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Taking the Early Shift

Dim morning light was just beginning to reveal a point of cypress trees 100 yards across the open pasture when I settled into my webbed stool behind a low ground blind of dead limbs.

The stubby legs of a Hunter’s Specialties Strut Seat kept my rear out of a rainwater puddle, but as I stretched my leg, the water found its way over the lip of my right boot. Worse, I suddenly realized I had forgotten my Thermacell.

Oh brother — I could see where the morning was going.

Thirty minutes later, a thick cloud of mosquitoes churned around my head. My sock squished, and the warm, humid morning air made it difficult to breathe through the camo cloth covering my face. On top of it all, the overnight storm had pushed the trio of gobblers we were chasing off their favorite roost. They were sounding off from a group of trees several hundred yards off the property.

My first morning of Osceola hunting wasn’t turning out as planned. But then, considering overnight temperatures in my home state of Wisconsin hovered near zero, I wasn’t complaining.

Can’t Wait

If you’re a turkey hunter (I think it’s safe to assume most T&TH readers are), the off-season is full of anticipation for the coming spring. But sometimes, it seems like hunting season will never arrive. For those of us in Northern states, the wait can seem endless — hence the temptation to travel.

Last March, I did just that.

I cased up my Winchester SX3 and kicked off turkey season a month earlier than the rest of my Wisconsin brethren. As they shuffled through snowbanks and subzero temperatures, I traveled to Polk City, Fla., to find hues of palmetto green and Mossy Oak Obsession.

Not only was it my first chance to kill an Osceola, but it offered an escape from dirty snow piles and bare tree limbs. Florida has one of the earliest turkey seasons in the country, and it’s the only state to offer a chance for an Osceola, making it a top spot for serious gobbler geeks. The state is divided into three zones, with the Southern Zone opening the first week of March and the northern two zones opening about mid-March.

On March 15, I joined a group of outdoor writers for the central Florida opener at Frasier Family Farms north of Polk City.

The General’s Land

There might not be a better place to start the year. The 6,000-acre cattle ranch and sand mine operation nestled in the heart of Florida’s massive — and aptly named — Green Swamp is paradise for any hunter, let alone a northerner suffering from a severe case of cabin fever.

The property was once owned by Gen. James Van Fleet, a distinguished Korean War general. Van Fleet was a classmate and good friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the pair hunted the property every year until Eisenhower’s death in 1969. Van Fleet hosted countless other dignitaries at the property, including the shah of Iran and queen of England.

Today, the land is owned by Donnie Frasier, who manages the ranch for cattle and wildlife. Frasier purchased the ranch a few years after Van Fleet died in 1992 at age 100. He has added to the acreage since, cultivating much of property for wildlife. Today, nearly two-thirds of the land is wild swampland managed strictly for Florida’s natural inhabitants.

Frasier, along with his neighbor Curtis Clark and friend Wayne Shelby, host a limited number of hunts each spring, and I was lucky enough to be invited to try for my first Osceola.

Is it Karma?

Clark offered to guide me on his neighboring property the first morning, and it didn’t take him long to realize our plan was in doubt.

“I don’t think those birds are going to come back over here,” he whispered as golden rays erupted through the cypress and Spanish moss. “They’re going to strut on the far pasture, and we’ll never see them. It’s time for Plan B.”

We hustled back to Clark’s truck, drove to another section of his land and hid the vehicle at the head of a long two-track. The old road created a land bridge that led from a large pasture through the swamp and palmetto fronds to another far-off pasture.

“There’s a group of turkeys that likes to come through here in the late morning,” Clark said. “Let’s try to get down there and intercept them.”

Dumping all but our calling essentials and several bottles of cold water, we walked to the gate and slipped into the first pasture. However, before we could dip off the path and into the cover along the edge, Clark froze.

I looked over his shoulder and spotted a gobbler rubber-necking across the far side of the pasture.

“He’s by himself,” Clark whispered. “That’s not the one we’re after.”

Convinced my warm-weather escape had simply used up all my good karma, I accepted my fate but quietly followed Clark into the ditch beside the old road bed.

Ditch Diving

We made it several hundred yards, before water forced us back onto the path.
“That’s where they cross,” Clark whispered as he pointed to an open gate several hundred yards further up. “We’ll go ... .”

