Like the majority of turkey hunters, I live where Easterns are the dominant subspecies, and much of the best hunting is in April. Being an absolute turkey addict, I have packed my bags and headed south to Florida almost every March for the past two decades to get a jump on most of the country’s seasons. I love hunting the Osceola, and even more, this trip is something to look forward to all winter long.
The Osceola turkey is only found in Florida, and by many is considered the crown jewel of the wild turkey grand slam. This bird looks most like an eastern but has considerably more black coloration on its primary wing feathers, longer legs and a reputation for not being vocal. A lot of hunters also think the Osceola is much harder to kill than the other birds.
In my opinion, the Osceola is very similar to a Deep South eastern turkey. They live where there is a lot of foliage, plenty of predators, and often don’t gobble a lot. The hunting seasons are long and Osceolas are very wary. That being said, I don’t believe they are necessarily harder to kill than their eastern cousins; hunters just need to modify their tactics to be consistently successful.
Osceolas are generally found in two habitat types: swamps and cattle ranches. Swamp birds can be tough, but a patient hunter can do well on these dark-winged beauties. Cattle ranch birds are hunted most often (and thus we will concentrate on them), and though they are a true challenge, success rates should be very high anywhere that is well managed and where hunters don’t over pressure the birds.
To me, the two most important tools for taking an Osceola are binoculars and good decoys. I say that because in the open cattle country of Florida, turkey hunting can be a very visual game.
I have hunted a lot with my good friend and Osceola outfitter Mike Tussey over the years, and Tussey certainly believes in scouting from a distance.
“You will learn more about the birds by sitting back and glassing from 400 to 600 yards away than anything,” Tussey said. “We sit back and watch a lot, and then we make our plans. This holds true for early and later. We glass pastures where we hear birds gobble on the roost, and then we are able to see where they fly down and where they prefer to strut. Likewise in mid day or the afternoon, you can see what shaded areas the birds prefer to loaf in. Unpressured Osceolas can be pretty predictable, and if you will just watch, you will know with confidence where to set up.”
Like Tussey, I do a lot of glassing, especially early. My usual routine when scouting, is to go listen for roost gobbles. If I can see the birds fly down in a pasture and strut, I jump in the truck and high tail it to another location to try to see birds strutting. On certain ranches, I can hit three to five spots in the first hour or so, and usually locate multiple groups of birds.
Once a spot is chosen to setup, I think proper use of decoys can really up success rates. I have no scientific data to support my opinion, but I believe Osceolas to be the most aggressive of the subspecies. They really seem to fight a lot, and for this reason, I have had great success with gobbler decoys.\
I really like Primos Killer-B decoy. It is small sized, so it doesn’t intimidate the Osceolas, and is very realistic. I usually use a jake fan in the decoy to look like a strutting jake. Along with my strutter, I like to use one to three high-quality hen imposters like the DSD decoys. I also prefer a couple different body positions to add realism.
I believe decoys are very important in these situations because often the terrain is so open, the birds expect to see other birds, not just hear a call. In fact, I think in Florida, a patient hunter can kill more birds with decoys and no calls than vice versa.
Putting these tactics together has netted me an Osceola longbeard with my bow during the first 45 minutes of opening day for the past four springs. I scout a morning or two and find where a gobbler or gobblers fly down and strut. I go in during mid-day the day before season and set up my Primos Double Bull blind and stick my decoys inside. Then I get there super early before daylight, get my decoys set out, and settle in.
I usually do some calling, but nothing too aggressive as I let my position and the decoys do most of the work. If a mature bird or birds has claimed a territory as theirs, they usually won’t tolerate an intruder strutting there.The dominant bird generally charges in to beat up on my decoy, and is met with a sharp G5 broadhead instead.
This is a whole different game than running and gunning, but it is turkey hunting at its best. I think at least once in their life, every turkey hunter should start their season early and head to south Florida to pursue the mystic Osceola. For most that do, it won’t be their only trip.