With turkey season finally upon us, let's take a look at what hunters can expect this spring and explore some of the areas that promise to serve up the finest hunting. (March 2006)
While turkey hunters in some states are happy just to get any gobbler at all during their spring turkey hunting seasons, some hunters in Iowa compete for bragging rights as to who bagged their toms earliest.
"Guys have quit comparing notes about whether or not they got a gobbler," said a chuckling Todd Gosselink, turkey and forest wildlife management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I've heard guys talk about shooting a turkey 15 minutes after the season opened."
"I know one guy," reported Scott Peterson, IDNR district wildlife biologist in north-central Iowa, "who sat in his truck on the edge of the timber eating a McBreakfast until he heard a turkey gobbling, brushed off the crumbs, got out his gun, and was back in his truck 30 minutes later with a nice tom.
"I'm not saying every turkey hunter is going to have it that easy, or that every turkey hunter would even want to have such a short, unchallenging hunt. But it shows the good turkey hunting we can have in Iowa."
FROM BUST TO BOOM
Such short hunts are indicators of the exceptional quality of the Hawkeye State's turkey hunting. Success rates during Iowa's recent spring turkey seasons have often nudged 50 percent; in comparison, states in the eastern and southeastern United States -- historically deemed hotbeds of turkey hunting -- brag when they post 30 percent success rates.
Turkey hunting opportunities in Iowa range from "quality" hunts in specially established zones 1, 2, and 3 to the myriad of possibilities in statewide Zone 4, which is made up of what's isn't in the other three. As for the composition of those three: Zone 1 comprises all units of Stephens State Forest in Lucas and Clarke counties west of U.S. Highway 65; in far southeast Iowa, Zone 2 contains all units of Shimek State Forest; Zone 3 consists only of units of Yellow River State Forest in far northeast Iowa's Allamakee County.
Zones 1, 2 and 3 have license quotas that limit the number of hunters in each area and so enable them to roam afield with minimal interference from other turkey-chasers. Licenses for these zones are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. Surprisingly, there are often licenses available for one or more of the special zones until the last day of each of the four spring hunting seasons.
"Those special zones are neat places to hunt, but a lot of our hunters don't like to be tied down to hunting only in certain places," noted Gosselink. "They'd rather get a license for Zone 4 and hunt closer to home."
Zone 4 has no license quotas, and residents can also purchase licenses for that zone through the last day of each of the four spring hunting seasons. Tentative dates for those seasons are: youth season (Iowa residents only) -- April 7-9; first (adult) season -- April 10-13; second season (residents only) -- April 14-18; third season -- April 19-25; fourth season: April 26-May 14.
For exact dates, and detailed information about Iowa's spring turkey hunting seasons, pick up an IDNR spring turkey hunting brochure at a local hunting supply outlet, or visit www.iowadnr.com.
According to Gosselink, Iowa's very first youth turkey hunting season -- held last year on the weekend before the normal turkey hunting season opener -- saw 1,200 young hunters out hunting under grownups' supervision. "It's a great opportunity for an adult to take a young person turkey hunting without the adult being preoccupied with hunting himself," he stated. "This year we've removed the lower age limit, so any young hunter under the age of 15 and in the company of a licensed, unarmed adult can hunt during the youth season."
Plenty of turkeys are available to tantalize both youth and adult hunters during this year's seasons. A survey of regional wildlife biologists around the state indicates confidence that this year's turkey numbers will be similar to last year's in most areas.
Since most springtime hunters target mature toms and pass up yearling jakes, a look back at nesting conditions during spring can serves as a useful starting point from which to project hunter success in the spring of 2006. "We had cold, wet weather in some parts of the state that reduced our brood counts in 2004," observed Gosselink. "Cold, wet weather isn't so bad when hens are on the nests, because the hens protect the eggs, but once they hatch, there's a couple weeks when young turkeys are really susceptible to cold, wet conditions. They don't have the feathers or body mass to stay dry and warm if there's a lot of cold, rainy weather.
