Iowa'™s Awesome Turkey Outlook

Iowa'™s Awesome Turkey Outlook

Hawkeye State hunters enjoy some of the finest gobbler hunting in the nation, and prospects for the season ahead look great. Where does the hunting promise to be the best? Let's investigate.

Want to know a place where every turkey hunter has nearly a 50-50 chance of killing a tom turkey that’s 5 to 10 pounds heavier than the national average?

To the surprise of many Iowa turkey hunters, that place is our own Hawkeye State. Most Iowa hunters have never hunted turkeys outside of the state’s borders, and simply assume that all turkey hunting is like Iowa’s turkey hunting.


John Burk, Midwest region biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, previously worked for the NWTF in Texas. He has observed that Iowa’s turkeys are not the national norm.

“In Texas, if you shot an eastern wild turkey, you’d be happy to get a 20-pounder, and the average is probably around 15 pounds,” Burk said. “In Iowa, eastern wild turkeys average around 20 pounds, and the big ones run 25 pounds and larger.”

Iowa’s turkeys not only grow larger than do turkeys in many other states, but are often more populous per square mile of suitable habitat as well. When biologists refer to the “carrying capacity” of an area, they mean the area’s potential to provide adequate food and habitat for a particular game species.

“Iowa’s carrying capacity for turkeys is very high,” remarked Iowa Department of Natural Resources turkey management biologist Todd Gosselink. “With all the cropland we have, nutrition is never an issue. The only limiting factor is habitat, and turkeys have turned out to be much more flexible with habitat than anybody every expected.”

The surprising flexibility of the Hawkeye State’s wild turkeys has been well documented. Once believed to be denizens of the deepest forest, and therefore limited to the small areas of Iowa that have large blocks of contiguous timber, turkeys surprised wildlife managers by flourishing in narrow bands of timber along rivers, brushy draws and even small isolated woodlots.

“I’d say that 95 percent of Iowa that has turkey-favorable habitat now has turkeys in it,” Gosselink said. “Most of that 95 percent could carry more turkeys than it already has, so our total turkey population is still increasing, though maybe not as rapidly as it did during the ’80s and ’90s.”

Turkey numbers are so strong in some areas of the state that Gosselink has noticed that new ways of measuring turkey hunting success are being used. Hunters used to consider whether or not they got a turkey. Then, after the population got large enough that it was easier to get a turkey, they began comparing sizes of birds, he has observed.

“In the past couple years I’ve heard guys comparing notes on how long it took them to get their birds,” he said. “Guys talk about getting their birds 30 minutes after they left their truck, 20 minutes, even 10 minutes after they started hunting. Personally, I’d just as soon spend a day or two getting my bird, because I like the time in the woods, but it’s certainly a compliment to our turkey hunting opportunities that guys can gauge their hunts by how many minutes it takes them to get a bird.”


Whether you’re in search of a turkey dinner, a trophy tom, or just a gobbler of some sort, your search will start near trees. While turkeys are quite content to feed in open grain fields or grasslands, they seem genetically programmed to roost in trees.

“It doesn’t take a big tree to provide a roost, so you can find them along any river or creek with even small trees, especially during the summer,” said Gosselink. “They tend to migrate to tracts of timber during the winter simply to have more shelter from the weather. But in the spring you can find them just about anywhere there are trees.”

That in mind, it’s easy to understand how it happens that Iowa’s best turkey hunting is in northeast, east-central, southern and far western Iowa: Our state’s largest forested areas are there, so that’s where the most turkeys are. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that huntable and locally dense populations of turkeys aren’t present in north-central and northwest Iowa.

“Wildlife biologists joke that north-central Iowa from Mason City down to just north of Ames, is an ‘agricultural desert,’” said Gosselink. “Great farmland, but not the best wildlife habitat. There are turkeys in that area, and there are probably as many per mile of forested habitat as there are in other parts of the state. There just aren’t as many square miles of forested habitat in that part of the state.”

As an aid to assessing prospects around the state for those who pursue the big birds, Gosselink offered us an overview and ranking of turkey populations and hunting potential in Iowa’s five regions.


