Hurricane Irma lingered large in turkey hunters’ minds well into the 2018 spring campaign.
Online and check station chatter would have you believe the tropical winds blew all the gobblers out to sea, especially in the southern and central portions of the state where the storm was the most severe.
Irma had either killed them on the roost or destroyed their natural habitat to the point they hadn’t yet recalibrated to their surroundings.
Hunters are an imaginative bunch, especially when the game doesn’t cooperate, but there might have been a dollop of truth at play somewhere.
Actually, the storm saved my bacon during last year’s Youth Season in Baker County. Four gobblers had approached behind the blind in which my son and I were sitting. As often happens, they had caught us unprepared. Fortunately, Irma had conveniently chopped down a giant oak to my right, obscuring our movement as the gobblers meandered behind the massive tree trunk while I positioned my son for a shot. They re-appeared in front of his barrel, and he was able to double on a pair of fine Eastern toms.
True, after that I had a fairly quiet regular season further south, to the point I was prepared to believe in Irma as a harbinger of turkey doom. Still, it’s folly to ascribe anecdotes and the effects of one weather event – no matter how traumatic – to overall game populations, especially when, biologically speaking, you have to analyze the poult production from previous years to paint a clearer picture of the status of Florida’s wild turkeys.
For that reason, I turned to a professional, Roger Shields, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Wild Turkey Program Coordinator, to offer an update on the current health of our flocks. As one might suspect in a state of diverse habitats and weather patterns, the success of the wild turkey fluctuates from place-to-place.
Their numbers and, as a result, the hunting is neither uniformly poor nor great each year, either.
“Judging by annual harvest data, populations statewide appear to have peaked around 2008,” says Shields. “This was followed by declines in harvest trends for a number of years.” Conditions, of course, have improved over time. The estimated harvest during the 2017 spring season was the highest on record since 2001 in the North Central region. The South region also experienced a positive bounce with harvest numbers returning to pre-drop levels following a productive 2017 hunting season, according to Shields.
Not all sections of the state have returned to the glory years, but the good news is the situation doesn’t appear to be getting worse. “After downward trends stabilized, harvest numbers in the Northwest, Northeast and Southwest regions have remained fairly static or only slightly improved for the past several years,” revealed Shields.
Hunters, though, mostly consider the past when sitting around a campfire. They read magazines to get an idea of what’s to come. Knowing this, Shields peered into his crystal ball for the 2019 season. South Florida and the Panhandle could be in for a challenging Spring while the rest of the state should experience above-average hunting.
“Based on monitoring of annual productivity via harvest records and weather trends, as well as considering anecdotal reports of nesting success, we expect finding older birds in South Florida to be challenging in 2019. Poor conditions in 2016 and the unknown impact of Hurricane Irma in September 2017 may result in fewer 2- to 3-year-old birds. However, there should be a fair number of jakes from this past year’s nesting effort.”
“Elsewhere, the outlook is expected to be better as nesting and recruitment were not likely as impacted by weather events further north and inland. There should be a good number of 2- and 3-year-old birds as well as jakes. The exception is the Panhandle where we haven’t received as many reports of poults the past couple of years, so the number of jakes and 2-year-old birds may be down. Given this information, the strongest regions of the state are expected to be the North Central, followed by the Northeast region.”
Armed with this information, let’s sample a few of the better public land hunting options within the North Central and Northeast regions.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
The Best Public Land Gobbler Bets
Within the North Central region, Lochloosa WMA is 11,149 acres in Alachua County and a popular haunt for local Osceola gobbler hunters who are without a limited-entry hunting permit. As the property is very wet with ample marshland, stick to the uplands in the southeast and northwest, when possible. Expect to bump into hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts along the trails. The place is open year-round and scouting off the beaten path is the best tip for bagging a gobbler in locales like Lochloosa.
If you’re truly interested in sneaking off the beaten path, for sheer space to hunt, it’s tough to beat the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge - 53,000 acres straddling the last 20 miles of the Suwannee River and covering 30 miles of Gulf coastline. With more than 100 miles of roads for vehicle or foot/bicycle access to many habitat types open to hunting, one can explore their way into a gobbler. There’s a fee for the permit, but they are easy to acquire online until the final turkey hunting date of 2019. This is a wild corner of Florida and wild turkeys abound. Not to mention the fresh and saltwater fishing around here this time of year is typically on fire.
Speaking of fees, another interesting option that should go into planning for next year is the Special Opportunity hunt at Homosassa WMA. This slice of turkey-rich property is located just south of Homosassa Springs. The hunting is challenging as the birds, though not heavily pressured, are often tight-lipped swamp gobblers that disappear into the pines and cypress. Still, few people are able to hunt at a time making this feel like your own private lease. Paying the application and license fees might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but the uniqueness of the Nature Coast combined with a solid turkey population makes this an excellent draw.
