Sunshine State Gobbler Time

Sunshine State Gobbler Time

No matter how short winter is, it always seems too long to turkey hunters. At the first sign of spring, they are in the woods, listening for the birds to gobble, trying to identify roosts, and looking for places in which to set up a good blind that's close to the birds, but not too close.

To find out what the prospects are for turkey hunting statewide this spring, we talked to Larry Perrin, the turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN HOLMES COUNTY?

Several years ago, the FWCC started on an ambitious project to restore the turkey population in Holmes County, in the Panhandle. If you've followed the Holmes County project at all, you remember that residents started telling state wildlife managers back in the mid-1990s that their turkeys had disappeared. In 1997, the FWCC ran a survey of bait sites in the county; the results were very disappointing. Biologists then talked with hunters in Holmes and surrounding counties to see if they'd be willing to accept a closed turkey season for a while as part of an effort to restore turkeys in the area.

The hunters were very willing, so in 1998 Holmes County was closed to turkey hunting. During the next two winters, biologists stocked the county with a total of 121 turkeys at eight different release sites.

"We finished our stocking in January or February of 2000," Perrin recalled. "Now we're in the monitoring phase. Prior to our stocking, we didn't have any turkeys show up at any of our 28 bait sites. Then in September of 2000, we recorded turkeys at three of the bait sites."

A year later, FWCC biologists ran another bait station survey. This time they found turkeys at seven of the 28 sites.

That upward trend continued into 2004, and at this point biologists consider the Holmes County project a success. In fact, they have proposed what a couple of years ago was unthinkable: a short season for turkey hunting in Holmes County.

"We've been monitoring the population ever since we released the birds," Perrin said. "The population has continued to expand throughout the county and has continued to increase."

In September of 2003, there were turkeys at half the bait sites.

"When we saw birds at half the bait sites, that was sort of the trigger," he continued. "That tells us they're doing well. Now we're looking pretty hard at opening it up to turkey hunting. In terms of a restoration project, this has happened quickly."

Biologists proposed three possible season lengths for the spring of 2006 and offered the proposals to the hunters and citizens of Holmes County during a public meeting in July of 2004.

"We wanted to be conservative in our approach, so what we wanted was a limited spring turkey hunt with no fall hunting," Perrin explained. "We suggested three options; one was a three-day hunt, one was a nine-day hunt, and one was a 16-day hunt. Because of public input, we decided to go with the three-day hunt. Some of the people who turned out still expressed concern with any hunting at this point, but by having a very limited spring hunt where we harvest gobblers only, from a biological standpoint there shouldn't be any impact at all from hunting."

Just because the season has been proposed, however, doesn't mean it's necessarily going to take place. The FWCC won't take any action on the proposal until their February meeting, which should be just about the time you are reading this story.

WHAT ABOUT HURRICANES?

With last year's extremely active hurricane season, a natural question that comes to mind is if or how that weather affected gobblers statewide. Perrin said those storms have an effect on the turkey population.

"The impacts will be mostly local, and probably relatively short term," he offered. "In places where there was downed timber, it's important to get that cleaned up as fast as possible. That can create a fire hazard, and it can interfere with future management if you can't get in there and do a prescribed burn because you're worried about the fuel load. So it's important that landowners get the debris cleaned up so they can get back on their regular management schedule and keep the vegetation relatively open for the turkeys."

He went on to say that it is very hard for biologists to document what kind of direct mortality hurricanes cause for turkeys.

"We have a research project going on with the University of Florida, and they have radio-tagged birds at Caravelle Ranch, south of Palatka, and on the Ordway Preserve, close to Melrose," Perrin noted. "None of those birds were impacted by Charley."

One mystery is where the birds go during a storm of the magnitude of a hurricane, but since it's not safe for researchers to track the birds in that kind of weather, it's a question that will likely remain unanswered for the foreseeable future.

However, the impact of storms such as hurricanes on turkeys during the late summer is probably pretty minimal.

"The poults that hatched during the spring and early summer are pretty good-sized birds, and they can tolerate quite a bit," Perrin said. "However, if an area gets flooded, the birds are going to move to adjacent uplands, so there will be some dispersal and they may end up in places that aren't the best for them. They're impacted by storms, without a doubt, but they're also tough, resilient birds, and hurricanes have always been a part of the climate and ecology of Florida, so they can handle it."

SEASON DATES

As it always does, spring turkey season this year starts earlier in the South Zone than it does in the Central and Northwest zones, and of course it varies somewhat on some of the individual wildlife management areas (WMAs). In the South, the season runs from March 5 through April 10; farther north it runs March 19 through April 24.

"The earlier dates in the South Management Zone have to do with the onset of gobbling," Perrin said. "While we haven't done a specific study to identify the date when gobbling starts, it's pretty well documented that it starts earlier in the southern part of the state. We have a long spring season, and we wanted to be sure the season overlaps the peak gobbling period."

Of course, he says, gobbling behavior is quite variable and is affected by sunlight, weather and other factors. But by having an earlier season in the south, the FWCC hopes to provide hunters with a quality hunting experience statewide.

WHERE TO HUNT

Many WMAs offer turkey hunting, but most of the areas with t

he best turkey populations are managed under the Special Opportunity Hunt system or the Quota Hunt system. That is part of the reason those areas maintain good populations. If you applied and received a permit for either of these types of hunts, you are set for the season. Both types of hunts are popular, and there are rarely permits left over.

