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Spencer E. Turner: Iron man in chest waders

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BY JIM LOW

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 in 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 and then a master’s degree in the field from Colorado State University. His thesis topic was Microhabitat of Hatchery Rainbow Trout. On the strength of this work, he landed a job in 1969 with the Missouri Department of Conservation, where he would spend his entire career.
BLAZING TRAILS
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.
Turner’s 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. These were just part of a long list of ground-breaking studies Turner conducted.
The work of Turner and his cohort created an unprecedented body of knowledge that served as the basis for managing the fish and wildlife they studied. In Turner’s case, this meant melding his knowledge of trout and smallmouth bass with stocking and 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.
Several eastern and southern states modeled their own fisheries management programs after ones Turner devised.
ROCKING THE BOAT
It wasn’t enough to just come up with policy. Turner wanted the public on board. In 1977, he sent a memo to the chief of Missouri Department of Conservation’s Fisheries Division, advocating a formal communication plan to ensure continued public support for Missouri’s burgeoning conservation program.
“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 suggested ways of keeping citizens informed and engaged and advocated offering seminars to build conservation employees’ communications skills. He also suggested that public outreach be included in employees’ annual performance evaluations.
Turner organized public meetings, public service announcements, radio interviews, newspaper stories and cooperative promotions with the University of Missouri, the University Extension Service and the Missouri Farm Bureau. He created an annual Day with Wildlife event to raise the agency’s public profile and inform and involve the public in budding conservation efforts.
He became a fixture at meetings of groups such as the Ozark Fly Fishers, he helped organize Trout Unlimited 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. Agency leadership might not always have been thrilled to follow Turner’s activist lead, but he sometimes left them little choice.
Turner 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 Turner’s 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 28-year career as a scientist, Turner earned Professional Conservationist of the Year awards from both Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers and was nominated by Trout Unlimited for the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award. He also found time to serve as secretary-treasurer of the Missouri Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, treasurer of Mid-Missouri TU Chapter and conservation chairman of Missouri TU Council.
THE NEXT FRONTIER
Turner started working at the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1969 — the same year Joel Vance started at the agency.
In orientation they discovered Turner grew up miles from Vance’s mother’s birth place near Rice Lake, Wisconsin. They fished some of the same streams growing up. 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 supplied Vance with humorous hunting stories he turned into marketable copy.
On one outing, Turner left his boat to help free a shocking boat run aground on a gravel bar. But he hopped off on the wrong side and promptly disappeared into 10-feet of icy water.
Once, while on a grouse hunting trip in northeastern Iowa, Turner and Vance stopped for food at a local dinner theater. It was the waitress who noticed the commotion in the backseat of Vance’s shabby-chic Mercedes they’d parked outside the front window.
Turner took his dog Samantha to the vet before leaving for the hunting trip for a shot to forestall an inconvenient heat cycle. Apparently the shot hadn’t worked and a scene of unbridled canine passion unfolded for all to see. While the theater-goers gaped out the window, Turner went on with his meal, acting as if he didn’t know the dogs outside.
Thanks to Vance’s recounting of similar misadventures, Turner’s reputation preceded him into far-flung parts of North America. When meeting new people, they sometimes said, “Oh, you’re THAT Spence Turner!”
It was Turner’s friendship with Vance that led him to OWAA. Vance was judging entries in OWAA’s Excellence in Craft Contests while sharing a room with Turner at a meeting and he was so disgusted with one shoddy entry, he blurted out that even a scientist like Turner could do a better job. Turner took that to heart, and with Vance as his sponsor, joined OWAA in 1983.
He wrote 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 went on to serve two terms on OWAA’s Board of Director and received the Outstanding Board Member award in 1995. He served as president from 2005 to 2006. In 2014, he won the J. Hammond Brown Memorial Award for his lifetime service to OWAA.
IRON MAN SPENCE
To his upland bird hunting buddies, Turner was known as “The Iron Man,” due to his ability to chase dogs all day without flagging. When hunters fell by the wayside, Turner 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 Turner, I had the privilege of 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.
Besides all this, Turner is a shrewd and careful thinker whose presence at the table during board meetings often spread oil on troubled waters. Few of us will equal his professional and personal attainments, but he gives us all something to cast for.♦
— Editors’s note. A full-legnth version of this story can be found online at http://owaa./?p=4744
-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.
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