Missouri's Big Water Toms
September 30, 2010
Here's where and how you can cash in on good springtime turkey hunting on lands bordering our state's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' reservoirs. (April 2010)
About 15 years ago, my wife and I were spending our April 29 wedding anniversary somewhere on Truman Lake's Osage River arm, filling our livewells with feisty -- and soon to be tasty -- slab crappie. We were minding our own business, when, for the umpteenth time, an exceptionally loud-mouthed gobbler disrupted the serenity of our cove. Finally, Amber asked a logical, albeit rhetorical, question. "Why doesn't someone feed that idiot bird a load of No. 5 shot and shut him up?"
I wondered the same thing. True, it was almost 11 a.m. and the vast majority of Missouri turkey hunters would have left the timber hours ago. Even so, this gobbler was on public land open to hunting with no special permits, reservations or steel shot requirements. However -- and this can be a big however -- all wheeled vehicles, including pedal-powered bicycles, cannot be used off obviously open pre-impoundment roads or parking lots built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Missouri Department of Conservation.
(Note: The no-vehicle restriction applies to all Corps of Engineers property in Missouri, not just that located around Truman Lake.)
After supper that evening, I dug out my federal Truman Lake project map. Just as I had suspected, the stomping grounds of the gobbler Amber and I had already dubbed "Mr. Tom Terrific" was a full mile from the closest parking lot. Moreover, having hunted a small part of it, I knew that mile traversed terrain so rugged and brush-clogged that anyone who hiked into it would ask himself what he'd do if his plan to kill a mature tom actually worked.
Was there another way?
My dad served on a destroyer in the Pacific theater during World War II, so I'm going to give him partial credit for sparking the idea of turning turkey hunting into an amphibious assault. Daylight the following morning found me entering what Amber and I had already dubbed "Gobbler Cove" under the silent power of an electric trolling motor. Three pre-rigged crappie outfits lay on the front deck ready for action. An unloaded and cased 12-gauge shotgun was stowed on the rear deck.
While shotguns do not have to be transported in cases in Missouri, it is illegal to shoot turkeys from a "motor-driven vehicle." Keeping the shotgun in a case made it obvious I did not intend to violate that regulation.
Yesterday's eager crappie had become decidedly fussy, and, except for a single hen's fly-down cackle, the ridges on both sides of the cove were silent. Although there were a few keeper crappie finning in my livewell by midmorning, nothing had changed on the turkey-hunting front. This, I couldn't help thinking, is why I so rarely try to serve two outdoor masters simultaneously.
When you spend as much time alone outdoors as I do, you inevitably start talking to yourself. A lot.
In this case, the voice in my head was pointing out that, had this been solely a fishing trip, I'd have left this unproductive cove hours ago and would probably be fishing somewhere else by now. Likewise, had this been strictly a turkey hunt, I'd be rotating among a half-dozen potential amphibious assault beaches, pausing for 15 or 20 minutes at each one to listen and would almost certainly have had chances at several gobblers.
I'd just begun to explain to myself that not only did I not need to catch a limit of crappie, but I also didn't want to kill just any old gobbler. I wanted to be the one who silenced Tom Terrific.
At that point, a leaf-shaking double gobble emanating from exactly the spot Amber and I had heard Mr. Terrific the previous morning rendered further self-arguing moot. He'd gobbled two more times before I could uncase and load my shotgun, don camouflage gloves and a face mask, stuff a turkey-sized blaze orange game bag in one pants pocket, and slip my favorite slate call in another.
I secured the boat close enough to the bank to wade ashore in calf-high black rubber boots and clamber to the crest of the ridge as quietly as possible. Tom Terrific did his part to help plan my approach by gobbling every couple of minutes. When I was as close as I dared get (about 80 yards), I sat down with my back against a huge black oak and pulled the call out of my pocket. After sounding a single, quiet "cluck," I laid the call down and got ready for action.
Less than two minutes later, the loudest gobbler in Benton County materialized 25 yards from the business end of my shotgun. He weighed a little over 26 pounds, had a 12-inch beard and 2-inch spurs. At the time, he was the biggest turkey I'd ever killed. In those days, turkeys had to be submitted for inspection at an official check station before 3 p.m. the day they were killed. To be honest, that requirement had no impact on the rest of my day's activities, because I was far too excited to go back to fishing anyway.
Today's check-in regulations make combining fishing and turkey hunting more convenient. As was the case under the old system, the transportation tag portion of the permit must be attached to one of the turkey's legs immediately. In practical terms, that means it's OK to snap a few photos before tagging your tom, but do not move it from the kill site without the transportation tag attached.
Only the taker may be in possession of a turkey identified solely by a transportation tag. A few overly gung-ho conservation agents define "in possession" to be virtually within spitting distance, but not even the kindest-hearted agent is going to let it slide if he finds your wife hauling your turkey home while you continue to fish.
There's a simple solution to this should-be non-problem. A turkey can be submitted to the Telecheck system up until 10 p.m. the day it is taken. Assuming you can find a spot on the lake that has cell phone service (not always easy), completing the Telecheck process immediately offers two important advantages. First, anyone can be in possession of a properly Telechecked turkey, so leaving your bird with your buddy while you're temporarily out of the boat is not a violation. Second, the Telecheck regulations clearly state that a bird may be "processed" as soon as a Telecheck ID number has been assigned to it.
