Iowa Young Guns Take Aim At Spring Gobblers

Iowa Young Guns Take Aim At Spring Gobblers

Iowa's Youth Turkey season runs April 8-10, and there is no better time of the year to introduce a young person to the sport of hunting. Here is how and why to get Iowa's next generation into the outdoors.

"Make them gobble, Dad," I pleaded. "Why don't you try it?" he replied.

"Can I?"

"Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all," he whispered as he handed me his favorite hoot tube.

I pressed the barrel of the call to my lips and did my very best to imitate the barred owl just as I had been taught. I won't claim that it sounded like the real thing, but the woods lit up as nearly a dozen birds down a quarter-mile stretch belched their dominance from the pre-dawn limb. I was so proud! Today, my dad compares my smile to a lightbulb in a dark room. We didn't kill a bird that morning, but I will always remember standing in the frosty grass and being the one responsible for waking up the spring woods that morning.

That was quite a few years ago and well before Iowa initiated the youth-only turkey season, but that is a fine example of why investing in children will further the betterment of our heritage in the outdoors. Had my father not taught me to hunt when I was young, I am not sure where I would be today. I cannot thank him enough for including me, teaching me, and providing me with the opportunities to further the passion I had burning deep within me.

I have since had the pleasure of paying that favor forward by taking a young member of the next generation into the field chasing the elusive gobby. I also have a young son and daughter who seem to be very interested in all things outdoors. I am greatly looking forward to giving them the same opportunities that I had.

Not that this American lifestyle we choose to live is wrong, but it seems to me that over the past decade or so, we have become very busy. Almost too busy, in fact, as making time to get out and hunt can almost seem like a burden. We cannot look at it that way and as dedicated hunters and anglers, it is imperative that we pass on our outdoor traditions and heritage to the next generation, or it will all fade away.

If we can instill good hunting ethics and cultivate a passion within our youth, the future will look that much brighter. Build and maintain enthusiasm for the outdoors and successive generations will become good stewards of our natural resources and sporting traditions.

In this day and age, we must approach the next generation differently than perhaps our mentors did over 15 years ago. Success was hard to come by and every encounter we had was earned. That's not to say the youth today have it any easier; we just have more activities to compete with. We need to provide them with a reason to go afield.

"We need to define success in achievable terms," says Mark Strand, founder of The School of Outdoor Sports ( "It is absolutely imperative that kids accomplish their goals early. Without success, we can almost guarantee that they will determine this is not for them. This is not to say we need to teach them that the 'kill' or the 'catch' is the most important factor, but rather for them to desire more. It is important that they appreciate and understand why they are out there and, let's face it: The objective when hunting and fishing is to bring something home."

"Spring turkey season is the perfect opportunity to encourage kids to express an interest in hunting," Strand explains. "Typically, the weather is very comfortable and that, blended with the vocal nature of wild turkey, is very attractive to newcomers. And, not only the turkeys captivate these young hunters. There is so much to look at, such as deer, geese flying over, pheasants cackling and just the spring woods coming to life after a long winter."

Strand continues, "When compared to other hunting endeavors, it is far easier to have a better overall experience while turkey hunting. A large variety of tactics can be used, which keeps things interesting and usually holds kids' attention longer. Try teaching them to run a call and the smile you get from them making a bird gobble is priceless. If they don't get excited about that, they are unlikely to really enjoy many other outdoor sports."

From the mentor's perspective, it is really something to behold when kids become completely immersed in the beauty of a Midwestern spring day. Iowa's youth turkey season provides opportunity for both the young hunters and the mentors to create memories that will last a lifetime. However, there is an objective to being out and it is imperative for the kids to experience that. Please keep in mind the hunt is about them, not you. When they say it's over, it needs to be over. The less you push them to go, the more likely they will desire to get out again.

"It is very important to the future of the child's further interest that the mentor be as prepared as possible to provide a memorable experience," Strand says. "Having the basic understanding to being successful in the spring turkey woods will have an impact on their desire to participate in return outings. Many kids might not fully pursue the outdoors until later in life, as a bulk of them have so much going on with school, sports, church, etc., that they end up returning to these experiences later in life. But, for them to want to return, they must have a good experience from their past drawing them back."

"It is imperative to the future of the hunting heritage that our children at least have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors," Strand says in closing. "It is our responsibility as parents and mentors to lead them to success, and to do it patiently as we want that memory to be one they relive for the rest of their life."

The kids are our priority, but being prepared as mentors starts well before the season arrives. We want to create a stress-free environment and put the situation on the right track for success. This begins with a few efforts and items that will make the hunt more enjoyable.

Guns can be frightening to many kids, but by instilling in them sound firearm handling techniques and respect, practice time can be a lot of fun. However, if your little hunter does not like shooting the gun, the worst thing you can do is force it on them or make them feel bad for it. This is where a successful hunt begins, and I can assure you, your patience will be tried. Don't let them see your frustration; their future participation depends on it.

