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Osceola Turkeys: Ghosts of the Swamp

A hunter ventures south to the Sunshine State in pursuit of an elusive, highly sought-after bird few are fortunate enough to hunt.

Osceola Turkeys: Ghosts of the Swamp

Osceola turkeys inhabit some unique environments. They thrive in cypress swamps, pine or hardwood forests and the flatwoods. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

Two sections of towering pines loomed ahead, a single 10-foot-wide mowed grass path running between them and extending beyond sight. In front of me, guide Parker O’Bannon stood on the forest edge, cautiously scoping out the two-track. It was mid-afternoon, and he was worried about spooking birds on our way into the property, a 2,300-acre parcel along Florida’s Nature Coast. It was one of several pieces of land, totaling almost 10,000 acres, owned and managed by Florida Outdoor Experience (FOE) near Chiefland. As O’Bannon had explained earlier, the path cut through the flatwoods—a distinctly Floridian mix of pines, palmettos, shrubs and grasses extending across a flat expanse—before eventually leading into a thick swamp. This bog harbored several turkeys, including some gobblers that trail cameras had captured walking and strutting along this path during most late afternoons.

O’Bannon motioned to me and photographer Oliver Rogers, who was tagging along for the hunt. He told us he’d seen a hen milling in the open way down the road, but if we moved slowly, and quietly, we shouldn’t bump any birds. Following him, we eased about 200 yards down the two-track before tucking into the pines on the left. It was as far as O’Bannon felt comfortable going that late in the afternoon, and we immediately began carving out an impromptu hide and shooting lane. As the guide put out a breeding hen and a half-strut jake decoy, I settled into a turkey chair behind a couple panels of camo fabric. Tucked back into the palmettos and with a narrow shooting lane between two pines just ahead of the decoys, there seemed little to do now but wait.

Osceola Turkeys decoy set
Guide Parker O’Bannon used a mating hen in combination with a half-strut jake decoy to help draw in two Oscoela gobblers. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

Roughly three hours earlier, I’d been tracking down my luggage at a baggage carousel in the Tampa Bay Airport. About nine hours before that, I was rubbing sleep out of my eyes in my southwest Missouri home. It had been a whirlwind of a day. A 1:30 a.m. wake-up call, two flights, a car ride to camp, a rushed changing session to gear up for the hunt and a brief drive to the property. But, if I could tag that most elusive of wild turkeys, the Osceola, it would all be worth it.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

The Osceola, or Florida, wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), is one of five turkey subspecies found in the United States. Although it closely resembles the Eastern turkey, to the trained eye there are some key differences, both in physical appearance and behavior. For starters, Osceolas are smaller than Eastern birds. While a big Eastern gobbler can weigh up to 30 pounds, an Osceola tops out at about 20, with toms between 14 and 18 pounds common. Some describe their appearance as scrawny or, more politely, streamlined, usually with longer legs than those found on an Eastern. Beards can often be shorter (though not always), and spurs are typically longer.

Drew Warden Osceola Turkey feathers
Osceola turkeys have darker flight feathers than Eastern birds. White lines are broken and overshadowed by black barring. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

The biggest visible giveaways, though, if you can call them that, are the subtle differences in coloration. Overall, Osceolas are darker birds than Easterns. Tailfeather tips are dark brown instead of chestnut colored. Body feathers have iridescent green and red hues rather than a more bronze appearance. But, most noticeably, the Florida turkey’s flight feathers are darker than the ones on other wild turkey subspecies, with less white and more black coloration. The white barring on an Eastern turkey’s wings is practically radiant in the sun; these same bars on an Osceola are narrow and often broken, muted by the thicker black bars surrounding them.

However, what many find most unique about the Osceola is also the same reason why its other name, the Florida turkey, is such a fitting one. The bird is found only on the Florida peninsula and, more than that, only resides within part of that already limited range.

Based on research, biologists have drawn an imaginary—some argue somewhat arbitrary—line through the state to illustrate the Osceola subspecies’ range versus that of the more common Eastern. It runs from between Nassau and Duval counties on Florida’s east coast along the northern county lines of Union, Alachua and Gilchrist counties to the northern edge of Dixie County where the Steinhatchee River enters the Gulf of Mexico. The supposition is that everything north of this demarcation is probably an Eastern bird, while everything south is an Osceola. The truth is likely more complex, but this helps showcase just how restricted the Osceola’s range is.

