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Osceola Turkeys: Thunder in the Palms

Chasing Osceola turkeys in Florida's unique ecosystem.

Osceola Turkeys: Thunder in the Palms

I’ve never been much of a turkey hunter. Growing up in the West, it wasn’t something we normally did, and I never had the itch of those afflicted by the turkey fever. And the common assertion that turkeys are like elk always turned me off to the pursuit. How could anyone compare a 20-pound bird to the majesty of a bull elk?

Now, don’t get me wrong, turkeys are pretty cool in their own right, but I have a love affair with chasing screaming forest horses high in the mountains and I never appreciated the comparison. But my other love affairs are hunting and adventure, so when I had the opportunity to head south to the Sunshine state to chase the elusive Osceola, I couldn’t turn it down.

The Osceola

Before heading to Florida, I took some time to do some research on turkey hunting and the different subspecies. Osceolas are one of five species of birds that have captured turkey fanatics everywhere. It, along with the Gould’s, is one of the least obtainable birds for those striving to get their royal slam—the combination of taking all five subspecies in North America.

Osceolas are a southern bird, being found only in Florida, and even then, farther south in the state. There are those that believe the birds in the north are still Osceolas, but a more commonly accepted view is that they are a hybrid species with both eastern and Osceola roots. So how can you tell the difference between a pure Osceola and an eastern bird? Osceolas are much darker being almost pure black and their legs are much longer. They will also weigh substantially less, with mature toms weighing roughly 20 pounds at the most.

These birds have adapted well to living in the habitat that Florida has to offer, which much of the time includes flooded areas—what many believe their long legs are served for—and thick forests that are nearly impossible to move through. We primarily hunted in orange groves and big pastures of palmettos where the birds often go to feed.

The Grove

Upon arriving at Osceola Outdoors, I knew I was going to be in for a great trip. Mike Tussey runs a phenomenal operation and is afflicted with turkey fever worse than anyone I have ever met. His lodge is laden with turkey mounts covering multiple grand slams, not to mention Osceolas galore.

Tussey introduced the plan, telling me I’d be hunting with the man himself. On the first morning, we’d be heading to an orange grove well before light to see if we could get in position on some birds that roost on the edge of the grove. As soon as the birds get into the grove, though, they are near impossible to move on, so time wasn’t on our side.

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It was important to wait at the ready, as to not spook a bird by moving.

The first thunderous gobble rang out, and, much to my shock, my adrenaline started racing. I don’t know if it was the surrounding terrain that made the gobble resonate, but it was the loudest bird I’d ever heard.

We quickly got in position and set up on the edge of grove where we could call in a lovestruck tom. Setting up as close as comfortably possible to the roost where the thunderous gobble originated, we tucked into some brush and waited for light to start calling. Mike sent out a few enticing hen calls. The set seemed perfect, the hen decoy was positioned right and the calls had the gobbler sounding off even after it hit the ground. All that was left to do was wait.

During the wait, another gobble erupted from close behind us. It was a distinctly different bird, but it was close. With the utmost caution we rotated over to see the new bird while keeping a close eye in the direction of our original tom. The second bird and his flock of hens skirted us just outside of range. And apparently, our close eye wasn’t close enough. The original tom crossed our path and snuck into 20 yards without ever being seen. Before I could rotate back for a shot, the bird disappeared into the grove.

We chased gobbles for most of the morning moving as sneakily as we could through the trees but to no avail. We left that orange grove, and I knew that these birds were going to be more challenging than the opportunistic birds I had taken out West.

Electrified

As the hunt continued, we tried hard to navigate the weather and the birds. After our first morning in the grove, the Florida weather gave us a show. Small tropical storm systems were pushing through the area bringing lightning shows and dumping heavy rain. We hunted turkeys when and where we could, but also took some intermittent breaks during the day to hunt alligators—but that’s a story for another time.

Recommended


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Mike Tussey has honed his turkey-calling ability over hundreds of hunts.

One afternoon we chose to try to dodge some storms and head to a lease where there were a lot of birds. Looking at the weather radar, it showed that we would be clear for an afternoon hunt. On our drive, though, we started to notice a change in winds and a change in the storm system we saw in the distance.

We were already committed, so we decided to try and race the storm. It hit us hard right as the gate closed to the lease. We waited it out in the truck as the rain hammered the windshield and the thunder shook us to the core. The storm broke for a few minutes, and we decided to make a run for our spot.

