In the second article of our two-part spring turkey-hunting series, Missouri Game & Fish identifies the best areas in the Show-Me State for bagging a longbeard this season. (March 2009)
Missouri is blessed with an abundance of wild turkeys. The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the spring breeding population to be 450,000 birds strong -- a lot of turkeys, indeed; certainly when compared to the populations in other states.
Poor poult production in recent years may have cut back on turkey harvests, but Missouri still boasts a phenomenal population of birds. The MDC pegs the state's turkey population at 450,000 birds. Photo by Steve Gulledge
However, when you consider that those same 450,000 birds are scattered over 44 million acres in 114 Missouri counties, your head might start spinning. Furthermore, spring turkey harvest numbers in Missouri have been on the decline for the past 10 years, and the 2008 harvest was the lowest of the last decade, with 43,416 turkeys taken. Poor poult production over the past several years has left hunters pursuing older age-class gobblers -- 3 years old and up. Veterans of the spring hunt, these old toms aren't easily lured into shotgun range.
If your goal is to bag a spring gobbler in 2009, you'll first have to develop a game plan.
The most important part of a consistently successful turkey hunter's plan: selecting a destination with promise well in advance of the season. Once you've got at least some idea of what county or area to hunt, you can begin scouting. This allows time to pinpoint where the gobblers are roosting, strutting, feeding and breeding before opening day arrives.
Missouri Game & Fish has done the homework for you. Here's a run-down of Missouri's hottest spring turkey-hunting areas.
TOP FIVE COUNTIES
If you're serious about filling your spring turkey tags this year, consider the following seriously. It can be overwhelming to try to figure out just where you want to begin your gobbler-getting adventure. We've taken a look at the top five counties in Missouri in terms of spring turkey harvests over the past three years. Franklin County led the state with 2,620 birds killed over the past three spring seasons. Texas County came in second with 2,537, Callaway third with 2,249, Ste. Genevieve fourth with 2,173, and Osage fifth with 2,127. Two reasons for the consistent success that hunters have realized in these five counties include prime habitat and stable poult production.
Habitat for wild turkeys is suitable throughout the Show-Me State, and you can go to just about any region of Missouri and expect to find some birds with a little legwork. However, the top five counties in harvest numbers over three consecutive years have one thing in common in terms of habitat: Each has a good mix of timber and fields. This combination provides good roosting areas, food sources, strutting areas, nesting sites and brood-rearing habitat for wild turkeys. This brings us to another point: poult production.
Missouri's turkey production has been very poor for the past several years, which has really put the hurt on the state's overall turkey numbers and harvest totals. All regions of Missouri have suffered poor poult survival, but there are always certain locales that sustain production throughout these difficult times. We can only assume that after multiple years of poor production statewide, the top five counties have fared better than others across the state in terms of turkey production. Hunters should concentrate on these counties that seem to have improved -- or at least sustained -- turkey numbers.
A perennial leader in terms of turkey harvest numbers for as long as I can remember, Franklin County is situated in the St. Louis Region, along with seven other counties. The county led the state in spring turkey harvest, with 838 birds killed in 2008. Oddly enough, the St. Louis Region finished last out of all regions in turkey harvest last spring, with just 3,418 birds killed. As you can see, Franklin County accounted for nearly a quarter of the entire harvest total in the eight-county region. What's more impressive about this county is that it's managed to maintain its No. 1 position in statewide spring turkey harvest over the past three seasons combined, with a total of 2,620 turkeys tagged!
Hunters should look to the Franklin County's Little Indian Creek Conservation Area to begin their quest for a Show-Me State gobbler this spring. This 3,002-acre area situated in the southern portion of the county allows hunters plenty of room for chasing spring gobblers.
Little Indian Creek CA is composed primarily of oak/hickory forest but does include about 200 acres of open areas. A stand of shortleaf pines grows in the southwest part of the area. Pine trees seem to be favored roosting sites for turkeys here. Also, cedar-studded glades and creek-bottom hardwoods will be found along the Little Indian Creek, which flows for a little more than a half-mile across the area.