Baird WMA and Ft. Drum WMA are about as different terrain-wise as one can find in Florida, but they’re both located in the Northeast region and hold gobblers. A limited-entry quota hunt is required to hunt Baird, but they’re often available on redraws through FWC’s re-issuance process. This place is located in the northern section of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern and is comprised of that impenetrable jungle of river bottoms, oak hammocks, cypress swamps, and pine stands noted throughout this area. In past years, food plots have been planted where finding fresh sign is not too difficult. Pulling these birds out of the swamps and into the open during shooting hours is the real trick.
Ft. Drum WMA, on the other hand, is located on the south side of State Road 60 between game-rich Yeehaw Junction and Vero Beach. It’s a unique piece of public land. The eastern portions of the property are water impoundments, rife with cattails and gators. The western side of the property is cattle pasture, while the southern end holds the majority of the roosting trees. Like Homosassa, it requires a Special Opportunity permit that is applied for in November. However, these permits are transferable, if one can find a soul unfortunate enough to have to let it go.
For those without quota or Special Opportunity permits, Richloam WMA is located near Baird. After the first nine days which do require a quota permit, anyone can hunt there. This is a 58,146-acre spider web of properties in Hernando, Lake, Pasco and Sumter Counties. The hunting pressure can be tough in Richloam, but plenty of gobblers reside in these woods, especially in the northwest section of the management area. Be warned: Don’t think about entering Richloam during a rainy Spring without a reliable 4WD or an excellent cell service provider.
Florida’s Turkey Regulations
Before stepping foot on any WMA to turkey hunt, please be familiar with their specific rules regarding season dates, access, camping, and so forth. Most of them maintain a uniform set of standards for weaponry, such as no rifles allowed, but it doesn’t hurt to double-check. In case you did not get the memo before, paper brochures will no longer be distributed. Hunters must visit myfwc.com/hunting/wma-brochures, click on the WMA of their choice, and print out the brochure at home or bookmark it on your smartphone.
South of State Road 70, the 2019 Spring Turkey Season will start March 2nd and end April 7th. The Youth Season is February 23-24. For properties north of State Road 70, the season runs from March 16th through April 21st with a Youth Season on March 9th and 10th. Please be aware, all of you hosting kids during the Youth Season, only those boys and girls 15-years-old and younger can harvest turkey, but they must be supervised by an adult, 18 years or older. Adult supervisors with a hunting license and turkey permit can “call-in” the turkey and otherwise participate in the hunt, but they cannot harvest turkey.
All hunters will need a Florida hunting license in addition to a Turkey Permit - $10 for residents and $125 for nonresidents. Most WMAs – not all – require a Wildlife Management Area Permit. The daily bag limit on private land is two birds which will account for your season bag limit, as well. Many limited-entry public land hunts restrict hunters to one bird per permit. If the reason for this is not biological, it usually has to do with spreading the wealth and giving others the opportunity to strike gold. Osceolas, after all, are a highly-sought game species. Private land hunters are allowed to hunt all day while public land hunters generally have to call it quits by 1:00 p.m. Outside of that, no dogs, no hunting near feeders, no roost shooting, and no electronic calls, no matter where you hunt.
TURKEY REGISTRY PROGRAMS
For successful hunters, pay attention to what it takes to qualify your trophy in FWC’s Wild Turkey Registry. From FWC’s website:
“The National Wild Turkey Federation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recognize, in their respective turkey registry programs, any wild turkey harvested within or south of the counties of Dixie, Gilchrist, Alachua, Union, Bradford, Clay and Duval, to be the Osceola subspecies. Eastern turkeys and hybrids are found north and west of those counties in the Panhandle.
If you harvest a turkey with an 11-inch beard or longer and at least 1¼-inch spurs, you can get your name listed in the FWC’s Wild Turkey Registry by applying for an ‘Outstanding Gobbler Certificate.’ There’s also a ‘First Gobbler Certificate’ awarded to hunters under age 16 who harvest their first gobbler, regardless of beard or spur measurements.”
One final thought before wrapping this up – don’t be discouraged if the turkey forecast in your region isn’t up to snuff. There’s no need to abandon the shotgun and camo at home. Florida’s turkey population is doing much better than it was a few generations ago, and the Sunshine State has one of the largest wildlife management area (WMA) systems in the country at nearly 6 million acres. The majority of them have at least a few gobblers strutting around. No matter where you hunt them – Osceolas in the Peninsula or Easterns in the Panhandle – turkey hunting in this state is a true test of woodsmanship and hunting skills. A little luck never hurts you, either. Some years are simply a little more productive than others. That’s the way the wind blows with Florida turkey hunting.