Iowa'™s Golden-Leaf Gobblers

Iowa'™s Golden-Leaf Gobblers

The Hawkeye State's leaves don't have to be green for great turkey hunting to happen. We'll show you the best spots for getting the drop on fall longbeards. (September 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

Hunters can expect good turkey hunting this fall, according to forest wildlife research biologist Todd Gosselink, Ph.D. Although the autumn action's not as popular as is the spring hunt, plenty of gobblers will be taken as the temperatures cool.

"Wild turkey populations are doing excellent," said Gosselink. "Nearly 60,000 turkey hunters took to the woods during last year's spring season, and those hunters took over 22,000 turkeys, with an outstanding hunter success rate of 44 percent. With high turkey densities, Iowa has one of the highest success rates for turkey hunters in the nation."

The 2007 harvest was comparable, and this fall, hunters will be shooting young-of-the-year birds as well as taking the occasional older tom.

Iowa's best turkey hunting is in the southern, northeastern and western parts of the state, but turkeys are just about anywhere that suitable habitat is present. Turkey numbers are looking good, and the forecast for 2-year-old turkeys is excellent.

Some of the top spots are the old tried-and-true public lands whose hunting pressure can be heavy, while some of the areas promising good fall hunts are in lesser-known woods.


"The Loess Hills State Forest is a truly unique natural area in western Iowa covering over 10,000 acres of public hunting access," said Gosselink. "The intermixed forest and agricultural ground produces the highest turkey densities in the state."

The prospects for turkey hunting in Loess Hills sound good -- until you get there. The terrain is tough going on foot in many sections, with high ridges and thick stands of oak. Prairie grass is interspersed with forest to create ideal turkey habitat and to provide hunters with navigable land.

Loess Hills SF consists of four units: Little Sioux, Preparation Canyon, Mondamin and Pisgah. All are in Harrison and Monona counties, and all harbor turkeys.

According to turkey guide Lynn Buswell, spring turkeys are a lot easier to take than are fall birds. In the spring, toms are looking for the ladies, and a lot of gobbling goes on, so calling is hands down the most effective hunting method.

"In the fall, getting a bird is a bit tricky," said Buswell. "It's important to do some scouting and find out where the birds are roosting so you can catch them as a family group. Turkeys still want to stick together, and that's the reason scattering them works so well. The young birds aren't completely weaned, and it can get loud when the mothers and poults are calling for each other. Your job is to join the calling and bring them back to you."

For more information, contact the Loess Hills SF at (712) 456-2924 or the Missouri River Wildlife Management Unit at (712) 423-2426.


"The terrain is forested in Clayton County," said wildlife biologist Doug Chafa, "and that's where you'll find our crowning turkey spot. In Sny Magill there is really good access along the trout stream and right through the middle of the area. The bordering North Cedar area has little access, so a hunter can go up into the river corridor and get away from the crowds."

Turkeys are abundant in the oak and maple forest and along the heavily wooded edge habitat. According to Chafa, much of northeastern Iowa didn't fare very well in the 2006 turkey numbers survey, even though statewide turkey numbers are up. The numbers of poults per hen were down slightly, and the numbers of hens with broods were down about 17 percent. The good news is that turkey numbers in this part of the state are still high, so this fall's hunter success rates should correspond.

Pre-scouting always pays off, in Chafa's view. As conditions change, the birds will take advantage of different areas.

The Sny Magill-North Cedar complex is six miles south of McGregor on X56 and three miles northwest on Keystone Road in Clayton County. For more information, contact the Sweet Marsh Unit at (563) 425-4257.


This state forest in southern Iowa is ideal turkey country, reported Gosselink. Over 14,000 acres of rough country divided over several tracts provide excellent fall turkey prospects. "This is one of the first wild turkey reintroduction areas in the state," he said, "and is the most popular spot for turkey hunters."

Wildlife technician Jim Coffey also gives the forest a thumbs-up. "Turkeys in the fall will be in transition," he observed. "They'll be moving from eating insects in the fields and going back into the deep timber to eat mast crops like acorns. Stephens has big tracts of forest without a lot of fields, so hunters can really key in on those edge areas between the available fields and woods."

