Show Me State Fall Turkey Forecast

Show Me State Fall Turkey Forecast

When your thoughts turn to a Thanksgiving feast and you want to bag a bird of your own, this information should help you get the job done right. (October 2009)

Dark-thirty. Clouds made it seem even darker as Bob and I stumbled down the field access road, heading for a fallow bottomland field. I'd roosted a flock of hens and poults the previous evening along the Big Piney River. To avoid spooking the turkeys the evening before, I'd left my decoy set up in the field as I backed out at dark.

With one plump bird over his shoulder, the author takes in a scenic view of the Big Piney River bottom where he hunts fall turkeys. Photo by Spencer Turner.

Dawn was but a thought in our minds as we moved quietly along the field edge to where we could see Gertrude, my old decoy, and then backed into the fence line under low oak trees for concealment. Bob used a low seat; I had a bucket to rest on.

Dawn showed over the Ozark hills as the roosted turkeys began to talk with one another. It was light enough. Bob yelped softly using his box call. Turkeys answered. Pulses quickened as we anticipated turkeys dropping out of the trees and into the field.

Turkeys left the roost, hooked a hard right and flew to the end of the field a quarter-mile away from where we sat. The story of my life: Close but no cigar! That's why they call it turkey hunting.

We called a few more times with no visible response from the feeding birds.

We relaxed enjoying the new day while Bob lit a cigarette and we commiserated and discussed what to do next.

Three birds sailed across the field from the far hill. One landed in a tree above us, and two others in the field near Gertrude.

I slowly raised my shotgun, waiting from Bob to shoot.

"Shoot," he whispered in my ear, then louder. "Shoot!"

The old hen over our heads, cocked her head and looked down.

Now or never, I thought, and pulled the trigger on one of the half-grown poults — a fryer. Mom and her surviving offspring flushed, flying downfield, joining the other turkeys as they, too, flushed from the field.

Bob congratulated me as we relaxed in the new sun, as dawn reached the field and warmed the world.

As we walked out, Ray Eye, Eye On the Outdoors host, met us with his ATV and congratulated me again. He'd finished filming earlier in the morning and after hearing the shot came to pick us up. We talked turkeys and how they'd react in fall. Ray explained that for him fall hunting was much more challenging than spring gobbler season.

THE INS AND OUTS OF FALL TURKEY HUNTING

Let me combine Eye's thoughts and mine about hunting fall turkeys. Fall for me is one of the most beautiful times to be in the Missouri woodlands and hunting turkeys is just one of the many opportunities we have each year. What makes fall turkey hunting so enjoyable is the long season, without the pressure of only three weeks that we have in spring; fall colors run rampant both in the Ozarks and wood lots of northern Missouri, and the turkey population is at its peak.

Ray Eye's thoughts and mine suggest in fall most turkey hunters ambush their turkeys. I'm guilty. Over the years, I've ambushed most of my fall turkeys, birds that walked by a fixed blind or location and were shot. There's nothing wrong with that approach; however, Eye points out that fall birds — hens, poults, and toms — can be just as easily called. Yes, you read this right, fall toms will respond to a call; more on this later.

Missouri's fall turkey season is an artifact of the great success the Missouri Department of Conservation has had restoring wild turkeys to the state and the population response to the management efforts. Turkey hunters kill more Eastern turkeys in Missouri than in any other state.

Fall turkey populations are at their highest, and hunters are not restricted to hunting only bearded birds. All sexes and ages are fair game, and males, females and poults respond to calls if hunters play the game right.

Eye showed me how easily females and poults can be called. I've killed several fall birds over the years, most young poults or hens. However, all wandered by my blind and were ambushed. Ambush turkey hunting is the lazy man's hunt. Set up a blind or hide in locations holding turkeys, add a hen decoy or two, then lean back, pull out a book and enjoy the fall day as you wait for a turkey to wander by and enter the bag.

