Florida is blessed with two subspecies of wild turkeys and plenty of public land on which to hunt the birds. Let's take a look at what that means for hunters pursuing gobblers this year.
By Carolee Boyles
My partner Mark and his son Matthew crouched in the blind, watching for a turkey to come around the corner. I'd been calling for most of an hour, and the bird had been answering. With each gobble he was closer, until suddenly he fell silent. I stopped calling for a while, thinking he was coming silently through the woods, as Florida gobblers sometimes are wont to do. But after 30 minutes, and several more unanswered calls, we realized that Matthew would have to wait for another day to bag his first turkey.
Florida's a great state in which to hunt turkeys, not only because of the warm spring, but because hunters have the opportunity to go after two subspecies of turkeys here: the eastern turkey, in the northern part of the state, and the Osceola subspecies, farther south. If you're in the north-central part of the state, you have it even better. You can hunt both subspecies within a few miles of one another.
How do you tell one subspecies from the other and where's the line between the two?
Neal Eichholz, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), says the line that separates the eastern subspecies from the Osceola subspecies starts in Nassau County, on the east coast.
"It follows the county lines on the north sides of Duval, a little part of Bradford, Union, Alachua, Gilchrist, and Dixie counties," he explains. "If you draw that line, everything south of it is considered an Osceola turkey; north of it, they're easterns."
However, the division between the two subspecies really isn't that simple.
"The turkeys in central and south Florida look different enough that early taxonomists designated them a different subspecies," Eichholz says. "As you move north and west in the state, the appearance of the birds is somewhere in between that of the turkeys in South Florida and the ones even farther north. It's the geographic location that determines whether a bird is an eastern or an Osceola."
Photo by Paul Tessier
Conceivably, then, a turkey could be an eastern one day, and fly across the river and be an Osceola the next day. Nonetheless, if you take the birds of central and south Florida as a group, they do have a different appearance from the ones in, say, southern Georgia.
"Osceolas are generally darker overall, especially on the long wing feathers," Eichholz notes. "They have more black than white on the wing bars. If you see one walking around, the wing patch will look pretty white on an eastern, whereas on an Osceola it's darker.
"The other thing is that the Osceola is more racy in appearance, more streamlined," he continues. "It tends to be skinny. Down on the Big Cypress, adult gobblers only weigh 12 to 15 pounds. The easterns in north Florida get larger."
Where should go to hunt your bird in 2003? To find out, we asked regional FWCC biologists in the state to tell us what's happening in each of their regions, and where you should go to look for your bird. What we found out is encouraging. Early signs for this year are that the overall turkey population is continuing to benefit from the drought of the past several years, which has allowed turkey numbers to climb across the state.
With that said, here's a region-by-region look at Florida for the spring 2003 season.
NORTHWEST REGION "Overall, we had a pretty good hatch this year," says district biologist Fred Robinette. "The drought helped, particularly in the bottomland hardwood area. A lot of times when turkeys nest there they get flooded out."
In terms of private land, Robinette suggests that the Red Hills area of northern Leon County and, to a lesser extent, Jefferson and Gadsden counties are good places in which to look for turkeys.
"Those plantation areas are managed well," he says. "And the habitat in that area of the Panhandle is open and spacious."
Farther west in the Panhandle there's a lot of timber company land that may hold turkeys, but they tend to be more scattered and harder to hunt.
Public land areas that Robinette suggests include Joe Budd Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the Hutton Unit of the Blackwater WMA.
"The Hutton Unit hasn't really caught on yet," he says. "It has limited turkey hunting, but there's a pile of turkeys in there. It's a quota hunt area, but we're still not getting the folks we could, except for local hunters who know the area is there."
The area, which lies just south of the Blackwater River, is mostly gallberry and longleaf pine.
"It has some river corridors," Robinette adds. "I think the turkeys work their way up from the river."
Two power lines cross the area, and the FWCC has planted those in food plots for bugging areas.
Joe Budd WMA, located in Gadsden County, is an area with a variety of habitats. Biologists also have planted a number of food plots on this area.
One other area Robinette suggests is Bluewater Creek WMA, in Escambia County.
"We've opened up some food plots in that area, and there are a lot of turkeys there," he says. "It's a user-pay area, so it costs a little more."
NORTH-CENTRAL REGION "The turkey population is probably close to carrying capacity on our management areas," says Scott Johns, a district biologist in the North Central Region. "We've had four or five really outstanding turkey hatches in the past few years, and the turkey population is about as high as it's ever been in north Florida. Everything points to a stable to increasing population."
Several factors have affected turkey numbers in the region. First are the several dry springs we've had in a row.
"We're also continuing to do a lot of prescribed burning on the management areas," he notes. "The National Wild Turkey Federation has become a force on our management areas, and they're granting us money every year so we're able to do more on the management areas. All those things help."
All the region's management areas are in good shape with turkeys, but Johns particularly
recommends Twin Rivers, Osceola, Raiford, Camp Blanding and Jennings Forest WMAs.
"Camp Blanding and Jennings Forest are probably the best two areas in northeast Florida," he says. "Camp Blanding has a good mix of upland pine and turkey oak habitat, with several streams and hardwood bottoms crossing through the area. All of that gives a good mix for turkeys. There's also a very aggressive prescribed burning plan on the area that the National Guard is doing, along with our office. We burned about 8,000 acres there last year."
