March 17, 2015
In the late afternoon, a central Florida swamp can get a quiet and eerie look and feel about it. Mixed hardwoods of water oak, turkey oak, cypress, live oak, magnolia and hickory form a massive canopy above the dank, pungent-smelling bottom. With the setting sun, rays of bright light disappear, and long shadows envelop the area.
Standing on a game trail beside a small meandering creek is a camouflaged hunter. He is motionless, but intent. He cocks his head to one side, listening, watching and waiting. A barred owl hoots from far back in the swamp, and is promptly answered by another owl from the opposite direction. Then there is silence.
As the sun continues to lower, evening sounds begin taking over for daytime counterparts. The hunter — world champion turkey caller Preston Pittman — moves steadily, but silently, along the creek trail, stopping every 100 yards or so to look and listen to what the swamp has to say about its inhabitants.
Soon Preston sees evidence of what he is seeking. He kneels and touches large, fresh, well-defined tracks in the damp, dark dirt of the trail. Preston rises and moves along the creek path with the stealth of a hunting cat. Further up the trail, he comes across fresh droppings, followed by feathers near a shallow pond spreading out across a flooded oak and cypress flat. Convinced it is a place where turkeys roost, Preston sits on a large, fallen tree.
Darkness comes quickly to the swamp. Peeper frogs begin chorusing. Catbirds and "cat squirrels" call to the vanishing sun. But still Preston waits, watches and listens to the voices of the swamp.
Finally, he hears the thundering feathery sound he has been seeking. The sound is subtle and fleeting, but Preston hears it again and again and again, spread out just beyond his sight over the swamp pond. The muffled noises are created by large, cupped wings as great birds launch from the swamp floor to branches of the tree canopy where they spend the night roosting in safety of the timber tops. Preston never saw the birds across the large, foreboding Florida swamp. He didn't need to. He knew where they were, and where they — and he — would be at daybreak.
Trying to make no sound, Preston exits along the trail that brought him to the area, stopping every 30 yards or so to mark the path with reflective tape.
At 5:30 a.m. the following day, Preston steps from his vehicle with a flashlight in one hand, a full-choke 12-gauge in the other. With the creek trail well marked by reflective tape, Preston is able to cover ground quickly, quietly, with minimal disturbance to the sleeping woods. At last he reaches the place where he listened to birds fly to roost, and he sits and waits for dawn.
When the first gray shadows of the new day begin to creep across the Florida creek bottom, Preston makes a series of soft, tree yelps with a mouth diaphragm call. A few minutes pass, and he yelps again, before mimicking a fly-down cackle.
He listens and watches, but hears and sees nothing, so minutes later he yelps softly again.
This time a gobbler cuts loose from just over 100 yards through the swamp, roosted somewhere over the shallow pond Preston discovered the previous evening. Again the tom gobbles, then again, and again.
Preston sits down in the bottomland muck, with his knees up and his back against a large oak. After some time passes with the gobbler remaining silent, Preston lets out a soft series of yelps, and is quickly cut off by a resonating double gobble. Seconds later he hears a soft swish of wings as a big bird flies off its roost.
Preston clutches his 12-gauge tightly, watching intently in the direction of the bird. Ten minutes pass, then 20. Finally, he hears sloshing of water, and a few seconds later a large, bearded Osceola gobbler steps out from behind a palmetto clump 30 yards away. Preston's shotgun roars, and the bird crumples.
The 19-pound tom with an 11-inch beard is one of an unknown number of turkeys the champion caller has taken. But this bird is a special prize, since it's the best Osceola Pittman has ever downed — a subspecies of bird he holds in high esteem.
"I think Eastern turkeys are the toughest to hunt, but Osceolas are a close second," said Pittman. "Osceolas can be very difficult though, because a lot of the time it's the terrain features they live in that make them so tough. For example, it's a standard rule in turkey hunting that birds don't walk through water, but Osceolas will. You can call an Osceola across a shallow pond or small creek because the birds live in those places and are used to moving around in them, certainly more so than other birds. Even Eastern turkeys that live in big river swamps in Alabama or in my home state of Mississippi won't cross water like Osceolas habitually do.
"I've called Osceolas across water, and have watched birds walk right through a shallow pond or slough," said Pittman. "They won't walk through deep water, but a few inches of puddles or mud means nothing to a Florida bird. I've even killed Osceolas and had them fall right in a pond or creek."
The Osceola is highly prized by turkey hunters because its range is small compared to other turkey subspecies. Found only in Florida, the Osceola turkey is a bird of big hardwood swamp bottoms, and palmetto-grass and live oak savannas. It's at home in wild swamps that harbor Florida panthers, black bears, alligators, water moccasins and Florida diamondback rattlesnakes, as well as a wide variety of mosquitoes, yellow flies, gnats, chiggers and other biting insects.
It takes an expert to tell an Osceola turkey from an Eastern. In fact, some biologists continue to debate whether or not this is a distinct and separate subspecies of turkey. But it's generally believed that this bird is unique, and its range and habitat preferences are different than other turkeys.