Turkeys are found along all major waterways and their tributaries in northwest Iowa. Woodlands associated with both forks of the Des Moines River, the Big Sioux River, the Little Sioux and the upper end of the Loess Hills along the Missouri River all earned “good” ratings from Gosselink. Hunters also shouldn’t overlook the Boone Forks area in Webster County or any woodlands associated with natural lakes in north central Iowa.

“I hunted the Yellow River State Forest a couple years ago, and I’ve never, ever, heard as many turkeys gobbling as did while I was in there.”

—Todd Gosselink, IDNR

“Pocahontas County probably has the lowest total population of turkeys of any county in the state because it has very little timber,” said the IDNR biologist, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good turkey hunt up there. Where there is adequate habitat, there are turkeys. The only problem might be with hunters interfering with each other’s hunts in those limited areas of timber on public lands, so the hot ticket up there would be to get permission to hunt in private timber.”


“Northeast Iowa probably has some of the highest turkey counts per square mile,” remarked Gosselink, “but they’re concentrated in Allamakee and Clayton counties, in some of the large public areas like Yellow River State Forest. Once you get away from the Mississippi River, you’re back to finding turkeys wherever you can find trees.”

Yellow River SF is Zone 3 of four turkey hunting zones in Iowa. Zones 1, 2 and 3 have license quotas; Zone 4, which consists of all portions of the state not in the other zones, has no quota. The purpose of limiting the number of hunters allowed to hunt in zones 1, 2 and 3 is that of managing turkey hunters, not turkey numbers.

“The biggest complaint we get from turkey hunters who use our public areas is of interference from other hunters,” said Gosselink. “Turkey hunters want to work toms without another hunter working the same bird. By limiting the number of hunters in our special zones we increase the quality of the experience for hunters who hunt those zones.”

Considering the high numbers of birds in the special zones and the decreased possibility of interference from other hunters, IDNR managers have been somewhat surprised that Iowa’s special zones rarely sell out their licenses. “Hunters apparently want the flexibility to hunt different places, and when you get a special zone license, that’s where you have to hunt,” Gosselink explained. “Which isn’t bad by any means. I hunted the Yellow River State Forest a couple years ago, and I’ve never, ever, heard as many turkeys gobbling as did while I was in there.”

Gosselink rated Yellow River SF as “excellent” for turkeys this year.


Zone 2, consisting of all units of southeast Iowa’s Shimek State Forest, offers hunters the same advantages as are afforded by Yellow River SF.

“Personally, I like to go way, way back into the woods, as far as I can get from a road when I hunt turkeys,” said Gosselink, who rated the hunting in Zone 2 as “good” to “excellent.” “That’s the terrain and habitat that I enjoy turkey hunting in, and those tracts of state forest provide that opportunity.”

Smaller Zone 4 public areas like Soap Creek WMA in Davis County, or areas associated with Lake Rathbun or Lake Sugema are also focal points for turkey hunters and, depending on localized habitat and turkey populations, garner “good” to “excellent” ratings.

“Southeast Iowa probably has more total turkeys than northeast Iowa, even though turkeys in northeast Iowa might be more dense in certain areas,” Gosselink observed. “There’s a nice mix of timber, farm fields and grasslands across the whole southern half of Iowa that has proven to be extremely good turkey habitat.”

NWTF biologist John Burk cited a study conducted in Wisconsin several years ago that indicated that areas of scattered timber were actually the best turkey habitat. The study found that the highest populations of turkeys were found in areas with a mix of 60 percent forest and 40 percent open terrain.

“If you moved away from that 60-40 timber-to-open-terrain ratio in either direction, turkey numbers dropped,” noted Burk. “It has to do with brood range, and the availability of good food sources for poults. Weedy field edges and fencerows provide the insects that poults need. They’re after a high-protein diet, and studies show that insects provide 90 percent of the diet of poults through their first summer.”


Southwest Iowa is a continuation of the mixed timber/cropland landscape that makes southeast Iowa so good for turkeys, with the added bonus that it has our lowest population of humans per square mile. The result is fewer hunters, less in the way of problems with hunters interfering with each other’s hunts, and a solid “good” rating for turkeys this season.