Any of the forest's several tracts will offer tremendous possibilities for killing a fall gobbler, Coffey believes. Autumn's hunting differs enough from spring's for gobbler chasers to have to adjust their tactics. Males aren't in the mood to respond to calls in the fall, but calling in a scattered family flock works wonders.

Coffey sees a lot of bowhunters carrying a turkey tag while deer hunting, and if a turkey wanders within range, they'll take a shot. He also sees more guys bowhunting specifically for turkeys than he's noticed in the past, and the sport seems to be increasing in popularity.

At Stephens, a map will serve those moving in off the beaten path well. Ridges, hills and flatter sections are all heavily timbered, and getting turned around is a definite possibility.

Stephens SF lies primarily in Lucas, Clark and Monroe counties. The large tracts of land are northwest of Unionville. For more information, contact the Mt. Ayer Wildlife Management Unit at (641) 464-2220 or the Rathbun Unit at (641) 774-4918.


"Hunters wanting a true big forest experience will find that Shimek is the place," said wildlife biologist Bill Ohde. "Large tracts of oak-hickory forest with big ridges divided by small drainages, open forest, thick brushy areas and old pine plantations are all here. There are campgrounds on the area that allow you to walk right from the campsite and be onto the turkeys."

Shimek, which is also one of Gosselink's top

turkey picks, is the type of area that hunters bring up when the conversation turns to turkeys. "The large tracts of forest allow hunters to spread out and look for gobblers deep in the woods," said Gosselink. "The forest covers over 9,000 acres in Lee and Van Buren counties, and is the largest single tract of contiguous forest in Iowa."

If a hunter is the least bit noisy, he can walk for miles and, owing to the terrain, easily miss a flock. Setting up on a ridge giving a bird's-eye view of the surrounding forest can enable you to spot an unsuspecting flock before it knows you're there.

Veteran longbeard hunter Steve Purviance does some late-season calling for birds he scatters. "During the fall, hunters will typically ambush birds," he explained, "because calling has little effect on them. However, fall hunters can have some limited success using the 'kee-kee run' call, which imitates the boss hen as she tries to gather scattered birds back into one flock. Hunters should spook and scatter the birds, sit down, wait about 30 minutes and then start the call. It can be very effective."

Sections of the forest are northeast of Farmington on Road J56, five miles west of Donnellson on Highway 2 and three miles east of Farmington on Highway 2. For additional information, contact the Odessa Unit at (319) 523-8319.


"We've got turkeys throughout the Des Moines River Valley, especially along the Des Moines and Boone rivers," said area wildlife management biologist Scott Petersen. "We've also got turkeys on the Saylorville Wildlife Area's 11,000 acres of large forested tracts and hayfields."

The Saylorville property is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed for wildlife by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. These lands sprawling across western Polk and Boone counties offer good shooting in the fall.

"I'm not seeing the large groupings of turkeys that I've seen on the area in the past," said Petersen. "In other parts of Iowa you can see groups of 80 to over 100 birds, but here I'm seeing groups of 12 or 13 birds. The turkeys are there, but there's not a tremendous number of them."

But that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of birds to go around: According to Petersen, no spot on the area is better than any other. He recommends looking for the timber in which birds roost and the associated hayfields that they go out to feed on; find that winning combination all in one spot, and turkeys will probably be nearby. It's all about habitat when it comes to locating these birds.

The Saylorville WA extends from Highway 17 in Polk County north of Fraser in Boone County. For more information, contact the Saylorville Unit at (515) 432-2235.


"We have very limited public turkey hunting areas within the Ingham-High Wildlife Unit that offer good hunting." offered wildlife biologist Bryan Hellyer, "because most of our areas don't contain turkey habitat, but there are two that do."

Bradgate WMA and the separate but close Lotts Creek WMA are both in Humboldt County. Bradgate WMA is near Bradgate; Lotts Creek WMA is near Livermore. Both areas are small, and often overlooked because of their size.

Bradgate WMA only covers 125 acres but it has the West Fork of the Des Moines River running right through it. Most of the area consists of bottomland timber that provides great roosting spots for turkeys. The small portion of connected grassland can be easily reached from the parking lot.

