The Florida Bird: Bowhunting Osceola Turkeys

Turkey hunting’s most sought-after subspecies.

My first two Florida experiences involved concrete and beach sand. It’s a vacation hotbed for northerners like my wife and me; a fun place to be for a week during the dead of winter, no doubt. But, rural Florida offers far more in its oak hammocks, jungle-thick swamps and sprawling palmetto flats. In other words, welcome to Osceola turkey hunting.

A Different Kind of Turkey

bowhunting osceola

An Osceola turkey’s plumage is darker than the other subspecies. Notice the black wings with white streaks.

To the untrained eye, an Osceola gobbler is virtually the same as the Eastern subspecies which inhabits the Midwestern and Eastern states all the way south to North Florida. But, it actually has distinct differences.

First, Central and South Florida are the only places you’ll find the Osceola subspecies. This, of course, means that it’s the most sought-after subspecies (more on that later) for those looking to take a Grand Slam, which is harvesting the four wild-turkey subspecies – Eastern, Merriam’s, Rio Grande and Osceola.

Next, Osceola turkeys weigh far less than the other three subspecies, with most gobblers weighing in the 14- to 17-pound range, sometimes even as low as 10 pounds. Along with that, their gobbles and spit-and-drum sequences don’t seem to throw you out of your chair like a thumper Eastern. But, Osceolas put on an exciting display nonetheless.

Florida’s dense swamps and thick morning humidity work to squelch noise. I’ve had times when I was within 200 yards of roosted birds and could barely hear them gobbling. Fields and pastures are better places to hear birds gobble from several hundred yards. As a rule, if you hear a Florida bird gobble in the dense brush, you’d better sit down and nock an arrow, because he’s probably closer than you think.

On average, Osceola gobblers tend to have longer, sharper spurs than the other three subspecies. It’s not uncommon to shoot a bird with 1 ¼- to 1 ½-inch spurs. Beards are similar in length to those of Eastern gobblers. An Osceola’s plumage is perhaps the most distinguishable trait. In particular, look at the wings. An Eastern gobbler has lightly colored wings with black barrs, where Osceolas have black wing feathers with tiny white streaks. Overall, the birds are very dark in color.

osceola

Many turkey hunters go Florida bound to complete their wild turkey Grand Slam with the most sought-after of all the subspecies, the Osceola. Taking one with a bow is a feat all its own.

Public Land

As mentioned earlier, being that Osceolas are only available in Florida’s southern half, they’re highly sought after. Public lands are overrun with hunters, unless you consider and draw a quota hunt or special-opportunity hunt (visit myfwc.com for more info on those hunts). I remember arriving at a large wildlife management area on the March opener last year after previously scouting it, only to find that the place was mobbed. And, I arrived long before daylight. I put in three days with the scattergun, only seeing one jake in three days of hunting. There was simply too much hunting pressure. And, hunting is only allowed on Wednesdays and weekends. I even stopped by the check station at the gate after day three to ask how many birds had been taken. From the 60,000-plus-acre area, only six jakes had been taken during the first three days. Given the acreage and number of hunters I witnessed (and the dozens more I didn’t), that’s a very low success rate.

Going Outfitted

bowhunting osceola

This jake and two others came in to the author’s decoys, but he passed so he could try for a gobbler.

I strive to do most of my turkey hunts on public land, and for the Osceola, I got a taste and determined that it just wasn’t going to happen – I was too late to apply for the quota or special-opportunity hunts, so an outfitter was my only feasible option. I called a friend who’s hunted Florida several times to ask if he could put me in touch with a good one. He lined me up with Jeff Budz of Tag It Worldwide. Budz has become a great friend, and I now annually help him out with scouting and guiding. His turkey leases are filled with very responsive gobblers.

Anyway, I killed my first Osceola with a bow on a semi-guided hunt with Budz. The difference between public land and private land in Florida is astounding. Outfitters control the number of hunters their leases see and number of birds harvested. So, the birds are far less flighty and some of the most call/decoy-responsive of any birds I’ve ever hunted. An outfitted hunt cost $1,675 with Tag It Worldwide (tagitworldwide.com), but if you want to notch your Florida turkey tag, it’s as sure a bet as any hunt out there.

Calls and Decoys

People often mistake that Osceola gobblers are the most elusive of the four wild-turkey subspecies. I disagree, because it’s all relative to hunting pressure. Private-land Osceola gobblers, I’ve found, are the easiest birds to call and decoy in of the subspecies.

One example was a gobbler with 1 ½-inch spurs and a 10 ¼-inch beard I guided one of Budz’s clients to on March 7 this year. I scouted the 50-acre property the morning before, and I heard a tom gobbling from the roost on an adjoining property. I mentally plotted a setup, then returned with the client the next morning, ready to see if the tom could be coaxed onto the property we were hunting.

bowhunting osceola

Central Florida is home to sprawling cattle ranches … and the beautiful Osceola turkeys that roam them.

After tucking a blind against brush along an old railroad grade and placing the decoys on the railroad, I walked ahead to within 100 yards of the roosted gobbler and started with some soft hen talk. As daylight drew near, I made a fly-down cackle, shaking my cap to simulate a live hen. I then walked back toward the blind, wished the client a successful hunt, and continued walking away, calling as I went.

I reached my truck and drove around to scout the fringes, and the client texted me around 8 a.m. to inform me that he’d arrowed the gobbler at 6 yards. The bird responded to his calling and decoys like it was scripted, and I’ve experienced similar results time and again.

Tactics for these swamp-inhabiting toms differ little from the Easterns, but I do recommend calling more loudly than usual, especially if there’s additional commotion such as highway traffic. This was the case during the hunt I just referenced. When I was calling to the bird while he was roosted, I knew that he was 100 yards away, but realized that his gobbling was sort of faint. So, with barking dogs, highway traffic and thick foliage, I told the hunter to amp up his calling sequences so the bird could hear him.

Of all the subspecies, Osceolas seem to respond to jake decoys the best. In particular, I use a Dave Smith or Avian X. These sharp-spurred toms rarely pause when they see it. Most times they come in fast and even pummel the decoy before the hunter gets off a shot. Although I’ve experienced similar results with Easterns back home in Wisconsin, I find that they aren’t consistently as quick to pick a fight. These aren’t hard facts, but simply observations from two seasons of guiding for Osceolas and comparing those notes with my 15 years of hunting Easterns.

One Incredible Turkey Hunting Experience

Going outfitted for an Osceola turkey hunt might be expensive, but if you love to turkey hunt or are looking to complete a Grand Slam, the entire Florida turkey-hunting experience is far different from any other location. Plus, it’s the only place in the world to hunt the Osceola. And, if you’re from a cold state like I am, there’s nothing quite like hunting turkeys early in March in balmy temperatures.

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