I don’t know if we have had a worse wild turkey season than this past spring season in Missouri and Arkansas in the past 40 years. And I think eastern Kansas could also be included in that observation as well.
The hunting was poor… darn poor. And you can blame part of that on the late season and cold. But mainly the problem is an alarming decline in wild turkey numbers which has been easy to see over several years, if you spend a lot of time in the outdoors in the winter.
That is when turkeys group together and are easy to see and count. Over the past several winters that decline in numbers seen in individual flocks has really been obvious. At the end of the 20th century, wild turkey numbers were good. Around 2005 there were seven mature gobblers feeding at one time at my corn feeder in the winter. In April of that year, I stood on my back porch and heard 11 different gobblers around me one morning. This past spring I heard two or three on the best mornings and they only gobbled a short time. Over the past winter, no gobblers came to my corn feeder!
Turkey hunting success always depends on the numbers of two- and three-year old gobblers. If you went back in time, you might be surprised to know that what we have now probably would have been thought to be a lot of turkeys in the 50s and 60s, when stocking programs were going on. How good could it get, biologists wondered. Would those men, most of them passed away now, have been surprised to see a harvest of 60,000 turkeys in 2005? That year it was unbelievable. I heard two gobblers fighting only a hundred yards into the woods behind my home in the spring and in the fall of 2004 I watched a flock of 30 to 40 young turkeys feed across my back yard, just a few yards from my back porch.
Within a couple of years a decline began, and it has continued until it came to the situation we have now. It isn’t that we have only half the wild turkeys now that we had 12 years ago… I believe we have a little less than half. I was happy to see some young poults in the fall, but there were so few compared to what there have been. And mature gobblers, the two and three year old toms which make up the bulk of the spring hunter kill, were just as scarce as I have seen them in many decades. The same thing could be said of jakes, and that is what I think should worry us the most.
According to telecheck numbers, from a harvest of 60,000 gobblers in 2005 the last few years has given numbers of 44, 43 and then 42,000. This spring that number really crashed, down to about 35,000. Missouri Department of Conservation people aren’t going to do anything about this, but one answer would be to cut the season to two weeks instead of three, and delay it at least a week to ensure a greater degree of mating.
Oh, yes, that would make it a little harder to get a gobbler, but it no doubt would create a better hatch, even if the weather hurts it, as it has for two or three successive springs. And as for me, I would readily accept cutting the limit from two gobblers to one.
One thing the MDC does recognize is that there are more and more hunters refusing to use the telecheck system which gives them a handle on turkey harvests and populations. My friend, Darrell Hamby, has a friend who is a conservation agent, and that agent was complaining about that recently, wondering why so many hunters do not call in deer and turkey they kill. Darrell, one of the best hunters and overall outdoorsmen I have ever known, has an answer they don’t want to hear. He says hunters are learning that the telecheck system is a way that they can be targeted for some penny-ante technical offense. In the winter, deer hunters who describe big antlers with lots of points are often the ones who have their deer heads confiscated weeks later over some technicality.
And if you have one of those flimsy little turkey tags notched as they are supposed to be, calling in the gobbler you took at eight o’clock in the morning later in the day seems unnecessary after the turkey has been cleaned, with carcass discarded and the breast in the freezer. As hunters begin to learn what is happening with that telecheck system, more and more are beginning to ignore it. One hunter told me that it seems to him it is often nothing more than giving the conservation department all the info they need to find a way to fine you for something that amounts to nothing. If you bag a big buck or a pair of nice gobblers, he feels it is better just to keep it to yourself.
Still, you don’t need a telecheck system to tell you that wild turkeys are declining in Missouri and north Arkansas. Maybe there is a poultry disease having an affect on wild turkeys, much like what happened 80 or 90 years ago. The youth season is a problem, which will never be acknowledged. It comes too early, disturbing mating, allowing too many adult hunters to take a kid out and kill a gobbler for him, well before the regular season opens. If you have to have a youth season, make it after the regular season, not before. That would help tremendously in allowing a greater mating season. When 5,000 gobblers are killed mostly in one day of the youth season, and only 35,000 are taken over the regular 21-day season to come later, there is a big imbalance there. Shouldn’t that tell somebody something?
Biologists, most of them spending more time in an office than outdoors, talk often of turkey ‘management’. But there is no such thing today. What you do is manage hunters and hunting. It isn’t ‘wild turkey’ management at all that affects their numbers; it is the management of people. It is time the conservation departments look at what is happening — a steady decline in turkey numbers for many years — and start trying to do something about it. Delay the season, cut the limit from two to one, shorten it by seven days and set the youth season the next weekend after it closes. It would be wise to eliminate the fall turkey hunting gun season until wild turkeys get a little bit of a boost from a good spring hatch. In addition to all this you might pray for a perfect weather situation next spring. But even if you don’t get it… those changes will help bring back gobbler numbers. Then you can go back to what has been done in the past, which has helped create these low numbers of toms. If proposals like those upset you, then remember what hunting was like for you this past spring.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send letters to Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. The office phone is 417 777 5227 in case you would like to obtain the new summer issue of my Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Magazine or one of my books.
TWO GOBBLERS – My opinion may not count for much, but it comes from many more hours in the woods than in an office… I think there are less than half the gobblers in the Ozarks than there were 10 or 12 years ago.