SMALL GAME HUNTING IN FLORIDA HOW...WHEN...WHERE...
Try a taste of Florida tradition and discover new and exciting ways to enjoy Florida's outdoors.
Take a minute to look at the diversity of small-game hunting opportunities you can find in Florida. If you are new to hunting, there is no better way to develop your skills. Stalk gray squirrels through quiet woodlands or shoot at doves as they rocket over farm fields. Maybe you are a veteran hunter seeking a new experience. Nothing will challenge your wingshooting skills like a snipe launching from a marsh or a woodcock zigzagging through a thicket. This booklet will introduce you to these and many more exciting small-game hunting experiences.
Small game hunting is a longstanding tradition in Florida, but you don't have to be a longtime resident or spend much money to enjoy it. All you really need to get started is a spirit of adventure, a shotgun or .22 rifle, and a place to go. If you're thinking that you don't have a place to go, you need to think again. This is the good news about small game hunting. The diversity of small game species and habitats in Florida nearly guarantees that some type of small game hunting can be found nearby.
Florida is fortunate to have a lot of land open to public access where hunters can find exceptional small game hunting. Much of the marsh land and seasonally dry lake bottoms associated with public lakes, rivers, waterways, and coastal marshes are state-owned lands. These are particularly good places to hunt snipe, rails, moorhens, and doves. When water levels are down, many of these areas are accessible by walking shorelines from public boat ramps or other public access points. Hunters also can discover good hunting by exploring public rivers and lakes by boat. When hunting these lands, remember to always respect private property boundaries and obey Florida's trespass laws.
When you are looking for public hunting opportunities, don't forget Florida's wildlife management areas. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manages over five million acres of land statewide for public hunting. Many wildlife management areas feature small game hunting and are managed to provide rewarding small game hunting experiences. Your local wildlife management area is truly a good place to explore for small game hunting.
Florida's privately owned lands also provide excellent small game hunting opportunities statewide. Don't be shy about asking permission to hunt small game on private forest and farm lands. A courteous request may open the door to memorable small game hunting experiences on private lands.
Small game hunting offers a perfect break from a fast-paced lifestyle. It only takes a couple of hours to enjoy an early morning squirrel hunt or an afternoon dove shoot. If you really want to brighten the experience, take a young hunter along. Time spent outdoors hunting small game with a youngster is quality time that can have lasting rewards. Most veteran hunters hold special memories of their first small game hunts and the adult who took the time to take a kid along.
If a hunting experience described in this booklet grabs your interest, you should try small game hunting. For more specific information on small-game hunting in your area, contact your local regional office of the FWClisted below.
Northwest Region, 3911 Highway 2321, Panama City, FL 32409-1658 - Telephone (850) 265-3677
North Central Region, Route 7, Box 440, Lake City, FL 32055 - Telephone (386) 758-0525
Northeast Region, 1239 S.W. 10th St., Ocala, FL 34474-2797 - Telephone (352) 732-1225
Southwest Region, 3900 Drane Field Rd., Lakeland, FL 33811-1299 - Telephone (863) 648-3203
South Region, 8535 Northlake Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL 33412-3303 - Telephone (561) 625-5122
MOURNING AND WHITE-WINGED DOVES
The mourning dove is one of the most popular game species in the United States, and this holds true for Florida. White-winged doves often are added to the hunter's bag in south Florida. The "dove shoot" is a traditional fall outing enjoyed by family and friends. Dove season also gives hunters an opportunity to dust off their favorite shotgun and officially begin hunting season. The camaraderie and family atmosphere of a traditional dove shoot makes it a very special event that Florida hunters look forward to year after year.
Good dove hunting opportunities can be found near agricultural areas where doves feed on crop and weed seeds. Doves concentrate in areas where they can find an easy meal primarily because they have weak feet and cannot scratch through heavy vegetation for seed. The best dove feeding areas have bare ground where doves can land and readily pick up seed. They also seek out sources of water and grit daily.
