By: Matt Lindler
One of Florida's greatest resources is its extensive system of public lands. Hunting public lands in many states can be daunting and downright frustrating, but due to Florida's many tracts spread throughout the state, good hunting opportunities for Osceolas and Easterns can easily be found.
Some of the state's 135 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) get a lot of hunting pressure, but if you are willing to use up a little boot leather, getting to an isolated spot could prove to be very rewarding.
Last spring, I hunted two tracts of public land on the Gulf side of north central Florida while trying to complete the last leg of my Grand Slam. My hunting partners were my dad; friend and NWTF Broad River Chapter President Jason Spence, who is also a highway patrolman from North Carolina; and, Brian Blankenship, a game warden, also from North Carolina.
The first tract we hunted was Gulf Hammock WMA, a 24,625-acre parcel in Levy County. After talking to Lt. Curtis Brown of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Law Enforcement Division, I had a pretty good idea of where to go once we got there. Local agency biologists and game wardens are wonderful resources to help you discover profitable hunting.
Since Florida only allows scouting on public lands the Friday before the season opener, any information from officers or biologists can be lifesavers when limited to a short trip. Also great for information are local sporting goods stores, bait shops and the sporting goods sections of the local department stores.
The information Lt. Brown gave me put me within earshot of birds opening morning. What I didn't anticipate was that the local hunters' typical strategy was to drive around, call out of a window and see if they could get a bird to gobble. I parked at the head of a road and walked nearly a mile waiting for daybreak. After five trucks drove past my listening post in the course of 15 minutes, I became a little frustrated. This was one area that would benefit from gated roads and the creation of walk-in-only areas.
Expressing my disappointment to Lt. Brown, he pointed us to Lower Sewanee National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes north of where we were hunting. It is a walk-in-only property sitting on the dividing line between Eastern and Osceola country in western Florida.
The refuge is typical Osceola habitat, palmetto and cypress swamps with intermittent high ground, perfect for strutting birds. We heard plenty of birds the next morning, but hens and high water prevented us from getting close.
Walking and calling along the isolated roads that lead deep into the swamp was the only option left, and twice, our hopes were squashed by intercepting hens. We walked the roads all morning and around noon we decided to head back. According to my GPS, we were about two miles by road or a half-mile through the swamp from our truck. We decided to stick to the roads.
At 12:09 p.m., I hit a few strokes on my old Lynch, and surprisingly, a bird gobbled not 200 yards through the swamp. Thinking that I had plenty of time to find a good tree to set up against, I walked in about 30 yards into a parcel that had been burned two days before as part of the refuge's habitat management process. I hit the Lynch once again and the bird had cut the distance in half. I dropped where I stood and my dad set up 15 yards behind me. I could feel the warmth still in the ground from the burn. A few stumps were still smoldering around us.
The bird virtually ran into our setup. I purred once on my diaphragm call to get him to stop long enough to shoot. The turkey fell at 15 yards, nine minutes from the time I originally struck the box call. His feet were black from the ground, charcoal resin.
High from the excitement of the hunt and the completion of my first Grand Slam, I decided we should take the short cut through the swamp, back to the truck. Big mistake. Winding our way through the swamp and trying to stay out of water and on high ground took nearly an hour. I was thankful that I brought my compass. Navigating through a dense canopy of cypress trees will make your GPS lie to you every time. An hour later, we finally made it back to the truck.
My next trip to Florida to hunt public Osceolas will start with another call to our friendly game warden's office. Now I know the types of WMAs I would rather hunt, and narrowing down good hunting on public land will be much simpler in the future.
To plan your trip to Osceola country, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Web site at: www.wildflorida.org/hunting. Here, you can download WMA maps, hunting regulations, information on special hunts and even purchase your license online.