Suwannee River alongside the lodges at Florida Outdoor Experiences
One of Florida Outdoor Experience’s lodges sits along the Suwannee River. Gobblers could be heard in the trees across it. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

For avid hunters looking to bag this wily bird—especially those trying to complete a wild turkey Grand Slam (an Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Osceola)—the Sunshine State is the only option. In fact, the Osceola’s limited geographic distribution is largely why it’s often considered the most difficult part of the Grand Slam to achieve. Other reasons include the Osceola’s population (an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 compared to millions of Rios and Easterns), high pressure on public-land birds and the fact that the best hunting opportunities often occur on pay-to-play private ground. Spring hunting also starts early in Florida (March 2 in the Southern portion), which attracts a lot of Northern hunters whose seasons wouldn’t otherwise begin for several weeks.

That was certainly true for me when I hit the ground in Florida. Our turkey season in Missouri was still a month away. And, although I hadn’t set out with a Grand Slam in mind, an Osceola turkey would bring me one step closer to it—even if only unofficially since I hadn’t filled out any forms for my other birds. I’d grown up hunting Easterns, and I had taken a Merriam’s bird a couple years back in Montana. An Osceola on this trip would leave me just a bird shy of one of turkey hunting’s greatest quests.

DUAL PURPOSES

Of course, chasing an Osceola turkey was only partly why I’d come to Florida. The other reason was to learn about and test firsthand Sitka Gear’s new Equinox Guard line of clothing. The brainchild of Chris Derrick, Sitka’s product line manager, this clothing prevents ticks, mosquitoes and chiggers from biting or piercing your skin through both mechanical (physical barriers) and chemical means (permethrin-infused garments).

Far too many hunters have viewed, and perhaps even still view, these critters merely as annoying pests. While mosquitoes and chiggers do mostly fall into that category, ticks—and their diseases—can be anything but. Today, there are at least 18 known tick-borne illnesses in the U.S., and their effects on humans can range from a mild fever to life-changing chronic conditions or, in some cases, even death. More worrisome still, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research suggests that both the distribution and the overall prevalence of most tick species has increased as well.

Not only are there generally more ticks now than 70 years ago, but those tick species once limited to certain geographical regions are now also popping up in new areas, sometimes hundreds of miles from historical population boundaries. Unfortunately, they’re bringing their diseases with them, too. Figures show that the annual number of tick-borne illnesses has more than doubled in the U.S. in the past two decades. Even worse, the CDC believes many if not all these illnesses are highly underreported, with some actual incidence rates being up to 10 times higher than the reported figure. For example, while there are, on average, around 40,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year, the real number of people annually diagnosed with and treated for the disease is likely closer to 400,000.

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If you hunt regularly, or spend time with people who do, you may already be seeing the effects of this. Derrick says that almost any time he asks a group of hunters, or even just people who spend lots of time outdoors, if they’ve had a tick-borne disease or know someone who has, most will raise a hand. His own daughter has had Lyme disease, and many of his good friends have also dealt with tick-borne illnesses. This served as his own personal inspiration when developing the Equinox Guard Collection.

Of course, there’s perhaps no better place to test the clothing’s capabilities—even in the early spring—than in the humid, swampy lands along Florida’s Nature Coast. So far, two hours into my sit, things were going well on that front. While there were mosquitoes around, none had bitten me. Nor had I felt or seen any ticks crawling on me.

Makeshift hunting blind among palmettos
The author found success while hunting from a makeshift hide among palmettos. While the spot offered a limited shot window, things ultimately worked out. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

In fact, I was probably a little too comfortable sitting in my turkey chair, given my lack of sleep the previous night. The only thing keeping me even remotely conscious was O’Bannon’s periodic calling, which he delivered on a box or diaphragm call at highly spaced-out intervals. Head guide and FOE owner Gray Drummond, whose ancestors have inhabited this part of Florida since the mid-1800s, had told me that less is often more when it comes to enticing Osceolas, and based on his calling patterns, O’Bannon clearly agreed.