Bradgate is two miles east of Gilmore City on Highway 3, three miles north on Delaware Avenue and a half-mile west on C18 in Humboldt County.

Though quite different from larger areas, Bradgate and Lotts Creek still offer a good chance of taking a bird. "I do the majority of my scouting in the springtime from my car wherever I'm going to go hunting in the fall," suggested turkey guide Buswell. "Listen for gobbling in the spring when the turkeys are louder, and then come back to the same area in the fall to shoot a bird."

At Lotts Creek WMA, a 54-acre Humboldt County tract of bottomland timber through which the East Fork of the Des Moines River meanders, excellent edge habitat should provide good turkey hunting opportunities for the fall. Lotts Creek is at the northwest edge of Livermore off Road C20.

For more information call the Ingham-High Wildlife Unit at (712) 362-2091.


Wildlife biologist Carl Priebe noted that, in the opinion of many, hunting 343-acre Green Hollow WMA has more downsides than it's worth. So is there an upside? Yes: Gobbler chasers can enjoy some fine shooting, since many of their fellows have decided to go afield elsewhere.

"There is some heavy hunting pressure," said Priebe, "because it's the only public area with substantial upland timber in the Riverton Wildlife Unit. The second downside to hunting Green Hollow is that the WMA is physically divided into two areas. There is a very steep and deep gully that bisects the area, and it's difficult to cross; it's demoralizing when birds gobble on the other side of the gully or fly across it when they leave the roost.

"A third downside is that the area is only accessible via a dirt road. If it rains it means a very long, muddy walk to get in. That can be good, because there's a lot less hunting pressure. If it's dry when you get there in the morning but rain clouds roll in later, you'd better be running for your car -- a short cloudburst could mean a long walk home."

If you find where the turkeys are feeding during the daytime but can't get a shot, come back tomorrow at the same time. "You can set your clock by turkeys," stated guide Buswell. "They'll be at the same feeding spots every day at the same time. Doing a little scouting can pay off."

Try to get as close as possible before scattering a flock, cautioned Buswell. If you're too far away from the flock when you jump it, you'll find that the birds move off as a group, making your calling fruitless. Getting the birds confused and heading in all different directions is the goal.

Green Hollow can be reached on Cemetery Road north of Plum Creek Road, north of the town of Thurman in Fremont County. Contact the Riverton Wildlife Unit at (712) 374-3133 for further information.


"Around Rathbun Reservoir there are a lot of birds," said wildlife biologist Jeff Telleen, and there's a good harvest every year."

The steep and rolling bluffs have plenty of timber and grasslands where hunters can spread out. Turkey hunting is best on the upper west end of the reservoir on either the north or south forks.

Telleen noted that as Rathbun is one of the traditional turkey hunting spots in the Hawkeye State, it gets some heavy

hunting pressure. Fall tactics that work elsewhere are the best shot at a bird here as well. Walk in and locate a flock with several young birds in it, scatter them hard, so that they split up, and then go to work calling them back together again. The young birds are the most gullible, but hunters will take some older gobblers, too.

The tree small waterfowl refuges that comprise about 10 percent of the total area will be closed from Sept. 10 until the day after duck season; watch for the posted yellow signs. The rest of the public hunting area is open for fall hunting.

Gosselink suggested that you bring your boat along when you hunt Rathbun's turkeys. Bag a tom in the morning, and then enjoy some great late-season crappie fishing when you're done.

Rathbun WMA covers 15,970 acres six miles north of Plano on Highway 142 in Appanoose County. When the roads are wet, many of the secondary access roads are poor. Contact the Rathbun WA at (641) 774-4918 for more information.

No sex differentiation applies during the fall hunt; either a tom or a hen may be taken. Only Iowa residents may buy a fall tag. Hunters will take mainly young-of-the-year birds, but an old longbeard can still be found, if you're selective.

Hunters need to report harvested turkeys using the IDNR's new Harvest Reporting System.

Contact guide Lynn Buswell at (319) 622-6259 or visit online at

For more information on Iowa's fall turkey hunting opportunities, or to obtain free downloadable maps of public hunting areas visit the IDNR Web site, Topographic maps are available from the IDNR's Publications and Map Sales at (319) 335-1575.

Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at:

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