"Plus, that sort of weather inhibits insect production. Young turkeys need the high-protein diet they get from eating insects to get through that critical early stage of development. So cold, wet weather in early-to-mid May is hard on turkey production in several ways."
Once fledged and able to fly, a young turkey in Iowa will generally find that life is good. High-energy grains like corn and soybeans are excellent winter food for turkeys, and in the spring and summer, growing crops provide an insect smorgasbord for both adults and juveniles.
"Sometimes we get complaints from farmers that turkeys are damaging their soybeans in the summer," said Gosselink. "It looks pretty bad to see a big flock of turkeys working down the rows, pecking at the beans -- but when we've checked it out, we found that the turkeys are generally feeding on insects on the beans. They were actually helping the farmer."
With grain and insects to provide sustenance, the only factor limiting turkey populations in Iowa is habitat. Bottom line: Substantial tracts of timber mean substantial populations of turkeys, and where timber is lacking, turkey numbers are proportionally reduced.
Accordingly, northeast Iowa is our premier area for turkey production. It's a turkey's dream: a multitude of hay and row-crop fields nestled between countless forested ridges. Southeast Iowa ranks second for turkey production, thanks to its many forested creek and river bottoms, while the Loess Hills of western Iowa makes that region our third-best area for turkeys. Southern Iowa, which once was a strong candidate for second place in turkey production, has slipped because of changes in habitat in that area.
North-central and northwest Iowa are our most timber-deficient regions, and thus our weakest turkey production areas. That's not to say that no turkeys haunt the northwest third of Iowa: Where habitat is suitable, an appropriately-sized complement of
turkeys will be found. There just aren't a lot of big expanses of timber in that region, and the dimensions of its turkey population reflect that lack.
Pocahontas and other heavily farmed, lightly forested counties in northwest Iowa will never be renowned for their turkey hunting, and tough weather during the 2004 hatch challenged birds in those counties even more.
"Brood surveys in northwest Iowa have been down a little in recent years," reported Gosselink. "There are still decent populations wherever there is favorable habitat, but hunters might have to work a little bit to find gobblers this year. They're there -- they just won't be as easy to find as they were a few years ago."
Roy Martinson, IDNR wildlife technician based at Spirit Lake, noted that some stretches of woods in the southwest corner of Dickinson County have populations of "pseudo-wild turkeys, " as he described them. "A guy had some domestic brown turkeys that crossbred with wild turkeys when wild turkeys moved into the area," he said. "They're living wild in some of those areas, but are almost tame -- you might have to shoo them out of the way so you can park your car to hunt them.
"Most of them are associated with some private tracts of timber where the landowners don't allow hunting, but a few of them get onto public lands, But they don't last long -- for obvious reasons."
"There are always strong turkey numbers in northeast Iowa, but we noticed a slight decrease during the 2004 nesting season," said Gosselink. "I don't think hunters will notice any difference, because the overall population is so strong."
Gosselink noted that while Zone 3 is an obvious turkey hotspot, the entire region is hunter-friendly during spring turkey season. "For the most part, landowners are pretty good about allowing people to hunt turkeys," he said. "They get pretty possessive during deer season but, generally, will allow turkey hunters to hunt in the spring."
"Southeast Iowa saw less decrease in turkey production in 2004 than the rest of the state," Gosselink remarked. "So their numbers look really good going into this spring's hunting seasons."
Tim Thompson, an IDNR biologist in east-central Iowa, agrees. "It seems like I saw turkeys everywhere I looked last year," he said. "They've really been pioneering into smaller timbers along tributaries of the Iowa and Cedar rivers."
Thompson noted that floods at Coralville Reservoir in the spring of 2004 reduced turkey brood numbers in that popular area. "There won't be as many 2-year-olds in the flood plain as there might have been, because the nests got flooded out," he asserted. "But the reservoir didn't flood in 2005, and there were a ton of jakes in that area last summer, so things look really good for 2007 and beyond."
