Florida’s turkey hunters have an advantage over most turkey hunters across the nation. Without leaving the state, they can hunt two subspecies of turkey: the Eastern in the Panhandle and Big Bend, and the Osceola in southern Florida. That means a lot of opportunity for hot gobbling action no matter where in they state you choose to go.
Roger Shields is the state turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Although there is no annual detailed statewide assessment of turkey stocks done in Florida, Shields feels that 2013 will be comparable to the season hunters experienced during 2012.
“This spring should be pretty similar to the past few years,” he said. “We’ve been a little bit off from our peak harvest in 2008, but we haven’t been off by much. It hasn’t been substantial.”
Overall, Shields said, 2013 should be a good year, although last year’s weather may affect the 2014 season in some areas across the state.
“With all the rain we had at the beginning of the summer, including Tropical Storm Debby, we received reports of reduced numbers of poults this year, particularly in the central portion of the state,” Shields said. “However, that just means that there are fewer juveniles out there during 2013, and it won’t affect turkey hunters until the spring of 2014 when they would be adults.”
Reproduction in the Panhandle, Shields said, seems to have been pretty normal.
“There, we had heavy rains during the latter part of the summer,” he said. “But the poults were old enough during that time that it the rains shouldn’t have affected them.”
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Although the FWC doesn’t conduct any kind of an annual population assessment of turkeys, biologists do send out an annual mail survey that they use to establish harvest levels each year. If you receive this survey from FWC, your response is important. The information you send it is part of what biologists use to establish season dates and bag limits.
Shields said that based on the mail survey, the 2012 season appears to have been a good one for hunters, in part because of an early spring.
“By and large, hunters had pretty good success, so I expect that harvest numbers will go up just a bit from what they were in 2011,” he said.
Across the Southeast, Shields said, a number of states have reported declining numbers of turkeys.
“I don’t know that that applies to Florida,” he said. “In terms of numbers, I think we have a high population statewide. When we stopped allowing the harvest of hens we really released the population statewide, and it’s been increasing ever since. I’m not hearing of any areas that are having any critical issues. I’d say we have as many turkeys in the state right now as we’ve ever had.”
Shields said, however, that he’s keeping an eye on turkey numbers because of the trend other Southeastern states are seeing.
“I’m particularly watching the Panhandle,” he said. “The declines are a bit of a checkerboard. That is, some states are seeing it and some aren’t.”
Since some of the declines have been fairly steep, Shields said, it’s prudent for biologists to pay close attention to what Florida’s turkey population is doing.
For the past couple of years, biologists have been working on a 10-year assessment of Florida’s turkey population overall. Shields said that assessment is almost completed.
“We didn’t get as full a coverage of the state as we hoped,” he said. “As a result, we’ve spent some time modeling the data to fill in the blank spots. In terms of the results, it seems that in the ten years since the last assessment, we haven’t seen anything real alarming in either increases or decreases.”
The exception to this is Holmes County, which has been a wild turkey success story.
“In the 2001 assessment, which was soon after we did the restoration project, turkeys were showing up only in the rivers and in little pockets where we had released birds,” Shields said. “Now turkeys are pretty well distributed throughout the county. That reflects what we’re seeing on the ground when we do bait station camera surveys.”
The Holmes County project has been a huge success, and has returned turkeys to a broad area where they had been largely extirpated.
Two years ago, the FWC began offering a youth turkey hunt on private land, which runs the week before regular turkey season begins. The following year more than 70 of the state’s WMAs opened a week early for a youth turkey hunt. Shields said these hunts have been well received, but he thinks that many hunters don’t yet know about them.
“The youth hunts are still kind of new,” he said. “We didn’t seem to get a real big turnout last year. I took my son to a local area on the youth weekend, and we were the only ones who hunted the area. The folks who went seemed to enjoy it, and to have a good time, but a lot of permits never even got issued. I hope that as word gets out, hunters start to take advantage of those hunts. It’s an opportunity that isn’t getting used to the fullest yet.”
Shields said that on many areas where youth hunts are being offered, quota numbers are lower than during the regular turkey season to be sure that youth hunters have a high quality experience.
“We offer the youth hunts only on areas where we feel that there’s a strong population of turkeys so that the kids have a good chance of at least seeing and hearing birds,” he said.
WHERE ARE THEY?
As we said, depending on where you hunt in the state, you can take either an eastern turkey or an Osceola turkey, or both if you move around. The line biologists generally use to distinguish which turkey is which runs roughly northeast to southwest across the north-central part of the state.
