Wild turkeys: Secrets of staying hidden

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — Wild Turkeys can be stealthy, usually, and sometimes they appear suddenly and put on a show for us human observers. The tom will sport a long beard off his chest, a collection of special thread-like long strands, in addition to his large fanned out tail, and his featherless head is adorned with fleshy bumps that can turn bright red if he wants to communicate to other turkeys. The hen has a more subdued appearance. Her head is more pale blue. And most of the time she will not have a beard. As fall season approaches, DNR biologists are interested in turkey sightings from the public, especially if a hen and her brood of young of the year are present. Take note of the number of young and their body sizes.

Wild turkeys made my day recently. I wasn’t particularly looking for these majestic large game birds. However, along a recently mowed fire lane at the Iowa River Wildlife Area, out stepped two tom turkeys right in front of me.

They did not know I was close. I did not know they were close. So it was a coincidence of timing, of being in the right place at the right time, to observe these big birds.

The outcome of this encounter was easy to guess. I was not ready with my camera. The turkeys wasted no time and quickly slipped into adjacent tall grass cover, and out of sight.

In a matter of seconds, we saw each other, and then they disappeared. Gone.

Today’s images I am sharing are from past hunting episodes where I was sitting in a camo ground blind waiting for turkeys to pass by. I was waiting with my bow and arrow and a camera. A problem with a long lens camera and being both a wildlife photographer and a hunter, is which device to use. Most of the time if a big bird is too far away, or is a hen, the camera comes into play so that a zoom lens feature can bring the image closer.

If a tom turkey is too far away, the camera may be used first. If the tom comes closer, or appears to be coming closer, my archery gear is prepared. I can attest to the fact that in most cases, the tom turkey has a distinct possibility of not becoming my next Thanksgiving Day dinner.

My arrows have connected several times over the last four decades. Most of the time, an archery turkey hunt is a bust — no turkeys observed at all — or my attempts to use decoys and calling alerts the tom turkey to be suspicious of my setup.

I try to learn from my mistakes. I try to learn from the turkeys: what they like and don’t like. I have come to the conclusion that I will always have a lot to learn.

When a hunt ends quickly with a well aimed arrow, it is easy to think that hunt was too easy, a caution to be wary of since the next hunt could be a huge mixture of frustration and not so good luck. That is why hunters hunt and why hunting is not shopping.

This game of deception plays out each year all across Iowa. There is the traditional spring gobbler season during parts of April and May, and each fall there will be another opportunity for hunters to take a turkey as an adjunct to deer hunting. This fall hunters can purchase a gun/bow turkey license until the quota is filled for zones 4,5,6,7,8 or 9.

Archery only fall wild turkey tags have no quota and are valid statewide. However, since archery success rates on fall turkeys with a bow are extremely low, the need for a quota is null.

Archery fall turkey tag dates are the same as deer dates. Gun hunters have between Oct. 10 and Dec. 1, 2023.

Spring 2024 wild turkey hunting dates will begin on April 5-7 for resident youth. Gun season one is April 8-11, season two runs from April 12-16, season three is April 17-23, and season four is April 24-May 12, 2024.

Archers have a statewide run from April 8-May 12. The limit is one bearded turkey per each valid license.

During the spring of 2023, Iowa turkey hunters took 11,269 birds. Marshall County hunters accounted for 71 of that total.


Wild turkey populations can and do fluctuate over time. Weather events can be part of the causes for good brood success or not.

Hen turkeys are very particular about nesting sites to remain hidden and away from predator travel corridors. Wild turkey populations are dynamic.

Habitat considerations are always a top concern and we humans can assist greatly in this regard. For biologists, there is no one silver bullet or any one-size-fits-all scenario that causes regional populations to rise or fall from one year to another.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has been active in scientific research support since the 1970s to assist with projects throughout state turkey ranges. Typically, the money raised via wild turkey banquets and other events goes a long way toward matching and leveraging more

financial support.

On average, the NWTF conservatively leverages funding on a four to one basis, meaning that for every dollar raised by dedicated volunteers, the Federation can turn it into four dollars as an absolute minimum.

Higher rates are frequently noted. The NWTF partners with USDA Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to help spread the funding raising goal to as many good projects as possible.

Private landowner incentives come into play in each and every situation. Hunters are an integral part of conservation funding that spreads those benefits from hunting licenses and equipment purchases to allow others, namely hikers, campers and wildlife viewers to enjoy seeing wild turkeys.

All the pieces of the conservation puzzle are important.


Pheasants and their young of the year have also crossed my path. Most of my pheasant sightings have happened while driving back roadways, especially if I am on an early morning foray to just go sightseeing.

Overall my unscientific impression is that a good crop of new pheasants will be with us this fall. Iowa pheasant season for youth will be Oct. 21-22. Then the official opening day of Oct. 28 kicks off the regular season that will end on Jan. 10, 2024.

The daily limit is three per day and 12 in possession after the fourth day. Hunting hours are 8 a.m. until 4:30 daily.


Deer license sales were very brisk statewide on Aug. 15, the first day these items could be purchased for this fall’s deer hunting.

So brisk were the license vendors’ computer requests that the system became overwhelmed. In fact, it shut down temporarily until time allowed the licensing system to catch up.

Marshall County’s quota of 150 doe tags quickly sold out well before the day ended, as is typical from past years. For statewide deer tags for archers and/or gun hunters choosing their preference of shotgun season one or two, or early or late muzzleloader, the DNR has tried to manage the demand for deer hunting as best they can.

Add a new wrinkle to deer hunting in Marshall, Jasper and Grundy/Hardin counties for this fall, and perhaps into the January time frame, due to confirmed cases of CWD, Chronic Wasting Disease, found in a very few deer last fall. I noted the effects this always fatal disease may

impose upon local deer hunting in this column of last week.

To learn more about CWD impacts, the DNR will host an informational meeting at the Baxter Library on Aug. 29, a Tuesday evening, at 7 p.m. Hunters that want the facts should come and listen to biologists and managers on how this disease will impact hunting this fall. See you there.


City of Marshalltown deer hunting, with bow, is set to begin this urban deer management program on Sept. 16 through Jan. 10, 2024. Marshalltown’s Park and Recreation office will have the application forms for hunters.

The city rules are largely the same as past years, which includes the permission forms and a hunter’s ID card. Proficiency tests are required; archers must demonstrate 10 arrows at 20 yards and 10 arrows at 15 yards into a 10″ target.

Crossbow hunters have a more accurate weapon choice and their proficiency test will be five arrows at 25 yards into a 9″ target with a 100 percent target hit. There is always a need to recruit additional archers for the city hunt.

To discuss and learn about this, feel free to contact the Park and Rec office, or interested hunters can learn more by contacting this author at 641-750-4914.


Hunter safety class in Marshall County will be Aug. 24 and 26. Attendance at both sessions is required. The location will be at the Izaak Walton League clubhouse in Marshalltown.

Register via the DNR website to become enrolled in this local class. This will be the last traditional classroom setting for this instruction this year. There are other online options if this fits one’s schedule in a more efficient way.

Hunter safety is a required task to complete in order to purchase a hunting license, and once passed in Iowa, it is honored in all 50 states and all Canadian provinces.


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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