While sources suggest Florida turkeys have a gobble nearly as strong as an Eastern’s, most believe they’re far less vocal when they come off their roost. Some theorize this is because they share habitat with so many predators—coyotes, bobcats, foxes and even panthers farther south. Birds then call less when on the ground to avoid revealing their position to abundant four-legged, and two-legged, predators, instead becoming what fellow FOE guide Ron Bachmann calls “silent creepers.”

Fittingly, at one point in my sit, when my eyes closed for a bit too long, I reopened them and saw what appeared to be a hen standing in the grassy two-track. Yet, with how quickly it seemed to vanish once more, I began questioning whether I had dreamed it or merely seen some apparition amongst the pines. Later, after another short string of calling, I could’ve sworn I heard a faint gobble in the distance, perhaps muffled by trees or brush, but I wasn’t sure. And when O’Bannon didn’t mention anything, I elected not to broach the subject.

Shortly thereafter, as we sat idly waiting, the guide further reinforced my belief that I was losing my mind when he casually mentioned that Osceolas don’t really gobble much in the afternoon. Of course, it couldn’t have been 10 minutes later when, following a couple more soft calls from O’Bannon, I thought I heard it again. I was a second away from calling myself crazy when I heard the guide whispering to me, “Did that sound like a gobble to you?”

FAST AND FURIOUS

Our suspicions were confirmed several minutes later when we heard it again after O’Bannon started cutting once more on his call. This time there was no doubting it. The guide told me to get a little more ready but not necessarily primed to fire. He guessed the bird was maybe 250 yards away, and it might take him 20 minutes or more to work his way over to us. I shifted a bit, set my shotgun up on my knee and thought to myself, there is no way this happens on our very first sit, right?

Osceola Turkeys calling sequence
For Florida turkeys, subtle calling with lengthy pauses often wins out over more aggressive calling strategies. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

After another little break between calls, O’Bannon sounded off again. While there were still long pauses, I could tell he was shortening up his calling intervals a bit. This time, an Osceola tom hammered back at him, unleashing a gobble that was clearly closer than the last two.

“Oh, he’s coming in,” O’Bannon chuckled under his breath. “Get ready to shoot.”

He switched to his diaphragm call and after a brief wait laid down some more soft calling. However, before he could finish, a pair of gobblers interrupted, intensely firing off, this time closer still.

“They’re going to come fast,” he whispered. My heart pounded erratically as I mentally prepared for a shot. It seemed an insane development, and it went against virtually everything I had seen or heard about Osceolas ahead of my hunt. These birds that don’t gobble much in the afternoon or, really, very much ever, were suddenly firing up a storm, presumably on their way to annihilate our half-strutter jake decoy.

O’Bannon’s initial 20-minute estimate proved wildly conservative. The pair of Osceolas, both mature gobblers, suddenly materialized in the small gaps between the pines to my left, their white heads bobbing as they moved on a line toward the decoys. I just needed them to keep coming until they reached the shooting lane we’d carved out in the foliage. When they did, I placed the bead of my Retay Gordion Turkey shotgun on the lead tom’s neck a little below his head. This moment, which I’d anticipated for months, had seemingly sprung up out of nowhere on our late-March hunt. At the shot, the bird dropped and flopped on the ground mere feet from the decoys. The Boss Tom 2 1/2-ounce load of No. 9s had done its job, and so ended my first afternoon hunt in Florida and my quest for an Osceola turkey.

Drew Warden with his first Osceola gobbler
The author managed to bag a beautiful mature Osceola gobbler just hours into his first afternoon sit. (Courtesy of Oliver Rogers)

After walking up to the gobbler, all three of us celebrated. We took photos and admired the bird, and when Drummond drove up in his truck after being texted the good news, we regaled him with tales of the hunt. I was ecstatic, of course. I had taken a great bird and crossed off one of the toughest customers on my way to a Grand Slam. However, I was also experiencing something else, too. Something the life coaches and self-help gurus might call a “success hangover.”

Leading up to this hunt, everything I’d read had explained how difficult it was to hunt Osceolas. They’re not vocal. They’re hard to find. They’re ultra-wary. They’re the hardest part of completing a Grand Slam. And here, three hours into my first hunt, I already had a gobbler down. Allegedly one of the most difficult turkeys to hunt had, bafflingly, proven to be the easiest, and some inner voice was telling me I hadn’t struggled enough to earn it.

