G&F Forecast: Iowa Turkey Hunting in 2013
February 11, 2013
A brisk wind rattled the treetops on a dark, chilly Saturday morning last April. Yet, the throaty calls of lusty toms were clearly audible above the din.
"There were actually three or four of them gobbling away," recalled Ken Schuler of Ventura.
It was the opening morning of the 2012 youth turkey season. Ken and his 15-year-old nephew, Trevor Nalan of Kanawha, had deployed a pop-up blind on private ground along the Winnebago River north of Ventura the evening before. Trevor and a friend were tucked into the blind as Ken and the other boy's father waited just outside.
The men called; the toms thundered in response. The birds were roosted just 75 yards away, but on the other side of the river.
Soon, however, a charged-up gobbler launched from his limb, glided over the river and landed in front of the blind just out of shooting range.
The men couldn't see the tom, but periodic gobbles reassured them he was still there. Finally, they caught a glimpse of fanned tail feathers and a knobby blue head as the tom strutted towards their setup.
"We were waiting for a shot to go," Ken said.
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Yet the woods remained silent as the tom moved to within 10 yards of the blind, broke strut, looked about suspiciously and finally ambled away. Attempts to coax him in a second time proved futile. Soon the exasperated bird let out a final gobble before flying over the blind and sailing back across the river.
"The blind ended up getting pretty warm," Trevor offered sheepishly. "The next thing I knew I was asleep. I woke up just in time to hear the last gobble and the wings flapping over us."
In years past, this might have been the end of the story. Iowa's turkey season for hunters 15 and under once lasted a single weekend, meaning a missed opportunity often led to an unfilled tag.
Last year, however, the season was increased to nine days, including two weekends. Although school and work kept Trevor and Ken out of the field during the week, they were back in the woods again the following weekend.
After striking out on Saturday and getting a late start Sunday due to rain and lightning, the young hunter eventually bagged his bird on the final day of the expanded season. His last-chance youth gobbler weighed 21 1/2 pounds and sported a 10-inch beard.
"It's all about putting your time in," Trevor observed.
Trevor wasn't the only youngster putting in a little extra time in the turkey woods last spring, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forest Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Gosselink.
The effort paid off for many. Gosselink said hunters 15 and under harvested 4,912 spring birds in 2012 (3,450 during the youth season) as compared to 4,548 (2,631 youth season) the year before. Their 31 percent success rate was also up from 25 percent in 2011.
"The increased youth season participation is probably our best success story," Gosselink said.
Adult hunters faired a bit better in 2012 as well, with overall turkey harvest rising to 10,457 from 9,527 the previous year. The success rate was 22.5 percent for adult residents and 39.9 percent for non-residents.
Despite the uptick, the 2012 harvest was still low by recent standards. Hunters using DNR's mandatory harvest reporting system instituted in the fall of 2006 registered over 11,000 spring birds annually from 2007 through 2009 and nearly 10,900 in 2010.
Decreased hunter participation may account for some of the drop. Overall license sales fell from 55,856 in 2007 to 45,159 last year. "Maybe the newness has worn off," Gosselink speculated. (Turkeys were once expatriated from Iowa. The state's first modern season was held in 1974, and opportunities remained limited until the late 1980s.)
While gobblers are no longer the latest craze in Iowa, Gosselink said hunter enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is driven primarily by the health of the state's turkey population. News on that front has been mediocre.
"For the previous 3-4 years we've had average to below-average production," Gosselink explained. "When you have 3-4 bad years in a row, it really adds up."
DNR does not attempt to precisely calculate the turkey population. It does, however, gather data from summer hen and brood sightings and fall bowhunter observations to estimate trends.
Those trends have been down across much of the state, with the most pronounced drop coming in southeastern and south-central Iowa. Birds in northeastern, north-central and western Iowa have generally fared better.
Year-to-year fluctuations are driven primarily by weather. Cold, wet conditions during the nesting and early brood-rearing seasons have limited turkey production in recent years, Gosselink said. "Any ground-nesting bird; it's been tough on them."
Long-term population trends depend on the amount and quality of turkey habitat.
Although Iowa has lost much of its historic woodland acreage, this has stabilized somewhat in recent years. Yet, fire suppression, reduced population of large grazers, introduction of invasive species, natural succession and perhaps climate change have produced undesirable shifts in the makeup of the state's remaining forests.
In many places Iowa's traditional oak and hickory woodlands are being overtaken by dense stands of shade-tolerant species such as maple, hackberry and elm. Turkeys, along with many other species, prefer savanna woodlands with a mix of heavy cover and open areas.
"Any time you have a monoculture, it isn't great for wildlife," Gosselink said.
FIELDS OF OPPORTUNITY
Hunters will again take to the field in Iowa this spring, beginning with the youth season April 6-14. The four general gun/bow seasons will run April 15-18, April 19-23, April 24-30 and May 1-19. Archery-only licenses are good April 15-May 19.
As in years past, residents may purchase up to two spring turkey licenses. If both are gun/bow licenses, at least one must be for Season 4. Resident licenses are valid statewide and available over-the-counter or online through the last day of the season. (Non-resident license applications were accepted from January 1-27.)
After several years of lousy weather, turkeys and turkey hunters across most of the state caught a break last spring and summer with warm, dry conditions favorable for nesting and brood rearing. "That's one nice thing about a drought," Gosselink noted.
