Iowa Turkey Hunting: A State of the State Address

In the world of Hawkeye State gobblers and gobbler chasers, things look good for 2003. Here's a look at what those in the know are saying about the upcoming season.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Larry Brown

It's hard to imagine that as recently as 30 years ago we didn't have turkey hunting in Iowa. The restoration of the wild turkey, which disappeared from the state early in the 20th century, is one of the great successes of modern wildlife management.

But even the biologists were surprised by how well turkeys have done in Iowa, once they had a chance to establish themselves. Initial projections, because of our limited amount of forest, were that we might harvest 1,000 or so gobblers a year. Instead, what has turned out to be the case is that the birds survive much better in a mixed environment of forests and fields. And they don't need to rely exclusively on mast (food such as nuts and berries) found in the woods, because very few Hawkeye State turkeys live so far from the nearest corn field that they can't dine on what Iowa farmers provide them.

Today, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimates that the state has over 100,000 turkeys. They are found virtually everywhere that suitable habitat is present. This includes not only those areas which are most heavily timbered, such as the rugged bluffs of the northeast, the rolling hills that stretch along the Missouri border, or the forested Loess Hills in Western Iowa; but also major river courses and valleys, such as the Des Moines, Raccoon, Skunk, Cedar, Wapsipinicon and others.

I spoke with Todd Gosselink, the IDNR's forest wildlife biologist - in other words, the man most responsible for keeping a close eye on the state's turkey population. He said that last year was a good one for the hunters, and also a good one for the birds as far as reproduction goes. That makes it a real win-win for Hawkeye State turkey hunters.

"The 2002 spring harvest total for Zone 4 was 20,661 birds," he said. (Zone 4 is the entire state minus the three special state forest zones.) "That hasn't changed much from the previous two years, when the total harvest was also right around 20,000 birds."

"The number of hunters seems to be holding pretty steady too - about 47,000 of them last spring," continued Gosselink. "That means our hunter success rate is holding pretty steady at right around 44 percent, which is excellent compared to other states. We're very happy at that level."

"And our spring weather was favorable for reproduction, too," he added. "It was cool early in the spring but stayed pretty dry. Our brood survey, statewide, showed 5.2 poults per hen, which is slightly higher than the 10-year average of 4.9. And the percentage of hens without poults was also down. In other words, all indications from last year are up."

Before we take a look at specific regions and public hunting areas across the state, we should do a quick review of regulations for the season.

Gosselink said that the IDNR anticipates no rule changes from last year. This means that there will continue to be four seasons and four zones. Zone 4 will remain the entire state minus the three special zones. Those three zones, and their license quotas per season, are:

Zone 1: Stephens State Forest, units west of Highway 65 (Lucas and Clarke Counties), 65 licenses.

Zone 2: Shimek State Forest, all units, 425 licenses.

Zone 3: Yellow River State Forest, units in Allamakee County, 80 licenses.

Gosselink added that Zones 1, 2, and 3 almost always have unfilled license quotas

For Zone 4, there are no quotas per season, nor is there a total license quota for the zone. Also, as in the past, any hunter who wishes may get two licenses. However, one of the two must be for the fourth season.

The IDNR attempts to manage turkey hunting for both quantity and quality hunts. Quantity means lots of birds, which we obviously have. Quality, to most Hawkeye State hunters, means a chance to shoot a gobbler without interference from other hunters.

To a certain degree, there will always be a problem with interference on public land simply because the number of hunters is not controlled except on the special state forest zones. About 20 percent of Iowa turkey hunters use public land, which represents only about 4 percent of the state's total turkey habitat. Thus, it's easy to see that pressure is going to be heavier on a public land turkey hunt than if you're on private ground.

However, there are ways to minimize the competition. The heaviest hunting pressure will occur on weekends. If you hunt during the week, you're almost guaranteed to encounter less human traffic.

Personally, I've also had good luck dividing up an area with other hunters. I used to hunt a fairly small public area in Boone County. One morning, three of us arrived at about the same time, with the same thing on our minds: bagging a gobbler. All of us had scouted the area, and it was basically a case of picking our spots and staying out of the way of the other guys.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. Once a couple of years ago, in the same area, I was settled against a big oak, decoy in position, well before legal shooting time. Just as it was starting to get light, another hunter came along and almost literally tripped over my decoy! That would have made me more than a little unhappy if I'd had a gobbler working.

On other public areas - and we'll discuss them specifically later - it is possible to get far enough off the beaten path that interference from other hunters is highly unlikely. This is where pre-season scouting and knowledge of the area pay off.

The other option is to pick one of the special state forest zones where hunting pressure is kept intentionally low. The tradeoff is that you're restricted to that zone (and season) only, but all of the special zones are quite large, and it may be worth it if you're really interested in a quality public-land hunt.

Now let's take a look at the various areas around the state, evaluating both turkey numbers and top public areas.

This area is down a bit in terms of turkeys per flock, but still in quite good shape compare

d to the ten year average. And because it has several large public areas, and significant amounts of forest, it remains very popular with Hawkeye State hunters.

In Winneshiek County, the Upper Iowa Accesses total over 4,000 acres. The area along Coon Creek, which is a walk-in trout stream, would be an excellent choice for hunters willing to walk in order to avoid the crowds. The North and South Bear Complexes combined total about 1,500 acres and are another top area.

There are several large areas from which to choose in Allamakee County: Lansing Wildlife, almost 2,000 acres; French Creek, over 1,300 acres; and Waterloo Creek, nearly 1,900 acres. In Clayton County, the Sny Magill/North Cedar Area totals nearly 1,800 acres.

