Trying to stay motionless while your heart is hammering and your lungs are hyperventilating so a wild turkey gobbler doesn’t see you as he approaches is the reason why South Florida hunters head to the woods this time of year.
“Turkey hunting to me is the most challenging hunt that anyone could ever experience,” says “Alligator” Ron Bergeron of the excitement he feels every time a tom turkey starts coming in to his calling. “They have nine-power vision at 360 degrees. They can see your eyes blink at about 200 yards.”
Bergeron, of Weston, loves to share that thrill and that challenge with friends and family members during the spring turkey season, which runs from Saturday through April 8 in South Florida and March 17 through April 22 north of State Road 70.
As an old wildlife biologist once told me, everything likes to eat a turkey, from raccoons and skunks that feast on turkey eggs to hawks and owls that swoop down on poults, or young turkeys, to panthers and bobcats. Human hunters love the bird’s mild, wild flavor, and one turkey will provide them and their families with several delicious meals.
Given that popularity, South Florida’s Osceola turkeys — one of the four turkey sub-species in the United States and the one that Bergeron believes is the most difficult to hunt — are extremely wary. Their excellent eyesight picks up movement much faster than the human eye, so if turkeys detect a hunter swatting a mosquito or nervously shaking a shotgun barrel, they are immediately heading in the opposite direction.
A gobbler also won’t tolerate you pointing your finger at him and saying, “There’s a turkey!” An enthusiastic first-time turkey hunter actually did that while sitting on the ground next to Bergeron as a nice bird headed toward their makeshift blind.
Memorable experiences like that are why Bergeron, a former commissioner with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and an expert turkey hunter, spends just about every weekend during the season at his Green Glades West ranch, which is just north of the Big Cypress National Preserve,
Located west of Miami, the 728,000-acre Big Cypress is the most convenient public area open to turkey hunting. The J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area west of West Palm Beach is open to turkey hunting Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
Turkeys are hunted during the latter part of their breeding season and hunters are usually in the woods before dawn to try to take advantage of a gobbler’s desire to mate. As the sun peeks over the horizon, hen turkeys will softly yelp and cluck before flying down from the trees they roosted in for the night. Male turkeys will gobble to let the hens know where they are. After the gobblers fly down, they’ll puff out their tail and body feathers and strut, which is their way of showing off, and the hens will go to them.
Hunters try to reverse nature by imitating hen calls to get lovesick gobblers to come to them. Last year, Bergeron was guiding a new hunter when they had a vocal gobbler pitch down right in front of them, making for a very quick hunt, which is the exception rather than the rule.
Many times, a real hen will appear and lure away a gobbler who was heading toward a hunter’s hen impersonation. Other times a gobbler will stop outside of shotgun range, which is about 40 yards, and wait for the hen to come to him. When she fails to show, no matter how sweet the hunter’s yelps and clucks sound, the gobbler will depart.
“These animals are so smart, sometimes nothing works, and that’s why I enjoy turkey hunting,” Bergeron says. “To me, it’s not all about the kill. It has a lot to do with enjoying the companionship of friends while being in God’s landscape.
“It’s not that important that you always get a turkey. It’s nice when you do, but to sit there and watch the deer and the hogs and the bears and all of God’s creatures, I couldn’t be happier just being in nature. And hunting is just a part of that.”
Bergeron’s ranch is the way Florida was before the Spanish arrived. As he likes to say, “Everything that lived on Earth before man lived here lives there.” There are stands of cypress, pines and oaks, prairies and marshes, and a vast variety of wildlife. And because he limits the hunting on the property, predators such as panthers take advantage of the healthy game populations, which has led to some up-close-and-personal interactions.
“I’ve seen panthers on many occasions, due to the fact that when you’re calling, the panther hears it. And panthers eat turkeys,” says Bergeron, adding with a laugh that if you can fool a Florida panther, you must be a pretty good turkey caller. “I had one come from behind me while I’m calling and the turkeys are gobbling. I see some movement out of my right eye and I turn slowly and there’s a panther, at five yards. I could see the pupils in his eyeballs.
“You don’t run from a panther, they chase things that run. So I opened my jacket to look bigger and I said, ‘I’m Alligator Ron, the guy trying to save the Everglades, give me a break.’ He stood there for like a minute -- it felt like 10 minutes – and we were just looking at each other.
“That experience, seeing one of the most endangered species on the planet coming within eye contact, was greater than if I got a turkey.”
What you need to know
Florida’s spring turkey season starts March 3 and ends April 8 in South Florida and March 17 through April 22 north of State Road 70.
▪ Licenses: Hunters ages 16-64 need a $17 annual Florida hunting license and a $10 turkey permit. Those who hunt on public land also need a $26.50 Wildlife Management Area permit.
▪ Regulations: The bag limit is two gobblers or bearded turkeys per season, both of which can be taken on the same day. Most turkeys are hunted with shotguns, but Florida also allows rifles, pistols, muzzleloaders, crossbows and bows to be used on private land. Restrictions apply on public land.
▪ Where to hunt: Big Cypress National Preserve is 728,000 acres of public land west of Miami that is open during the entire South Florida turkey season. J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area west of West Palm Beach is open to turkey hunting Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. All other public lands in the region require a quota permit to hunt.
▪ Turkey recipe: Turkeys have a mild, wild taste and virtually no fat, which makes them a lot healthier than what most people eat on Thanksgiving. Fried turkey breast is a classic and delicious way to prepare a wild bird. Cut a turkey’s breast meat into inch-wide strips. Dip the strips in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then in beaten egg, then in the flour again. Fry the strips in a skillet with a quarter inch of vegetable oil or a deep fryer until they are golden brown.
▪ Information: Visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.