Show-Me State Fall Turkey Forecast

Show-Me State Fall Turkey Forecast

Brood counts from 2007 may be down, but a healthy population of 2-year-old birds promises to make the '08 fall season one to remember! (October 2008)

In 2007, Missouri turkey hunters killed 48,472 birds during the spring season and another 10,857 in the fall.
Photo by John Trout Jr.

I have some good news and some bad news. First the good news: Missouri's turkey population is in good shape, and the fall 2008 season should be about the same as those enjoyed during 2007 and 2006. During those years, Missouri turkey hunters killed more than 10,000 birds, about 22 percent of what hunters killed during the spring season. Tom Daily, a resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and the state's resident turkey expert, expects the 2008 fall season to be much the same as 2007, with slightly fewer hunters in the field.

Daily's studies indicate that the population of fall turkey hunters in Missouri declined slightly in 2007 to 19,979, or a 12 percent decline from 2006. He expects a similar decline this year. For those hunters who venture into the field, however, this means less competition, especially in public areas, and a greater likelihood of success.

The bad news: Missouri has been under a drought of turkey production for the past five years, with spotty spring poult production throughout the state. Wet, cold weather during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons led to poor nest survival and low poult production.

In 2007, turkey hunters killed 48,472 turkeys in spring and another 10,857 in the fall. The spring harvest, which represented the first time in years that hunters killed fewer than 50,000 birds, pointed to poor poult production and dismal weather.

Harvest figures for the 2008 spring turkey season were not available at press time, but wet, cold weather in the spring months and delayed turkey activity seemed to be the case. Daily reported that the state's turkey population will bounce back quickly with a couple of good spring nesting season. Only time will tell for 2008.

Regardless of poult production, weather conditions and the like, a substantial population of turkeys lives in the Missouri woods, and the discerning hunter always stands a chance at bagging one in spring or fall. Here's a look at where the autumn odds are best in the Show-Me State for bagging a longbeard, along with a few tactics for successful fall turkey hunting.

Fall turkey hunting is a mixed bag for hunters. Adult gobblers, immature gobblers, hens and young-of-the-year poults produced during the spring nesting season are all legal. Looking back on the results from the 2006 and 2007 seasons can provide some educated predictions on where the best hunting will take place and what we can expect during the fall turkey-hunting season.

Wildlife biologists look at a variety of statistics or indices in order to gauge the health of the state's turkey population, estimate hunting prospects and recommend any regulation changes to the Missouri Conservation Commission. In the case of Missouri's turkey population and hunter success rates, they look at turkey harvest per square mile of forest, harvest per 1,000 hunter trips, poult production per hen, total harvest during the previous year, and the newest statistic, a spring gobbling survey. This last index was introduced this year, and the data will be available next year and in following years.

Let's first look at the Missouri turkey brood survey. The long-term, 30-year average is 2.4 poults per hen turkey. During the last four years, however, poult production has bounced between slightly less than one poult per turkey hen to slightly more than one poult. In 2007, the year that will provide the best indication of hunting prospects this season, production was lower than any previous year, averaging less than one poult per hen with little difference between regions.

That's not good. However, production in 2006 was higher than previous years, with slightly less than 1.5 poults per hen. Likewise, significant increases in poult production were evident in the Mississippi Lowlands, Eastern and Western Ozarks, Northeast and Union Breaks, lands along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. These 2-year-old hens and gobblers now make up a significant part of the 2008 fall population. This is good news for fall turkey hunters.

Another statistic biologists look at is total harvest during the previous seasons. Harvest statistics have become much more refined and exact since the state's Telecheck reporting system went into effect. We now have accurate information about how many hunters pursue turkeys each fall, which regions produce the most turkeys, and the total number of turkeys killed. By knowing this information, turkey hunters can target the best state areas to hunt.

Regional differences may vary slightly year to year, yet overall hunter success will remain consistent. In other words, without any major disasters, hunters can expect similar hunting success in individual regions as experienced in previous years.

Daily measures harvests in two ways. First, he keeps statistics on the average number of turkeys harvested per square mile of forest in the different regions. In this regard, Missouri's most promising region is the northwest, where hunters killed 9.8 turkeys per squire mile of forest in 2007. The Western Prairie Region followed with 5.6 turkeys killed per square mile of forest, and the Northeast Region was close behind with 5.3 birds per square mile.

Using this method of measurement, the Northwest Region clearly stands out as the best region to hunt, followed by the Western Prairie Region -- south of the Missouri River along the edge of the state -- and the Northeast Region -- north of the Missouri River to the northern border.

This measure does not take into account hunting pressure or overall hunter success rates and produces a slightly different perspective on turkey hunting success. Overall success rates for turkey hunters, measured as birds harvested per 1,000 hunter efforts, again indicate that hunters in the Northeast and the Northwest regions had the highest success, with 91 turkeys and 74 turkeys per 1,000 efforts, respectively. But the two champion regions were the Mississippi Lowlands Region in the Bootheel with 133 turkeys killed per 1,000 trips and the Union Breaks Region along the south border of the Missouri River and the western side of the Mississippi River with 95 turkeys killed per 1,000 trips.

Although it shows high hunter success rates, the Mississippi River Lowlands reflects low hunting pressure. In other words this regions receives fewer hunters, but they were relatively successful.