The first year we hunted together, Eye showed me how easy it was to call back flushed hens and poults. We flushed birds at dawn and then Eye called back several poults and one old hen. I'd like to say we were successful, but it wasn't to be. The returning birds landed in trees across a creek and would not cross.

The kee, kee, kee call of a young poult needing to regroup or the yelp of a hen calling to poults will attract birds back to your location. The key is locating flocks of turkeys and knowing where they roosted in the evening, or getting ahead of a moving flock, and then aggressively flushing the birds.

Fall tom hunting is a cat of another color. For years I was of the opinion that males banded together for fall and winter would not respond to a call. Eye changed my view of all that.

Over evening libations at turkey camp last year, he'd groused about receiving an e-mail from a viewer, taking him to task about calling fall toms in a recent TV program. The viewer said it couldn't be done and the video was faked.

Eye is one of the best turkey callers I know, a master of the art, and I suspect he's part turkey. He thinks like a turkey and hunts and films birds all over the Midwest.

The key, he explained, is locating workable flocks of males and then setting up near the birds and calling. Calling hard. As Ray said, in the fall you can't call too much.

The next day after the morning hunt, we glassed old fields from an overlook along the Big Piney River and discovered six mature toms strutting and displaying in one field. We crossed the river and set up in heavy cover along the edge of the river and field.

Eye set up his cameras, attached a small video camera to my partner's shotgun, and started calling. He gobbled and yelped like an immature tom by using mouth and slate calls. Out in the field, the six birds puffed up, sp

read their tails and strutted, responding to Eye's calls.

One bird, the dominant male in the flock, strutted down a weedy ditch toward where we'd set up. The calls continued and became increasingly insistent, but no shots. The turkey returned to the group and we flushed them, hoping to call one or more back for a shot. It wasn't to be, but sure demonstrated to this old turkey hunter that fall toms could be called to the gun.

Later that evening, reviewing the video from Eye's camera and the gun camera, the toms in the field could be seen responding to Ray's calls, and the dominant male's head showed on the gun video camera before returning to the center of the old field. But from where my partner was hunkered down in the tall grass, he couldn't see the bird.

BEST BETS FOR FALL TURKEYS

Missouri turkey hunters have a wealth of areas to hunt, both private and the many public areas managed by MDC, U.S. Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and even a few community lakes with turkey populations.

We can thank John Lewis, senior research biologist, now retired, for the inspiration and foresight to return the wild turkey to our Missouri woods. When he started restoring turkeys, Missouri only supported a few wild turkeys in the southern part of the state, survivors of the poor management efforts before 1937, and the formation of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Today, through re-introductions all over the state and good regulations, the Eastern wild turkey has exploded to a population large enough to allow spring and fall hunting, and a multiple bird bag limit during each season.

If you hunt fall turkeys in public areas, select areas large enough so that individual hunters are not likely to run into one another. Unlike during spring, fall turkey hunters typically do not encounter other hunters — even on public areas — but be careful.

Two of the largest public landowners in Missouri are the U.S. Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Park Service manages thousands of acres of Ozark hills along the Current River from Montauk State Park downstream to Arkansas, including lands along the Jacks Fork River.

The Ozark Scenic Riverways is unique in that the Park Service allows hunting; most federal parks do not allow hunters or hunting. The Missouri Department of Conservation added a special provision to allow hunting, trapping, and fishing in the park. Missouri hunters can enter park service lands through accesses along both rivers, or by canoe or johnboat on either river. For maps and other info, go to www.nps.gov/ozar.

In a similar manner, the Mark Twain National Forest owns thousands of acres, scattered from central Missouri down to the southwest and into Stone, Christian and other counties. Without exception, all Forest Service land parcels support great turkey populations and hunting. We hunted near the Mark Twain National Forest along the Big Piney River. For maps and other access information: www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain.

What may be the least-used public hunting area is owned and managed by the Corps of Engineers around Missouri's major reservoirs. Beginning with the construction of Table Rock Lake and all of the lakes constructed after 1958, the Corps of Engineers purchased buffer lands around Missouri's reservoirs to protect watersheds from over-development. That resulted in great hunting areas, especially around Table Rock Lake, Truman Lake and Mark Twain Lake.

