February 26, 2016
Spring is here, so anglers may be thinking about fishing, but hunters in many areas are flocking to the woods in pursuit of North America's largest game bird — the magnificent wild turkey.
With the first hint of spring, turkey hunters in Florida are ready to get into the woods. That wild, sweet call of a love-struck gobbler doesn't attract just hens; it also speaks to the thousands of hunters who love nothing more than chasing wild turkeys through the swamp.
Florida hunters have an advantage over those in other states, as just a little bit of driving provides opportunities for both Eastern and Osceola wild turkeys. The line biologists generally use to distinguish the two subspecies 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 Easterns and on the other side are Osceolas. Biologists refer to the area on both sides of that imaginary line an "intergrade" where the two subspecies mix, but for record keeping purposes they based the line on their best estimate of where that separation occurs. Osceolas occur south of, but not including, Taylor, Lafayette, Suwannee, Columbia, Baker and Nassau counties.
Biologists monitor populations on both sides of the line, as most Sunshine State hunters simply want to hear birds, and according to Roger Shields, state turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), hunters should have a decent year.
"We didn't have had any hurricanes, and it wasn't an extreme wildfire year," Shields said. "Although we don't collect brood survey data, everything I heard from the field was that it was a good hatch year. It seems to have been better than what it had been in the past few years. That bodes well for a couple years down the road, although it doesn't necessarily impact what's going to happen in the spring of 2016."
One thing hunters need to be aware of on public land is the change of legal hunting hours on some of the wildlife management areas. For 2016, 16 WMAs will have extended shooting hours, as a means to evaluate the impact that all-day hunting might have on the resource and hunter satisfaction.
"We're not sure what impact allowing all day hunting on public lands may have," Shields said. "Public lands tend to get heavier pressure than private lands. One of our main concerns is that not all things are equal between public and private lands. What we may find is that in some areas it's appropriate to allow all-day hunting and in some areas it's not."
Areas with quota hunts and limited number of hunters may be able to take that pressure better than some of the areas that are wide open; the data will tell the story over the next two to four years.
The FWC also added a few quota hunts for turkeys this year at Escribano Point WMA near Pensacola. The hunt will allow five applicants to hunt turkey during four three-day periods. Otherwise, little else is changing in regard to hunting turkeys in Florida. However, the FWC is still working with the National Wild Turkey Federation on cost-share habitat improvement projects across the state.
"We've been doing this cost share program for more than 20 years," Shields said. "Something that's new this year is that we've brought on an additional partner in the Florida Forest Service. So for this year we'll be able to fund 43 projects that take place on 33 management areas and two regional focus areas. The total of what the three partners are bringing to these projects is $479,000."
When it comes to public land hunting, there are two main types of hunts — open and quota. While it is too late to obtain a quota hunt for the 2016 season, it's a good time to start considering where to apply next year, particularly since pretty much every region of the state provides some type of special opportunity hunting.
"Starting with the northwest region, one of the two I'd pick are the Choctawhatchee River WMA," Shields said. "This is an interesting area because the south part of it is not quota and the north part is quota."
The Choctawhatchee River WMA is located in Bay, Holmes, Walton and Washington counties and covers more than 57,000 acres. Because it's along the Choctawhatchee River, it offers a variety of hardwood habitats that are good for turkeys, with enough room that hunters may be able to find a spot that's not receiving too much pressure.
On Econfina Creek WMA, the Fitzhugh tract is worth a look. This is a small, 2,175-acre tract in Washington County with five permits available for each of three hunts.
In the north-central region, Shields mentions Andrews WMA as consistently strong, and that Big Shoals seems to be improving because cost-share programs that have improved habitat seem to be having an effect.
An area in the northeast region to keep in mind for next year's quota period is the Guana River WMA.
"It's consistently one of the top areas," Shields said. "There are only a couple of hunts and a couple of hunters during each period, but if you can get in there, you have a very good opportunity there."
Guana River is a 10,000-acre WMA in northeast Florida that had been overharvested in regard to turkeys prior to the state acquiring the property. In 2002, the FWCC released 35 turkeys on the property. The population recovered well enough that the FWC starting allowing limited spring turkey hunts on it several years ago. It has a high hunter success rate, and is maintaining a good turkey population. Another to look at in that region would be Seminole Forest WMA.
In the southwest region, hunters should look at Babcock Ranch Preserve WMA and Arbuckle WMA. Arbuckle is located in Polk County, with a kind of scrubby habitat and a lot of sandhills; the area is 13,500 acres of uplands.
"In the south region, Dinner Island WMA is the best area," said Shields. "It's kind of a tossup as to the second best. The best area after that would be either Okaloacoochee Slough WMA or Crew WMA. Both of those are really good, but slightly behind Dinner Island."
Some additional quota hunts include Caravelle Ranch WMA, Hickory Hammock WMA, Camp Blanding WMA, Fort Drum WMA and the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes WMA.
Of course, 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 are low, which contributes to higher hunter satisfaction and harvest success. Some more to consider include Homosassa, Dexter/Mary Farms, Fort Drum, Lake Panasoffkee, Triple N Ranch, Green Swamp West, and Fisheating Creek.
While there are open WMAs in Florida, those without quota permits can find it difficult to find good areas to hunt, particularly in the Osceola range.
"Because of the increased demand on the Osceola subspecies, most of our spring turkey hunts are quota-type hunts," Shields said. "If you don't have a quota permit, there are only a few areas that are open to turkey hunting, so they get a lot of pressure."
One of the regions with the strongest turkey populations right now is the north-central region from Jacksonville across to the Big Bend, which has held a steady population trend better than other parts of the state. Another good region is the ranchland area north of Okeechobee, which has some big WMAs with a lot of flatwood habitat. Two non-quota WMAs in that region are Three Lakes and Herky Huffman/Bull Creek.
"Three Lakes is probably the better of the two," Shields said. "The two of them are real close to each other."
To go onto Three Lakes WMA, hunters need a daily hunt permit, available at the check station. Three Lakes is a big area in Osceola County, covering more than 63,000 acres, but don't stray over onto the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes, as the Prairie Lakes Unit is under quota permit for everything but small game.
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.
Up in the north-central region, few areas are open for hunting without a quota permit.
"West of Ocala, kind of in a group of management areas that are all good areas that are under quota, there's one called Jumper Creek that is not a quota area," Shields said. "It's kind of right in the middle of all this land that has good numbers of birds. All those management areas are pretty good, and for some reason that area still is open."
Another area Shields recommends is Richloam WMA, which has nine days of quota-only turkey season before opening up to all for the rest of the season. Richloam has good mix of habitats, with bottomland hardwoods, pine flatwoods and scattered oak hammocks. The area has good access, but Richloam is notorious for having wet roads during rainy periods.
Regardless, hunters should be able to find a place within the Sunshine State to pursue wild turkeys if they want.