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Hunter's challenge: Bagging the wily Osceola turkey

Hunter's challenge: Bagging the wily Osceola turkey
Hunter's challenge: Bagging the wily Osceola turkey
TRENTON, Fla. (MCT) - Some pundits proclaim that when the world ends, only cockroaches and Keith Richards will be left. After my recent hunting experience in North Florida, I would like to make an addendum to the list of eternal life forms: Osceola turkeys.

For nonhunters, the Osceola is a sub-species of wild turkey found only in Florida. It might be the hardest of all the North American sub-species - including Merriam, eastern, Rio Grande and Goulds - for a hunter to kill. Owing to its keen eyesight and hearing and a neurotically suspicious nature, I wouldn't be surprised to see them floating placidly on top of icebergs after the polar icecaps melt, strutting and fanning their iridescent, harvest-hued tails.

Of course, that's an exaggeration - but not by much.

Said Jeff Long - professional guide and 30-year turkey hunting veteran: "A lot of people think turkeys are stupid animals. But the Osceola is as smart as they come. They mess with your mind."

The turkeys definitely messed with Long's mind a couple weeks ago as he guided Leiza Fitzgerald and me on a hunt at the private, 23,000-acre Gilchrist Club northwest of Gainesville.

Fitzgerald, an accomplished outdoorswoman from St. Petersburg, wanted to take her first Osceola. She has killed bull elk, wild hogs, deer and an eastern wild turkey, but the wily Florida bird had always eluded her.

"I've called them in and gotten them close, but never shot an Osceola," she said.

Indeed, the club - where Fitzgerald works as vice president of development - seemed like the perfect venue for bagging prize poultry. Well-managed, lightly-hunted and featuring a variety of habitats, this vast, rural enclave supports healthy populations of wild game, including deer, quail and hog. And few know how to stalk and talk turkey better than Long.

Nearly all of Long's clients have either gotten a shot at a bird or killed one since turkey hunting season opened last month. That is because Long, 46, knows where the birds roost at night, where they land at daylight, where their favorite food plots are located and which sections of woods and dirt roads they travel. With his clients, he stakes out these areas before dawn and throughout the day, using various calling devices to mimic a hen seeking the companionship of a manly gobbler.

Some gobblers charge headlong toward the sounds of hen calls coming from Long's camouflage blind and confident of getting lucky. These hapless love-birds usually get shot and then become the main dish at the church barbecue.

But on the two days we hunted, it seemed like the gobblers were just not in the mood - no matter what Long promised them with his aluminum/plastic call.

His authentic purrs and yelps of enticement were met with either dead silence or half-hearted (and very distant) gobbling.

"They're not saying nothing," he murmured in frustration.

For two days, we alternately staked out the woods concealed behind a ground blind or executed stealthy "run-and-gun" maneuvers, circling through thick brush behind food plots and trying to flush the birds with calls.

At one point, we relocated to the edge of a pine forest next to a dirt road. Long's first call was answered by a bellowing gobble that sounded like it was right behind us. Fitzgerald swiveled her shotgun, Long made another call and the gobbler answered even more loudly.

We sat stock-still and waited for it to rush toward us. But it never appeared and never answered another one of Long's calls.

The rest of our hunt followed a similar pattern. We would round a clearing in the woods, only to surprise a gobbler standing in the middle of a path. Or a distant gobbler would respond repeated ly to Long's calls, then abruptly go silent.

At one point, we witnessed a flock of gobblers and hens in a gulley at the end of a pine row about 50 yards away.

A couple of the gobblers were engaged in Kung Fu-like combat, trying gouge each other with the spurs on their legs in an effort to impress the harem.

We dropped to the ground and Long began to call, but to no avail. When we looked up again, all had vanished.

"A big bird," Long said ruefully of one of the members of the flock. "His beard was dragging the ground. He's just following the hens. He won't leave them."

At the end of the second day, after we had driven, walked or crawled what seemed like miles of wilderness and never had a turkey in sight, we decided to give up.

The Osceola, for us, would remain the ghost of the woods.

© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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