When introducing kids to guns, start small. .22s or .410s are great guns to break the fear of firearms. Once they have learned to successfully shoot these smaller guns, upgrade to a 20-gauge and lightly loaded upland or target load. Exercise close supervisi

on and adequate safety precautions, and praise them when they do well.

Decoys and Blinds
These are two tools that are essential! Blinds make the hunting very comfortable for you and the kids, especially since most kids don't like sitting still for long hours. The cover a blind provides allows for movement and setting up virtually anywhere so that an abundance of game can be encountered.

Decoys are very important as they keep the turkey's attention as he is approaching, particularly since your younger counterpart might be very excited and finding it hard to keep still and quiet. Decoys are also an excellent visual learning tool when explaining about the turkey's habits and anatomy.

As the mentor, it is your responsibility to provide the turkeys. For a child to desire a return trip, encounters are crucial. Take the time during the month before the season to make routine trips to your turkey hunting locations and get a solid grasp on the birds' daily patterns. This will tip the odds in your favor. There might not be a single more important task than your preseason scouting.

Also, make the youngsters a part of setting up a blind or two so they have an understanding and a little bit of ownership of what goes into the entire hunt.

Any Bird
It is my belief that any bearded turkey is a good turkey for the first time. I know management is important to the future of our opportunities, but it has also been proven that there is no biological impact to harvesting a jake. Let them decide if they want to take a younger bird or wait it out for a mature longbeard, and support their decision.

Across the nation, youth participation has been declining, but in Iowa, we have been trending the other way. I think that statistic says a lot about Iowans and the resources we have here. While the increase was not by large numbers, it furthered the trend that the number of Iowa youth hunters seems to be on the rise.

"Since the season is fairly short, the weather can play a major role in participation," says Iowa Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Gosselink. "During seasons where youth hunter participation shows a decrease, we can almost always look back at the weather and link that as the major factor. Since the initiation of the season in 2005, we have been very happy with the participation numbers and feel that with stable turkey populations, that number will maintain or increase."

"During the 2010 Youth Spring Turkey season, there were 2,671 Iowa youth hunters who participated. In 2009 we had 2,845, but those three days across the entire state were under perfect weather and prime hunting conditions. Rather than saying we had a decrease in participation in 2010, I'd say we had a larger-than-anticipated increase in 2009. 2011 is right on schedule to increase the trend."

"Across all of Iowa's seasons the number of youth hunters is interesting. All ages 15 and under during 2010 was 4,430," Gosselink continues. "In '09 it was 4,800, '08 4,500, '07 4,900. It is hard to determine consistency year to year, but over several seasons you can begin to see the trends. We don't worry much about number fluctuation of a few hundred statewide as that could be attributed to many reasons, weather being the primary factor."

"We started the season as a hunter recruitment effort as numbers nationwide were showing a decrease," Gosselink explains. "We felt by implementing an early season dedicated solely to the kids and allowing them the first crack at spring turkeys we would be promoting their involvement. Thus far we are very pleased with the results and will continue to promote the involvement of the next generation."

Here are a few public locations where I personally know outstanding turkey hunting exists.

Shimek State Forest is broken up into four units, Croton, Donnellson, Lick Creek and Farmington. Combined, there is over 5,800 acres of prime southeast Iowa turkey habitat. Shimek sits in Lee County with a portion in Van Buren County. For more information, please contact Wildlife Biologist Bill Ohde at (319) 523-8319

Stephens State Forest is located in south-central Iowa and is divided up into seven units totalling over 15,000 acres. This property is dispersed over five counties, Lucas, Clarke, Monroe, Appanoose and Davis. For more information, please contact Wildlife Biologist Jeff Telleen at (641) 774-4918.

Yellow River Forest sits in Allamakee County and provides spring youth turkey hunters with just fewer than 8,000 acres of outstanding northeast Iowa turkey hunting habitat. For more information, please contact Wildlife Biologist Robert Kurtt at (319) 382-4895.

Hawkeye Wildlife Area is northwest of Iowa City in Johnson County. With over 13,000 acres of public hunting access, this property is loaded with turkeys and will offer ample opportunity. For more information, please contact Wildlife Biologist Tim Thompson at (319) 354-8343

Loess Hills State Forest is over 11,600 acres of public access land and just might be the best turkey habitat in the state. While other portions of the state are slightly decreasing or maintaining their turkey populations, the Loess Hills area is actually steadily increasing. Located in Southern Monona and Northern Harrison counties, there is ample access for youth hunters. For more information, please contact Wildlife Biologist Ed Wiener at (712) 423-2426.

The outdoor lifestyle is my lifestyle, it's our lifestyle, it's their lifestyle, and I intend to do what I can to keep it that way. I want my children to have the same feeling that I did that fateful morning when I asked the spring woods "who-cooks-for-you?" There are many issues facing hunters today and if we don't begin involving our kids, their future outdoor opportunities will fade away quickly.

It starts with us. Pass the torch.

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