Iowa's 2010 Spring Turkey Forecast

Iowa's 2010 Spring Turkey Forecast

Having suffered wet spring weather and low recruitment in recent years, Iowa's turkey population appears to be turning a corner. Could 2010 be the year for a comeback? (March 2010)

Winter can get downright long. For those of us who anticipate a spring obsession, January and February are the months when the official countdown to opening day of Iowa's spring turkey hunting season begins. March, however, is the month when preparation and scouting can put us in the driver's seat come April.

The author's wife, Kathryn, shows off a first-quality Iowa longbeard taken on a hunt that entailed surprisingly little tactical maneuvering.

Photo by Thomas Allen.

If you are anything like me, you long for that first still, frosty morning, when the darkness is broken by one of Mother Nature's finest serenades filling the Iowa woodlands. The first gobble of the season marks the beginning of new life.

As the days get a little longer and warmer, turkeys begin to favor open areas that catch a lot of sunlight and perhaps the interested eye of a lonely hen. A similar March day in the spring of 2008 found me cruising the back roads of rural Iowa in search of turkeys -- which appeared to be little more than black specks in the distance.

As I drove past one of the farms I hunt, some of these black specks caught my attention. I locked up the brakes and turned the truck sideways, binoculars in hand. I noticed three smaller specks -- hens -- and one large one bringing up the rear. These birds were nearly three-quarters of a mile from the road and had no idea that I was looking on. As I suspected, the largest of the four birds was a longbeard attempting some early courting. The hens, as they so often do, paid little attention to his efforts.

I closely observed and noted where the birds entered the woods with the intention of returning that evening to catch my first gobble of 2008! I was not disappointed as he and a few of his buddies decided to roost on a brushy oak flat 100 yards into the timber line from where the lone gobbler had earlier exited the field. I completed this "milk-route" three to four times weekly as I wrapped my game plan around their consistent daily pattern.

Part of my scouting routine is keeping track of the population in my area, based on both the animals I personally witness and the statistics generated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources each year. Keeping informed of existing and forecasted population numbers only enhances your understanding of what to expect in the upcoming spring. Another very important aspect of scouting is keeping a network of contacts, whether they are friends, farmers, landowners, school bus drivers or even other hunters who participate in online forums. I recommend you keep in touch with these types of people, as they may have valuable information pertaining to the turkey population in your area.

A declining wild turkey population has been a hot topic for a few years in Iowa. While the debate has remained largely regional in nature and the noted decline has not been too alarming, a sizable and vocal contingent of hunters across the state has noticed lower numbers of birds. Populations will occasionally fluctuate from year to year, and in this case, Iowa's decline in turkey numbers can be tied to several years of poor nesting weather.

"The (2009) summer started off wet, but eventually leveled out, giving the birds a chance to complete their rearing efforts, and people were seeing several large broods indicating good poult survival," said Todd Gosselink, a forest research biologist for the Iowa DNR. "One of the major factors we can attribute the successful rearing rate to was the tremendous weather we had during the spring nesting season.

The nesting period (May through early June) was dry weather -- perfect for ground-nesting birds. In early to mid-June, we started a very wet weather pattern during the peak of the hatch, but the good nesting weather likely resulted in several successful nests. . . . The first two weeks of a poult's life are the most critical. Because they can't fly, it is harder to get away from predators and harder to thermo-regulate on the ground in wet conditions.

"With the favorable breeding weather, conditions also encouraged more hunters to take to the field," Gosselink continued. "In fact, this year's number of youth hunters was a record! We had 2,845 youth turkey hunters take to the field in 2009 for the youth season, beating the previous record by 300 hunters. Total youth in all seasons also topped last year's totals with over 4,800 young hunters in the woods this past spring. This, in turn, produced larger harvest numbers, which can also be related to healthy population numbers.

"Not only did the youth numbers increase, but the overall participation during the regular season also indicated more Iowa hunters took to the spring woods in 2009. The participation numbers peaked in '04 around 59,500, but bottomed out in 2008 at 54,676 spring turkey hunters. During the spring of '09, we were able to show an increase of just under 400 hunters statewide. This may not be a dramatic increase, but it indicates the populations are stable and a renewed interest has been taken to our spring turkey resource here in Iowa.

