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Sunshine State Gobblers.

Cunning and call shy, Florida's Osceola longbeards could be the toughest gobblers of all.

Bringing his locator call to his lips, expert game caller Steve Puppe inhaled deeply, then let out a ringing owl cry. A mere millisecond later, a loud, thunderous answer filtered through the woods. Then another. Having two gobblers this close in the first few minutes of the hunt was enough to bring a surge of energy to Steve and me.

At the first sight of the pinkish dawn, Steve and I scurried into the brush, taking positions beneath a clump of palmettos about 100 yards off the road. Steve removed his Li'l Deuce friction call from his vest and eased the carbon striker across its surface, beginning a series of soft yelps and clucks.

Moments later, a shrieking gobble shattered the early morning stillness. Steve, a Hunter's Specialties pro staffer, continued hen-talking with smoothly grated yelps and clucks. The gobbler's next reply was deeper and longer. This boy was as rambunctious as could be.

I sat still with the Beretta across my knee, waiting, as Steve gently clucked and purred. At the edge of the clearing, about 100 yards off, we heard his gobbles again. He was coming--and fast.

Oddly, the woods remained quit for several minutes after that. Steve swirled the striker, but nothing--not peep. We sat still for a full two hours before we rose our feet, completely baffled by what had happened. "This doesn't make sense," I muttered as we got to our feet. "That bird was right over there, sex-crazed as ever, and he doesn't show. I don't get it."

After a discussion about our mystery bird, Steve and I strolled the road back to the hunting lodge, intending to find a decent calling spot along the way. We came to a halt at the sight of large meadow back the woods. We busted brush and waded up to our ankles in mud to reach the meadow. Although the clearing was meshed with dense thickets of fan-shaped palmettos, button bush and all sorts of tangly shrubs, we could see well enough out to 60 yards or so. It was the perfect setup for a calling ambush. We found a large oak and called periodically for most of the morning. Other than two excited hens, the session was uneventful.

"They're just weird," said Steve, as we hiked down the road toward the pick-up spot. "That gobbler was close, real close."

We'd walked only a few hundred yards, enjoying some of Osceola Country's finest scenery, when we heard the hum of Zack Morgan's Ford. Zack was our tireless guide, a man who has a lot of wit when it comes to turkey hunting, On any given day, he seems to have a sensible idea where the birds are lurking. Zack also knows his way around the Adams Ranch.

Acquired by Alto Adams in 1937, the Adams Ranch actually consists of three sectors, divided among St. Lucie, Osceola and Okeechobee counties. It encompasses 65,000 acres of prime cattle country, swamps; mass groves of palmettos and dense foliage that supply cover not only for cattle but various wildlife as well.

The section we were hunting was locate not far from Orlando in Osceola County. This specific property is well known for its quality game management an plentiful Osceola turkeys. Although our turkey sightings hadn't proved this, there was plenty of sign.

"Well?" our zealous guide inquired as Steve and I looked through the driver's-side window.

"I've never hunted turkeys like this before," Steve replied, "We had one quit on us. Thought he was coming in for sure."

Zack chuckled, then told us to get in his truck. A few miles back, Zack had seen two longbeards along the road and figured we had a good chance of whacking one if we acted quickly.

On our way to the area where Zack had spied the strutting gobblers, we spotted a large hen walking amongst the dense shrubbery, her dark feathers glowing in the sun. Then we moved down the road a few hundred yards and parked the extra-cab pickup.

With Zack leading the way, we trekked into the woods, leap-frogging the foliage. The farther into the bush we went, the more swamp we encountered. Our stroll was becoming a dodging match as we skirted sections of marsh. I put my knee-high Burly in one wrong place and found myself wet almost up to my crotch.

We managed to survive the jaunt. A large, "dry" meadow provided our salvation. Steve and I took our posts, and Zack began whirling the wooden striker on his box call. He scratched the call for minute than quit.

That's Zack's recipe for success on Osceolas: barely call at all, then wait for as long as you can beat to sit. We waited all right, for the better part of the morning, but never got a response. During that time, Zack watched in disbelief as a lengthy black racer aggressively chased down and consumed another snake half its size. It all occurred inches away from his body.

