Although we can’t say that we’re crawling with gobblers for folks going Florida turkey hunting, the Sunshine State does have a nice population of birds, and hunters have a decent shot at getting a gobbler some time during the season.
Roger Shields is the state turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said that the past two nesting seasons haven’t been the best that Florida has seen.
“Particularly during the 2013 season, a large portion of the state had pretty heavy rains during the late part of the summer,” he said. “Then we had heavy rains in south Florida throughout the summer. I think our reproductive output was a little bit down for 2013, so the number of jakes for 2014 will be lower.”
Two years, from the Panhandle to about Lake City, early summer also was very wet.
“We don’t do any kind of brood survey, so I don’t have concrete numbers,” he said. “But in thinking about reproductive chronology, nesting usually is in March and April with hatching in April and May, so hopefully enough of the poults were old enough that the rains that came later on didn’t have devastating effects on them.”
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Shields heard anecdotal reports that people are seeing a fair number of birds in the Panhandle, but also that people aren’t seeing as many as they have in the past.
“I suspect that this year’s hunting in the Panhandle probably is going to dip a little bit from what it has been, just because there aren’t as many two and a half year old birds,” he said.
Hunters in the central part of the state may have a different story.
“That part of the state kind of escaped all the heavy rains from both the south and the north,” Shields said. “Hunting there should be pretty good.”
Although FWC doesn’t do an annual statewide turkey survey, biologists have been working on a 10-year assessment that began during the winter of 2011-2012. Shields said the process has taken longer than originally planned.
“We had some big gaps, some areas of the state where we didn’t get enough response,” he said. “We had to close in those gaps and clean up our habitat suitability model, which took about a year.”
As of the middle of October, he was hoping the assessment would be finished by early 2014.
Shields said that people who participate in Youth Turkey Season love it, but that it hasn’t generated as much interest on public land as the FWC had hoped it would.
“We really didn’t know what kind of demand there would be for it,” he said. “The majority of the youth hunts that we offer on the WMAs are in a Quota Hunt format, and I’ve been tracking the number of people hunting on those areas.”
What he’s seen is that some permits always are left over.
“We haven’t issued all the permits that are available on public land,” he said. “I don’t know if the word isn’t getting out about the hunts, or if there just isn’t enough demand to utilize that season. But for whatever reason, we haven’t issued all the permits that are available for several of the areas.”
On private land, hunters have responded positively to the Youth Turkey Season via the annual mail survey that the FWC sends out.
“People say they love it,” he said. “They’re taking sons and daughters and grandkids. In that respect, it’s been a good opportunity.”
WHERE THE TURKEYS ARE
Depending on where you hunt in the state, you can take either an eastern turkey or an Osceola turkey. The line biologists generally use to distinguish which turkey is which runs roughly northeast to southwest across the north-central part of the state.
This isn’t to say that there’s a line in the sand and the turkeys on one side of it are eastern and on the other side are Osceolas. Biologists refer to the area on both sides of that imaginary line as an “intergrade,” where the two subspecies mix. But for record keeping purposes they drew a line based on their best estimate of where that separation occurs. Osceolas occur south of, but not including, Taylor, Lafayette, Suwannee, Columbia, Baker, and Nassau counties.
Without a statewide survey, biologists can make only educated guesses about where to find birds. That makes it difficult for them to make any kind of firm recommendation about where birds may be found this year.
“We kind of go back to the same areas of the state over and over again,” Shields said. “These are the counties that the previous statewide distribution survey indicated that there were high populations of turkeys. Then we look at anything that’s been going on in terms of reproductive output or potential changes in reproductive success and go from there.”
Biologists also look at the results of the annual mail survey to see where birds are coming from on private land.
“Our metric is not necessarily total harvest,” he said. “That’s a good measure for density of birds, but then we also factor in man-days.”
Once they factor in man-days, the South Region usually looks like the go-to place to get a turkey.
“I think that’s partly because the better areas in the South Region are tied up in leases,” Shields said. “The density of hunters may be somewhat less, and the big ranches down there do a lot of work for turkeys.”
Particularly take a look at Okeechobee, Glades and Hendry counties.
The Northeast Region also does quite well with turkey harvest. One way to look at this area, he said, is to draw a line down the center of the peninsula of Florida, with the line running roughly from the northwest to the southeast.
“Then look at the counties just to the east of that midline,” he said. “Don’t go all the way out to the coast.”
That eastern mid-state area is where there are larger populations of birds, and where hunters take a good many gobblers.
“The human population density is lower in that area, so there’s more rural land,” Shields said. “There’s a mixture of habitats, with forestry and agriculture in a good blend, and vegetation that supports turkeys. That area is east of the I-4 corridor and the area in Polk County that’s torn up with mining and a lot of other development. And the midline is where you have Ocala, Gainesville and Lake City, so there’s a lot of development there.”
