Missouri's 2010 Turkey Outlook

Missouri's 2010 Turkey Outlook

So, how is our spring turkey season shaping up? Maybe just a little better than you would think. (March 2010)

The morning arrived cold. Snow covered the fields and woods as I turned loose my English setter for the last hunt of the 2003 quail season. My partner's dogs also ranged ahead as we worked through a CRP field alongside a shallow valley. The dogs were excited, but tracks in the snow showed they were working turkeys.

The author heads out of the Missouri turkey woods with a longbeard over his shoulder. That's a goal many of his fellow turkey chasers would like to experience this spring.

Photo by Spencer Turner.

I waited, expecting a flush of large black birds. No flush, but as I watched the valley's far side, a line of birds snaked up the hillside single file. Seemingly endless, the line of birds continued up over the valley top. It seemed like I watched the birds for 10 minutes, but I'm sure it was only three or four before stragglers finished the climb and disappeared over the hill.

That was an eye-opening experience. The spring turkey season should be fun, I thought. I hunted spring turkeys, less than a half mile from where we hunted those quail.

Little did I know the next turkey season would be the start of a gradual decline in turkey numbers, especially gobblers and jakes, as Missouri suffered under a series of wet, cold springs and poor poult production.

Spring turkey hunting and hunter success depends strongly on the presence of young (and dumb) males. Boy, does that sum up my turkey hunting! I need lots of young, dumb males in the flock. When you look at those cold turkey-hunting statistics provided by Missouri's turkey biologists, jakes and 2-year-old males make up a large portion of the spring kill each year.

What does this mean for turkey hunters in spring 2010?

Missouri's turkey population over the past six years has experienced failures in nesting success because of cold spring rains and the obviously inclement weather that comes with it. Harvest of spring turkeys has declined steadily from a peak of 60,700 in 2004, a record year, to 46,300 in 2008 and finally to 44,713 in 2009.

To quantify what happens each year, volunteers and MDC staff collects brood and hen data over the summer. In 2008, biologists found statewide hen production numbers, the average number of poults produced per hen, was 1.06 poults. In 2009, it was up somewhat.

Tom Daily, resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri's turkey biologist, reports for 2010, "There's good news for turkey hunters in much of the state. Poult production in 2009 was 1.2 this year, up 8 percent from 2008."

At least the news is positive. However, turkey hunters need to look more closely at broad, general statistics. Statistics can provide a false impression of what is really happening in specific locations in the state.

Local weather can create serious problems during nesting, not reflected in broad general statistics. For example, Boone County, where I live, received more than 14 inches of rain from May through July in 2009. Local weather conditions can improve or reduce turkey production.

To get a better picture of turkey production in 2009 and a snapshot of what we can expect during the spring hunting season, let's look at regional poult production. That picture will help us decide where to hunt turkeys this spring.

The Bootheel and eastern Ozark regions had the highest production, where observers reported 1.6 poults for every hen. That represents a 48 percent improvement for the Bootheel and a 26 percent increase in the eastern Ozarks compared with 2008.

Northwest, north and northeast Missouri counties on the other hand, again experienced series of wet, cold rains during nesting in 2009. In the northwest and northeast regions, poult-to-hen indices decreased to 0.8 (minus 16 percent) and 1.0 (minus 7 percent), respectively in 2009.

The news isn't all doom and gloom. Missouri hunters lead the nation in numbers of gobblers harvested each year during the spring hunting season. We kill more turkeys each year than hunters in any other state. For example, in 2009, we killed more than 44,700; 2008, more than 46,000; in 2007, more than 48,000; and in 2004, more than 60,000, a record year. That was the year after I watched the parade of turkeys during my quail hunt.

Join me now for suggestions on where to hunt turkeys this spring and some tips for hunting old, mature gobblers.

PRIVATE HUNTING

Hands down, hunting private ground improves odds for a successful trip. I hunt a private farm in northeast Missouri with about 500 acres of mixed cropland, wooded draws and CRP plots that's surrounded by other private landowners that also manage for wild turkeys. And, more important, they limit hunter numbers on the property. On private farms you compete with fewer hunters, and the turkeys will be less stressed and easier to call in the spring than those on public hunting grounds.

PUBLIC LANDS

Missouri has a wealth of great public-hunting areas, some owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation, others by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. All provide great spring turkey hunting.

Let's start up north. Although production was poor in 2009, northern Missouri still supports a large turkey population, and great public areas hold good turkey numbers. Even in a down year, success rates are very high. The following suggested areas are all large enough to support numerous turkey hunters, sustain large turkey populations, and have been recommended by MDC management biologists I contacted.

Indian Hills Conservation Area is located in Scotland County, just south of Memphis. It has more than 3,600 acres of managed ground, with sections of the Middle Fabius and North Fabius rivers running through the area. Wooded stream corridors, surrounded by hills planted to corn and beans and managed by MDC, attract turkeys, provide roosting areas and offer protection from predators.

Rebel's Cove Conservation Area is located in Putnam and Schuyler counties, just north of Livonia, and has more than 4,000 acres of forested lands, old fields and several managed wetlands. More important, it has 10 miles of the non-channeled upper Chariton River, with a wooded riparian corridor and mature trees.

