the rut and offers a great chance to take a mature whitetail.

During muzzleloader season, bows and crossbows also are legal methods of taking game on private lands, along with, of course, muzzleloaders. On wildlife management areas though, only muzzleloaders can be used.

For hunting deer, muzzleloaders firing single bullets must be at least .40-caliber. Guns firing two or more balls must be 20-gauge or larger. The only muzzleloaders that are allowed during muzzleloading gun season are those that are fired by wheel lock, flintlock, percussion cap or centerfire primer (including 209 primers). Muzzleloaders that can be loaded from the breech are not legal during muzzleloading gun season.

Deer and wild hogs are the most common species to take during muzzleloader season. Only legal bucks according to the deer management unit you’re hunting in may be taken, and the daily bag limit on deer is two. On private land with landowner permission, you may hunt wild hogs year-round with no bag or size limits. On WMAs, bag limits for deer and hogs and antler point regulations may differ, so check the published area’s brochure before you hunt there.

In addition to big game, it’s also legal to shoot gobblers and bearded turkeys on private property and on a handful of WMAs during muzzleloading gun season. You may take up to two per day, but there’s still the two-bird combined fall-season limit. You must not shoot turkeys while they’re on the roost, over bait, when you’re within 100 yards of a game-feeding station when feed is present or with the aid of recorded electronic turkey calls. It’s also against the law to hunt turkeys in Holmes County during the fall.

Some things you may not do during muzzleloader season include hunting deer or turkey with dogs, shooting swimming deer and using modern firearms on such game animals.

Gray squirrel season

Gray squirrel season runs statewide Oct. 8 – March 5. Squirrel hunting is truly a sport for all ages and steeped in tradition. Squirrel hunting at an early age often translates into a lifetime of appreciation and respect for wildlife, the outdoors and hunting. Good squirrel hunting areas can be found throughout most of Florida, and many are convenient to major urban areas. Squirrel hunters can find success on small tracts of private and public lands.

To find a good spot, look for areas with a lot of oak trees that have good limb structure and can provide cavities for denning. For these reasons, squirrels are often found on tree lines, oak/hickory ridges and hardwood hammocks bordering creeks, rivers or lakes. 22-caliber rifles are the choice of squirrel hunters who seek the challenge of marksmanship and long-range shooting. Shotguns of any size may also be used, and are effective at short ranges and when squirrels are running from limb to limb. Shot size is a matter of personal preference, but normally ranges from No. 6s to No. 9s.

Of course, the use of dogs is allowed as small hunting dogs, like Jack Russells and rat terriers, enjoy treeing squirrels and retrieving them once they’re downed. The daily bag limit is 12, but shooting fox squirrels is against the law.

Dove season

The first phase of the mourning and white-winged dove season started on Sept. 24 and runs through Oct. 24, statewide. Doves are one of the most popular game species in Florida. Good dove hunting opportunities can be found near agricultural lands where birds feed on crops and seed. Doves concentrate on areas where they can find an easy meal, primarily because they have weak feet and cannot scratch through heavy vegetation for seed. They also seek out sources of water and grit, and the most successful dove hunts often occur when large numbers of doves migrate into Florida with seasonal cold fronts.

You may hunt doves over an agricultural field, as long as the crop has been planted as part of regular agricultural practices, and they really like it when the soil has been disked (turned over). That way they can land and readily pick up seed. However,  it’s against the law to scatter agricultural products over an area for the purpose of baiting. For more information, go to MyFWC.com/Dove and click “Dove Hunting and Baiting in Florida.”

The only firearm you’re allowed to hunt doves with is a shotgun, and it must be plugged to a three-shell capacity (magazine and chamber combined), but you can’t use one larger than a 10-gauge. Most hunters prefer to use a 12-gauge, although smaller-framed hunters or those that seek more of a challenge may opt for a smaller gauge. Shot sizes normally range from 7½ to No. 9s.

Shooting hours during this first phase are noon to sunset, and the daily bag limit is 15 birds.

Retrievers or bird dogs are allowed, and they can be quite an asset when trying to locate those hard-to-find birds. If you’re up for the challenge, you may even use a bow or crossbow, and birds of prey also can be used to take doves by properly-permitted individuals practicing the sport of falconry.

What are some things you can’t do while dove hunting? They include using rifles or pistols, shooting from a moving vehicle and using a vehicle to herd or drive doves.

If you happen to shoot any dove with a metal band around its leg, report it at ReportBand.gov. This band-recovery data is critical for good dove management and a better understanding of migration patterns. By reporting this information, you’ll be able to find out when and where your bird was banded.

License and permit requirements

Whether you participate in one or more of these hunting opportunities, you’ll need a Florida hunting license. If you’re a resident, this will cost $17. Nonresidents have the choice of paying $46.50 for a 10-day license or $151.50 for an annual license.

If you plan to hunt during muzzleloader season, you’ll need a $5 muzzleloading gun permit. If you hunt on one of Florida’s many WMAs, you must purchase a management area permit for $26.50. To hunt deer, you need a $5 deer permit, and if you’d like to take a fall turkey, you’ll need a $10 ($125 for nonresidents) turkey permit. Also, a no-cost migratory bird permit is required if you plan on hunting doves or any other migratory game birds.

Don’t forget to obtain a brochure for the specific WMA on which you plan to hunt from the local tax collector’s office or online at MyFWC.com/Hunting, as dates, bag limits and restrictions differ greatly on each area. All of the licenses and permits you’ll need are available at your local county tax collector’s office, any retail outlets that sell hunting and fishing supplies, by calling 888-HUNT-FLORIDA or going to GoOutdoorsFlorida.com.

Be safe and have fun!

So whether you’re going after that buck you’ve been hunting during the muzzleloading gun season, or hunting dove or squirrel with friends and family, here’s wishing you luck while enjoying Florida’s great outdoors.

Remember to take a kid hunting or introduce someone new to our great sport when you can. As always, have fun, hunt safely and ethically, and we’ll see you in the woods!