Whether you plan to target an Osceola on the peninsula or an eastern gobbler in the Panhandle, the Sunshine State can accommodate you. How are wild turkeys doing statewide? Let's have a look. (February 2009)
Florida hunters enjoy some of the best turkey hunting in the nation. In the northwestern part of the state, they can go for the eastern subspecies of wild turkey. Down south, they can challenge wary Osceolas.
Either way, if you think you'll need to look hard to find a gobbler this spring, you may be pleasantly surprised. Like last year's, this 2009 spring turkey season promises to be another good one. Florida biologists are continuing to see substantial numbers of the birds statewide.
Whether you're hunting on private land or on one of the state's wildlife management areas, you stand a good chance of bringing home a gobbler from any part of the state.
David Nicholson is the state turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Though no statewide assessment of turkey stocks are done in Florida, he feels that prospects are good for the 2009 spring season.
"The last two or three years, our springs have been dry," he said, "so we've pulled off good hatches. That should result in a lot of 2- and 3-year-old gobblers."
In fact, spring 2007 was just about ideal for hatching. Many of the state's biologists reported a lot of hens with poults. And the nesting season was longer than usual: There were reports of hens with poults as early as the first part of March, and as late as the end of summer. So the population of 2-year-olds coming into the spring should be one of the best on record.
Those good prospects also should carry over into 2010.
"This year, we had a dry spring during the nesting and brooding period," Nicholson noted. "Typically, a dry spring results in good reproduction. Those will be jakes this year."
Next year, however, they'll be two years old -- and gobbling.
That said, however, some areas of the state may have been just too dry for young birds to find enough water.
"In North Florida, most reports I've gotten indicated that poults were seen everywhere, and they were getting up close to the size of the hens," said Nicholson. "Down in South Florida, we got some mixed reports. There were a fair number of poults in most areas, but some biologists just didn't see that many. It appears that those areas were just a little too dry."
So based on initial reports, the spring of 2010 may be a little better in North Florida than southward.
THE BURNING QUESTION
With the Sunshine State's recent record of wildfires, those disasters have become regular concerns. But Nicholson doesn't think the fires of last spring and early summer caused much direct mortality for turkeys.
"We had a pretty active season in some areas of the state, but there weren't any large wildfires like we've had at some times in the past. So I don't see that affecting turkey populations a lot," he said.
"In fact, some of those fires in altering the habitat may actually have done more good than harm."
Typically, he said, a lot of the areas where wildfires occur have heavy fuel loads and are very thick because they haven't had routine prescribed burns.
"Turkeys prefer more open habitat rather than the layers of thick, heavy shrub that tend to accumulate in Florida if an area isn't burned routinely," Nicholson pointed out.
"Though wildfires can have immediate impacts on wildlife populations, opening that understory can have benefits in the long term."
Besides, turkeys are mobile and can normally get into swamps or wet areas and survive.
"Unless we have a huge fire that is very intense and burns hundreds of thousands of acres, turkeys can get out of the way," Nicholson said.
"Where you can have problems is during the nesting and the brooding period when turkeys typically aren't as mobile. Fortunately, most of our fire season occurs prior to that time."
WHICH TURKEYS ARE WHERE?
As we mentioned early on, depending on where in the state you hunt, you'll encounter either eastern or Osceola turkeys.
Nicholson said that to distinguish the range of the two species, biologists generally use a line running roughly northeast to southwest across the north-central part of the state.
This isn't to say that there's a firm line in the sand, and that the turkeys on one side of it are easterns and on the other side they're Osceolas.
"We call it an 'intergrade' where they mix. But for record-keeping purposes, we drew a line based on our best estimate of where that separation occurs," Nicholson explained.
"Osceolas occur south of -- but not including -- Lafayette, Columbia, Taylor, Baker, Suwannee and Nassau counties."
WHERE TO GO ON PRIVATE LAND
Where can you go for your gobbler this year?
Just about anywhere in the state!
There's no statewide turkey survey, which makes it difficult to identify specific areas on private land to hunt. But based on last year's harvest, private lands are doing well across the state. A lot of private property is under lease or is hunted by the landowners. The popularity of turkey hunting has stimulated a lot of management specifically for these birds.
"Typically, the Big Bend region -- including Jefferson, Madison, Taylor and Lafayette counties -- tends to have moderate to high numbers of turkeys," Nicholson said. "Then when you get down into the central portion of the state, the counties that kind of stand out are Osceola County, the eastern side of Okeechobee County, and Hardee and DeSoto counties."
According to Nicholson, what makes these counties better is partly the quality of the habitat and partly minimal urban development.
