Nothing stirs the soul like the gobble of a tom echoing through the springtime swamps. But, not all gobblers triumphantly announce their presence. Florida's wild turkeys are well known for their tight-lipped demeanor, creeping through palmetto flats and oak hammocks upon unsuspecting hunters who thought their calling was in vain.
One Osceola longbeard pulled that maneuver on me last year at Avon Park Air Force Range. The gobbling had ceased after the birds flew down. I was prepared to abandon my set-up when I heard just the softest cluck emanate from behind a patch of gallberries. I soon noticed a golf-ball white head bounce through the gaps of the underbrush, right before he broke into a strut. After a period of time, he slowly dropped strut and offered the shot I never thought would arrive.
Public land wild turkeys rarely come easy. Fortunately, Florida offers millions of acres of public land throughout the state in which to pursue a gobbler. Some require limited-entry permits, while others require no permits but plenty of effort in order to succeed. Either way, bagging a mature tom is an accomplishment worth bragging about.
"Florida has the distinction of being the only state where the Osceola wild turkey is found and one of the earliest spring seasons to open, which brings turkey hunters here from across North America," said Tammy Sapp with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Hunters also pursue the Eastern subspecies north of the Peninsula and across the Panhandle. Florida historically produces good turkey hunting opportunities where there are open forests, forest edges and openings. Florida continues to provide numerous hunting opportunities on public land throughout the state. FWC-managed public land turkey hunting opportunities include Special Opportunity hunts and Spring Turkey Quota permits, a type of limited-entry permit needed to turkey hunt on selected wildlife management areas. There are also opportunities to hunt on WMAs where a quota permit is not required."
Florida's current turkey population is a great conservation success story. Though wild turkeys endured severe population declines throughout most of the state in the mid-1900s, changes in hunting regulations combined with trap-and-release and habitat management programs have resulted in healthy, expanding populations.
"Holmes County is a recent example of wildlife restoration success and, as a result, wild turkey season hunting dates will expand there in spring 2018 as populations continue to flourish," said Sapp. "Thanks to the success of wild turkey conservation measures in 2018, spring turkey season dates in Holmes County will be consistent with statewide season dates, which allow for 37 days of hunting. The two-day youth hunt will be maintained, and the bag limit for the spring season will remain at one — the spring turkey season bag limit for the rest of the state is two."
Even still, year-to-year trends affect localized flocks of turkeys. With naturally high mortality rates, flocks can further be depressed by periods of heavy rain and flooding, especially during nesting periods. The outlook for 2018 appears favorable, though.
"Based on reports of good reproduction two years ago and sightings of jakes last year, there should be a good number of adult (2-year-old) birds in the field," said Sapp. "Brood productivity surveys are not conducted; however, reports of good reproduction and poult survival are positive indicators. At this time, impacts from Hurricane Irma are unknown."
Of course, most hunters just want to know where to pursue these wily birds in the spring, especially areas where there is no quota or limited-access for turkeys.
Stretching across 582,691 acres in Franklin, Leon, Liberty, and Wakulla counties, the Apalachicola Wildlife Management Area is part of the Apalachicola National Forest. The Eastern subspecies thrives on this WMA, comprised of pine palmetto flat woods interspersed by titi and cypress swamps.
Camping is permitted at designated primitive sites year 'round at the Northwest Florida Water Management District campground at Florida River Island. A section of this area has been set aside for recreational vehicles, but there are no hook-ups. A number of other campsites are located throughout the WMA.
Since the Eastern subspecies is not as sought-after as the Osceola, hunting pressure is not as high as for the birds in the Peninsula. With this much elbow room, Apalachicola is a great place for those not captivated by the idiosyncrasies of turkey biology to experience a fun Florida hunt in a beautiful portion of the state. Seeking out river bottom habitat away from others is a fine way to start searching for a Florida Eastern longbeard.
GREEN SWAMP WMA
Situated in the heart of the Osceola subspecies' range, Green Swamp is a well-known and popular destination for Florida's public land turkey hunters. In 2017, 45 gobblers were harvested, up from 30 the year before, according to FWC check station data. After the first two days of the turkey season, when a limited-entry permit is required, 200 no-cost daily quota permits are available first-come, first-served at the check station each day of the season.
