Northern and western counties and the Bootheel reported the best turkey reproduction.
Above-average spring and summer rainfall held down nesting success for Missouri's wild turkey flock again this year, but there are bright spots in the picture. Perhaps the brightest is the fact that fall turkey hunters have little competition for a still-abundant and challenging quarry.
One of the primary ways the Missouri Department of Conservation tracks Show-Me State turkey numbers is through an annual "poult-to-hen" ratio. The figure comes from observations by hundreds of volunteers and agency staff who report how many hens they see and how many poults - turkeys hatched earlier in the summer - are with each hen.
During the decades when Missouri's turkey flock was growing rapidly to fill available habitat, poult-to-hen ratios of 1.4 to 1.6 were not unusual. In years when cold, wet weather cut into nesting and brood-rearing success, the figure might fall as low as 1.2 poults per hen.
As the number of turkeys approached the limits of available food and space, the annual poult-to-hen ratio gradually decreased. Even after turkey numbers reach the land's carrying capacity, high poult-to-hen ratios can occur in years with favorable weather for wild turkey nesting and brood rearing.
Missouri experienced its worst recorded turkey hatch in 2008, when widespread and prolonged flooding drowned nests and caused hatchlings to die of hypothermia. That year, observers saw an average of just one poult per hen. Rainfall was above average again in 2009, but turkeys still posted a respectable 1.2 poult-to-hen ratio. 2010 has been another wet year, and this year's ratio dipped slightly to 1.1 poults per hen.
Turkeys fared significantly better in some parts of the state than others. Building on a 1.6 poult-per-hen ration in 2009, the Bootheel's turkey flock kicked it up a notch and produced 2.3 poults per hen this year. The northeastern quarter of the state had a poult-to-hen ratio of 1.2, while most of the rest of the state reported 1.1 poults per hen.
Despite mediocre turkey reproduction across most of the state this year, Missouri's turkey flock remains one of the biggest in the nation. And for those whose passion for turkey hunting knows no season, autumn has special appeal.
"We actually have more turkeys in the fall than we do in the spring," said Resource Science Supervisor Vicki Heidy. "That is because we have lots of young birds from the nesting season, and they haven't gone through the lean months of winter yet. That is what makes a liberal fall hunting season practical. Many of the turkeys you see this time of year are not going to survive the winter anyway, so removing a moderate number through hunting has practically no effect on the number of turkeys we have come spring."
While Missouri's fall turkey population is large, the number of fall turkey hunters is tiny - approximately 17,000 compared to 150,000 spring hunters. With the whole month of October to hunt and so few other turkey hunters around, autumn turkey hunting is a brief sojourn in paradise for many devoted turkey hunters.
"Fall turkey hunting has never gotten as popular as the spring season," said Heidy, "Unlike the spring, when other hunting seasons are closed, hunters have a bunch of options in the fall. The dramatic increase in deer-hunting opportunities in recent years along with waterfowl, upland birds and other kinds of hunting mean that fall hunters have turkeys mostly to themselves."
For more information about fall turkey hunting, visit http://bit.ly/9Z5kwK, or get a copy of the 2010 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold.