Talking Missouri Turkey

What can Show-Me State hunters expect from the turkeys this season? Read on and find out. (February 2007)

Ralph Hensley

An eternal optimist would point out that Missouri's 2006 spring turkey season was one that hunters in many states would envy. What's more, 2006 was by no means a "bad" year even by Missouri's high standards. In fact, the season's 54,712-bird harvest was the seventh-highest on record, and 31 percent of permittees killed at least one turkey.

Conversely, a pessimist would note that the 2006 spring turkey harvest was the lowest since 1999. Furthermore, the hunter success percentage was the lowest since 1997.

So is the glass half-empty or half-full? The plain unvarnished truth is that the 2006 spring turkey season was one that most hunters -- including successful ones -- would just as soon forget. For openers, yet another early-spring greenup made seeing approaching gobblers difficult throughout the season in southern Missouri and during most of it even in the state's northernmost counties. It's impossible to say if hunters will face the same scenario this year, because it's impossible to predict Missouri's weather patterns even weeks, let alone months in advance. However, a change in the season structure makes it likely that 2007 will be another "green season" in the turkey woods.

Barring an unexpected last-minute change, opening day of this and subsequent spring turkey seasons will be the third Monday in April (the 16th this year) instead of the Monday closest to April 21. The MDC made the change in response to requests from southern Missouri turkey hunters for an earlier season. According to MDC resource scientist Jeff Beringer, the new opening-day system will create earlier opening days than the old system would have in eight years out of 20 and similar opening days in 12 out of 20. Far more important, Beringer's research indicates that opening the season earlier in the month will have no detrimental effect on either the turkey flock in general or Missouri's famous longbeards in particular.

Another thing that made for disgruntled turkey hunters in 2006 was the fact that huge numbers of gobblers simply ignored calling. Obviously, there'll always be days when the best caller in the state can't move an especially stubborn gobbler -- or even several especially stubborn gobblers. Likewise, there should be plenty of days when poor calling stampedes toms from two ridges in all directions. Last year, however, was a great equalizer. While pro callers did their best and amateur callers their worst, lone -- but apparently not lonesome -- toms quietly went about their business.

Theories explaining this phenomenon abound. One of the more popular holds that the early spring moved turkey nesting so far forward that natural breeding had ceased by the time the season opened. Beringer, too, has a pet theory: that several consecutive years of below-average recruitment have created a turkey flock with a high percentage of mature toms. As any veteran turkey hunter will attest, these wild old masters of the tall timber don't -- unlike their 2-year-old satellites -- come in on the run the first time striker meets slate.

Be all that as it may, the fact remains that a higher percentage of the 2006 spring turkey harvest was taken by sneak or by ambush than is normally the case. There's nothing wrong with either of those tactics, of course; truth be told, of this old ridgerunner's 84 Missouri turkeys, all but two of the bow kills and "several" of the firearms kills were taken using one or the other of them. It's just that hearing a gobbler respond to a call is big part of what spring turkey hunting's all about.

There's probably a rule written somewhere that says no writer should ever open an article on a sour note. I plead not guilty on the grounds that when we here in Missouri say we're "talking turkey," we mean we're telling it like it is -- head, hide, and all. Besides, when Jeff Beringer and I discussed the 2007 spring turkey season, we spent a lot more time looking ahead than behind; so will this article.

For reasons soon to become apparent, our look ahead to the spring of 2007 began with a look back at the spring and summer of 2006. One of the most valuable tools that management biologists have for predicting hunter success in an upcoming season is the poult:hen ratio (the average number of poults that survive their first six months of life per hen in the study area's breeding flock). Using a poult:hen ratio of 2.0 as the minimum number of poults needed to insure both a good harvest and an overall increase in post-season turkey numbers, biologists have noted subpar results in poult production across much of Missouri for the past several years.

Beringer has long since accepted that he'll be fielding questions about poor turkey hatches in every media interview and at every public appearance. "Blaming the weather's our favorite response," he stated on behalf of all MDC biologists. "After all, in Missouri, you can blame the weather for almost anything. However, in this case it happens to be true. Young poults are very susceptible to cold, rainy weather.

"Another plausible reason for the fact that our poult ratios are, in general, lower than they once were is that all available turkey habitat has been occupied across almost all of the state. One exception to that is a portion of southeastern Missouri. We've been addressing that problem by saturation releases in unpopulated or underpopulated habitat, and it seems to be working."