Summer brood survey results were not available at this writing. DNR's August Roadside Survey did, however, show statewide increases for pheasants, quail and partridge which, like turkeys, are ground-nesting birds.
"Typically, the turkey summer survey is similar," Gosselink said.
Survey results were not consistent across the state. While the northern and south-central portions of Iowa had significant gains, west-central and southwest Iowa actually showed decreased pheasant counts.
DNR Upland Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Bogenschutz said those results may be deceiving. "Accurate roadside counts are predicated on good dew conditions during the survey," Bogenschutz explained, "and the drought made it very difficult for the staff to find a good morning to conduct counts."
Gosselink is guardedly optimistic turkey numbers will look more consistently favorable. "[While] southwest Iowa may have the lowest increase potential, I really doubt it will be less than the previous year for turkeys. The Loess Hills area has good turkey numbers, even with the past few years' declines."
Although unable to provide official results, Gosselink said preliminary reports from conservation professionals and wildlife watchers have been promising. "The dry weather seems to have increased [poult] survival. I've heard lots of good stories."
"Generally, across the Midwest we're seeing pretty good hatch results," agreed Kent Adams, interim regional biologist for Iowa and Illinois with the National Wild Turkey Federation. "It's the best outlook in five years. The weather certainly cooperated. We'll see if the turkeys respond."
Given a strong hatch in many areas after several less-successful nesting seasons, hunters may see a disproportionate number of jakes. Mature gobblers may also be more "henned up" than normal, adding to the challenge for those holding out for a longbeard.
Of course, more jennys this year should mean more nesting activity, and hopefully more gobblers, in years ahead. DNR and NWTF are working together to acquire and/or improve turkey habitat in the state in order to help more of those young hens mature and reproduce.
"The emphasis is on woodland/savanna restoration, creating open woodlands with herbaceous understory," Adams explained. Practices used include prescribed fire, girdling of undesirable trees and, in some cases, selective tree removal.
The openings created favor native mast-bearing hardwoods over more shade-tolerant trees, while also supporting forbs and grasses where hen turkeys can nest and poults can find insects. "If you can get some light on the forest floor, it really helps," Gosselink said.
DNR has concentrated its efforts on the state's public land and adjacent private land, Gosselink noted. NWTF has assisted on some of these projects with administrative and technical support as well as with funding.
These efforts also help to leverage grants from agencies such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a way to take a few of our dollars and turn them into big dollars," Adams said.
WHERE TO GO
While Iowa is not rich in either forests or public land, there are pockets of good turkey habitat scattered around the state. Gosselink is especially partial to the larger state forests, "areas where you can go all day and not run into any fences."
Loess Hills State Forest includes four units totaling 11,266 acres lying in Harrison and Monona counties in west-central Iowa. It includes a good mix of savanna woodlands and prairies. Turkey populations have remained relatively strong in this part of the state, Gosselink noted.
Shimek State Forest is located in southeast Iowa near the town of Farmington. Its five units in Lee and Van Buren counties total 9,148 acres. Oak-hickory and bottomland forest predominates, with some conifers and prairie areas. Gosselink said turkey numbers are down in southeast Iowa.
Totaling over 15,000 acres in seven units, the Stephens State Forest is Iowa's largest. Spread over five counties in south-central Iowa, the area includes a mix of native and cultivated forest types.
Yellow River State Forest is located in Allamakee County, near Harpers Ferry in northeast Iowa. Its six units total over 8,500 acres, including maple-basswood, oak-hickory and bottomland forest. Gosselink said there are good turkey numbers in northeast Iowa.
Gary Reeder is the NWTF state chapter president for Iowa. While he agreed the larger state forests are great turkey-hunting destinations, he noted there are many other possibilities as well.
"Some hidden gems for hunting in Iowa are along our rivers, where county conservation boards and the DNR have acquired land through federal programs. In many areas of the state, the turkey populations are predominately located along the river systems, so these [adjacent] Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) should be great for turkey hunting."
Reeder noted NWTF has contributed funds in the past to help create or expand some of these areas. Among the top destinations he suggested is Webster County in central Iowa. Brushy Creek WMA includes over 6,500 acres, about 1/3 of which is timber. The 4,385-acre Boone Forks WMA is nearly 3/4 wooded. Both are located east of Lehigh.
He also recommends the Lansing WMA near the town of the same name in Allamakee County, which features over 1,900 mostly wooded acres.
"What makes these WMAs particularly good for turkey hunting is that they are often relatively narrow tracts that run for miles on both sides of a river, which I think supports more hunters than a square tract would," Reeder said.
While these larger public areas offer hunters plenty of room to roam, turkeys now occupy most suitable habitat throughout Iowa. The state is dotted with DNR and county conservation board holdings of various sizes. Although not all offer the "run-and-gun" opportunities afforded on larger tracts, many hold at least a few birds accessible to hunters wishing to stay close to home.
To find other state-owned areas, go to www.iowadnr.gov or contact your regional wildlife biologist. Results of the summer brood survey should now be posted on this site, while results from the bowhunter observation survey are expected sometime in March.
Information about county areas can be found at www.mycountyparks.com or by calling the county conservation board office in the area you wish to hunt.