The key to turkey hunting success, according to Department of Natural Resources forest wildlife research biologist Jim Coffey, is positioning oneself “between where the turkeys are and where they want to go.”
And scouting is the key to gathering that valuable information, said Coffey, who enjoys hunting turkeys as much as studying them.
In a typical scenario, the hunter, in preseason predawn scouting trips, listens for gobbling on roost trees and observes where the turkeys go when they alight on the ground.
With that information, the hunter can then execute a high percentage ambush.
Without that information, the hunter is in for a lower percentage wait for a turkey that may or may not be within sight of decoys and hearing of calls.
Hunter success, as defined as the percentage of Iowa hunters who harvest a spring turkey, has declined, at least statistically, during the past decade.
But that decline has more to do with how the numbers are derived than with turkey populations or hunter skills, Coffey said.
Before 2006, when the state introduced its electronic licensing system, harvest data was derived from hunter responses to a postcard survey, which tended to over-report hunter success, he said.
From 2000 through 2006, for example, the average number of turkeys harvested during Iowa’s spring seasons was 22,830, and hunter success during those seven years averaged 45 percent.
Since 2007, harvest data has been derived from actual hunter reports filed via computer or telephone, which, because many hunters fail to file the legally required reports, tends to under-report hunter success.
Over the past 11 years, Iowa hunters have harvested an average of 11,178 turkeys per spring season with a harvest success rate of 21.4 percent — both less than half the comparable figures for the 2000 to 2006 period.
The actual number, Coffey said, “is somewhere in the middle.”
For Coffey and most other spring turkey hunters, “success is not measured by whether the tag is filled, but by the experience,” he said.
“There’s something magical about watching daylight come into the woods — especially on a nice spring morning after a long winter,” Coffey said.
That magic is, of course, heightened by the thrill of nearby thunderous gobbles.
Iowa’s spring turkey hunting began April 7 with a youth only season, followed by individual seasons beginning Monday.
Success rates, he said, tend to run higher in the first (Monday through Thursday) and second (April 20-24) seasons than in the third (April 25-May 1) and fourth (May 2-20).
“Your more avid and experienced hunters tend to prefer the early seasons, which probably contributes to the higher success rates,” Coffey said. “That and the fact that gobblers may be less wary before hunting pressure mounts.”
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Hunters in the third and fourth seasons also may get an edge when hens begin incubating their eggs and are no longer available for breeding, Coffee said.
“With fewer hens in the woods, gobblers become more susceptible to decoys and calling. It’s the testosterone,” he said.