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Hunting Osceola Turkeys
On a road map of Florida draw a line from the city of Jacksonville in the east to the mouth of the Suwannee River in the west, and then go south to the Everglades. This is where you’ll find the pure strain of Osceola wild turkey.
Some 100,000 Osceolas, named after the famous Seminole chief who led his tribe in a bloody border war with the Americans in the early 1800s, roam the central and southern portions of the Sunshine State. Due to this restricted range, only relatively few of America’s turkey hunters go for an Osceola each year.
A streamlined version of the Eastern turkey, a mature Osceola tom weighs an average of 16 to 18 pounds in the spring, though a 20-pounder is not uncommon. Bathed in morning sunlight, a gobbler’s ebony feathers spin iridescent reds, blues, golds and greens. An Osceola’s wing feathers are distinctive. The primaries are mostly black with narrow white veins, and that sets the bird apart from the other subspecies.
An Osceola tom’s beard drags the ground, but it is often thinner than an Eastern turkey’s. Wading the swamps and walking on sand, a Florida tom does not rub off the tips of his spurs. To the contrary, a gobbler grows long, curved and sharp hooks, which are prized by turkey hunters.
A Place to Turkey Hunt
Many wildlife management areas in central and southern Florida offer spring turkey hunting. Check one out. One turkey hunter hunted several public hunting areas over the years and the hunting was pretty good, better than he expected. Any public hunting is a challenge, but it’s fun. The Florida swamps were huge, flat and thick. They waded through a lot of black water to get to gobbling turkeys, and you can bet he was on the lookout for snakes and gators.
One thing this turkey hunter found amazing is how gobblers often strut and gobble on humps of dry ground only six or eight inches high. Getting to the birds before they quit gobbling each morning, without them hearing or seeing you, is tough. All in all, if you kill a big Osceola on public ground, you’ve earned it.
Without question the best Osceola hunting is found on private cattle ranches in the lower two-thirds of Florida. These ranches offer prime turkey habitat, a mix of cypress swamps, improved pasturelands and oak hammocks. The birds typically roost in the swamps, fly down to feed and strut in the pastures at dawn and retreat to the shade of the oak hammocks when the sun rises high into the sky each day. Generally you can hunt in the pastures and hammocks without stepping into a swamp and getting your feet wet.
While the turkey hunting on private lands is great right now, how long will it last? That concerned this turkey hunter the last time he hunted the Osceola just north of Tampa. In the wee hours of opening morning, traffic had been heavy on the drive out to the 1,000-acre ranch where they had permission. Housing developments, resorts and strip malls lined the highway. When he floored a longbeard at dawn, golfers were just teeing off on a new golf course a mile away. he wonderd if some guy flinched at the sound of the shot? When his buddy whacked his tom a couple of hours later, thousands of tourists were pushing through the turnstiles at Busch Gardens and over at Disney less than 50 miles away. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the Sunshine State, how long could the ranch and its turkeys survive?
Not to sound too negative, because the turkey hunting is tremendous on many Florida ranches right now. But no doubt it is getting tougher and tougher to find private land to hunt. Residential and commercial development will continue to take a lot of the best turkey habitat. If you know somebody down there who has a good place to hunt Osceolas, go now.
Osceola Turkey Hunting Tactics
As a rule, Osceola toms don’t gobble as much their Eastern kin. And you’ve got to remember this. When a bird gobbles from deep in a cypress swamp at daybreak, he always sounds farther away than he really is. The flat, thick swamps soak up the sounds of a turkey’s gobbles. You might hear a gobbler and think he is 400 yards off, when he’s really roosted only 200 yards away. You’ve got to approach a turkey carefully. If you bust off toward a bird too fast, you might walk right over him and spook him.
In a public swamp, wade toward a gobbling bird as best you can. But when turkey hunting a ranch, lay back a little bit. Set up on the edge of a pasture, or in the head of an oak hammock that juts out into a field, 150 to 200 yards from a tom. Set out three or four hen turkey decoys, along with a fake jake. At first light the tom will sail from his cypress roost and alight in the pasture to strut and gather hens. If you hears your calls and sees your turkey decoys, there’s a good chance he’ll strut over for a look.
Late in the morning, when the angry sun rises and singes their feathers, turkeys retreat to swamps and oak hammocks, where they hang out for the day. Through the birds are largely inactive and silent, it pays to stay on the move and glass the edges of cover. You might spot a strutter loafing in the shade, like these turkey hunters did one day a couple of years ago.
“I thought I heard a turkey gobble over there a couple of times earlier this morning, but I wasn’t sure,” said Drury from beneath his binoculars. “Down here you never know. Coursing faint gobbles is tough. But now I’m sure, let’s go!”
They took off on a flanking assault, circling to the left and rear of the strutter, and set up on the edge of a swamp 150 yards away. As this turkey hunter and his cameraman settled into their positions, he whispered, “I’m gonna hit him with a call, watch his reaction.”
The turkey hunter yelped once on a box.
“He gobbled,” he said, watching the bird through his binos, but we couldn’t hear it.
“I’m gonna yelp again,” he replied, fingering the lid of the turkey call.
“Uh, I wouldn’t do that,” said the turkey hunter, digging his face into his gunstock. “He’s coming on the run!” The turkey hunters friend’s shotgun roared and the bird went down.
Turkey Calling Tips
Some people say you shouldn’t turkey call too much or to aggressively to Florida gobblers. But some turkey hunters have found that if you hit the timing of the spring breeding season just right, you can call hard to an Osceola gobbler, just like you can to an Eastern or a Rio Grande bird. If you catch a turkey hot and ready, he’ll respond to lots of yelps and cutts.
Some do agree that as a rule Osceola toms don’t gobble as much as Easterns do. When you set up on a turkey that is not gobbling all that great, start him off with soft turkey calling. Take his temperature. If he likes low-key clucks and yelps keep giving it to him. Some turkey hunters have shot several Florida toms that came to just one or two little turkey calls.
Swamp Turkey Gear
Use the same shotgun, load and turkey calls in Florida as you do anywhere in wild turkey country. That means a 12-gauge magnum with stout 3- or 3 ½-inch turkey loads of No. 4 or 6 shot. Then to tureky hunt safely and effectively:
- Wear knee-high rubber boots when wading through swamps. Snake boots a good choice, since you never know when or where you might run across a snake in a swamp or pasture.
- Temperatures will be in the 70s, 80s or maybe even the 90s, even when the season opens in March, so wear lightweight cotton camouflage.
- Swamps breed mosquitoes. If you hunt in Florida without a can of DEET-based repellent in your vest, you’re crazy. Before a hunt, mist your pants and shirt, and really coat your cap and gloves. Reapply bug dope several times each morning. Carry a Thermacell.
- A swamp is flat and thick. All the moss-laden trees and pockets of black water look the same. You can and will get turned around every once in a while. Carry a map and a compass or a GPS unit to find your way out.
- Use a small flashlight when wading into a swamp and setting up in the dark. You sure don’t want to step into a creek channel over your head or sit on a snake! Point the light’s beam toward the ground and you won’t spook turkeys.
- A small, easy-to-carry aluminum and mesh hunting seat is great for a swamp. You can set up anywhere without getting your butt wet.