Green Swamp consists of 50,692 acres in Lake, Polk, and Sumter counties. Also known as Green Swamp East, this area is part of approximately 110,000 acres purchased to protect the land and water resources of the Green Swamp Basin. Most of the landscape is pine flat woods, cypress domes and hardwoods swamps. Turkeys are numerous but the terrain and hunting pressure make hunting challenging. The low-lying nature of the property renders it prone to flooding during wet winters and springs. Cypress heads and pine stands are good spots to locate a roosted gobbler. Where he goes from there and how to get to him quietly through the thick underbrush and swollen creeks is the real trick. Staying patient along palmetto flats — especially those that have been recently burned — is often key.
Camping is permitted year 'round at designated campsites and along the Florida Trail. During hunting periods, folks need a camping permit from FWC. An application may be submitted at a license agent or county tax collector's office or online.
AVON PARK AIR FORCE RANGE
While it does not require a limited-entry permit to access as with other public lands, Avon Park Air Force Range does require hunters to pay for a $350 Annual Hunt Permit and attend a safety briefing. The number of permits is limited but rarely sell out.
This cost might be steep to some, but the turkey hunting is excellent with 132 gobblers harvested in 2017. Avon Park Air Force Range is a 106,000-acre military training facility located in Polk and Highlands counties. The Fish, Wildlife, and Outdoor Recreation Program works in coordination with the Air Force to provide recreational opportunities to the public and military personnel. Campsites are available on the property.
A large component of Avon Park's turkey hunting success is its aggressive burning program. The habitat is well managed for upland game. The downside, though, is that being a military installation, sections of the property and even hunting weekends can close on short notice for training drills and other exercises. Still, for those seeking a quality public land hunt for a trophy Osceola, Avon Park Air Force Range might be the ticket.
For those wishing to extend their turkey season by hunting the different open dates north and south of SR-70, learning the waters of the Kissimmee Public Use Area is a great way to go about achieving this goal. Stretching from SR-60 in Polk County south to Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee River PUA consists of more than 30,000 acres along the river. Access is primarily by boat, aided by a number of boat ramps within the area.
This style of turkey hunting adds a sense of adventure and exploration to the ritual spring fling. Flooded sections of the PUA will be inhospitable to turkeys and hunters. Certain sections are being worked on as part of the Kissimmee River restoration. Turkeys and other game are often seen along the banks and levees, and especially in open areas near cattle operations.
Pay attention to posted No Trespassing boundaries and the unique rules to the PUA. For instance, in the Starvation Slough area only bows and muzzleloading shotguns may be used during spring turkey season. Harvesting wildlife with any gun, crossbow or bow is prohibited in the northern portion of Bluff Hammock. Hickory Hammock WMA is on the north side of the Istokpoga Canal and requires a special limited-entry quota permit for access. One nice benefit of the Kissimmee PUA — other than a protracted turkey season — is a management area permit is not required for this area.
BIG CYPRESS WMA
Increasing numbers of black bears and panthers call Big Cypress home. So, too, does the Osceola gobbler, which is well adapted to this South Florida jungle of open prairies, cypress swamps, hammocks and pineland. Primitive camping is also available throughout much of the WMA.
Big Cypress WMA is 565,848 acres within the 720,566-acre Big Cypress National Preserve, which spans sections of Collier, Dade, and Monroe counties and borders Everglades National Park. Such a large expanse creates a diversity of habitats of which turkeys are able to capitalize. The hunting here can be tough but access is open to anyone. Only the Additions Unit requires a limited-entry permit.
The use of swamp buggies is a popular means of conveyance in these parts. All vehicles operated off-road are required to have a National Park Service ORV permit. Also unique are rules concerning taking of exotic reptiles. Licensed hunters are allowed to take Conditional Reptiles incidental to lawful hunting activities during established hunting seasons. They shall not be transported alive from the area, however, and hunters that take any Conditional Reptiles shall report the kill within 36 hours, and provide all data requested. Take a good look around before sitting down!
Florida's public lands have the acreage, access and numbers of birds for successful turkey hunting. Whether chasing Easterns in the Panhandle or Osceolas down the Peninsula, the opportunity for a unique, exciting spring turkey hunt is there.