Spring in Iowa. It’s a time when nature itself awakens from a long winter nap. Trees and the surrounding wooded areas are showing signs of life. Leaves are stretching out to the warm spring sun, farmers are preparing their equipment getting ready to plant and…turkeys are roaming.
“Overall the turkey population is good across the entire state,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forest Wildlife Research Technician Jim Coffey. “There are of course regions that are up and down, depending on where you’re at, but it has to do more with habitat in those regions. The northeast and south-central regions, however, tend to be our better turkey areas.”
The Eastern wild turkey subspecies are the most prominent in Iowa. There is a potential for some hybridization in the western part of the state with the Merriam’s turkey; however, the Eastern turkey will dominate most reported harvests.
Males will weigh 17 to 30 pounds and hens in the 8- to 12-pound range. “In Iowa, typically gobblers that are 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old will be in the 24- to 25-pound range,” said Coffey. “The largest spur turkey that I’ve shot actually weighed less. That has more to do with the breeding season since they’re not as concerned about feeding as they normally would be, so they actually lose weight.”
Gobblers will strut multiple hours a day and will burn a lot of energy and won’t consume enough to replace that.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Wild turkeys are primarily birds of the forest. The eastern subspecies found in Iowa and most of the United States east of the Missouri River thrives in mature oak-hickory forests native to this region. Turkeys are large, strong-walking birds capable of covering a range of 2 square miles in a day, searching for suitable food items by scratching in leaf litter.
These “scratchings” — piles of leaves adjacent to a small plot of bare earth — are characteristic in good turkey habitat and indicate that turkeys have been feeding in the immediate area. These birds can be incredibly fast, going from ground to flight at up to 25 miles per hour. And, believe it or not, they can hit a maximum flight speed of up to 55 miles per hour.
Turkeys roost at night in trees, except for hens sitting on a nest. Any tree larger than 4 inches in diameter at breast height may serve as a roost tree, but larger mature trees are most often used. Eastern turkeys shift their nests sites almost daily, seldom roosting in the same tree two nights in succession. Scouting then becomes that crucial element to a successful day out in the field.
Feeding and strutting areas are openings in woodland or in fields adjacent to woodlands, especially if wet conditions exist in the mornings (e.g., heavy dew). Turkeys use crop fields in early spring, searching for waste grain, or hayfields for green browse and insects later in the spring.
In the woodlands, oak-dominated woods provide good feeding areas for acorns. Early scouting can help identify the areas turkeys are using and help establish patterns; however, this will change as the spring progresses and new food sources become available.
The spring turkey harvest for 2015 totaled 11,405 birds. There were a combined total of 51,143 resident and non-resident licenses sold in 2015. There were also 6,863 youth licenses sold (all seasons), and a total harvest for those young hunters of 1,621 turkeys.
Clayton County comes in as the top spot for the 2015 turkey season. There were a total of 504 reported harvests in that county. Allamakee County, just north of Clayton, followed in second with a total harvest of 395 turkeys. Not far behind in third was Jackson County, reporting 392 turkeys brought in.
Moving to the central part of the state, Warren County came in fourth, with 356 reported harvests. Rounding out the top five and moving south is Appanoose County, with 300 turkeys reported. The rest of the top 10, separated by only 37 turkeys, were Fayette, Decatur, Madison, Harrison and Lucas counties, respectively.
“About 30 percent of our turkey harvest comes out of the top 10 counties,” noted Coffey. “They are the most heavily timbered areas, and they are within a reasonable driving distance for a large part of Iowa’s population.”
Between April 4, 2015, and May 17, 2015, there were six different hunting seasons for spring turkey. Season 4, April 29 – May 17, was the most successful of the six. There were a total of 3,600 turkeys brought in during that season alone. Season 2, which took place between April 17 and April 21, 2015, reported 2,519 harvests and was second best of the six seasons.
“There are no changes to the existing laws for turkey hunting for 2016,” said Coffey. “The mentor law was passed last year, but the rules have not been put in place yet, so they won’t apply next year. The only change will be the date shift, which we have every year.”
TIME TO GO HUNTING
Head out before dawn and be prepared to look, listen and document what you hear and see. A good topographical map and GPS are also valuable tools. As you drive the roads at dawn, stop and listen or get out of your truck and listen. Mark the roosted birds you hear on the map or your GPS unit. If you hear a bird fly down, use a crow or owl call to keep him gobbling, and learn what route he travels.
