It’s good to be an Iowa kid in 2015.
Youngsters have gotten the first crack at spring gobblers since 2005, when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources offered a three-day youth season prior to the regular opener. The season for residents 15 and under was expanded to nine days in 2012.
Opportunities for young hunters were expanded again last year when the Iowa Legislature made unfilled youth tags good throughout the four regular spring turkey seasons.
“They’ve gotten more weekends and less cold weather,” said DNR Wildlife Technician Jim Coffey, who manages Iowa’s turkey flock. The change took effect before the 2014 season, but after state regulations had been published. In 2014 DNR sold more than 5,000 youth tags, as compared to 3,450 in 2012 and 4,039 in 2013.
Adults can hunt season one April 13-16, season two April 17-21, season three April 22-28 and season four April 29-May 17.
Non-resident applications were accepted in January, but out-of-staters may still purchase licenses for any season and zone in which the quota was not met (if applicable).
Turkey numbers sagged for several years due primarily to multiple harsh winters and wet springs resulting in below-average survival and nesting success. Things changed in 2012 when more favorable weather produced an estimated 20 percent increase in nesting success and a 28 percent increase in brood size based on summer brood surveys completed by volunteers and DNR staff. Fall bowhunter observation surveys supported these estimates.
Hunters responded by purchasing over 51,000 tags in 2013, a 20 percent increase from 2012, and harvesting 10,565 birds. Sales held steady at over 51,000 in 2014 while harvest rose to 11,400, an 8 percent increase.
Residents purchased 49,000 of those tags and recorded a 24 percent success rate based on mandatory harvest reporting. (Some non-compliance means the actual rate is probably slightly higher.) Non-residents reported 39 percent success, while archery-only hunters recorded 17 percent.
Improved success in 2014 is attributable to better weather during the hunting season and the abundance of two-year-olds from the strong 2012 class. “Turkey hunters tend to go out after mature birds,” Coffey said.
Poor spring weather and flocks composed primarily of yearlings led to 26 percent lower production in 2013. Nesting jennys often experience lower success rates and have smaller clutches. Those 2012 hens reached maturity last spring, offering greater reproductive potential.
Spring and summer weather was erratic, including both above-average and below-average rainfall. For most areas this boom-or-bust precipitation provided some windows of reproductive opportunity for turkeys and other ground-nesting birds.
Good cicada and grasshopper hatches offered ample food for growing poults. “You don’t get that every year where all the stars align,” Coffey said.
Roadside surveys indicated significant increases for pheasant, partridge and quail last year. Turkeys might be expected to follow suit, and many observers reported seeing numerous large broods.
Hunters can anticipate good numbers of adult birds across much of the state, along with excellent populations of youngsters. With favorable weather and habitat, these birds could provide even better hunting opportunities, and another bumper crop of poults, in 2016.
Making the Most of It
Iowa has limited public land relative to most states and tight budgets for land acquisition. DNR targets available funds toward properties best suited for habitat protection or restoration. Often these are adjacent to existing public tracts and/or in focal areas identified for exceptional conservation need and potential.
Biologists are emphasizing optimal management of existing habitat through initiatives such as selectively thinning timber, combating invasive or otherwise undesirable species, restoring native woodland and prairie species, and providing food plots.
The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) has partnered with DNR to stretch its limited resources. Through its Save the Habitat Save the Hunt program, NWTF is assisting with land acquisition, habitat management and hunter recruitment.
“Through direct assistance and by helping us chase bigger-dollar grants, NWTF is allowing us to do work we never would have gotten done by ourselves,” Coffey said.
In other good news, Coffey reported the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) received an additional $3 million in federal funding to improve habitat on private land in exchange for hunter access.
The funds should allow DNR to double the size of the program, which had about 7,000 acres enrolled in 2014.
Reports From the Field
DNR wildlife unit management biologists oversee five to seven counties each. These biologists are an excellent resource for information regarding area public access, habitat conditions and wildlife populations.
The Great Lakes Unit has limited turkey habitat, according to Chris LaRue. “Most areas are really getting utilized pretty heavily,” he noted.
LaRue said birds likely did well on Waterman Prairie WMA near Sutherland. Spring flooding may have negatively impacted reproduction at DNR tracts along the Big Sioux River in Lyon and Sioux counties.
Bryan Hellyer with the Prairie Lakes Unit said area turkey populations are strong. While the region is better noted for shallow lakes and prairie potholes, there are several public areas featuring hardwood and/or floodplain timber. “And there’s birds at all of them,” Hellyer added.
Most receive some hunting pressure. Hellyer suggested East Fork Des Moines River Access near Algona and Little Sioux WMA near Spencer as areas where walking is required to access the best habitat. He also noted there are several good county conservation board (CCB) properties.
T.J. Herrick is enthusiastic about several recent acquisitions in the Clear Lake Unit. An 80-acre addition to Gabrielson WMA near Forest City includes about 20 acres of oak savannah and mixed oak/aspen timber. “It has a nice mix of habitats,” Herrick said.
Lake George, a restored wetland and prairie complex west of Crystal Lake, also includes a 10-acre hardwood ridge that might be overlooked for turkeys.
Two 100-acre IHAP properties bordering Elk Creek Marsh near Joice contain minimal timber but may serve as nesting, feeding and strutting areas for birds using adjacent woodlands.
Herrick said turkey populations have been strong, with good reproduction noted last year. “I can tell you many of us saw nice-sized broods, and several of them,” he said.
