Well off the beaten path, the Show-Me State's walk-in turkey hunts represent an opportunity to enjoy the rugged solitude of the Missouri wilderness and a chance to take a truly wild gobbler. (April 2008)
Crafty gobblers still roam the remote and rugged terrain of Missouri's wilderness areas.
Photos by Dian Cooper
A band of coyotes paused in their night of hunting on a far-off ridge to yip and howl; perhaps they'd been successful. A cold shiver ran up my spine, and a primordial sense of the wild -- that old relationship between hunter and hunted -- raised my hackles, summoning a stab of unalloyed fear. In the long history of humankind, we, too, have been the quarry of hungry animals.
Woven as it is into the fabric of our biological and cultural ancestry, the fear of being preyed upon is still very much present in humans. Too, the unbridled desire for the hunt, a basic, predatory instinct, still clings to our chromosomes.
I stopped to listen to the continued serenade of thecoyote pack. More than an hour had passed since I'd left the parking lot on Bell Mountain, and a couple of miles of rugged Ozark terrain had passed under my boot soles since I'd left civilization behind me.
So far, I had neither seen nor heard another human being. A barred owl cast its eight notes into the morning air far down the valley. I took the lonesome cry to signal that my pursuit of a truly wild turkey would go well.
Another half-mile down the trail, I caught a glimpse of pink in the eastern sky. Just as I pulled my Hunter's Specialties coyote howler to my lips, another coyote yipped for the last time as daylight approached. A lone gobble rang out in response on a ridge farther to the west.
The return of the wild turkey in Missouri is one of the greatest stories in American conservation history. With the state's turkey population approaching 800,000 birds, hunters harvest around 50,000 gobblers each spring in the Show-Me State. In addition to the spectacular increase in the turkey population, the Missouri Department of Conservation has also completed an aggressive land acquisition operation to provide areas for future generations to hunt. Nearly all Missourians are now within reach of fabulous turkey hunting opportunities.
The most challenging and rewarding turkey hunting opportunities in Missouri lie within the "walk-in" turkey hunting areas on the state's U.S. Forest Service lands. In these, hunters can enjoy solitude in some of the most scenic and wild areas of the state. The chances of encountering other hunters are far lower in these remote areas, giving adventurous turkey hunters their best shot at hunting truly wild turkeys.
The U.S. Forest Service now has 22 designated walk-in turkey hunting areas on the vast Mark Twain National Forest of southern Missouri. Comprising almost 80,000 acres, the system touches 20 counties in 11 districts. Use of motorized vehicles inside the walk-in area boundaries is not allowed. Access is by hiking, horse or mountain bike trails only.
Most of the areas cover more than 2,500 acres, providing hunters with ample room to pursue wild turkeys. The areas vary from virtual swamps in the southeast to the most rugged, mountainous terrain in Missouri. Regardless of which walk-in area a hunter selects, he or she should be prepared for a rigorous hunt.
Birds that gobble nearby may require a difficult two-mile hike just to circle a steep hollow to get into position to work the tom. Getting into good physical shape and breaking in new boots beforehand are two very basic necessities before taking on the rigors of walk-in turkey hunting.
In addition to the 22 designated walk-in turkey hunting areas, eight federally designated wilderness areas, totaling another 70,000 acres, are available on U.S. Forest Service lands in eight counties.
Access to hunting areas is a growing problem in many states. Not so in Missouri. A vast network of state, county and Forest Service roads serve the needs of hunters well. These roads are usually well maintained and seldom require four-wheel drive vehicles. Parking lots are available. However, all roads, trails and fire lanes inside the boundaries of the walk-in turkey hunting areas have been closed to vehicles.
A comprehensive list of all the walk-in turkey hunting areas and the wilderness areas, as well as accompanying maps, can be acquired by calling the Mark Twain Forest office in Rolla at (573) 364-4621.
