The State of Missouri Turkey Hunting

We're not known as the turkey hunting capital of the country for nothing. Nevertheless, 2004 may not be as strong as other recent seasons have been. Here's why.

By Bryan Hendricks

Does anybody in Missouri get a good night's sleep before opening morning of Missouri's spring turkey season? Along with the opening of the modern firearms deer season, the spring turkey opener is one of the most eagerly anticipated days in the state - and not just among hunters, but also among the owners of gas stations, cafés and sporting goods stores who keep those hunters going.

All this excitement is well warranted, too, because Missouri is America's turkey hunting capital. We've got more birds than perhaps any other state, with a wealth of public ground on which to hunt them. These areas offer almost every type of habitat imaginable.

In the southern third of the state, you can hunt gobblers in the oak-hickory forests of the Ozarks, the scrub woodlands of southwest Missouri or the swamps of the southeast. In the middle third, you can hunt the Missouri River bottoms, not to mention the transitional zone where the Ozark foothills meet the plains. Up north, you've got big birds roaming all over that rolling cropland. You could spend a lifetime hunting different spots throughout Missouri, and every outing would be the trip of a lifetime.

Despite sub-par hatches in 2001 and 2002, Missouri hunters set a new record in 2003 by taking 58,421 gobblers - a figure that includes the 3,660 turkeys killed during the two-day spring youth turkey season.

Even in non-record years, our spring harvest has topped 50,000 every year since 1999. The average turkey harvest in the other 43 states that reported their harvests to the National Wild Turkey Federation in 2002 was 12,760. Obviously, even an average turkey season in Missouri would cause paroxysms of joy anywhere else.

And that's all fine and good. But what can we expect in 2004?

Photo by Bruce Ingram

Because of cool, wet weather at the peak of the nesting season, Missouri's turkeys experienced another poor hatch in 2003, said Jeff Beringer, wildlife research biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Hens raised about 1.5 poults per bird, he added, compared to a long-term average of 2.4-2.7 poults.

"I'm sure they had success in third and fourth nestings," Beringer offered, elaborating, "but our June survey has always been a pretty good predictor of overall reproduction success."

As is always the case, there were some spots were hot, and some cold, in terms of turkey reproduction. Beringer noted that reproduction appeared to be good in northwest and west-central Missouri, but was low in the northeast. In mid-Missouri, a string of storms dumped hail across the region about the time turkeys were laying eggs or nesting.

"I'm sure eggs got broken if a hen wasn't sitting on them, and I'm sure that played a role," Beringer said. "Those birds probably made attempts to renest, but birds that bring off a clutch and then have mortality don't make another attempt."

One might wonder what effect taking nearly 60,000 birds out of the population during the spring turkey season might have had.

"None," Beringer said. "The spring harvest is a male harvest only, so it doesn't affect reproduction. The way our seasons are set up, most of the hens have been bred before the season starts, anyway."

Beringer said that despite lackluster reproduction, Missouri has so many turkeys that, even in an off year, reproduction is sufficient to keep the overall population high. It simply means there will be fewer 1- and 2-year old birds in the woods. Birds of those ages are more vocal than older birds and are presumably easier to call in and kill.

"We always have a buffer of 3- and 4-year-old birds, and that kind of keeps us through the lean years," Beringer stated. "We have a lot of turkeys, and they're throughout the state. We have so many turkeys that even an average or somewhat poor hatch results in a lot of new birds. If we were in a situation where we had a new population or a population that was on the edge, that one year-class makes a huge difference. But that's not an issue here."

Even if you live and hunt in a region where turkey reproduction was less than ideal last year, you may not even notice a dropoff. "On a local basis, somebody is going to have their best year ever," Beringer said. "If you own a few acres and have three hens bring off clutches of eight to 10 birds, you're going to be covered up with birds. That's why statewide predictions don't always hold true for the average hunter."

While reproduction is obviously an important indicator of future prospects, you can also get a pretty good idea of what to expect in your region by looking at previous years' harvest reports. Harvest numbers are fairly consistent, and they should offer a clue as to what to anticipate this year.

During last year's record season, hunters in northeast Missouri took 8,034 turkeys. Of those, 6,530 were adults and 1,504 juveniles. The top counties were Adair, with 852 birds, followed by Macon (832) and Scotland (622). Hunting pressure was reported as light to moderate.

By comparison, the northeast region yielded 8,158 turkeys in 2002, which was a non-record harvest year. Top counties that year were Macon (879), Adair (782) and Clark (596). Hunting pressure was reported that year as moderate

Top public hunting areas in Macon County are Atlanta Conservation Area and Hidden Hollow CA, as well as the shoreline of Thomas Hill Reservoir.

