Spring's here -- break out the box calls! Not least because spring turkey seasons in the Hawkeye State are expected to be nothing short of tom-terrific. (March 2008).
Photo by Ralph Hensley.
Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources predict that the 2008 Iowa spring turkey hunting seasons will be strikingly "average."
And make no mistake about it -- that's good news.
There's a reason that Iowa's supply of non-resident turkey hunting licenses evaporates so quickly. Non-Iowans know a good thing when they see it and clamor for a chance to experience our "average" turkey hunting opportunities.
"Hunters who have never hunted turkeys anywhere but in Iowa don't realize that our 'average' hunting is way above what hunters in most other states see," said Todd Gosselink, an upland game research biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I've hunted in other states and talked to a lot of hunters from other states who come here to hunt turkeys, and an average year here would be a banner year in most other places."
"Average" is precisely what Gosselink and his coworkers forecast for this spring's turkey hunting seasons in Iowa. Statewide turkey production was on par in 2007, with some specific areas reporting higher-than-normal poult sightings. Other regions suffered cool, wet weather during early June that worked hardship on newly hatched turkey chicks.
"Overall, combining the standing population with last year's production, I'd say we're about average, compared to the last five years," remarked Doug Chafa, wildlife management biologist for the IDNR's Sweet Marsh region in northeast Iowa. "Southern Iowa, (and) especially the south-central counties, are maybe a little below the long-term average. Northeast and southwest Iowa are doing great -- probably even better than past years. Southeast Iowa is about average, maybe a little better than recent years."
Gosselink predicted that hunters in east-central, central and west-central Iowa will see turkey numbers similar to recent years', but was hesitant to offer hunting predictions for Iowa's northwest and north-central areas.
"We don't get a lot of (turkey hunting) reports from northwest Iowa," he said. "That doesn't mean there aren't good populations of turkeys up there in areas where there is adequate turkey habitat. In places where there is good habitat, there may be an excellent population of turkeys per square mile."
Gosselink's reference to "adequate turkey habitat" is the key to finding turkeys anywhere in Iowa. He pointed to the "Little Switzerland" area of far northeast Iowa and the Loess Hills of southwest Iowa as examples of our best turkey habitat.
In an apparent departure from traditional turkey management theories, Iowa turkeys seem to thrive in areas marked with a mix of timber and agricultural fields, Gosselink said.
"We've found that huge, endless tracts of timber aren't as attractive to turkeys as we thought," he admitted. "Turkeys seem to thrive in areas where they have significant timber broken up with farm fields that provide weedy borders with lots of weed seeds and insects."
The lesson is a simple one: Hunters shouldn't overlook small patches of timber standing along water sources and farmland.
"It's not unusual to see a flock living in a little 3-acre patch of timber along a creek in central or east-central Iowa," Gosselink said. "They follow the creeks, exploring, looking for food, and as long as there are enough trees for them to feel comfortable when they roost, they can set up a long ways from the nearest big timber."
Hunters who choose to scout and find turkeys in isolated patches of woods need to develop a "milk run" of such small timbers.
"The advantage to hunting those small timbers is that you'll probably have them all to yourself," said Gosselink. "Plus, there's probably one main feeding area, so your chances are good for predicting their movements and setting up in the right place."
The disadvantage, Gosselink noted, is that smaller timber stands are likely to hold only one or two toms, and they can be difficult to hunt. If the birds bust you, you're probably done with that patch of timber for the day.
Tim Thompson, an IDNR wildlife management biologist in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area, said areas managed by county conservation boards are prime places to target turkeys.
"County conservation board areas are often better (for) turkey hunting than people think," he said. "They're well-managed, usually have enough timber to be attractive to turkeys and often get overlooked by hunters who assume that such small timbers wouldn't be worth hunting."
Thompson encouraged hunters to explore and scout "unconventional" habitat when preparing to hunt turkeys in Iowa.
"Turkeys have expanded all across the state into some habitats that we never thought they'd use," he said. "For example, I got called last spring to go to the fourth floor of Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids to check out a report that a hen turkey was living on the roof. She spent a couple weeks up there. Who knows what she was thinking, but that's where she wanted to be.
"We hear about a lot of turkeys in urban areas, get complaints that they're sitting on people's decks and eating out of bird feeders. A hunter might be surprised at the number of turkeys he might find if he made friends with some of the people who have wooded acreages on the outskirts of towns."
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE POSSIBILITIES
Many turkey hunters resist hunting small timbers, urban borders and county conservation board areas, preferring to target their turkeys in traditional big timbers. Those hunters have plenty of public and private options in Iowa.
Last year, the IDNR ended its longstanding policy of holding three of our largest state forests as separate turkey hunting zones that required specific licenses. Yellow River, Stephens and Shimek state forests in northeast, southeast and south-central Iowa, respectively, are now open to any hunter possessing a valid Iowa turkey-hunting license. The change in regulations, however, has yet to substantially increase the turkey hunting pressure on the three forests.
"We noticed that hunters were reluctant to restrict themselves to only those zones with the special
licenses, and we weren't getting enough hunters into those areas," said Gosselink. "Everybody assumed that hunters would flood into them last year, but we really didn't see that much extra hunting pressure.
Perhaps the primary reason for the lower-than-expected turnout is that most turkey hunters prefer to hunt close to home, where private hunting property owned by family members or friends is often more accessible, said Gosselink.
