The Neglected Turkeys Of An Iowa Autumn

The Neglected Turkeys Of An Iowa Autumn

Our gobblers may be underappreciated, but that's not for lack of birds to hunt -- we've got loads of 'em. To say nothing of several great areas in which to chase them!

Brent Rogers of Ottuma shows off a nice gobbler. Turkeys like this are nothing unusual for hunters going after birds in the fall.
Photo by Dan Anderson

There are places in the eastern and southeastern United States, long-standing strongholds of turkey hunting, in which hunters and wildlife biologists congratulate themselves when they achieve 25 to 35 percent success rates during turkey seasons. Such results would disappoint Iowa's wildlife biologists and turkey hunters.

For the past five years, hunters afield during Iowa's fall turkey seasons have consistently posted success rates near or above 45 percent. That pretty much proves that the Hawkeye State is one of the best places in the U.S. for tagging a fall turkey.

"Fall turkey hunting may be one of our best but most overlooked upland game hunting opportunities," said Todd Gosselink, Iowa Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife biologist. "There are so many other things going on in the fall --waterfowl hunting, pheasant hunting, deer hunting, football -- that people don't have time to try fall turkey hunting. That's too bad, because fall is maybe the easiest time to get a turkey."


Many elements of fall turkey hunting work to foster success. Hunting seasons are longer, fall's weather is more hunter-friendly than is spring's, and specialized tactics favor hunter success. While spring turkey hunting seasons range from four days to a week, Iowa's split fall turkey hunting season in 2005 will run from Oct. 1 through Dec. 2, close during shotgun deer hunting seasons, and then reopen from Dec. 19 through Jan. 10.

Fickle weather often works against turkey hunters in the spring. How many of you have sat in a cold rain during a spring turkey-hunting season because the brief season gave you no other option? Late-fall and early-winter weather actually benefits late-season hunters.

"Some of those gorgeous days of Indian summer in late October and early November are actually the best days to hunt turkeys," said Brent Rogers, a self-described turkey addict from Ottumwa. "You almost feel guilty for hunting when the weather is so nice. In the late season, the cold weather and snow can be uncomfortable, but it concentrates the turkeys in timbers close to good feeding areas. They move around less, and they're easy to pattern."


Rogers employs two techniques to tag turkeys in the fall. One, a venerable strategy for fall hunters all across the U.S., involves sneaking up on a flock of turkeys, flushing them, and then using a call to bring the birds within gun range.

"Shooting them on the fly when they first flush is a low-percentage shot," noted Rogers. "They're a big bird, and their feathers are like armor. You're better off flushing them and then using their flocking instinct to bring them back so you can get a shot at a standing or walking bird. If you spook a bunch of turkeys in the fall, then sit down and wait, within a couple minutes you'll hear them calling, trying to get back together. Turkeys really don't like to be separated from their flock."

Rogers uses kee-kee or hen calls from a well-camouflaged position to bring flushed and scattered birds within gun range. "Sometimes they're so eager to get back with their flock that they literally come running towards you," he said.

While the "bust-and-call" method works well for Rogers, his favorite strategy for fall turkeys is to "put the sneak on them." "I've hunted the same areas for a long time and pretty well know where they're going to be feeding and where they go to rest," he explained. "What I really enjoy is finding a flock feeding in a field or in an oak grove, then working myself into position so they either feed within gun range, or I can call just enough to bring them to me."

Rogers uses full camouflage, including a face net, as he eases along the edges of timbers adjacent to fields where turkeys are feeding. He has also gotten results by walking quietly along dry streambeds, occasionally peeking his head above the creek's bank to keep track of the feeding turkeys. "Sometimes they'll feed and move into gun range on their own," he said. "Other times, I'll maybe use a yelp or a kee-kee call to get their attention and bring them closer."

