Turkeys, walleyes thriving in Iowa yet again

Wildside column: It wasn't always that way in the state

Wild turkeys take off from a farm field east of Amana on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Wild turkeys take off from a farm field east of Amana on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The state’s successful efforts to restore the wild turkey to its native haunts and to multiply the numbers of highly desirable walleye in Iowa rivers make spring much more alluring than it was when I grew up in the 1950s along the banks of the Wapsipinicon River.

No one I knew then had ever seen a wild turkey, which had been extirpated from Iowa by the early 1900s through habitat destruction and unrestricted hunting, and we doubted that we ever would, even when the state began its ultimately successful reintroduction effort in the mid-1960s.

The common wisdom then held that wild turkeys could flourish only in large tracts of timber, which are rare in intensely farmed counties like Buchanan.

But within 20 years the turkeys had adapted surprisingly well to the small woodlots and tree-lined creeks in farm country, and today most Iowans live almost within earshot of the piercing gobbles that can instantly double a spring hunter’s pulse rate.

The Department of Natural Resources, which implemented the reintroduction, estimates it will issue 50,000 turkey licenses this spring for the youth season (April 8-16) and the four regular seasons that run from April 17 to May 21.

In my youth, catching a walleye in the Wapsipinicon River was only slightly more likely than shooting a nonexistent turkey. Only one local angler, the late Chester Sherrets, could do it regularly, and Chet multiplied his chances by hand-building secret rocky lairs that he visited before each angling outing to collect irresistible soft-shell crayfish for bait.

In those days before the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which sharply curtailed pollution from the pipes of factories and wastewater treatment plants, the water in the Wapsipinicon was not hospitable to any of the fussier species of game fish.


But even in the cleaner post-1972 water, walleyes failed to flourish until the mid-1990s, when the DNR implemented its fingerling stocking program.

Walleye fry, either naturally reproduced or stocked by the DNR, have survival rates so low they cannot sustain fishable populations in the state’s interior rivers. The fingerlings, however, not only survive but thrive, achieving catchable size in three years.

With the DNR’s continued expansion of its fingerling production, many Iowa anglers no longer feel the need to leave the state to partake of good walleye fishing. And with walleye filets increasingly satisfying their fish hunger, many of them are releasing fish they would have once consumed.

Thus, as if to show that unintended consequences need not always be negative, the improved walleye fishing also has contributed to the prosperity of another popular game fish, the smallmouth bass, whose survival in Iowa’s interior rivers depends upon their ability to reproduce themselves.

Thanks to those two successful DNR programs, shooting a gobbler in the morning and catching a stringer of walleyes in the afternoon is not only possible but also so eminently doable that even I have done it on more than one fine spring day.



Editor's note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geosci ...

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