Spring in Iowa … a time when nature 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 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. “It was a pretty standard year for turkey hunting. Everybody was pretty excited because of the early warm weather we had. Turkeys were gobbling and things were moving, but it just didn’t hit hard and fast. In good ol’ Iowa fashion it was nice and steady.” The weather was pretty decent for the 2016 season, and hunters were successful. According to Coffey there we no standout events. Overall for the entire season Iowa’s hunters did well.
There is some growing concern over what’s going on in southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri. “Turkey populations seem to be declining in those areas,” stated Coffey. “The Missouri Department of Conservation has been doing a study for the last couple of years to see if they can understand what’s going on with dynamics in this region.”
There is more talk in the Midwest about the overall turkey population, which seems to be stabilizing. There has been some decline; however, the overall stabilization is more of a long- term indicator.
“There is some thought that maybe our timber may be maturing a little too much,” added Coffey. “We don’t harvest our timber like we did say forty years ago and as the timber gets older it’s not quite as productive as it once was in its early stages. Everybody in the Midwest is talking about ways to get early succession habitat back on the ground to help improve turkey populations.”
Predation is always a part of the equation when it comes to turkey populations, however there is no concern that this could be causing the declines in the southeast region of Iowa. Bobcats and raccoons can have impacts on local populations, however they don’t typically affect overall turkey numbers. “Truly our biggest concern is the ecological changes that are occurring in these regions, whether it’s the maturation of the forest, long cold spans during the spring time or poult rearing, these changes tend to impact populations more than predators,” noted Coffey. “Predators have been around a long time, and turkeys have adjusted to it.”
There are 99 counties in Iowa, all of which have some population of turkeys in them. Iowa is about 98 percent private land, much of which is devoted to farming. There are still plenty of prime hunting spots, especially in northeast Iowa and south central. 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 potential possibilities. Remember that as a hunter it is your responsibility to know where you are and where you’re hunting.
“Now with the new IHAP (Iowa Habitat and Access Program) areas we have across the state there’s a level of untapped resources there,” mentioned Coffey. “IHAP is the private lands program we have where landowners ask for help from the Iowa DNR in managing that land. A management plan is drawn up by the forestry division, and we implement that plan for them so we know it gets done.”
These properties then become available to hunters for a set period of time. “These properties give you the feel of a piece of privately held land, which they are and are not the same size as a WMA (wildlife management area), but you feel a little more intimate hunting in these smaller areas.” These IHAP areas are now listed on the Iowa DNR hunting atlas we’ve noted above. As hunters, be respectful of the land you are accessing through this program. Though it’s open to public hunting, you are still using a landowner’s property. Leave it in the same condition you found it.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The eastern wild turkey sub-species are the most prominent in the state of 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 it. “That 15- to 18-pound, 1 1/2-inch-spurred gobbler is probably the boss since he’s been out there doing a lot of the breeding,” he said.
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 miles in a day, searching for suitable food items by scratching in leaf litter. These “scratchings” 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 can hit a maximum flight speed of up to 55 miles per hour.
Turkeys roost at night in trees year round, 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. 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 areas will change as the spring progresses and new food sources become available.
There were a total of 12,173 turkeys harvested for the 2016 season. A total of 51,472 turkey licenses were sold and that included both resident and non-resident hunters. Young hunters purchased 6,492 licenses and harvested 1,676 birds. Harvested totals by season; gun/bow season one 1,270 turkeys; gun/bow season two 2,555 birds; gun/bow season three 626 harvests; gun/bow season four, which was the best of the gun/bow seasons totaled 3,281 turkeys. For those hunters that chased after their chance of harvesting a turkey with a bow, there were 1,118 harvested birds.
Top honors for the 2016 season went to Clayton County, with a total of 583 reported harvests. Allamakee County is runner up with 410 birds, and Warren County follows in third with 407 turkeys. Jackson County reported 359 birds harvested, and rounding out the top five is Appanoose County with 328 turkeys. Madison and Monroe counties fall in to number six and seven with 290 reported harvests and 286, respectively. Following Monroe in eighth is Decatur County with 284 harvested birds; Winneshiek and Harrison round out the top ten with 282 and 281 harvests. For the top 10 counties there were a total of 3,510 harvested turkeys in 2016.
“For someone that wants an Iowa adventure I think the Loess Hills provides a unique landscape opportunity,” noted Coffey. “Many of our hunters live in urban areas and have the opportunity to escape out to northeast Iowa, Yellow River area, or in the southeast to the Shimek State Forest, just to explore the different landscapes and features that we have here in Iowa.” Hunters have the opportunity to have a destination hunt without having to travel to some far away area to hunt turkeys. “They’re still eastern turkeys, but the habitat is different and they react differently related to those habitats,” said Coffey.
Sometimes as hunters we get in to a rut. We hunt the same area, sitting next to the same tree on the same ravine, but by changing the landscape or area we hunt we have to rethink our strategies and figure out how the turkeys will move or react in these new areas. This makes turkey hunting exciting again sometimes. One of the benefits that we have here in Iowa is the fact that we can cross our state in less than half a day.
Adding new hunting areas or just exploring the possibilities all are within our grasp. Add a weekend to that drive and you have whole new experience to add to your annual turkey hunt. “A turkey hunting license gives you an excuse to venture somewhere new,” Coffey noted.
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 or 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 like 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. 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) 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,” Coffey advised. “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.”
TAKE A KID HUNTING
Iowa’s youth season is a great time to get our young hunters out to experience one of Iowa’s great resources. Calling in a turkey, watching that big tom reacting and walking toward your location will create an everlasting memory. For Iowa’s youth it might be helpful to set up in a blind since turkeys will be very wary of any movement. “I encourage you to get out and enjoy yourselves. It’s not just about the hunt, but rather the entire experience. And you never know what you might see in the process,” noted the IDNR’s Jim Coffey.