April 12, 2007

Turkey Hunters Get Early Start as 2007 Spring Season Opens on April 16th

by Jim Low
JEFFERSON CITY - This years April 16 opening date for spring turkey season - the earliest ever - gives turkey hunters something they have been asking for. However, the Missouri Department of Conservations wild-turkey expert says hunters in many parts of the Show-Me State are likely to hear fewer gobbling birds this year.

Missouris spring turkey hunting regulations remain mostly unchanged from last year. The opening date is an exception.

For many years, turkey season opened on the Monday nearest to April 21, said Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer. That meant it never opened sooner than April 18. Starting this year, the opener is the third Monday in April. This new way of setting opening day gives us the earliest spring turkey season opener on record - eight days sooner than last year. That is a dramatic shift.

Beringer said the Conservation Department changed the turkey season opener in response to requests from hunters, particularly those in southern Missouri.

They told us they thought turkeys were gobbled out by the time the season opened, said Beringer. This year will give them a chance to test that belief.

Testing any theory about turkey behavior is difficult, however. Wild turkeys are legendary for their unpredictability. During the mating season in April and May, male turkeys - known as toms or gobblers - advertise their availability to hens with explosive vocal outbursts. Hunters rely on this habit to find toms. Then the challenge is to persuade a gobbler to reverse the natural order and come to an artful imitation of a hen call, rather than waiting for a hen to come to him.

For many turkey hunters, just hearing several toms gobbling lustily on a spring morning makes a successful hunt. Hunting is much less exciting - and much more difficult - when toms dont gobble.

Rain, wind and repeated encounters with hunters all can reduce gobbling activity. Gobblers also are less likely to gobble when surrounded by a bevy of hens.

Age also affects how vocal toms are. Three- and four-year-old gobblers are more able to drive away competing toms. They are more experienced at finding and courting hens, and they have had more encounters with hunters, which makes them more wary. All these factors reduce older gobblers inclination to gobble.

Two-year-old toms - fully mature but not yet at the top of their local pecking order - are most vocal. When two-year-old gobblers are abundant, the woods resound with their challenges, and turkey hunters are happy.

A week of wet and unseasonably cold weather in the spring of 2005 reduced the turkey hatch in much of Missouri, leading to the second-worst nesting success on record. That means fewer two-year-old gobblers and fewer chills running down the spines of turkey hunters as they listen to toms calling from several ridge tops.

The good news is that last years hatch was much better, so the number of two-year-old birds should return to normal next year. Beringer said he does not expect the bitter cold weather, ice and snow that Missouri experienced during January and February to have a significant effect on turkey numbers.

This years shortage of two-year-old gobblers wont be universal, said Beringer.

Turkey nesting was more successful in the Ozarks two years ago than it was in much of the rest of the state, and the hatch was better in some localities than others. Hunters in many areas wont notice a difference, even though gobbling will be off a little statewide.

Beringer emphasized the little part of his prediction. With an estimated flock of 600,000 birds statewide, Missouri still has the nations best turkey hunting. Approximately 60 percent of the turkey population is hens, and even with low nesting success, it is easy for that many hens to raise enough young to sustain Missouris annual spring harvest of 50,000 to 60,000 birds.

With favorable weather for hunting, Beringer said he expects a spring turkey harvest in the neighborhood of last years 51,018 or the 2005 harvest of 53,798. Missouris spring turkey harvest record of 56,882 was set in 2004.

Beringer said the timing of the earlier season opener is especially welcome because warm March weather seems to be hastening the arrival of spring. Wild turkey hens nest a little sooner in years when foliage comes out early. When hens begin incubating eggs, gobblers are less occupied and more likely to respond to hunters calls.

Spring turkey season runs for three weeks, from April 16 through May 6. The first day of spring turkey season will not come this early again until 2012. In 2013 it will be the earliest possible date, April 15.

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 turkey hunting regulations are found in the 2007 Spring Turkey Hunting Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold. The same information is available online at www.mdc.mo.gov/hunt/turkey/sprturk/.

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