The State of Hawkeye State Turkey Hunting

The State of Hawkeye State Turkey Hunting

Our turkey populations have come a long way in recent decades -- far enough that there's legitimate concern that we've got too many birds in parts of the state. Following: the success story.

By Larry Brown

How are Iowa turkeys doing? Well, would you believe that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is actually concerned that there may be too many in some areas? (Nope - that's not a misprint!)

Suffice it to say that as far as Hawkeye State turkey hunters are concerned, the news could hardly be better. During the spring 2003 season, Iowa hunters harvested nearly 22,000 gobblers - a new record. And nearly half the hunters (45.4 percent, to be exact) were successful. While there are states (mostly south of us, and with a lot more timber than we have) that have more turkeys than we do, we're right at the top when it comes to hunter success. In fact, many of the more-noted turkey states have never approached our 45 percent success rate.

Hawkeye State turkey hunting is a much bigger success story than even the experts ever anticipated. Let's take a quick look back at the history of turkeys and turkey hunting in Iowa, and then we'll get down to the nuts and bolts of how things are shaping up for 2004.

When settlers first arrived in Iowa, in the early 1800s, the turkey was a very common bird. There were an estimated 7 million acres of forest in the state, much of it oak and hickory. These trees produce nuts, which are part of a group of natural foods lumped under the general category of "mast," on which wild turkeys feed.

Two factors made a big impact on our native turkey population. First, there were no hunting regulations in the 1800s; settlers killed the birds year 'round for food. Second, the settlers cleared much of the timber as they began to carve their small farms out of the wilderness that was 19th century Iowa. By 1956, the IDNR estimated that only 2.6 million acres of timber remained in the state, and much of that was unsuitable for turkey habitat, owing to overgrazing. But by then, the turkeys had been substantially absent from the state for some 50 years anyway. Nevertheless, the IDNR had been successful in increasing white-tailed deer numbers (the first modern season was held in the early 1950s), and their biologists thought they might be able to restore turkeys as well.

Photo by Bruce Ingram

Initial attempts to restore the turkey in Iowa involved pen-raised birds released into the wild; they didn't survive to reproduce. Later restoration attempts were made with birds captured in the wild. Initially, these involved either the Rio Grande or Merriam's subspecies, which are Western birds. Unable to adapt to Iowa habitat, they too perished.

Successful restoration began in 1966, when eleven birds of the eastern subspecies, captured in Missouri, were released in Iowa. The first release took place in Shimek State Forest in extreme southeastern Iowa. This was followed by a release in Stephens State Forest. By 1974, it was estimated that bird numbers had increased to about 500 in both forests.

Since 1971, Iowa's turkey population has been high enough that the IDNR has been able to trap them and transplant them to other areas within the state. In fact, since 1980, they've been sufficiently numerous that the IDNR has been able to trade them to other states for prairie chickens, grouse and river otters. All across the state today, the IDNR has concluded, there are turkeys wherever the habitat is capable of supporting them.

The history of modern turkey hunting began 30 years ago this spring, in 1974. That year, just 300 licenses were issued for three zones, and 102 gobblers were harvested. The three zones were Shimek State Forest, Stephens State Forest, and the extreme northeast corner of the state.

Iowa held its first fall season in 1981. About 2,000 licenses were issued - good for any turkey rather than just gobblers, as in the spring season. The hunter success rate was about 47 percent.

In the fall of 2002, the last year for which data are available, there were nearly 14,000 turkey licenses issued; the hunter success rate was about 49 percent.

From that short history lesson, it's very easy to see how turkey numbers have grown, and how the popularity of turkey hunting has grown as well. In just 30 years, we've come a long way in the Hawkeye State! We've even allowed limited nonresident hunting since 1990 (about 2,000 licenses per year have been issued since 1998). Initially, many of the nonresident hunters were former Iowans, returning to hunt with friends or family. But because of the size of our birds, we now have many out-of-staters coming to Iowa for the chance at a trophy bird. That's an excellent indication of just how good we have it here.

For the lowdown on our turkey flock, I spoke with Todd Gosselink, the IDNR's forest wildlife biologist and the man in charge of our turkey program. As you might imagine from what you've read so far, he's very optimistic about the future of turkeys and turkey hunting in Iowa.

"We estimate the total turkey population in Iowa to be about a quarter of a million birds," he said. "Everyone seems to be seeing more birds."

That got us to the part about Iowa possibly having too many turkeys. "Especially in the winter, you can see some really big flocks - maybe up to hundreds of birds," said Gosselink. "People are used to seeing flocks of dozens of turkeys, but not huge bunches like that.

"It ends up causing concern. People think the birds are nothing but a nuisance, and some landowners become concerned about crop depredation. From the studies we've done, however, turkeys don't seem to have much impact on corn. They don't knock the stalks down like deer and raccoons do. They will eat the waste grain off the ground, but that's not a problem for the farmers, anyhow. They can have an impact on some specialty crops, like ginseng and strawberries, but we don't raise much of either of those here in Iowa.

"It's more a case of educating the public than anything else," he observed. "They get the perception that there are so many turkeys that they're impacting the crops, and usually that's not true."

Of course, one of the major problems in this misperception is that where there are a lot of turkeys, there are usually a lot of deer, too - and raccoons. The turkeys end up taking the blame fo

r damage caused by other animals.

However, one thing about turkeys and agricultural crops is true: If it weren't for our farmers, we would not have nearly as many turkeys as we do. Original estimates by the IDNR were that we might harvest 1,000 or so birds per year. Obviously, from the numbers given earlier, we've gone way beyond that!

