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Wild Turkey 2.0: Hunting Florida's Eastern Gobblers

Obsessing over Osceolas? There are unique and rewarding hunts for Easterns, too, and over a wide range of public and private lands.

Wild Turkey 2.0: Hunting Florida's Eastern Gobblers

Hunter with a north Florida longbeard taken on a timber lease.

Admittedly, turkey hunters are peculiar folks. Each spring, legions of us wander the country investing unspoken sums and sunrises in pursuit of various “slams” for wild turkey subspecies that are identical to the civilian eye yet differentiated by slight variations in feather coloration and physical features. Still, this provides enough of an excuse for those of us obsessed with doing so to venture forth and match wits with this incredible gamebird wherever they’re found.

Florida, of course, is home to the famed Osceola gobbler, a must-have trophy in any slam. And the Sunshine State is the lone location on the globe where one can shoot an Osceola. Since we live in a supply-and-demand world, competition for hunting property within Osceola territory is stout, and prices for outfitted affairs are generally higher than for other subspecies.

If you care to illustrate the demand side of this point, Google “Florida Turkey Hunting Guides.” You’ll notice that the red pins marking these operations peter out south of Gainesville. North of here is the magical line of demarcation drawn by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that separates Osceolas from the widespread eastern subspecies.

turkey hunting
Call them close (box call and slate with striker) and be ready to deliver an accurate shot. WIth proper loads, the .410 Stevens with TruGlo dot sight is deadly effective.

It is north and west of this boundary, however, that boasts possibly the best turkey hunting in the state, a resource that is typically ignored by travelling hunters agog with the prestige of an Osceola. Vast public lands are available that are not nearly as crowded as in peninsular Florida. And private land opportunities are comparatively cheap and plentiful with thousands of acres of leasable timber properties.

Certainly not the state’s headliner, Florida’s Eastern longbeards don’t bear the esteem of their Osceola brethren, but the quest to bag one is every bit as satisfying. And finding productive places to hunt them is a heckuva lot easier.

About North Florida Gobblers

After 20 years of chasing Osceolas, my first hunt for Florida’s eastern gobblers was during a 2013 Mossy Oak junket near Blountstown along the Apalachicola River. Rick Ferlita of Cypress Creek Turkey Calls and I scored a pair of longbeards on a late-morning March set-up, working several other birds prior to completing my “Florida Slam.” Hailing from palmetto and dry prairie country, hunting these Panhandle river swamp gobblers was a remarkable quest.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, for three springs I purchased permits for St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. To this day I lose sleep over one stud tom who hung up in the underbrush of the longleaf flatwoods before high-tailing towards Sopchoppy for unknown reasons which have forever tattooed me with self-doubt and insecurity. On a brighter note, my son bagged his first two gobblers on leased timber property in Baker County to the east.

So, what are the differences between an Osceola and eastern gobbler other than their home addresses? According to NWTF, the eastern is the most widely distributed of the wild turkey subspecies, roosting in 38 states and multiple Canadian provinces. Their primary physical distinction is in the width of the white bands on their wing feathers. These are broader on an eastern than an Osceola. While tougher to quantify, easterns allegedly boast the strongest gobble of their kin, generally weigh more, and are second only to the Osceola in difficulty to lure into shotgun range.

What biologically constitutes each subspecies is up for debate, too. Technically, Florida’s eastern population is an intergrade between subspecies—yes, a hybrid of two subspecies, for those keeping track. This phenomenon occurs everywhere turkey subspecies’ ranges overlap. After all, an Osceola longbeard isn’t picking up hens in Osceola-only clubs, and artificial borders mean even less to them than the white widths of wing feathers come mating season. Hunters are truthfully the only animals who abide by the distinctions between breeds. Devout south Florida hunters believe the only pure Osceola lives south of SR-70.




Regardless of these trifles, the birds roaming the Panhandle woods are certainly worthy of any sportsman’s respect and attention. They’ll just assuredly humble and humiliate with the best of our state’s gobblers.

FLORIDA’S TURKEY WOODS
  • Florida is home to two subspecies of wild turkey—the eastern wild turkey and the Osceola or Florida wild turkey. The Osceola lives only on the Florida peninsula.
fs-flaturkeys-flamap
Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Hunting Florida’s Eastern Gobblers

I’m here to say, a gobble blaring forth from a dark, oak and pine-laden bluff along the Apalachicola River simply hits different as it reverberates across the water and throughout the countryside, as if that tom is claiming all he surveys in spite of any challengers. And this river-fueled watershed is one of many throughout the Panhandle that serves as a foundation for high turkey densities. FWC’s Wild Turkey Habitat Suitability Model and Relative Abundance maps provides evidence to this case. Combine this with a comparatively lower residential population in this region, and the table is set for fine turkey hunting.

The availability of public lands is one major draw. State forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and military bases all provide turkey hunting access for at least a portion of the season. Some properties require limited-entry permits, and others are open to daily access. FWC maintains a list of these on their wild turkey management website.

Recommended


Apalachicola WMA is one such locale. This property is 581,290 acres with 23 campsites scattered throughout its boundaries. Osceola WMA is another popular destination in Baker and Columbia Counties, clocking in at 266,270 acres. Finally, you can do a lot worse in life than camping along the St. Marks or Wakulla rivers and hunting the National Wildlife Refuge. Public hunting is permitted on approximately 40,000 acres of the refuge, though limited-entry permits are required for the Panacea and Wakulla units.

wild turkey hens
If you find hens and the toms won't be far away in the spring.

