It's no secret that over the past few years there has been discussion of a declining Iowa wild turkey population. Lots of speculation surrounds the reasons, but it really comes down to weaker poult recruitment, inclement nesting conditions and decreasing amounts of adequate cover. While we are not in the heyday of six to eight years ago, there are still plenty of birds to be found; some in very overlooked locations.
During the late winter of 2011, I was out shed-hunting a new piece of property I had just gained access to and I stumbled upon a turkey roost area that was heaping with turkey droppings. I have never walked into a turkey's bedroom and had it smell like a farm, but this had me excited. What made this spot even better was I could watch it from the road about three-quarters of a mile away.
It's always good to put on some boot-miles when looking into a new piece of property. Not only for the sake of locating the turkeys, but to also familiarize yourself with potential obstructions that will indeed hang up an approaching gobbler. Locating the primary roost areas is your first concern, then determining where they head from there. The tracks they leave when they hit the ground can go in many different directions leaving you wondering which way they head each day.
A turkey's daily travel habits will remain consistent as long as they don't run into predators (including hunters) on a regular basis. It's easier to determine this pattern from a distance, so locate an overlook and glass their morning routine as often as possible well in advance of the season's opener.
If an elevated location is not available, I would suggest spending a few mornings out there watching and listening from as far away as possible without running the risk of running into the birds prematurely. And, as tempting as it will be, leave the calls at home and make your trip in and out as quickly and quietly as possible.
About two weeks before the season opened, I was sitting in the cab of my truck watching that very roost, expecting to see a circus come alive once the birds flew down. I was far from disappointed as I watched a few hens, a couple longbeards and 27 jakes come out and raise a giant ruckus; 27 jakes! After the past few years of seemingly lower recruitment, that got me very excited. I spent about six days observing their morning movement and I had a great plan for opening morning.
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The number of jakes actually turned into a problem during my hunting efforts because I was calling in more of them than toms. If a tom did show up, he was very skeptical of the decoys and reluctant to close the distance. As they have been known to do, those jakes ganged up on many of the mature birds, getting them back for the hazing they received not so long before. I eventually worked in a nice two-year-old and managed to fill my tag, but as he lay flopping among the decoys I couldn't help but reminisce about years past.
Most of my hunting friends that were fortunate enough to kill a spring gobbler were killing mature, long-spurred turkeys. Very few two-year-olds were being brought in, which proved that the previous years had poor production. I know it was a year in advance, but I was suddenly very excited for the 2012 spring turkey season because, as you know, jakes grow up to be toms!
"During 2010 we received a lot of reports that indicated brood production was up," says Iowa Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Gosselink. "In fact, our numbers show us that we had a 25 percent increase in production during 2010. That can be attributed to the quality weather we had during the breeding season and into June and early July. Certain parts of the state were wet and rather saturated but, as a whole, Iowa's turkey production is on the rise."
Gosselink says during the 2011 season they had a large variety of brood reports ranging from folks seeing large broods to those who are seeing hens without any poults. However, they were also receiving reports that the poults seemed rather small, meaning the hens probably lost an early nest, but had a more successful hatch the second time around. While the birds are younger and smaller going into winter, they will likely do just fine with ample forage.
"June 2011 was rather wet and uncooperative for turkey nesting," Gosselink continues. "July and August dried up nicely and allowed for those hens to successfully hatch their second nest. Renesting attempts only work if the weather cooperates and especially if fall starts out rather mild. The turkeys will find agricultural fields that have abundant waste grain and will spend the fall feeding and bulking up for winter in those locations."
"The 2010 production is the real story for spring turkey hunters," he says. "Obviously, those turkeys will be two-years old in 2012, so hunters can expect to see an abundance of adult birds while out hunting. Two-year-old gobblers love to gobble and, next to jakes, are the easiest to call in. Most hunters consider a two-year-old a fine trophy and will happily bag one to end their season."
"Statewide brood production was up 25 percent, but northeast Iowa was up 26 percent, which is where many hunters were saying they hadn't seen as many turkeys over the past few years," Gosselink explains. "Harvest rates were down this year as a whole, but that doesn't necessarily indicate a struggling population. It really comes down to the license sales vs. harvest rates based on the harvest reporting data. There was a 2 percent drop in the harvest rate, which isn't large or concerning, but it did slightly decline in 2011.
"During the 2011 spring turkey season, Iowa hunters experienced a 19 percent success rate based on license sales," he continues. "The previous year was 21 percent, demonstrating a slight decline. That doesn't sound good, but the reality is once you start figuring the hunters who are hunting during 4th season with their second tag, it actually works out to about 30 percent of hunters are actually harvesting a turkey. All in all, over the past five years our harvest rates have remained fairly consistent, which is a good thing.
