Turkey Flocks Weather the Missouri Rainstorm

  • Last weekend’s deluge won’t cut too deeply into this year’s production.
  • Expect normal breeding behavior for the rest of the season.
Difficult hunting conditions during the 2017 spring turkey season should allow more birds to hunt this fall and in 2018. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

Like everyone else, I was astonished at how much rain fell on southern Missouri over the past weekend, and I was riveted by news of the flooding it caused.  At one point, more than 350 roads were closed in Missouri alone. Flood crest records fell like dominoes, taking dozens of bridges with them.  People lost their homes, their livelihoods and their lives.  But, being a turkey hunter, my thoughts naturally turned to how the unprecedented deluge would affect the state’s wild turkey flock, not to mention my prospects for tagging a gobbler.  The news from Resource Scientist, Jason Isabelle, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) turkey biologist, was surprisingly positive.

Isabelle had a good idea of how wild turkey mating and nesting were progressing, thanks to a multi-year study MDC is conducting in northern Missouri.  The work involves radio-tracking wild turkeys to learn about their habitat preferences and population dynamics.  It also allows researchers to determine when hens begin laying eggs.  Isabelle said that by the middle of last week – a couple of days before the big rain – only five of the 45 or 50 radio-tagged hens had begun laying.  The progress of nesting might have been slightly more advanced in southern Missouri, but even there, nesting wasn’t in full swing yet.

Last weekend’s toad-floating deluge isn’t good news for turkeys by any stretch of the imagination.  It surely flooded out some nests in low-lying areas, and 48 hours of continuous soaking undoubtedly caused some hens to abandon eggs that they could not protect from cold and wet.  The good news is that the impact would have been much more serious if the flood had come a week or two later.  Most hens won’t be affected at all, and those that lost nests will try again.

The last four days of the 2017 spring turkey season should have good conditions for tagging a gobbler.  Jim Low Photo

You might wonder, as I did, if the big rain, followed by relatively chilly weather, might disrupt Missouri turkeys’ breeding behavior.  This morning I staked out a pasture that usually attracts a mixed flock of hens, jakes and gobblers.  I got there around 5:15 and was disappointed not to hear a single gobble from any direction in the first hour and a half.  The sky was clear, and only a slight breeze rustled the treetops, conditions I associate with active gobbling, especially after several days of bad weather.  But there wasn’t a peep out of any gobbler within earshot.  By 6:30, about 50 minutes into legal shooting hours, I was ready to pull my decoy and go home for breakfast.

Taking one last look around before standing up, I spied a hen at the far side of the field.  I propped my shotgun on my knee and settled in, hoping for more.  Sure enough, another three hens soon appeared and worked their way methodically across the field in front of me, scratching up cow patties and gossiping back and forth.  The idea that four hens could wander around without at least one gobbler attending them never occurred to me. While watching the hens, I constantly cast glances at their back trail, expecting to see a fan or hear an explosive gobble at any moment.  It never happened.  The hens exited the pasture, leaving only scattered cow pies in their wake.

I assumed this aberration was the result of recent weather and sought Isabelle’s confirmation of my theory that every flock of hens should have a gobbler escort. I asked if this morning’s scenario seemed unusual to him.  It didn’t, or at least it didn’t seem any more unusual to him than wild turkeys’ normal, contrarian behavior.  He said turkey flocks shuffle and reshuffle daily.  The flock of four hens I watched today could be bigger tomorrow, or not.  It could have jakes and gobblers with them the day after tomorrow.  Or not.  That’s just turkeys.  With normal weather predicted for the first week of May, Isabelle said he expects turkeys to be doing the same things they do every year around this time.

Isabelle said more of the radio-tagged hens in his study have started going to nests in the past few days.  That means that gobblers will be getting lonely and increasingly receptive to hunters’ calls.  Even with a good final week, however, Missouri’s 2017 spring turkey harvest isn’t likely to regain lost ground.  The harvest during the first 10 days of the season ran 7 percent behind the same period in 2016, possibly due to rainy weather in southern Missouri.  The harvest during the second weekend of this year’s season was 62 percent below the 2016 figure.  This brought the deficit for the first two weeks to 15 percent.

Every cloud has a silver lining.  If this year’s spring harvest is down, there will be more birds to hunt in the fall, and more jakes will mature into lusty-gobbling 2-year-olds by the 2018 spring turkey season.  Don’t let that hold you back, though.  You still have four days to tag a longbeard.

Just because they don’t gobble doesn’t mean all the mature toms have left town. Jim Low Photo