JEFFERSON CITY-Turkey hunters in many parts of Missouri don't need an expert to tell them the state's turkey population is down. However, they might be interested in suggestions that could improve their hunting experiences this year and in 2010.
"I'm hoping that hunters will adopt a two-year strategy," said Resource Scientist Tom Dailey. "Focusing their energy on making quality hunts this year is the best thing they can do for themselves and for the state's turkey flock."
Dailey, who oversees the Missouri Department of Conservation's wild turkey management program, said he expects a significantly smaller turkey harvest this year than in 2008. Hunters checked 46,000 turkeys in last year's spring turkey season. He expects the number to be closer to 40,000 this year.
The reasons are simple. First and foremost, Missouri has fewer gobblers this year than it has had in 20 years or so. Furthermore, the birds we do have are smarter. And, as is true of so many things related to turkey hunting, these differences are the result of weather.
"Three of the last four years have seen below-average nesting success," said Dailey. "In fact, the number of poults (recently hatched turkeys) seen in the 2008 survey was a modern record low. It wasn't much better in 2007 and only slightly better in 2005. 2006 is the only recent year when we had reasonably strong turkey reproduction."
Weather records explain turkey hens' poor success in recent years. 2008 was the rainiest year on record. Persistent cold showers drowned nests and chilled poults before they could grow enough feathers to keep warm and dry. The results were disastrous, not only for turkeys but for quail and pheasants as well.
Late March and the first few days of April 2007 saw daytime highs in the 80s. Then, starting April 4 - the peak of turkey egg-laying - the mercury plunged into the teens and low 20s for six days running. Turkey eggs froze in nests. The weather was so extreme that turkey mating stopped entirely, with behavior reverting to late winter patterns.
"Compared to those two years, 2005 was a great year for turkey reproduction," said Dailey, "but in fact, it was a poor year, too. If it weren't for 2006, we would really be looking at a dire situation."
Turkeys' strong nesting performance three years ago set the stage for a paradoxical 2009 spring turkey season. A strong year-class of three-year-old turkeys means there will be a good supply of big gobblers for hunters to pursue. The bad news is that such gobblers are notoriously gun shy.
"Three-year-olds are trophy birds, with big spurs and long beards," said Dailey, "but it's the two-year-old toms that gobble so lustily it makes hunters' hair stand on end. A goofy 2-year-old will often run to a hunter's call gobbling like crazy, but a 3-year-old is likely to sneak in silently, looking for the hen that's supposed to be making those seductive sounds. Or, he might just stand out in the middle of a field waiting for the hen to come to him. They're tough customers."
That, said Dailey, sets up a situation that could perpetuate diminished hunting opportunities.
"I hope hunters don't hammer the jakes (1-year-old gobblers) on account of a lack of 2-year-olds. This year's jake is next year's two-year-old. I'm hoping hunters will focus on quality hunts for older birds and less on just bagging a turkey. The number of jakes already is down in many areas."
Asked why the Conservation Commission didn't put jakes off-limits to hunters this year, Dailey notes that this would penalize hunters in areas where turkeys still are abundant. It also would put an unnecessary burden on hunters, who might have trouble distinguishing between mature and juvenile turkeys.
"The recovery of our turkey flock will follow naturally when we get two or three years in a row of favorable nesting conditions," said Dailey. "Hens are the key to rebuilding the population, so sparing a few jakes this year won't increase the number of birds we see in 2010. However, in areas where turkey numbers are down significantly, it could make for a better quality of hunt next year."
Northern Missouri has recorded the biggest decline in turkey numbers, but Dailey says that is relative. Northern counties went into the current slump with larger turkey populations than those south of the Missouri River. Consequently, many northern counties still will have good hunting.
"That was really evident in the results of our gobbling study last year," says Dailey. "Things were down quite a bit in the north, but there was still more gobbling in the north than in any other part of the state. While hunters in many areas are bracing for lower turkey numbers, many of the people I talk to see no problem whatsoever in their areas."
Dailey noted that Franklin County usually is in the top three turkey harvest counties statewide. He said this east-central Missouri continues to have very strong turkey numbers, and last year's poult count was good, so he expects the area around Franklin County to have good hunting again this year.
With a good carry-over of three-year old birds and reduced numbers of 2-year-olds and jakes, Dailey recommends that hunters adjust their strategies. He said "patience" and "restraint" are this year's watchwords - patience for those who want to shoot mature gobblers, and restraint for those who want better hunting next year.
"I think in general, people are going to have to move around more to find birds," said Dailey. "It's a balancing act. You don't want to sit there all morning in a spot where there is no gobbling, but there might, indeed, be a bird there. Patience is important, but so is knowing when to move. If you're pretty sure there are turkeys in an area, stay put. Rely less on gobbling response and more on good calling."
He said pre-season scouting is the best way to solve this dilemma.
"Because there is going to be less gobbling this year, it is going to be more difficult for someone to come into a new area and find birds. Hunters who put in the time to find those 3-year-old birds and learn their behavior patterns stand a much better chance of getting in a position where they get a shot."