"We see the about a 25 percent non-compliance rate with the mandatory harvest reporting system," Gosselink adds. "Typically, when a project like the mandatory harvest reporting gets implemented, lots of hunters eagerly cooperate early on. However, as the years go on, hunters tend to get more lax in their reporting efforts, which could be the case with our system. Iowa hunters need to realize that this system is not to keep tabs on them, but to keep a finger on the pulse of Iowa's deer and turkey populations. In fact, the data collected through that system actually helps us better understand what we already have and formulate management plans for future seasons.
"Statewide, there were 9,527 turkeys harvested during the 2011 spring season. In 2010, there were 10,889 turkeys harvested, again showing that decline in success rates." Gosselink says. "Fourth season accounted for 40 percent of the harvest, third season had 12-13 percent, second season had 30 percent, and first season had 15-20 percent. This definitely shows that Iowa's third season is the most underutilized season of the four. If you are looking for the best season with the lowest amount of hunting pressure, Iowa's third season is where it's at. The general consensus indicates that the amount of huntable birds during 2012 should be outstanding"
EXPANDED YOUTH OPPORTUNITY
An awesome improvement to the 2012 Iowa spring turkey season is the extension of the youth season. Up to this point, the kids had only the three days prior to Iowa's first season to hunt. There were great opportunities to get the next generation out to experience the spring season, but far too often it was restricted by the weather patterns. During the spring, Iowa receives ample rains, and those weather patterns can last for several days. So, if the weather was calling for rain the entire three days of the season, many kids unfortunately never got the chance to go.
"This year, the youth turkey season has been extended seven days, April 7th through the 15th," Gosselink explains. "We really felt to better invest in Iowa's kids we needed to make the season long enough for them to have an adequate chance to get out and experience the season for what it is meant to be. They are our future and without them, all that we are working to preserve and protect is for nothing. The kids need to take an early interest in returning to the woods every year, and we thought this was a great move to encourage that."
If you have kids or know of some that would enjoy a chance to get out in the woods this spring, I strongly suggest taking advantage of the extended season. The longer season will reduce the impact of stressed or rushed hunts due to lack of time and you both will be happier in the long run. With the longer youth season, you can expect to see a reduced amount of pressure on the grounds where the kids are planning to hunt, because the time will be more spread out. Above all else, the opportunity adds more promise to the future of our sport.
HARD PRESSED FOR HABITAT
"Habitat for all game animals is absolutely essential," Gosselink says. "It's no secret that our pheasant population is struggling, and a majority of that can be blamed on declining amounts of CRP production. The turkeys depend on this kind of habitat just as much, especially when they are young."
Gosselink says that CRP is essential because of the flower production, which attracts bugs, and in turn provides food for the young turkeys. Insects make up a strong majority of their diet when they are young. Timber is also essential to their survival, so people wanting to increase the quality of their turkey habitat can implement a number of strategies. One: the more CRP we can enroll, the better off all species of game animals will be, and two: oak recruitment and restoration are essential to wild turkey survival.
"The state estimates that 5,800 acres of oak woodland are lost in Iowa every year," Gosselink explains. "We are loosing our oaks and that plays a major role in turkey production. The more awareness we can raise and promote the conservation side of timber management, the better off all game species will be."
"Based on our annual bowhunter's survey, which typically gives us a good idea as to how many turkeys bowhunters are seeing, western Iowa, moreso in the Loess Hills region of the state, is where we see our very best numbers and production rates," Gosselink explains. "Western Iowa is usually dryer in the spring and has a better mix of large hardwoods, row crops and CRP production, which is ideal for poult rearing. The areas of the state that have an abundance of that kind of mixture will produce the strongest populations.
"As we mentioned earlier, northeastern Iowa saw the largest production increase overall at 26 percent," he continues. "However, north-central over to northeastern Iowa has become a real wild turkey hotspot. During the 2010 survey that portion of the state saw a 50 percent increase in brood production. The challenge in north-central Iowa is a lack of traditional habitat and public land, but if you are able to secure permission on private property, you could be in for some tremendous hunting. They are thriving up there and we expect to see that continue in years to come.
"Southeastern Iowa has definitely seen a decline over the past few years, but that is largely due to the terrain and lack of CRP," Gosselink continues. The larger blocks of timber are more conducive to housing mature birds, but don't do especially well for recruitment. Combine that with evolving farming practices and there just isn't the amount of habitat that we had 10 years ago. The populations are not even near a point for concern within the department, but rather that could be an explanation for why hunters are not seeing as many birds as in years past.
"Southwest Iowa is maintaining and I expect to see much of the same results from that area of the state as we have in years past," he explains. "Unlike southeast Iowa, southwest Iowa doesn't have as many large-block timbers, but it is relatively dryer and the habitat better supports production year to year."
The 2012 Iowa spring turkey season is shaping up to be one of the better seasons we have experienced over the past decade. There is also a great opportunity to get the kids more involved with the extended season. Be sure to do your preseason homework and you will be in position to bring home a great Iowa gobbler. Winter has been long; enjoy the freshness of spring by getting yourself a big Hawkeye gobbler.