Iowa's 2007 Turkey Forecast
October 04, 2010
No matter where you live in Iowa, some of the best turkey hunting in America is less than an hour away. (March 2007)
Photo by Phillip Jordan
If you're an Iowa turkey hunter who's never hunted turkeys outside the Hawkeye State, here's what you've been missing: smaller birds, fewer birds, more competition between hunters, and poorer success rates.
"A lot of our hunters have never hunted turkeys outside Iowa, so they assume that turkey hunting is this good everywhere," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources turkey management biologist Todd Gosselink. "I've hunted in other states that are supposed to be good places to hunt turkeys, and I'm here to tell you that they don't come close to what we have in Iowa."
Gosselink's hunting experiences in other states have demonstrated to him that Iowa's turkeys, on the average, are larger and heavier than are those in the East and the South. He also met with more competition from other hunters as he worked gobblers in other states, and got a feeling from talking to other hunters that fewer hunters took home birds.
His work as a wildlife biologist confirmed his suspicions. He's seen surveys from other states that brag of hunter success rates between 20 and 30 percent -- not so great, compared to the annual reports that he files, which show that Iowa hunters enjoy rates between 45 and 50 percent.
"We've got genetics for larger birds," he said. "Good nutrition, thanks to all our crop fields -- that helps them grow to their full potential. And we've got enough habitat so that there are now turkeys in every county. When it comes to turkey hunting, there aren't too many places in the United States that can provide bigger birds or better chances to hunt them."
Gosselink is optimistic that Iowa will maintain its turkey hunting reputation in 2007. The 2006 turkey nesting and brood survey results weren't final as this went to press, but all indicators point to higher turkey numbers in spring 2007.
"All spring and summer, I heard good reports from all over the state about lots of broods, and that the broods were larger than average," he said. "We had excellent brood survival in 2005, so between all the 2-year-olds that were jakes during last spring's hunts, and all the young birds from last year's production, we're probably looking at some of the highest turkey populations we've ever had in Iowa.
"I'm confident that 2007 will be as good or better as recent years, and turkey hunting in Iowa has been pretty darned good in recent years. It all depends on weather. The numbers are there -- it just depends on the weather during the spring seasons whether hunters are able to take advantage of the birds that are out there."
TOP SPOTS FOR TOMS
Longtime Iowa Game & Fish readers may sigh when we once again point to Yellow River, Stephens and Shimek state forests as some of our top places to target turkeys. We may sound like a broken record, always referring to those legendary turkey timbers, but those large tracts of public timberland hold some of our highest densities of turkeys.
"I've been in Yellow River Forest in the spring and was absolutely amazed at the number of toms that were gobbling," said Gosselink. "Even if they don't hunt there, turkey hunters should go and listen just for the experience. Those state forests are sort of like turkey-hunter heaven."
More hunters may visit those storied state forests this year, thanks to changes in turkey hunting regulations. Prior to this year, those big state forests were designated separate zones, requiring special licenses. This year, those special zones have been eliminated. The entire state will be open to any hunter with a generic license for one of the four spring turkey hunting seasons.
"We used to keep those state forests as special zones with license quotas, not so much to protect the turkeys, but to control the number of hunters so those hunters had minimal competition and could have really high-quality hunts," said Gosselink. "For the past few years we haven't sold out those license quotas. Our thinking is that our hunters like to have more flexibility in where they hunt, and restricting them with licenses to hunt only in a specific state forest was tying them down too much. So we'll open the state forests up this year, give more hunters a chance to hunt those birds, and see how it works."
This means that hunters in Des Moines and central Iowa now have the opportunity to make the one-hour drive to tracts of Stephens SF in south-central Iowa and take advantage of the prime turkey hunting in those areas.
"That wouldn't be a bad day's hunt," said Gosselink. "Go down in late winter or early spring, do some scouting, figure out where you want to hunt; then, on a nice spring day, take a day off from work and hit a couple spots you scouted."
