By now, you probably have heard the lusty gobble of a boss gobbler declaring his domain. You might even have dusted off your hen decoy and tuned up your turkey calls. And as you did, you may have wondered how this year's spring turkey season was shaping up.
So how is the state's turkey population doing? More important, how are turkey numbers in your particular hunting area?
Jason Isabelle, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, has the answers to those questions, and he is willing to share that information with our readers. And why shouldn't he be? The news is mostly good.
Each summer, about 9,000 volunteer observers around the state participate in the MDC's wild turkey brood survey by recording the number of hens they see and the number of poults — young turkeys — seen with the hens. Those reports paint a picture of wild turkey nesting success and poult survival.
A good crop of turkeys one year means hunters will be seeing good numbers of jakes the following year. Perhaps more important, they will be seeing strong numbers of mature gobblers the second year. A particularly good year for reproduction can mean good hunting for three or four years to come.
Conversely, however, poor turkey reproduction in one year doesn't have as big an affect on the number of mature gobblers the following year. But it does cut into the quality of hunting available in years two, three and four.
Annual wild turkey production indices are expressed as a poult-to-hen ratio (PHR). This is the number of poults divided by the number of hens observed. Over the past 10 years, the average statewide PHR in Missouri has been 1.4. It's worth noting: That period included some of the worst turkey-production years in Missouri since the brood survey was initiated in 1959.
In 2007, we experienced an extremely late, hard, long-lasting cold spell that may have affected turkey mating and nesting. 2008 was the wettest year in Missouri history, and such cool, wet weather took a terrible toll on turkey nests and poults. That year saw the lowest PHR ever recorded during the brood survey, a mere 1.0. The next two years were nearly as wet. PHRs for 2009 and 2010 were 1.2 and 1.1 respectively.
With the return of drier weather, turkey numbers have begun to recover. The years 2011, 2012 and 2014 were particularly good, with PHRs of 1.7. And in spite of cool, wet weather, the state's turkey flock posted a respectable PHR of 1.5 last year.
Nevertheless, Isabelle says, "Things have gotten better over the past several years with PHRs of at least 1.5 in 4 out of the last 5 year. With all the rain we had this spring and early summer, I had anticipated considerably poorer production this year. Although production was down in most regions in 2015 compared to last year, good production in 2014 should result in quite a few 2-year-old gobblers for the 2016 spring season."
As is usually the case, the turkey-hunting outlook varies significantly by region. Here is the breakdown by the MDC's turkey management regions, which are based on land type.
Northwest Missouri has had some of the most favorable PHRs over the past two years. An average of 1.9 poults per hen in 2014 promises good numbers of vocal, 2-year-old gobblers this year, while the 2015 figure of 1.8 poults per hen gives this region good long-term prospects.
Northwest Missouri was among the areas hardest hit by weather-related losses in 2007-2009, so it is still rebuilding from the days when you might see flocks of 200 birds in some areas during the winter.
"It is nice to see another good year of production in the northwestern part of the state," said Isabelle, "especially given the population decline that occurred regionally during the late 2000s. Although turkey numbers are still a long way from where they used to be in the region, we're finally headed in the right direction."
Northeast Missouri reported 2 poults per 1 hen in 2014, the highest number in the state. Last year's figure was a disappointing 1.2 poults per hen. As with Northwest Missouri, turkey numbers in the region remain well below the population levels in the early to mid-2000s. However, good production in 2014 should result in a noticeable increase in gobblers for this year's spring season.
The Lindley Breaks Region, located north of the Missouri River between Howard and Pike counties, posted respectable PHRs in 2014 (1.8) and 2015 (1.5). As a result, hunting should be good in this region this year and next year as well.
The Union Breaks make up 12 counties on the south side of the Missouri River and the west side of the Mississippi River between Cooper and Cape Girardeau counties. This region's similarity to the Lindley Breaks across the river is reflected in very similar PHRs — 1.7 in 2014 and 1.5 in 2015. Hunting should be good in the region this year and next year as well.
