Hunters from around the globe visit Central Florida to chase the Osceola gobber

Story by Ian Nance • Photography by Penn & Finn

To say Florida goes without a fall or winter betrays the sudden life that explodes forth in the footprints of the later months as spring arrives. The underbrush that had sneaked away in November bursts into fresh green. Aromas of budding oaks and orange blossoms sweeten the air. Melancholy refrains of whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows (the only birds sounding sorrowful about the vibrancy of life in March and April) pace the dawn toward sunrise. And it is at this hour of the day when Florida hunters who take to the field during spring feel more alive as well, for nothing captures the emerging excitement and vitality of the woods than the thundering gobble of an Osceola tom.
Named after the famed Seminole chief, the Osceola, or Florida Wild Turkey, is one of five subspecies of turkeys recognized in the United States. Smaller and darker with more striking iridescence in its feathers than its kin, dedicated turkey hunters who wish to fulfill the goal of a Grand Slam — harvesting all five subspecies — visit the Sunshine State to chase Mr. Osceola. More specifically, folks — even those not yearning after such challenges — must hunt the peninsular portion of the state since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) only recognize birds residing in and to the south of Dixie, Gilchrist, Alachua, Union, Bradford, Clay, and Duval counties to be purebred Osceolas. This makes Central Florida Ground Zero for Osceola turkey hunting in the world, and hunters do in fact travel here from all corners to pursue this challenging creature.
Being a generalist that adapts to various habitats and diets, the Osceola thrives in this region of diverse ecosystems. They are as at home in thick cypress swamps and blackwater river bottoms as they are in agriculture fields and prairies. All Florida native, they ride out the hurricanes, heat, floods, and mosquito clouds from year to year. The only true threat to their
future — a danger to all wild things in this state — is development and human encroachment. Still, they are better suited than most as they can get comfortable in suburban neighborhoods, golf courses, and around airports provided there are roost trees nearby where they can call it a night.
Due to the limited availability of the Osceola and their mastery of Florida’s challenging terrain, this subspecies is far and away considered the most difficult to hunt. Those who do not pursue gobblers season after season fail to understand how tuned in these animals truly are. A gobbler in the open maximizes his superior hearing and eyesight to seek hens and avoid predators and careless hunters. The swamp-dwelling birds prefer stealth, suffering from extreme cases of gobbling lockjaw so as not to betray their presence to anything laying in ambush. Those who score Osceolas season after season are considered to be the best amongst the turkey-hunting fraternity.

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And the turkey-hunting fraternity is an odd, obsessed lot; crazy, even, as stories float around of hunters going so far as removing dental work to make mouth calls (half-moon shaped
pieces of tape and latex that mimic hen turkeys when operated properly) sound sweeter. The ranks of turkey hunters have swelled over the last twenty-five years as the sport has grown in popularity with the rebounding numbers of turkeys nationwide. Florida’s public land Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) hold plenty of Osceolas but attract a lot of hunters as well.
Mulberry resident Scott Ellis has hunted Osceolas for thirty seasons. Well-known and regarded in the hunting community, he has competed in turkey-calling competitions for twenty-four years, winning over sixty titles in thirteen states, including the 2013 Grand National Head to Head Division Champion, which he considers his grand jewel accomplishment.
Furthermore, Ellis has hunted gobblers in thirteen different states and completed the Grand Slam. He feels the Osceola is not much different than the other subspecies in terms of what makes turkeys tick, but hunting pressure on these animals each year is higher due to their limited range and trophy desirability. Osceolas respond quickly to this interference.
“Many hunters are often forced to hunt WMAs. So, due to the high pressure, it makes them much tougher to hunt,” Ellis says. “Always approach an Osceola gobbler as if he’s been
hunted an entire turkey season.”
Of course, things can be different on private properties where hunters will enjoy the highest degrees of success on less-pressured toms. Still, Florida has done an excellent job of opening
lands to the public. Currently, the state offers Special Opportunity and Quota Permits to provide quality hunts to limited numbers of people each season. For the Special Opportunity
Hunts, applicants must select the hunt of their choice and pay a five-dollar-per-application fee. If drawn through the lottery system, that person must pay an additional amount for the hunt. Green Swamp West WMA in Pasco County north of 98 and west of 471 is a popular Special Opportunity hunting location.
While these hunts are consistently successful, the odds of being drawn are low, and many folks balk at having to pay the fees. Quota hunts, on the other hand, are free from application
to permit, and far more properties are available under the quota system than Special Opportunity. Quite a few of them are true diamonds in the rough. The trick to unearth the potential of these properties is a little research, scouting, and luck to pull the permit.

Unfortunately, by the time Spring Turkey rolls around, these hunts are off the table as the application period typically falls in November. On the bright side, there are tens of thousands of Central Florida public acres that do not require cash or special permits in order to hunt and explore each spring. No matter where one hunts, though, Osceolas rarely come easy.

Only call [the Osceola] enough to keep him interested and moving toward your set-up

osceolaturkeyhunting-0011To get started, hunters will need head-to- toe camouflage — including facemask and gloves — that matches the color of Florida’s springtime woods to hide from their jeweler’s eye. Mossy Oak’s Obsession is a perfect all-around pattern. A reliable pump shotgun is all that’s necessary to collect a mature tom. A couple of different calls, a turkey vest to hold gear and decoys, a comfy seat to guard against gnarly oak roots, waterproof boots for treks through flooded swamps, and a ThermaCELL to keep the flocks of mosquitoes at bay will round out the gear requirement for these hunts.
One thing that does differentiate the Osceola from other subspecies outside of physical appearances is their propensity for quiet whether pressured or not by hunters. This often proves frustrating to those seeking constant action and who will begin calling too much in hopes of striking up game. To be successful, Ellis recommends taking a restrained approach.
“There is no rule book to abide by, but with the Osceola less is generally more. Simply pique his interest and feed him enough hen-talk to keep him coming in to your set-up. Put an emphasis on creating as much realism as possible in your calling sequences. Meaning, only call enough to keep him interested and moving toward your set-up.”
If all goes right, that Osceola tom will gobble at daybreak, right about when the crows start cawing and the night critters have signed off for the night. That distinctly primal, guttural sound is an indicator to hens to come hither and rival males to keep their distance — the Man is in town. If all goes well for him, he’ll have a flock of beauties waiting for him when
he flies down from his roost. The tom will strut, fanning out that gorgeous tail and puffing out his breast feathers, flexing for his harem.
But, females are fickle. Oftentimes they do not care for his boastfulness and retreat the other way. The tom Osceola, flustered by this lack of attention, hears a soft hen yelp emanating from the edge of the cypress. He sneaks closer to investigate, maybe gobbling once or twice in hopes of luring her to him. With no luck of that happening, he inches around
a palmetto head and spies foam ladies propped up on plastic stakes and thinks he hit the jackpot — a fool for love.
If only it was always that easy. Harvesting an Osceola is a truly rewarding experience for turkey hunters, considering the difficulty that is associated with catching up with one.
Whether an old hat at the game or a rank novice, those who hunt in Central Florida should feel blessed for the opportunity to chase this special upland bird across a unique part of the world.
Especially in the spring.