"Those counties are more rural, so you don't have a lot of urban sprawl and big population centers," he said.
"The counties in the Panhandle are primarily forested, and there are a lot of hunt clubs in the area. So people
have taken more of an active role in protecting wildlife resources."
In the southern counties that he listed, the land is often used for agriculture.
"There's a lot of ranching, and pastures interspersed with live oaks," he noted. "That creates a pretty good blend of turkey habitat requirements, and those areas are pretty well protected."
Besides all the gobblers on private land, there also are a number of public areas with good populations.
Nicholson said that WMAs could be divided into three distinct groups, depending on how they're hunted.
First are those with unlimited access and maximum hunting opportunity, then others managed under the quota hunt system and finally, the ones where hunting is limited to special-opportunity hunts only.
Nicholson said the WMAs in the first category, with the best chance of success are Green Swamp, Bull Creek, and Three Lakes.
"I look primarily at the harvest index on those properties," he added.
"On those areas, the man-days per turkey harvested tend to be lower than on other areas that offer maximum opportunity. All of those are also large areas, and under pretty active habitat management, including prescribed burning, mowing and other habitat manipulation."
When it comes to quota-hunt areas, Nicholson suggested Half Moon, the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes, Andrews, Joe Budd, Dinner Island, and Hickory Hammock WMAs.
There's good habitat and management on all these areas. "In addition," Nicholson offered, "on these areas the commission tends to be more conservative on issuing quota permits, so they have a lower density of hunters. This results in a higher-quality hunt and higher harvest success."
Special-opportunity hunts are even more limited, and as a result, are of even higher quality than quota hunts.
"Really, all the special-opportunity areas are good," Nicholson said. "Typically, they have hunter-success rates of more than 80 percent. Looking at last year's data, the best ones were Fort Drum, Fisheating Creek, and Dexter/Mary Farms Unit of Lake George WMAs.
"What makes these hunts so good is that they're even more restricted than quota hunts. On these areas, we try to keep the hunter densities very low to keep hunter satisfaction high and harvest success high, and to harvest only adult gobblers."
Be aware that unlike quota hunts, special-opportunity hunts are not free. There is a fee for each hunt, although it's much less than you'd pay at a hunting lodge or game preserve.
NEW PLACES TO HUNT
One area that's been open only for waterfowl, but will be open for turkey hunts in 2009, is Guana River WMA, which Nicholson described as "about a 10,000-acre WMA in northeast Florida."
The FWC stocked turkeys on that area. When the state acquired the land, turkeys were not present, probably because of heavy hunting pressure back while it was private.
The FWC released 35 turkeys on the property in 2002.
"Since that release," Nicholson said, "we've continued to survey that population. It's been increasing and expanding at a faster rate than we planned. It's done so well that we plan to have limited spring turkey hunts in 2009."
Besides Guana River, Nicholson said that six other WMAs will offer spring turkey hunting for the first time in 2009. All but one of these are open under the quota-hunt system. That exception is the 1,147-acre Log Landing WMA in Dixie County. It offers walk-up hunts.
Those with quotas include Belmore WMA, covering 8,737 acres in Clay County, and the 13,060-acre Four Creeks WMA in Nassau County. Others are 2,760-acre Hatchet Creek WMA in Alachua County; the Kings Road Unit of Thomas Creek WMA, containing 1,753 acres in Duval County; and the 6,093-acre Osprey Unit of Hilochee WMA in Polk County.
WHAT ABOUT HOLMES COUNTY?
If you're at all familiar with turkey hunting in the Sunshine State, you're probably familiar with the problems in that county in the Panhandle.
In 1998, The FWC closed Holmes County to turkey hunting because the birds had virtually disappeared. Over the next few years, biologists released 121 turkeys at eight different sites within the county.
Those turkeys did so well that the FWC reopened the county for hunting in 2006, but with only a three-day season. Similar hunts followed in 2007 and 2008.
"We're continuing to see expansion of the restored turkey population in the county," Nicholson said. "And as such, we've liberalized the spring season. For 2009, the three-day season has been extended to 16 days, but we're maintaining a one-gobbler bag limit in Holmes County."
To date, the FWC considers the project a huge success story.
"We're continuing to conduct an annual bait-station survey in the county," Nicholson said. "We have 28 bait stations. And last year, we documented turkeys at 16 of those stations, which is more than ever before. At three of the sites, in fact, we hadn't previously documented any turkeys. This suggests a continued expansion of the population.
"This year, I've had two complaints about turkey crop depredation in the county," the biologist added. "That also suggests increasing numbers. So we've gone from having none to having too many -- in some places."