The best way for landowners or lease holders to ensure good dove hunting is to plant dove fields during the summer months (June, July, August). The most common dove field crops are millet, corn, sunflowers, grain sorghum, wheat, rye, and benne (sesame seeds). If you schedule your planting right and the weather cooperates, crops will mature and bear seed during dove hunting season. You can make these fields very attractive to doves by mowing or disking strips in the mature seed. The key objective is to get seed on bare ground. Remember, it is not legal to bring additional seed onto a field. This is called sweetening the field and is considered baiting.
The FWC provides public dove hunting opportunities on wildlife management areas. Several areas in the state are managed specifically to provide special-opportunity public dove hunting. Hunters may purchase permits to participate in these managed dove hunts. Public dove fields also serve as demonstration areas where private landowners can see examples of good dove field management practices that can be implemented on private lands.
Dove season in Florida typically opens in early October and closes in early January, and the season is split into three phases. About 30 percent of the doves harvested in Florida are local or resident birds that nest here and do not migrate. The remaining 70 percent of the dove harvest is composed of migratory doves that spend the winter in Florida. The best dove hunts often occur when large numbers of doves migrate into Florida with seasonal cold fronts.
Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific dove season dates, bag limits, and shooting hours. Also, for further information on planting dove fields or participating in special-opportunity dove hunts, contact a regional office of the FWC.
Suggested Equipment: Most hunters prefer a 12-gauge shotgun, though smaller hunters or those that seek more challenging shooting may select a smaller gauge shotgun. Small shot sizes such as #7's, #8's, or #9's are recommended. Don't forget that shotguns must be plugged to hold no more than three shells when hunting migratory game birds such as doves.
A retriever or bird dog can be a real asset on a dove field. Even when a hunter marks downed birds carefully, they are sometimes difficult to find. A trained dog can make these difficult finds easy and help hunters fill their bag limit. It is important that dogs are kept under control while on the dove field. A free-running dog can disrupt hunting and disturb other hunters. Also, it is easy for a dog to get overheated at a dove hunt, so take a container of water along.
Plastic dove decoys placed on dead tree branches or open ground may help bring doves into gun range, and decoys are legal to use in Florida. A stool or bucket comes in handy for sitting in the field and holding shells and harvested birds. Some hunters like to keep their shells conveniently at hand in a hunting vest. Camouflage clothing can help break up a hunter's silhouette and keep doves from flaring away before reaching gun range. Hunters should wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses for protection from Florida sunshine and falling shotgun pellets.
Squirrel hunting is truly a sport for all ages, steeped in tradition, and as convenient as the nearest rural woodlot. Some historians say that squirrel hunting and the development of the accurate squirrel rifle contributed greatly to our victory in the Revolutionary War. Whether this is true or not, it is a fact that squirrel hunting has captivated the interest of young American hunters for generations. This bright-eyed interest at an early age usually translates into a lifetime of appreciation and respect for wildlife, wildlands, and hunting.
Gray squirrels are masters at adapting to changing landscapes and making the most of available habitats. For proof of this, just watch your backyard bird feeder for a while. Squirrel populations also are very productive when foods such as acorns, hickory nuts, and berries are plentiful and den sites in tree cavities are available. This resilience and productivity make the gray squirrel an excellent game species in Florida.
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. The FWC's wildlife management areas also offer good squirrel hunting statewide.
To find the right squirrel hunting spot, look for habitats that provide food and shelter for squirrels. The presence of mature hardwood trees such as oaks or hickories are indicators of good squirrel habitat. A good stand of mature oak trees of mixed varieties offers the complete package for squirrels. These trees bear acorns for food, have good limb structure for leaf nests, and provide cavities for denning. For these reasons, squirrels often are most abundant in oak hammocks, oak/hickory ridges, and bottomland hardwoods bordering creeks, rivers, or lakes. Hunters shouldn't have to go far to find places like this in Florida.
