Florida's Top Turkey Hunts

With two subspecies of wild turkeys and several million acres of public hunting land, the Sunshine State is a hunter's delight. Here's a look at this year's prospects for your Florida gobbler. (February 2007)

Photo by Ralph

The last day of turkey season dawned cool, with a high overcast. The gobbler I'd been closest to all year was one that had come up behind me mid-season. I had heard him, but never saw him. Prospects for my season did not look good. Because of a previous commitment, I only had until noon to score a bird.

Early that morning, I spent more than an hour flirting with a gobbler across the property line, to no avail. I knew there was a clearing over there. He sounded like he was moving up and down in that opening, gobbling hard -- but expecting the lovesick hen he thought he was hearing to come to him.

Around 9 a.m., when everything fell silent, I walked quietly up a road through the woods to the other end of the property. While I was walking, the sound of wings made me look up, just in time to see a gobbler sail over from somewhere behind me to the next property.

I quickly set up under a tree and called a few times, but never heard or saw him again.

As the morning waned, I moved back down the road and sat down at the edge of a small clearing about halfway between the two property lines. I called off and on a few times, but didn't hear so much as a rustle in the leaves to indicate that there were any birds around.

About a quarter to 12, I gave one last half-hearted call. Five minutes later, getting no answer, I got up and walked the short distance back out to the woods road. As I stood looking down it, some tiny noise behind me made me turn my head.

A magnificent gobbler was just clearing the tops of the trees. He settled onto the ground about 10 yards in front of where I had been sitting three minutes before.

Looking around for the "hen" he had heard, the gobbler turned. We looked each other in the eye. We both hesitated a split second. Then I swung around and tried to get my shotgun up and trained on the bird.

At the same instant, he gave a little hop and was back in the air, disappearing over the trees just as I got the gun to my shoulder.

That day, I learned a valuable lesson: Just because you can't hear a turkey, that doesn't mean he isn't there.

SUNSHINE STATE

TURKEY HUNTING

The state turkey biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) is Larry Perrin. Although there is no annual assessment of turkey stocks done in Florida, he feels that prospects for the 2007 spring season are good.

"We don't do any kind of formal survey, so our information comes from statewide harvest information and from just talking to people about what they're seeing," Perrin said. "Based on those things, I say we're really looking pretty good.

"Last spring, for the most part, the state had an above-average hatch," he explained. "We saw birds being hatched early, all the way through the summer with late hatches. We had a dry spring for the most part, although it was a little wetter in the south. I'm hearing reports of people not seeing quite the number of birds there that were seen in the central and northern parts of the state."

Of course, those poult reports don't mean much for the 2007 season. Those birds have an impact on the season until 2008.

"The birds that were hatched last year will be jakes this spring," Perrin agreed. "Next year, there should be a bumper crop of two-year-old, good-gobbling birds. Of course, we've had good hatches all along, so I expect 2007 to be fine also."

HOLMES COUNTY

At this point, a note about Holmes County is in order. If you've followed this story at all, you already know that the FWCC closed Holmes to turkey hunting in 1998 because turkeys had virtually disappeared from the area. Over the past few years, biologists have released 121 turkeys at eight different sites within the county.

"We've monitored the turkey population each year by doing an annual bait-station survey to see how well those turkeys expanded and the population increased around the county," Perrin explained. "After the last couple of surveys, the counts were doing really well, so we put in a rule proposal to open up a limited spring turkey hunt."

So in 2006, for the first time in almost a decade, Holmes County had a short turkey season.

"We opened Holmes County to turkey hunting this past spring for a three-day hunt," Perrin said, adding that he thought it was very successful.

"We don't have a good way of monitoring the total harvest for the county, but there is one management area in the county. There were 10 permits available for that management area. Six people showed up, and five of the six killed turkeys. The sixth person got a shot and missed. That's excellent turkey hunting."

Holmes County is coming along very well, and biologists are continuing to monitor the flock.

TWO SUBSPECIES

If you hunt turkeys in Florida, you have the best of two worlds. Without leaving the state, you can hunt two subspecies of turkeys, the Eastern and the Osceola.

Hunters in the Northeast Region have it even better; they can hunt both within a few miles of each other.

The somewhat arbitrary line separating the Eastern and Osceola subspecies starts on the east coast in Nassau County, at the Nassau and Duval county line. The FWCC has drawn the line to follow the boundary of Duval County and pass through Bradford County. Then it generally follows the northern county lines of Union, Alachua, Gilchrist, and Dixie counties. To the south of that line, all turkeys are considered to be Osceolas; to the north, they're Easterns.

However, biology is never that clear-cut. You shouldn't assume that just because a turkey is on one side of that line, that it's really any different from its kinfolk on the other side of the line. The division between subspecies of any animal is somewhat subjective, and based mostly on physical appearance.

Turkeys in central and south Florida do look different enough from birds in the northern part of the state that early taxonomists designated them as a different subspecies. As you move north and west in the state, the appearance of the birds gradually changes.

Turkeys in the middle of the state have an appearance that's somewhere in between that of the turkeys in south Florida and turkeys in north Florida and south Georgia.

Biologists have drawn a dividing line for trophy purposes, but it's really the geographic location of any particular turkey that determines whether that bird is an Eastern or an Osceola turkey. Under this scenario, a turkey could be an Eastern on one day, and fly across the river and be an Osceola the next.

