The Florida turkey season is fast approaching in the Sunshine State. Let’s see how this year’s hunting stacks up and find the best places in which to pursue your wild turkey.
Spring is finally here, at least in the south of the state. If you’ve been out scouting, you have likely heard the wild, woods-rattling gobble you have been waiting almost a year to hear. Spring turkey season is just around the corner.
Where will you go to get your gobbler? To find out what the prospects are for turkeys this spring, we talked to Larry Perrin, the turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC).
Perrin says both the eastern and Osceola subspecies of turkeys in the state seem to be doing fairly well.
“This last spring was a wetter spring than we’ve had in recent times,” he notes. “That may have reduced reproduction somewhat. Since we don’t do any statewide surveys here in Florida, we don’t have any data on that, but from what we know about turkey nesting behavior, they don’t do as well in wet springs as they do in dry.”
However, Perrin adds, the overall population of birds is good.
“Even if you don’t have good nesting success one year, there are still a lot of hens out there, so you’re doing to have pretty good reproduction,” he explains. “As far as I know, the overall turkey population wouldn’t be affected by one year of wet weather.”
Weather, of course, is not the only factor that affects the rise and fall of turkey populations in the state.
“Quite often you see cycles in turkey populations,” Perrin says. “These cycles can be associated with weather or with food sources. Or there can be diseases or predator influences. All these things can influence turkey populations. But weather conditions, especially with respect to rainfall during the nesting season, are typically the most critical aspect of factors that affect turkey populations.”
WHAT ABOUT HOLMES COUNTY?
Several years ago, the FWCC started an ambitious project to restore the turkey population in the Panhandle’s Holmes County. Resident hunters started telling the old Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission back in the mid-1990s that their turkeys had disappeared. In 1997, the FWCC ran a survey of 29 bait sites in the county, during which they found no turkeys at all. 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 the birds in the area.
The hunters were very willing, so in 1998 turkey hunting was banned in Holmes County. 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 says. “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 sites.”
A year later, in September 2001, FWCC biologists ran another bait station survey. This time they found turkeys at seven of the 28 bait sites.
“In September 2002, we found turkeys at eight of the bait sites,” Perrin adds.
This means the turkeys the FWCC released seem to have become established and to be spreading to other areas in the county.
“We should see how well the turkeys distribute throughout the county, so that we can determine when we have a huntable population,” Perrin says. “We’d like to reopen Holmes County to turkey hunting. I think we’re well on our way to achieving that goal.”
Perrin doesn’t have any idea yet when hunters will be able to go for gobblers in Holmes County, however.
“We’re starting to talk about ‘what if’ situations, and what defines a huntable population,” he notes. “Right now what I’m thinking is that if we get turkeys showing up in at least half the bait sites, and those are bait sites scattered throughout the county, then we need to entertain the idea of opening it up for some limited hunting. We’re not there yet, but we’ll take a look at the most recent data and see where we go from there. I don’t know exactly what to expect in the way of a timeline, but things are progressing really well. We’re going to move slow and take our time with it.”
As it always does, spring turkey season this year starts earlier in the South Zone than in the Central and Northwest zones, and it varies somewhat on some of the individual wildlife management areas (WMAs). In the south, the season runs from March 6 through April 11; farther north it runs March 20 through April 25.
“The earlier dates in the South Management Zone have to do with the onset of gobbling,” Perrin points out. “While we haven’t done a specific study to identify a 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, 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 provides hunters with a quality hunting experience statewide.
WHERE TO HUNT?
Statewide, many WMAs hold good turkey populations. However, Perrin says, there are several that hunters definitely should take a look at.
“Out of the Northwest, Blue Water Creek, in Escambia County, and Joe Budd are both pretty good areas,” Perrin advises.
Joe Budd WMA, located in Gadsden County, is an area with a variety of habitats. Biologists have planted a number of food plots on this tract. Its 10,500 acres contain flatwoods habitat, as well as upland hardwoods and river swamp, making it a great habitat for turkeys.
Blue Water Creek WMA, a 21,000-acre area in Escambia County, is under the Recreational Use Permit system, so it costs a little more to get onto than on other public properties. However, biologists have planted food plots on the area, and there are a lot of turkeys there.
The Central Zone offers a wealth of turkey hunting opportunities.
“Jennings Forest and Camp Blanding, in the North Central Region, tend to be good areas year in and year out,” Perrin notes.
Camp Blanding WMA has a good mix of upland pine and turkey oak habitat, with several streams and hardwood bottoms crossing through the area. That creates a good mix for turkeys. There’s also a very aggressive prescribed burning plan on the area, which is also used for National Guard training. The area’s 56,000-plus acres are entirely in Clay County.
The FWCC has been doing some summer burning on Jennings Forest WMA, which is also located in Clay County. These summer burns are very helpful for turkeys and habitat restoration, making this an increasingly productive area for the birds. The habitat is mostly upland, but the WMA also drops down into the Black Creek valley, which is one of the major drainages in the area. This 20,600-acre WMA provides a mix of pines and hardwoods on which the turkeys really thrive.
