March in Florida brings two major sporting challenges: choosing the correct college basketball brackets and – almost as difficult – harvesting a wild Osceola turkey.
The Osceola, found only in Florida, is one of five subspecies of wild turkey in North America and – some say – the hardest to kill. Smaller and darker than its close relative the Eastern, this unique bird is hardy, sneaky, sharp-eyed and scrappy. The odds of killing one in a single hunt are about the same as catching a large tarpon on fly rod on a single fishing trip.
Since hunting season is fairly short – March 1 to April 6 in South Florida and March 15 to April 20 everywhere else — hunters need to be prepared by scouting the hunting grounds ahead of time. They need to know where gobblers roost at night as well as locate their food and water supply and travel corridors. And even those preparations don’t guarantee Thanksgiving dinner in the spring.
The basic premise of spring gobbler season is to try to make the main attraction do something he wouldn’t do naturally: follow the call of a hen in the mood for romance instead of summoning her to join his harem. The list of things that a hunter can do wrong is endless: setting up the blind in the wrong place; fidgeting so much that the target spots him; calling too loudly and frequently; or calling too softly and infrequently.
“It’s just a matter of sounding good enough to bring them in,” says Orlando turkey hunter Mark Benson. “The last thing you want to do is call like a loud, drunk guy in a soft fern bar.”
Benson, 51, has killed a gobbler every opening day for the past 12 years hunting on a friend’s Central Florida ranch – until last Saturday.
Dressed head to toe in camo and concealed behind a burlap blind on the edge of an open pasture lined by pines and palms well before dawn, Benson cradled his shotgun and waited quietly for the woods to wake up. Before the first glint of sunrise, he listened to the calls of songbirds, an eagle, a barred owl and numerous lowing cows hoping for the gobble-gobble-gobble of a longbeard.
A few minutes before sunrise, it came: an awakening gobbler still on its roost high up in a pine behind Benson’s blind.
“It’s showtime,” he whispered happily.
A few moments later, the turkey gobbled again and then could be heard dropping to the ground with a rustle of bushes where it gobbled a third time but now sounded further away.
Many hunters would have commenced calling at that point, using a mouth, box or slate call to try to convince the tom that they are the woman of his dreams. But Benson held back because the right flank of his blind was open and exposed and he would have had to lean across his hunting companion to shoot the bird.
“I didn’t want him to fall short and possibly see us,” Benson explained.
The gobbler never made another sound, so Benson waited a few more minutes before mimicking hen calls by scraping together the lids of a wooden box.
Still no answer from the gobbler.
Benson made a few more calls and was rewarded with the arrival of a hen that landed right beside the blind, clucked softly, and began preening her feathers.
Not long afterward, six jakes, or juvenile males, wandered in. Benson gave them a pass because none of their beards was longer than a couple inches.
Just for fun, the hunter made some cutting calls, drawing one of the jakes so close to the blind that his hunting partner could have touched it with the tip of a fly rod. Then the entire flock wandered back into the woods behind the blind, unruffled.
Benson remained in the blind till almost noon and never heard nor saw a gobbler. It appeared his 12-year winning streak had finally ended.
But his friends who owned the ranch – who also blanked on opening morning – invited him to try again the next day.
Having faith in his chosen spot, Benson went back early Sunday. This time, the woods sounded even more devoid of gobblers than the previous morning. But after the sun rose, he saw several hens with jakes across the pasture, then had a gobbler cut directly behind his blind and disappear and then spotted a second gobbler about 75 yards away out of range that also vanished.
By midmorning, Benson was starting to feel just a little bit desperate and second-guessing his tactics. In a perverse, Hail Mary move, he used a glass call with a carbon-tipped striker to mimic an angry fight between two birds.
It worked. A fanned-out gobbler appeared on a dirt road to the south and strutted straight for the decoy in front of the blind. Benson shot and killed it from 35 yards – 18 pounds with a 9 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.
“Like Christmas morning,” he said happily. “Whew!”