"With the influx of hunters, and based on our harvest reporting system, the data we collected during the spring of 2009 showed a mild increase in harvest numbers. Total spring harvest numbers were near 12,000, showing an increase of nearly 600, which is almost half of a percent higher than the previous season. Some of these results can be linked to the pleasant weather, but it also indicates a population that is healthy and capable of providing ample opportunities for Iowa hunters.

"Couple the spring harvest rates of 2009 with the quality weather experienced during their breeding season, and we have (every reason) to anticipate another increase during the spring of 2010.

"To maintain accurate data year to year, we depend on the results obtained by the Harvest Reporting System," Gosselink explained. "We still feel as if we are getting only a 75 percent compliance rate, and that needs to increase so we can better understand where our wildlife populations exist. While it is required by Iowa code, we certainly don't want hunters to think this is an inconvenience, but rather it is a method for the state to better understand what changes -- if any -- need to be applied year to year."

The Iowa DNR depends on its resident outdoor enthusiasts to provide them with a certain amount of data. After all, the hunters are the ones who experience the results of management efforts first-hand. Please take the time to register your harvest by telephone or Internet. Gosselink encourages the use of the online option, as it takes less than a minute to register your kill. Visit www.iowadnr.go

v for more information.

SCOUTING

Regardless of the species of choice, hunters who do their homework in the pre-season will usually experience higher success rates during the season. Much like my whitetail season, turkey scouting never ends. I pay attention to the birds year 'round and document movement and habits for future reference, but for the sake of this discussion, my turkey season overlaps with my obsession for shed antlers. I often search for antlers in known roosting areas to kill two birds with one stone.

For me, this part of the year begins in early to mid-March, depending upon the spring thaw. However, keep in mind that a few inches of melting snow makes spotting birds at a distance much easier.

I break my scouting styles into three very simple strategies: long-distance observation, networking and maps, and roost verification. I will break these down and explain each.

LONG-DISTANCE OBSERVATION

If applicable, I'd recommend making numerous trips during the week at assorted times of the day to your targeted property to better distinguish the birds' patterns. Take a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope and do as much observing from the road as possible. If keeping tabs on birds from the comfort of your driver's seat is not possible, get to a vantage point and keep your distance.

ROOST VERIFICATION

Take one morning a week and get out to known or suspected roosting areas armed only with a locater call. Do not encroach. Keep your distance, but make sure to get the information for which you came. Document your findings in a journal or on a map along with the weather conditions, and refer back to it during the season. If you can do this from the road, I recommend keeping your distance, but again, if that is not possible, get as close as you can while maintaining a substantial buffer.

NETWORKING AND MAPS

We discussed the importance of taking advantage of networks and implementing other people's information into your game plan. Maintaining aerial photos of the properties you hunt in conjunction with the information you gather from your networks will help you gain a better understanding of why the birds will choose to do what they do and when.

Noting roosting areas, feeding areas and likely strut zones will help you piece together the puzzle of their habitual movements and determine why they might prefer one area to the next. Visual observation, when coupled with aerial photos, can help you determine what a big gobbler's next move will be!

One of the big gobblers I watched from a distance for several days in a row before the opening of Iowa's 2008 season met a face-full of 10-gauge No. 5 pellets on the second day of Iowa's second season. He fell victim to a few lines of scratchy turkey talk from my slate call. We hunted him the day before from a greater distance, hoping to draw him off his regular course of travel. I should have known better. We moved our setup the following morning and experienced one of the finest spring mornings I have ever witnessed.

We heard more than a dozen gobblers singing on the limb that morning and eventually watched seven mature longbeards strut within 100 yards at one point before one meandered too close. Later that same morning, my wife shot her very first turkey as we were headed in for lunch. Occasionally, a plan comes together perfectly.

We can anticipate another successful spring turkey season, thanks to increasing turkey numbers. I encourage you to take a loved one to the woods with you this spring and let them shoot first! Share in the battle of wits that spring turkeys often provide. The wild turkey is one of the many gems in Iowa's crown of outdoor jewels. Protect it, and share it!

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