Tackling Sunshine State Toms

Tackling Sunshine State Toms

These days, just about anywhere north of the Everglades offers some turkey-hunting options. But here's a look at areas that should have outstanding prospects for this spring.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

A lot of turkey hunters worried what the hurricanes of 2004 might do to the spring 2005 season. Brushes from three more storms in mid-September of last year raise the same question for spring 2006. Do they bode ill for hunting?

Relax and get ready for a good hunting season this spring! Larry Perrin, the turkey biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says our statewide gobbler population is alive and well.

"Overall, things seem to be doing pretty well with turkeys," Perrin assures. "Last year, we had some concerns about reproduction because of 2004's hurricanes. There wasn't too much direct impact on the turkeys, but the hurricanes could have influenced their nesting habitat. We heard mixed results, with some people saying, 'It was a good year,' and some saying, 'The hatch was down.' Overall, I'd say 2005 was at least an average year for nesting, and I think the picture is still pretty bright for us."

Perrin is relatively certain that there was little direct mortality of birds, based on turkeys in the Gainesville area, which he banded for a research project with the University of Florida.

"They came through pretty well," he notes. "Turkeys are hard to find if they are killed, so we never have any hard information on that. But it still doesn't seem like there was any direct mortality to any great extent. We were much more interested in effects on habitat and reproduction."

HOLMES COUNTY

One area that has concerned wildlife managers since the mid-1990s is Holmes County. During that decade, residents started telling the old Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission that turkeys had disappeared from the county. In 1997, the agency ran a survey of 29 bait sites in the county, during which they found no turkeys at all.

As a result, with the support of local hunters, the FWCC closed the 1998 season in Holmes County as part of an effort to restore turkeys to the area.

During the next two winters, biologists released a total of 121 turkeys at eight different release sites in the county.

"We do a survey every September," Perrin explains. "We have 28 bait sites that we run for 10 days each year, to get an idea of how those turkeys are doing and whether or not they're expanding throughout the county."

The project has been so successful that last year, biologists proposed reopening the turkey season in Holmes County.

"A three-day season will open up this spring, with a one-bird bag limit," says Perrins. "The season has been closed for only seven years, and that's phenomenal. The citizens of Holmes County really wanted this project to work, so they've been very protective of the turkeys and made sure there wasn't any poaching going on. They've also helped with the work of management. Most of the county is under private ownership, so most of the management has been done by the landowners."

In fact, surveys in the fall of 2005 looked so good that biologists feel that eventually, Holmes County can go back to a regular spring turkey season.

"I can't tell you how soon that will be," Perrin says. "We'll count again in September to see how things are going, and if they're looking pretty good we'll start heading in that direction."

THE EVERGLADES

Another ongoing project involves restoring a turkey population in the Everglades. In 1999, members of the Homestead Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation approached the FWCC and Everglades National Park about trying to reintroduce turkeys to the area. These birds would never be hunted, but simply be restored to the land where they originally lived.

At first, FWCC biologists were skeptical about the idea. Perrin admits that at the time, he could not imagine releasing turkeys in Everglades National Park.

"We went down and met to discuss the possibilities. We toured the area, and decided that while it's not ideal, it's certainly suitable," he recalls.

Starting in early 2000, biologists captured and released a number of birds into the park. There, however, things have not gone as well as they did in Holmes County.

"There are still some turkeys there, but they don't seem to be doing real well," Perrin admits. "It's a tough environment for them to live in, with kind of marginal turkey habitat. But we're not giving up on it."

For the birds, the problem is the habitat. The Everglades are primarily wetlands, of course, with little in the way of recognizable upland habitat.

"They're uplands for maybe six to eight months of the year," Perrin explains. "But if there's a big storm, that upland can get really wet. It's on the fringe of where the turkeys can survive. They're operating on the limit.

"We released the original birds in January of 2000 and they're still there, so that means they're reproducing," he continues. "They're hanging on, but their numbers aren't what we'd like to see. We think that if we can get a supplemental group of turkeys in there, they may create a viable population."

STATEWIDE ASSESSMENT

"Back in 2001, we did a distribution assessment," Perrin says, "and created a map that's on the Internet. It shows where turkeys are distributed around the state."

Now biologists are looking at habitat data to locate areas that have suitable habitat, but no turkeys.

"This information will help us identify other areas that could benefit from restoration, increased protection, or additional management," Perrin adds. "It's a project that will help us direct where we go in the future."

HUNTING PROSPECTS

So where are you going to bag your bird this year? Around the state, many Wildlife Management Areas hold good turkey populations. With that said, however, most of the areas with the better populations are managed under the Special Opportunity Hunt or the Quota Hunt systems. That's one factor that keeps the populations high. Both types of hunts are very popular, and rarely are there any permits left over.

If you don't have a permit for either type of hunt, don't wait until next spring and risk getting left out again. Permit applications become available each year

around Christmas, so make plans now to pick one up for the 2007 season.

Perrin offers some recommendations for good public hunts, based on hunters' success rates from 2005.

"Remember, it's not the total number of birds killed in any one area that's important," Perrin cautions. "It's how many days-per-turkey it took to harvest the ones that were taken. If you're looking at an area where it took 15 or fewer man-days to harvest a turkey, that's pretty good."

