Trevor Merckling, left, killed this 23-pound turkey on the opening day of spring turkey season for youth. It had a double beard and 1 1/4-inch spurs. That is Trevor's uncle, Jimmy Wilson, with him.

JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri’s top turkey biologist has two words for hunters going into the 2010 spring turkey hunting season – “challenging” and “restraint.”

Spring turkey hunting in Missouri starts with the youth season April 10 and 11. The regular season runs from April 19 through May 9. Permit requirements, bag limits and other regulations are summarized in the 2010 Spring Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold, or online at mdc.mo.gov/hunt/turkey/sprturk/.

Resource Scientist Tom Dailey is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s turkey specialist. He says he expects this year’s spring turkey harvest to be approximately 44,000, about the same as last year. Texas County consistently ranks as one of the top turkey harvest counties in the state.

He bases his predictions on fieldwork conducted each summer and fall. Summer observations involve hens and the number of young turkeys (poults) with them. The resulting poult-to-hen ratio produces an early snapshot of wild turkeys’ nesting success.

The fall turkey abundance index comes from archery deer and turkey hunters who report the number of turkeys they see and how many hours they spend hunting. Comparing the number of turkeys seen per 1,000 hours afield from year to year gives Dailey an idea of how many turkeys Missouri has going into winter.

The larger a particular year’s poult-to-hen ratio, the better the nesting success. From the 1950s through the 1970s, when Missouri’s turkey flock was expanding rapidly, annual poult-to-hen ratios of more than 2 were common. However, as turkeys occupied available habitat, the average ratio gradually declined. Today, ratios of 1.5 to 2 poults per hen are considered good.

The past few years have seen some of the lowest poult-to-hen ratios ever recorded. In 2007, when an early April freeze shut down turkey mating behavior and froze some eggs in nests, the ratio was 1.0. In 2008 – the wettest year in Missouri history – the ratio was 1.1. Dailey was delighted to find that Missouri’s feisty wild turkeys had clawed their way back up to 1.2 poults per hen last year, in spite of another terribly wet, cold spring and summer. Turkey nests fared best in the southern half of the state last year.

The statewide fall turkey abundance index showed a similar trend, going from 542 in 2006 to 460 in 2007,  377 in 2008 and 418 in 2009.

The poult-to-hen ratio is a good predictor of hunting prospects two years later. This is partly because it takes young turkeys two years to reach adult size. Also, 2-year-old gobblers are more vocal than younger and older ones. Turkeys that gobble loudly and often are easier to hunt, and their lusty calls stoke the excitement of a spring turkey hunt.

Turkey gobblers that turn two this year come from the unusually small 2008 cohort. This year’s 3-year-old gobblers came from the even smaller crop of turkeys hatched in 2007. Consequently, hunters are likely to hear less gobbling than usual this year, and they will have to be more patient and skillful to bag big gobblers.

“It’s going to be a challenge to bag a gobbler in some areas, especially in northern Missouri,” said Dailey. “Hunters who bring in big birds will have even more reason than usual to be proud of the accomplishment.”

The good news is that a larger-than-usual proportion of mature gobblers will be big 4.5 years or older, with long beards and spurs like scythe blades.

Also on the plus side of the ledger is the fact that 1-year-old gobblers, commonly called “jakes,” will be more plentiful than they have been in recent memory. Hunters in southern Missouri are most likely to notice an increased number of jakes this year.

Dailey said the relative abundance of jakes presents an opportunity for hunters who are concerned about declining gobbler numbers.

“If you want to get back to hearing gobblers sound off from every hilltop next spring, show some restraint and don’t hammer the jakes this year,” Dailey advised. “Concentrate on mature gobblers. Learning to fool those older birds will make you a better hunter, and passing up shots at jakes can have a real impact on how many fired-up gobblers you hear in your area next spring.”

Novice turkey hunters might find learning to hunt keen-eyed, amazingly wary old gobblers a little more difficult this year. That puts a premium on good coaching. It also meshes nicely with Missouri’s Apprentice Hunter Authorization.

This document is not a permit. Rather, it entitles people who are interested in hunting but have not met Missouri’s mandatory hunter-education requirement  to purchase hunting permits for two consecutive years. When hunting under an Apprentice Hunter Authorization, novices must hunt in the immediate presence of a properly licensed mentor. Mentors must be 18 or older.

Dailey said Missouri hunters increasingly are discovering that mentoring new hunters enhances their own hunting more than they expected.

“Turkey hunting never gets old for most of us,” said Dailey, “but it’s really special to see wide-eyed excitement grab a new hunter the first time he hears a frenzied gobbler sounding off before dawn or sees a gobbler in full strut just a few yards away. It’s a way of re-experiencing the excitement of your own first hunts.”

The Apprentice Hunter Authorization costs $10 and is available wherever hunting permits are sold. For more information about the authorization and mentorship opportunities, visit mdc.mo.gov/hunt/deer/mentor.htm,

 

 

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