Covering 2,193 acres, Atlanta Conservation Area contains a diverse mixture of woodlands, old fields, cropland and grassland. The terrain is gently rolling, and the entire area is excellent turkey habitat. Hidden Hollow CA is mostly forested. The terrain is gently rolling, with some fairly deep hollows. At the southwest end of the county is Thomas Hill Reservoir, which offers hunting on about 5,500 acres of shoreline. A generous portion of Thomas Hill is also located in Randolph County. Most of this acreage is accessible only by boat, which means that the birds living there are likely to be unpressured.

In Adair County, you can find good hunting at the Union Ridge, Sugar Creek and Big Creek CAs.

Sprawling over nearly 8,000 acres of rolling grassland, brushy fencerows and deep, wooded draws, Union Ridge CA is a popular turkey hunting area containing a lot of birds, not to mention a lot of places to hunt them. Large portions of

it are also in Sullivan and Putnam counties. It has plenty of water flowing through Spring Creek, Dry Branch and Jobs Creek. It also has one intermittent stream, Lick Creek.

Sugar Creek CA contains 2,609 acres consisting of forest, old fields and croplands. Big Creek CA's 931 acres are mostly forested. Spring Lake juts into the southwest corner of the area, and Turkey Creek flows through the west parcel.

Last year, northwest Missouri produced 8,063 turkeys - 6,086 adults and 1,977 juveniles. The top county was Carroll, with 742 birds, followed by Caldwell (609) and DeKalb (552). Hunting pressure was reported as light to moderate.

By comparison, the northwest region yielded 7,211 turkeys in 2002. Top counties that year were Carroll (686), Caldwell (575) and Chariton (560). Carroll County has very little public land, so most of its turkeys are taken on private ground. However, some excellent public hunting is available at Bunch Hollow CA, about 13 miles north of Carrollton near the Livingston County line. Covering 3,294 acres, it contains 1,300 acres of forest interspersed with old crop fields, grasslands and savanna.

Caldwell County has even less public land than does Carroll County. However, some good hunting is available at Bonanza CA, whose 1,771 acres of prime turkey habitat lie about five miles east of Kingston. Consisting of mixed forest, old fields, cropland and grassland, it's typical of the landscape in this part of the world. Crops on the MDC's public areas can be anything from soybeans to corn and milo. Regardless of what's planted, the crops attract turkeys.

The St. Louis region, extending well beyond the greater metropolitan area, covers a fairly large area. Consequently, the largest harvests came from outlying counties. Last year, the St. Louis region produced 3,955 turkeys, including 3,061 adults and 894 juveniles. Topping the list was Franklin County, with 1,057 turkeys, followed by Lincoln (584) and Crawford (521) counties. Hunting pressure was light to moderate.

In 2002, the St. Louis region yielded 1,350 turkeys. The top counties that year were Jefferson (763), St. Charles (388) and St. Louis (199).

Almost all of the public hunting land in Franklin County is found in the southern half amid the oak/hickory forest typical of the River Hills region. At 4,045 acres, the biggest area in the county is Meramec CA, the west boundary of which is formed by the Meramec River. Little Indian Creek CA offers 3,939 acres; Long Ridge CA offers 1,815 acres.

Lincoln County has a fair amount of public land, its flagship areas being the B.K. Leach and William R. Logan CAs. Bordering the Mississippi River, B.K. Leach CA contains 1,413 acres; Logan CA offers 1,798 acres. For turkey hunting, Logan is probably the better of the two.

In Crawford County, good turkey numbers are found at Huzzah CA and Woodson K. Woods Memorial CA. Huzzah CA spans 6,225 acres, while the Woods area covers 5,600 acres.

Like the St. Louis region, this region's name is a bit misleading, as it covers a large swath of territory far beyond the greater Kansas City area, including Truman Lake. Last year, not surprisingly, the Kansas City region produced a respectable harvest of 6,623 turkeys, including 4,841 adults and 1,782 juveniles. The top county was St. Clair, with 960 turkeys, followed by Benton (824) and Henry (625). Hunting pressure was moderate.

In 2002, the MDC's Kansas City region covered a much smaller area. Consequently, the region's harvest was only 1,337 turkeys, most of which came from Clay (426), Jackson (422) and Cass (262) counties.

By far, the most popular and productive turkey hunting area in Benton, Henry and St. Clair counties would be the 54,000 acres of the Harry S Truman Reservoir Wildlife Management Lands. Most of this acreage is accessible only by boat or foot, but the turkey habitat is exceptional, as is the hunting.