Squirrel hunting strategy is up to the individual hunter. Some prefer to lean against a tree and sit quietly at daybreak or just before sundown when squirrels are most active. Some like to stalk quietly through the woods or along a wooded path or old woods road. Still, others enjoy the action of hunting with a squirrel dog. Certain breeds of dogs like the Jack Russell Terrier and some small mixed breeds take readily to tracking and treeing squirrels. No matter if the hunter is seeking excitement, relaxation, or escape from a stressful day, squirrel hunting can be the ideal outdoor activity.
Gray squirrel season in Florida typically begins in early November and ends in early March. Squirrel hunters should note that there is no open season on fox squirrels. Fox squirrels are much larger than gray squirrels and are usually found in open, park-like, pine forests. Make sure you are familiar with the differences between these two species before you go squirrel hunting. Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific squirrel season dates and bag limits.
Suggested Equipment: The .22 caliber rimfire rifle is the choice of squirrel hunters who seek the challenge of marksmanship and long range shooting. A shotgun of any size can be effective at short ranges and when squirrels are running from limb to limb. Shot size is a matter of personal preference, but any size from #4's to #8's can be effective depending on the range. Camouflage clothing will help conceal the still hunter, and a good pair of waterproof boots will make stalking bottomland hardwoods more comfortable.
When a bobwhite covey explodes in front of a pointing bird dog, even the seasoned quail hunter's heart will skip a beat. This is the moment that all quail hunters are seeking and can still be found in Florida by the persistent hunter. It is true that bobwhite populations have been on the decline across the South over the past twenty years. The good news is that Florida still has some of the best bobwhite quail country around. Florida quail hunters can experience good hunting in many parts of the state.
Bobwhite quail were most abundant in Florida when small farm fields and small cattle ranches dominated the landscape. Obviously the times and Florida's landscape have changed. The needs of the bobwhite quail, however, have not changed. They still need a patchwork of brushy fence rows, small weedy fields, and open woodlands that are burned frequently.
Some private landowners manage their lands to create these habitat conditions and continue to have successful quail hunting year after year. This intensive management is not feasible on most public lands; however, management practices implemented by the FWC on wildlife management areas, results in good quail habitat and good quail hunting. Prescribed burning and cattle grazing are two important management tools used to maintain open woodlands, grassy openings, and weedy edges on management areas. Hunters may have to cover more ground to find quail on public lands, but the effort can be worthwhile.
In Florida, quail season typically opens in early November and ends in early March. Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific quail season dates and bag limits. Also, regional offices of the FWC can provide good information on wildlife management areas and other lands that offer quail hunting opportunities in Florida.
For further information on quail hunting, contact Quail Unlimited National Headquarters, Chapter Development, by mail at P.O. Box 610, Edgefield, South Carolina 29824-0610, by telephone at (803) 637-5731. This conservation organization can help you learn more about quail hunting and get you involved in local habitat improvement projects. Membership in this organization is a good step toward supporting bobwhite quail conservation and becoming a responsible quail hunter from the start.
Suggested Equipment: The shotgun is the only choice for hitting a moving target as challenging as quail. Most quail hunters use 12-gauge, 16-gauge, or 20-gauge shotguns. Hunters seeking a real challenge go with the smaller gauge guns. Small shot sizes like #7's, #8's, or #9's are typically used for quail hunting. Brush pants or chaps make following bird dogs through briar patches more tolerable, and a shell vest is useful for holding shells and downed birds. A good pair of lightweight boots is essential for hours of walking in rough terrain.
A bird dog is essential for successful quail hunting, and for many hunters, "good dog work" is the most rewarding part of a quail hunt. The most common breeds used for quail hunting are Pointers, Setters, and Brittanys. If you are interested in getting into quail hunting, you should spend a season with an experienced quail hunter and trained dogs before you invest in your own dog.
