With the Show-Me State suffering from lower-than-usual poult production in recent years, location is everything this season. How will your hunting ground fare. (March 2008).
Photo by Tony Kalna Jr.
In more ways than one, trying to predict the quality of Missouri's 2008 spring turkey season is about as easy as predicting the weather: You simply never know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the next day will bring.
Despite that uncertainty, there are ways to shed some light on what the future may hold. Apply a few sound scientific principles, and you'd be surprised how close a prediction can come to reality.
So it is with hunting Missouri longbeards. The science behind our state's turkey flock suggests that turkey populations behave much like a rollercoaster. Some years, the population peaks; other years, it drops into valleys. According to Jeff Beringer, turkey guru and chief resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, 2008 has most of the attributes of a valley.
"We don't have as many turkeys as we used to," said Beringer, who is in charge of managing the state's turkey flock. "We just haven't had any good hatches the past couple of years."
The reality behind Beringer's words -- and the scientific principles upon which they are based -- is that Missouri's turkey hunters may be in for a challenge during the 2008 spring season.
"We've got about 500,000 wild turkeys in Missouri," Beringer said. "That's just a ballpark figure though, because we cannot really count the birds. The assumption is that we're killing about 10 percent of our population each spring."
Turkey hunters killed a total of 48,343 birds in the spring of 2007. By Beringer's estimates, Missouri's turkey population now stands somewhere around 483,430 birds.
"In years past, we've had spring harvest numbers pushing 60,000 birds," Beringer said. "So our overall population is down."
Hampered by tumultuous weather during nesting and brood rearing seasons, Missouri's turkey flock has suffered from lower-than-usual poult production in recent years. Too much rain and hard frosts in the 2007 spring have hindered turkey productivity.
"Our poult-to-hen ratio this year is 1:1, or one poult per hen," Beringer explained. "That's the second-worst poult-to-hen ratio we've ever seen in Missouri."
The MDC enlists a large group of volunteer observers from across the state to record the number of poults spotted with hens. This gives the department a solid idea of the success or failure of the corresponding spring's nesting season.
Realistically, this year's poult-to-hen ratio is the worst in the state's history. The only year in which a worse ratio was recorded was 1960, when Missouri experienced a .8:1 poult-to-hen count, and the state's overall turkey population was so much smaller then than it is today that the numbers are hardly comparable.
"Folks in southwest Missouri had as much as 13 inches of rain last spring," Beringer pointed out. "The rest of the state experienced the hard freeze that happened in mid-April, a key egg-laying time for hens."
Rain and floods are bad enough. But when turkeys lose their nests altogether, they at least attempt to re-nest. Missouri's hard freeze came at a time when turkeys were laying eggs -- not sitting on them. The cold weather froze and killed most of those eggs, but the hens didn't know that and continued to sit on them in an attempt to incubate. Their effort was to no avail. These birds did not attempt a second nest, causing a decline in turkey productivity this year.
Considering the last five years, Missouri turkey hunters posted their best harvest in 2004, bagging nearly 56,700 birds. Since then, the number of gobblers taken annually in Missouri has steadily declined. More than 2,600 fewer longbeards were taken in 2007 than in the previous year. Still, MDC officials remain optimistic, emphasizing that the state has always bounced back from such declines.
"Weather plays a role in the productivity of all ground nesting birds," Beringer said. "Turkeys, pheasants, quail -- their productivity all depends on weather conditions."
BY THE NUMBERS
The MDC divides Missouri into regions based on turkey productivity. These regions are similar in habitat and soil types. The northeast and northwest regions are characterized by fertile agricultural land separated by blocks of timber and fencerows. The Lindley and Union breaks regions represent river-break habitat and are characterized by rolling hills and river bottoms along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The west prairie region is self-explanatory --primarily prairie habitat on the western side of the state. The Ozarks East and Ozarks West regions are marked by steep, rugged hillsides and rocky soils. The western Ozark region has more farmland than its eastern cousin. Finally, the Mississippi Lowlands are just that -- wide, open farmlands along the Big Muddy in the boot-heel of Missouri.
A thorough look at spring harvest data from the 2007 season and spring productivity numbers from 2008 within these regions helps to provide a great deal of inside information on hunting prospects for this year. Read on to determine how your favorite turkey hunting spot stacks up against other regions and counties in Missouri. You may decide to change your hunting spot -- or you may be happy to stay put!
Missouri's northeast region has long been at the top of the heap in turkey harvest numbers. In 2007, the region ranked first in terms of turkey harvest numbers, with a total of 7,671 birds taken during the spring. The 17 counties that make up this region include Adair, Audrain, Clark, Chariton, Knox, Lewis, Linn, Macon, Marion, Monroe, Putnam, Ralls, Randolph, Schuyler, Scotland, Shelby and Sullivan. The top three counties in harvest numbers in this region were Adair (666), Macon (647) and Knox (558).
The northeast region didn't do as well in productivity in 2007, posting the state's second-worst poult-to-hen ratio at 0.8:1. Despite poor productivity in spring 2007, don't overlook it as a hunting hotspot.
OZARKS WEST REGION
The 15-county Ozarks West region finished second in the state in overall spring turkey harvest in 2007 with 7,191 birds killed. The 15 counties that make up the Ozarks West region include Barry, Camden, Douglas, Howell, Laclede, Marion, McDonald, Miller, Ozark, Phelps, Pulaski, Stone, Taney, Texas and Wright. The top three counties in this region were Texas (822), Wright (599) and Howell (595).
