OKEECHOBEE -- College basketball isn’t the only March Madness consuming Floridians. Legions of turkey hunters are setting their alarm clocks for dark-thirty most weekend mornings, hoping to ambush a big gobbler before the hunting season closes April 7 in the southeast and April 21 everywhere else.
The allure, veteran hunters say, is to use your calling skills — with slate, box, or mouth devices — to convince the wary Osceola (Florida’s subspecies of wild turkey) that you are a hen seeking a romantic encounter, and that he should go out of his way to find you. This mimicry is not as much of a sure thing as you may think; males are accustomed to calling the hens to come to them — not the other way around.
If you are lucky enough to start reeling him in, the path to deep-fried cutlets is fraught with peril: a real hen that saunters in between you and your man; bobcats, panthers and coyotes looking to pounce; and your own careless mistakes or just plain bad luck.
“It’s turkey hunting. That’s why it’s so exciting. Mr. Murphy always shows up turkey hunting,” said veteran hunter Steve Windham of Wilmington, N.C. — the former chairman of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Windham and his friend Jay Talbert, also of Wilmington, both killed big birds March 16 with guides Brandon Storey and Jacob Mayfield of Storey Hunts in Okeechobee, but not without missteps. Talbert’s turkey — his first Osceola — weighed 18 pounds, 6 1/2 ounces, had a beard measuring 9 3/4 inches, and 1 1/4-inch spurs. Windham’s was six ounces lighter, but had a 10 1/2-inch beard and the same size spurs. Both hunters took the meat home to eat, and Talbert planned to mount his trophy.
“Great!” Talbert said of the experience.
He and Mayfield had crept to a ground blind decorated with palmetto fronds well before dawn, placing decoys of a jake, or young male turkey, and hen out in front. At daybreak, they heard three or four different gobblers summoning hen harems. A few minutes later, the hunters could tell from the gobbles that the males had flown to the ground.
“They started working their way toward us,” Talbert said.
As the gobbles grew closer and louder, Talbert was dismayed because he thought they sounded like jakes. Like most hunters, he preferred to bag a big, mature male. But Mayfield whispered he was pretty sure there was a boss along with the youngsters.
Mayfield made a few calls using his slate to make sure their quarry could locate the decoys.
It worked. Soon the decoys were joined by five jakes and Big Moe, who fanned his tail and strutted for the fake hen.
But Talbert had a problem: he was sitting at the wrong angle for a clear shot with his 12-gauge. He would have to turn to aim, and the movement was likely to scatter the keen-eyed turkeys.
Talbert felt like he had no choice; he turned to aim, and the gobbler — fixated on the decoy — never saw him. Talbert shot and killed the bird from about 10 yards. Whew.
Meanwhile, a few miles away in another ground blind, things were not going so smoothly for Storey and Windham. Like their friends, the two hunters were surrounded by three or four loud gobblers that were sounding off obligingly, betraying their positions. But a herd of deer milled around the blind and smelled the hunters. The animals stamped, snorted and charged around agitatedly in the woods.
Still, the gobblers gobbled and, through binoculars, Storey could see two of them mingling with a flock of hens about 100 yards away. He made some slate calls, and the two males slowly ambled and pecked the ground closer and closer to the blind.
The blind was set up on the corner of a fence line and covered with palmetto fronds. Storey had not set out any decoys because two weeks of scouting showed him the toms were already “henned-up” — with no reason to seek further female companionship. Rather, this particular fence line was a hang-out where the birds fed and rested.
A tense half-hour passed before the gobblers crossed from the edge of a pine forest to within 40 yards of the blind. Windham had his finger on the trigger of his 10-gauge, and poked the barrel between the fence wires.
But the tiny movement of the barrel caught the gobblers’ attention on that windless morning. They stood stock-still, side-by-side, staring at the blind.
They were so close together that Windham could have killed (or wounded) both with one shot, and he didn’t want to do that. So he waited. But the suspicious birds turned tail and sauntered away, out of range, loath to return to their former haunt.
At mid-morning, the hunters gave up and resolved to try a different spot that afternoon, and it was there — in another ground blind — that they were successful.
Most turkey hunters are hopeful optimists. They don’t always expect to kill a bird, but derive a lot of satisfaction from being in their presence.
Earlier this season, 14-year-old Jack McKelvain of Ocoee hunted gobblers with his father, John, on a friend’s lease in Central Florida. Jack didn’t kill a bird, but enjoyed the experience anyway.
“It’s not fun if you’re just sitting there and don’t see one,” he said. “But it’s fun if you see turkeys. It’s fun spending time with my dad.”