He explained that while many landowners are protective of deer or pheasants on their property, preferring to "save" those deer and pheasants for friends or relatives, the same is not always true during turkey season. Gosselink says he has noticed a more relaxed attitude among landowners toward hunters who request permission to target turkeys.
"In many cases, if you ask politely, people will let you on their land to hunt turkeys," said Gosselink. "There are still a few farmers who are convinced that turkeys damage their crops, which actually happens infrequently. If you find those farmers, they may be very happy to have you hunt turkeys on their property."
Nonetheless, turkey hunters who prefer to hunt public areas have plenty of opportunities across Iowa. In northeast Iowa, Chafa points to two different types of public properties.
"Bloody Run, in Clayton County, is for guys willing to work for their turkeys," he said. "It's a big area with limited access. If you're willing to walk a mile or so, you're probably going to have a lot of turkeys all to yourself.
"Sny Magill (Wildlife Management Area), also in Clayton County, is the other extreme. The road runs through it, and you probably don't have to walk more than a quarter to a half mile to get to any part of that area. It's going to be less work, but you may have more competition from other hunters.
"Both areas have strong populations of turkeys and are great places to hunt," said Chafa. "It just depends on how much you want to work for a turkey, and how willing you are to cross paths with another hunter."
Chafa admits that he targets smaller areas when he hunts for turkeys.
"The Buffalo Creek area in Delaware County is 800 acres," he said. "Most of it isn't timbered, but I've taken a turkey out of there and saw two other guys carrying turkeys out the same day."
Another public area in northeast Iowa that produces turkeys is the Volga River State Recreation Area, near West Union in Fayette County. Mark Creery, who lives in Fayette County, is an avid turkey hunter and regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
"Everybody I talk to assumes that the Volga (recreation area) is over-hunted, and the areas close to parking lots and roads do see a lot of pressure," said Creery. "But it's my experience that if a hunter gets more than a mile back into any public area in Iowa, he's probably going to be working turkeys that haven't seen much hunting pressure."
The Loess Hills of western Iowa are a prime example of an area that offers large expanses of hard-to-access timber. Pioneer State Forest, Loess Hills State Forest and the Loess Hills WMA encompass more than 10,000 acres of hardwood timbers interspersed with isolated crop fields nestled between the gnarly knobs of the hills. Hunters willing to walk a mile or more in that challenging terrain will hunt turkeys that may have never seen a human.
South-central Iowa has several significant turkey-friendly public areas. Of the 2,000 Decatur County acres west of Leon covered by Little River WMA, some 1,300 consist of upland and timber. Also in Decatur County, 3,450-acre Sand Creek WMA, north of Grand River, is 75 percent timbered habitat attractive to turkeys.
Central Iowa offers turkey hunters the large acreages associated with Lake Red Rock south of Des Moines and Saylorville Lake on the city's northern border. Timbers closest to the city experience the greatest hunting pressure, but hunters who make the effort to walk the woods north of the state Route 210 bridge between Madrid and Woodward, along the Des Moines River south, west and north of Boone, will see less competition for birds than hunters who stay close to town.
The Des Moines River valley provides prime turkey territory throughout its length. In north-central Iowa, the Boone Forks WMA near Stratford offers 3,210 acres of upland and timber that hold healthy turkey populations. Hunters who scout the fingers of timber that wind away from the main stand may be surprised at the number of turkeys that explore these smaller areas.
Gosselink, Thompson, Chafa and Creery all emphasized that any hunter in Iowa who knows of a tract of timber larger than 10 acres is looking at potential turkey habitat.
"I grew up in Grundy County," said Creery, "and once swore that there would never be turkeys in that county because everything is farmed. But friends tell me that they've seen turkeys there in some of the brushy strips along little creeks . . . . At some point during the year you can find turkeys just about anywhere in Iowa."
BUCKSHOT OR BOW
Most hunters take their turkeys by means of shotguns, but Gosselink has noticed a substantial increase in the number of bowhunters pursuing gobblers. "We started keeping tabs on bowhunting in 2001 and had 2,000 hunters get bowhunting turkey licenses," he said. "In 2007 we had more than 5,000 hunters buy bowhunting licenses.
"I think that some of our hunters are looking for a new challenge. And getting a turkey with a bow is definitely a challenge. You've got the challenge of getting them close enough to kill with an arrow, plus the challenge of hitting them in a part of their body that's not pretty much armored with feathers. If you take a turkey with a bow and arrow, you've accomplished something."
An advantage of hunting turkeys with bow and arrow is that bowhunters can hunt all four of the spring turkey hunting seasons in Iowa, starting on April 14 and ending on May 18. Shotgun hunters must choose one of Iowa's four distinct spring seasons during the same time frame. The 2008 Youth Turkey Hunting Season, for hunters younger than 16 who hunt in the company of a licensed adult hunter, is the weekend of April 11-13.
Regardless of weaponry, Gosselink says he's noticed a trend among hunters who can't get enough turkey hunting in general.
"They're in it for the experience of being in the woods, the challenge of calling and working a gobbler close," he said. "Guys get both a shotgun and bow license, get their birds, then go back into the woods with a friend and do the calling while the other guy does the shooting. They just plain enjoy turkey hunting whether they get to kill a bird or not."
Fortunately for fantail fanatics, Iowa's "average" turkey hunting prospects for the 2008 spring hunting seasons promise plenty of birds wherever in Iowa there's enough trees to roost turkeys; it's just a matter of
finding the birds and calling them close enough so you can tag 'em and take 'em home!