In the Cedar-Wapsi Unit, Jason Auel said a 100-acre parcel of floodplain timber with hardwood ridges has been added to Big Marsh near Parkersburg. He also noted there is quality timber at Sweet Marsh near Tripoli. Auel noted seeing numerous broods last summer to bolster an already strong turkey population. “I think overall we should be looking pretty good,” he said.
Terry Haindfield said additions to Waterloo Creek WMA near Dorchester and both Clear Creek and French Creek WMAs near Waukon offer enhanced opportunities for turkey hunters in the Upper Iowa Unit. He added Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry offers “over 8,500 acres available for hunters eager to escape the pressures on smaller public lands.”
After several years of declines, northeast Iowa turkeys rebounded with good production in 2012 and 2014, Haindfield reported.
“We have some of the best turkey hunting in the state here,” said Doug Chafa with the Missouri River Unit.
The region has a relative wealth of public land, featuring both floodplain and upland hardwood timber. More favorable weather allowed turkey populations there to hold steady or increase during recent years.
Those willing to venture to less accessible areas may have plenty of birds practically to themselves. Chafa suggests the Ivy Island and Blackbird Bend WMAs near Onawa, which can be reached either via a long walk through the Tieville Bend WMA or by boat.
Deer Island WMA near Blencoe and Tyson Bend WMA to the south offer opportunities for hunters with various mobility levels. “Some parts are easy access right off the road,” Chafa said. “Some are a long way from the access road and very lightly used.”
Those wishing to experience the unique Loess Hills topography, and the upland timber and prairie turkey hunting they offer, can visit the Loess Hills WMA near Castana, the Turin Preserve near Turin or the Loess Hills State Forest in Monona and Harrison Counties.
Clint Maddix said while limited turkey habitat in the Blackhawk Unit results in significant hunting pressure at most large public areas, population growth in timbered river corridors has led to birds spilling over into adjacent smaller public and private woodlots.
“If you’re looking for a lightly pressured place to hunt, consider using aerial photography to scout out a public area or an old farm grove that may be off the radar to most turkey enthusiasts,” Maddix advised.
Josh Gansen with the Saylorville Unit reports having added a 100-acre parcel to Middle Raccoon River WMA near Linden and 140 acres to Boone Forks WMA near Lehigh. Both feature oak timber interspersed with cropland.
Gansen completed timber stand improvement activities in the unit last year, and he spotted lots of turkeys in the process. “About every time we were out in one of our timbered areas we were running into turkey broods,” he noted.
Former DNR turkey biologist Todd Gosselink is now managing the Red Rock Unit. “There’s a lot of neat land to be found, and lots of turkeys out there,” he noted. “I think we had a good (reproduction) year.”
If water levels permit safe access, Gosselink suggests hunters consider launching on Red Rock Reservoir or the Des Moines River to reach lightly hunted public areas stretching from Knoxville to just southeast of Des Moines.
“There’s lots of floodplain timber to explore, as well as adjacent uplands,” he said. “On a nice, calm morning, you can hear a gobble for quite a ways.”
Turkey numbers were holding steady in the Iowa River Unit prior to an above-average nesting season last spring, according to Tim Thompson. He reported timber-stand improvements have created openings and enhanced acorn production on existing properties, including Hawthorn WMA near Barnes City. Thompson said firebreaks seeded to winter wheat are providing greens, travel corridors and strut zones for birds.
“We do have pretty good turkey hunting in eastern Iowa,” said Curt Kemmerer with the Maquoketa Unit,” (but) all of our state areas get hunted pretty hard.”
Pressure tends to be highest on the larger state properties, Kemmerer added. He encouraged hunters to consider smaller federal, state and especially CCB areas. Kemmerer said despite being a popular turkey destination, his unit has enough public property to offer a quality experience, especially for hunters able to get out during the week and to hike away from roads.
“We’re setting up to have a good spring,” Kemmerer said, noting turkey populations are stable or improving. “I would have no hesitation about eastern Iowa for your next turkey hunt.”
Turkey numbers have been dropping for several years in the Nishnabotna Unit, according to Matt Dollison. “We’re doing OK, but we’re not covered in birds by any means,” he noted. Dollison did report seeing more poults last year.
He said the unit has a number of WMAs with excellent habitat and good access, but most are also heavily hunted. Those wishing to target unpressured birds might consider using a boat to reach isolated portions of Auldon Bar and Nottleman Island WMAs near Bartlett, as well as Copeland Bend WMA near Percival.
In the Grand River Unit, Chad Paup said Mount Ayr WMA near the city of Mount Ayr and DeKalb and Sand Creek WMAs near Grand River each offer over 2,000 acres in which hunters can spread out. He said turkey numbers seem to be steady or increasing.
Jeff Telleen is bullish on turkeys in the Rathbun Unit. “There’s going to be lots of two-year-old birds and lots of jakes,” he said. “There’s probably going to be so many jakes it will be a problem. They’ll be in the way.”
Rathbun WMA near Russell totals nearly 16,000 acres, one-fourth of which is timber. “It has a lot of turkeys and a lot of places to hunt, so it can absorb a lot of people,” Telleen said.
“It’s kind of a struggle on public land for turkey management right now,” said Andy Robbins with the Odessa Unit. He noted many WMAs there are in the floodplain of larger rivers and have experienced extensive flooding recently. Robbins said Shimek State Forest near Farmington offers good upland timber, as do some smaller CCB properties. Populations remain healthy in those areas, while hunting pressure in the unit is often comparatively light.