In fact, there's a lot of variation among birds within a subspecies, and hunters quite often can't tell the difference. If you put 100 Osceolas in one pen and 100 Easterns in another, even many biologists couldn't look at them and tell which pen is which.

What's the difference? Osceolas are generally darker in color overall. That's especially true on the long wing feathers, where they have more black than white on the wing bars.

The Osceola is more streamlined and "racy" in appearance than an Eastern. Osceolas actually tend to be skinny. Down on the Big Cypress, adult gobblers only weigh 12 to 15 pounds. North Florida Easterns regularly reach weights of 18 to 20 pounds.

WHERE TO HUNT

If you're fortunate enough to have private land to hunt on, you already know where you're going to look for your bird this year. But if you don't, then finding the right spot on public land can be a time-consuming challenge.

Based on 2006 harvest data from the state's Wildlife Management and Wildlife and Environmental Areas, Perrin suggested that the following tracts may be the best places to target during 2007. The figures he used are the number of birds killed on each area, as well as the man-days of hunting pressure on each area.

Man-days are not the same as the number of hunters using the WMA or WEA. Rather, each man-day represents one day of hunting by a single hunter on that property. If that hunter stays in the woods for three days, he has generated three man-days of pressure. This provides a more accurate picture of actual hunting effort and success rates.

Perrin noted that some of these areas are not very large, so the number of hunters allowed on them is quite limited. However, if you're fortunate enough to be able to get onto a smaller area, your chances of coming home with a bird are quite good.

LAKE WALES RIDGE WEA

Royce Unit

Perrin pointed out that the Royce Unit that covers 2639 acres in Highlands County had a very high success rate in 2006. Eight turkeys were harvested in a total of 15 man-days of pressure. That means hunters invested only 1.9 days of hunting for each bird harvested.

"There aren't a lot of hunters drawn for the area," Perrin admitted. "But when you get drawn for an area like this, you have a high rate of success.

"In fact, there are only five permits available for each of two hunts, so only 10 hunters get a crack at this area for spring turkey season.

HICKORY HAMMOCK WMA

On this area, the 2006 harvest was eight birds. The hunting pressure amounted to 17 man-days, which worked out to one bird for 2.1 days of effort.

Hickory Hammock WMA covers 3,791 acres, lies in Highlands County and is located on the Kissimmee River. The area contains a number of live oak hammocks along the edge of the old Kissimmee River floodplain. This flat terrain tends toward wetlands, and even more so since the river system is being restored to its old course.

CROOM WMA

This 20,595-acre area is located in Hernando and Sumter counties. The habitat is mainly pine and palmetto with a river swamp.

At Croom, hunters took 10 birds in 22 days of hunting, or 2.2 man-days per gobbler.

SEMINOLE FOREST WMA

Lake Tracy Unit

On the Lake Tracy Unit, hunters needed 23 man-days to harvest seven turkeys. This works out to 3.3 man-days per bird.

The Lake Tracy Unit covers 4,106 acres in Lake County.

KICCO WMA

At Kicco, hunters took a total of 19 gobblers in 91 man-days of hunting, for a 4.8 man-day average.

Kicco WMA is along the Kissimmee River in Polk and Osceola counties and extends across 7,426 acres. The habitat is composed of the old river flood plain.

CARAVELLE RANCH WMA

The harvest on this public tract was composed of 33 toms. It took 163 man-days of pressure to produce those birds. That means that hunters here needed an average of 4.9 days to get a gobbler.

At one time, Caravelle Ranch was a working cattle operation. Hunters can still see evidence of the tract's ranching past. There are some old pasturelands that are good bugging areas for the turkeys, and the FWCC is maintaining those open areas.

The total area covers 26,422 acres in Putnam and Marion counties.

CREW WEA

At Crew, hunters needed 35 days of effort to harvest seven birds, for an average rate of 5 man-days per bird.

This is a fairly new area, located in Lee and Collier counties. It sprawls across 28,540 acres, and is adjacent to the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

HILOCHEE WMA

On this tract, the harvest was just four gobblers in 23 days of hunting, for 5.75 man-days average per turkey. The area straddles the Polk and Lake county line, and covers 9,369 acres.

THREE LAKES WMA

Prairie Lake Unit

In the Prairie Lakes Unit, hunters took a total of 21 birds in 131 man-days of hunting. This works out to one bird for every 6.2 days of effort.

This WMA is located on 8,859 acres in Osceola County, amid lakes Kissimmee, Jackson and Marian. The area has plenty of hardwoods and wetland swamps for birds.

DINNER ISLAND

RANCH WMA

On this public property, hunters needed 87 days of hunting to take 13 birds, or 6.7 man-days to get one bird.

Dinner Island Ranch is a fairly new area located in Hendry County. At 21,714 acres, it's one of the larger areas on this list.

HALF MOON WMA

Half Moon is traditionally one of the state's better turkey hunting areas. Here, the harvest was 23 birds in 158 days of hunting, or one bird in 6.9 man-days of hunting.

At only 9,400 acres, Half Moon lies entirely in Sumter County. The Withlacoochee River forms the western boundary of the tract, which means there's an associated river swamp on the area.

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