Of particular interest are Clay and Putnam counties as places to look for turkeys on private land. Other possiblities are the western portions of St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties, and the eastern part of Marion County.
The overall turkey harvest in the North Central Region is less than in the Northeast, but still good. Here, look at northern Alachua County, as well as Madison, Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties. In the Southwest Region, consider Osceola, Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties,
When it comes to public land, the state’s wildlife management areas can be divided into three distinct groups, depending on how they’re hunted: those with unlimited access and maximum hunting opportunity, those managed under the Quota Hunt system, and those where hunting is limited to Special Opportunity Hunts only.
When it comes to areas with unlimited access and maximum opportunity for hunters some possibilities are Green Swamp WMA in Polk, Lake and Sumter counties; Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA in Osceola County; Three Lakes WMA in Osceola County; and JW Corbett WMA in south Florida.
Green Swamp requires a quota permit on opening weekend, but after that it has a day use permit that’s first come-first served at the check station each morning.
Green Swamp is challenging to hunt, but a good road system helps. The area covers roughly 50,000 acres. If you want to hunt in the swamp, just keep walking. Follow the mosquitoes to get there.
The season on J. W. Corbett is limited to three days each week. It’s only open on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
This area used to have low harvest rates. Now cost-sharing programs between the FWC and the National Wild Turkey Federation have resulted in habitat improvements and an increase in birds.
You need a daily use permit to hunt this area. The permits are available at the check station on the day you want to hunt.
Joe Budd WMA continues to be a good area. It’s restricted to primitive weapons, either muzzleloaders or bows. Joe Budd has a variety of habitats and a lot of topography, which is rare for Florida.
Some of the permits for hunting are on a first come-first served basis at the check station, so you don’t have to draw a permit, but you do have to get there early.
The units of the Big Bend WMA also may be good areas. They probably don’t have as many turkeys on them as some of the top areas, but hunters stand a good chance there.
Snipe Island is part of Big Bend WMA. It’s a good area, but is not as diverse as some others in the region. You must have a permit for the first 16 days of the hunt. The rest of the hunt period is open to all hunters.
Hickory Mound, another unit of Big Bend WMA, is more than 14,000 acres and located entirely in Taylor County. Much of this area is coastal swamp. No permit is needed here.
Tide Swamp is another unit of the Big Bend WMA and is similar to both Hickory Mound and Spring Creek. It has low-lying terrain, and covers a little less than 20,000 acres. Like the other two areas, the habitat is primarily hammock, with some upland flatwoods and sandhills in the inland portions of the area. No quota permits are required.
The Jena Unit of Big Bend WMA is located in Dixie County, where it stretches along the coast south of Steinhatchee. No permit is required for turkey season.
Herky Huffman/Bull Creek WMA has no permit requirement during spring turkey season. Located in Osceola County, this area covers more than 23,000 acres, so there is plenty of room for hunters to spread out.
Three Lakes WMA is a big area in Osceola County, covering more than 63,000 acres. Don’t stray over onto the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes WMA. The Prairie Lakes Unit is under quota permit for everything but small game. You are hunting illegally if you cross over onto that piece of property.
Choctawhatchee River WMA covers more than 57,000 acres and sprawls across Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties. Because it’s along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that are good for turkeys and has enough area that hunters may be able to find a spot that’s not receiving much pressure. You must have a quota permit to hunt in the Spring Turkey Quota area, but the rest of the WMA is open for hunting.
In the South Region, look at the Big Cypress WMA.
“That’s the biggest public land opportunity we have down there,” Shields said.
Big Cypress covers more than 711,000 acres in Collier, Dade and Monroe counties. Big Cypress includes wetlands, pine rock lands, pine flatlands and cypress swamp, with a good bit of prairie and a lot of diversity.
You need to pick up a check station pass at the check station before you enter to hunt turkeys.
QUOTA AND SPECIAL HUNTS
Although it’s too late to get quota hunt permits for this year, if you have a permit to one of these areas you’re very lucky. And this is a good time to mention them, so you know where to apply for next year if you want a higher quality hunt that doesn’t require a fee.
Some of the better quota hunts are on Caravelle Ranch, Hickory Hammock, Camp Blanding, Fort Drum, Andrews WMAs, as well as the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes WMA.
Any of the Special Opportunity turkey hunts are good. The FWC selects areas that have good habitat and good turkey populations, and control the size of hunts so that hunter densities very low. All of this contributes to higher hunter satisfaction and harvest success.
The WMAs with Special Opportunity turkey hunts are Homosassa, Dexter/Mary Farms, Fort Drum, Lake Panasofkee, Triple N Ranch, Green Swamp West, and Fisheating Creek.
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