With turkey season finally upon us, let's take a look at what hunters can expect this spring and explore some of the areas that promise to serve up the best hunting. (March 2006)
Any forecast of the turkey hunting prospects for the spring of 2006 must begin with an examination of the 2005 nesting season -- and at first glance, there doesn't seem to be very much good news from last year, unfortunately. The statewide poult:hen ratio was 1.2:1, which is the second-worst brood production since the Missouri Department of Conservation began keeping records.
It should be noted, however, that the statewide average is compiled from hundreds of observations made by individual contributors. Some isolated reports put poult:hen ratios far higher than the compiled average for every region in the state. Even so, there's no getting around the fact that 2005's turkey reproduction success rate was disappointing.
But: Maybe there is a way. MDC wildlife biologist Jeff Berringer's translation of raw statistics into real-world numbers provides an alternative perspective. "The poorest production occurred in 1961, when only .eight poults were produced per hen," he said. "The difference between now and then is the number of hens available to grow more turkeys.
"In 1961, we estimate the state had 4,000 turkeys. If 60 percent of these were hens, they would have produced 1,920 poults. If we use these same ratios in 2005, we would estimate the statewide hen numbers at 360,000 birds. Given a 1.2 poult-to-hen ratio, the production for 2005 was 432,000 poults. So despite poor production, we produced a lot of birds."
Berringer also noted that nearly all available turkey habitat in the state is "saturated" with turkeys. Therefore, while both statewide and localized turkey populations will always experience temporary fluctuations (primarily as a response to changes in food supplies), Missouri's well-advertised reputation as one of the nation's premier turkey states should be assured into the foreseeable future. Now that's good news -- no matter what a single year's statistics might be!
Ironically, spring turkey permit sales have declined after more than a decade of unbroken growth. In fact, after peaking at 130,021 in 2003, spring permit sales dropped to 124,533 in 2004, and fell still more, to 120,215, in 2005. Meanwhile, success rates (hunters included will have filled at least one tag) have fluctuated between 35 and 39 percent since 1998.
There's no easy explanation for the abandonment of the sport -- despite the state's still-growing turkey population and steady (thus encouraging) success rates -- by some of Missouri's turkey hunters. The decrease with each passing year of private land open to hunters of modest financial means is one possible factor, but there are undoubtedly others. The bottom line for those of us who continue to make our annual pilgrimage to the spring turkey woods is that more gobblers are available for each of us to hunt.
Last year's statewide poult production statistics are a good basis for a general discussion about this year's hunting prospects, but Missouri is an ecologically diverse state. While a skilled and/or determined turkey hunter should be able to fill both of spring 2006 turkey tags virtually anywhere in the state, some areas are undeniably better bets than are others. With that in mind, let's take a tour of the state's "turkey regions" (which, by the way, are not the same as the regions used to discuss other species).
The Northeast turkey region includes Putnam, Sullivan, Linn, Chariton, Schuyler, Adair, Macon, Randolph, Scotland, Knox, Shelby, Monroe, Audrain, Clark, Lewis, Marion and Pike counties. Conventional turkey habitat in the form of small forests, large woodlots and riverine timber abounds in the Northeast, but cropland and pasture combine to occupy the majority of the region's land.
The Northeast has historically yielded some of the state's best turkey hunting, and that isn't going to change in 2006; not only is the region a textbook example of "saturated" turkey habitat, but it also had a poult:hen ratio of 1.4:1 in 2005.
The Northwest turkey region, which encompasses Atchison, Holt, Nodaway, Andrew, Buchanan, Platte, Clay, Clinton, DeKalb, Gentry, Worth, Harrison, Daviess, Caldwell, Ray, Mercer, Grundy, Livingston and Carroll counties, may well have the most evenly distributed types of turkey habitat in the state. The region's interior is a hodgepodge of small forests, woodlots, timber-lined streams, Conservation Reserve Program grassland, row crops, pastures and hayfields. In other words, if you're particular about the habitat you hunt, you'll be able to find what you want in the Northwest turkey region.
