Thousands of young Iowans in search of a gobbler will hit the woods this weekend for the state’s annual youth spring turkey hunting season.
In preparation for the nine-day season, which runs April 8-16, Jason Schwartzhoff of Davenport and his two sons practiced their aim the past few weeks at indoor and outdoor shooting ranges in the area.
The trio, along with Schwartzhoff’s father, Jeri, planned to leave Friday for Keokuk County, where they will hunt on a friend of a friend’s property near Sigourney, Iowa.
“It’s just about getting out in God’s creation and enjoying Mother Nature,” said Schwartzhoff, 39. “If we can get a turkey, that’d be cool, too.”
Jason’s sons, Jacob, 12, and Joshua, 7, accompanied their father this past fall when he harvested a turkey.
Jacob, who has been hunting with his father for a few years now, killed his first deer this past fall with a .50 caliber muzzleloader. He will use his compound bow on this turkey hunt. He called turkeys a "beautiful bird."
No matter what happens during their outings, he said, "You always have a story to tell."
This weekend will mark Joshua's first time out as a licensed hunter. He will take aim with a youth-model shotgun.
While the father of two knows some people may question his judgment for arming his 7-year-old son with a firearm, he stressed safety remains his top priority.
“I teach him (Joshua) to act as if a gun is always loaded,” said Schwartzhoff, a safety supervisor at MidAmerican Energy. “He’s not going to be holding it until it’s time to shoot, and even then, I’ll be right next to him.”
Schwartzhoff, who also educates his boys about the conservation aspect of hunting, said the same rules and teachings apply to Jacob with the bow.
“They know these are weapons, not toys," he added.
Iowa’s window for the 5,500 or so expected hunters under the age of 16 precedes the state’s four regular seasons that begin April 17, and continue through most of May.
While the Iowa Department of Natural Resources regularly issues about 50,000 turkey licenses for the upcoming seasons, the agency estimates just 20 percent of hunters will find success harvesting the “elusive” eastern wild turkey.
Different from deer hunting, “turkeys have home-field advantage,” said Jim Coffey, forest wildlife technician for the DNR.
“They’re out there every day, and we’re only out there playing on their turf for a few days every year," Coffey said. "They’re a bird with a small brain, but they have a lot of knowledge and power."
Last spring, turkey hunters reported harvesting almost 12,200 birds during a 44-day stretch in Iowa, the highest total since the state began requiring hunters to register their harvest in 2007.
During their hunt this weekend, the Schwartzhoffs will set out a faux flock of turkey decoys to attract gobblers while they make calls from a nearby ground blind.
Here’s how it works:
• In the timber, a hen will answer the male turkey’s call when she wants to breed.
• Turkey hunters will try to position themselves in between the breeding birds and replicate hen calls to lure a male turkey, also known as a tom.
Schwartzhoff said his sons will shoot if, and only if, a turkey comes within 10 to 15 yards of their blind.
“Usually, you only have one shot,” he said. “They can see every little movement.”
Iowa's youth season, Coffey said, gives novice hunters a chance to test the sport with fewer hunters around, therefore fewer distractions.
“It doesn’t give them a greater chance of success, but it gives them a better experience,” said Coffey, who noted there typically are “extra” toms out this time of year. “Getting a bird is always a goal, but that experience of just being out in the woods is what we want people to enjoy.”
On Thursday, Schwartzhoff sent the boys to grandpa's house so he and his wife could have a "date night" before his weekend away.
The family man emphasized that both his sons earned their spots on this guys' trip by performing well in school.
Earlier in the week, during target practice at B&B Shooting Supplies in Bettendorf, Jacob, the older brother, said he prefers adventures in "peaceful rural areas," over busy urban settings.
"This is my sport," he said. "I hope this is the year I get my first turkey."