THE FIRST TIME I took a turkey with my bow I was in a cactus thicket on the King Ranch not too far from Baffin Bay.
I was 22 years old, and the legendary ranch had opened up a concession to a particular bowhunting outfitter. The tract we were on had zero hunting pressure for decades, so the animals were not stressed.
It was a hunting paradise.
Watching a monster Rio Grande gobbler come strutting into a clearing and releasing an arrow at only 10 yards was an incredible moment in my young life. I was with legendary television host Keith Warren, and I couldn’t believe I had a chance to get this close to a wary gobbler on the King Ranch.
It was a fantastic hunt.
Looking back, it was an incredible time in my life as a wildlife journalist. I also experienced an increased interest in conservation. Those two things have been linked ever since my first-ever published article.
Each opportunity I had to do something like this, strengthened my resolve to spread the word about conservation.
Recently, I revisited my love for wild turkeys, although I haven’t aimed a bow at one in decades. I have been able to take numerous birds by shotgun, including the eastern gobbler I got my while hunting with TF&G’s own Lou Marullo last May.
This fall begins my quest to bag the “Grand Slam” of turkeys in two years. I start with Rio Grandes this fall in Texas since we can hunt turkeys throughout the deer season. Very few hunters actively pursue turkeys during fall, but I am and look forward to the challenge.
In my opinion, taking the “Grand Slam” by bow is the greatest challenge a bowhunter of average financial means can accomplish. Few of us can afford the sheep slam and indeed not the pursuit of the North American 29.
We can at least over several years hunt Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Osceola and the Eastern turkey.
Turkeys are super-wary game animals and are an incredible challenge for bowhunters—I’m talking next level.
Their hearing and vision are stunning. If they had the sense of smell that a deer has, we would never be able to kill them.
Earlier this year, I began a project called “Turkey Revolution” that’s a long-term quest to raise awareness of turkey conservation. As turkeys go, so go America’s forests. I believe they are the key to conservation of forest-dwelling wildlife.
This year’s goal was to get the slam all by camera. That meant traveling all around the country, and I got my third turkey in Florida in pursuit of the Osceola turkey which only lives in the southern two-thirds of the Sunshine State.
I had done many studies to end up in this location to find Osceola turkeys. Since I am doing this all on my own coin, I was low on time. I had from sunrise to noon to make something happen at a location outside of Sarasota on the banks of the Myakka River.
One particular area looked seriously promising, and within 30 minutes I spied my prize. A hen Osceola turkey gave me a curious look on the edge of a palmetto thicket and shortly after that followed another hen and a brood. They made their way into a clearing and fed down toward the edge of the river.
It was great to see a brood because much of this habitat was thicker than I had suspected it would be. Prime turkey habitat has a relatively open forest, but suppression of natural fires has created enormous undergrowth. That allows predators a better shot at turkeys and destroys some of the turkey’s best forage opportunities.
Upon returning home, I consulted David Nicholson, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in Florida, to check on population trends.
“Unfortunately, there is not a reliable/accurate way to estimate wild turkey populations at a large-scale, and therefore the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) does not currently estimate wild turkey population size in Florida,” he said.
“Instead, the FWC utilizes spring turkey season harvest estimates from an annual mail survey as an index to population size. These harvest estimates are either on a statewide scale or a regional scale, so, therefore, do not necessarily track harvest rates of the Eastern and Osceola subspecies separately in Florida.”
Nicholson said that given this data is derived from mail surveys, and the harvest estimates are currently only available through the spring of 2018. Information is not yet available for 2019.
“In examining the spring turkey harvest estimates provided by FWC, it appears populations in Florida have been stable to slightly declining over the last decade, depending on the region.”
Harvest data suggests the slight declines were observed more in Northern Florida coinciding with the Eastern subspecies and harvest rates since that time have been more stable in Central and South Florida where the Osceola subspecies occurs.
Nicholson said research is being conducted to determine the cause.
“While no exact cause has been determined yet, it is likely due to many factors, which may be different for certain areas. Factors likely include: decreasing habitat quality, changing land use, and land conversion (e.g., development), but may also include other factors we don’t fully understand yet, but active/planned research is looking into them.”
All of those factors seem entirely plausible, and the word “decline” has been omnipresent during this Turkey Revolution quest. Louisiana and New York have both seen significant declines, and now Florida seems to be on the downswing.
What is going on with turkeys and how widespread is the problem? That’s something we will be investigating heavily. As both a wildlife journalist and a turkey hunter, it is concerning.
This year has been an inspiring one on the turkey front, and I have never been as enthusiastic about archery season starting. I am glad to hunt deer on my Newton County lease, but even more psyched about taking on turkeys in the Hill Country.
Email Chester Moore at [email protected]