2018 Iowa Turkey Hunting Outlook

2018 Iowa Turkey Hunting Outlook

IA Turkey Hunting Outlook Feature
Turkeys are large, strong-walking birds capable of covering a range of 1-2 square miles in a day, searching for suitable food items by scratching in leaf litter. Photo By John Geiger

Spring in Iowa €¦ a time when nature awakens from a long winter's 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. "It was a pretty standard year for turkey hunting. Everybody was pretty excited because of the early warm weather we had. Turkeys were a goblin and things were moving, but it just didn't hit hard and fast. In good ole Iowa fashion, it was nice and steady." 

This was the 29th year the entire state was open to spring turkey hunting. The season (8 April through 21 May 2017) was partitioned into 5 separate seasons: a 9-day youth-only season and 4 regular seasons (4, 5, 7 and 19 days).

The five-season format, with unlimited license quota for all the periods, resulted in 41,123 resident shotgun licenses issued, which was a decrease of 1,172 from 2016. An additional 6,902 archery-only licenses were issued in 2017. Archery-only licenses harvested 1,188 turkeys, resulting in a 17.2 percent success rate. Twenty-three percent of the resident hunters were successful in harvesting a gobbler in 2017.

Iowa's youth spring turkey season was held April 8-16, 2017. During the nine-day season, youth 15 and younger were allowed to participate with an accompanied licensed adult (adult licensed for one of the regular seasons). Youth season license sales decreased by 199 (5,719) from the record number 5,918 licenses sold in 2016. Since the inception of ELSI (Electronic Licensing System of Iowa) in 2001, hunter age and gender has been recorded. From 2001-2006, youth spring turkey hunters (age 15 and under) increased each year. After the first youth season in 2005, youth licenses have shown an overall upward trend. A code change in 2014 allowed for unfilled youth season tags to be valid for any other spring turkey season until filled. Twenty-nine percent of youth hunters were successful in 2017.

Overall, the turkey population has been pretty steady since 2006. There were approximately 500 fewer turkeys harvested for 2017; however, it's not an indicator of any kind of decline in turkey numbers. 

"The success rate averages about 20 percent, so with the 1,400 fewer licenses sold for last year it will account for about 280 birds not harvested," continued Coffey. "Some other factors are weather, time for the hunter as well as the number of hunters out in the field. All of these components combined don't denote fewer numbers of birds available." 

There are areas of the State where the numbers of birds can fluctuate from one year to another depending on habitat as well as predation. Those areas are harder to trend due to their size and population fluctuations.


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, 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. You can find that info through the DNR website. 

Zooming into 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.

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"Now with the new IHAP (Iowa Hunting Access Program) areas we have across the state there's a level of untapped resources there," mentions 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, three, five or ten years. "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 by mean of 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.


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 turkey, however, the Eastern turkey will dominate most reported harvests.

Males will weigh between 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. 

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 1-2 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, 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 nest 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.

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So, for the 2017 spring turkey season, there were 50,068 licenses sold and 11,779 harvested birds. Those are the numbers that were reported and we sold 1,400 fewer licenses for 2017." 

Top honors for the 2017 season went to Clayton County, with a total of 551 reported harvests. Jackson County is runner-up with 401 birds, and Allamakee County follows in third, with 395 turkeys. Warren County reported 358 birds harvested and rounding out the top five is Madison County, with 287 turkeys. Appanoose and Fayette counties fall into number six and seven, with 284 reported harvests and 275, respectively. Following Fayette in eighth is Winneshiek County, with 266 harvested birds, Harrison and Decatur round out the top ten, with 265 and 258 harvests. For the top 10 counties, there were a total of 3,340 harvested turkeys in 2017. 

"For 2018 there should be a good number of 2-year-old gobblers out there," adds Coffey. "We had a pretty significant number of adult hens nesting and production was up about 20 percent, so hunters should see a good representation of 2-year-old birds across the state."


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. 

Digital Graphic Call Outs.indd

"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," 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. 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. Learning when to move and when to say 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."


Iowa's youth season is a great time to get our youth 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 turkey 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," concluded Coffey. 

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