"There's probably good turkey hunting at Little Indian Creek," said MDC wildlife management biologist Joel Porath. "This area receives a lot of hunting pressure, but if you know how to hunt a public area then you should do well (here)."
The north entrance of this area can be reached off county Route K (from state Route 30), across the Meramec River, and a half-mile to the left on Old County Route K to Little Indian Creek Road. Follow this road three miles and watch for the area sign. The south entrance to the area includes a new shooting range and can be reached from Interstate 44. Take state Route 185 (off of I-44) south for six miles to county Route A, go east on A for six miles, and look for the area signs. For more information about Little Indian Creek CA, contact the MDC at (573) 468-3335.
This and 11 other counties lie in the Ozark Region. Texas County has been an all-star turkey-producer for decades, finishing second among all other Missouri counties in spring turkey kills in 2008, with 801 birds taken. The Ozark Region came in fifth out of eight regions in 2008 with 5,694 spring birds harvested. Texas County also managed to finish in second place statewide in terms of spring turkey harvest over the past three seasons with 2,537 birds killed.
Spring gobbler chasers should consider the 11,204-acre Gist Ranch Conservation Area as a place to bag their tom in Texas County.
This area is still a relatively new public-use area as the MDC first purchased it in 1997. This area is primarily a contiguous chunk of Ozark timber. Dolomite glades encompassed by savannas occur on the ridges and on south- and west-facing slopes of this area. Savannas and glades both provide important open areas that provide diverse food sour
ces, strutting zones and brood-rearing areas for turkeys.
"Gist Ranch is really good in terms of turkey population," said MDC conservation agent Jeff Crites. "I see a good number of turkeys there."
Gist Ranch CA is one of only a few areas on which the MDC allows the use of ATVs. The immense size and rough terrain requires the use of these off-road vehicles to access much of the land.
"Access throughout the area is getting better all the time," Crites said. "We allow the ATVs on the main trails, and it's the only way you can access a lot of the area."
According to Crites, the area receives a good deal of hunting pressure early in the season, but as the three-week season wanes, the hunting pressure diminishes quickly.
"Later in the season, the hunting pressure drops dramatically," Crites observed. "If you're willing to get back into the remote areas, this is a great place for some spring turkey hunting late in the season."
Gist Ranch CA is about five miles west of Summersville and 14 miles east of Houston. For more information, contact the MDC at (414) 256-7161.
Callaway County is located in the Central Region of Missouri along with 14 other counties. Callaway has a history of being a top producer of spring turkeys but has recently risen to the top as an annual leader among other counties statewide. In 2008, Callaway County ranked fourth statewide with 664 turkeys taken. More importantly, this county has achieved a third-place ranking statewide in terms of spring turkey harvest with a 3-year total of 2,249 birds bagged.
Prospective tom-takers can try the 6,759-acre Reform Conservation Area located nine miles east of Fulton on county Route O in southeastern Callaway County. This enormous public-use area is comprised of a mosaic of timber, agriculture, grassland and old fields. The breakdown is 1,900 acres of woodland, 1,350 acres of cropland and 2,700 acres of open grassland. Most of the timber is in wooded draws, but larger blocks of timber are located in the area's southern end. An old railroad track that runs through the south end of the area offers hunters a great trail, similar to the Katy Trail, that allows a couple of miles of access into the area. The north end offers not only row crops but pasture grassland that offers good displaying areas for gobblers.
"We have a good population of birds there," said MDC resource assistant Landry Jones. "We do get a lot of hunting pressure, but the area is large and offers good hunting for those who are willing to do a little work for their bird."
The Reform CA is leased by the MDC but owned by AmerenUE for the purpose of generating electricity from the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant. When national security is at an orange level or higher, the area is closed to the public. For more information on the Reform area, contact the MDC at (573) 254-3330 or (573) 884-6861.