SOUTHWEST REGION

"Some of our better areas in the Southwest Region are Chassahowitzka, Hickory Hammock, and Kicco WMAs," Perrin predicts.

He points out that U.S. Highway 98 goes right along Chassahowitzka's eastern boundary. The habitat in that area is primarily sand hills, covered with longleaf pine, wiregrass and turkey oaks.

"There's a little bit of high ground close to the highway, but it drops off quickly into a big hardwood swamp," Perrin says. "Turkeys use both those areas, but it's hard to get around in that swamp. It's a big area, but a lot of it is hard to get to. Road access is very limited."

The FWCC is doing a lot of management that's good for turkeys, including clearing and controlled burns on the area to reduce understory vegetation. This project is funded by the NWTF.

Both Kicco and Hickory Hammock WMAs are on the Kissimmee River.

"Hickory Hammock has live-oak hammocks along the edge of the old Kissimmee River floodplain," Perrin points out. "There are also flatlands that tend toward wetlands, particularly as they restore the river system."

The habitat on Kicco is similar to that on Hickory Hammock.

"Kicco is a little farther north than Hickory Hammock, but has that same live-oak hammock area that borders the Kissimmee River floodplain," Perrin says.

SOUTH REGION

Here, Perrin suggests Dinner Island and Okaloacoochee Slough WMAs, as well as Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area.

He notes that "Dinner Island is a fairly new area. I don't know a lot about it. I think it was a working cattle operation, and the FWCC acquired it a few years ago. I know it has some forested aspect, probably with live oaks, and it did well on the turkey harvest last year."

Because "Okaloacoochee Slough WMA" is so hard to pronounce, it's more commonly known as just "OK Slough." It's located between LaBelle and Immokalee, very close to Dinner Island in Hendry and Collier counties, and is similar in habitat.

Dupuis WEA is on the eastern side of the South Region, east of Lake Okeechobee and adjacent to Corbett WMA.

"Dupuis is owned by the South Florida Water Management District," Perrin explains, "and our agency operates the hunts on the property. They're doing quite a bit of pretty intensive management, including prescribed burning and mowing, that benefits wildlife."

NORTHWEST REGION

Perrin says the best place for turkeys in the Northwest Region is Joe Budd WMA, in Gadsden County.

"On most of the other areas, hunter success is not that good," he notes, "and a lot of the areas are in pine-tree production, so management is limited."

Joe Budd WMA has a variety of habitats, containing flatwoods as well as upland hardwoods and river swamp, making it a great area for turkeys. The Little River runs through the area, and there is good bottomland habitat. There's also a good bit of relief, which is unusual for any part of Florida. The lowest point, along the edge of Lake Talquin, is about 70 feet above sea level, and the highest tops 160 feet.

The other area in this region where you might find some turkeys is on the Apalachicola National Forest. There, however, the turkey population varies greatly, depending on what kind of habitat you're in.

"The Apalachicola National Forest covers more than 500,000 acres," Perrin says. "There are huntable turkey populations in some areas of the forest. A lot of it is overgrown, with a lot of titi swamp. So overall, the hunter success rate on that area isn't that great."

NORTHEAST REGION

In the Northeast Region, Perrin likes Caravelle Ranch WMA, the Rima Ridge unit of Tiger Bay WMA, and Seminole Forest WMA.

"Seminole Forest has been around for a while," Perrin says. "Of the three, it's the oldest."

At one time, Caravelle Ranch was a working cattle operation, before the state purchased the tract for public hunting. You can still see evidence of its cattle-ranching past.

"On it, there are some old pasture lands that are good bugging areas," Perrin offers. "And the FWCC is maintaining those open areas. But in some areas, we're also putting trees back to provide cover habitat as well."

The turkeys on Caravelle Ranch are part of a research project that Perrin has been working on, together with the University of Florida.

"We were doing a lot of turkey trapping there," he says, "and we marked a lot of birds. We put radio transmitters and colored leg bands on them. If a hunter bags one of those birds, he can hang onto the band and find out where and when we caught the bird."

Because the biologists were doing so much work on the site, they know there are a lot of turkeys there.

"We banded 75 turkeys during the winter of 2004-05, which is a lot of birds to catch," Perrin says. "And there were a lot more turkeys there that they didn't catch."

If you do kill one of these birds, call the telephone number printed on the leg band to report the bird and learn more information about where it's been.

NORTH-CENTRAL REGION

Here, Perrin suggests taking a look at Camp Blanding, Jennings Forest, and Twin Rivers WMAs.

Since Camp Blanding is a Florida National Guard facility, it is best to check ahead before heading out to it. Sometimes, training exercises mandate closing portions of the WMA.

"It's open, but depending on what's going on in the world, that's subject to change," Perrin points out. "It's still a good area to hunt."

At Twin Rivers, biologists have been doing a good bit of management, including some cost-share projects with the NWTF to benefit turkeys. "So that area has gotten some extra attention," Perrin says.

At Jennings Forest a good bit of prescribed burning has taken place, which has led to an improved turkey hunting in the past few years.

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