About Time!

After what may have been the coldest winter on record in the Southeast, it seems like spring and old man winter are in the midst of an epic battle for control over the weather and woods. Spring is winning, but you'd have had a hard time convincing me of that on Saturday--Opening Day of spring gobbler season here in South-central Florida. Though where dad and I hunt is only a fraction of a degree north of the tropical/warm-temperate climate boundary, at 5:30 a.m. there was ice was on the windshield, and as I walked through the wet cypress hammock toward a blind my boots broke through ice with every step. I had enough clothes on to look like the Michelin Man in camo, but still I felt pretty good about bagging a bird. Statewide, the woods have resounded with gobbles for a couple of weeks, and the birds have been strutting. Turkey season opens first in the Everglades, before everywhere else in North America and I've hunted opening weekend almost every year of my life. Each year, a network of turkey hunting buddies across America keep my phone ringing off the hook that weekend, in anticipation of what lies ahead for them. Everybody is champing at the bit, so I'll risk a forecast. Barring late-season blizzards, look for the birds to be randy as hell early on. Dad, friend Jesse Terry, and I were just about sexually assaulted by big toms this weekend, and we figure that the gobbling, fighting and hen chasing will slow down by mid season. So get your gear ready, practice calling, and be ready to get out there on opening day. 1. Opening morning, my dad, Bert Gibson, had a jake make a beeline for him. "He was gobbling so loud he was rattling my teeth, and what a display he put on." Dad let that bird go. He knew that two big Toms were traveling together near his blind. Next morning, he set up a hen decoy and the Toms fought like hell over it. This Osceola had a 10-inch beard, 1 3/8ths-inch spurs, and weighed a little over 19 pounds. It's going on the wall.
This was the view from the Gilchrist Plantation main hall, Friday morning, just west of Gainesville and the Eastern/Osceola boundary about 200 miles north of where I hunt opening weekend. That's ice on the downed tree, and "sea smoke" on the lake, but the birds didn't care. They were gobbling at first light and have been for some time statewide.
Frost on the pinecones opening morning--a far cry from the typically muggy, buggy conditions we typically hunt in down in South Florida.
Still, spring is making a push against the coldest winter in anyone's memory. It has frozen seven or eight times this year.
As of opening weekend, even the big birds were still traveling together, though I heard a couple of raspy old Toms deep in the cypress that seemed like they were thinking more along the lines of the proverbial "old bull."
They're looking for the hens already running ripe and standing off alone from the flock.
Both opening morning and afternoon, I saw four Toms traveling together, each with an 8-inch beard or better. But I couldn't pull them away from the hens, even with a decoy. It was enough to make a "girl" feel homely.
I wasn't exactly sure of where they were roosting, so Sunday morning I got out early and used the owl call to locate this band of brothers. I heard them get down from the roost and respond to the owl call, so I climbed into a dead oak that lay about four feet off the ground and had been hollowed out like a canoe. Every time I putted or purred at them, they fanned out and started fighting. Moving in slow circles, they edged toward me, until they saw two hens across the field and started toward them. I had to stop them with some nerve-wracking yelps. Curiosity got the better of them, and they moved within 35 yards. I shot the biggest one about 7:30.
Dad thaws out by the fire after a long, cold day of hunting. Having re-thought his game plan, he scored with a single hen decoy on the second morning. Decoys tend to work best early in the season. The birds either get wise to them or become less interested in general as spring wears on.
Good thinking, pops.
Spurs and cypress knees--essence of a South Florida turkey hunt.
This photo was actually taken early season last year, west of Orlando, during a Benelli on Assignment shoot. Just like opening weekend this year, we had to pull randy gobblers away from ripe hens.
One way to do it is with a jake decoy, and some fighting words from a box call. This is a Hazel Creek decoy, basically a mounted jake. This thing will make a big Tom's ego get in the way of good sense in a heartbeat.
This bird's beard measured 9 ¾-ich, spurs were 1 3/8ths, and it weighed a little over 18 pounds. It wasn't my biggest beard, but definitely the most intense and memorable calling experience of my life. I kept the beard and fan and will be making a plaque mount.
Dad's big bird, tipping the scales at 19 pounds.
One kickin' chicken.
Good luck, and from the Gibson's we hope everyone's season is as successful a family outing as the opener was for us. And don't forget to check out the Strut Zone for insider reports on turkey season 2010.

FIRST BIRD! It's official, spring is here and Outdoor Life is on the ground in Florida for opening weekend of spring turkey season.