Missouri hunters check 41,830 turkeys

Hunters checked 8,738 turkeys May 4 through 10, bringing the total harvest for Missouri’s 21-day regular spring turkey season to 41,830 or 3.7 percent fewer than in 2008.

Top harvest counties for the three-week season were Franklin with 915, Texas with 839 and St. Clair with 678.

Regional harvest totals were: Central, 6,311; Southwest, 6,129; Northwest, 5,820; Ozarks, 5,671; Northeast, 5,472; Kansas City, 4,801; Southeast, 4,197; and St. Louis, 3,430.

Hunters 15 and younger checked 2,883 turkeys during the youth spring turkey season April 4 and 5. This, brought the overall spring turkey harvest to 44,713. The record spring turkey harvest, including the youth and regular seasons, occurred in 2004, when hunters checked 60,744 turkeys.

The percentage of juvenile male turkeys, commonly called “jakes,” in this year’s harvest started out low on opening day, but by the end of the season it had increased to 22 percent. That is close to the average in the past 10 years.

Hunters killed more turkeys during the regular spring season than predicted by Missouri Department of Conservation Resource Scientist Tom Dailey. Before the season Dailey said he expected hunters to check approximately 40,000 turkeys.

Looking back on the season, he said one factor in the better-than-expected harvest was strong turkey populations in parts of central, northwest and southwest Missouri. Counties where the harvest during the regular spring turkey season increased by 50 or more included Oregon (79), Franklin (77), Holt (73), Andrew (70), Benton (66), Atchison (61), Camden (53) , and Greene and Jefferson (50).

“Apparently we continue to have surprisingly strong turkey numbers in parts of northwest and southwest Missouri and some parts of the Ozarks,” said Dailey, who supervises Missouri’s wild-turkey management program. “Thirty or so counties posted larger harvests than last year, boosting the statewide harvest above my expectations. I had reports from a number of hunters Missouri who said they heard more gobbling than ever this year.”

Counties where hunters checked more than 500 turkeys included Benton, Bollinger, Callaway, Camden, Cedar, Dent, Douglas, Franklin, Gasconade, Greene, Howell, Jefferson, Johnson, Laclede, Macon, Maries, Miller, Osage, Pettis, Polk, St. Clair, Ste. Genevieve, Texas, Webster and Wright counties.

“What’s striking about this is that only two of the counties where hunters shot 500 or more turkeys this year were north of the Missouri River,” said Dailey. “Five years ago, northern Missouri had 24 counties in the 500-or-better category. Three years ago, there were still 14. This dramatic drop reflects what people have been telling us for the past year or two. Where they used to see flocks of 150 turkeys in fields they might only be seeing 25 or 50 at a time, even less in some areas.”

Dailey said weather is far and away the most significant factor in the decline in turkey numbers. Last year’s record-breaking rainfall, a severe Easter freeze in 2007 and several cold, wet springs in the past five years have thwarted turkeys’ nesting efforts. Northern Missouri, which had the densest turkey populations, had most to lose.

Even though this year’s harvest is the smallest since 1997, Dailey said he was pleased the harvest was stronger than he expected.

“In spite of the fact that our turkey harvest is down substantially from a few years ago, Missouri still ranks among the top turkey hunting states in the nation,” said Dailey.

He said with normal temperatures and rainfall from now through mid-summer, Missouri’s wild turkeys could recoup some of the losses they have suffered in the past five years.

“Turkeys have a remarkable ability to bounce back,” he said. “With hundreds of thousands of hens out there, if they just raised an average of two poults per year, it would only take two or three years for turkeys to bounce back. That is the key to more turkeys. Reducing the season length or bag limit from two to one has much less of an effect on turkey abundance than does reproduction.”

Missouri’s spring turkey harvest has little effect on the population, since only male birds are taken. The fall season takes place before winter, when many young turkeys are lost to predators and severe weather.

The conservation department recorded four firearms-related turkey hunting incidents during the regular turkey season. One was fatal and involved a 56-year-old man pulling a loaded shotgun from his vehicle by the barrel. He was struck in the chest when the trigger caught on an object, causing the gun to discharge. The other three incidents involved shooters who either mistook victims for game or fired at movement.

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