The same play-hooky-from-work-and-hunt-a-state-forest strategy could work for hunters from Iowa City-Cedar Rapids who head for tracts of Shimek SF in southeast Iowa, or for hunters in Dubuque or Cedar Falls/Waterloo who take advantage of the turkeys in Yellow River SF.
"All our public areas see increased hunting pressure on weekends, especially close to parking lots and roads," said Gosselink. "But in those big timbers, hunters who make the effort to get a couple miles from roads and parking areas have a good chance to have multiple birds all to themselves even on weekends."
One part of the state where hard work and scouting may not provide privacy to turkey hunters is central Iowa. Ken Kakac, IDNR district wildlife biologist for Lake Red Rock and areas south of Des Moines, conceded that local turkey hunters do a good job of "covering" his territory.
"Turkey-hunting pressure is pretty intense," he said. "The hunters do a good job of scouting, and there aren't many places in the Red Rock area that don't get hunted. I used to think there were places back away from roads, places that are kind of hard to get to, that didn't get hunted, but there aren't many of those spots anymore."
That doesn't mean hunters in the Des Moines area won't have the opportunity to contribute to another year of success rates nudging the 50 percent mark. "The turkey population looks really strong around here, going into the spring seasons," said Kakac. "I saw a lot of broods in 2006, and all the turkey hunters I've talked to are really pleased with the numbers of birds in this area."
Biologists in other parts of Iowa offer similar optimistic reports on turkey numbers as the spring hunting seasons approach. Even Rick Trine, IDNR district wildlife biologist for Grundy County, reports seeing birds.
Grundy County is famed for farming but notorious for a lack of wildlife habitat. With forest habitat limited to narrow corridors along infrequent streams, and rare, small blocks of isolated timber, Grundy County is challenged when it comes to turkey-friendly habitat.
"To my knowledge, there is no resident flock of turkeys in Grundy County," said Trine. "But there are turkeys in the county -- in the timbers associated with some of the small streams. They're travelers, wandering up and down those streams, especially Wolf Creek, down in the southeast corner of the county. Somebody could shoot a turkey in Grundy County if they did some scouting and knew where those travelers were on a given day -- but it would be a challenge."
Elsewhere in the state, public areas provide good to excellent prospects for this year's spring turkey seasons. All the timbers associated with the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, from 1,300-acre French Creek Area in Allamakee County in northeast Iowa, all the way down to the 5,000 acres in three units of the Shimek SF in Lee County in southeast Iowa, hold much promise for spring.
Iowa's western border too is strewn with prime turkey hunting possibilities. Pioneer SF and Loess Hills Wildlife Area, between Sioux City and Council Bluffs, offer a total of more than 10,000 acres of timbered public hunting. Smaller public areas closer to the Missouri River, including California Bend and Deer Island in Harrison County or Wilson Island in Pottawattamie County, will see more hunting pressure, but still provide good hunting for hunters who know how to target turkeys.
Midstate hunters have multiple turkey opportunities. The Des Moines River corridor, which bisects the state, has provided timbered travel routes for turkeys to expand to the headwaters of all its tributaries and their tributaries.
Lake Red Rock, Saylorville Lake and Boone Forks Wildlife Management Area are some of the larger public hunting areas on the Des Moines river system. Don't overlook timbered areas on major tributaries, including public areas associated with Springbrook State Park on the Middle Raccoon River in Guthrie County, or Bays Branch WA near Panora.
Farther east, the Iowa River provides the Iowa River Corridor Wildlife Area, with more than 10,000 acres of timber snaking along the Iowa River in Iowa County. "One of the things I've noticed is that we have appropriate numbers of hunters for the number of birds we have in different parts of the state," said the IDNR's Rick Trine. "All our hunters can have good hunting, but in some of the areas where there isn't as much timber, they have to adapt and use tactics appropriate to those smaller areas."
Trine noted that hunting timbers associated with river corridors can be effective, but requires scouting and "strategizing." "One problem with hunting the Iowa River Corridor is that the river twists and turns a lot," he said. "A hunter could roost some birds one night, come back the next morning to hunt them, and find out they roosted across a bend in the river from him. You've got to know the lay of the land in those smaller areas."
