As temps warm up and things start turning green, hunters turn their attention to the upcoming spring turkey season. Here, we’ll strive to provide some idea of what to expect for the 2019 spring turkey hunt in the Show-Me State. To do that, we’ll examine harvest trends and turkey productivity and consult expert opinions from our state wildlife biologist Jason Isabelle and nationally known Missouri turkey hunting icon Brad Harris.
LOOKING BACK AT THE NUMBERS
The 2018 spring turkey season was indeed dismal, and the harvest numbers proved it. The two-day youth hunt only produced 1,729 birds taken by kids. This is 2,373 below the previous year’s youth hunt harvest totals. The regular three-week spring season started off extremely slow, but hunters managed to harvest 34,055 turkeys. This is 5,199 less than 2017 totals. The grand harvest total for youth and regular spring season in 2018 was 35,784 turkeys which is 7,572 below 2017’s total harvest and 12,590 behind 2016’s combined spring harvest numbers.
There is definitely a downward trend in spring turkey harvest in Missouri over the past two-years. In 2016, spring turkey harvest in Missouri was 48,374 which is exceptional when compared to 2018’s harvest of just 35,784 birds. However, that 2016 harvest total pales in comparison with Missouri’s record spring harvest of 60,744 turkeys just 12 years prior in 2004.
Let’s take a brief look at Missouri’s spring harvest numbers in recent history.
In 1998, Missouri first extended its spring turkey season from 14 days to 21 days. That year, spring turkey harvest jumped from 33,216 in 1997 to 48,462. From that point forward, turkey harvest was on a steady increase. In 1999, spring harvest was 50,299; 2000 harvest was 56,841; 2001 harvest was 57,842. You should probably note that 2001 was the year that Missouri started the special two-day youth season, which is calculated into harvest numbers from this point forward. In 2002 harvest was 57,034; in 2003 harvest was 58,421, and in 2004 hunters set the spring harvest record with 60,744 turkeys taken. In 2005 and 2006, hunters bagged 57,743 and 54,712 birds in the spring, respectively.
From that point until 2017 harvest numbers have remained somewhat steady in the 40,000 range until 2018, which saw just 35,784 birds taken. So, what caused the big spike in turkey numbers and turkey harvest in the late 1990s to the mid 2000s? And what has caused turkey population declines and harvest deficits since that time?
According to Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle, it’s all part of the natural cycle of wildlife that has been reintroduced to an area.
“It’s an artifact of a restoration effort,” Isabelle says. “When you release critters into a landscape where they weren’t before, they initially thrive beyond the norm.”
He says that our wild turkeys experienced this population boom because of a wide array of factors, including predators not keying in on them at first. Missouri’s wild turkey population exploited the lack of predation and new territory, and turkey numbers and harvest abounded.
“Populations explode but then start to decline once they hit environmental resistance until they reach numbers that are more sustainable for the long run,” Isabelle says.
“Turkey numbers have been in a decline throughout much of Missouri the past few years,” he continues. “But the last two years of record-low turkey productivity has really hurt us.”
According to Isabelle, the extreme poor turkey production of 2016 and 2017 have really put us in a hole that will take some time from which to recover.
“We went through a similar situation in the late 2000s, but we came out of that, and I expect we will come out of this too as long as we get some good hatches,” he adds.
So just how bad has turkey productivity in Missouri been? Like Isabelle says, we’ve experienced record-low productivity with a statewide poult-to-hen ratio of 0.8:1. In other words, there’s been less than one poult for every hen.
Since 1959, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has been conducting a brood survey across the state. MDC personnel and volunteer citizens across Missouri record the number of turkeys that they see during the three-month period of June, July and August.
The brood surveys over the past 5 years were as follows: The 2013 poult-to-hen ratio was 1.3 poults for every hen observed. In 2014, it was 1.7 poults per hen. In 2015, the ratio was 1.5:1. In 2016, it was 0.8 to 1; and in 2017, it was also only 0.8 poults for every hen.
The 2018 brood survey numbers have not been calculated at press time but aren’t extremely relevant anyway for this story. The turkey production in 2017 is relevant as to what hunters can expect to see in turkey numbers in 2019.
Participants in the 2017 brood survey saw 61,000 turkeys during the three-month observation period. The statewide poult-to-hen ratio was 0.8, the same as it was in 2016. Those dismal productivity numbers are 43 percent less than the previous 5-year average and 39 percent less than the 10-year average, and they were 50 percent less than the 20-year average. Like we mentioned earlier, these are record-low poult-to-hen ratios.
Poult-to-hen ratios were lower in all nine “turkey productivity regions” in Missouri in 2017 — very similar to statewide low numbers from 2007 thru 2010. When compared to the late-1990s and early 2000s, when the poult-to-hen count was two poults per every hen, the numbers seem extreme.
REGION BY REGION
Let’s take a brief look at each Turkey Productivity Region individually so you can get an idea of what’s going on in your part of the state.