This isn’t to say that there’s a line in the sand and the turkeys on one side of it are easterns and on the other side are Osceolas. Rather, this line roughly follows an “intergrade,” which is the area in which the two subspecies mix. For record keeping purposes, the FWC has drawn a line based on biologists’ best estimate of where the separation between the two subspecies occurs. Generally, Osceolas are considered to occur south of but not including Taylor, Lafayette, Suwannee, Columbia, Baker, and Nassau counties.
Biologists always have a hard time making recommendations for private land, and even with the statewide assessment in place, Shields said, selecting top counties is difficult. Nonetheless, he made some suggestions about where to look for your gobbler if you are lucky enough to have access to private land.
“I tend to think about the Northeast for private land,” he said. “I base that on the fact that several years back we were getting quite a few calls about too many turkeys, and that large flocks were getting into farm fields and causing some depredation problems.”
The region Shields referred to was south of Jacksonville, and around the St. Augustine area.
“It seems like we have strong numbers of birds in that portion of the state,” he said. “That would include Clay, Putnam, and St. Johns counties.”
“Although our mail survey indicated that there are a good number of birds there, they tend to get concentrated into the strips of forested habitat along the rivers,” Shields said.
If you can get onto public land with wetlands or riverine habitat, then, the big ranchlands can be fairly productive. If all you have access to is open pasture, however, you might be better off looking somewhere else for your bird.
Looking at absolute numbers, Shields said, two counties stand out.
“In terms of just straight harvest by county, Osceola and Volusia come out with the highest total harvest,” he said. “You have to factor in the fact that those counties may have more hunters. This may not reflect the highest kill per hunter. It’s just total harvest.”
When you look at hunter success, a different picture emerges.
“If you look at kill per hunter, the best counties are Dade, Sarasota, Okeechobee and Osceola,” Shields said. “Those are the counties with the highest rate of hunter success.”
When it comes to public land, the state’s WMAs can be divided into three groups, depending on how they’re hunted: those with unlimited access and maximum hunting opportunity, those managed under the Quota Hunt system, and those where hunting is limited to Special Opportunity Hunts only. At this point in the year, unless you already have a permit for an area that’s managed under the Quota Hunt system, or a permit for a Special Opportunity hunt, you’re going to be limited to those areas that allow walk-in hunting without a permit.
“Looking back over the past three to four years, it seems again like the areas in the Northeast Region and the Southwest Region are the strongest,” Shields said. “That’s where they majority of the strong public areas occur.” Again, many of the best areas either are under quota or are in the Special Opportunity system, but in those regions we still can pick out several areas that are open for hunting without a permit.
“One good non-quota area is Three Lakes WMA,” Shields said.
Three Lakes is a large area—in excess of 63,000 acres—located entirely in Osceola County. The Youth Turkey Hunt takes place on March 9 and 10. The regular spring turkey season follows, and runs March 16 through April 21.
“Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA also does fairly well,” Shields said.
This area also is in Osceola County, but is quite a bit smaller than Three Lakes. It encompasses a little more than 23,000 acres. The Youth Turkey Hunt will be held on March 9 and 10, and regular spring turkey season runs March 16 through April 21.
Shields said some smaller areas also are reasonable areas to look for turkeys.
“Upper Hillsborough WMA and Jumper Creek WMA are good,” he said. “Both of those are kind of small areas, but they do fairly well consistently.”
Upper Hillsborough is located not in Hillsborough County, as the name would suggest, in Pasco and Polk counties. This 5100-acre area is the watershed in which the Hillsborough River arises.
Turkey season on this area is on weekends only, and runs March 20 and 21, 27 and 28, April 3 and 4, 10 and 11, and 17 and 18. A free permit is required to hunt on Upper Hillsborough WMA. You can pick up your permit at the check station as you enter. Hunters on this area can use only archery equipment and shotguns. See the WMA brochure for other specific regulations.
“In the Northwest, Joe Budd is pretty strong,” Shields said. This Gadsden County area covers more than 11,000 acres, is restricted to primitive weapons, either muzzleloaders or bows, and is on a first come-first served basis. You don’t have to draw a permit, but you do have to get there early if you’re going to get the zone tag you need to hunt on the area.
The Youth Turkey Hunt is March 9 and 10, and regular turkey season is March 16 through April 21, on Saturdays and Sundays only.
In the South Region, Shields said J. W. Corbett gets a lot of use, but also produces a decent number of turkeys every year.
“Hunters get a lot of birds off there year after year,” he said.
This is a very large area that comprises more than 60,000 acres. It’s located in Palm Beach County and is contiguous with the Dupuis WEA. Dates for the Youth Turkey Hunt are February 23 and 24. The regular turkey season starts March 2 and goes through April 7, on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays only.