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Spencer E. Turner: Iron Man in Chest Waders

Everyone leaves tracks. A few blaze trails and open new frontiers.

Turner for web

By Jim Low

Anyone who has attended an OWAA conference knows that we are a group of memorable characters. Our craft demands a capacity for attracting attention. When each of us writes -30- at the end of our career, we will have left tracks in the sand. Not all of us blaze trails, however, and fewer still will be able to look back and see, as Spencer E. Turner can, that they opened new frontiers.

Spence, as his friends know him, took a while to find his calling. Before, during and after serving the U.S. Air Force, he attended various universities, starting out as a business major. But while stationed in Alaska he studied at the University of Alaska and decided he needed to be outdoors, not behind a desk. Accordingly, he changed his major to fisheries science, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Stephens Point. He says he struggled with some of his fisheries classes, but he went on to earn a master’s degree from Colorado State University. His thesis topic was Microhabitat of Hatchery Rainbow Trout. On the strength of this work, in 1969, he landed a job with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), where he would spend his entire career.


Turner belongs to a cohort of resource scientists who entered wide-open fields of inquiry in the mid-20th century. Little was known about the biology, behavior, food habits or habitat needs of fish and wildlife at that time. They plunged into these uncharted fields, exploring the terra incognita of fish and wildlife management.

Among the ground-breaking studies Turner conducted were:

  • Evaluating the growth and harvest of stocked trout at Lake Taneycomo
  • Developing Missouri’s brown trout stocking program
  • Evaluating effects of artificial lure regulations on trout survival
  • Evaluating effects of introducing red-band trout to Missouri waters
  • Evaluating the stocking triploid (sterile) brown trout as a strategy for increasing growth rates and trophy fishing potential
  • Developing methods of improving trout habitat in unstable streams
  • Launching MDC’s ongoing efforts to improve smallmouth bass fishing in Ozarks streams

The work of Turner and his cohort created an unprecedented body of knowledge that was to serve as the basis for managing the fish and wildlife they studied. That was their next challenge. In Spence’s case, this meant melding his knowledge of trout and smallmouth bass with stocking/recruitment rates, length and creel limits, fishing method restrictions and other factors to ensure sustainable yields of fish for anglers, then developing management strategies to produce wild and trophy trout and smallmouth bass fisheries.

His research debunked the widely accepted notion that brown trout could not be overharvested, because they were too difficult to catch. His field work demonstrated that under Missouri’s then existing regulations, most brown trout were harvested before they reached trophy size. He also demonstrated that use of natural and soft baits resulted in unacceptable mortality of under-sized trout, a fact that led to implementation of regulations prohibiting such baits in trophy trout areas.

Spence’s field work also turned up a population of rainbow trout in southwest Missouri that were descended from trout brought to the Show-Me State from the McCloud River in California in the 1800s. This was significant because this strain of trout had been hybridized out of existence in its original home waters. You can now catch pure McCloud rainbow trout at Wire Road Conservation Area in southwest Missouri.

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, Turner must feel extremely flattered that several Eastern and Southern states have modeled their own fisheries management programs after the ones he devised.


Some communicators are made, while others are born. Turner seems to have been of the latter variety. In 1977 he sent a memo to the chief of MDC’s Fisheries Division, advocating a formal communication plan to ensure continued public support for Missouri’s burgeoning conservation program. A few months earlier, Missourians had voted to create a 1/8 of 1 percent sales tax for conservation. The tax hardly had taken effect when Turner received a call form one of the supporters of the sales tax initiative, asking why he had heard nothing about implementation of promised programs.

“I believe this is a symptom of a much larger problem,” Turner wrote to his supervisor’s boss. “Individuals in our work generally are introverts…we know more about the effects of our programs on the animals than the effects on the people using the resource. We are also reluctant to inform the public about out programs unless specifically asked…we have to become more involved at the grass-roots level and more aggressive politically…The lines of communication from the public to the Conservation Department must be opened.”

Turner went on to suggest ways of keeping citizens informed and engaged and advocated offering seminars to build conservation employees’ communications skills. He also suggested that public outreach should be included in MDC employees’ annual performance evaluations.

Apparently unwilling to wait for others to act, Turner took the ball and ran with it. He organized public meetings, public service announcements, radio interviews, newspaper feature stories, cooperative promotions with the University of Missouri, the University Extension Service, the Missouri Farm Bureau, civic club appearances and PTA presentations.  He created an annual Day with Wildlife event to raise his agency’s public profile and inform and involve the public in budding conservation efforts. Later that year he corresponded with U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth about potential improvements to a trout stream.

To further build the Conservation Department’s public credibility, Turner became a fixture at meetings of groups such as the Ozark Fly Fishers, helped organized Trout Unlimited (TU) chapters in Kansas City, Bennett Spring, St. Louis, and Columbia, and met with the Missouri Trout Fisherman’s Association and Conservation Federation of Missouri. These citizen conservationists were eager for knowledge about and involvement in trout management.

When his best efforts were stalled by institutional inertia or politics, Turner occasionally was canny and bold enough to feed inside information and tactical advice to citizen conservationists. These contacts outside government were not beholden to state officials for their paychecks. It may have looked fishy to his supervisors, but Turner’s fingerprints were hard to find. Agency leadership might not always have been thrilled to follow Spence’s activist lead, but he sometimes left them little choice.