BELL MOUNTAIN WA
Named for a pioneer family of hardscrabble farmers, Bell Mountain Wilderness Area consists of 9,027 acres of the rugged St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest landforms in the United States. At 1,702 feet, Bell Mountain itself is one of the tallest in the Ozarks. Elevations drop to 970 feet in the Joe's Creek drainage. The terrain is rugged and steep and characterized by felsite and rhyolite outcroppings. Incredible views of the surrounding countryside are benefits of climbing Bell and Lindsey Mountains.
The area is close to St. Louis and can be accessed from Potosi via state Route 21 south to state Route 32. Go west on Route 32 for seven miles to state Route A. The first trailhead and parking lot is two miles down Forest Road 2228. A second parking lot and trailhead is about five miles south of Route 32.
There are 12 miles of trails, including a loop of the Ozark Trail, maintained on the area. The trails give turkey hunters quick and easy access to the bowels of the area. Hunters should keep in mind, however, that firearms may not be discharged within 100 yards of the trails.
Bell Mountain itself resembles a three-headed dragon, with peaks to the north, east and south. The southern peak is in Reynolds County and a part of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park, where thousands of acres of land are closed to hunting.
The turkey that responded to the howling coyote gobbled again when I blew a few soft notes on my Palmer Hoot Tube. I hooted one more time to get a fix on its location. The bird accommodated my wishes by sounding off again, this time far to the east. I cut across country staying just below the crest line of Bell Mountain. Vegetation proved sparse, making for quick traveling. Scrubby oaks and red cedar crowded the glade openings.
I soon determined that the gobbler exhibited a fondness for the far end of Bell Mountain, off of a steep northwest-facing slope. Once above the gobbler, I scratched out a few soft notes on an H.S. box call. The tom fired back from 200 yards.
Haste often makes waste. Rather than set up to call the bird to my location, I advanced slowly down
hill, hoping to close the distance. Tall pines, mixed with hardwoods and scattered huckleberry bushes, gave me ample cover for undetected movement. I could easily see 75 yards ahead.
I paused often to study the steep terrain below me. I decided to move 20 more yards to a fallen shortleaf pine and use it as breakup cover. Just as I stepped into the open, the unmistakable colors of a turkey fan cleared a hump 60 yards downhill. A bright red followed, and the jig was up. Busted! That tom had covered more ground than I had -- and much more quickly.
Disgusted with my foolishness, I backtracked a half-mile and caught a spur ridge leading to a ridge top to the south. A broad saddle separated the two peaks. From my earlier scouting trips I knew that the saddle held a post oak flat, a favorite feeding and strutting area for Ozark gobblers. Too, I had found plenty of sign there.
Once I was set up against a broad oak, I began calling softly. Minutes later, I cackled on a mouth call, and a tom cut me off with its lusty gobble. This time I stayed put.
My next call, five minutes later, had not left my lips when the tom double gobbled. It had closed the distance considerably.
The wild area surrounding me heightened the enjoyment of the adventure -- alone with a wild turkey gobbler on the side of Bell Mountain. The ultimate challenge in wild turkey hunting played out like the perfect drama.
The bird went silent for 30 minutes or so. I played the game and didn't call anymore. I almost gave in to the desire to call again, when I caught a reflection off of something shiny and black. The gobbler stepped from behind a big black oak at 75 yards, paused to look around and continued its march directly towards my location.
Every time the gobbler passed behind a tree, I adjusted my Remington 870 to intercept the path of travel of the tom. I could have shot it at 40, 30 and 20 yards. Suspense built as I let the bird close the distance.
Several trees blocked my shot as the gobbler kept coming. At 9 yards, the bird paused behind a slender white oak. Its head and neck were protected by the tree trunk.
Finally, the bird stepped out in the open. I settled the bead on the base of its neck and clicked the safety back on. The magnificent wilderness gobbler I had worked for the last two hours sported a 5-inch beard. I had three days left to hunt.
