Truman Project Whitetails

Truman Project Whitetails

The mention of Harry S. Truman Reservoir makes most sportsmen think of fish, but the lands bounding this big Corps of Engineers project offer a wealth of fine public deer-hunting opportunities. (December 2005)

Photo by Mark S. Werner

It's not difficult to understand why a reference to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Harry S. Truman Project conjures up images of fishing. After all, the project does include a lake that covers 55,600 acres and that provides good-to-excellent action for most of the state's warmwater fish.

Be that as it may, the project's water is dwarfed by nearly 110,000 acres of surrounding land, which are managed specifically for the benefit of wildlife and are mostly open to public hunting. It's hard to grasp just how big 110,000 acres of land really is, but maybe this will help: If Truman's public hunting lands were in a single block, it would form a piece of land measuring slightly more than 17 miles by 10 miles.

Of course, the Truman Project's hunting land isn't in a single block. Instead, it rings the lake's 950-plus miles of shoreline, extending into Benton, Henry, Hickory and St. Clair counties. In places, the "ring" of public land extends only a few hundred yards from the water line. In other places, it reaches more than a mile inland.

Both the Missouri Department of Conservation (which manages 55,000 acres of project land on a license from the Corps) and the Corps have done a yeoman job of posting the boundaries between public and private land. Even so, as when hunting elsewhere, it's the individual hunter's responsibility to make sure he "shinnies on his own side."

Staying on the right side of the rules within the project really isn't very hard. Developed areas (campgrounds, marinas, state parks, golf courses, etc.) are out of bounds to hunters for obvious reasons. Certain other blocks of land, such as one licensed to the Boy Scouts on the Osage arm a few miles west of Talley Bend, are also off limits. However, these are few and far between and are clearly marked.

At times, I have referred to the Truman Project as "deer hunting heaven." Believe me, I realize just how bold (foolhardy?) it is to call any place deer hunting heaven. After all, the very conditions that make an area heaven to one deer hunter make it pure hell to another. Therefore, let's take a look at the various factors that make deer hunting on the Truman Project what it is and what it isn't. You can decide for yourself.

TROPHY BUCKS?

MDC conservation agent Dan Love, who supervises agents in Henry, Benton and St. Clair counties, had a one-word answer when I asked him if the project was a good place to hunt for trophy bucks.

He said, "No." However, he quickly added that he didn't mean there were no big bucks anywhere on the project, because that certainly isn't the case. However, hunting pressure makes mature bucks even more man-shy than their private-land counterparts. Based on observations, Love doesn't believe that many of the project's deer hunters are willing to put in the effort it takes to kill a trophy buck.

MDC Wildlife Biologist Jim Gebhart, who's responsible for managing the MDC's project lands in Benton County, was somewhat more optimistic. "We aren't in a good position to determine how many trophy bucks are taken from a particular area in any given year. However, I'm certain there are some dandy bucks roaming the Truman Project, and there's no reason to think that hunters aren't finding some of them."

OVERALL DEER NUMBERS

Everyone I spoke with in connection with this article commented that there were deer "everywhere" on the project. Obviously, pre-firearms season deer densities vary because of the project's diverse habitat, and post-firearms season deer densities vary because of differences in hunting pressure.

Nevertheless, I can offer personal testimony to the fact that deer are, indeed, "everywhere" on the project, even after the various portions of the firearms deer seasons have ended. I hunt rabbits at various locations on the project from mid-December through Feb. 15. I see an absolutely amazing amount of fresh deer sign, even in easily accessible areas.

HABITAT

If you can't find deer habitat to your liking on the Truman Project, you won't be able to find it anywhere else, either. The MDC's portion of the project includes 700 acres of prairie, 6,000 acres of grassland, 10,000 acres of croplands, 300 acres of wetlands, 8,000 acres of old fields, 670 acres of savanna, 150 acres of glades and 28,000 acres of forest. The Corps directly manages roughly the same number of acres. While the acreages of each of the above-mentioned habitat types differ on the Corps land, all of the habitats are present.

A relatively high percentage of the project lands located in Hickory and Benton counties are forest, grassland and old fields. However, cropland can be found at the upper ends of most of the larger creek arms. Food plots are planted at scattered locations along the shoreline when conditions permit. Much of the project land in these two counties is rugged.

There are blocks of hillside and bottomland forest on the Henry and St. Clair portions of the project. Even so, most of the land ranges from fairly flat to gently rolling, allowing for significant cropland and grassland acreage.

ACCESS & FACILITIES

Land-based access to the Henry County and St. Clair County portions of the project ranges from fair to excellent via numerous pre-impoundment roads. Conversely, land-based access to the Hickory County and Benton County portions varies from fair to impossible. Many -- but still a small minority -- of the project's deer hunters use boats to gain easy access to any point along the shoreline they choose.

Hunters need to know that motorized vehicles of any type cannot be used, except on established roads throughout the project. Horses are also prohibited.

During the project's first few years, the MDC allowed deer hunters on the Truman Project to camp within 50 feet of established parking lots. Unfortunately, deer hunters didn't live up to their part of the bargain. Litter, camping in unauthorized locations and other problems forced the MDC to join the Corps in prohibiting camping anywhere other than on established campgrounds.

HUNTER-USE PATTERNS

The deer-hunting potential of the Truman Project is anything but a secret. Managers from the Corps and the MDC agree that hunting pressure throughout the project is "heavy" on both weekends of the November portion of the firearms deer season, falling to "moderate" during the week. Jim Gebhart reported that there was quite a bit of use by deer hunters during the archery, muzzleloader and a

ntlerless-only deer seasons.

What do terms like "heavy," "moderate" and "quite a bit" mean, and how will the presence of other hunters impact your hunt? Dan Love said, "Don't expect to be alone, because you probably won't be. That fact of life applies to boat-in hunters as well, because other hunters may have crossed private land to reach the same spot."

Love said hunting pressure is heaviest near parking lots and in the flatter portions of the project. He believes this is at least partially due to the fact that many deer hunters do little pre-season scouting and have no idea where to go if they get out of sight of their vehicles.

TIPS

The surest way to dodge the times when the project is the most crowded is to avoid hunting there on the weekends during the November portion of the season. Believe me. I know how hard it is to stay home on opening day, because I've done it. However, doing so can be worthwhile for those whose hunts are "ruined" by the presence of too many other hunters.

If you must hunt on opening weekend, boating into a thoroughly scouted location is the way to go. I've made two opening-weekend boat-in hunts on the Truman Project. We encountered other hunters, but our carefully chosen positions made their presence an asset. One year, my son shot a dandy 8-point buck that was following along about 100 yards behind a group of hunters who thought they were making a deer "drive."

Actually, the inescapable truth is that scouting, scouting and scouting are the three most important factors in determining whether your Truman Project hunt will end with a dead deer, no matter which season you hunt. Just remember that scouting for a deer stand location on public land involves more than just finding a place the deer are using. You also must figure out a place toward which other hunters are likely to push deer.

I know it's possible to find the only other hunter for miles around set up in "your" spot, because it has happened to me. Even so, I don't let what the area's managers call "moderate" hunting pressure worry me. Based on personal experience, it's not only possible but also likely that you won't see another hunter during either the muzzleloader or archery season, even if you stay out the entire day.

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