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

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Tealgating – Outdoor Cooking for Hunters

You don’t need fancy gear or ingredients to prepare a feast fit for a king.

My first forays into cooking anything other than scrambled eggs often involved ground beef and cream of mushroom soup. Those dishes weren’t sophisticated, but they were fast, easy and sustaining for a college student for whom “middle-age spread” was still several years away.

Campbell’s got less and less of my business as my waistline expanded and my cholesterol level climbed. Until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the delicious slurp of a slug of condensed soup slid out of a can into a casserole dish. But as dove season approached, I was in the market for an easy, delicious way to prepare dove breasts in camp, and I reverted to old habits with a few twists acquired in the intervening decades. The resulting feast was so wonderful, I was eager to repeat it. I got my chance on Saturday, September 17, 2016, which was the opening day of Missouri’s early teal season.

Even more than most waterfowl hunting, teal season is a crap shoot. It lasts only 16 days and if you don’t get a substantial cold front to push birds down from the Dakotas, or if you can’t be in the marsh when a migratory pulse occurs, you will spend the morning looking at empty skies. That has been my experience for the past few years. This year’s season opener, however, was the kind that sustains the zeal of teal devotees through the lean years. We saw more teal before sunrise than we had during the entirety of the previous five seasons combined. When the morning flight petered out around 10 a.m., I had five blue-winged teal to work with.

Browning meat develops savory flavors you can’t get any other way.

Back at camp, I fired up my Coleman propane stove and browned the breasts in olive oil in a cast iron Dutch oven. When they were on the dark side of golden, I set them aside, added another two tablespoons of oil and four medium-sized, sliced onions.

When the onions started to caramelize, I added some garlic powder, salt, pepper and cup of full-bodied red wine. I stirred with a steel spatula, taking care to scrape the goop off the bottom, then stirred in two cans of cream of mushroom soup and a can of water. I kept stirring the mixture on high heat until it started to bubble, then turned down the burner as low as it would go and placed the browned breasts on top of the onion-wine-soup concoction. I sealed the Dutch oven with its tight-fitting lid and set my cell-phone timer for 45 minutes.

Cook onions until they begin to caramelize, leaving some slightly crunchy.

Before starting this process, I had lit half of a small bag of self-starting charcoal in the fire ring. It was now covered with gray ash and ready to cook. After spreading the coals out in a flat bed, I peeled and sliced a large sweet potato and put the slices on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. I salted the potatoes, added some squeeze margarine and a liberal sprinkling of real bacon bits, then folded the foil over and sealed the package. Then I laid out another sheet of foil, laid the packet top-down on this second sheet and sealed it snugly. This inverted double wrap makes it possible to turn the packet over and cook both sides without spilling the liquid inside.

When 45 minutes were up, I checked the doneness of the breasts. The larger ones were still a little rare for my taste. The last thing you want to do to waterfowl is cook it beyond medium-rare. The result will be tough, dry, livery-tasting meat. However, duck tartar is not my cup of tea, either. The sweet potatoes were perfectly cooked at this point, so I took them off the coals, wrapped the two too-rare breasts in foil and finished them on the coals. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to eat. OMG. Medium-rare teal breast and potatoes smothered in mushroom gravy. Heaven.

Simmer until the meat is rare or at most medium-rare.

I ate until I was stuffed, then continued to snack on potatoes and gravy as I cleaned up the kitchen area, set up my tent and savored the left-over wine. That combination, plus having been up at the crack of dawn, beats any sleeping pill on the market. I read only half a page of my book before falling sound asleep. The glow of sunset hadn’t even faded from the western horizon. Perfect timing, since I planned to do it all over again the next day.

Who cares if this cholesterol fest shaves a few days off the end of my life. By then I’ll probably be in a nursing home, eating hot dogs and pureed spinach. It seems like a good trade-off to me.

I like sweet potatoes, but this recipe is equally good with Idaho potatoes.

Hunter Preparations – Mixed Bag

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-Doves, Ducks and Deer are sure to be on hunters’ minds this week
-Missouri Hunters Smile and Say, “Whata’ We Hunting Today?”

We made it! The long dry spell for hunting is nearly over, and Show-Me State hunters once again will be savoring the piquant smell of burned gunpowder and the twang of bowstrings.  Some of you will have taken the hunting monkey off your back by pursuing squirrels or woodchucks for the past three months, but that’s cold comfort for those whose favorite pastimes involve winged game or deer.

Dove, snipe and rail seasons lead the way, opening September 1.  Waterfowl are next, with this year’s early teal season opening September 10.  Archery deer and turkey season launches Sept.  15, followed by rabbits, firearms turkey hunting and the early Canada goose season October 1.  One of my favorites, woodcock season, opens October 15 and duck season gets under way in the North Zone October 29.  Quail and pheasant seasons open November 1, and firearms deer season isn’t far behind.
Here are some random thoughts about this panoply of autumn excitement.

