GILCHRIST COUNTY — Randy Ransom told my son he'd have one shot, and he had better make it count.
"The wild turkey is one smart bird," the local hunting guide told Kai Tomalin. "Once it figures out that something is not right, you won't see it for the rest of the day."
Participating in the state's second annual youth turkey hunting weekend, we set up in some palmetto bushes along the side of a dirt road running through the Gilchrist Club, a private hunting lodge located about 10 miles east of Chiefland.
My 10-year-old had practiced a few times with a friend's 20-gauge shotgun, but that firearm was loaded with a "range round" that lacked the punch of the shell he would actually use to hunt.
I knew that if he missed, he would not only spook the gobbler, but also scare himself.
"It's got a kick," said Bob Edwards, Kai's shooting coach. "He'll probably only want to fire it once."
So at about 8:30 a.m. on a windy Saturday when that lone turkey came sauntering along, I prayed he would do as he was taught and gently squeeze, not pull, the trigger.
"There he is," I whispered.
A legendary bird
The Osceola, Florida's resident wild turkey, is one of five subspecies found in the United States (the others are the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam and Gould's), but it is perhaps the most sought-after one because it can only be found in certain areas of the state.
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.
Ransom knows these birds well. "They are always looking around for predators," he said. "Bobcat, coyote, foxes … they all love to eat wild turkey."
Male turkeys spend the night roosting in the trees, and at first light, they fly down to collect their hens. The best way to find a turkey is to "call" one. And that's where Ransom, the "gobbler," comes in.
"That is why turkey hunting is always best on calm, still mornings," Ransom said. "You can hear them from a mile away. And they can hear you."
There was a time when the idea of a special turkey season for young hunters would have been just a dream. One hundred years ago, this bird, once considered a candidate as our national symbol, was on the brink of extinction.
By the time of the Great Depression, wild turkeys in the United States numbered fewer than 30,000. But strong conservation laws and a federal tax on guns helped raise the money needed to protect these birds.
Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States, and Florida's hunters (as well as nonresidents who come to target the Osceola) enjoy fall and spring turkey seasons.
Besides keen eyesight and exceptional hearing, the Osceola can run up to 25 mph and fly up to 50 mph, according to some estimates. So to be successful, a hunter must remain quiet, well-hidden and ready to fire with little notice.
Many turkey hunters spend years trying to bag a gobbler. But most don't mind. It's the journey, not the destination, that matters.
The bird, just 25 feet away, sensed trouble. Cat, canine or a shotgun-wielding fifth-grader, the turkey knew danger was near, and it skedaddled.
Kai fired, but it was too late. The turkey was long gone. But the bruise that 20-gauge left on his shoulder would smart for days.
"That hurt," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
The turkey covered a quarter mile of dirt road in a couple of seconds. My son seemed almost happy to see it go.
"I can always come back next year," he said. "I think it is fun just being in the woods."