If you don't have a permit, better start planning for next season right now. Permit applications are available sometime around Christmas each year. Fill one out and you may get a crack at the birds on one of those better hunts in 2006.

That doesn't mean that you don't have a shot at a turkey on public land this year, however. There are some WMAs that are open for walk-up hunts.

Perrin said that by taking a look at the harvest data for these public tracts and matching those numbers with hunter success, you can get a good idea of where your best bets are for bagging a gobbler.

"I generally like to get an idea of a WMA's relative performance by considering its 'hunter success' for turkeys," Perrin said. "For example, Andrews WMA had 12 turkeys harvested with 102 days of hunting pressure; thus its hunter success would be 102 divided by 12, for 8.5 hunter-days per turkey, which is a good success rate."

By doing the same calculation for all the WMAs, we can get a snapshot look at hunting prospects on WMAs statewide.

Joe Budd WMA

Joe Budd WMA, located in Gadsden County, is an area with a variety of habitats. The tract's 11,039 acres contain flatwood-type habitat, as well as upland hardwoods and river swamp, making it a great area for turkeys.

The Little River runs through the WMA, providing some of the bottomland. There's also a good bit of relief in the area, which is unusual for Florida. The lowest point is about 70 feet above sea level along the edge of Lake Talquin, and the highest elevation is around 160 feet.

Biologists have planted a number of food plots on this tract.

To hunt turkeys on Joe Budd, you need a daily hunt permit. There are a total of 20 permits available on a first come, first served basis at the check station. During the spring turkey hunt, Joe Budd is divided into seven zones. Zones A, B, C, D, F and G are limited to three hunters each, and Zone E allows only two. Zone tags are available at the check station when you pick up your daily permit.

Spring turkey season on Joe Budd runs March 19 through April 24, Saturdays and Sundays only. Last year hunters took a total of 17 turkeys off Joe Budd during 200 man-days of effort. That works out to 12.5 days for each turkey taken.

Aucilla WMA

Located in Jefferson and Taylor counties, Aucilla WMA covers more than 47,500 acres. The Aucilla and Wacissa rivers run through the area, along with several sloughs. These provide a lot of river swamp terrain. The WMA is only 12 miles from Tallahassee, so it is easily reached by and popular with Capitol City hunters.

Spring turkey season on Aucilla WMA is March 19 through April 24. If you enter the area through the Western Sloughs check station, be sure to stop and pick up a mandatory daily hunt permit.

Last year hunters killed eight turkeys on Aucilla during 109 man-days of hunting, for a hunter success rate of 13.6 days per turkey.

Arbuckle WMA

At 13,531 acres, Arbuckle WMA is a medium-sized tract located in the heart of Polk County. It's on the southwest shore of Lake Arbuckle and also has smaller Lake Godwin entirely within its boundaries. In addition, Reedy, Livingston and Isabell creeks all run through the property, so there's plenty of water for turkeys.

Access to the area is quite good, with School Bus Road running through the center of it.

One word of caution is in order, however. There is a substantial block of private land within the boundaries of the WMA. Check the map in the WMA brochure and use caution to prevent straying onto private land while hunting this area.

Spring turkey season on Arbuckle WMA runs March 22-24 and April 5-7. A daily hunt permit is required on this area during turkey season. Ten daily permits are available on a first come, first served basis at the School Bus Road check station.

Last year hunters killed two turkeys on the area during 39 days of hunting, for a success rate of 19.5 man-days per turkey.

Hickory Mound Unit

Big Bend WMA

The Hickory Mound Unit is another medium-sized property spanning more than 14,400 acres in Taylor County. It is adjacent to the Big Bend Aquatic Preserve Marsh Buffer, so as you might think, it's swampy. However, there are a number of roads into the area, so access should be fairly decent as long as the weather is reasonably dry.

Spring turkey season is open on the Hickory Mound Unit from March 19 through April 24. Daily hunt permits are available at the check station on a first come, first served basis.

Last year hunters killed six gobblers on the tract during 142 man-days of effort, for a hunter success rate of 23.7 days per bird.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes is a huge 52,900-acre WMA located in Osceola County on the east side of Lake Kissimmee. Lake Marian is on the south side of the area, and Lake Jackson is entirely within its borders. As a result, the area has a lot of riverine swamp that turkeys love.

Access to the interior of Three Lakes WMA is good, with a number of forest roads crossing the area. The Florida Turnpike and the Florida Trail both traverse the area, so caution should be exercised when hunting near either. In addition, there are several small areas that are closed to hunting. Consult the WMA brochure for more information.

Spring turkey season is open on Three Lakes WMA from March 19 through April 24. No daily hunt permit is required for this area. Last year hunters killed 109 turkeys on Three Lakes during 2,706 man-days in the woods. That works out to a hunter success rate of 25.3 man-days per bird.

Upper Hillsborough WMA

Located in northern Polk County adjacent to the Pasco County line, this 5,178-acre area contains some of the headwaters of the Hillsborough River. The area is easily accessible from State Route 54, 2 1/2 miles east of Zephyrhills.

There is a campground just inside the main gate and an improved road you can drive in on. A number of unimproved foot-traffic-only roads traverse the interior of the area as well, and a railroad cuts across it.

Spring turkey season on Upper Hillsborough runs March 23 through April 21 on Wednesdays and Thursdays only. You must have a daily hunt permit while on the WMA. Seventy-five daily permits are available at the check station for each two-day period on a first come, first served basis.

Last year hunters killed 12 turkeys during 309 man-days of hunting. That works out to 25.8 man-days of effort for each bird.

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