Besides Steve and I, there were several others trying their luck on Florida's dark feathered gobblers. Julie McClellan of Iowa and Glen Sapir of New York, both outdoor writers, came to the Adams Ranch for one specific reason: to fill the first leg in harvesting America's four subspecies of turkeys. Completing a grand slam on turkeys may not seem like a difficult task to some, but accomplishing this feat in a single season definitely is, and that was Julie and Glen's plan.

As we sped down the road in Zack's Ford en route to the lodge, I wondered how Julie and Glen's morning had played out. "If they're having the same luck as us, the pressure must really be on," I thought to myself.

Hunters who are hot to bag their own Osceola gobbler must keep in mind that not every turkey in Florida is considered an Osceola. Along a specific northern section of Florida, populations of Eastern turkeys overlap with the "Florida" subspecies. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologists consider turkeys in this part of the state "intergrade" hybrid turkeys. Although turkeys above this boundary--essentially a horizontal line along counties from the Gulf of Mexico to Jacksonville--may have the distinctive colors of a true Osceola turkey, they are non considered true Osceolas, but hybrids. Only turkeys found below the boundary are considered pure.

Besides teeming turkey numbers, an abundant supply of slippery critters and an occasional alligator, there is a growing population of wild hogs roaming the Adams Ranch. We were entitled to take a pig on this hunt, but Zack's priority was making sure everyone got their bird first. I'm passionate about hog hunting and had packed a favorite pistol just for the task, but I was so fired up after the morning hunt that I didn't want to waste a single minute of turkey hunting time.

Of course, I'd have to wait another day to start hunting again. During the spring turkey season in Florida, legal hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m. For us, this meant plenty of afternoon scouting and waiting near probable roosting sites until dark.

After lunch and a quick nap, Zack drove Steve and me back our to the "roadside" hot spot where we almost called in the suspicious gobbler. It was getting close to sunset at this point, and we wanted to cover as much ground as possible. I was to wait near roosting cover and listen for "fly ups" while Steve and Zack staked out other areas.

I listened carefully for sounds of sweeping turkey wings colliding against branches and the calls turkeys often make when flying up to their nightly roosts. But a steady breeze was blowing from the east, making the task nearly impossible. Dusk came and went, and I stood in the blackness until the truck arrived. Zack and Steve hadn't had any luck either.

When we arrived back at the lodge, Eddie Salter, renowned hunting authority and member of Hunter's Specialties pro staff, was about to hold a turkey-calling powwow. Everyone gathered around to listen to Eddie's calling and setup tips. Like all of Eddie's seminars, it was informative and humorous. Eddie called using each one of Hunter's Specialties' then-new turkey calls: the V-Max, Viper and Raspy Old Hen diaphragms; Li'L Deuce 2 and Black Magic friction calls; and the Silencer Plus box call.

After listening to Eddie's expert calling and advice, we all turned in--excited and hopeful that tomorrow we'd be able to use what we had learned. Before going to bed, I huddled up with Zack and Steve for a quick check on tomorrow's plan: Zack said we should head back to the meadow, and Steve and I agreed.

We arrived at the spot well before first light. Our tactic would essentially be the same: toot on the owl call, set up and sound like a "ready and willing" hen. A gobbler didn't answer this time, but we continued as planned.

We rested in heavy cover adjacent the road. From this position, we had a better view of the travel routes, which would help if a tom was to sneak in quietly. For about two hours, Steve fiddled the call every five to 10 minutes.

The weather was warm and bright, but the turkeys weren't talkin'. We slumped to the ground and took a nap.

I was asleep when I heard the clucks coming from off to my side. "Don't move!" Steve whispered. "There's a turkey right next to us." My gun was on my left side, lying along my leg; it was impossible to get at without a lot of movement. I waited until I could roll my yes to see the turkey mere footsteps away. It was a hen, clucking softly. I watched her until she moseyed back into the woods.

Steve was in absolute disbelief. The hen had stepped over his boot, searching for her vocal relative. There was no doubt that our head-to-toe Realtree camouflage had diminished our outlines.

