What in the world has happened to Missouri’s turkey hunting?

Many hunters remember the early 2000s, when harvest of the regular season and the youth segment combined routinely totaled  more than 50,000 annually. In 2004, it soared to an impressive 60,744.

But that was then and this is now. The spring turkey harvest this year fell to 35,784—the lowest total since 1997, when 33,216 birds were taken.

So, why the big drop? The Missouri Department of Conservation blames an era of poor nesting.

“Unfortunately, poor hatches have reduced turkey numbers in many areas of the state,” said Jason Isabelle, a wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We’re going through a tough stretch right now like we did during the late 2000s.

“Because nest success and poult survival are the primary drivers of turkey population trends, we’re going to need some better production to help numbers rebound.”

Isabelle warned hunters before the season that they were in for a tough spring. Surveys showed that turkey numbers were down.

“We had poor production the last two years,” Isabelle said. “This resulted in fewer two-year-old gobblers and a lot fewer jakes this year.”

It is normal for jakes (young of the year gobblers) to make up one-quarter of the total harvest. This year, that percentage fell to 15 percent.

As if the drop in turkey numbers weren’t bad enough, the weather was terrible. A late spring delayed the chronology of the turkeys’ mating schedule, and winter-like conditions at the start of the season reduced gobbling activity. Many hunters reported hearing far fewer toms than they have in past seasons.

Add it up, and the 2018 spring season was one to forget.

All is not lost. As recently as 2015, the harvest was 48,432. That shows the turkeys can rebound quickly with a few years of good nesting.

But that makes this year’s nesting season all the more critical. The rebound has to start in 2018. Another poor year of production will put Missouri’s turkey population further in the hole.