Osceola turkeys tend to be slim birds with long necks and legs, and old, mature toms can have unusually long spurs. Florida toms commonly roost in large pine trees, cypress and river-bottom oak trees. Such places usually are quiet, secluded spots that may border rivers, creeks and even lakeshores. Some hunters use this to their advantage and gain access to difficult-to-reach marsh and swamp regions by hunting out of boats and canoes.
The last few years have been especially wet in Florida, and access to some of the best turkey hunting areas has been difficult. ATVs, 4-wheel drive trucks, boats, canoes and long, soggy walks are required of hunters in many areas where rain has been particularly heavy.
Many turkey hunters have been concerned in recent years about bird hatches in some regions due to excessive rain. But Roger Shields, Wild Turkey Program coordinator for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says such damaging rains have been very regional — chiefly in north Florida above Gainesville, and in the Panhandle.
"Florida FWC biologists don't conduct turkey brood surveys like some other states," said Shields. "We rely on information from field biologists and hunters who spend a lot of time outdoors.
"This year I got unusual turkey reports, with early hatches of poults and some late hatches, too. Gobbling was off in much of the state last spring, perhaps from a cold, wet spring that pushed breeding a bit later in the year in some places."
Shields believes that because of heavy regional rain and a late spring last year, it's possible there will be a major decrease in 2.5-year old gobblers this spring in parts of the state. This could impact hunting in some areas — chiefly the northern part of the state from Gainesville to Tallahassee and the northern west coast region on the bend. These areas also have some of the largest and best public-access hunting areas in the state.
The far western portion of the state, from Marianna to the Alabama border, had better nesting success, and hunting should be good this spring, according to Shields. From Gainesville south to Lake Okeechobee also had less rain and a better spring. So that region should have good spring gobbler hunting this year.
Constant and heavy spring rain definitely has an adverse impact on turkey nesting, especially in Florida where the terrain is low and flat.
"This situation is what biologists call the 'wet hen' theory, whereby nesting success can be impacted by wet ground because turkey predators are more successful since the best places for turkey breeding are reduced," Shields explained. "Predators are more successful, which decreases bird numbers."
Heavy rains are never a positive for nesting turkeys and bird recruitment. But it's a natural occurrence, particularly in Florida, and good hunters will still find toms.
Shields recommends a number of areas throughout the state for this year's spring season. Some counties he believes should have plenty of birds this year include: Alachua, Marion, Putnam, Highlands, DeSoto, Okeechobee and the ranchlands region in south Florida that largely escaped last spring's floods. He also likes Walton and the far western Panhandle counties.
Among the better wildlife management areas (WMAs) for spring birds, he notes Blackwater, Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB, Pine Log, parts of the Choctawhatchee River and Perdido River areas, Alachua, Caravelle Ranch, Bayard, Lochloosa, Ocala NF, Lake Woodruff, Dexter/Mary Farms, Lake George, Seminole Forrest and Seminole Ranch, Avon Park, Hickory Hammock, KICCO, Arbuckle, and Walk-In-The Water as good areas to consider.
While the very best Florida turkey hunting is found on private ranches or land managed for turkeys with limited hunting pressure, there is surprisingly good public turkey hunting throughout much of Florida. Some of it is short lived, as hunting pressure takes a quick toll on toms. Too many hunters covering too much ground and calling too much puts the clamp down on gobbling birds on public property.
Birds don't necessarily leave public land because of pressure. But they become tight lipped, and can be tough to tumble with a load of No. 6s.
The very best public hunting properties are either huge in size to spread out pressure, or have some type of special or limited access. Many choice spots are limited-draw WMAs, where coveted short-term permits (typically long weekends) are drawn months in advance of hunts. But Florida also has some WMAs that are open on a first-come, first-serve basis for specified dates (a few weekends, for example). Some such spots also rotate the open-access areas of a WMA so pressure is spread widely and areas open during these rotations have comparatively unpressured toms.
Some of the largest WMAs offering spring hunting are in the north or Panhandle region of the state. These vast river and swamp areas can be jammed with turkeys, but it takes time and effort to pinpoint hot spots. Some of these WMAs have navigable rivers coursing through them, and using boats to reach remote lowland areas is a great way to collect a tom from public property.
Gunners looking for a last-minute tom should check with the FWC for current open lands, hunt dates and other WMA restrictions. The state lists the following WMAs for Osceolas, with minimal permit restrictions and so are suitable for last-minute hunting: Arbuckle, Big Bend, Big Cypress, Devil's Hammock, Green Swamp, Herky Huffman/Bull Creek, J.W. Corbett, Jumper Creek, Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Kissimmee River, Lake Monroe, Lochloosa, Log Landing, Lower Suwannee, Richloam, Santa Fe Swamp, Three Lakes and Upper St. Johns River Marsh.
A number of outfitters specializing in spring Osceola turkeys offer packaged hunts. Many are booked well in advance. However, cancellations are common, so it's worth checking to see if there's an opening. If you just can't seem to tag an Osceola on your own, a guide might be the best bet for putting a bird on the ground this spring.