HENS: THE KEY TO TOMS
Mark Creery, a district representative for the National Wild Turkey Federation, suggests that Iowa hunters focus on hens to take toms.
"For spring turkey hunting, it's more important to know what the hens are doing than to know where toms are at," he said. "Hens won't mate and nest until ground temperatures and other factors are right. Until hens are ready to mate, toms will follow them around, and that can complicate getting toms to come to a call. Then, when hens are in mating mode, it's about impossible to get toms away from them. Once mating is over, and hens are nesting, it's a lot easier to call toms."
Hunters aware of hens' stage in the mating cycle can focus their hunting strategies to work with natural turkey movement rather than against it. Prior to the mating season, Creery suggested, hunters should determine where hens are roosting and feeding and then set up near those areas and attempt to move curious birds short distances off their normal travel routes.
The peak of the breeding season is a tough time for early-morning calling, as toms stay close to their harems. Some hunters have found success by sleeping late in the mornings and hunting in the afternoons, after toms have serviced all the available hens and are more open to chasing "lonesome" hens.
"That's an advantage Iowa turkey hunters have over some other states," said Creery. "Some states only allow morning hunting. We can hunt afternoons, and maybe pull in those toms looking for stray hens."
Once hens go onto their nests, toms are more prone to investigate calls made by hunters. "An important thing to remember is not all turkeys in all locations are at the same phase of the breeding season," said Creery. "It's weird, but turkeys in one block of timber may be a week or more ahead of or behind turkeys only five or 10 miles away, in another block of timber. If you've done your scouting, and are really on top of what hens are doing in various places you hunt, you can plan your hunts to take advantage of those differences.
"If I know that the turkeys are at the peak of their breeding season in one timber, but I know that 10 miles away there's a timber where the hens have started going to their nests, I'm going to hunt the timber where the hens are starting to nest and the toms are going to be easier to call. It takes a lot of work, but it can really increase your chances of taking a tom."
According to Creery, calling is the key to taking a spring turkey, but, he added, the quality of calling is secondary to timing of calls. "People get hung up about perfectly imitating turkey sounds," he said. "Turkeys are like people -- every turkey has a different-sounding voice. I've heard turkey calls in the timber that I swore had to be a really bad hunter, because it sounded so bad, but after while, here comes this hen, making the most unturkeylike sounds I'd ever heard.
"So I've decided that it's not the quality of the calling as much as the timing of when you call. It's hard to describe, but if you've spent enough time in the woods listening to turkeys talk to each other, you get a feel for how often to call when you're working a bird. I'm convinced that the biggest mistakes beginning hunters make is to call too often. You've got to tantalize them, make them curious, and sometimes the best way to do that is to do nothing."
Patience is perhaps the hardest part of turkey hunting. In Creery's view, you need to operate on "turkey time" when hunting. "You've got to remember that turkeys have all day to do their job, and their job is to stay alive," he said. "They don't have to rush back to work in town. They can take all day to move from their roost to their feeding area, if they want to move that slow in order to keep from feeling nervous, or unsure about their safety.
"That's why you hear about guys calling for an hour or so, getting impatient and standing up to move -- and spooking a turkey that was maybe 50 or 100 yards away. The bird was coming in, bu
t it was coming in at its own pace. Successful turkey hunters are patient turkey hunters."
Creery's final tip for this spring's Iowa turkey hunting seasons was for the increasing number of hunters who try to take their tom by bow.
"Because of the thick feathers on their wings, you've just about got to arrow a turkey from the front, in the breast, or from the rear," he said. "Use a jake decoy, and position it facing you, just outside the range you want to shoot. The tom will come in and face the jake decoy, with his back to you. He'll probably fan his tail and display to impress the jake. When he does, he won't be able to see to the rear because he has his tailfeathers fanned, so that gives you a chance to draw your bow and take the shot."