The reason for that original conservative estimate is that turkey density in many other states is controlled by the food supply. In a state with a lot of woods and not a lot of farmland, the birds have to subsist almost entirely on the mast that they find in the forest. While Iowa turkeys do indeed eat mast, they almost all live close enough to farms to eat waste grain. Because they have this readily available additional source of food, our turkeys exhibit densities much higher than those in most other states. Some of the other states may have more birds total than we do because they have more timber, but we have far more per square mile of timber because of the corn and other food our birds can find.

As you've probably guessed already, prospects for this year are excellent.

"About the only negative is that production of young birds was down slightly last spring," Gosselink told me. "However, 2002 was a very good year for the birds, with excellent production."

What that means, for those hunting this spring, is that you may not see as many jakes as usual. On the other hand, you should see plenty of nice gobblers. And I think most of us would readily take a slight shortage of jakes if the tradeoff were a better population of gobblers.

How about areas to hunt this spring? That one is somewhat difficult to determine, because the state does not track hunter success by region. Iowa is now divided into four zones. Three of those are our state forests - Shimek, Stephens and Yellow River. Zone 4 is the rest of the state, and that's where about 99.5 percent of the turkeys are harvested.

In general, perhaps the best region of the state, according to Gosselink, is anything south of 1-80 where there's timber. The eastern quarter is also pretty good, especially the northeast.

The IDNR does have some brood survey information (young birds per adult and birds per flock), but it's a little bit misleading. For example, the northwest and north-central regions were tops in terms of birds per flock (over 13) as well as young birds per adult (between 5.6 and 5.9).

They also had the highest percentages of hens with broods: 71 percent in the northwest, 77 percent in the north-central.

But these are both areas without a whole lot of timber. What it comes down to is that if you hunt good habitat in either of these regions, you're in good shape. The problem is that good habitat in both is in pretty short supply.

A better guide is obtained from looking at the number of reports from each region. In this department, the southern, northeast and east-central regions are way ahead of all the others. And that makes sense when you consider that those are the regions where you're going to find most of the timber in the Hawkeye State.

Because all regions of the state having the right kind of habitat can boast strong bird numbers, it's hard to point to one specific public area as "better" than another. Perhaps the best way to put it is to pick a public hunting area that's the best for you as an individual hunter.

Here's how I'd go about it: First, I'd stay away from public areas near big cities. They're likely to receive the most pressure. And that's especially true of smaller public areas. If you have a large public area - for example, either Red Rock or Saylorville Reservoir, both fairly close to Des Moines - you may be able to avoid the crowds. But, in general, there will be more hunters near the big population centers.

Too, unless you've spent a lot of time on a public area some distance from where you live, I think it's a good idea to concentrate on those closer to home. The better you know an area, the greater your chances of success. And one of the best ways of upping your odds for success is through pre-season scouting. That's much easier to do, for most of us, if we focus on an area closer to home rather than one that's some distance away.

Turkey hunting also involves getting up early in the morning and being in position when the sun comes up. Unless you're going to camp on a public area, or plan a multiday trip and stay in a motel close to where you're going to hunt, it's simply easier on you if you only have a half-hour drive rather than putting in two or three hours on the road.

So should you hunt on a large area or a small one? I don't have much good turkey habitat really close to home, but I have several choices within a maximum of a 45-minute drive from my door. Most years, I focus on a smaller area (about 400 acres). It's an area that I've hunted numerous times. I spend time there scouting every spring, and I know it very well. There's only one parking lot, so I have a pretty good idea of how many people use it. And I like that situation, because on those occasions when I've met other hunters in the parking lot, we've been able to discuss who's going where, making it easier to keep out of each other's way. (Even this is no guarantee, of course. A couple of years ago, I had been in position for at least a half-hour when a latecomer actually tripped over my decoy!)

A large area does give you more options. If you find hunters working one part of it, you can simply move to another. But the tradeoff is that you need to do a lot more scouting and familiarize yourself with a lot more territory.

One option we have not discussed - and a pretty good way to assure you of a public land hunt without a lot of competition - is to choose one of the small state forest zones. Licenses for these are strictly limited, and all three of the state forests are easily large enough so that you should be able to avoid the relatively small number of other license holders.

How about the success rate? It's been excellent at Shimek and Stephens (both over 50 percent in 2002) but not so good at Yellow River (about 18 percent). But the tradeoffs are that most Iowans live a long way from the state forests, and that a license for one of those zones is good only in that zone. You might be better off trying to find a public area with less hunting traffic somewhat closer to home.

How about the future? Todd Gosselink does not see many changes coming down the road from his position as the IDNR's turkey expert. We have turkeys everywhere we're going to have them, so success will depend mainly on annual reproduction.

Gosselink did add that the IDNR looks at the fal

l season somewhat differently than it does the spring session. "In the fall, we increase the license quota when bird numbers are up," he told me. "When numbers are down, we don't offer as many licenses. Especially because we're shooting hens as well as gobblers, we're a little more conservative with fall hunting than we are in the spring."

But for most Iowans, spring is turkey time anyhow. There are no other competing hunting seasons. There's no longer any requirement to apply ahead of time for a specific season. And everyone can have a second license, as long as it's for the fourth season.

Record numbers of birds, hunter-friendly license procedures, good opportunities on public land - you could hardly ask for more. Now is the time to start planning and figuring out where you're going to go for your gobbler this spring.

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