“Caravelle Ranch WMA didn’t have a real high harvest last year, but they’ve got a ton of turkeys in there,” Perrin says. “Caravelle Ranch is one of the study sites for a research project we have going on with the University of Florida. We’ve banded a lot of turkeys there.
“It’s kind of a sleeper area. If you looked at the harvest data you’d think it wasn’t very good, but that’s just because the turkeys didn’t cooperate. They’re sure there.”
Caravelle Ranch has an extensive river swamp, so it has lots of good habitat for turkeys. The area sprawls across more than 24,000 acres in Putnam and Marion counties.
Perrin also says that Half Moon WMA is a pretty good area. This is one of the state’s smaller WMAs, at slightly more than 9,000 acres. A small portion of the north end of the area is closed, and there are some small tracts of private land inside the WMA. The area is bordered by the Withlachoochee River on the west, and it has a number of riverine swamps on both the western edge and the north. Biologists consider this one of the best WMAs in the region.
“Then there are Three Lakes and Prairie Lakes,” Perrin adds. “Prairie Lakes is a unit of Three Lakes, and both of those are good traditional areas.”
Three Lakes WMA is a huge 52,900-acre area 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.
Prairie Lakes Unit is separated from the main portion of Three Lakes WMA and covers 8,800 acres located entirely in Osceola County. It lies between lakes Jackson and Marian, so much of the area is river swamp.
Don’t overlook Tosohatchee WMA as a place for finding a gobbler. This 30,700-acre tract in Orange County can be a hard area to hunt because it’s so big. The floodplain marsh transitions into sections of hammocks. If you’re willing to get deep into the area, you have a better chance of finding a trophy-sized gobbler. The St. Johns River forms the eastern boundary of the WMA.
“In west-central Florida, Green Swamp remains a pretty good area,” Perrin also emphasizes.
Green Swamp WMA is particularly interesting because it has a mixture of habitat types. The Withlacoochee River flows through it, so it has good bottomland. At the same time, there’s a mix of bottomland and some scrub habitat, which is a mix that’s very conducive for turkey nesting. Its 49,000 acres sprawl across Polk, Lake and Sumter counties.
“Kicco, which is on the Kissimmee River, is a decent area, too,” Perrin continues.
Located 21 miles east of Lake Wales and 19 miles west of Yeehaw Junction along the Kissimmee River in Polk and Osceola counties, Kicco WMA offers 7,000 acres of river swamp and oak hammock. The northernmost portion of the WMA is open to hog hunts only, and a small section of it south of that is closed to all hunting. However, from Ice Cream Slough south, it should provide good turkey hunting in the swamp forest.
Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA) has traditionally been a good place to hunt turkeys in the South Zone. Properly called the John G. and Susan H. Dupuis Jr. WEA, the area has a good turkey population, but quotas apply to all hunts. If you didn’t put in for a permit during the winter you’re out of luck for this year, but it should be on the top of your wish list when applying for next season.
Dupuis covers about 22,000 acres in western Palm Beach and Martin counties. The habitat ranges from ponds and marsh in the southwest corner to oaks and pines over most of the rest. It has a lot of oaks and oak hammocks on the north end.
Another good area is Fisheating Creek WMA. This 18,000-acre area in Glades County follows the course of its namesake stream down to Cowbone Marsh. All of the property is excellent turkey habitat. The portion of the area east of U.S. Highway 27 is set aside as a Special Opportunity Hunt area.
“Corbett WMA has been a pretty wet area, so turkey habitat is kind of marginal, but in the last few years they’ve been doing some management specifically for turkeys, and its harvest has been up for the last few years,” Perrin states. “So Corbett is kind of a sleeper area that’s doing relatively well.”
FALL TURKEY SEASON?
All three management zones have a fall turkey season each year that runs concurrently with archery and muzzleloading, and portions of modern firearms deer seasons on private land. One of the reasons for this fall action is tradition.
“I’ve gone back into our files, and fall turkey hunting started way before there was any thought of spring turkey hunting,” Perrin explains. “We’ve been doing fall turkey hunting at least as far back as 1929, and possibly way before then.”
Spring turkey season was first introduced 1956, and has gradually become very popular, while fall hunting dropped by the wayside.
“Fall hunting traditionally had been either-sex,” Perrin notes. “But when you’re harvesting the hen portion of the population, the harvest needs to be carefully monitored. You can really affect the population if you overharvest. So as spring turkey hunting has become more popular through the years, and because of concerns over some turkey populations locally, we’ve been more restrictive on fall turkey hunting. Now it’s gobblers only during the fall, because we’re trying to protect that hen segment of the population. We feel that under the proper regulations, there’s no reason we can’t have a fall turkey season.”
Perrin emphasizes that fall hunting is “gobblers only,” but says that includes bearded hens.
“The way the regulation reads is ‘gobblers or bearded turkeys,’ ” he points out. “Occasionally a hen will have a beard. Biologists estimate that 2 to 4 percent of hens have beards, so it’s a pretty small segment of birds that’s affected.”
Some WMAs allow hunters to take turkeys during archery season.
“That’s really more of a recreational opportunity than anything else,” Perrin observes. “Very few bowhunters are able to harvest a turkey.”
A few WMAs also offer very limited fall turkey hunting during both muzzleloader and general gun seasons.