Missouri Turkey Tactics: North Vs. South

Missouri Turkey Tactics: North Vs. South

While they're not enough to start a civil war over, plenty of differences distinguish the hunting for longbeards in northern and southern Missouri. (March 2007)

Photo by Billie R. Cooper

Old conflicts sometimes die hard, but, fortunately, the anger and pain of the Civil War have long since receded from the foreground. However, advocates for both the north and south still battle it out in the Show-Me State -- but in the turkey woods instead of on the battlefield. There are heated discussions among Missouri's turkey hunters about which part of the state, north or south, provides the best opportunities to bag a spring gobbler and which tactics work best in a given area.

Personally, I favor the approach taken by my great-great-great-grandfather. Grandpa Hale served on both sides of the line during the Civil War: He didn't like the way the Union army treated him, so upon receiving an honorable discharge, he made a major adjustment and joined the Confederates. Similarly, if those northern turkeys don't treat me well, I go south, and vice versa.

However, there are some differences in the best way to steal a march on a "Yank" turkey versus a "Reb" turkey. To be as prepared as possible for the antics of gobblers in both northern and southern Missouri, I consulted some of the best turkey hunters in each region. So read on, choose your side, and get huntin' -- r better yet, be flexible, choose both, and get huntin'.

SOUTHERN TACTICS

Few people know southern Missouri turkey hunting like Marty Eye does. For over four decades, Eye, who grew up in Hillsboro, a small town southwest of St. Louis, has hunted turkeys from one end of the Ozarks to the other, harvesting many birds himself and teaching numerous youngsters, media people and corporate executives about the sport.

"The Ozark region is a vast stretch of heavy timber," he said. "Rugged areas with challenging terrain are predominant in the places I hunt. Specifically, I am talking about very steep river hills. Hunting spring gobblers in this type of terrain takes a combination of tactics to be consistently successful. One secret tactic isn't enough to outwit these crafty southern gobblers."

Eye pointed out that pre-season scouting is essential in the Ozarks, both to locate birds and to figure out the best way to approach them. "Once I decide on a location to hunt, I scout it as much as possible," he said. "My earliest scouting trips are for the purpose of learning the lay of the land. I want to know where every creek, open area, ravine, and unusual land feature is on a particular plot of land. I make notes on topographical maps as I travel. Forgetting the location of a steep ravine can put me close to a bird as the crow flies but leave me with a long, hard climb up and down the slopes to close the distance on him."

Getting comfortable with the lay of the land and being able to negotiate it with ease builds confidence, according to Eye. "Confidence in one's abilities saves precious time when the time comes for decisions about how to set up on a bird or make a move," he remarked. "Hunters need to avoid traveling on the ridgetops when approaching a bird, because of the possibility of being skylighted. The walking may be easier, but wild turkeys will spot a hunter on top of a ridge.

"Get into the hunting area very early, while it is still dark. If hunters have done their scouting, they will know which way a bird is most likely to fly down. But hunters have to remember that this is tough terrain, and being in good physical condition goes a long way towards making a plan work."

National forest lands in southern Missouri are heavily hunted during the spring turkey season. Eye suggested scouting far away from the main logging roads to find birds that can't be heard by hunters traveling those roads.

Another tactic Eye uses on U.S. Forest Service lands: sticking with it. "Most hunters leave the woods after the first round of gobbling stops," he said. "I make sure I know the strutting zones of several toms. The rest of the morning, I move slowly to those areas, using locator calls as I go. Once I get a response and set up, I begin calling aggressively, and wait for one of those highly pressured public-land gobblers to try to sneak in quietly to add another hen to his harem."

NORTHERN TACTICS

World-renowned animal impersonator Ralph Duren, from Jefferson City, has hunted wild turkeys extensively in north Missouri. Turkey hunting is a passion with him.

When asked about turkey hunting in north Missouri, he emphatically stated, "The first thing hunters must take into consider when heading north of the Missouri River to hunt wild turkeys is the terrain. The country is very open up there, and turkey hunters must adjust their tactics and their attitude to be able to harvest a bird.

"Scouting to learn both the terrain and the location of turkeys is absolutely necessary. The countryside is so open that hunters have a slim chance of moving on birds after daylight. Scouting a selected hunt area gives an individual the chance to note every terrain feature. One low ridge may be the key to success. It may allow you to maneuver on birds working a field."

Wooded areas are sparse in the northern half of the state. "Forty-acre tracts of timber up north are considered big blocks of woods," Duren explained. "Hunters need to key on these tracts, because that is where the birds will roost. However, birds may or may not fly down, feed, and strut in those wood patches. It depends on the thickness of the undercover. If the woods are open, birds will use them. If the forest floor is overgrown and thick, turkeys will shy away and feed and strut in the open fields."

The Union Ridge Conservation Area, in Adair County north of Greencastle, consists of 8,164 acres of forest and old fields. "When planning a turkey hunting trip in north Missouri hunters should look to the larger tracts of land," Duren explained. "The terrain is so open, turkeys can see you coming for a long way. If you hunt a small area, you may not have the cover or terrain features to hide behind while trying to move on birds. Areas like Union Ridge are large enough that they afford better opportunities to move around."

Indian Hills Conservation Area, south of Memphis, is another favorite of Duren's. "Hunters can quickly narrow down the spots to hunt on areas like Indian Hills," he pointed out. "The wooded draws and ravines will contain timber where the birds will roost. However, those areas are usually so grown up with brush that turkeys fly down to the nearest open area. Hunters can identify these by scouting early in the season. Then it is simply a matter of slipping quietly into the area well before daylight, setting up a blind and staking a couple of decoys."

Another tactic of Duren's: looking for the shortest grass around, be it in trails, lanes, or mowed areas around fields and the edges of food plots. "Gobblers prefer the short grass areas for strut zones,: he noted, "especially on wet days. The shorter vegetation also allows the strutting gobblers to be seen by hens from farther distances."

Duren also offers some midmorning tactics. "Driving around and glassing from your truck is a good way to locate strutting zones in the open country," he said. "Then you plan your approach. Terrain features and cover play an important role here. Often, a hunter must delay until the next morning and move in under the cover of darkness to place his blind and decoys to great these crafty gobblers when they head to their strutting zones."

* * *

And there you have 'em: the best plans for hunting Show-Me turkeys in both the north and the south. You may have your preferences, but if the wild turkeys in one part of the state don't make you happy, do as my Grandpa did during the Civil War -- switch sides!

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