Ray Eye, Missouri’s favorite turkey hunting son, has hunted turkeys in every state that has a turkey population. He’s hunted turkeys on television, talked about turkey hunting on his radio show and given hundreds of seminars helping other hunters bag their birds.
“Uncle Ray” lives and breathes turkeys. In spite of all his fame and notoriety, Eye still calls Missouri home. And, because of its diversity, Missouri is his favorite state to hunt.
However, Missouri’s vast diversity from the mountainous Ozarks to the rolling fields of northern Missouri is one more factor that can leave an unused tag in a Missouri turkey hunter’s pocket. Is there an advantage to hunting one area over another? Are the birds up north dumber than our Ozark birds?
Eye doesn’t think so. “The only real difference is population densities and the terrain you are hunting,” he says.
WHAT IS GOING ON WITH OUR TURKEYS?
In Missouri, where turkey numbers are down from historical highs, many hunters complained about last season.
“Many hunters don’t understand spring turkey season,” Ray explains. “Many hunters believe the perfect season is a time when most of the hens are on the nest. The mornings are bluebird mornings, no wind or rain and the woods are alive with gobbling 2-year-old birds that run to anything that resembles a squeaky hen sound — a wire squeaking when climbing a fence or the noise a lug nut makes while changing a flat tire. These all could contribute to shooting a gobbler in self-defense.
“Unfortunately, these 2-year-old birds are how spring hunting is judged by the hunting public. Anything other than non-stop gobbling and 2-year-old birds running to the gun, and the season is off. I love hunting old turkeys. Many days you never hear a gobbler. Old gobblers strutting with hens don’t need to gobble.”
Eye predicts this spring will be a repeat of last season, “Hunters will still be hunting older turkeys. As a turkey hunter you must adapt to the different moods and aspects of the birds.”
Eye learned years ago that a hen (or a hunter) that sits 200 yards away and softly yelps won’t get the gobbler because another hen will get in closer and get more aggressive, calling nonstop, and taking the old tom with her. Competition due to the dense turkey population is what makes Eye’s aggressive calling so successful.
“It used to be there weren’t as many birds, so when you started calling the toms would come in,” he says. “Today the gobblers don’t need to go looking for the hens; they are all over the place. If you don’t get aggressive with your calling and get the old tom cranked up, you ain’t goin’ to the dance.”
Eye doesn’t change his calling whether he’s hunting Easterns in the Ozarks or northern Missouri, Rios out West or Osceolas in Florida. Eye uses the same call. The difference is the method of calling. If a hunter won’t adapt then he won’t get a bird.
“The old school springtime ‘yelp three times and get your gun up’ times are over. You’ve got to get aggressive with your calling. You have to use fall hunting tactics on spring turkeys about 80 percent of the time.”
So how does Uncle Ray hunt the different regions of Missouri? By not getting locked into one hunting method and by taking it to the birds.
The Ozarks region is Eye’s stomping ground and it’s where Eye learned his craft, chasing around the old cagey Ozark gobblers. It remains one of his favorite areas to hunt.
Eye offers this advice for elusive Ozark birds. “In the Ozarks, the old gobblers are going to have hens with them. You have to get tight on the gobbler before the hens get to him. Roosting a gobbler makes all the difference in the world to bag a turkey, no matter where you hunt. If you can roost a gobbler even if it is with hens, and you know where the gobbler flew up from the night before, and then get in there tight on that gobbler within 60 or 50 yards, you will be the first thing he hears next morning. You can get him down to you and bag him before the hens get to him.
“Many hunters think that a gobbler is running from their calling, when actually the gobbler is going with the hens. You can try calling the hens, and it does work depending on the cycle of the breeding season, but most times the gobbler will be with the hens. The hens don’t like the competition when they are breeding, and they will take the gobbler with them,” says Eye.
The rough terrain of the Ozarks makes getting tight on a turkey much easier than trying to get tight on a northern bird with its open fields and few avenues of approach.
“One of the biggest advantages in hunting the Ozarks is it is easier to set up on the turkeys,” says Ray. “The dense, sometimes-overgrown, hardwoods make great concealment when executing a sneak attack, and it is much easier to maneuver on the birds.”
There is a downside of hunting the Ozarks as Eye points out.
“A hunter has to cover a lot more territory to find birds in the Ozarks, but there are plenty of old logging roads a hunter can travel to cover a lot of ground.”
Eye spends much of his time in the Ozarks hunting Mark Twain National Forest. Last season, Eye traveled the old logging roads that crisscross Mark Twain, but everywhere he stopped were hunters’ vehicles.
“I got away from the other hunters and found turkeys in the same haunts I hunted 30 years ago. If you are planning on hunting the Ozarks, get away from the roads and the people. The only shot I heard that morning of hunting in the Ozarks was the one I took to bag my bird. The other hunters said they hadn’t heard a gobble in two days due to the activity in the woods.
“Turkey hunting in the Ozarks is a lot like fishing. You have to find the places that hold turkeys just like in a lake you need to find the places that hold fish.”
Eye claims that the turkey will continue to use the same areas for years as long as the habitat doesn’t change.
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