Iowa's Early Turkey Season Preview

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A mild winter. A warm spring. Iowa’s turkey hunters are primed for their days in the woods. And so are the turkeys.  Iowa’s expanded youth turkey hunting season gets underway April 7. The first of four regular seasons opens April 16 across the state.

Each year, gobblers start gobbling and strutting weeks ahead of the hunting season. This year has been no exception, with record and near record temperatures throughout March.

“They’re definitely active. I saw four different birds strutting in different areas, four days in a row,” reports DNR turkey research biologist Todd Gosselink. “Most of those birds are with hens, but they don’t initiate breeding until the photoperiod—the amount of daylight—gets longer.”

Gosselink says actual mating might be pushed up a few days perhaps, but that hens instincts guide them away from mating too early, with the prospect of a late winter cold snap or extended snow claiming March nests. 

“The big change this year, though, will be visibility,” says Gosselink. “Usually, first season is fairly open; not many trees budding yet. This year, if you are anywhere near bushes you are not going to see birds off as far as you have in the past.”

And when the calling starts, he anticipates an average year for hunter success. “Probably 10,000 birds; maybe up to 12,000,” forecasts Gosselink. “The past few years, we have had average to below average reproduction. (Harvest) this year, will be real similar to 2011.”

Across the state, north central Iowa has had better hatch and poult survival conditions the last couple years. He anticipates gobbler numbers down to about the same elsewhere. Overall, the best area for seeing turkeys continues to be in southern Iowa and in the northeast counties; with more heavily wooded areas and river corridors.

“Northeast Iowa has some large tracts of timber; state forest areas, wildlife management areas,” suggests Gosselink. “The Loess Hills, in western Iowa is probably one of the better places; scenic with good turkey numbers…if you’re willing to travel.”

If hunting on public land, you might fare better by going on a weekday or walking a half mile to a mile back into the woods, instead of closer to the parking lots…to avoid the crowds.

And don’t let the early spring dissuade you from late season hunting.

In the early days, when toms are strutting and gobbling, it is tough to get them away from the hens. When those hens go off to sit on their eggs, toms often respond to your hen calls; thinking there is one more which has not started nesting yet. Often a silent tom will appear, with no thunderous gobble to announce his arrival.

Youth Season Expands
Youths younger than 16 years old when they buy their license have a second weekend, and a week in between, for their hunting in 2012. That expansion provides extra opportunity for younger hunters, especially given the fickle nature of Iowa springs. “If you have bad weather (the first weekend), you can try again the next weekend, or during the week. It gives the young hunter more opportunities for a quality hunt,” notes Gosselink.

A youth hunter must still be under the direct supervision of an adult mentor while hunting in their April 7-15 season. The mentor must have a valid turkey license for one of the spring seasons, a valid hunting license, and a valid habitat fee, if normally required. He or she must not carry a bow or gun…and be in direct company of the youth at all times. That youth tag cannot be used in any other season. Iowa’s hunting regulations explain what license/tag options for young hunters and adults.

Some hunters have questioned whether the new youth season ‘pushes back’ their days in the woods. Starting this year, the regular season starts on the Monday closest to April 15. Prior, it was the Monday closest to April 13. Gosselink says this year and the next three seasons all offer same start date as in the old structure. He emphasizes that provides several years for discussion, before a potential start that would be a week later.