Spring Turkey Harvest Remains Above 50,000

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Missouri's spring turkey harvest was strong, despite poor weather for hunting and the past three years' below-average turkey nesting success.

Missouri's 2006 spring turkey harvest topped 50,000 for the eighth consecutive year, guaranteeing the Show-Me State's reputation as a turkey hunting Mecca.

Hunters checked 51,018 turkeys during the season April 24 through May 14. That is a 5 percent decrease from last year's harvest of 53,798 but still the seventh-largest in the 47-year history of Missouri's modern turkey season.

Top harvest counties were Texas, where hunters bagged 946 turkeys, Franklin with 902 and Macon with 873. Regional totals were: Northeast, 8,436; Central, 7,577; Northeast, 7,308; Southwest, 6,504; Kansas City, 6,336; Ozark, 6,120; Southeast, 4,771; and St. Louis, 3,966.

The spring turkey harvest is in line with predictions from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer said before the season he expected the statewide harvest total to top 50,000, but that below-average reproduction over the past three years made it unlikely the 2006 harvest would equal last year's. In an interview the day after the season ended, he said unfavorable weather also probably helped hold down this year's harvest.

Missouri also has a month-long fall turkey hunting season. The fall harvest is much smaller than the spring harvest, with about 13,000 birds taken. That exceeds the annual harvest of most other states, according to statistics from the National Wild Turkey Federation. The Show-Me State's total annual harvest of 60,000 to 70,000 turkeys makes it the top turkey-hunting state in the nation.

"Hunters had to deal with very poor hunting conditions for much of the season," said Beringer. "The first weekend was awful, with lots of rain, cool temperatures and windy conditions. We had good hunting conditions only intermittently through the season, but the harvest still topped 50,000. That is an indication of a very robust turkey flock."

Beringer said bad weather decreases turkey harvest by keeping hunters out of the woods. It also makes turkeys harder to hunt. Windy weather is especially difficult, because constant movement of vegetation makes turkeys spooky.

Weather might have worked to hunters' advantage in at least one way, however. Hens whose nests are destroyed by flooding or predators usually try again. This means they go back to mating. That keeps gobblers interested in hens and makes them more likely to respond to hunters' calls.

Beringer believes that coyotes, raccoons and other predators are better able to find turkey nests in cool, moist weather, because these conditions aid their sense of smell.

"I would expect renesting hens to keep gobblers in breeding mode longer," said Beringer. "That would benefit hunters late in the season. There are no studies to back this up, but it makes biological sense to me."

Beringer said the decreased spring harvest does not make him worry about the health of the state's turkey flock. He said record spring harvests were normal during the 40 years when the Conservation Department was reintroducing turkeys into areas where they had been eliminated by unregulated hunting. However, the era of record harvests had to end eventually.

"There is a limit to the number of turkeys that can live in a particular area," said Beringer. "In Missouri, we discovered that the limit was much larger than we originally thought, but there still was a limit. We have reached that limit in the past few years, and the turkey population is at a plateau now. From now on, I expect the number of birds harvested each year to stay in the same range, going up or down from year to year depending on reproduction and hunting conditions."

Beringer said the Conservation Department will continue to monitor turkey numbers. One way it does this is through a partnership with citizens. Each summer, hundreds of cooperators around the state report the number of turkey hens and poults (recently hatched turkeys) they see in the Turkey Brood Survey. Dividing the number of poults by the number of hens yields a poult-to-hen ratio.

Over the past 10 years, the survey has found approximately two poults per hen. The figure dropped to 1.6 in 2003 and 2004. Last year's figure was 1.2.

The Conservation Department also tracks the number of one-year old male turkeys, commonly called "jakes," taken by hunters each spring. A large jake component in the harvest indicates a strong hatch the year before and serves to verify the results of the previous year's brood survey.

In the past, jakes usually made up approximately 25 percent of the spring harvest. This year the figure was 19 percent.

"This confirms last year's brood survey results," Beringer said. "2005 was the third year in a row when unseasonably cool, wet spring weather cut into turkey nesting success, and we are seeing the results in both the total harvest and the jake percentage. We can expect to see those numbers rebound when we get two or three good nesting years behind us."

Beringer said it is too early to tell whether 2006 will be the start of an upswing in turkey numbers. Like almost everything else related to turkey hunting, that will depend on weather.

Young hunters killed 3,694 turkeys during Missouri's youth season April 8 and 9, bringing the spring turkey harvest grand total to 54,712. The record harvest occurred in 2004, with a total of 60,744 turkeys taken during the regular and youth seasons combined.

Missouri also has a month-long fall turkey hunting season. The fall harvest is much smaller than the spring harvest, with about 13,000 birds taken. That exceeds the annual harvest of half the states in the nation.