The Northwest Region was one of the last parts of Missouri to be restocked with wild turkeys back in the 1970s. Numbers in this region peaked in the mid-2000s.
“This area had a lot of turkeys in the late-1990s to the mid-2000s,” Isabelle says. “Now they’ve declined to sustainable numbers but are down from what they were 15 years ago.”
Turkey numbers were relatively stable from 2010 thru 2016, but the population has dropped in the last few years in this region.
The poult-to-hen ratio in 2017 was better here than in much of the state with a 1.3 to 1 ratio which is only slightly lower than the 1.5:1 5-year average.
“The northeast region saw a turkey population decline from the mid-2000s to 2010 but had better production in subsequent years,” Isabelle says. “From 2011 thru 2016, the turkey numbers bounced back, but the poor hatches since then have brought numbers back down.”
The poult-to-hen ratio in 2017 was 1.1:1 which is slightly lower than the 1.4:1 previous 5-year average.
West Prairie Region
According to Isabelle, this region is very similar to the northeast region in that it had slowly increasing turkey numbers until the last two years when populations began to decline.
Both harvest and populations have been relatively stable for the past 10 years in this region. The best turkey habitat, and where most of the turkeys are taken in this area, is Stoddard County.
According to Isabelle, both the Lindley Breaks and Union Breaks regions have generally tended to be more stable since 2008 with the last couple of years being an exception as populations have declined somewhat.
The Ozarks Border, West Prairie, Western Ozarks and Eastern Ozarks were all experiencing slightly increasing turkey numbers until the past couple of years.
According to Jason Isabelle, the MDC’s resource scientist that oversees our state’s wild turkey flock, he is not in a panic over the decline of turkey numbers at this time.
“We’ve seen populations fluctuate in times before, where we’ve been in periods where turkey numbers abounded and then have been really poor,” Isabelle says. “Turkey populations aren’t the kind that stay very stable for very long. They are driven by many factors, including weather and hatches.”
He adds that factors such as weather, long-term changes in habitat, predator populations and turkey densities all play a role in turkey numbers.
“Weather can play a big role in the success of each year’s hatch,” he says. “But predators also play a role in nesting success. These predators include raccoons, possums and snakes.”
Isabelle notes that other predators that affect turkey numbers are coyotes, bobcats, free-ranging dogs and cats and hawks, but he doesn’t believe that predators drive turkey numbers that much.
Brad Harris of Neosho, Mo., has been hunting wild turkeys since the season first opened in Missouri. He is a long-standing pro-staff member of Realtree. He is an icon in the hunting industry, with many accolades, including winning the NRA’s All-Around Game Championship in 2001.
“I do most of my turkey hunting in Missouri in the southwest and west central region of the state,” Harris says. “Based on my experience, I think turkey numbers are very low, and I attribute much of that to poor hatches and a lot of predators.”
The predators he mentions are hawks, owls, raccoons and possibly armadillos.
“I don’t know if armadillos are a factor or not, but I know that while their numbers have been increasing, our turkey numbers have been decreasing,” Harris notes.
He went on to say that the only turkeys they are killing in the past couple of years are 3-year-old birds, and they are seeing very few, if any, jakes.
“I think 2019 is going to be a tough season for hunters,” Harris says. “You better do a lot of scouting and be very patient if you want to kill a gobbler this spring.”
Jason Isabelle sums things up like this: “This year is going to be fairly challenging compared to what it was years back. Our numbers are down throughout the state.”
In short, turkey hunters are going to have their work cut out for them. Older birds will be the norm, and there will be fewer younger birds and jakes around. But remember, a bad day turkey hunting in Missouri is still better than turkey hunting in many other states.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
Billy Yargus of Hannibal, Mo., is a Pro-Staff member of Woodhaven Custom calls and a world champion turkey caller. He takes his calling expertise to the woods where he has made a name for himself as a turkey killer. He offers these valuable tips on how to tag an older-age-class gobbler, the kind that most hunters will be challenged with calling in this spring.
“Older turkeys are harder to hunt; it’s a cold hard truth,” Yargus said. “I suggest you do a lot of scouting and execute a lot of patience this spring.”
Yargus suggests that hunters know the woods they are hunting and the habits of the gobblers in those woods. You need to know their roosting areas, their strutting zones, their feeding areas and even where they get a drink.
“One of my favorite ways to hunt an old longbeard is to do a lot of blind calling,” Yargus says. “If you already know there are gobblers in the area by your scouting, then slip into that area and sit down and start calling.”
Yargus suggests that you start your calling softly and subtly and be patient. Give the bird time to come to your call. Sometimes they will come in silently never gobbling once.
“Another good tip is to use a strutter or jake decoy to drag in those hard-to-call-in toms,” Yargus concludes. “Start out soft calling and work up to a frenzy if that doesn’t work. Feel the bird out and call accordingly.”