"There are places in southern Iowa where turkey numbers are good, and there are other places where the population has dropped off in recent years," said Gosselink. "Some of the areas where there are large tracts of (Conservation Reserve Program) ground seeded to grasses just don't support turkeys like they did when those areas were a mix of timber and row crops. Basically, if you're in an area where there are acres and acres of grassy CRP ground, don't expect to see as many turkeys."
"The Loess Hills are one of my favorite places to hunt turkeys," offered Gosselink. "It's a good mix of wooded ridges with row-crop fields in the valleys; that supports a nice population of turkeys."
Regional wildlife biologist Ed Weiner pointed out that hunters in western Iowa get a chance at two species of turkeys "Along the (Missouri) River we've had some Merriam's strain of turkeys migrate over from Nebraska," he said. "Merriam's are a lighter colored bird, and don't seem to be as spooky as the eastern strain of wild turkeys that are up in the Loess Hills. Along the western edge of the Hills you'll get some off-colored birds that are crossbreeds between eastern birds and Merriam's turkeys."
Tens of thousands of acres of public land are open to turkey hunters in tracts of the Loess Hills State Forest and Pioneer State Forest. Their broken segments stretching from Council Bluffs north toward Sioux City, these large public areas offer both easily accessed hunting and some of the most remote timber in Iowa.
"If you're willing to walk, and study the maps of the forests, you can find areas that you'll probably have all to yourself," said Weiner. "Just you and the turkeys -- and there are plenty of them back in the Hills."
"The upper reaches of Saylorville (Reservoir, on the Des Moines River) have a good population of turkeys, but you have to work a little to have any privacy because of the proximity to Des Moines," said Peterson, who's based in Boone. "Another public area that's good is the Boone Forks Area, in Boone and Hamilton County. There are 4,000 acres in that area, and turkey numbers have looked good there for several years."
Peterson suggested that hunters shouldn't overlook timbers associated with small creeks in central Iowa. "There are turkeys along Squaw Creek north of Ames, and along Indian Creek south of Nevada," he said. "The problem with those birds in small timbers is that it can be tricky to get close enough to call without spooking them. On the other hand, you don't have to work 1,000 acres of woods, either -- you know they're in that 10, 20 or 30 acres of timber, and can work them accordingly."
Ken Kakac, a wildlife biologist south of Des Moines, reports that lots of turkeys are associated with the big timbers around Lake Red Rock -- and that lots of hunters pursue them. "Last fall I was seeing turkeys all over the place," he said. "We've got really good turkey habitat around Red Rock, and there's some really good hunting opportunities in that area. The only downside is that they get a lot of pressure, since it's so close to Des Moines. The secret is to get away from the areas close to parking lots or roads. If a guy does some scouting and isn't afraid to walk, he's probably going to hear and see a lot of birds."
SLEEP LATE TO BAG A TOM
Gosselink and some of his fellow biologists have in recent years begun to have second thoughts about the traditional "crack-of-dawn" turkey hunting strategy.
"Guys think they've got to be out there when the sun comes up," Gosselink asserted, "but I've had some of my best success later in the morning, or even just before sunset.
"It makes sense, when you think about it: The gobblers roost with hens, and first thing in the morning, they're busy with those hens, and maybe a little less interested in responding to a lone hen calling off in the trees. Once they've serviced those hens, they're a little more interested in chasing down stray hens, and I've had better luck calling those gobblers in."
Gosselink's final suggestion for those hoping to tag a tom this spring: "Hunt when other guys stay home." He offers this incident from several years ago as
Skies were clear when he went out early in the day, but clouds rolled in, and it began to drizzle rain. When other hunters gave up and left the woods, Gosselink stayed behind -- and discovered that turkeys talk more on windless, dreary days.
"Some of the best luck I've had was on a calm day that turned cloudy with a little drizzle," he said. "It's not as comfortable sitting beside a tree under those conditions, but toms really seem to talk and are willing to move around under those conditions. Sometimes, if you do things that other hunters aren't doing, you'll get a chance at turkeys that those other hunters are missing."