Benjamin Franklin once suggested that the wild turkey be our national bird instead of the bald eagle. Sure, eagles look strong, proud and perhaps majestic. But when it comes to smarts, bald eagles don't even fly in the same league as wild turkeys. This type of bird not only has keen senses — some might argue the sharpest in the animal kingdom — but I suspect the fabled Osceola turkey can read a calendar. The bold bird will strut in plain view for most of March. In fact, I recently had one engage in a staredown, which I lost. But come Saturday, the Osceola turkey will be nowhere to be found. The spring hunting season starts then, and these wily birds undoubtedly sense it.
The state opens wild turkey season for roughly one month in the fall and one month in the spring, and even seasoned hunters can try for years and never bag one.
Some might say it's because the birds, highly prized as table fare, once were hunted to the point of near extinction and now are wary of humans. Many consider turkey hunting the ultimate challenge.
Turkey hunters from around the world come to Florida each spring to pursue one of the most coveted wild birds, the Osceola or Florida turkey.
The Osceola is found only on the Florida peninsula. To the untrained eye, the bird can be confused with the Eastern turkey, common in northwest Florida. Florida turkeys tend to be smaller and darker than the other subspecies.
But wild turkey aficionados know the difference. The National Wild Turkey Federation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission generally recognize wild turkeys taken within or south of the counties of Dixie, Gilchrist, Alachua, Union, Bradford, Clay and Duval to be the Osceola subspecies. Eastern turkeys and hybrids are usually found north and west of these counties.
Nationwide, sound conservation measures have helped protect and rebuild wild turkey populations. There are more than 4 million of these birds in the United States and more than 2 million turkey hunters.
The ultimate prize for many is to achieve a rare "grand slam" of the four American turkeys — the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Osceola — in one calendar year.
For most hunters, the hardest is always the Florida turkey.
If you get a big turkey, one with an 11-inch beard and 1¼-inch spurs, you can apply for an Outstanding Gobbler Certificate and get your name listed in the FWC's Wild Turkey Registry.
Young hunters can apply for a First Gobbler Certificate. This special award is given to hunters younger than 16 who bag their first turkey, regardless of beard and spur measurements. To learn more, go to myfwc.com/hunting.
Florida offers 42 public hunting areas where hunters need only to walk on to hunt spring turkeys.
To qualify, you need a hunting license, which is $17 for residents and $46.50 for a nonresident 10-day license, a $26.50 management-area permit and a turkey permit, which is $5 for residents and $100 for nonresidents.
Licenses and permits are available at county tax collectors' offices and many sporting goods stores that sell hunting and/or fishing gear. Licenses can be obtained by calling toll-free 1-888-486-8356 or going online to www2.fl.wildlifelicense.com.