One of the greatest challenges for any fisheries or wildlife research biologist is getting the public to support his or her carefully thought out plans and persuading policy makers to implement them. Spence had his share of challenges in this regard, but he enjoyed more success than many. This was largely because he possessed more than scientific acumen and missionary zeal. He had a gift for framing a convincing argument.

Finishing his term on Missouri’s Conservation Commission, G. Andy Runge wrote a letter praising Turners seminal Life History of Wild Rainbow Trout in Missouri. He said he found it fascinating. “I’m not sure these reports are supposed to be fascinating,” wrote Runge, “but I certainly enjoyed it. It was well done, your recommendations are well taken, and I hope will be adopted.”

During his career Turner earned Professional Conservationist of the Year awards from both TU and the Federation of Fly Fishers and was nominated by TU for the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award. He also found time to serve as secretary-treasurer of the Missouri Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society and Treasurer of Mid-Missouri TU Chapter, and conservation chairman of Missouri TU Council.

Turner retired in 1997, capping a 28-year career as a scientist. That was by no means the end of his involvement with resource management, however.


A full decade before joining OWAA, Spence understood the importance of communication to the success of his scientific career. Without knowing it, he was taking page from OWAA’s founding documents. (See page 106 of the 2014-15 OWAA Directory.) His career as an outdoor communicator took a more formal turn in the early 1980s, when he shared a room with Joel Vance at a meeting of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. Vance happened to be judging entries in OWAA’s Excellence in Craft Competition that weekend and was so disgusted with one shoddy entry, he blurted out that even a scientist like Spence could do a better job. Spence took that to heart, and Joel sponsored his membership in 1983

Turner and Vance both went on to serve two terms on OWAA’s board of directors. Spence was named Outstanding Board Member of 1995, and he and Joel both went on to stints as president and chairman of the board. This, plus committee work and special projects too numerous to mention, also earned each of this dynamic duo the J. Hammond Brown Memorial Award for lifetime service to OWAA.

Turner’s communications skills served him well outside his primary vocation. Besides his publications in scientific journals, Spence has written for Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, Gun Dog, Game & Fish Publications, Outdoor Guide, Fur-Fish-Game and other magazines, as well as producing a regular column for his home-town newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune.


Turner’s reputation has been increased – if not always enhanced – by his friendship with Vance. The two both began work for MDC in 1969. They were in the same orientation class, where they discovered that Spence grew up within miles of Joel’s mother’s birthplace near Rice Lake, Wisc. They had fished some of the same streams growing up. Vance presented him with a fur-lined jock strap at the end of the class; Turner returned the jock strap at his retirement.

This early connection provided the basis for a lifelong friendship that took them from Oregon to Arkansas and quite a few places between.  It gave them both a treasure trove of hunting memories and considerably enriched Joel by providing an endless supply of humorous outdoor anecdotes.

The pattern for their partnership was set the first time Spence invited Joel to join him outdoors. He and a crew of MDC fisheries workers were sampling the smallmouth bass population of Missouri’s legendary North Fork River with electrofishing gear. When the shocking boat ran aground on a gravel bar, the crew piled out to push it off. Spence watched from the boat and Joel observed from a nearby canoe. Spence eventually decided his muscle was needed to free the boat, but he exited the wrong side of the boat and promptly disappeared into 10 feet of icy water.

Joel has been turning Spence’s outdoor misadventures into marketable copy ever since. So much so, in fact, that Spence sometimes discovers that his reputation has preceded him into far-flung parts of North America. Moments of recognition often begin with “Oh, you’re THAT Spence Turner!”

One classic event that has become legend involved Spence’s English setter bitch Samantha and Joel’s Brittany Chip. Spence and Joel were in northeastern Iowa hunting grouse. When they got hungry, they drove to Decorah, where they heard that the food at a local dinner theater was good. They arrived just before the dinner crowd of blue-haired ladies and parked Joel’s shabby-chic Mercedes right outside the front window.

Minutes later, when delivering their order, a waitress peered out the window, trying to figure how what was going on in the back seat of the Mercedes. Spence had taken Samantha to the vet before this particular hunting trip for a shot to forestall an inconvenient heat cycle, but apparently the shot had not worked. A scene of unbridled canine passion was unfolding for all to see. Joel recalls that the expressions on the theater-goers’ faces were priceless.

Decorah’s theater community probably still talk about the night the play bill unexpectedly became an X-rated double feature. Of course, Spence went right on with his meal, acting as if he didn’t know the performers.

According to Joel, Spence became known to his upland bird hunting buddies as The Iron Man, on account of his ability to chase dogs all day long without flagging. When younger, slimmer hunters fell by the wayside, Spence was still raring to go.

I’m inclined to believe that his indefatigability was less a function of physical stamina than mental toughness. Though I never endured an all-day hunt with Spence, I had the privilege watching and then serving with him through some of OWAA most trying times. If he ever broke a sweat, no one knew it. Grace and rationality under fire are in his DNA.

So is kindness.

“Spence is the best-hearted human being I have ever known,” says Vance. “He and Joan (Spence’s wife of 55 years) both.  They are a couple that other couples should emulate. He would do anything for a friend and has over the years. He’s empathetic to the Nth degree.”

Besides all this, Spence is a shrewd and careful thinker whose presence at the table during board meetings often spread oil on trouble waters. Few of us will equal his professional and personal attainments, but he gives us all something to cast for.

Jim Low is indebted to Joel Vance and to Missouri Department of Conservation archivist Joe G. Dillard for much of the information in this article.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America