Unbeknown to us, turkeys were in the open meadow just to our left and when we got out of the truck they retreated into the thick brush. After that, we weren’t confident in the success of the afternoon, but you can’t kill ‘em from the truck.

We got into position and hoped that we could pull a tom back out from the dense rainforest cover. It started to work; we could see birds working and heard gobbles from time to time. The only problem was the thunder was getting progressively louder again.

Clad in raingear and tucked deep into some palms, we waited as long as we could. The birds started working into the clearing as we heard the electrical whoosh you can only hear when lighting is right on top of you. Tussey and I agreed that no turkey is worth dying for and we headed back to the truck to wait out the afternoon, longingly hoping for another chance to hunt.

At home, I am no stranger to big thunderstorms in the mountains, but the unpredictable nature of these tropical storms was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The open landscapes offered no rhyme or reason to where the lighting would strike, so we weren’t taking any chances.

Palmettos

I have never seen someone so keen at building makeshift hides. Tussey is a mastermind when setting up blinds, especially with palms. Turkeys have amazingly keen eyesight and according to everyone who knows turkeys, the Osceola is one of the most on-edge of all.

After getting tucked into the palms with fronds concealing us in the front, we waited in silence as the sounds of the Florida night gently lulled the sunrise. In the morning mist, we could hear gobbles and saw a flock working into our position. Looking closely through the fog the tom was hard to distinguish, but we were able to figure out which one he was and waited for an opportunity for a shot. The glow of the dot in the Eotech EFLX Mini Reflex fixed atop my Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey burned even brighter in the fog, even at the lowest illumination setting. That morning’s set did yield a burnt shell, but no punched tag. Had I blown my only opportunity for an Osceola? It sure felt that way.

Moving to different areas and calling into timber enticed a wayward gobble. At the response, we tucked deep into palmettos overlooking a dried pond—a picturesque set for a Florida hunt. Fronds were covering us up front, and we sat motionless as the gobble moved in the distance.

The tom was continuously responsive to Tussey’s calls, then all of sudden went silent. “He’s just not answering because he’s on a dead run to us right now,” I joked with Tussey. He reluctantly chuckled and said “Wouldn’t that be something.” Not a minute later the tom was strutting his stuff straight into our shooting lane and moving quick to the decoys. I felt a responsibility to save our jake decoy from the impending attack and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I settled the red dot on the turkey’s wattle and pulled the trigger.

joef-osceola-turkeys-hero

Unfortunately, my shot fell a bit low and removed most of the beard from his chest—too bad, too, cause it was an impressive specimen. The Apex TSS loads we were using patterned well and hit like a freight train. That tom died where he stood, and I couldn’t be happier with my first Osceola. And, you know what? Turkey fever is real, but I still don’t appreciate the comparison to elk.

A Lethal Combination

Turkey hunting, just like all other forms, lends itself to extreme customization of gun and gear setups. How far could you really go, though? In my book, prior to my newly found turkey fever, a twelve-gauge shotgun normally used for waterfowl, with some 3-inch turkey loads, seemed to be all that was necessary. I found on this hunt that the sky is the limit with your setup to toast toms with extreme prejudice.

Our shotgun was the Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey 12 gauge, a sleek weapon finished with classic Mossy Oak Greenleaf camo. The fit and finish were appealing, and it shouldered nicely. Safety and trigger function were comfortable and easy to navigate while afield, lending itself perfect for minimal movement when the tom was closing the distance. The shotgun is drilled and tapped to make it optics ready which made it easy to mount a Picatinny rail to hold our red-dot sight. Both 18.5- and 24-inch barrels are available and come equipped with the X-Factor XX-Full TKY choke.

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We fitted the Eotech EFLX Mini Reflex sight atop the Mossberg. The EFLX features either a 3- or 6-MOA dot that is quickly adjustable in brightness via the toggle switches on the side that are easy to operate even while using a pair of gloves. The sight housing is made of rugged aluminum, has very clear glass and allows for quick and easy target acquisition while afield. The battery loads from the top to ensure easy replacement if you ever max out the 20,000 hours of run time on the 6-MOA dot or 25,000 hours on the 3-MOA dot that the 2032 battery offers.

The ammo really put the icing on the cake for the setup. Loaded with Apex’s custom-shop 3-inch shells with 8.5/9.5 TSS shot—made specifically for Tussey—all toms were in danger. Though we were using custom-made shells, Apex offers a wide array of TSS turkey loads for everything from 12 gauge down to .410 that perform just as well.




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