The above list is just a sample of public land opportunities. Over one million acres of public land are available in the Panhandle, with most of it open to turkey hunting. Private land opportunities tend to be more abundant and economical than those in Osceola territory where simple capitalism has driven lease prices beyond the reach of most. My son bagged his gobblers on a Rayonier lease near Macclenny four years ago. The deer hunting left much to be desired, but the turkey hunting was above average.

Truth be told, an active timber property, especially in the northeastern counties, is a turkey paradise. There are ample trees in which to roost; immature pine stands create excellent feeding, bedding, and dusting locations; logging roads are perfect strutting sites; and when the pines are harvested or thinned, the resulting new growth vegetation lures the birds out of the woodwork. These leases tend to be available after turkey season has concluded for the year.

None of this makes hunting an actual gobbler any easier—you are simply afforded more chances to draw a bead on one. While Osceolas maintain a well-earned reputation for being the toughest gobbler to bag, my unifying theory of turkey hunting is that the biggest challenges are from changes in terrain and human pressure rather than from the innate behavior of the animals themselves. No turkey is stupid, but let’s face facts—plumbing an Osceola from the depths of the Green Swamp WMA is far cry from delivering a payload of No. 5s to a fat and happy bird thriving on a private ranch.

Same goes with Florida’s Eastern gobblers. All other factors being equal, there’s not a noticeable step down in difficulty from one subspecies to the next. The ecosystems in north Florida are as diverse as anywhere else in the state, and hunting strategies must bend and flex with the change in the land.

Those birds living on timber leases are perhaps the most frustrating to me. If you can’t catch them on the graded roads or in a clear cut, it’s tempting to follow gobbles into the pines. What often seems like an easy stroll towards success is usually a noisy affair, stepping through crunchy deadfalls and thorny vines. Also, the pines don’t always provide the screening one needs to slip close without being seen.

Hunting river bottom gobblers will be a familiar game to those accustomed to chasing Osceolas around southern cypress swamps and oak hammocks down south. Local hunters do well by using the rivers to their advantage, staying mobile by water in canoes or jon boats to listen for gobbles before making a move. Frankly, with that much land and the beautiful scenery growing from it, fighting off the urge to run-and-gun is nearly impossible.

North Florida is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to turkey hunting. As with all turkey hunting, the fun shouldn’t be so much in nomenclature but rather experiencing new challenges presented by the various terrains they call home. So, if you’re tired of fighting for places to claim an Osceola or simply ready to get your feet wet in this scenic region of the state, be sure to look north and away from what you think Florida turkey hunting is all about.

Late-Morning Turkey Hunting

Father and son turkey hunters
The writer with son Harrison and a couple of Baker County gobblers.

Like any turkey hunter, I live for that first booming gobble of the morning with its whisper of hope for success in the coming half-hour. And sometimes the hunt plays out that way: The bird pitches down to your calls, and you can text your buddies that you’ve tagged out before full sunrise. Often, though, that bird has other plans, and you could be in for a long haul. Many hunters will give up as the tom runs cold. This is a mistake. Wild turkeys will creep throughout the day, and the later the hour, the more desperate a gobbler will become for attention as hens fly off to nest.

Frankly, if I didn’t love that gobble off the roost in the mornings, I’d probably start sleeping in more. In recent years, the nine-to-noon shift has been my most productive for bagging a bird. Successfully hunting into the afternoon often relies on two variables: your scouting and how comfortable you can be.

If you’ve found a place with gobbler tracks and strut marks and other sign and that bird is not there at the crack of dawn, it’s a good bet he will amble by later. Setting up on open roads, trails, and edges of clearings where the animals will wander is a sound strategy. As for comfort, I love a ground blind and a folding chair, though that often takes a beating online from “real” turkey hunters. But, for long sits, a blind is tough to top. Shy of this, any number of hunting vests with padded seats are sold online, as are collapsible, lightweight chairs.

2024 Season Dates & Info

Florida turkey hunting map
Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The 2024 spring turkey season south of State Road 70 opens March 2 and runs through April 7 on lands outside of the WMA system. North of State Road 70, the 2024 spring season opens March 16 and runs through April 21.

  • Bag Limits: Hunters may take bearded turkeys and gobblers only. On lands outside of the WMA system, the daily bag limit is two and the season and possession limit on turkeys is two.
  • License and Permit Requirements: To hunt wild turkeys on lands outside of the WMA system, hunters will need a hunting license and turkey permit, unless exempt. These licenses and permits can be purchased with a credit card at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com or by calling 888-HUNT-FLORIDA (486-8356). They can also be purchased in Florida at county tax collectors’ offices and at most retail outlets that sell hunting/fishing supplies.
  • Other Regulations: On lands outside of the WMA system, any legal rifle, shotgun, pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air guns of at least .20-caliber, muzzleloader, crossbow, bow or pistol may be used to take turkeys. Shooting hours on lands outside of the WMA system are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. Hunters may use decoys, but they are not permitted to hunt turkeys with dogs, use recorded turkey calls or sounds, or shoot turkeys on the roost. In addition, wild turkey may not be taken if the hunter is less than 100 yards from a game feeding station when feed is present.

See the Florida Hunting Regulations for more information.


  • This story originally published in the April 2022 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine, and has been updated. Click here to subscribe.

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