Look for strutting toms in the morning hours. Watch open areas such as fields and pastures, keeping your eyes peeled. In open country, keep your distance and use your binoculars. Mark your map with strutting toms you spot, along with the time you see them. If you know where and when a gobbler struts, you can get there before he does for a midmorning hunt. Look for hens, too, because gobblers won’t be far behind.
“It is a great time of year to be out hunting, and turkeys are Iowa’s elk hunting — you call, they respond, and you really get to work a bird in. It’s more fun than grunting and rattling!” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forest Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Gosselink. “Even if you don’t harvest a turkey, tough with a gun let alone a bow, it is great fun.”
The focus in spring hunting is usually in the mornings, when toms are most vocal, but don’t overlook evening hunts. Toms often gobble as they go to roost in the evening. They often use similar areas to roost (large trees with large vertical branches — e.g., savanna structured oak trees). Ideally, set up in an area the turkeys move through as they are headed to their roost trees. Hunting directly under a roost tree can alter behavior, and they will likely find new areas to roost in.
Turkey hunting is a different sport, noted Coffey. They are a very wary species, which increases the difficulty in hunting these birds.
“It’s a different skill set,” he said. “The hardest part is getting between where they are and where they want to go. Once you’ve figured that out, and you’ve done a pretty good job of getting in the right spot, calling them in is the next challenge.”
Learning when to move and when to stay still will increase your chances of success. Turkeys have excellent vision and will spot the slightest movement and quickly change directions.
“Turkey hunting has a very steep learning curve,” added Coffey. “My best recommendation for novice hunters is to find a mentor to go out with, or talk to hunters that have had some success. Frustration can lead to missing out on some of the best of what Iowa’s outdoors has to offer.”
Males will start gobbling and setting up their areas early in the season and try to attract females, but it’s all driven by when the females are ready for breeding. During the deer season we talk about the rut and when the males start “chasing.”
In the turkey world it’s a bit different since the males are stationary and the females come to them. Calling turkeys in during this peak can prove to be a challenge since we’re trying to entice those gobblers to come to us, which is 180 degrees from turkey biology.
“You’ll tend to see those males get worked up early on — they’ll gobble but will be very stationary,” noted the research technician. “As the breeding season begins to taper off and hens are on the nest, males will start to move a bit more, searching for females that are receptive.”
As we noted early on, there are a couple of seasons that will be better than others. During the fourth season there are more hens on the nest than not, so gobblers will move more in search females, offering hunters a greater opportunity to call that gobbler in.
“We have a greater chance of tricking that male to coming to us on the tail ends of the season when the females are less receptive,” added Coffey.
There are 99 counties in Iowa, all of which have some population of turkeys in them. Iowa is 98 percent private land, much of which is devoted to farming. There are still plenty of prime hunting spots, as we’ve already noted, especially in northeast and south-central Iowa. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently added a great tool to their website called the Hunting Atlas. It’s an interactive map that shows you all the public hunting lands, making it easier for hunters to locate areas more accurately.
Zooming in to an area that you’d like to visit as a possible hunting location will give you the boundaries and size of the hunting area, type of habitat and what species may be found. In some cases a map in PDF form will be available for you to download and print. With a little extra time and effort you can narrow your starting point down to some very good potential possibilities.
Remember that as a hunter it is your responsibility to know where you are and where you’re hunting. There are some land owners who will allow hunters on their property. Ask first, and if you’re allowed on their property, make sure you leave it in the same condition in which you found it.
“I often say that having a turkey license in my pocket is just my excuse to get out in the woods because I enjoy everything that is going on in the spring,” added Coffey. “I’m able to watch a lot of warbler migrations, an occasional grouse, woodpeckers, bobcats and coyotes — those things we don’t normally see. We know there out there, but we’re sitting in a car or a cubical and don’t see the things we wish we could see more of.”
An advantage we have as outdoors men and women living in Iowa is that we have great opportunities to experience great hunting and fishing, all within a half-day’s drive.
“If you’re looking for an adventure, one thing that I encourage is to take a trip to Loess Hills and travel to southeast Iowa, go see what new country looks like,” encouraged Coffey. “Iowa differs from east to west north to south. If you’ve been hunting in the same area for years and years, take that adventure to a new place. Our tags are valid statewide, and you can hunt anywhere in Iowa.”