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The Roving Sportsman… Turkey Camp — Florida Style

When we Pennsylvanians conjure up thoughts of going to hunting camp, we generally picture a similar setting. Often, it is an old farmhouse that has been remodeled to include an upgraded kitchen and bedrooms that house numerous bunk beds to sleep all of the hunters. There is usually a large dining area that doubles as a place to play cards and a porch or two that provides the setting for cigar smoking and swapping of tall tales. The campsite is often located in a fallow field or deep inside a mixed hardwood forest of oak, maple, beech and pine trees with an understory of mountain laurel where the chipmunks, squirrels, and songbirds abound. Whitetail deer, black bear, wild turkeys, and the occasional grouse or squirrel seem to be the subject of most discussions and what these Pennsylvania hunters most often like to pursue.

When you travel south to the southern extreme of the east coast, you discover that the hunting camps have both similarities and notable differences. The dwelling is usually similar in exterior appearance, and generally, the interior layout is quite like that of the northern variety. Surrounding the campsite, however, things are uniquely different. Swamps with cypress trees, open pastures laden with palm trees and pine and oak forests with an understory of palmettos are the usual surrounding, along with thousands of acres of open pasture for the large herds of beef cattle. Throughout the day you may spot an armadillo, and as you travel near waterways, it is common to see that prehistoric lizard — the alligator — sunning himself at water’s edge. Birds are plentiful, including egrets, herons, and storks, along with the occasional kestrel, osprey or bald eagle. Often you can hear the nearby call of a bobwhite quail or hear the unique sound of sandhill cranes as they fly overhead on their way to cattle pastures where they loaf and feed throughout the day. Whitetail deer are smaller and less numerous, black bears are rarely seen, and quail are sometimes hunted on larger tracts of private land. Here, the alligator and the wild turkey are of greatest interest, along with feral hogs.

Camp members in Florida will hunt deer and feral hogs, but the real prize in this state is the wild turkey, and for good reason. You see, there are four subspecies of wild turkeys that many hunters try to take in an effort to complete a Grand Slam of wild turkeys. They include the Eastern, which can be found from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River, the Rio Grande which is generally located in some of the southwestern states, the Merriam which tends to call the Northwest US its home, and the Oceola, which is only found in Florida. Thus, if you want to complete the Grand Slam, you have only one place to get the Oceola, and that is in the (roughly) lower ¾ of the state of Florida.

They can be found on private properties, some of the large ranches and on numerous Wildlife Management Areas, or WMAs that are open to public hunting. Much of the acreage within the private holdings is leased by outfitters who can guide you in your pursuit of this unique bird.

A mature Oceola gobbler will weigh around 17-19 pounds in the spring, have a coloration that is darker than our Eastern birds and will generally be longer in both legs and body. An old Tom might sport a 10 or 11-inch beard, but the really unique thing about this bird is his spurs. An older gobbler will have spurs that range from 1 ¼ to 1 ½ or more inches in length are slightly curved and taper to a very sharp point.

As with Eastern gobblers, calling to them is the favored way to lure them within a safe and ethical shooting range. Decoys tend to work well to relax and encourage a Florida gobbler to slip on in and check out the decoys. Binoculars are good to have since the flat terrain allows seeing the birds sometimes from a great distance. For sure the one piece of gear you do not want to leave home without is a ThermaCell insect repellent device. This cannot be overstated, as you will discover right after daybreak or just after sunset when clouds (literally) of mosquitoes swarm around you like you have never experienced before! Turn on the ThermaCell, and within just a few minutes, the cloud will dissipate and then disappear.

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