In St. Clair County, you can also find good turkey populations at 8,633-acre Schell-Osage CA and 1,728-acre Linscomb CA.

In 2003, the southwest region turkey harvest was 6,731 birds, including 5,064 adults and 1,667 juveniles. Topping the chart was Laclede County, with 1,138 turkeys, followed by Cedar (684) and Webster (619). Laclede County is notable because a large portion of the Mark Twain National Forest, which always produces a lot of birds, lies in its northeast corner. It also ranked second statewide. In August 2003 I spent a week at lower Stockton Lake in Cedar County and counted impressive numbers of young turkeys wherever I went around the lake.

In 2002, Laclede County produced 1,103 turkeys and Cedar County 745; Webster County gave up 741.

Outside the national forest, public hunting opportunities in Laclede County are sparse. The biggest area is Bear Creek CA, which contains 720 acres divided among four separate parcels.

Likewise, public hunting opportunities in Cedar County are limited to the immediate shoreline surrounding Stockton Lake. Limited turkey hunting opportunities are available also at 415-acre Bluff Springs CA. In Webster County, you can find turkeys at 840-acre Compton Hollow CA and 640-acre Niangua CA. Compton Hollow is about seven miles south of Marshfield; Niangua is about three miles northeast of Marshfield.

Hunters in mid-Missouri had a banner season in 2003, tagging 7,973 turkeys, of which 5,894 were adult birds. The best counties were Miller, with 800, followed by Gasconade (658) and Maries (646). One of those Miller County birds was mine, by the way! Hunting pressure was moderate.

In 2002, the Central Region produced 5,486 birds. However, the region was divided administratively into three separate regions, two of which have been absorbed into other regions, so its numbers don't correlate to those of 2003. The top counties that year were Boone (902), Montgomery (710) and Callaway (591).

Miller County has only one public hunting area, but it's a dandy - the 4,782-acre Saline Valley CA. This is classic Ozark hill country, with deep hollows, flat ridges and a healthy mixture of forest, crop fields and grassland. It has a lot of turkeys, but it's rough, rugged and hard to hunt.

In Gasconade County, what public hunting is available will be found primarily at 1,435-acre Canaan CA. In Maries County, you're pretty much limited to 1,819-acre Spring Gap CA.

Even with the state's two best turkey-producing counties, the Ozark Region ranked third in overall harvest last year, with 8,013 birds; of those, 6,478 were adults. Leading the list was Texas County, which also led the statewide tally, with 1,280 birds. Howell County, third statewide, produced 1,066 birds; Phelps County produced 887 birds. Hunti

ng pressure was moderate.

In 2002, Texas County yielded up 1,216 birds, while Howell County produced 955.

Most of the public hunting land in Texas County lies on a sizable chunk of the Mark Twain NF. In addition, there's also the 11,164-acre Gist Ranch CA. The Mark Twain NF also provides ample hunting opportunities in Howell and Phelps counties. Howell County is also home to the 6,614-acre White Ranch CA, while Phelps County has a large portion of the Woodson Woods CA.

Hunters in southeast Missouri had a good year, taking 5,369 turkeys, including 4,201 adults. Perry County was tops, with 732 birds, followed by St. Francois (700) and Ste. Genevieve (630).

In 2002, Perry County gave up 649 birds, followed by Ste. Genevieve (634) and St. Francois (619).

Public hunting opportunities in Perry County are limited to a tiny section of the Mark Twain NF, 818-acre Seventy-Six CA and 554-acre Red Rock Landing CA.

Unless you own some private land or know someone who does, finding a place to hunt in St. Francois County is tough. The only public land is a section of the Mark Twain NF on the southeastern tip. Ste. Genevieve County's southern tip offers generous public hunting opportunities on a large tract of the Mark Twain NF. There's also the Magnolia Hollow CA, whose 1,751 acres feature forest and old fields.

Looking ahead, Missouri has plenty of turkeys, as well as plenty of places in which to hunt them. Best of all, you can find birds on all of the MDC's conservation areas that allow hunting.

Speaking anecdotally, I saw a lot of young turkeys during my travels around the state last fall, and I always see a lot of adult birds. While driving a back road in southern Morgan County in September, I saw three flocks of young-of-the-year birds, numbering between six and 12, within a quarter-mile of each other, and all on the same piece of property.

While we Missouri turkey hunters may not set another record this year, we can probably look forward to another 50,000-bird harvest this year. You won't beat that anywhere else.

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