Considering the winter that has plagued–and continues to plague–much of the nation, more than a few outdoorsmen are surely sitting next to a wood stove right now, glancing out the window onto an endless snowscape, and dreaming of shooting long-bearded gobblers and tossing plugs to potbellied largemouths. If you can’t wait for the thaw to come to your neck of the woods, book a flight to Florida today and you can be hunting birds and hooking bass by tomorrow morning. One of the premier locations to do just that is the region from Lake Okeechobee north to Orlando.
When to Go
Now! The Osceola turkeys that inhabit the prairies, palmetto flats, and hardwood forest of central Florida breed in March and April. Most of this region lies within Zone C, where the season runs from March 15 to April 20; south of Highway 70, the season closes April 6. The limit is one bird per day and two for the season.
The largemouth bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee is legendary, and some of the year’s largest fish are caught in late winter and spring during the spawning season. This is when the fish are in the shallows and aggressive, and will take topwater plugs like Pop-Rs and Zara Spooks, as well as live shiners.
Generally it’s best to hunt turkeys in the morning and fish in the afternoon. However, since the wind can come up on Okeechobee as the day wears on, early mornings often produce the most productive bass fishing. To address this dilemma, book a four-day trip. Hunt birds two mornings, fish the other two, and plan your afternoons accordingly.
Where to Hunt and Fish
There are more than five million acres of state-operated wildlife management areas in Florida. Add National Forest land and national wildlife refuges open to hunting and that number jumps quite a bit. Among the WMAs where you can hunt Osceolas without a quota permit are Kissimmee River, Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Three Lakes, Upper Hillsborough, and Bull Creek. Since these areas are open to general hunting, they see a lot of pressure and the birds get educated quickly. The hunters I spoke with that regularly hunt and kill birds in these areas rarely hear a turkey gobble. Simply put, hunting turkeys on public land is a real challenge unless you draw a quota permit for a limited-entry hunt. It’s too late to apply for a limited-entry hunt this year, but if you’re already thinking about next spring, some of the better quota hunts are on Caravelle Ranch, Hickory Hammock, Camp Blanding, Fort Drum, and Andrews WMAs, as well as the Prairie Lakes Unit of Three Lakes.
The state’s Special Opportunity turkey hunts also are good bets. Each year, Florida selects areas for these special hunts that have both good habitat and turkey populations, then sets a quota. Low pressure means a better hunting experience and higher success. The WMAs with Special Opportunity turkey hunts are Homosassa, Dexter/Mary Farms, Fort Drum, Lake Panasofkee, Triple N Ranch, Green Swamp West, and Fisheating Creek.
In contrast, private-land hunts are highly controlled and you will likely never see another hunter while in the field. The upside is that hunter success is high and packages often include guides, accommodations, and meals. The downside is that the hunts can be expensive and many of the better outfitters are booked a year in advance.
When it comes to fishing Lake Okeechobee, you can trailer your own boat and fish on your own. There are plenty of launch ramps and there is no fee to fish the lake. The other alternative, and certainly the best option if you are not familiar with the lake, is to hire a guide who knows where to fish and what lures or baits to use. Guides often provide fishing tackle and can arrange accommodations and meals.
What to Bring
For turkey hunting, bring whatever you use for the birds where you live–Osceolas speak the same language as Easterns, Merriams, and Rios. Lightweight camo and waterproof boots are ideal, and you might want a light- or medium-weight jacket for early mornings.
Because the largemouths in Okeechobee can top 10 pounds, both conventional and spinning tackle should be spooled with 15- to 20-pound-test line. Bring a tackle box loaded with topwaters, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and plastic worms and lizards, plus hooks and weights for live-bait fishing.
Rain gear is a wise addition, as is insect spray to ward off the almost certain presence of mosquitos. A good hat and sunscreen are musts.
Where to Stay and What to Eat and See
A wide variety of accommodations and restaurants are available in the Okeechobee area. If you book a guided hunting or fishing trip, lodge-style accommodations that include meals are typically available.
Here’s an insider tip if you plan to bring the family: This area is home to more than a few amusement parks that are sure to entertain the kids.
What It’ll Cost
A resident hunting license is $17 and a resident turkey permit is $10. For hunters visiting from out of state, a 10-day non-resident license is $46.50 and the non-resident turkey permit is $125. Annual resident fishing licenses are $17, a three-day non-resident license is $17, and a seven-day license is $30. You can purchase licenses in advance at myfwc.com/license.
Full-day guided fishing trips on Lake Okeechobee range from $400 to $500 per day for two anglers. Guided turkey hunts vary from $500 per day per person for private-land access and a guide to $2,500 for three-day hunting packages that include accommodations and meals.
Who to Contact
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: myfwc.com; 850-488-4676
Okeechobee County Chamber of Commerce: okeechobeebusiness.com; 863-467-6246
Experience Kissimmee: experiencekissimmee.com; 407-742-8201
Okeechobee Outfitters: guided-hunting.com; 863-655-2454
Fast Break Bait and Tackle: www.okeechobeebassfishingguide.com; 866-213-2474
Outwest Farms: floridahuntingoutfitter.com; 863-634-3262