I was unable to get a consensus among the conservation agents I interviewed for this article as to whether the term "as soon as" included before the hunter/angler's boat being back on its trailer. However, a clear majority believed a properly checked turkey could be plucked or skinned or boned out and put in an ice chest whenever the taker chose to do so. One agent did remind me that a turkey must be labeled with the taker's full name, address, Telecheck confirmation number and the date t
aken anytime it's being transported within the state. All of that information except for the date taken is printed on the main portion of the permit. Add the date taken and toss the permit-wrapped leg into the ice chest with the processed bird. I always include the gobbler's beard for good measure.
About now, some of you are thinking, "Wait just a turkey-plucking minute! Thanks to you, I know what to do after I've lowered the boom on a big-water tom, but I don't have enough hunting days to risk stumbling over one like you did."
Point well taken. I guide during both the youth and the regular portions of the spring turkey season, but I had to wait almost a full year before I was able to determine whether I'd stumbled over one gobbler or stumbled onto a spring turkey-hunting strategy that would allow me to offer my clients and myself the option of a "daily double."
It turned out to be the latter.
Hiring a guide is never a bad idea, make no mistake about that, but assuming you have access to a boat capable of handling big water and possess the requisite turkey hunting and calling skills, there's no reason why you and your hunting buddies can't tag your fair share of big-water toms on your own. All it takes is planning and determination.
Begin at the beginning -- decide which lake or lakes you'd like to try this spring. But don't be too hasty, because there are several often mutually exclusive factors you might want to consider.
Perhaps the best option to familiarize yourself with the water you'll be fishing and the shoreline you'll be hunting is to select a reservoir as close to home as possible. Fortunately -- with the obvious exception of Longview -- every Corps of Engineers project in the state has the potential to produce big-water toms. Moreover, Smithville Lake lies in the shadow of the Kansas City metro area. Mark Twain and Wappapello lakes are easily within range of St. Louis. Bull Shoals, Norfork, Table Rock, Stockton and Pomme de Terre lakes give Springfield residents a dizzying number of options. Finally, the 200,000-acre Truman water and land project is within temptation distance of all of the state's population centers.
"Following the turkeys" is another option. Most amateur turkey hunters -- and more than a few bona fide experts -- are convinced that more turkeys equal more opportunities to fill a tag. If you agree, choose a reservoir located north of the Ozark Plateau rather than one on it, even if doing so means traveling farther from home.
On the other hand, there's no turkey-hunting experience quite like executing a successful amphibious assault on an Ozark Mountain ridge within the Mark Twain National Forest. Local lore has it that gobblers living in the Ozarks grow one leg longer than the other to make it easier to remain upright on the sometimes brutally steep slopes. I've never actually seen a gobbler with legs of unequal length; however, I've worked -- wwand I do mean worked -- my way over and along enough of the slopes rising from the shores of Table Rock to believe it might be possible.
The amount of forest service land adjacent to the majority of Table Rock and Wappapello lakes is, for all practical purposes, infinite. On the plus side, that means when you hear a gobbler sound off on a lakeside ridge, you're a lot closer to him than is anyone who hiked in from the land side. On the negative side, it means getting what guides call "temporarily confused" and what everyone else calls "lost" is a whole lot easier than it sounds. Contact the U.S. Forest Service and purchase quadrangle maps of the area or areas you intend to hunt.
It's important to understand that most, although by no means all, of the big-water gobblers you'll encounter will be mature, dominant toms. Dominant gobblers often become extremely territorial. This can be --perhaps literally -- music to the ears of the big-water tom hunter, because dominant toms often lay claim to a single strutting ground, which they'll hold against all comers for the entire season. That's why I was able to find Tom Terrific in the same place and why the gobblers you located during pre-season fishing/scouting trips will, in all likelihood, be close by throughout the open season.
Note my use of the term "fishing/scouting trips" in the preceding paragraph. From mid-April through mid-May, Missouri's three most popular game fish (black bass, crappie and catfish) will, as the saying goes, "be tearing up old Ned."
Now let's fast-forward to the day of your hunt. Being overly eager (don't be embarrassed; we all are), you launched your boat while it was still black dark and arrived offshore from your gobbler's ridge a half-hour before legal shooting time. Maybe you'll try a little half-hearted fishing, but your attention is focused on hearing tree gobbles.
I know that's the hardest piece of advice in this article, but if you hit the beach now, you'll be competing for the gobbler's attention with the flock of hens every dominant gobbler always has waiting nearby. And you'll lose.
Instead, relax and catch some fish. When it comes to killing dominant toms, all things really do come to those who wait. Sometime around the middle of the morning, the hens will have dispersed, and the dominant gobbler will return to his strutting zone. Admittedly, some dominant toms are more vocal than others, but even the most tight-beaked among them will sound off often enough to warn off other gobblers and to attract any available hens.
Now's the time to strike. Pick a place to climb to the turkey's level (usually the top of the ridge) that's far enough from his location to keep the inevitable noise you make from spooking him. If the terrain permits, I like at least a 200-yard gap between my point of ascent and the turkey.
Now shift to super-stealth mode and creep as close to the turkey as the terrain and your skills permit. Don't take undue risk; a spooked gobbler is game over, but don't set up so far away that the turkey may be reluctant to come all the way in.
Turkey hunters wouldn't have much to talk about were it not for their passionate disagreements about calling strategies. For what it's worth, I'm of the less-is-more school, my theory being that a mature gobbler will know exactly where I am after hearing a single cluck or series of soft yelps. What else does he need to know?
If you're prowling Truman Lake's shoreline this spring and spot another camo-clad boater doing the same thing, the chances are good it's me. I'm not the only turkey hunter who's discovered the amphibious approach, of course, but the lack of competition from other hunters has to be (not) seen to be believed!