DOVES

I previously covered safety considerations and the abundance of hunting opportunities in hunting areas managed specifically for doves and dove hunters by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  So here’s a tip to killing more doves: Go snake-eyed.  Nothing makes hitting a dove harder than not spotting the bird until it’s on top of you.  Because they can come from any compass point or elevation, our hunter natural tendency is to constantly swivel our head in all directions.  Don’t do it.  Motion registers in our brains when the image of an object moves across our retinas.  Putting your retina itself in motion by turning your head or cutting your eyes left, right, up and down only makes it harder to see the tiny motion of an approaching dove 200 yards out.

Instead, when waiting for a shot, pick a spot near the center of the horizon where doves are most likely to appear and settle your gaze there, as if you were a snake waiting to ambush its prey.  Don’t maintain focus on a particular spot.  Let your eyes drift apart, go a little walleyed.  Sitting with head and eyes still, you will be amazed at how easily you notice the movement of an incoming bird.  You won’t be able to see birds that are out of your peripheral vision, but that would be equally true if you were rubber-necking.

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TEAL

This works equally well for teal, which often fly low and fast and are on your decoys before you have time to blink, let alone raise a gun.  Speaking of teal and guns, these early migrating speedsters call for slightly different hardware and ammunition than full-sized ducks.  Teal – especially green wings – tend to fly in tight little flocks.  As a result, it’s easy to knock down more than one with a single shot.  I have killed as many as three with one trigger pull.  I was elated about that.  I did it deliberately and was over the moon at the result.  However, the intervening years have landed me in a place where I like to savor a hunt for hours, rather than end it in minutes.  Also, as you approach a limit, the possibility of killing more than one teal at a shot becomes a liability rather than an asset.

That’s why I now use a tighter choke during the early teal season than I do later in the year.  I use a full choke in my autoloader and choose an ancient Merkel side-by-side choked full and extra full or an Antonio Zoli over-under, choked full and modified.  Because maintaining adequate pattern density isn’t an issue with these chokes, I now use Number 4 steel instead of Number 6, as I once did.  The combination of tight choke and large shot size translates into many fewer birds crippled or lost.  If you hit a bird with a full choke and Number 4 shot, it’s going down for the count and the tight pattern allows you to target one bird out of a compact flock.

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BIG DUCKS

The regular waterfowl season is what I dream about the other nine months of the year.  To maximize my chances of getting some good hunts, I never miss a chance to apply for reservations at MDC’s 15 intensively managed wetland areas.  Throughout the season, I apply twice a week for reservations at Grand Pass, Eagle Bluffs or Otter Slough conservation areas through the Quick Draw system.  The first year I drew an astonishing four reservations.  For the past two years, I’ve come up with goose eggs.  Fortunately, I have friends who also use Quick Draw and since as many as four people can hunt on one QD reservation, I have gotten to hunt these areas every year.

The other opportunity I never miss is applying for a hunt under the regular waterfowl reservation system used to allocate hunting opportunities at MDC’s other 12 managed wetland areas.  MDC accepts applications for these areas from September 1 through 18.  Successful applicants receive notification October 1.  Finally, I take my chances at the slots allocated for hunters without reservations.  This involves arriving early at my chosen area and standing in the “Poor Line” with other reservation-less hunters in hopes of pulling a low number and getting to hunt.  When I strike out, I go to Plan B, driving to an open-hunting area with wetland habitat or taking my small boat to a sandbar on the Missouri River to hunt.

DEER

As Show-Me State deer hunters know, Missouri is in the early stages of a slow-moving epidemic.  Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a brain-wasting disease of deer, elk and moose caused by malformed proteins that are too primitive to even be called organisms.  That doesn’t prevent them from killing every deer they infect.

In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, MDC has instituted several measures to track the spread of the disease and reduce risk factors for spreading it.  In the past year, the number of counties where MDC is conducting CWD surveillance has increased to the point where it is no longer logistically feasible for the agency to cull deer for testing.  In order to continue surveillance, MDC is requiring hunters to submit for tissue sampling any deer taken in the 29-county CWD Management Zone during opening weekend of the November Portion of firearms deer season – November 12 and 13.  You can bring the whole deer or the head only, as long as you leave it attached to at least 6 inches of neck.
MDC will maintain 75 sampling stations in the 29 counties of the CWD Management Zone.  They will be open from 7:30 a.m. until 8 p.m.  November 12 and 13.  Their locations, including directions, are listed in the 2016 Missouri Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold or online.

I have already been fiddling with decoys and have inventoried my ammunition so I can fill any gaps during fall sales.  I even put on my muddy waders and climbed into the jet tub to pinpoint the source of last year’s wet crotch (I have a very patient wife).  The weather forecast shows high 70s for the dove opener, which means that teal will be filtering down from the Dakotas by September 10.  Lord, how I love this time of year!  At this point, it’s all promise.

Dove Hunting Opportunities Abound

  • Dove Hunters Should Have Trigger Itch in Missouri
  • Great Prospects – Add Considerations for Safety

dovehunting

A big plus for all dove hunters, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has a long-standing practice of managing hundreds of fields in statewide conservation areas for the benefit of doves and dove hunters.

