My son and I started up the logging road just before dawn on the opening day of Missouri’s spring turkey season last year. As the woods began waking, the gobblers started sounding off. None were nearby, but we were optimistic.
We sat for a while but soon decided we should employ what some hunters call the “running and gunning” tactic. Well, I’m too old and out of shape to run, but we moved through the Ozark timber and called as we went until we had a pair of gobblers answering our calls. We picked a place to set up and got ready.
Two gobblers were together and heartily responding to my calling — and getting closer all the time. I had the video camera rolling and my son had his Winchester 1300 shouldered in anticipation of their arrival. Just when they were close enough that we expected them to come into view, a third gobbler sounded off from behind us not 30 yards away! He was coming hard and his next gobble put him 15 yards away over my left shoulder. I couldn’t move to put him in the viewfinder of the video camera for fear of spooking him.
I watched my son slowly move his shotgun to his left and a few seconds later the roar of the 12-gauge brought the first gobbler of our 2016 season flopping to the ground. My bird didn’t come as easily, but a few days later I bagged my first bird of the season too.
TURKEY HARVEST TRENDS
My son and I enjoyed another banner year of Missouri’s spring turkey hunting in 2016. Both of us bagged two adult gobblers last season.
Turkey hunters across the state tagged 48,354 birds during the spring hunt in 2016. This total is almost a mirror image of the 2015 spring harvest, but quite a bit lower than our state-record spring harvest of about 62,000 turkeys in 2004.
“That record harvest in 2004 was probably what we will always consider the good ol’ days of turkey hunting in Missouri,” said John Burk. “Turkey populations were still in a massive growth phase at that point in time, but things have leveled off. We can expect to see harvests ranging somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 every spring now.”
Burk is the senior regional biologist for the Missouri National Wild Turkey Federation and, no surprise, an avid turkey hunter.
As Burk stated, Missouri hunters can expect turkey harvests to be in the 40,000 range every year. Harvest numbers from the MDC over the past five years confirm what he said. The 2016 statewide spring turkey harvest in Missouri was 48,354 birds. The top three counties in harvest numbers were Franklin with 1,066 birds taken, St. Clair with 963, and Texas 934.
The 2015 spring harvest was 48,442. The top three harvest counties were Franklin with 1,014 birds tagged, Texas with 921, and St. Clair at 850.
The 2014 statewide spring harvest was 47,603. Top counties were Franklin with 1,028 birds checked in, Texas 1,010, and Laclede 828.
The 2013 statewide spring harvest was 46,141. Top counties were Franklin with 1,102 birds killed, Texas with 937, and Callaway with 786.
The 2012 statewide spring turkey kill was 44,766. Top harvest counties were Franklin with 971 birds harvested, Texas with 883, and Greene with 762.
A good statewide turkey harvest is dependent on having a good statewide turkey population. You don’t have to be a biologist to know that in order for our wild turkey population to remain stable or grow, the birds must have good production. One of the ways the Missouri Department of Conservation determines wild turkey production is through the annual brood survey. The MDC has been conduction wild turkey brood surveys since 1959. MDC staff and volunteer citizens across Missouri record the number of hens, poults and gobblers they seen in the months of June, July and August. Hen and poult sightings are used to determine the poult-to-hen ratio, which simply is the number of poults per hen.
“Preliminary reports from the Missouri Department of Conservation are showing a very poor year for poult production in 2016,” Burk said. “If the report holds true, 2016 poult production will probably be the worst since they started conducting brood surveys.”
So the bad news is that hunters can expect to see fewer jakes during the 2017 spring season. Fortunately, it’s the longbeards that most hunters are after.
The good news is that the birds produced in 2014 and 2015 will be the 2- and 3-year-old gobblers during the 2017 season. Turkey production in 2014 and 2015 was some of the best we’ve seen in years.
The 2014 statewide poult-to-hen ratio was 1.7:1, which as 21 percent higher than the previous 5-year average and 26 percent above the 10-year average. The toms produced in 2014 will be the 3-year-old gobblers that hunters will be chasing this spring.
The 2015 statewide poult-to-hen ratio was 1.5:1 which was equal to the previous 5-year average and 7 percent higher than the 10-year average. The toms produced in 2015 will be the vociferous 2-year-old gobblers that hunters will be after this year.
The 2016 brood surveys were not complete at press time, but as stated, they were on pace to be perhaps the worst productivity in Missouri’s history. But that won’t impact the 2017 spring season; it’s more likely to have an impact in 2018.
“Wet weather is usually the culprit behind years of bad turkey production,” Burk said. “A wet hen and her eggs are very vulnerable to predation.”
If the predators don’t get the hen, they almost always get the eggs in her nest, making for a poor production year when there are lots of spring rains. Flooding adds even more to nest losses.
