The weather may have been wild in 2008, but it didn't diminish your odds for bagging a longbeard -- at least, not this season. Here's your guide to finding and harvesting a spring gobbler. (March 2009)
The impact of adverse weather conditions will likely translate to a lower number of mature birds in years to come. The number of mature gobblers this spring, however, is unlikely to be affected
In a nutshell, here's the outlook for Iowa's 2009 spring turkey-hunting seasons:
More than 50,000 folks will buy resident, non-resident or landowner spring turkey-hunting licenses. Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources predict success rates will be around 40 percent, which makes Iowa one of the top states for turkey hunting success in the United States.
Highest turkey harvest numbers will come from northeast Iowa. Highest success rates will originate in western Iowa, with northwest Iowa close behind. Harvests across the entire state will be on par with the last two or three years, though hunters in south-central and southeastern Iowa may get the impression that hunting is tougher than usual in their neighborhoods.
Those hunters may blame the rugged winter of 2007-08 and record-setting floods of last spring for the tougher hunting, but experts are confident that all the nasty weather will have minimal effect on this year's turkey hunting in Iowa.
Wait a minute.
The highest success rates will come from western and northwest Iowa? And two of the most significant weather events in Iowa in the past century -- the winter of 2007-08 and the floods of '08 -- will have minimal effect on turkey hunting? There are a few items in our outlook that fly against conventional wisdom. . . .
Let's take a closer look at some of the unusual situations that will -- or will not -- influence our spring turkey hunting seasons.
WEATHER OR NOT?
First, the nasty winter weather and then near-biblical flooding that hammered much of Iowa during the first half of 2008 had minimal effect on the turkeys that hunters will target this spring. A majority of hunters pass up jakes and wait for older toms. Since the population of mature gobblers that hatched two to four years ago was relatively unaffected by the record-setting weather of last year, our "target population" of gobblers is strong.
"The tough winter we had last year didn't do much harm to our population of mature turkeys," said Todd Gosselink, IDNR forest wildlife research biologist. "We only had one or two reports of (turkey) mortality related to weather. Normally our turkeys do very well through our winters because we have so much waste grain available in our crop fields. The biggest threat is ice storms, and we dodged a bullet with that big ice storm in eastern Iowa early last winter.
"Just after that storm, we caught a thaw before there was a succession of snowstorms. The thaw melted enough of the ice so the birds were able to dig down through the snow during the rest of the winter and get to food. I think they came through pretty well."
The record floods of last June did, and didn't, have effects on Iowa's turkey population. Gosselink noted that the floods came during the nesting peak. In areas where forested upland habitat was available, the total hatch was relatively unaffected. But in areas where timber bottoms constitute the majority of available turkey habitat, nesting success was often reduced.
"In the Fort Dodge area, where most of the timber is associated with the Des Moines River and its tributaries, a lot of the turkey nesting habitat is in timbered lowlands," Gosselink explained. "They may have taken a hit in that part of the state due to the flooding.
"We've noticed that in recent years hunting success rates have trended lower north of Des Moines but stayed steady south of Des Moines. One reason might be that north of Des Moines, a lot of the timber is associated with lowlands, while south of Des Moines the land is more rolling, more of the timber is in upland areas, and the turkeys in that area aren't as susceptible to nesting problems related to the flooding we've had in recent springs."
Gosselink's mention of hunting success rates points to one of the challenges the IDNR faces in monitoring and managing Iowa's turkey population. For many years, the IDNR used voluntary mail-in hunting "report cards" to monitor turkey hunters' successes. A couple of years ago, a law was passed requiring all hunters to report within 24 hours, via phone or Internet, the harvest of turkeys in Iowa. The goal was to more accurately monitor the number and location of turkeys harvested and allow the IDNR to better manage the statewide flock.
Gosselink ruefully admits the mandatory reporting program has not yet fulfilled expectations.
"The change in harvest reporting procedures has kind of jumbled our statistics," he said. "With the mail-in cards, we were seeing success rates in the 45 percent range, which pretty well matched what we saw in the field. But with the mandatory reporting, we're only getting success rates around 21 percent. We did some follow-up to see what's going on, and up to 25 percent of hunters we contacted admitted that they weren't reporting their turkeys."
