Bagging any gobbler in the Sunshine State is a challenge, but our homegrown Osceola birds are special. Here's a look at how and where to find them. (April 2006)
Florida turkey hunters have the best of two worlds. Without leaving the state, we can hunt two subspecies of turkeys, the eastern and Osceola. Hunters in the Northeast Region have it even better, since they can hunt both within a few miles of each other.
How do you tell one subspecies from the other? And where's the line between the ranges of the two?
Biologists say the line separating the eastern from the Osceola subspecies starts on the east coast on the Nassau-Duval County line and runs west along that boundary. The line then turns south along Duval's west side, continuing between Bradford and Clay counties. From there, it generally follows the northern borders of Union, Alachua, Gilchrist, and Dixie counties. Every turkey found south of that divide is considered an Osceola, with the eastern birds to the north.
The division between subspecies is somewhat arbitrary, and pretty much based on physical appearance. Turkeys in central and south Florida look different enough from birds in the northern part of the state to be designated as a different subspecies. As you move north and west in the state, the birds' appearance changes. Turkeys in the middle of the state have an appearance somewhere in between those extremes. It is arbitrary, but the geographic location of any particular turkey often determines whether that bird is called an eastern or an Osceola. Conceivably, a turkey could be an eastern one day, then fly across a river and be an Osceola the next day!
Sometimes hunters can't tell the difference either. If you put a hundred Osceolas in one pen and a hundred easterns in another, most biologists can just glance at them and tell you which pen is which. But if you have only a single bird, even a trained biologist might have trouble deciding which pen to put it in. There's a lot of variation, even within the same sub-species.
What exactly are the differences? Osceolas are generally darker overall, especially on their long wing feathers. They have more black than white on their wing bars. The wing patch looks pretty white on an eastern gobbler, whereas on an Osceola, it's darker.
Another characteristic is that the Osceola is more streamlined in appearance. To put it more bluntly, Osceolas tend to be skinny. Down on the Big Cypress, adult gobblers only weigh 12 to 15 pounds. In North Florida, the eastern toms routinely are 18 to 20 pounds.
Here's a thumbnail look at when and where you can find Osceola gobblers in the Sunshine State.
Since Osceolas are found in both the South Zone and part of the Central Zone, turkey hunters going after one of these bronze beauties need to be aware of two sets of season dates. In the South Zone, turkey season runs from March 4 to April 9. In the Northeast Zone, the dates are March 18 through April 23.
You can use decoys if you like, and can hunt with shotguns, as well as bows and arrows, muzzle-loading guns, crossbows and handguns.
When you start looking at wildlife management areas or wildlife and environmental areas, season dates and regulations vary from tract to tract. On these areas, shooting hours are from 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1:00 p.m.
Most WMAs -- and all the newer ones -- have hunts managed under the Quota Hunt, Special Opportunity Hunt, or Recreational Use Permit programs. At this point in the year, unless you already have one of these permits, you're shut out until next year. However, there are still a few public properties that don't require a permit.
Keep in mind that circumstances do change, so check the regulations on each of these areas before you go.
NORTH CENTRAL REGION
Big Bend WMA Jena Unit
This, the southernmost unit of the Big Bend WMA, covers 12,522 acres, and is located in Dixie County. The season runs March 18 through April 23.
The only special requirement for hunting here is a daily use permit. To get this permit, stop by one of the check stations on your way into the area.
This 11,149-acre WMA is located in Alachua County. The season runs from March 18 through April 23. Lochloosa Lake is in the middle of the area, and the swamp around the lake is a good place to look for turkeys.
Santa Fe Swamp WEA
Santa Fe Swamp WEA is located in Bradford County and covers 5,627 acres. Turkey season here runs from March 18 through April 23. The area is just north of Little Santa Fe Lake.
Bull Creek WMA
Located in Osceola County, this area covers 23,646 acres. The season starts March 18 and goes to April 23. The Florida Trail crosses this area, so be aware of the presence of hikers.
Jumper Creek WMA
Turkey season on Jumper Creek WMA runs March 18 to April 23. The area has 10,512 acres and is located in Sumter County, right along the Withlacoochee River and just southwest of Lake Panasoffkee.
Richloam covers 56,401 acres in Hernando, Pasco, Sumter and Lake counties. The season runs from March 18 through April 23. You must have a Quota Hunt permit during the first nine days of the season, but after that, any licensed hunter is welcome.
Upper St. Johns River Marsh WMA
Located in Brevard and Indian River counties, Upper St. Johns River Marsh WMA sprawls across 119,419 acres. The season here runs March 18 through April 23. No permits are required for any hunts on this area.
Green Swamp WMA
Green Swamp is located in Lake, Polk and Sumter counties, and covers 49,768 acres. The season runs from March 18 to April 23. A Quota Hunt permit is required for the first weekend of hunting, but after that, you need only pick up one of the 200 daily hunt permits available at the check station.
Kissimmee River Public Use Area
The Kissimmee River PUA is a linear area that follows the river from State Road 60 down to State Road 78, running through Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee, Osceola, and Polk counties. This 23,433-acre area is partly in the South Zone and partly in the Central Zone, so hunting dates are different on various parts of it. Parts of the area in the South Zone have a season from March 4 to April 10, and parts in the Central Zone are open from March 18 through April 23.
Upper Hillsborough WMA
This 5,178-acre tract is located in Pasco and Polk counties. The season runs March 22 to 23, March 29 to 30, April 5 to 6, April 12 to 13, and April 19 to 20. Stop by the check station to pick up the required daily hunt permit.
Big Cypress WMA
Big Cypress WMA is one of the largest WMAs in the state system. At 545,848 acres, it sprawls across Collier, Dade and Monroe counties. The season here runs from March 4 to April 9.
This area is divided into a number of management units. For the purposes of spring turkey season, the only unit with different regulations is the Deep Lake Unit, where only muzzle-loading guns and archery equipment are allowed.
Expect difficult travel and hunting conditions on all portions of this WMA.
J. W. Corbett WMA
Corbett WMA covers 60,288 acres and is located inland of West Palm Beach in Palm Beach County. The season here is very limited, running from March 4 to April 9, on Saturdays and Sundays only.
In this area, vehicles may be operated only on Stumpers, North and South Grades and on named or numbered roads and trails.