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The Exceptional Swamp King.

April 10, 2008 by  
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The Exceptional Swamp King – by Tim Herald

I don’t know what makes turkeys gobble one day but not the next. Obviously the stage of mating, the weather, barometric pressure, etc. all have something to do with how much turkeys gobble, but from one seemingly identical day to the next there can be unexplainable differences in gobbling activity.Tim Herald

Osceolas are notorious for their lack of gobbling, just as Rio’s are famous loudmouths. In my experience, Florida birds do some gobbling on the roost, but after flydown, they aren’t too vocal. As with every rule, there are exceptions. One foggy morning on Dark Hammock Ranch near Okeechobee, Florida, I was fortunate enough to encounter an exceptional Osceola longbeard.

Well before dawn after a fruitless opening day, my dad and I split up to hunt opposite sides of a huge hundred acre pasture. Dad was going to an opening in the woods that bordered the pasture’s north end where he had seen two gobblers and a group of hens the day before, and I was going to the big cypress swamp on the south side. I had close to a mile walk to get to where I wanted to listen, and due to the thick fog I hadn’t found the tree line I was looking for when the sun started coming up. I was very worried because I knew that first light might be my only chance to locate a gobbling bird. Finally I could make out a row of palmettos that had small trees scattered along its length every 50 to 100 yards. Though I still couldn’t see the swamp, I stopped under one of the trees to listen and wait until visibility increased with light. I hadn’t been standing there three minutes when I heard a gobble erupt from somewhere across the palmettos and two hundred yards down the line. I walked parallel with the palmettos until I was almost even with the gobbling tom, and to my surprise discovered a gap in the leafy obstacle big enough to drive a truck through. I crept through the gap and a narrow opening that was fifty yards in width and seemingly endless in length opened up. The cypress swamp that I had been looking for bordered the other side of the clearing, and the gobbler was sounding off regularly from just inside the treeline.

The old tom had gotten pretty fired up, and I could hear three or four other gobblers deeper in the swamp. I hurriedly put out a jake and two hen decoys and looked for a place to sit down. There wasn’t a tree anywhere in the vicinity so I just sat with my back to the palmettos. I cut a few palm fans and stuck them in the ground in front of me and got out my calls. I knew I was dealing with the boss of the swamp because every time another tom sounded off, no matter how far away, the bird in front of me would double or triple gobble. There were two barred owls exchanging calls, and the old swamp sultan gobbled heartily every time they uttered a sound. It sounded like a Rio had defected to south Florida.

I made a soft tree yelp on a diaphragm and was cut off by a double gobble. I estimated my quarry to be eighty yards away in front and slightly to the right of me. Directly between me and the gobbler was a large island of palmetto, and my decoys were beyond it and to the left. I just knew that the longbeard would pitch down straight to my decoys, and the show would be over.

I called a bit more and was cut off every time I made a sound. Since the bird was trying to out do all the other gobblers in the swamp, I thought I would try to make him mad. I picked up my Knight & Hale Widow Maker tube call and gobbled ending with three slow jake yelps. The tom went ballistic. He must have gobbled twenty-five times in the next two minutes, and then I heard long heavy wing beats.

I was sitting with my gun on my knee pointed at my decoys. G-O-B-B-B-B-L-E! He was straight behind the palmetto island which put him about sixty degrees to my right. I called a few times, and he readily answered each call. I shifted to the right and was certain that the old warrior would round the palmettos any second. I could hear him spit and drum, and he was gobbling like mad. Then everything went silent.

I eased my safety off and waited for him to appear. After a few minutes I called and was greeted by silence. I made three or four more series of yelps and cutts, but nothing happened. Just as I was beginning to worry, “C-H-K-K, V-R-R-O-O-M-M”. The noise was coming from near my decoys, which were back to my left.

I slowly turned my head, and there he was in all his glory only thirty yards away. There was nothing between us except the thinning fog, and my gun was pointed in the wrong direction. I watched the glorious longbeard strut and drum for what seemed like an eternity, and he finally pirouetted around so that his fan faced me. I quickly shifted back to my original position and had my gun on him. I then yelped hoping to get the tom to raise his head or turn to face me. He turned ever so slowly continuing his ancient mating ritual, and I decided to watch his show. I called excitedly and made him gobble a few more times while keeping him in the crosshairs of my scope. I cutt one more time, and when he stretched his neck in a full gobble, I squeezed the trigger. It was 6:05 a.m.

I walked the twenty-seven steps to my fallen trophy and then just sat beside him for a while. I ran the hunt back through my mind’s eye and figured the old tom had gobbled over two hundred times. Osceolas just aren’t supposed to do that. It was an unbelievable hunt.

On my long walk back, I heard a very distant shot. I gave a quick prayer that it had been Dad and continued to the truck. When I got there, no one was around, and I drank some water and waited. After fifteen minutes, I decided that I would head in the direction Dad had gone and try to get another gobbler riled up. I thought if I could get a bird to gobble a few times, Dad might move in and be able to work him. I hadn’t walked three hundred yards when I heard a bird sound off.

He was in the woods on the far side of a football field sized opening in the pines, and I made it to the closer edge undetected. I called, and he gobbled. We went back and forth for about five minutes, and then he emerged in the opening. The huge bird was the biggest Osceola that I had ever seen, and he was followed by another respectable longbeard and a jake. I cranked up my calling, and the big gobbler followed suit.

The three birds crossed the clearing and headed straight for me. I had forgotten about Dad as I watched the monster gobbler go in and out of strut between gobbles. I was lying in a prone position, and when the birds were a mere fifteen yards away, I checked the big boy’s spurs through my eight power binoculars. If that bird had bumps on his legs, his curved spurs were 1 ¾ inches long. I also guessed him to have a beard that was well over eleven inches. He was a package deal. I then eased my .44 magnum revolver that I carry in Florida for wild hogs, out of my shoulder holster and cocked the hammer. I took a fine bead on the strutting monarch, and whispered, “Boom, you’re mine”. I then eased the hammer back down. I watched the trio for another ten minutes, and they eventually lost interest and went back the way they had come. I got up and headed back to the truck again remembering Dad and wishing that he had shown up. As I came within sight of the truck, I saw Dad headed toward me with his gun over his shoulder. I ran to him and told him that I thought I knew a way to get him a shot at the huge gobbler I had just left. He fell in step with me, but after about fifty yards, he asked what we were going to do with the bird he had lying at the truck. I stopped on a dime and told him that you could only kill one turkey a day in Florida. He didn’t know that, and we headed back to the truck laughing about the situation.

At the truck, we admired each other’s birds and pulled out the scales and measuring tape. Dad’s gobbler was a nice three year old that weighed 18 ½ pounds, had a nearly nine inch beard and 1 1/8 inch spurs. The old warrior I tagged tipped the scales at 19 ½ pounds and had 1 ¼ inch spurs and a 10 ½ inch beard. We sure were a couple of happy Kentucky boys that morning. We got back to the house at about 7:30 a.m. and had our birds hanging on the back porch and a pot of coffee brewed before my wife and mother finally rolled out of bed.

Osceolas aren’t supposed to gobble that much, and I may never experience another morning like that in south Florida, but that is part of turkey hunting. Things often don’t happen like they are supposed to, but it sure is grand when the rare exception to the rule turns out to be in your favor.


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