Gosselink assured reticent hunters that mandatory hunting reports track only turkey and deer harvest. There is no hidden agenda behind the required reports.
"The better job hunters do of reporting their harvests, the better job we can do managing the turkey population," he said. "That's the only purpose of the mandatory turkey harvest reporting."
WHERE THE BIRDS WILL BE
So, aside from regional weather-related nesting problems that won't really affect gobbler hunting until the hatch from 2008 matures in 2009 and 2010, what can turkey hunters expect in Iowa this spring? Gosselink offered a quick overview of regional turkey hunting potential.
Northwest: "Northwest Iowa doesn't have a lot of turkey habitat, but where there is adequate habitat, turkey numbers are good," he said. "There isn't a strong turkey-hunting tradition up there, so the guys who do hunt probably have a better turkey-to-hunter ratio. Hunters have done well for turkeys up there in recent years, and I think this year will be a continuation of that good hunting.
North-Central: "Probably similar to the northwest, except in the Fort Dodge area, and areas where the turkey habitat is limited to lowland timbers. They've had tough weather during nesting for the past few years, so they may see fewer birds in those regions because of it."
Northeast: "Northeast Iowa is one of the brightest spots for turkeys in Iowa," said Gosselink. "Even if we have a couple of poor years for nesting and recruitment, we don't notice the decline in hunting success because the overall population is so strong up there. Hunters should expect another great year of turkey hunting in that part of the state."
East-Central: "That's a transition zone, from the really good turkey habitat of northeast Iowa to more of a row-crop-based terrain," he said. "But there's enough timbered borders and small woodlands mixed in with the crop fields so that it's actually pretty good turkey habitat. Hunters in east-central Iowa can expect good hunting, about what they've had in recent years."
Southeast: "The farther south you go, the more we see problems related to weather over the past few years. Southeast Iowa has had cool, wet weather during nesting for the past few years. That has impacted turkey numbers. We're getting reports that people are seeing fewer turkeys than they did several years ago. But that may not be as bad as it sounds. Where they were seeing 50 turkeys in a field during the winter a couple of years ago, now they're only seeing 25 birds. That's still plenty for good hunting. We just may not have a surplus of birds."
South-Central: "South-central Iowa is probably seeing the biggest impact from poor weather during nesting in recent years," said Gosselink. "There's an area that runs from Lake Rathbun down toward Kirksville, Mo., that has had tough weather during nesting for the past few years, and turkey numbers seem to be down because of it."
Southwest: "Far southwest Iowa is so-so for turkeys, depending on how much timber is available in local areas. Some spots with timber are actually very good. Areas where it's more solid row crops are naturally less good for turkeys. It's similar to northwest Iowa in that there might not be as many active turkey hunters down there, so the guys who do hunt may have proportionally more turkeys to themselves."
West-Central: "The Loess Hills may be our No. 1 turkey-producing area per square mile," said Gosselink. "There's a nice mix of croplands and woodlands out there, nearly perfect for turkeys. Plus, western Iowa typically gets less rain than the rest of the state so they haven't had quite the problems with nesting and brood rearing. Another positive thing for turkey hunting in the Hills is the big blocks of contiguous timber open to public hunting in the Loess Hills State Forest and the Pioneer State Forest."
Central: "Turkey populations in central Iowa depend on where you hunt. South of Interstate 80, where the ground is more rolling, turkey numbers are good wherever there's enough timber to support them. North of Interstate 80, turkey habitat is often related to lowland timbers, and spring flooding has caused some problems the past few years. But in upland areas, where the birds could nest and raise their broods without interference, there should be good turkey numbers for this spring."
Gosselink's optimistic predictions for the majority of the state, and especially for northeast and western Iowa, are echoed by IDNR game wardens Dave Tierney and Brian Smith. Tierney patrols Harrison and Shelby counties in western Iowa, while Smith oversees Pottawattamie County. Both are die-hard turkey hunters, and both, ironically, are originally from northeast Iowa.