Rabbits are recognized nationwide as an excellent game animal, and rabbit hunting is appreciated by millions. In recent years, however, rabbit hunting has declined in Florida. Several factors may contribute to this decline, but the main reason simply may be that lifestyles have become too busy. This is truly unfortunate, because good rabbit hunting can be an unforgettable experience marked by fast shooting and topped off with good eating. Rabbit hunting is something Florida hunters should consider, particularly since Floridas rabbit season is open year round and rabbits are not difficult to find.
Two different species of rabbits are common in Florida including the Eastern cottontail and the marsh rabbit. Cottontails can be found around agricultural areas, weedy fields, and woodland openings or clearcuts. Marsh rabbits, as their name suggests, live in open grassy marshes. They are smaller than cottontails and have noticeably smaller ears.
It is no secret that rabbits are very productive, and good habitats can support high population levels. The key to good rabbit habitat is a mixture of grassy and brushy vegetation. Since rabbits are a favorite food for predators like hawks, foxes, and bobcats, good escape cover like hedge rows and brush piles are important habitat features.
Finding good rabbit hunting is not difficult if you know where to look. Agricultural areas are a good place to start. Hunters should focus on edges where fields and woodlands meet, brushy fence rows, weedy thickets, and fallow fields. Several FWC wildlife management areas in the State have these habitat types and support good rabbit hunting.
In central and south Florida, hunters should find rabbits along the grassy roadways and drainage canals associated with vegetable, citrus, and sugar cane fields. In north Florida, hunting should be good in old farm fields, brushy clearcuts, and utility right-of-ways. Where grazing pressure isn't too high, pasture and range lands can support rabbit hunting. Remember to get permission before hunting on private lands.
Several different hunting strategies work for rabbits. Some hunters walk through good rabbit cover and beat the bushes with a stick until a rabbit flushes. Rabbits establish runways through grass and cover. Sometimes hunters can study these runways and predict the rabbit's escape route. A pair or several hunters may work as a team. Hunters can be stationed on the edges of a thicket or brush pile while one hunter walks in to flush the rabbit. Young hunters particularly enjoy this strategy.
If you really want to energize rabbit hunting, hunt with a brace of beagles. These dogs live to chase rabbits, and a seasoned rabbit dog can make hunting much more productive in heavy thickets and deep brush. When jumped by dogs, a rabbit often will make a wide circle and come back to where it started. This is the place where the hunter will frequently get a good shot. If the rabbit doesn't follow the plan, it's usually not a big disappointment. Most hunters get enough reward from observing a good chase and enthusiastic dogs.
When it seems like hunting season just doesn't open soon enough or closes too soon, hunters should think about rabbit hunting. Currently, rabbit season is open year round! Hunters should contact the FWC before rabbit hunting to determine the bag limits and make sure the hunting season has not changed.
Suggested Equipment: The gun of choice for most rabbit hunters is the 12-gauge shotgun though any gauge shotgun can be effective depending on the range. The most common shot size is #6 shot. Some hunters use .22 caliber rifles, but this is not recommended for beginners. Heavy cloth, brush pants or chaps are especially important for rabbit hunting since you will be walking through seemingly endless briar patches. If you are hunting during warm weather, snake proof chaps and boots are recommended because rattlesnakes frequent rabbit cover.
Florida ranks second in the nation in total annual snipe harvest. No kidding; snipe hunting is for real in Florida, and it offers unmatched excitement. Snipe flush with a fast, erratic flight pattern presenting a very challenging shot for the hunter. This true test of wingshooting skill is probably the main reason many Florida hunters slog through mud and muck to find and flush snipe.
The common snipe is a migratory game bird that spends its winters in Florida. While on their wintering grounds, snipe primarily eat earthworms, insect larvae, and snails. They use their long, ungainly looking bill to probe for these foods in soft muddy soils. This feeding behavior clearly defines the type of habitats that can support snipe and explains why they do well in Florida.
