Steep slopes. Steep learning curve, too, as I hiked the bluffs and a couple streams in Clayton County. I've been a first season spring turkey hunter for most of the last 15 years. This year, though, it'll be third or fourth season before I can settle in against an oak tree, calling late season gobblers on property that's new to me.
Where will the birds be roosting? Where are the openings in the timber? How about field edges? Food sources? I first hiked it in January, under two feet of northeast Iowa snow. Now, the snow is gone (barely). That reveals a few access trails; even an old logging road and ravine that splits the property.
Early, there were telltale turkey tracks in the snow. But where will they be as the May apples and early grasses start pushing up from the slopes? And how many are out there?
"We were not expecting great reproduction this past year, based on the rain last June," cautioned Todd Gosselink, wild turkey research biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. "We got our summer brood surveys back though, and there was an increase in reproduction across most of the state. It actually looks pretty good; a lot of jakes this spring, and then, more mature, two-year-old toms next year."
Gosselink's forecast is good news for more than 40,000 tag holders who will go out in one-or two-seasons between now and mid-May. Iowa's spring hunting regulations allow a resident hunter up to two licenses; providing at least one is for the late season, and several thousand hunters hold two of them. From there, it's a matter of how much time you can spend in the woods.
With four years of record and near record snow and cold temperatures, Iowa got a reprieve this past winter. There was still plenty of snow across northern counties, but a December thaw and lower March snow totals provided a break for most wildlife species.
"Typically, we have a lot of waste grain the turkeys can utilize; with woods mixed with crop fields," notes Gosselink. "They're larger and can withstand the temperatures and deeper snow better than other birds", notes Gosselink. "They get off the ground and roost in trees; different spots. They usually fare pretty well."
With the woods greening up, comes a two-edged sword. That vegetation hides you a little better. It does likewise, though, for a suspicious gobbler sneaking in on that string of hen yelps you delivered a couple hours prior.
"With the cover of good vegetation, it's a whole different way to hunt," agrees Gosselink. "You can more around a little more, once we have 'leaf out.' In those later seasons, hens will take off to nest and you can have some great hunts; calling in toms who have lost their hens for the rest of the day."
Those first days of the season can be fun. The turkeys are maybe a little naïve, not so easily spooked. Planning for third or fourth season provides a couple more weeks to practice calls. Maybe another trip or two up to listen, for pre-dawn gobbles or just some evening turkey talk just before 'fly up.' Almost like being a first timer in the woods…all over again.
Bag a Bird? Report It.
Just a decade ago, Iowa hunters' spring harvest success rate ran about 40 percent, as measured by a random post season survey. It's been in the 20-25 percent range for the last few years. That's a pretty significant drop. Still, wildlife officials say the population is roughly the same. About the same number of tags are issued. Perhaps, blame the reporting rate? For the last four years, and again this year, hunters are required to report the turkeys they harvest. Compliance contacts after the season indicate only 74 percent of the hunters accurately reported taking their gobbler.
Besides risking a potential ticket, misreporting the harvest fouls up research about the population of wild turkeys. That affects management decisions, too. You can report your harvest via the DNR website; hunting.iowadnr.gov and click on the 'Harvest Reporting System' tab on the right side. You can also call the '800' number listed on your turkey tag. The online method is easier and more accurate.