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.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it\'s showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn\'t do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It\'s hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam\'s in the same state. It doesn\'t get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that\'s a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven\'t been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I\'m thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state\'s current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state\'s typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000\'s. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it\'s also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.