At 1:1, the Northwest's poult:hen ratio was the lowest in the state. Does that mean the Northwest's "good old days" have come and gone? The quick answer: no. Turkey mortality is fairly low among both adult birds and poults that survive into their first summer. Statistically, a 1:1 poult:hen ratio indicates that the total turkey population in the Northwest increased by a number equal to the number of breeding age hens at the beginning of the 2005 nesting season. Given the habitat-filling number of turkeys present in the Northwest region prior to the 2005 nesting season, hunting during the spring 2006 season should be very profitable here.
Howard, Boone, Callaway, Montgomery, Warren and St. Charles counties make up the Lindley Breaks turkey region ("breaks," in this context, being the numerous, steep-sided coves and hollows "breaking" a ridgeline that defines the outer edge of a major river valley). While the overall habitat in every county in the region would fit generally into the agricultural category, all of those counties also have breaks either on the north side of the Missouri River or the west side of the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.
The breaks along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are anything but the easiest habitat to hunt in the Lindley Breaks turkey region, but there's definitely no shortage of turkeys in the area. Poult-per-hen production in the Lindley Breaks was 1.2:1 in 2005, so hunters here have every reason to look forward to the spring 2006 season.
Cooper, Moniteau, Cole, Osage, Gasconade, Franklin, St. Louis, Jefferson, Ste. Genevieve, Perry, Cape Girardeau and Bollinger Counties combine to form the Union Breaks turkey region. With the exception of Bollinger, all of these counties have classic breaks either on the south side of the Missouri River or on the west side of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis. There is some land devoted to row-crop agriculture, tree cultivation, vineyards and other farming endeavors, but most of the land is a mixture of pasture and blocks of forest, ranging in size from a few to some hundreds of acres, dominated by oaks and hickories.
At 1.3:1, the Union Breaks turkey region's 2005 poult production was only marginally better than that of its neighbor across the Missouri River. Differences in dominant habitat types inland from the breaks may dictate slightly different hunting tactics in this region, as can those of its counties that have high human populations. Nevertheless, hunters in the Union Breaks can anticipate a worthwhile season in 2006.
As anyone familiar with Missouri's topography might guess, the Mississippi Lowlands turkey region covers Stoddard, Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Dunklin and Pemiscot counties. Row-crop farming is the use to which the overwhelming majority of the land in this region is put, but excellent, turkey-filled habitat exists along the Mississippi River and in numerous swamps.
It's all too easy for a hunter to overlook the Mississippi Lowlands turkey region -- unless the target species are waterfowl or doves, that is. Big mistake: The region's 1.3:1 2005 poult:hen ratio was above the statewide average. Moreover, the region's 2003 ratio was a whopping 3.1:1. Thus, not only are an unusually large number of 3-year-old trophy gobblers roaming the region, but there are also decent numbers of tag-filling jakes bumbling around.
The Ozarks East turkey region includes Crawford, Washington, St. Francois, Dent, Iron, Reynolds, Madison, Wayne, Shannon, Oregon, Ripley and Carter counties. Multi-thousand-acre blocks of oak/hickory forest broken only by relatively small natural and artificial openings dominate this region's habitat. While some crop farming and livestock ranching does take place here, neither activity is widespread enough to make a significant impact on overall turkey behavior.
Historically, the Ozarks East turkey region has been -- shall we say -- a challenging place for filling a turkey tag. Well, the bad news is that the Ozark Mountains are neither shorter nor less steep than they were in previous seasons; they're still as vast as ever. The good news is that the region's 2005 poult:hen ratio was 1.4:1 -- an indication that the region's turkey flock is taking advantage of there being some room for growth here. Finally, a bumper acorn crop across most of the region last year should help make 2006 one of the best springs the Ozarks East has seen in years.
Camden, Miller, Maries, Laclede, Pulaski, Phelps, Wright, Texas, Douglas, Howell, Ozark, Taney, Stone, Barry and McDonald counties form the Ozarks West turkey region. The southern two-thirds of the Ozarks West are dominated by oak/hickory forest. The land in the region's northern counties is mostly forested as well, but there are blocks of open land, much of which is devoted to pasture.