This area led Missouri in turkey production in 2007 with a 1.3:1 poult-to-hen ratio. The strong poult count, combined with high 2007 harvest figures, bodes well for the region. Keep your eyes open for a place to hunt in this area of the state.
This 19-county region finished in third place in terms of spring harvest numbers in 2007. The counties that comprise this region are Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Caldwell, Carroll, Clay, Clinton, Daviess, DeKalb, Gentry, Grundy, Harrison, Holt, Livingston, Mercer, Nodaway, Platte, Ray and Worth. The top three counties for spring harvest numbers were Carroll (580), Ray (526) and Harrison (510).
The poult-to-hen ratio in this region was 0.9:1, coming in at a three-way tie for fifth place and tied for the second-worst in the state in 2007. Keep your fingers crossed for better nesting conditions here in 2008, and keep an open mind about spring turkey hunting prospects in this region.
LINDLEY BREAKS REGION
This 12-county region finished in fourth place in turkey harvest number in the spring of 2007. The counties comprising this region include Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Cole, Cooper, Franklin, Gasconade, Jefferson, Moniteau, Osage, Perry, Sainte Genevieve and St. Louis. The top three counties in this region were Franklin (878), Sainte Genevieve (720) and Osage (691).
This region tied for fifth place in productivity in 2007, posting a 0.9:1 poult-to-hen ratio. I can personally vouch for the few young turkeys produced in Lindley Breaks this year, as this region is where I live and often hunt.
WEST PRAIRIE REGION
This 14-county region, which includes Barton, Bates, Cass, Dade, Greene, Henry, Jackson, Jasper, Johnson, Lafayette, Lawrence, Pettis, Saline and Vernon counties, finished in fifth place in terms of the number of turkeys bagged in the spring of 2007. The top three counties were Pettis (730), Johnson (668) and Henry (639).
Productivity in this region was the worst in the state in 2007. Volunteer observers noted just 0.7 poults per hen here. Hunters can bet they will hear much less gobbling than usual in this region, as two-year-old birds will be few and far between.
OZARK BORDER REGION
The 10-county Ozark Border Region finished in sixth place in turkey harvest totals in the spring of 2007. The counties that are within this area include Benton, Cedar, Christian, Dallas, Hickory, Morgan, Newton, Polk, St. Clair and Webster. The top three counties in harvest totals were Benton (707), St. Clair (677) and Cedar (632).
This region tied as the third-best in productivity in 2007 with a 1.1:1 poult-to-hen ratio -- a dismal productivity rate, but better than that in some of the regions with fewer than one poult per hen.
OZARKS EAST REGION
The Ozarks East Region ranked seventh in spring turkey harvest figures in 2007. This 13-county region includes Butler, Carter, Crawford, Dent, Iron, Madison, Oregon, Reynolds, Ripley, Shannon, St. Francois, Washington and Wayne counties. The top three counties in harvest numbers here were Dent (542), Maries (515) and Crawford (460).
The region's turkey productivity ranked second statewide, which is good news for hunters here. The steep, rugged Ozark hills are home to a decent number of birds. Hunters just have to work hard to find them.
UNION BREAKS REGION
The eight-county Union Breaks region accounted for 3,613 harvested turkeys in the spring of 2007, ranking eighth statewide. The counties in this region are Boone, Callaway, Howard, Lincoln, Montgomery, Pike, St. Charles and Warren. The top three counties in turkey kills in spring 2007 were Callaway (753), Lincoln (489) and Boone (476).
With a 0.9:1 poult-to-hen ratio, the Union Breaks region tied for fifth place statewide. Fortunately, the good habitat and strong turkey numbers here from years past should sustain the population.
The name for this region is appropriate, because it almost always finishes at the low end of the totem pole in turkey and deer harvests. The 2007 spring turkey season was no exception. The region finished last statewide, recording a total harvest of just 653 birds. The six counties within this region are Dunklin, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott and Stoddard. The top three counties within this area in terms of turkey harvests were Stoddard (291), Scott (107) and New Madrid (81).
The 2007 figures seem to indicate that the farther south the region was, the better it fared in turkey production. The Mississippi Lowlands reinforced this theory, finishing tied for third place statewide with a 1.1:1 poult-to-hen ratio. If you're serious about killing a spring gobbler, you might want to consider other options than the Mississippi Lowlands Region.
The cold, hard truth is that the next few springs are going to be tougher than usual for Missouri spring turkey hunters. Although the turkey hunting may prove challenging, the Show-Me State still offers some of the best turkey hunting in the nation.
You can expect to hear less gobbling in 2008 and 2009, because there simply are far fewer jakes to grow into two-year-old gobblers. These two-year-olds are the toms that do the most gobbling and are much more apt to come running to the sound of a hunter scratching on a call. The woods will be populated primarily with three-year-old toms and older. These birds are much less apt to gobble and a little more difficult to lure within gun range. Hunters will have to do their homework this season and beyond if they want to fill both of their spring turkey tags.
"We'll bounce back," Beringer said. "It may or may not happen next spring. We'll just have to wait and see if we have lots of rain and cold weather."
STATEWIDE GOBBLE STUDY
The MDC is currently conducting a statewide gobble study that is focused on determining when the most gobbling activity occurs in Missouri.
"We're looking at the timing of turkey gobbling as it relates to the spring hunting season," Beringer said. "We want to know what factors influence gobbling, including weather. The information we gather should help hunters decide which days are best to hunt."
Beringer said the MDC currently has enlisted about 800 volunteers and is looking to sign up more. If you're interested in participating in the gobbling study, contact Jeff Beringer at (573) 882-9880 or visit the MDC's Web site: www.mdc.mo.gov