"I lived in northeast Iowa, and northeast Iowa doesn't have anything over the Loess Hills when it comes to sheer numbers of turkeys," said Smith. "The biggest difference is in hunter numbers. The human population in Iowa is distributed with two-thirds of the population in the eastern one-third of the state. There just aren't as many people out here. Plus, there doesn't seem to be as strong of a turkey hunting tradition here. That adds up to more opportunity for hunters to hunt without running into other hunters."
While the Loess Hills region obviously draws much of the turkey hunting attention in western Iowa, Smith said he sees birds wherever habitat is adequate.
"I spend a lot of time working around Lake Manawa during the summer, and I see a lot of turkeys associated with woodlands in that area," he said. "The same goes for any other county or state area with trees down in the Missouri River floodplain. If there are trees in those areas, there's a good chance there are turkeys."
Smith said a longtime hunting friend who traditionally traveled to northeast Iowa each spring to hunt turkeys changed his annual itinerary after hunting in western Iowa.
"After just one hunt, he told me he was done driving all the way to northeast Iowa," said Smith. "He said there are fewer hunters and more shooting opportunities in the (Loess) Hills."
Tierney, who has hunted turkeys in Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma, described the turkey-hunting potential in the Loess Hills of Harrison and Shelby counties as "awesome, though I did notice a decrease in jakes when I was hunting last year. Even so, there are lots of mature toms. Any decrease in jakes won't really affect the hunting because the overall population is so strong."
The two veteran turkey hunters offered several tips to hunters to help bag turkeys anywhere in Iowa.
"If you're hunting public areas, think about timing," said Tierney. "First season is the best opportunity to work 'unhunted' birds, and that's fun. But first season also risks some late winter weather, which can be uncomfortable for the hunters and can kind of shut down the birds.
"Second season probably has the most hunters, because it's the first season to include a weekend," said Tierney. "There's more chance that you and another hunter might be calling the same bird. That's one of the nice things about hunting the big public timbers in the Loess Hills or northeast Iowa -- even during the second season, if you make a conscious effort to get more than half a mile from a road or parking lot, you're probably going to have turkeys all to yourself. Guys think they've walked a long ways after they leave their truck, but if they check their location on a map or aerial photo, they rarely are more than a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile from where they parked."
Another issue related to "timing" is the tradition of being in the timber at the crack of dawn to hunt turkeys. Tierney says that sleeping late may actually have advantages.
"Especially during the second and third seasons, when (turkeys) are at the peak of breeding, those toms may be pretty locked in with hens first thing in the morning," he said. "Between competition with other hunters and competition with hens, sometimes it's better to wait to start your hunt until midmorning, maybe even after lunch. Once the hens are bred, and once the other hunters give up for the day, you've got better access to the gobblers. They'll be looking for unbred hens, more open to responding to your calls, and you also won't be competing with as many other hunters."
Tierney and Smith both hunt multiple seasons in the
spring and both enjoy the challenges of first season gobblers, but both make a point of hunting the fourth and final season each year.
"By fourth season, a lot of the hens are on the nest so toms are more interested in coming to a call," said Tierney. "There are fewer hunters who hunt the fourth season, so the competition is less.
No matter what season he hunts, Tierney makes certain he has scouted the area he will hunt and knows the lay of the land.
"Two things are the downfall of inexperienced hunters, and even experienced hunters," he said. "First is patience. You've got to be able to sit still. A lot of people think they're not moving, but they're unconsciously moving a foot or twitching every now and then. Turkeys see even the slightest movement.
"Second, you've got to know the lay of the land," said Tierney. "I scout so I know where the fence lines are, where the dry creeks are, where the brushpiles are, and (I) try to set myself up so that there's nothing that will make a tom hang up if I get him coming toward me. I want to know where the feeding areas are, where they're roosting, and (I) put myself in a position so that if I can't call them to me, I can easily move toward them without spooking them, set up again, and call some more."
If you're one of the 40-plus percent of Iowa's turkey hunters who traditionally take home a gobbler each spring, this year's hunts promise to be just as productive -- and maybe even better -- than recent years.
And if you're one of those who hasn't yet enjoyed success as a turkey hunter, this may be your year. With patience, advanced scouting and such strong turkey numbers, it's only a matter of time before you take home a tom.