Final figures on the 2006 poult:hen ratio hadn't been calculated at press time, but Beringer was able to supply estimates for 2006 and actual figures for 2005. The 2005 statistics are especially important to hunters because it was the source of this year's harvest mainstay 2-year-old tom. At 1.2, the 2005 statewide poult:hen ratio was the second-lowest ever recorded. That's not good news, no matter how you slice it, but Beringer pointed out that, given the state's estimated 2005 population of 360,000 hens, a 1.2 ratio produced 432,000 poults! Looked at from that angle, 2006's estimated 1.6 ratio doesn't seem as bad.

The MDC's turkey managers have divided the state into nine regions. Regional boundaries follow county lines, but each region's size and shape is designed to highlight the included area's topography, predominant habitat types, or both. This system is confusing compared to the controlling-office system used when discussing almost all other wildlife topics. Conversely, the data developed in these specialized regions paints a clearer picture of what's actually happening in that region's turkey habitat. Based on Beringer's estimates, the 2006 poult:hen ratios for the state's nine turkey regions will be a mixed bag when compared to 2005's.

NORTHWEST REGION

The Northwest Region is bounded by the Iowa border on the north, the Missouri River and the west and south, and Mercer,

Grundy, Livingston and Carroll counties on the east. This region's habitat types range from timbered breaks along the Missouri River to tree-lined rivers and creeks to large cropfields and pastures, which are often rimmed by timbered hills.

The Northwest's 2006 poult:hen ratio is predicted to rise from 2005's dismal 1.0 to approximately 1.7. This region is the state's poster child for Beringer's comments about taking the number of hens into account when judging any given area's poult:hen ratio. In fact, the Northwest region boasts the state's highest turkey population density per acre of forest habitat. In other words, it's fairly safe to assume that one or more gobblers and a flock of hens and jakes have laid claim to just about every grove of trees in the region.

NORTHEAST REGION

The Northeast Region is bounded by the Northwest Region on the west, the Iowa border on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, and Chariton, Randolph, Audrain and Ralls counties on the south. Some of the western part of this region appears to be horizon-to-horizon cropland, but even here are found scattered copses of trees large enough to hold flocks of turkeys. As a rule, the region's habitat becomes more mixed to the east with the percentage of timbered land steadily increasing.

There's no way around the fact that the forecast for the spring season in the Northeast isn't encouraging. In fact, the projected 2006 poult:hen ratio of 1.2 is worse than 2005's unimpressive 1.4. Turkey densities per acre of forested habitat are still good in this region, but reduced numbers of jakes and 2-year-olds will force hunters to work for their birds.

LINDLEY BREAKS REGION

The Lindley Breaks Region is a band one county wide between the Northeast Region and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers beginning with Howard County and stretching east to the mouth of the Missouri and then north along the Mississippi through Pike County. Although breaks (single or multiple ranks of fractured hills delineating the outer edge of a major river valley) are not the only habitat type found in this region, breaks and rolling landscapes do predominate. As might be expected, a far higher percentage of this region is forested than is the case for either the Northeast or the Northwest.

This region posted a 1.2 poult:hen ratio in 2005, and the projection for 2006 shows only marginal improvement to 1.4. There are turkeys in the Lindley Breaks Region, make no mistake about that -- and some of those birds are true longbeards. If you're familiar with the area and/or have located a good place to hunt, my recommendation is to go for it. Otherwise, consider planning your spring hunt for elsewhere in the state.

UNION BREAKS REGION

The Union Breaks Region is, with the exception of Bollinger County, another one-county-wide band, but it lies on the south bank of the Missouri River beginning with Cooper County, proceeding east to the Mississippi River and then south through Cape Girardeau County. Its habitat is a rich mixture of breaks, inland hills, rolling pastures and small crop farms.

This region rebounded from a 1.3 poult:hen ratio in 2005 to a projected 2.0 in 2006. From a hunter's perspective, these figures indicate that jakes should be relatively plentiful in 2007, but 2-year-olds may be in short supply. Of course, the typical number of fully mature toms will be on hand to test the mettle of the most determined hunter.

MISSISSIPPI LOWLANDS REGION

The Mississippi Lowlands Region -- the "Bootheel" -- is bounded by the Mississippi River on the east, Arkansas on the south, Dunklin and Stoddard counties on the west and Scott County on the north. Known for its flat, featureless terrain, the region also contains hills, swamps and riverine timber in which will be found a growing turkey flock.