Ste. Genevieve County
Ste. Genevieve County is located in the Southeast Region of Missouri, along with 15 other counties. If you only know Ste. Genevieve County as another southern Ozark county, then you are in for a big surprise. This gem includes a good mix of habitat and has earned fourth place statewide in spring turkey harvest over the past three years combined with 2,173 turkeys killed. In 2008, this county led the entire Southeast Region in spring turkey harvest with a total of 645 birds.
Turkey chasers can look to the Magnolia Hollow Conservation Area just south of Bloomsdale in Ste. Genevieve County for a good place to hunt fall turkeys.
The 1,740-acre area boasts a diversity of habitat including mixed hardwood timber, steep bluffs and cedar glades. There is about 100 acres of open land in food plots and old fields dispersed throughout the area. Magnolia Hollow CA is bordered by Establishment Creek and Schmidt's Island along the Mississippi River. The diverse environment at this public-use area is one thing that has helped keep turkey numbers strong here.
"I would say that turkey numbers are better than fair here," said MDC resource forester Russell Hinnah. "We see a lot of turkeys on the area and on the private land surrounding the area."
Aside from good habitat, the poult counts seem to be higher than statewide averages, which keeps bird numbers elevated throughout Ste. Genevieve County.
"From what I've seen, the poult hatch has been good here even when statewide poult-to-hen ratios are low," Hinnah added.
This area is located south of Bloomsdale on state Route 61, one-mile east on county Route V, then north on White Sands County gravel road. For more information about this tract, contact the MDC at (573) 290-5730.
Located in Missouri's Central Region, Osage County has a diversity of habitat like the other top five turkey-hunting counties listed in this article. River-bottoms, timber, ridges, agricultural and old fields are plentiful here.
Osage County ranked fifth statewide over the past three years in terms of numbers of turkeys taken during the spring season with a total of 2,127 turkey checked-in. In 2008, Osage County finished first in the Central Region with a total of 696 turkeys taken.
Spring turkey hunters should try the Painted Rock Conservation Area located just seven miles southwest of Westphalia on state Route 133 for some good gobbler action this spring.
The 1,480-acre area is mostly oak/hickory forest but also includes part of the Osage River running through it. The area includes some timber harvest management that helps improve wildlife habitat, along with several small glades. There are also 60 acres of wildlife food plots broken up into several separate fields here.
"We see a lot of turkeys while we're doing our work there," said MDC resource forester Aaron Holsapple. "We have done some savannah and glade restoration work there where the eastern red cedars have been harvested, and this makes for good nesting areas for the hens."
Holsapple said that he observes a lot of the turkeys along the cliffs that border the Osage River. Turkeys have another good food source available in the farm fields across the river on private property.
"I'd say that turkey hunting pressure here is moderate," Holsapple concluded. "Although I get a lot of inquiries on the prospects of turkey hunting here, I never hear from anyone letting me know if they are successful or not and I'd kind of like to know.
For more information, or if you'd like to let Holsapple know of your success at Painted Rock CA, contact the MDC at (573) 884-6861.
Public Land Tactics for Toms
It doesn't take turkeys long to discern the difference between real hens and the lure of a hunter's call on public areas. Hunters who like to call a lot can do so early
in the season, but after the first weekend you should turn down the volume and frequency of your calling. You don't often hear hens vociferously calling to gobblers, and hunters should mimic their calling techniques -- subtle and seldom.
Hunters should also try to locate roosting gobblers at dusk so they know where they'll be the next morning. A good tactic on high-pressured birds is to sneak as close to the gobbler as you dare before daylight and listen for him to make the first gobble. He may or may not gobble, but if you've roosted him, you'll know where he is. A few soft, sexy yelps are often all you'll need to get the tom to come to you. Resist the temptation to call back to him if he answers your call. Patience is a huge virtue to bring to the pursuit of these public-land gobblers. Once you've made the initial call to the gobbler, he knows your exact location and will eventually come to find you. Only call again if you hear him gobbling off in the other direction.
Try hunting on public or private land in any one of the top five turkey-producing counties listed above and you'll increase your odds of bagging a spring gobbler this year.