There’s an old axiom in hunting that states something to the effect that “you can’t kill ’em where they ain’t.” The point of that zinger is that hunters who do their homework well before the season are likely to be most successful at harvesting game. This is especially true for spring gobblers.
In truth, the best first step for hunters trying to take a tom is make sure birds are abundant. While nothing takes the place of scouting to locale concentrations of turkeys, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) produces an overview map of the state offering hunters a birds-eye view of the best populations of wild turkeys.
While birds can be found statewide, with pockets of birds in abundance almost anywhere, the heaviest concentrations of turkeys are generally in the northern half of the state. North of Okeechobee to the southern outskirts of Orlando is a high-density turkey area. Birds also are abundant north of Orlando along the St. Johns River and its tributaries and lakes, then west and north toward Tallahassee and the Georgia state line in the big timber company land holdings.
West of the Big Bend part of the Panhandle bird populations thin in some locales, though there is a core east-to-west strip of turkeys from Jacksonville to the Alabama state line.
Of course, more specific info comes from word of mouth — from biologists, public hunting area managers, private landowners, timber company employees, and hunt club managers and members…all kinds of people.
Even with all the best information from such folks, though, it’s still up to hunters to spend time in the woods looking, listening and hoping to outsmart this biggest of American game birds.
Florida has an estimated turkey population of around 100,000, with an annual harvest of about 30,000 toms. However, many hunters believe the “official” turkey population and estimated harvests are conservative.
Throughout much of Florida, turkey populations are in good shape due to healthy bird hatches in recent years, according to Roger Shields, Wild Turkey Program coordinator for FWC. While the state doesn’t do official turkey poult surveys, input from hunters and landowners is solid, and the outlook is very good for the 2017 gobbler season, except for south Florida where excessive rain the last couple years has been tough on nesting birds and poult survival.
The bulk of mature gobblers taken in spring are made up of 2-year-old toms. Like young bucks, they don’t have the experience of older critters to know the dangers of humans and turkey calling.
For this reason, 2017 should be a good year for 2-year-old toms, because last spring a very healthy number of young was reported throughout many regions of Florida. Also, the turkey hatch and poult survival this spring has been good in these same regions, which bodes well for 2018.
Thus hunters should expect Florida turkey hunting to be good for the foreseeable future. Many of the best reports of abundant birds are coming from the northern half of the state, where large wooded tracts owned by timber companies are located. Many of these areas chiefly harbor Eastern turkeys, however, not necessarily the prized Osceola subspecies.
Florida is the only state offering hunting for both Osceola and Eastern turkeys, and the subspecies overlap throughout much of their range in the northern reaches of the state. Osceolas are typically found in about the lower two-thirds of the state. While some hunters claim Osceolas inhabit areas farther north in Florida, birds found from Ocala south are almost certainly the Osceola subspecies.
There is an “overlap” of the two species, and some students of turkey biology insist they hybridize, and there is some evidence of this, but exactly where and how much is not known, but regardless, Florida has some great turkey hunting for both Oseolas and Easterns.
“The whole middle part of the state from Tallahassee south to Gainesville and Ocala has been good for turkeys for several years, and this year should be good, too,” reported Roger Shields. “The harvest generally was up on wildlife management areas last year, which is a trend except for extreme south Florida, particularly south and west of Okeechobee. The Fish Eating Creek area had lot of flooding, and last spring was very tough there, with even a special opportunity turkey hunt cancelled that was planed there.”
Shields uses a “harvest index” to help measure state public hunting areas, with total man-days of hunting factored into the number of toms harvested at each WMA. The calculation helps evaluate turkey hunting from various years at a WMA, plus aids in comparing WMAs around the state.
Last year the Triple N Ranch WMA (16,000 acres, Osceola County) and Guana River WMA (9,800 acres, St. Johns County) were tied for best turkey harvest in the state, boasting a hunter index of 3.5 days needed to collect a tom. Third best in the state was Chassahowitzka WMA (35,000 acres, Hernando County) with a 4.9 index. Dinner Island Ranch (21,700 acres, Hendry County) is another WMA that had a good turkey harvest last spring.
“Chassahowitzka always has been in the mix for the state’s top turkey harvest,” said Shields. “Game managers there make a lot of effort to help turkeys with mowing and burning, which has had a good impact on the bird population.”
Other top WMAs that have had good recent turkey harvests, with trending good bird numbers according to Shields include: Half Moon (9,500 acres, Sumter County), Richloam (58,100 acres, Hernando, Lake, Pasco, Sumter counties), and Seminole Ranch (6,000 acres, Orange County).
Notable WMAs that have gone down in turkey harvest include the Snipe Island Unit on Big Bend (11,700 acres, Taylor County) and Joe Budd (11,100 acres, Gadsden County).
Many of Florida’s good WMAs open to turkey hunting are run on a quota hunt basis, meaning that hunters must have an access quota permit in order to hunt, which are issued in June.
Fortunately, the state also has some enormous public hunting spots — most of them federal lands — whereby turkey hunters are free to chase birds without the burden of special permits.
Ocala (385,000 acres, Lake, Marion and Putnam counties), Osceola (266,200, Baker and Columbia counties), and Apalachicola (581,200 acres, Franklin, Leon, Liberty, Wakulla counties) WMAs also are national forests and they have excellent hunting in select areas. Most of the best places are far off the beaten track, but those who use 4×4 vehicles, and in some cases boats or mountain bikes for access, and camp for several days to make the work worthwhile, these public hunting properties are choice. It’s not easy hunting, but there are plenty of unpressured birds in some locales. All three national forests also are loaded with black bears, which show how remote and wildlife rich they are.
Other good WMAs that are essentially open for turkeys without quota permits are Lochloosa (11,100 acres, Alachua County), Three Lakes (63,400 acres, Osceola County), and J.W. Corbett (60,300 acres, Palm Beach County). Lochloosa is a beautiful hardwoods WMA, but does get considerable pressure. Corbett is only open on Wednesdays and weekends, and Shields says it received abundant rain the last couple years, which may have impacted nesting and poult survival.
The bottom line is this spring looks like another good one for Sunshine State turkey hunters. Just be sure to choose your hunting areas carefully, scout diligently and hunt with dedication.