The Volga River Recreation Area in Fayette County, at 5,500 acres, is the largest in this region. Although it has only a couple of roads, it has been developed as an equestrian area. Old roads are now horse trails, and other trails have been built through the woods. Thus, if you're willing to walk, you shouldn't have much trouble finding an isolated spot on this very large tract.

The western part of this region becomes farm country with less timber. However, there are birds along the Wapsipinicon River, and there is some timber around the Sweet Marsh Area (over 2,200 acres) in Bremer County.

If you hunt northeast Iowa, an Iowa Trout Fishing Guide, which has excellent county maps, will come in very handy. It's available free from the IDNR.

East Central
This region, other than along the Mississippi River, is much more agricultural and less forested than the northeast. But there are several relatively large public areas, and turkey numbers are very good where there is decent habitat.

Some of the better public areas are: White Pine Hollow State Preserve, Dubuque County (900 acres); Ram Hollow, Delaware County (500 acres); Big Mill (700 acres) and Green Island (3,700 acres) in Jackson County; Red Cedar, Muscatine County (800 acres); Pictured Rocks, 1,200 acres, Jones County; and Otter Creek Marsh (Tama County), 3,400 acres.

The two really large areas in this region are the Hawkeye Wildlife Area, over 13,000 acres, between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids in Johnson County; and the Iowa River Corridor Project, stretching from Chelsea in Tama County to Marengo in Iowa County. The Hawkeye Area will receive a fair amount of pressure because of its location in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City metro area. You have a better chance of avoiding the crowds if you hunt the Iowa River Corridor.

Along with the northeast, this is the other part of Iowa that is most heavily forested. Also like the northeast, it has long been a hotbed of turkey hunting activity. And it contains a number of large public areas, in addition to two of the three special state forest zones (Stephens and Shimek).

The south holds title to the state's largest public area - the 25,500 acres surrounding Red Rock Reservoir, mostly in Marion County. It's a big area, but the tradeoff is that it's also fairly close to Des Moines.

The region's other big public area is Rathbun, 16,000 acres surrounding the reservoir in Appanoose, Wayne, Lucas and Monroe Counties. This area is a good bit farther removed from any major population centers. You should have plenty of room to hunt turkeys without interference at Rathbun.

But there are plenty of other public areas from which to choose in this region. Some of the larger and better possibilities are: Fox Hills, 1,300 acres, Wapello County; Lake Sugema, 3,600 acres, Van Buren County; Ringgold (2,000 acres) and Mt. Ayr (1,200 acres), Ringgold County; Tyrone, 1,000 acres, Monroe County; Hawthorn Lake, 1,700 acres, Mahaska County; Lake Odessa, 3,800 acres, Louisa County; Sand Creek (3,600 acres) and DeKalb (2,000 acres), Decatur County; and Eldon, 1,300 acres, Davis County.

Like the northeast, this region showed a slight decline in turkeys per flock. However, it also remains in good shape compared to the long-term average. In general, this is an intensively farmed region with relatively little timber, except along stream valleys. However, there are some large public areas that provide excellent turkey hunting for residents of the region.

The largest single area in the central region is that surrounding Saylorville Reservoir. It totals 11,000 acres and extends from just north of Des Moines in Polk County to above the town of Boone in Boone County. The further you get away from Des Moines, the less likely you are to encounter interference on your hunt. But it is a large enough area that you should be able to find an isolated spot.

Another large public area is Boone Forks, along the Boone River in Hamilton County. It totals over 3,200 acres. I've hunted this one myself. There's plenty of timber and good bird numbers, but the valleys and cuts are quite steep, with a lot of the forest descending sharply to the river valley below.

The Brushy Creek Area in Webster County (6,700 acres) is another possibility. Now that Brushy Creek Lake has been finished, it's a bit more "developed" than it used to be. However, like on the Volga River Area, equestrian trails will allow an enterprising turkey hunter who's willing to walk, the opportunity to get way back into the timber.

The last of the big public areas in central Iowa is Chichaqua Bottoms (6,400 acres), which runs along the Skunk River in northern Polk County. Again, although you're quite close to Des Moines, it's a large enough area that you should be able to have a good hunt.

Another good, but somewhat smaller, area in the region is 1,600 acre Elk Grove in Guthrie County.

Although it's not particularly noted as a turkey hunting region, this part of the state does have decent bird numbers where there is good habitat.

The largest public areas are the Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area and the Loess Hills State Forest, both in Monona County. Between them they total about 6,000 acres. More of the state forest - another 3,000 acres - is located in Harrison County.

Other than that, some of the river bottom areas - especially along the Missouri - can also be good bets. There are several of these in Monona County: Upper Decatur, Louisville Bend, and Blackbird Bend, totaling over 2,000 acres. Snyder-Winnebago Bend (2,900 acres), also along the Missouri in Woodbury County, is another good bet.

Northwest And North Central
Bird numbers are strong in both these areas where there is decent habitat. However, the turkey population is limited to timbered areas, and there simply are not many of those. Worse yet, very little of it is public.

Most of the good hunting will be found along streams such as the Big and Little Sioux, Rock, Floyd, Des Moines,

Shell Rock, and Cedar rivers. There will be some smaller state and county accesses along these streams that will provide some hunting potential.

For maps of the larger public areas, access the IDNR Web site at www. Some hard copy maps are also available. Contact the IDNR at (515) 281-5918.

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