DEVIL'S BACKBONE WA
In his book Unspoiled Beauty, Charlie Farmer writes, "The wilderness takes its name from a long, spiny, north-south 'backbone' about 900 feet above Crooked Creek. Despite its hellish name, the hike on top is heaven, and below the devilish ridge snakes a generous portion of rugged wilderness belly."
The 6,595-acre area is located on state Route CC 14 miles west of West Plains, putting it within easy reach of Springfield-area hunters. Thirteen miles of trails are maintained with overnight parking available at three designated trailheads. They make great access points for turkey hunters, although parking is allowed along most area roads as long as fire lanes are not blocked.
Charlie Farmer experienced the turkey hunting adventure of a lifetime in Devil's Backbone a few years ago, when he rode in on mules with Ron Kruger and guide Joe Hollingshad. The antics of Ajax (the white mule that the author rode), the rugged country, the campfire smoke and the crafty gobblers all contributed to Farmer's experiencing wild turkey hunting at its best.
By the way, Hollingshad is still in business. Call Devil's Backbone Wilderness Outfitters at (417) 261-2474. If you book with him, be sure to take fishing gear, too. The North Fork River flows through the wilderness.
PADDY CREEK WA
Sylvester Paddy logged this region in the early 1880s. Many of the trees were floated to St. Louis for the booming housing industry. After the logging era passed, homesteaders moved in and used the lands for grazing until the 1930s. Today, second-generation forests of shortleaf pine, white and black oak dominate the landscape, providing plentiful food supplies for wild turkeys.
Randy Adey, of Licking, has spent most of his life in the area and knows Paddy Creek WA well. "Paddy Creek is made up of typical Texas County terrain," he began. "Long, rough ridges and steep hollows cover most of the area. A few old farm fields border the wilderness area, but they are still on Forest Service property. Turkeys sometimes feed in them. The terrain gets increasingly steep as you approach the creeks and Big Piney River. There are some spectacular scenic views from the bluffs along the river.
"Burning a little boot leather will get you away from the perimeter hunters. It is possible to get away from everyone by hiking a couple of miles into the area. Most people don't like to walk that far, or they have fears of becoming lost. Hunters who do their homework by scouting ahead of time and getting their hands on a good map can turkey hunt under truly wild conditions here." --Randy Adey on
Paddy Creek WA
"Many of the old logging roads through the area still serve as trails that allow a hunter to traverse some of the ridges quickly. We like to use them to travel the ridges. The ridges are good spots to stop and listen for a gobbler or to call from. Sound travels a long way from atop a ridge."
Many hunters drive the perimeter gravel roads around the wilderness area and hike in short distances to hunt. "Burning a little boot leather will get you away from the perimeter hunters," Adey advised. "It is possible to get away from everyone by hiking a couple of miles into the area. Most people don't like to walk that far, or they have fears of becoming lost. Hunters who do their homework by scouting ahead of time and getting their hands on a good map can turkey hunt under truly wild conditions here."
Paddy Creek WA is in Texas County 17 miles east of Licking off state Route 32. Texas County finished second in the spring 2007 turkey harvest with 790 gobblers checked.
Missouri Department of Conservation turkey biologist Jeff Beringer reported that the state's turkey population is in good shape. "Hunters will not find the density of turkeys in the wild areas of southern Missouri like they will in the northern part of the state, but the walk-in areas offer hunters the opportunity to hunt with less competition from other turkey hunters."
Beringer also suggested that hunters might want to check out some of the other walk-in turkey hunting areas that do not have wilderness designation. "We try to create openings in the large expanses of forest. These openings allow for the growth of a variety of plants and insects that turkeys use," Beringer said.
The resurgence of the wild turkey population in Missouri came about as a result of birds being trapped in some of the most remote and wild areas of the Missouri Ozarks and being released in suitable habitat across the state. It's no coincidence that the opportunities to hunt Missouri's wildest tu
rkeys still exist in the most rugged and scenic sections of the state.
Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com