I shook the feeling for the next couple days and let myself enjoy a fishing trip along the Nature Coast’s extensive saltwater flats. O’Bannon, who’d guided me in the woods, did the same for me on the water, leading me and another hunter to some nice redfish, black drum and even a snook. The fishing was a great cap to an awesome trip, as was our post-trip cocktail hour in Cedar Key.

Drew Warden black drum fishing
Several large black drum capped off an awesome adventure in central Florida. (Courtesy of Travis Hall)

More than that, once I could reflect on all the turkey hunts that I’d been on, I was able to properly enjoy the result of this hunt. Sure, I’d bagged an Osceola after setting up maybe 200 yards from the road and sitting for, at most, three hours. But how many times had I hunted elsewhere and watched or listened in frustration as a gobbler hung up on the wrong side of a property line? Or hunted hard for three days straight without even a glimpse of success? Or had a slim chance at a bird, only to get busted before I could make a move? Or put many miles on my boots before finally making it happen?

I don’t consider myself a hard-core turkey hunter, but I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a decent amount of time chasing them. My successful hunts have not, generally, been easy affairs. Some have been infuriating, wearing me down to my last nerve. Many have been simply exhausting. In that sense, then, perhaps I had earned an easy one. And maybe how easily my hunt unfolded was more a testament to FOE’s land and management practices and the skill of a great guide. In any case, I felt extremely grateful for the opportunity to tag a beautiful, mature bird, especially one with such a limited range and occupying such a unique environment.

GO-TO GUARD

Sitka’s Equinox Guard Collection offers hunters unparalleled protection against ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and more.

Chiggers, mosquitoes and ticks are unavoidable spring through early fall. While the first two are mostly pests that can ruin warm-weather hunts, ticks can be a real threat to health due to the diseases they carry. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness, but anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis are somewhat prevalent, and there are others, like the sometimes-lethal Powassan virus, which are still rare but becoming more common.

Sitka Gear clothing
Sitka Gear's Equinox Guard Hoody, Guard Pant, and Guard Glove — all in the Optifade Subalpine pattern.

In 2022, after three years of research and development, Sitka launched the Equinox Guard Collection. Comprising a hoody ($149; sitkagear.com), pant ($249) and glove ($50), the clothing line uses mechanical and chemical means to prevents bites from ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and more—all while remaining functional and comfortable in warm weather.

Mechanically (physically), clothing limits access to the skin. Supremely lightweight, breathable and yet tightly knit stretch fabric prevents a mosquito’s proboscis (the needle-like mouthparts that pierce the skin and suck blood) from penetrating the skin. Sitka determined the right fabric after partnering with a third-party lab and testing various textiles with a heated blood membrane to see how many mosquitoes were able to feed through them. The glove’s long cuff also offers mosquito protection for the wrist and forearm when worn with the hoody. Meanwhile, the pant has an internal gaiter to keep ticks and chiggers from crawling up your leg when worn under socks, and the hoody has an extra-long tail that tucks into your pants to prevent access there.

Chemically, the pant, hoody and glove are all treated with a permethrin infusion, aka Insect Shield. The odorless treatment repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants, biting flies, chiggers and midges (no-see-ums) and is baked right into the clothing for the life of the garment (around 70 to 75 washings). There’s no need to reapply repellent. Just wear the clothing properly, and you’re good to go. As ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes encounter the various physical barriers, Insect Shield knocks them down to keep you from bringing them home with you, too.

Beyond their preventative qualities, I found all items to be lightweight, comfortable and user friendly. The pant’s internal raised grid pattern, which promotes airflow, combined with several zippered vents kept me cool, even while actively moving. The hoody’s built-in breathable mesh facemask offered added concealment while hunting. And the gloves’ AX suede fabric on the palms and nylon Cordura between the fingers and along fingertips provided grip, durability and abrasion resistance.

While hunting with the Equinox Guard Collection in Florida, and during my own testing back home, I never once found a tick on me, nor did I ever experience a mosquito bite. Over many hours of wear during spring, summer and early fall, I found the Equinox Guard hoody, pant and glove to be comfortable, well-thought-out and incredibly effective at preventing ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and other crawling and flying critters. And for those looking for different options than the Optifade Subalpine I wore, all items are also available in Optifade Waterfowl Timber and Optifade Elevated II, while the hoody (Sitka Black and Coyote) and pant (Lead and Coyote) are also available as solids.




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