Snipe are most common in shallow wetlands, wet pastures, and open shorelines of lakes, ponds, and streams. They are not picky about the size or location of their feeding site, provided it is a little wet. Snipe can be found in shallow drainage canals, roadside ditches, livestock watering ponds, flag ponds, and even wet lawns. They are particularly attracted to areas where wet ground is disturbed and muddy soil is exposed.
Hunters should note that habitat conditions for snipe can change with periods of rain or drought, and snipe will respond to these changes. Periods of dry weather tend to reduce available snipe habitat but can improve snipe hunting. During these periods, snipe often concentrate around lakes and ponds as water levels fall and muddy shorelines are exposed. Such concentrations also may occur when drawdowns are conducted on specific lakes. During rainy periods, snipe populations move to soggy pastures and fields. Recent rainfall trends are an important consideration for snipe hunters.
With approximately six million acres of wetlands statewide, Florida has an abundance of snipe habitat, and much of it is on public lands. Hunters can find productive snipe hunting with convenient public access on many FWC wildlife management areas. Also, public access is available on most major rivers and lakes across the state. Many good snipe hunting spots can be reached by boat from public boat ramps. Keep in mind that it is not legal to shoot snipe from a motor powered boat unless the motor has been completely shut off and motor-powered movement has ceased.
Snipe hunting strategy is pretty simple. Just find snipe habitat and walk until you flush a snipe. A close working bird dog or retriever can be very helpful in finding, flushing, and retrieving snipe. Snipe will not hold for a pointing dog like quail so you need your dog to be close when the bird flushes. You should have your gun ready always, because you will get little warning before the snipe flushes. If you miss your first shot, don't give up the chase. Snipe will often circle back over the flush site or land nearby. Watch the bird closely after a miss, and you may get a second chance. The suspense and surprise of flushing snipe results in very exciting hunting, especially when you get into a large concentration of them.
Snipe hunting season typically opens in early November and closes in mid-February. Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific snipe season dates, bag limits, and shooting hours.
Suggested Equipment: A shotgun is the only choice for snipe hunting. Small shot sizes such as #8's are recommended since you want to get a lot of shot in the air as quickly as possible. As with all migratory game birds, your shotgun must be plugged to hold no more than three shells. Many waterfowl hunters like to hunt snipe in association with waterfowl hunts. Keep in mind that you cannot be in possession of lead shot if you also are hunting waterfowl. Nontoxic shot that is effective for hunting snipe is available. Knee-high rubber boots are essential to keep feet dry as you slog through wet, muddy ground.
The bird hunter who wants to try something really different should try woodcock hunting. Woodcock hunting is very popular in northern states, but few hunters take advantage of woodcock hunting opportunities right here in Florida. Woodcock are excellent game birds because they hold well for pointing bird dogs and provide a challenging shot when flushed.
American woodcock are migratory game birds that come to warmer climates for the winter. They are similar to common snipe in appearance, and they also use a long bill to probe in wet soils for their favorite food: earthworms. The similarities end, however, when you compare habitat preferences. Unlike snipe, woodcock prefer wooded swamps and thickets with heavy overhead cover. Finding and shooting woodcock in these habitats is the real challenge for hunters.
Hunters scouting for potential woodcock hunting areas should begin in wet bottomland hardwoods along rivers and creeks. In this general habitat, look for thickets of wax myrtle, gallberry, switch-cane, privet, tree saplings, titi, honeysuckle, blackberries, or grape vines. Dense thickets made up of any of these plants or a combination of these plants signal good woodcock cover. Don't get hung up on trying to identify these plants while you hunt. The structure of the vegetation (tangled thickets) is more important than the specific types of vegetation. The other important factor is the presence of moist loamy soils with lots of earthworms. Once you find a few woodcock, you will develop a good search image for their habitats. Woodcock have been found in all parts of the state, but huntable concentrations are most common in central and north Florida.