Bootheel turkey hunters have good reason to be excited about the upcoming spring season. True, region's 2005 poult:hen ratio was only 1.3, but 2006's is projected to be a whopping 3.5! If neither poachers nor natural calamities intervene, jakes aplenty should ramble around the region's turkey habitat this year, and 2008 promises to be even better.

OZARKS EAST REGION

The Ozarks East Region is bounded on the north and northeast by the Union Breaks Region, on the southeast by the Mississippi Lowlands Region, on the south by Arkansas, and on the west by Oregon, Shannon and Dent counties. Although other habitat types do exist here, the region is justifiably best known for its expansive oak/hickory forests and steep terrain.

The Ozarks East produced a poult:hen ratio of 1.4 in 2005 and is expected to improve to 2.0 in 2006. Given the generally sorry state of turkey recruitment across Missouri the past few years, a 2.0 ratio might seem to justify optimism regarding this spring's season. However, this pleasing statistic doesn't fully reflect the fact that turkey densities per acre of forested habitat are lower in southern Missouri than they are in regions with more varied habitats. In other words, there really are birds "in them thar hills" -- but be prepared to work hard to tag one.

OZARKS WEST REGION

The Ozarks West Region is bounded on the north by the Union Breaks Region, on the east by the Ozarks East Region, on the south by a county-wide band running along the Arkansas border to the Kansas line, and on the west by Douglas, Wright, LaClede and Camden Counties. It and the Ozarks East Region share many more similarities than differences in habit type and distribution.

Unfortunately, the two regions have suffered through similar problems with recruitment, but the west's difficulties have been more pronounced. In 2005, the Ozarks West recorded a poult:hen ratio of 1.1. Even with 2006's predicted 1.6, hunters in this region will face a challenge this spring. Fortunately, hunters here are up for a challenge. In fact, Texas County is consistently among the state's best bets for spring gobblers.

OZARK BORDER REGION

The Ozark Border Region consists of Morgan, Benton, St. Clair, Hickory, Cedar, Polk, Dallas, Webster, Christian and Newton counties. As its name implies, this region's topography features fingers of the beginning of the Ozark uplift stretching out into a flat-to-gently-rolling landscape. In other words, it's the type of habitat in which turkeys should thrive.

Turkey numbers per acre of forested habitat are good throughout most of this region. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for recruitment the past two years. As if 2005's 1.3 poult:hen ratio weren't dismal enough, the projection for 2006 is 1.2. The good news for serious turkey fanatics is that plenty of mature toms strut and gobble in this region.

WEST PRAIRIE REGION

The West Prairie Region is a single band of counties along the Kansas border from Jackson County south through Jasper County. In addition, Lafayette, Saline, Pettis, Johnson, and Henry counties form an eastward thrust south of the Missouri River, and Lawrence, Dade, and Greene counties form a salient at the southern end of the region. Although a certain fraction of this region is dominated by forested hills, the greater part of it is flat-to-rolling open country interspersed with tree-lined rivers and small woodlots.

This is the state's only region to show no movement either up or down in turkey production during the 2005-2006 time period. The actual poult:hen ratio for 2005 was 1.2, exactly the same ratio predicted for 2006. Those figures notwithstanding, this region's turkey habitat is loaded with turkeys. Hunting in the West Prairie Region this spring should be much better than its statistics indicate.

This report may have begun on a sour note, but it isn't going to end on one. Every region in Missouri -- indeed almost every county -- offers excellent turkey hunting on public land managed by the MDC, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or some combination of those and, perhaps, other agencies. Some of these areas, like the Mark Twain National Forest and the Harry S. Truman Project (to name only two), are well known. Conversely, hundreds of smaller parcels of land, many of which are owned by the MDC, are known only to those hunters diligent enough to search them out.

Begin by using the spiral-bound Missouri's Conservation Atlas and the agency's Web site to pre-scout the part of the state you're interested in hunting. Then spend as much time as possible in the field scouting and re-scouting as many Conservation Areas as possible, including those postage stamp-sized CAs that most hunters overlook. Finally, when you come down to the final decision as to where you'll hunt, never forget that you don't have to locate every gobbler in the county: You only have to find two birds in three weeks.

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