TURKEY POPULATION TRENDS
The MDC’s 2015 Missouri Wild Turkey Harvest and Population Status Report showed that over a 5-year average, 47 of Missouri’s 114 counties enjoyed increasing turkey populations. More good news is that 58 of our counties had stable wild turkey numbers. Out of all 114 counties, only 9 actually had declining turkey numbers.
Counties with increasing turkey numbers were Harrison, Daviess, Mercer, Grundy, Putnam, Sullivan, Linn, Chariton, Howard, Schuyler, Macon, Randolph, Shelby, Monroe, Marion, Bates, Vernon, St. Clair, Cedar, Benton, Camden, Dallas, Miller, Pulaski, Osage, Phelps, Montgomery, Gasconade, Crawford, Dent, Iron, Reynolds, Shannon, Carter, New Madrid, Mississippi, Jasper, Newton, McDonald, Lawrence, Barry, Greene, Webster, Christian, Stone, Taney, and Ozark.
Counties with declining turkey num-
bers were Atchison, Andrew, Clay, Ray, Pettis, St. Charles, Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, and Stoddard.
If the counties you hunt weren’t listed, then yours fall into the “stable” population category.
WILD TURKEY STUDY
The MDC is currently conducting a 5-year wild turkey research project in north Missouri. The study began in 2013 with a goal to help produce computer models to help determine turkey population numbers, which will aid in determining management goals and hunting regulations.
During the first two years of the study, the MDC captured 590 wild turkeys — 370 hens and 220 jakes and gobblers. The annual survival rates of the hens were 63 percent in the first year, and 53 percent the second. The survival rate of the adult gobblers was 46 percent in year No. 1, and 43 percent in year No. 2.
Not surprising to me, predation was the leading cause of death among radio-tagged turkeys. Based on evidence at kill sites, coyotes, bobcats and great-horned owls were the leading culprits of predation.
The hens that were being radio-tracked during the first two years of the study had a 27 percent and 21 percent success rate of hatching success. In other words, they were successful at hatching poults. Adult hens had a higher success rate than juvenile hens. Adult hens had a 29 percent and 24 percent success rate during the first two years of the study, while juvenile hens had only 20 percent and 10 percent success rates during those two years.
Average first-nest clutches had between 10 and 11 eggs. Eggs laid in successful nest had 94 percent and 82 percent hatching rates. From the eggs that hatched, 47 percent and 25 percent of the poults survived to 1 month old.
WHERE TO GO
Missouri turkey hunters have a great chance of bagging a gobbler just about anywhere across the state. But you definitely can up your odds of success by studying the information we’ve provided in this article. All 47 of the counties listed as having increasing turkey population trends would be a good bet for the 2017 season.
And by looking at the top three counties in harvest numbers over the past five years, there are two counties that stick out like a sore thumb — Franklin and Texas. These are perennial leaders in turkey harvest numbers and I suspect they will continue that trend.
Gist Ranch Conservation Area
With more than 11,000 acres in Texas County, one of the state’s top turkey harvest counties, it’s hard to beat a place like Gist Ranch. This is a contiguous tract of mostly timbered Ozarkian habitat with more than 10,000 acres of woods, 310 acres of glade, 200 acres of savannah (great turkey brood rearing habitat), and 109 acres in old fields. There are a couple of streams that flow through the area too. All in all, this is a fantastic place to start your search for this year’s spring gobbler.
For more information about Gist Ranch CA, call the MDC at 417-256-7161.
Meramec Conservation Area
This area is located in Franklin County, which is always one of the top counties in turkey harvest numbers. With about 4,000-acres of mostly woodland habitat, a turkey hunter with a little ambition likely could get on a gobbler at this area. However, Franklin County is in close proximity to St. Louis and therefore gets a lot of hunting pressure, especially on weekends. My advice is to try to get there on a weekday for your best shot at a quality hunt.
For more information on this area, contact the MDC at 636-441-4554.
There’s really not a bad place to go turkey hunting in Missouri, but some spots could turn out better than others. To optimize your success, scout prior to the season by listening for gobblers at dawn and looking for turkey sign. Pre-season scouting goes a long way in turkey hunting success.
“I expect we will have a very similar season to what we did last year,” concluded Burk. “There should be an abundance of 2-year-old toms in some places and that should make for some exciting hunting.”
IS THE NWTF FOR YOU?
If you enjoy turkey hunting in Missouri, consider joining the National Wild Turkey Federation. The Missouri NWTF’s goal is to enhance or conserve 131,220 acres of wildlife habitat, generate 40,000 hunters in the state, and improve hunting access by 2,000 acres — all within the next 10 years.
The Federation is very pro-active in getting youth involved in the outdoors through their JAKES program and has great programs for Women in the Outdoors. There’s also a program for hunters with disabilities called Wheelin’ Sportsmen. Another of the outstanding programs is the NWTF’s Save the Habitat/Save the Hunt Initiative.
Annual membership is $35. To join, or for more information, go to nwtf.org. —Tony Kalna Jr.