Mark Twain Lake, a Corps of Engineers lake, is located in Monroe County near the communities of Paris, Santa Fe, Stoutsville, Monroe City and Perry. It has more than 50,000 acres of lake and lands surrounding the lake that support an excellent turkey population. More important, this region experienced a 16 percent increase in poult production in 2009 and historically provides great turkey hunting. A small but growing number of spring turkey hunters use boats to locate gobbling males, and then land and set up nearby to call.

Woodson K. Woods Conservation Area supports more than 5,000 acres of uplands and bottomlands located southeast of St. James on the Meramec River and Dry Fork Creek. The area has a mixture of bluffs, Ozark hills and bottomlands, and supports one of Missouri's best wild turkey populations in the central region. Poult production in 2009 showed a 26 percent increase from 2008.

The Mark Twain National Forest includes lands in central, southern, eastern and western Missouri, and constitutes one of the Show Me State's largest blocks of hunting land. "The Forest" has a mixture of wooded lands and old fields, some with food plots and others grown up with brush, and supports excellent wild turkey hunting. Except for Boone County, poult production in southern blocks of the national forest lands increased in 2009.

The Rolla district, and those forestlands in Shannon County, would be my first choice. Prior scouting is recommended. The U.S. Forest Service Supervisor's office in Rolla can provide maps of the four forest regions.

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the only national park in Missouri and the only national park allowing hunting and fishing under statewide regulations. Located along 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, this park has more than 80,700 acres and supports great turkey hunting in traditional Ozark oak and hickory forestlands. I've had great hunts along the Current River in the Hartshorn Conservation Area. Poult production in 2009 increased about 26 percent from 2008.

The park has numerous trails and old roads that allow easy access. For a unique hunt, float a section of the Current or Jacks Fork River, and then camp and hunt.

Shannon, Carter, Ripley and Oregon counties -- this area of Missouri arguably has the most publicly owned land. The Mark Twain National Forest, the Missouri Department of Conservation and The Nature Conservancy/Kerr-McGee lands managed by MDC are all within this area of the Ozarks and open for turkey hunting.

In Shannon County alone, MDC manages more than 20 conservation areas ranging from just a few acres to more than 73,000 acres. Many conservation areas connect with National Park Service lands and the Mark Twain National Forest lands. Poult production increased 26 percent there in 2009.

Harry S. Truman Reservoir has more than 54,000 acres of managed wildlife lands, with many miles of non-maintained roads and trails in Henry and Benton counties. Wildlife mangers plant food plots, and a few leased fields attract a wide variety of wildlife, including turkeys.

Because of the size and ruggedness of these lands, managers recommend turkey hunters take a few days before season to scout. Also, check with the Corps of Engineers office in Warsaw for maps and additional information on managed lands around the lake.

TIPS FOR HUNTING STRESSED WILD TURKEYS

Hunting spring turkeys when the population is down takes more stealth and more work on the part of spring turkey hunters. As a group, Missouri turkey hunters have been spoiled by abundant numbers of turkeys available each year. This year, however, we are faced with a population of old, smart gobblers, gobblers that have weathered the stresses of growing through and surviving two or more years of life. Gobblers will be fewer in number, larger, and surrounded by hens early in the season.

If you plan to hunt on private property, take time to secure hunting permission. A friend takes his young son with him when he knocks on doors to secure hunting permission. He thinks having a youngster in tow softens a landowner's heart when he asks to hunt. Apparently, the tactic works.

Private property has fewer hunters, less chance to encounter another hunter while hunting, and turkeys are not as hunter-shy as they are on public ground.

Tip No. 1: Do your homework. Locate gobbler roosting areas on your property or public ground before the season opens. Turkeys generally roost in the same areas, sometimes even the same trees, each evening.

Tip No. 2: Decoys work. I hunted for years without using decoys, but learned decoys help when birds are scarce or stressed. They provide a comfort level for gobblers responding to a call and provide a reference point for the hunter knowing when a bird is within range for a safe killing shot. Set decoys in an opening where they can be seen for at least 100 yards, and 40 yards from where you hunker along the wooded edge.

Tip No. 3: Set up within approximately 100 yards of a gobbling turkey. When birds are scarce, however, don't become wedded to one spot. If birds do not respond, relocate to a new bird or closer to the original bird. Carry a soft cushion or trailer tire tube to sit on. It can be blown up once you reach your setup location. That will help you to sit quietly and wait patiently.

Back up to a tree broader than your shoulders for protection in case another hunter responds to your calls. That's most important while hunting on public areas.

Studies by MDC biologists also show a fluorescent orange ribbon, tied around the tree at a point over your head, alerts other hunters that you're in the area. It doesn't spook turkeys.

Tie the fluorescent ribbon around your bird when you carry it out.

Tip No. 4: Hunt safely. Turkey hunting is a safe sport; however, a few careless turkey hunters mistakenly shoot other hunters each year. A conservation agent friend was accidentally shot on public land; he lost his sight until he passed away. It didn't need to happen; the hunter shot before he was sure of his quarry. No turkey is worth accidentally shooting another hunter.

If you see or hear another hunter, don't wave a hand or arm, or make a sudden movement. Rather, call out that you're in the area. This is where a fluorescent ribbon will help.

If you hunt with a friend or partners, be sure you know where each one will be hunting. Common sense, yes, but it could save your life.

Enjoy Missouri's 2010 spring turkey season. Good luck, and be safe as you chase the wily boss gobbler this year. Although numbers may be slightly down from previous years, there are more than enough turkeys to provide great hunting in 2010.

And remember to be safe; the life you save could be mine.

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