Most of these fields are planted with sunflowers, but there are a good number of wheat, millet and buckwheat fields grown as well. Local weather determines when these fields get planted and mature. In good years, most are well along by mid-August, allowing managers to begin mowing a few rows each week. This puts seed on the ground and allows doves to establish the habit of visiting them daily. If that thought doesn’t make your trigger finger itch, you are not a dove hunter.

Good News First:

Hunters will find an abundance of doves flitting around the Show-Me State come September 1.

The Caveat:

Those of us who rely on public land for doving need to hunt defensively and be prepared to act like adults when others don’t.

The good news of proper feed and dense repopulation is the reason for the caveat mentioned earlier. MDC dove fields draw a great number of hunters. My experience is that about one in 10 human beings is an idiot (sometimes I think I’m way too optimistic about human nature, but that’s a different topic). So, if 50 people join you in one of the MDC managed dove fields, chances are good that a few of them will not be the sharpest tacks on the bulletin board.

Doves are Prolific Breeders.

The rosy season forecast is predicated on the fact that doves are the rabbits of the feathered tribe. A pair of mourning doves can raise six broods of two chicks each during the nesting season, which starts as early as March. With even modest nesting success, this results in droves of young, naïve doves for hunters to pursue. Nesting conditions have been good this year, so there’s no reason to believe we won’t have the usual, bumper crop of doves.

Hunter Awareness is Necessary.

Lack of sharpness can exhibit itself in several ways. Several years ago, a friend and I were in a dove field at Plowboy Bend CA near Jamestown well before sunrise on opening day to stake out good spots. The shooting was predictably spectacular. About 30 minutes into shooting hours, a doofus strolled in and walked down the field about 30 yards in front of all the shooters already there. That would have been okay, but when he got in front of me a dove flew over and he shot it. I was still okay with that – barely, but then he proved he was part of the bottom 10 percent by plunking his stool down and making as if to settle in.

Patience is Key.

This led me to point out that his chosen spot put him in the line of fire of at least three other hunters. I refrained from also pointing out that besides being an idiot, he was incredibly rude. Anyway, he got the point and moved on.

Later that morning my hunting partner took a pellet to the neck. The shooter was far enough away that the strike barely broke the skin, drawing a small trickle of blood. But the implication was clear. One of our fellow hunters had taken a shot far too close to the horizon and in the direction of another hunter. It was time to leave, and we did.

The good news is that I have had more trouble-free hunts on public land than problematic ones. Furthermore, safety problems are most common when Sept. 1 falls on a weekend, drawing maximum crowds to managed dove fields. I refuse to hunt public fields on Saturday or Sunday openers. It isn’t just that the safety concerns increase with the number of hunters. I simply hate crowds. It’s just not worth the hassle to me, let alone the risk.

Fortunately, his year’s opener is on Thursday, so the number of hunters converging on dove fields will be relatively sensible. That said, you still will find lots of hunters on MDC fields on opening day. Here are a few thoughts on making your public-land hunt as safe and pleasant as possible.

Avoid the Most Popular Areas.

I always hunt close to home, so I don’t know which CAs have the biggest crowds outside of central Missouri. My guess is that the ones listed on MDC’s dove information page are near the top for attendance. Instead, I suggest that you use MDC’s list of managed dove fields to identify one on a smaller CA near you that has managed fields. The web page has maps showing the location of these fields. Scout a few ahead of time, so you know where you would like to be on opening morning and can find your way there in the dark.

Arrive Early

Even the less popular areas can attract quite a few hunters. I suggest arriving at least an hour before shooting time. A headlamp is handy for alerting new arrivals to your location.

Set Ground Rules

Before the shooting starts, go around and introduce yourself to your hunting companions for the day. Gently point out safety risks to new arrivals who set up too close to others. Try to get everyone to agree not to take shows lower than 45 degrees above the horizon.

Dogs? Let Other Hunters Know

If you have a dog, share that with your group ahead of time and ask that no one ground-swat crippled doves. Offer the use of your dog to retrieve their cripples.

Wear Hunter Orange.

Doves react to motion, not color. Wearing a hunter-orange cap and vest isn’t going to hurt your hunting if you stand still and it certainly will alert other hunters to your location. Safety first.

Be the Adult.

Although it is tempting to read the riot act to unsafe hunters – that has always seemed dangerous to me, because idiots often also are belligerent and they have shotguns. Furthermore, it’s futile. You truly can’t fix stupid. So when things turn stupid, move or call it a day. Life is too short to waste time interacting with idiots.

Sign up for Managed Hunts at selected CAs. Dove hunting opportunities on these areas are allocated by daily drawings. You might not get in and if you do, you are assured that the number of hunters will be limited.

  • James A. Reed near Kansas City – Call 816-622-0900 for details.
  • Eagle Bluffs near Columbia – Call 573-815-7900.
  • Ten Mile Pond near East Prairie – Call 573-649-9491.
  • Otter Slough near Poplar Bluff – Call 573-290-5730.
  • Marais Temps Clair near St. Louis – Call 314-877-6014.

At its best, dove hunting in Missouri is among the most exciting hunting of all options, offering action-packed outdoor activity. Don’t let a few knuckleheads keep you from enjoying it.

Be smart, play it safe, and you’ll be fine.