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict better fall populations than we had last year, with good numbers of poults and hens, but fewer adult toms. Still, we'll have great hunting.

On the lands around the lake, turkey hunters in the know scout out turkey flocks by motoring around the lakeshore at dark looking for feeding and watering flocks, and then accessing the areas by boat the following morning. Hunters also access Corps lands from old roads, unimproved accesses, and through field edges along perimeter roads. Although all lakes support turkey populations, biologists suggest the best turkey populations this fall can be found around Mark Twain and Truman lakes. For maps and info: www. nwk.usace.army.mil/ht and www. mvs.usace.army.mil/Marktwain.

Last, but certainly not least, the Missouri Department of Conservation manages numerous large conservation areas throughout the state; most support excellent wild turkey populations. As a starting point in your search for an area to hunt, check out the Woodson K. Woods Memorial CA along the Meramec River near St James; Indian Hills CA in northeast Missouri near Memphis, Hunnewell Lake CA near Shelbina, and Kerr-McGee CA lands in Shannon County. That CA covers about 75,000 acres.

Those suggestions are but a starting point in your search for a fall turkey hunting spot. Many of MDC's smaller conservation areas and lands near community lakes also support excellent turkey populations, and some never see a turkey hunter during the fall season.

FALL TURKEY-HUNTING FORECAST

When I talked to them, most MDC biologists were not eager to forecast what the fall turkey season was going to be like. Each year, the fall turkey population depends on spring production or nesting. The past three to five years, production has been spotty or limited by cold rains and ice during nesting. The weather this past spring in most areas was favorable for a strong fall turkey population for hunters. Biologists were cautiously optimistic, predicting good numbers of poults and hens, but fewer 2-year-old and older toms.

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict better fall populations than we had last year, with good numbers of poults and hens, but fewer adult toms. Still, we'll have great hunting.

SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE FALL TURKEY HUNTING

Here are some suggestions I've learned through the school of hard knocks to improve your fall hunting success.

Remember the four "Ps?" Prior preparation prevents poor performance. OK, that's five Ps, but you get the idea. Whether you hunt public lands or private, spend time in your hunting area before the season opens. Locate turkey flocks and then answer these questions: Where are the hens and poults roosting and feeding? Where are the bachelor groups feeding and roosting?

Knowing the answers to those questions will go a long way toward increasing your success on opening day and beyond.

Have you patterned your shotgun? I found several years ago that the shotgun I favored always shot left of my aim point. Sad to say, I missed several turkeys before I finally wised up and patterned the gun . . . and replaced it.

Check out your calls. If you like a mouth call, be sure the latex hasn't deteriorated during the summer and needs replacement. Check out strikers for your slate calls. Be sure they don't need tuning before you get in the field on opening day. Tune up your box call with fresh chalk. Practice calling, even if you have to drive your wife bonkers in the process.

Have you checked out your ear protectors? What? You don't use hearing protectors.

Trust me, ear protectors are a turkey hunter's best friend, and will keep your hearing at optimum levels as you age. I'm a good (or bad) example. I'm currently 50 to 60 percent deaf from not using hearing protectors for shooting or while working behind loud machines. I now wear hearing aids, and use Walkers Game Ear Power Muffs while hunting. I'm sure there are other hearing protectors with amplification that fit in the ear.

To wrap this fall turkey forecast up, what should Missouri turkey hunters consider before they reach the field on opening day? Have you purchased your hunting license and turkey permits for the fall season? Do you have the correct ammunition for the hunt? Is your blind in good condition? If you don't use a blind, is your camouflage clothing adequate? If hunting a public area, do you have a blaze orange vest to wear while walking into or out of the woods, or if successful, to cover your turkey as you carry it out.

These are things to think about. Plan for success and chances are good you'll have it!

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