The Western Prairie counties had some of the least impressive numbers the past two years — 1.4 poults per hen in 2014 and 1.1 in 2015. It's important to remember, however, that some of Missouri's least productive turkey regions nevertheless are better than some of the best areas in other states.
Lots of turkeys will be checked by hunters who do their homework in western prairie counties. However, this region boasted the greatest hunter success rate of any region during last year's spring season.
The Eastern Ozarks' turkey population has done very well the past two years, with 1.8 poults per hen reported in 2014 and 1.9 in 2015. Look for great hunting in these counties.
"The Eastern Ozarks had another strong year of production and has had the best production in the state in three of the last four years," Isabelle said. "As a result, we've seen increasing turkey numbers in many Ozark counties."
In the Western Ozarks, turkey reproduction has been less impressive — 1.3 poults per hen in 2014 and 1.6 last year. On the other hand, this region, like its eastern neighbor, has a wealth of public land for hunting. The Mark Twain National Forest's 1.5 million acres include huge tracts of remote woods where turkeys seldom encounter hunters. That's where to focus your efforts this year.
The Ozark Border's turkey production has varied widely the last couple of years — 1.8 poults per hen in 2014 and 1.2 last year. There should be plenty of 2-year-old gobblers in these counties this year.
The Mississippi Lowlands is intensively farmed, and lack of habitat is a problem. But that didn't stop turkeys there from posting a respectable 1.5 poults per hen average in 2014 and 1.6 last year.
This year's spring turkey season runs from April 18 through May 8. The youth season dates are April 9 and 10. Additional details are available at mdc.mo.gov, or in the 2016 Spring Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold. Details of the 2015 wild turkey brood survey are at http://on.mo.gov/1L0ruhm.
THEN AND NOW
One question that comes up repeatedly regarding wild turkey management in Missouri is what happened to the glory days of the early to mid-2000s? Back then, the spring turkey harvest topped 55,000 each year. Nowadays, the figure hovers between 45,000 and 48,000. The answer lies in a biological principle known as "environmental resistance."
When Missouri held its first modern turkey season in 1960, most of the state had no turkeys at all. With all that room to spread out, turkeys reproduced like crazy when introduced into new areas. That rapid expansion phase was documented in annual PTH ratios. From 1980 through 1989, the statewide PTH ratio averaged 3.1. During the same period, the annual PTH ratio ranged from a low of 2.4 to a mind-boggling 4.3. Today, we rejoice if a particular year's PTH ratio approaches 2.0.
This astonishing fecundity was partly the result of habitat changes that favored deer and turkeys. But just as important, turkeys were filling up habitat where predators, parasites and disease organisms had not had time to build up to take advantage of the new resource that turkeys represented. Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, foxes, hawks and owls — not to mention free-ranging dogs and feral cats — all have learned that wild turkey eggs and flightless poults make tasty snacks.
That changed when wild turkeys reached the biological carrying capacity of the land. Natural mortality factors finally caught up with the runaway turkey population and exerted negative pressure that hadn't been present during the early restoration phase.
Missouri's turkey population growth followed a predictable pattern common to any species colonizing new habitat. It grew slowly at first, then accelerated and, after reaching a zenith, dropped back to a plateau that represents the new normal.
Today, the size of the state's turkey flock fluctuates from year to year depending, in part, on weather during the spring and early summer, when nests and downy poults are most vulnerable to cold, wet weather. But the core of the Show Me State's flock remains strong and resilient, ready to bounce back when favorable conditions return.
The overall outlook is bright for 2016 and beyond. With reasonably normal spring weather, hunters can expect to see moderate increases in gobbler numbers. On the other hand, when spring weather turns unusually cold and wet, turkey chasers can expect to see periodic dips in gobbler numbers.
Nevertheless, an off year for turkey hunting in Missouri is still better than the best years in most other states. Get out there and thrill to the goose-bump-raising call of the boss gobbler. Turkey season is here!