On behalf of all of us at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), we continue to keep Floridians and visitors who were affected by Hurricane Irma in our thoughts and prayers. The FWC is working hard to address storm impacts to our wildlife management areas so these public lands are available for recreation while balancing the need for public safety. For information about the status of our WMAs, visit MyFWC.com.
Muzzleloading guns are a part of American history. Throughout my schooling, I learned about their use in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and as survival tools for early settlers. But it was my favorite high school history teacher who gave me my first hands-on experience with an ol’ smoke pole. He had a tradition when every year he would pick two students to shoot his muzzleloading rifle outside his classroom, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them.
I can still remember the heavy black smoke that poured out of that gun after the hammer came down on the primer, and we had to wait a few moments before any of us could even see if I had hit the target (I did, by the way!) And the smell was something I’ve never forgotten – to this day, I love the smell of gunpowder.
That day, I got a little taste of what our forefathers had used. And I know that’s a big reason why so many hunters enjoy the muzzleloading gun season – to experience a little history.
Muzzleloading gun season
The beginning of muzzleloading gun season immediately follows the close of crossbow season in each zone annually. Season dates run Nov. 18 – Dec. 1 in Zone B, Oct. 21 – Nov. 3 in Zone C and Dec. 2-8 in Zone D.
During muzzleloader season, bows and crossbows also are legal methods of taking game on private lands. 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 for 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 hogs and deer and antler point regulations may differ, so please check the area’s regulations 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 on private lands (one a day on WMAs), but there’s still the two-bird combined fall-season limit. You may 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.
Gray squirrel season
Small game hunting provides a great opportunity for seasoned hunters to recruit new conservationists by passing on our hunting heritage to youth or adults new to hunting. It also provides a window back into the outdoors for lapsed hunters with busy lifestyles. Small game hunting has broad appeal, usually requires little planning and allows hunters to take spur-of-the-moment hunting excursions. Squirrel hunting is a perfect example of this.
Gray squirrel season runs statewide Oct. 14 – March 4. 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. A .22-caliber rifle is the choice of squirrel hunters who seek the challenge of marksmanship. Shotguns of any size also may be used, and are effective at short ranges. 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, such as Jack Russells and rat terriers, enjoy treeing squirrels and retrieving them once they’re downed. The daily bag limit for gray squirrels is 12, but be careful of species because shooting fox squirrels is against the law.
The first phase of the mourning and white-winged dove season started on Sept. 23 and runs through Oct. 23, statewide. Good dove hunting opportunities can be found near agricultural lands where birds feed on crops and seed. Doves concentrate on areas with bare ground 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 doves prefer areas where 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 some prefer a 20-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 an asset when trying to locate hard-to-find birds. If you’re up for the challenge, you may even use a bow or crossbow. 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.
Deer-dog training season
Deer-dog training season also begins in October in zones B, C and D. Anyone possessing a hunting license may train free-running deer dogs during daylight hours Sept. 30 – Oct. 19 in Zone C and Oct. 28 – Nov. 16 in zones B and D.
All dogs used in pursuing or hunting deer must wear a collar or tag displaying the name and address of the dog’s owner. Hunters must contain their dogs to the tract of land they have permission to hunt.
There are several ways to accomplish that: Equip and monitor dogs with devices that allow remote tracking and behavior correction; only deer-dog hunt on large tracts of land; make sure there are adequate cut-off roads that will enable you to keep in front of the dogs; and don’t turn out more dogs than your hunting party can manage.
Hunters using dogs to take deer on private lands must register that property before doing so. No-cost, statewide deer-dog registration is required during all open deer-hunting seasons when taking deer with dogs is permitted and during the deer-dog training season. However, this registration doesn’t apply to hunters training or hunting with deer dogs on public lands and WMAs.
This mandatory registration may be issued to hunting clubs, landowners or anyone who has permission to hunt deer with dogs on a particular tract of land as long as the required application is completed and approved. Application forms are available from all regional FWC offices and online at MyFWC.com/Deer. Applications should include proof of landowner permission or a copy of the written hunting-lease agreement and a general map of the property showing boundaries and a legal description.
Once you’ve registered with the FWC, you’ll be issued a unique registration number that must be attached to the collars of all dogs used to pursue deer on registered properties during the deer-dog training season, and during any open deer-hunting season when taking deer with dogs is permitted. Hunters must possess copies of their registration while they’re training or hunting with their dogs. For additional information or to follow up on the registration process, call 850-488-3641.
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, even if you use a bow or crossbow on private lands. If you hunt or train deer dogs 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 download the regulations brochure at MyFWC.com/WMAbrochures for the specific WMA you plan to hunt. Season dates, bag limits and restrictions differ greatly at each WMA. 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, hunting dove or squirrel with friends and family or training your young deer-dog pup, here’s wishing you luck while enjoying Florida’s great outdoors.
Remember to take a kid hunting or introduce someone new to our great hunting tradition when you can. As always, have fun, hunt safely and ethically, and we’ll see you in the woods!