Even if the Ozarks West's dismal 1.1:1 poult:hen ratio last year is discounted, it's not hard to predict that this region's 2006 spring prospects will be the state's poorest -- relatively. Yes, it will be harder to fill two turkey tags in three weeks in the Ozarks West than in the Northeast, but it'll be far from impossible to do so. Skilled hunters who spend plenty of time scouting should do very well here.
The boundary between the Ozark escarpment and the prairie lying to its north and west is very dramatic, but it's also -- as the saying goes -- crooked as a snake's belly in plowed ground. That's why Morgan, Benton, St. Clair, Hickory, Cedar, Polk, Dallas, Webster, Christian and Newton counties are known as the Ozark Border turkey region. This region gives a whole new meaning to the term "mixed habitat." Rugged, forest-clad hills, savanna-like mixtures of pasture and grassland and full-scale farming operations can be found in every county in this region.
The Ozark Border's 1.3:1 2005 poult:hen ratio was good by the year's standards and will provide enough birds to keep the region's burgeoning turkey flock growing. Based on my own observations, this region had an exceptionally high number of 2-year-old gobblers after the spring 2005 season ended. These birds will be big enough and wary enough to satisfy all but the most discriminating hunters in 2006. Best of all, it shouldn't be too difficult to locate a jake here if the older birds prove a trifle too wary, .
The aptly named West Prairie turkey region includes Jackson, Lafayette, Saline, Cass, Johnson, Pettis, Bates, Henry, Vernon, Barton, Jasper, Dade, Lawrence and Greene counties. The habitat in every one of these counties includes blocks of timber plenty big enough to get thoroughly lost in, and the hills are steep enough to make an athlete wheeze, but this region's habitat is dominated by cropland, pasture and CRP acreage. Riverine timber, woodlots, abandoned farmsteads and hedgerows are the most common places in which to find trees that a human might think are large enough to attract turkeys.
Despite wild turkeys' having been extremely common on the prairies of central Kansas during pre-settlement times, it was widely believed that turkeys wouldn't colonize prairie habitat back in the early years of Missouri's turkey restoration project. Well -- sometimes it's wonderful to be wrong! Turkeys haven't merely ventured gingerly out onto Missouri's western prairies -- they've enthusiastically occupied virtually every bit of available habitat.
The West Prairie's 1.2:1 2005 poult:hen ratio may not be worth cheering, but it more than maintains what was already an abundant turkey flock. Hunting turkeys in true prairie habitat is an experience that every serious turkey hunter should have. Lest you doubt that a mature prairie gobbler can be a tough critter to outsmart, ask yourself this: How would you handle a gobbler that roosts in a 20-foot-tall hedge tree and then displays in the middle of a 100-acre soybean stubble field before disappearing into a half-section of bluestem grass that towers a foot over your head?
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That completes our tour of Missouri's turkey regions. As you can see, each has something to recommend itself as a turkey-hunting destination. But if picking a venue is a "hunter's choice" play, staying safe before, during and after your hunt is not.
In Missouri, it's legal to carry a fully loaded shotgun in a vehicle, but there's no sane reason to do so en route to or from a turkey hunt; after all, it's illegal to shoot a turkey from a vehicle or while standing on a roadway. On the other hand, it's easily possible to shoot yourself or your partner either while you're putting a loaded weapon into a vehicle or while you're taking it out.
During the hunt, the surest way to keep from becoming a victim is to put safety and common sense foremost in every tactical decision you make. For example: Can I crawl up on this gobbler without being mistaken for a turkey by another hunter? Is my decoy positioned in such a way that someone shooting at it won't hit me? Is the tree I'm sitting in front of big enough fully to protect my head and shoulders from behind?
The only thing worse than being the victim of a hunting accident is to be the cause of one. Never allow the connection between your brain and your trigger finger to break even for an instant. Always keep in mind that vague shapes and movements can fool excit
ed eyes. Be that as it may, nothing in nature looks like a gobbler's beard. Since only bearded birds are legal game during the spring season, there's neither reason nor excuse for taking a shotgun off safety until you're absolutely positive that your intended target has a beard protruding from its chest.
End of lecture. Have a great hunt next month!