There was still plenty of hunting time left as Steve and I paced the road, walking quietly and glassing for strutting gobblers. We came to a narrow canal; its sand banks were tattooed with turkey tracks. Just above the canal was a burnt field studded with blackened palmettos. Steve glanced at the field's outer edge and grabbed my arm. "Get down! There's a gobbler strutting," he said.

We made a beeline back to the canal, followed its path for 50 yards or so and set up along the bottom edge of the charcoaled field. The vegetation was high, so we simply kneeled against the bank. Steve yelped and clucked just loud enough for the gobbler to hear. Almost immediately, two hens came walking out, their eyes fixed in our direction.

As the hens tiptoed toward us, the gobbler followed hot on their heels, strutting every 10 yards or so. It took about 10 minutes for the birds to cover the 175 yards, which brought them 40 yards in front on us. There was only one problem: I could hardly see them through a maze of blackened branches.

I was also deeply concerned about the two hens. They were out in front and could blow the gig at any moment. My forearm was quivering, too, from holding up the shotgun for many long, exciting minutes.

With the strutting gobbler 25 yards away, I mentally blocked out the suspicious, head-bobbing hens. "Shoot now," Steve commanded. As one of the hens did a backpedal, the gobbler went out of strut and raised his head. The 12 gauge rumbled. The Winchester High Velocity load centered his neck and spun him to the ground.

The trophy tom sported an impressive "rope," measuring a full 10 1/2 inches; just as impressive were his 1 3/4-inch spurs. We estimated his weight at around 18 pounds. Well, I thought, these Osceolas aren't ghosts at all.

THE OSCEOLA CHALLENGE

According to Florida game biologist Buddy Welch, there are about 100,000 Osceola turkeys roaming Sunshine State. Hunting for turkeys on private lands remains excellent. However, Florida's Specialty Opportunity Hunts offer superb opportunities on public land as well.

Regardless of where you choose to hunt, recommend nonaggressive calling for Osceola gobblers. Soft yelps and clucks seemed to do it for us during our late-March hunt. Out of eight hunters, seven of us tagged gobblers during four days of hunting, but none of them came easy. Most of the toms came to the call without as much as a peep.

Spring turkey applications for Specialty Opportunity Hunts become available in late December. For information on these hunts and general Osceola spring turkey hunting, license and permit fees, contact the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, 620 S. Meridian St., Farris Bryant Building, Tallahassee, FL 32399; 850/488-4676.

GEAR WITH A SPRING FIT

During my Florida turkey hunt, I had the chance to try out many new products. There were two that really impressed me: Beretta's AL390 shotgun and Hunter's Specialties' Full Strut Combo Vest.

Beretta is well known for its superb line of handguns, shotguns and rifles. But the Maryland-based manufacturer has never offered a turkey-hunting-specific firearm, until now. The company's AL390 Camo was built specifically for the hard-core turkey enthusiast. The gun's durable polymer stock and fore-end, chrome-lined corrosion-resistant barrel and Advantage camouflage finish make it a deadly gobbler getter--rain, bump or shine.

I used a non-camouflaged version of the AL390 with dull black finish and a wood stock to down my Osceola longbeard, and it performed flawlessly. The gun shoulders well and weighs about 7 1/2 pounds--not light, but a blessing when shooting magnum loads. Using an extra-full turkey choke and 3-inch Winchester High Velocity turkey loads, the gun shot a deadly pattern at 40 yards.

The AL390 Camo is available in various barrel lengths; the 24-inch tube with interchangeable chokes is most popular with the turkey crowd. Other features include a magazine cut-off that enables you to slip in a different load without emptying the magazine, and stock-drop and cast-on/cast-off washers to adjust vertical and horizontal stock angles.

Hunters' Specialties' Full Strut Combo vest is now a required item every time I enter the turkey woods. The vest has pockets galore, some with individual compartments to hold items such as ammo and diaphragms. A large outer game pocket is designed to transport the biggest tom, as well as extra clothing layers. A padded foam back along the shoulder area keeps itchy, jabbing free bark away from your back so you can stay relaxed until the shot.

The vest is made of quiet, soft cotton twill and comes complete with a self-inflating Bunsaver cushion for protection against roots, rocks and cold ground.
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Author:BELL, JOE
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:2467
Previous Article:NEW FOR 2000 GUNS AMMO OPTICS.
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