When you compare these two statis

tics and the regional production history, the Northeast and the Northwest regions led in my analysis of where the best hunting will take place in fall of 2008. I base this selection on the high harvest rates for turkey hunters in those two regions and on the 2006 and 2007 poult production. Fall turkey hunters can expect good numbers of 2-year-old turkeys in the population in those regions.

Having said that, there could be two sleeper regions this fall. The Mississippi Lowlands and the Eastern Ozark regions had excellent brood production in 2006. The Mississippi Lowlands produced more than three poults per hen, the highest of any region, and the Eastern Ozarks produced more than two poults per hen. This high production will provide higher numbers of 2-year-old turkeys for fall 2008 turkey hunters.

Fall turkey hunting is a cat of a different color compared to spring. In spring, hunters rely on enticing a lonely old gobbler with the promise of romance. He comes running at the seductive calls of what he believes to be a hen, only to discover a hunter with a shotgun.

In fall, both sexes are legal, and gobblers are not looking for love in all of the wrong places. According to Daily, a large number of fall turkey hunters are opportunists, killing turkeys wandering by or flushed during walks in the woods; I myself have killed several this way. But realistically, most fall turkeys will respond to hunters in much the same way they do in the spring.

In fall, young poults and mature hens group together in flocks of 20 to 40 birds, and jakes and mature gobblers band together in smaller flocks. With hens and poults, once you locate a group, either by listening for yelps and clucks or by roosting them, bust up the flock. Once broken up, hens and poults fall all over themselves to relocate the group again, responding to hen yelps or poult kee-kee calls.

When this happens, it's fun for the hunter. Several years ago while hunting the Ozarks, I roosted a flock of hens and poults. A friend and I slipped into a wooded bottom the next morning along a hay field. We set up early and as dawn touched the field, the woods came alive with the sounds of the flock waking up. My partner yelped a couple of times using his box call, and the flock exited stage left and flew down to the end of the hayfield, leaving us high and dry.

As we discussed what to do, three turkeys that had separated from the flock the previous evening sailed in from across the field, responding to the call. A hen landed in the tree above me, and two poults landed near my decoy.

"Shoot," my partner whispered. He'd already killed one bird for the season, while I was birdless -- though only momentarily.

This is only one example. I've had the privilege of sharing fall turkey camp and hunting with Ray Eye, host of Eye on the Outdoors, a radio show in the St Louis market. He's one of the most successful turkey hunters in the state.

"You can't call too much in the fall," Eye explained. "Turkeys want to be together."

He demonstrated this the first time we hunted by calling in several hens and poults after breaking up a roosting flock, using a mouth call and slate call. He called louder and more often than I'd ever tried. The woods echoed with his calls, and birds responded.

Eye also explained that turkeys, including gobblers, will respond to calls in the fall just as well as they do in spring -- and sometimes better. The key lies in locating where the birds are feeding or roosting and then hunting in the area. Do a little scouting. Look for fresh scratchings where birds are feeding, or in the evening pick a high point and listen for birds going to roost.

On one trip, Eye joined us in turkey camp following the airing of his fall turkey program, on which a guest killed a large gobbler he had called in to the hunter. He received a scathing letter from a viewer taking him to task for faking the whole sequence.

"Gobblers don't respond in the fall to calls," the writer explained. "Everyone knows that."

One thing Eye doesn't do is fake programs. What you hear is what happened; even miscues make it on air. He isn't successful on every hunt -- but that's hunting.

The next day after a morning hunt, Eye, a third hunter and I visited a prominent point, overlooking the Big Piney River valley and discovered six mature gobblers displaying in a bottomland field along the river.

After a long stalk, we set up in a wooded border along the field. Eye set up his video camera and attached a second small video camera to my partner's shotgun, and started calling. He yelped and gobbled. As I watched, six gobblers strutted and displayed and gobbled out in the field, responding to Eye's calls.

As we hunkered down in the high weeds and brush, the dominant gobbler strutted his way to the field edge, looking for that new gobbler invading in his territory. The action went on for the better part of 30 minutes, before the bird rejoined his group.

"Why didn't you shoot?" Ray asked. "He was right in front of you."

"Couldn't see it," my partner explained, looking disappointed.

We flushed the birds, but were unable to call them back. Later in camp, we reviewed videos from Ray's camera and the gun camera. On the gun camera, the gobbler's head could be clearly seen, but my partner couldn't see it from where he sat. That's fall turkey hunting.

Let's review what we have learned about fall hunting this year and what Missouri hunters can expect as they venture into the field.

Fall turkey hunting is often more challenging than the spring version because reproduction has been taken out of the equation. Fall turkeys group into large flocks with hens and poults in one and mature gobblers in another. Successful fall turkey hunters target these assemblies. Once broken up, fall turkeys will respond to traditional hen yelps and poult kee-kee calls. Gobblers respond to male yelps and gobbles.

The 2008 fall season is expected to be about the same as 2007, with good numbers of adult gobblers and hens, and few young-of-the-year birds for hunters. Biologists anticipate fewer hunters, and they expect hunters will kill about 9,000 birds again this year.

More important in hunter success is where in Missouri hunters take to the field. Based on poult production statistics and hunter success rates, the most productive regions for fall turkey hunting in Missouri are the Northwest, Northeast and Western Prairie, followed by Mississippi Lowlands, Eastern Ozarks and Union Breaks along the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Overall fall turkey hunting will be average, similar to last year's with slightly increased numbers of 2-year-old gobblers in the bag. Regardless of what spring production provides, fall hunting will be enjoyable, satisfying for t

he soul, and rewarding for those who take to the woods.

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