Suddenly, he looked at me in bug-eyed panic and dove into the thick swamp just off the road. Not knowing what had just happened, I blindly followed, hoping I wouldn’t land on anything poisonous.

“Turkeys running this way,” he hissed.

Luckily, that portion of the swamp was dry, and I slithered forward until I found a suitable tree among the palmetto fronds. Clark settled in just behind me.

The hens appeared on the road almost immediately. A group of seven or eight jogged toward us. With no gobbler in view, Clark and I froze as they walked down the road toward our setup.

A few walked past us, but when the largest hen was only a few yards away, she turned to eyeball the new blobs that had appeared along her familiar runway.

Her reaction wasn’t one of panic, but she seemed to become a little uneasy about these newly sprouted palmetto clumps. One by one, the hens slowly began to turn back the way they had come — just as two strutters appeared about 40 yards down the road.

Before Clark or I could react, the hens walked back down the road past the gobblers.

Slick Calling

Before the toms could think about following the hens, the experienced hunter was on his slate call. Clark scratched out an aggressive string of yelps. After a short delay, the toms turned toward us to bellow a response.

A quick cutting sequence made the toms forget the hens that had just walked past their beaks, and they double-gobbled a response and began to march our way.

Farther down the road, a third gobble blasted the duo out of strut. Still, the pair began to pace down my gun barrel. Behind them, the huge black form of a third gobbler appeared, sporting a glowing white head. The bird seemed to dwarf the other two as he strutted.

Although he probably could have had the flock of hens to himself, it seemed this boss tom couldn’t stand the idea of his subordinates finding a willing girlfriend. Each step the two gobblers took only enraged him more, and he was soon spitting and drumming at their heels.

Clark issued one more series of quiet yelps from his slate and then fell silent. The subordinates fired back a response and were immediately tongue-lashed by the boss tom.

“You can do what you want,” Clark whispered as the first two birds stepped into range. “But that last one is big.”

Forgetting Assumptions

I’m no Osceola expert, but those turkeys seemed to be acting very un-Osceola. First, they were gobbling hard — something I had been told the subspecies does only sparingly.
Second, they were not content to strut in the middle of an open pasture, but were instead charging hard to Clark’s calls.

In fact, the trio of swamp birds backed up my belief that a turkey is a turkey no matter where he resides or what colors his wings and tail fan display. More experienced hunters might disagree with my assessment, but it seems a gobbler’s habits and disposition are mostly a result of his habitat and hunting pressure.

Roaming, hard-gobbling Merriam’s, for example, might be more likely to be nomads because of the wide open country they inhabit. And sure, Rios are likely to form huge flocks at dusk and dawn, but that’s mostly because they are often extremely limited in their selection of roosting trees.

Perhaps Osceolas — again, in my limited experience — are tight-lipped pasture strutters not so much because of their genetic code, but rather because the swamps in the southern two-thirds of Florida limit their options inside the timber. And after they are in the open, they are in plain view of hens.

And maybe the near-tropical weather can also contribute to an Osceola’s seemingly tight-lipped nature. Meanwhile, hidden pockets of water often derail a Florida gobbler’s attempts to respond to calling.

However, find an unpressured Osceola with an open path to your location — like the trio of gobblers Clark put me on that day — and the bird is just as likely to respond as any Eastern, Rio or Merriam’s.

Sealing the Deal

As the first two longbeards continued forward, the third tom strutted into range ... and then held up behind a small bush. I could clearly paint his softball noggin with the red dot mounted on my SX3 Extreme Turkey combo, but he remained in strut, and small branches threatened to shatter my tight pattern.

I waited.

And waited.

Then I nearly jumped out of my camouflage as the nearest tom blasted a gobble head-on only 20 yards away. I must have flinched, because the second longbeard immediately threw up his head like a cobra.

“Better shoot one,” Clark whispered.

At that, the biggest tom finally broke strut. As he lifted his head, I placed the dot on his throat and squeezed the trigger. A swarm of Winchester Xtended Range No. 6s slammed the big tom to the ground.

With the temperature nearing 90, I sweated all the way back to the truck. But then, given the choice between toting a tom that weighed 21 pounds, 10 ounces — a true heavyweight for an Osceola — and tossing salt on my frozen driveway, I will take the heat any day.

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