The whitetail deer is a survivor. From the forests of Appalachia to the valleys of the West and oceans of open-prairie in between, the whitetail has evolved to call virtually all of North America home. This broad territory not only makes the animal a great food source, it also offers hunters a dizzyingly diverse and challenging set of environments to go hunting in. If you are up for the effort, you can chase a whitetail into some of the roughest and most rugged and unforgiving country imaginable — places where humans have seldom tread and with good reason. The dense and swampy wilderness of South Florida is just such a place.
Celebrated for its chocolatey antlers and girthy size, the Seminole Whitetail is a sub-species of deer endemic to the region. Their rut season starts as early as the end of July when average daily temperatures push 95 degrees and humidity levels are regularly so thick that a Midwesterner might simply call it rain. Thunderheads threaten most afternoons and hurricanes are all too common. In short, the rules of the weather game in Florida are some of the most challenging on the continent.
“We are dealing with everything down here,” says SITKA Ambassador Mike Massey, a born-and-raised local.
“Alligators, mountain lions, bears, hurricanes, mosquitoes as big as pterodactyls. Bone dry weather one day and a foot of standing water the next. You name it, we’ve got it.”
And then there is the topography: flat as can be with virtually zero terrain funnels or elevated features to help a hunter get the upper hand. It is an unending patchwork of cypress strands and domes, exposed prairie, mangroves, mud, the occasional hardwood hammock, and everywhere you look, the vibrant and undulating greens of swamp country. After all, this is home to the Everglades. Just getting to your blind can feel like the adventure of your year.
Of course, with big challenges come equally big rewards — namely a full-sized Seminole. And it was the latter that brought a crew of whitetail faithful here last August for their maiden hunt in the swamp. For five days, Massey led the South Florida first-timers into a particularly brutal stretch of country north of Everglades National Park, putting their skills and gear to the test in the ultimate early season proving ground. Of course, to hear them tell it, these veteran hunters might as well have been on another planet. Nearly impenetrable forest and sweltering, body-soaking heat was the daily baseline. Struggle was synonymous with effort. Driving buggies in nearly two feet of water with alligators and snakes swimming by was a regular occurrence. Getting a clean look at a buck was not.
“It’s a harsh, buggy environment perfect for field testing,” explains SITKA Whitetail Product Line Manager Chris Derrick, whose job requires him to regularly seek out the most humbling hunting conditions imaginable. “We spent almost as much time stuck as we did in the stand. I’d say 90-95% of everything there was covered in water. From a comfort perspective, it is some of the worst stuff I have ever experienced. There was just no way you were going to stay dry.”
But it wasn’t a complete suffer-fest, according to the group. Was it worth it?
“Absolutely,” Derrick recalls with a laugh. “It was a fun trip and super productive from a gear-testing point of view. Everybody should do that hunt at least once in their life.”
As for the elusive whitetail, outdoor writer Michael R. Shea was the only member of the team to not go home empty-handed (although a few boars were bagged along the way). Par for the course on an early season deer hunt in South Florida.
“It’s a very hard time of year to pattern an animal,” Massey adds. “There is nothing easy about it. But to get a big buck down here, boy, you really have accomplished something. It is a feeling not like much else. I make sure I’m here every year for it just so I can try.”