April 15, 2004

Patience Will Be A Virtue For Turkey Hunters This Year

Missouri hunters will find more mature gobblers in the woods this year, but they might have to work harder to bag them.

That is the word from Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s turkey specialist. He based those predictions on statewide surveys of turkey reproduction.

This year, Missouri’s spring turkey season began with a youth-only hunt April 10 and 11. During this early hunt, youths were allowed to take one bearded bird.

The regular spring turkey season runs from April 19 through May 9.

Hunters can take one bearded bird the first week of the season. After that, they are allowed to take one bearded bird per day, up to the season limit of two. Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. Full details of spring turkey hunting regulations are found in the 2004 Spring Turkey Hunting Information booklet, available wherever hunting permits are sold.

Every year, Conservation Department workers and citizen volunteers around the state report the number of wild turkey hens and chicks (called poults) they see. This “brood survey” provides an idea of turkey population trends and sheds light on future hunting conditions. Anyone interested in helping with this work can contact Beringer at Jeff.Beringer@mdc.mo.gov.

“Brood survey results from 2003 were 1.6 poults per hen,” Beringer said in his annual turkey forecast. “This ratio is considerably off the 42-year average of 2.7 poults per hen and 24 percent below the previous 10-year average of 2.1 poults per hen. I suspect the harvest of juveniles will be down during 2004, as we usually see a strong correlation between spring juvenile harvest and the previous year’s poult-to-hen ratio.”

Beringer said most hunters take 2-year-old gobblers, partly because they are more plentiful than older birds and partly because these mature birds are more desirable than 1-year-old males, which are known as “jakes.” Mature tom turkeys also are more likely than jakes to gobble, so they are more likely to draw hunters’ attention.

Beringer said the poult-to-hen ratio was 1.7 in 2002, when this year’s 2-year-old gobblers hatched. He said this below-average production suggests that hunters will see fewer 2-year-old birds this year. Those not willing to shoot jakes will have to concentrate more effort on more experienced 3- and 4-year-old gobblers.

Turkey reproduction varies from place to place each year, creating local and regional hot spots. Beringer said south-central Missouri is likely to be a bright spot in this year’s turkey hunting picture, and northwest Missouri continues to be an above-average area for turkey hunters.

People in southwest Missouri report seeing more turkeys since the Conservation Department began a special turkey reintroduction program there, but it is too soon to tell whether that effort will yield tangible results this year.

“Scouting is always important,” said Beringer, “but this year it is even more important. Hunters who find places where turkeys are plentiful and those who spend the time to figure out a mature gobbler’s daily routine stand a much better chance of tagging a bird.”

Gobblers are most vulnerable to hunters after hens have laid all their eggs and begin incubating them. The opening of Missouri’s spring turkey season is set to coincide with this event, but actual timing varies from year to year, depending on weather.

“I think the green-up of trees is usually a pretty good indicator of when hens are going to go on the nest,” said Beringer. “So far this year, spring is running a little behind, and that could mean hens will still be available to gobblers when the season opens. But that could turn around pretty quickly if we have warm weather between now and April 19.”

Beringer noted that Missouri’s three-week spring turkey season guarantees hunters a chance to pursue gobblers when hens are on the nest. However, he said hunters tend to be most active the first seven days of the season. Half the gobblers killed each year fall during that first week.

Last year’s spring turkey harvest was 58,421, which was a record. Beringer said record harvests, which have been the norm for the past 30 years, are bound to be less common in the future.

“The decline in our poult-to-hen ratio over the past few years shows that our turkey population is finally reaching a plateau,” said Beringer. “Our turkey population has been growing since restoration began 40 years ago, so naturally the harvest increased, too. As long as the birds still had habitat to fill, the reproduction rate stayed high.”

Now, however, with available habitat almost full, the state’s turkey population is reaching a plateau, and turkey harvest will plateau, too. Some variation will occur from year to year as weather affects hunting conditions and turkeys’ reproductive success, but the annual harvest can be expected to hover around its present level.

This spring, some turkey hunters will be asked to take part in a trial of the new “telecheck” game checking system designed to make checking deer and turkey more convenient and efficient. A small, random sample of hunters will be asked to participate in the trial when they buy their turkey hunting permits. They will receive information about the program at that time.

This is the last turkey season when qualifying landowners will be able to check turkeys with a “farm tag.” Starting with the 2003 fall turkey season, landowners will need to pick up free tags from permit vendors.

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