The FWCC has been doing some summer burning on Jennings Forest WMA, which is very helpful for turkeys and their habitat. The terrain there is mostly upland, but the area also drops down into Black Creek, which is one of the major drainages in the area. This provides a mix of pine and hardwood habitats that the turkeys really like.
Johns suggests that Columbia County is a good place in which to look for turkeys on private land, as are Union, Gilchrist and Alachua counties.
"A lot of northern Alachua County is beautiful upland habitat," he points out. "In the southern part of Columbia County there's a lot of farmland that's still being utilized. This creates a mix of farmland and wild uplands, as well as creek bottoms that turkeys need."
This also holds true in Union and Gilchrist counties.
NORTHEAST REGION According to Joy Hill, information specialist for the Northeast Region, some of the best bets for turkeys in the region are Bull Creek, Ocala, Three Lakes and Richloam WMAs.
On Bull Creek, the habitat is pine-palmetto flatwoods with scattered cypress domes, bayheads and mixed hardwood creek swamps. On Richloam, the primary habitat is dense pine-palmetto flatwoods, with scattered oak hammocks, creek-bottom hardwood communities and cypress ponds. Ocala, at more than 382,000 acres, is one of the state's biggest WMAs, and it has a wide range of habitats within its boundaries.
One good bet for private land is Osceola County. Both Three Lakes and Bull Creek WMAs are located in Osceola County, and the same factors that are working on the two tracts also work on private land. There's still a good bit of open ranch-type land in the county, which helps create good habitat for the birds.
SOUTHWEST REGION The turkey population has risen in the Southwest Region over the past several years, says Roger Shields, wildlife biologist with the Wild Turkey Management Section.
"We're coming off three to five years of drought," he notes. "Generally when you don't have rain in the spring, that provides good conditions for turkey reproduction and survival through the spring and into the summer."
Last year the region had a good acorn crop, which also contributed to good reproductive success.
Shields suggests that hunters take a look at Green Swamp and Green Swamp West WMAs.
"Those two areas are really great because they have a mixture of habitat types," Shields continues. "The Withlacoochee River flows through them, so they have good bottomland. But at the same time there's a mix of bottomland and some scrub habitat for nesting. That mix is really conducive for turkeys."
Another area with a good turkey population is Half Moon WMA.
"On that area, hunters took an average of seven days to harvest a turkey," Shields says.
Some of the other areas where hunters had good success were Hilochee, Seminole Forest and Richloam WMAs.
The best bets for private land should be in Polk, Osceola and Pasco counties.
"South of that you get more into the Everglades-type areas, and the habitat really isn't there for the birds," Shields concludes.
SOUTH REGION Overall, the turkey population in the region is very good, according to biologist Tim Regan.
"The last five years, the turkey population in South Florida has been at an all-time high, at least for the 28 years I've been at the commission," Regan says. "We had a series of very dry springs and the turkeys have done well, with some good hatches."
If you're going to hunt on private land, look in the counties that are the least developed and have the most open land.
"Okeechobee and Hendry are the two best counties because they're the most undeveloped," the biologist suggests. "They're ranch land, with some swamps and wetlands, as well as a lot of flatwoods and improved pasture."
Collier County also has a lot of birds, particularly in the transition zone where the Big Cypress area ends and you get into more upland areas to the north. There, you find a good mixture of habitats, including cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, and a lot of oaks and pine/palmetto areas.
Although there are turkeys on a number of the region's WMAs, none of those in the South Region are as good as some of the WMAs farther north. Big Cypress WMA holds some turkeys, but they're spread out and hard to hunt because the area is primarily swamp.
"Last year hunters checked in 39 birds during the spring hunt," Regan says. "But some hunters come in off Alligator Alley and the [Tamiami] Trail, and they don't check their birds. So I'm guessing there were at least 10 more birds taken on the area."
Another area to look at is Kissimmee River Public Use Area. This is an odd area in that it's split between the South, Southwest and Northeast regions.
"There are birds all up and down the river," Regan notes. "That's an area for which you don't need a quota (permit), so you can go there."
Along the river you find a lot of oaks and hardwood hammocks, with pasture on the uplands.
One area with a good turkey population is Dupuis WMA, but that area's hunts are entirely under quota. If you didn't put in for a permit during the winter, you're out of luck for this year, but take a look at it for next year.
TROPHY TURKEYS Since 2001, Florida turkey hunters have had a way of figuring out if their gobblers are trophies and comparing them to other birds taken in the state.
Cory Morea is a wildlife biologist assigned to the Wild Turkey Management Section of the FWCC. He says the Florida Wild Turkey Registry was initiated to recognize both outstanding gobblers and youth hunters who harvest their first gobbler.
"The Florida Buck Registry recognizes and promotes deer hunting in the state," Morea says. "The Wild Turkey Registry is designed to do the same thing - to both recogni
ze those hunters and promote turkey hunting in the state."
If you're looking for a trophy bird, a quick look at the registry gives you an idea of where trophy-quality birds can be found. However, there are two things you need to remember about these data.
First, inclusion on the registry is voluntary. There may be any number of trophy-quality turkeys that hunters have taken but for some reason have chosen not to put on the list.
Second, so far the registry doesn't have a very long list of birds. The more gobblers that are on the list, the more accurate a picture it will give of where big birds are taken.
To access the Registry on the Internet, visit www.wld.fwc.state.fl.us/turkey/registry.
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