Rogers uses a 12-gauge Benelli Super Black Eagle autoloader and 3- or 3 1/2-inch Winchester Supreme shells loaded with No. 5 shot to bring his birds down. "I like the autoloader because things happen fast when you pull the trigger on a turkey, and I want to be able to make a quick second shot if I have to," he said. "I go with No. 5 shot because I'm after pattern density more than larger shot."


A third tactic -- hunting with dogs -- will be legal for Iowa turkey hunters for the first time this fall. "Other states have allowed hunting turkeys over dogs for a long time, but we've never allowed it," said biologist Gosselink. "It's an interesting alternative that will allow pheasant hunters to legally shoot turkeys while pheasant hunting with dogs. But it does raise a few concerns."

The biggest concern is that hunters will attempt to shoot turkeys on the wing. "Can hunters kill turkeys on the wing?" asked Gosselink rhetorically. "Yes, hunters can kill turkeys on the wing; all it takes is one of two pellets in the head or neck. But it's going to take somebody that's a good shot and who has strong discipline to aim at the head and neck of a flying turkey, because that body is so big and tempting.

"My concern is that hunters are going to only wound turkeys if they try to take them on the wing. If you want a real challenge, try to run down a wounded turkey in heavy timber."

Bowhunting is a fourth approach gaining popularity with fall turkey hunters. Many archers now carry turkey licenses when they climb into their tree stands to hunt deer. "Deer hunters talk about how often turkeys walk under their stands, and this is a good way to take advantage of the opportunity," stated Gosselink. "Getting a turkey with a bow is a real accomplishment. You've got to be really close, 15 to 20 yards, to make sure your arrow gets through all those feathers."


Hunters who target turkeys in Iowa this fall have plenty of public areas to explore, including three designed to provide exceptional hunts.

"Fall is a great time to hunt any of our public areas," offered Gosselink, "but zones 1, 2, and 3 are really special." Zone 1 (Stephens State Forest), Zone 2 (Shimek State For

est), and Zone 3 (Yellow River State Forest) are specifically designed to provide a high-quality turkey hunt for any hunter who gets a permit to hunt there.

"We have a 50-license quota for each of those areas," Gosselink explained. "That means lots of acres, lots of turkeys, with very few hunters. Anybody who gets a license to hunt zones 1, 2 and 3 is going to have a lot of fun."

Exact quotas for Iowa's other fall turkey hunting zones had not been established at press time, but according to Gosselink, 2005's quotas would be equal to or higher than 2004's. Zone 4, comprising most of southern Iowa south of Interstate 80 and east of Highway 59, had 4,500 licenses available in 2004. Zone 5, basically western Iowa west of Highway 59 from the Missouri border north to Highway 20, had 500 licenses. Zone 6, in northeast Iowa north of Interstate 80 and east of Highway 63, had 3,000 licenses available in 2004. Zone 7, which runs from Highway 63 on the east to Highway 59 on the west, and from Interstate 80 on the south to Highway 20 on the north, was allotted 400 turkey licenses last fall. Zone 8, bordered by Highway 63 on the east, Highway 20 on the south, Highway 69 on the west and the Minnesota border on the north, had 150 licenses in 2004.

Far northwest Iowa, north of Highway 20 and west of Highway 69, may be opened to fall turkey hunting for the first time this fall. "The biologists up there say there are a lot of turkeys wherever there is enough habitat," said Gosselink, "so it has been proposed to open that area up for fall turkey hunting. The quota will be conservative, but it looks like hunters up there will get a chance to try fall turkey hunting."

If hunters need a final incentive to give fall turkey hunting a try, the IDNR has announced that hunters will be allowed to take up to three turkeys in some areas of the state. Strong turkey numbers have encouraged the IDNR to allow hunters in zones that haven't filled their license quota by Nov. 1 to apply for up to three tags.

For complete info on this year's fall turkey hunting season along with bag limits, zones and license quotas, visit, or pick up a fall turkey-hunting brochure wherever hunting licenses are sold.

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