Hunters willing to make the drive from Des Moines to hunt forested areas at the Mt. Ayr Wildlife Management Area in Ringgold County will probably have tens, if not hundreds, of acres (and turkeys) all to themselves. Hunters willing to make the effort to tackle the bluffs in the Loess Hills in far southwestern Iowa may have complete privacy in the Loess Hills and Pioneer SFs, public forests providing more than 10,000 acres of often-contiguous timber in a chain of tracts running north-south in the heart of the Loess Hills. These two areas merit an “excellent” rating, in Gosselink’s view.


Red Rock and Saylorville reservoirs bracket Des Moines on the Des Moines River. The timber associated with those flood-control reservoirs earned a “good” rating. The secret to hunting those areas successfully? Walk.

“A lot of guys sneak in hunts before work,” Gosselink said, “so you’ll see cars and trucks parked in the parking areas or roads around Saylorville or Red Rock at dawn; then they disappear around 8:00 or 9:00. They only walk in maybe a couple hundred yards, because they don’t have much time. Hunters who make a point of getting a half-mile or more into the timber at Red Rock or Saylorville might be surprised at the turkeys they see.”

Hunters who have time to travel can find strong populations of turkeys along the upper reaches of Saylorville’s public wildlife area west of Boone, or along the Middle Raccoon River north of Redfield in the Knapp and Shearer Tracts of the Middle Raccoon River Public Wildlife Area. Turkey potential in those areas ranges from “good” to “excellent.”

While plenty of public areas across Iowa provide quality turkey hunts, private lands are the best bet for providing hunters with access to turkeys without interference from other hunters. Iowa’s landowners can be relatively possessive about deer hunting and pheasant hunting rights, but they are often open to polite turkey hunters who ask permission to hunt.

“Even if they intend to hunt turkeys on their land, the nice thing about our four spring seasons is that you can ask what season they’re going to hunt; then, ask if you could hunt one of the later seasons, after they’ve gotten their bird,” said Gosselink.


Many turkey hunters in Iowa have bagged enough “average” gobblers that they’re now interested in taking home a trophy tom. Some hunters measure the length of the birds’ beards; others measure the length of spurs on the back of the birds’ feet. The NWTF has a measuring system that allow

s hunters to score their birds for purposes of comparison. The federation Web site,, has a detailed explanation of how to score gobblers, along with a state-by-state list of trophy toms.

“Basically, it’s body weight plus two times the beard length plus two times the spur length,” said Burk, who added that simply measuring beard length can be deceptive. “Beards longer than 10 or 11 inches drag on the ground and get worn off, so beard length isn’t especially accurate. Spurs keep growing with age, so you can generally figure that any spur longer than 1 1/4 inches is in the trophy range.”

According to Burk, trophy toms are like trophy whitetail deer, in that they both tend to come from remote areas in which they contrive to avoid hunters long enough to reach trophy size. “In general, the farther you are from a road, the better chance you have of calling in a tom with some big spurs,” he said. “Either that, or have access to private land where nobody has hunted turkeys for three or four years.”

While Gosselink understands the desire of hunters to rate their turkeys, he likes to emphasize that, in his mind, every turkey is a trophy. “Anybody who manages to call in and kill a gobbler has taken a trophy,” he said. “Turkeys are spooky birds — very wary — and you’ve really accomplished something to be proud of any time you bring one home.”

Fortunately, Iowa has proven to be one of the best places in the nation to accomplish that feat. Turkey hunter success rates are routinely 45 percent or higher, compared to many other states, which consistently post 25-35 percent success rates.

It’s safe to say that when it comes to hunting turkeys, it doesn’t get much better than this!


Widespread enthusiasm and participation by young hunters in special deer, pheasant and waterfowl hunts has led the IDNR to propose a Youth Turkey Hunting Season for this spring. The proposal would see young hunters between the ages of 12 and 15 having a special two-day turkey hunting opportunity the weekend before the regular adult turkey hunting season opens.

Participants in the Youth Turkey Hunting Season would have to have completed a Hunter Safety certification course and be in the company of an adult with a valid Iowa hunting license at all times during the hunt. The adult could not carry a firearm.

Proposed dates for Iowa’s inaugural Youth Turkey Hunting Season are April 9 and 10. For more information, visit the IDNR’s Web site at www.

Iowa’s 2005 spring turkey hunting season dates are: first season: April 11-14; second season, April 15-19; third season, April 20-26; fourth season, April 27-May 15.

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