Now you know where to go woodcock hunting, but it also is very important to know when to go. Woodcock tend to move in waves with cold fronts. Large flights of woodcock can sometimes be found in an area a day or two after a strong cold front passes through. This is a great time to go woodcock hunting, and if you find birds, you should hunt them as soon as possible. Woodcock seem to be a little restless while they are on their wintering grounds. Sometimes they will stay in an area for several weeks, but more often they will be there only for a few days.
Woodcock hunting strategy is much like quail hunting. You walk with your bird dog until it points. When positioning for a shot, keep in mind that woodcock often flush straight up into the air before choosing a direction. This is called helicoptering, and if you are close to the bird and especially if you are hunting with a partner, it is better to let the bird fly a short distance before taking a shot. You will learn quickly how to ignore trees and bushes as you shoot at flushing woodcock.
Woodcock season typically is open during December and January. Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific woodcock season dates, bag limits, and shooting hours.
Suggested Equipment: As you probably guessed, the shotgun is the only choice for woodcock hunting. The same type of gun used for quail hunting is appropriate for woodcock. Don't forget to make sure your shotgun is plugged to hold no more than three shells. You may want to consider using smaller shot sizes such as #8's or #9's. This may increase your odds of hitting a woodcock through thick cover. A good pair of rubber boots is essential since you will encounter a lot of shallow muddy water in woodcock habitat.
RAILS AND COMMON MOORHENS
The hunter who treks the salt marsh or the lake shore just to jump a secretive rail or a fussy moorhen is truly special. Florida is a good place to be if you are in this special category or if you have an inclination to join this select group of hunters. Few states have the abundance of salt and fresh water marsh and wetlands found in Florida. With a strong arm to pole the boat, rail and moorhen hunters can find nearly unlimited hunting opportunities.
Four rail species are legal to hunt in Florida including the clapper, king, Virginia, and sora. Rails as a group are secretive, marsh dwelling birds that feed on invertebrates (insects, crayfish, and fiddler crabs), fish, frogs, and some plant material. The clapper rail is a crow-sized bird that inhabits low tidal salt marsh. The king rail is a little larger than the clapper and prefers the wetlands associated with river floodplains. The Virginia and sora rails are smaller than the clapper and can be found in salt or fresh water marsh.
The clapper rail or "marsh hen" is probably the most popular rail for hunting. Traditional rail hunters watch for very high tides in the fall associated with a full or "harvest" moon or new moon. These high tides concentrate clapper rails onto higher ground where they are more accessible to hunters. Hunting success can be very high during these "marsh hen tides."
Common moorhens are in the rail family, but they are very different from their rail cousins. To start with, most rails prefer shallow water marshes; whereas, moorhens prefer deep water marshes. Moorhens primarily eat aquatic vegetation. Unlike rails, moorhens are not secretive. In fact, they border on obnoxious as they walk across lily pads and chatter at intruders in their territory.
The most common method for hunting rails and moorhens is poling or pushing a shallow-draft boat through marshes until a bird is spotted or flushed. This works best if you have one hunter in the front of the boat to do the shooting and one in the back to do the pushing. Another effective hunting strategy involves wading through marshes to flush birds. Because it can be very strenuous, this technique is for hunters who have a lot of energy and are in good physical condition.
Rail and moorhen season typically opens in early September and closes in early November. Hunters should contact the FWC each year to determine specific rail and moorhen season dates, bag limits, and shooting hours. Also, moorhen hunters should note that, except for coloration, common moorhens look similar to purple gallinules. Don't confuse the two during a hunt because it is not legal to shoot purple gallinules.
Suggested Equipment: The shotgun is the only choice for rail and moorhen hunting. Moorhens and the larger rails may require larger shot sizes such as #4's or #6's. Smaller shot sizes may be effective for the smaller rails. Keep in mind that you cannot be in possession of lead shot if you also are hunting waterfowl. Nontoxic shot that is effective for hunting rails and moorhens is available. If you elect to hunt by walking, you will surely need a good pair of rubber waders.