Spring Fling

Spring Fling

Wisconsin's turkey flock now stands somewhere around 350,000 birds -- boding well for those hunters looking to usher in spring with a welcome dose of action! (April 2010)

Still reeling from last fall's dramatic decline in the deer harvest, Wisconsin hunters need look no farther than the state's wild turkeys for some good news. While deer numbers have dropped precipitously throughout the state, turkeys are still on the increase. The big birds now likely number more than 350,000 going into the 2010 spring season, with no end in sight to the upward trend in the statewide population.

The primary factor driving the increase in turkey numbers in Wisconsin is the expanding availability of habitat across much of the state and especially in the north.

Photo by Dan Small.

The main reason turkey numbers are still on the rise is that the population is still expanding to fill available habitat. Consistently successful spring and fall hunts throughout the state are testimony to the wild turkey's resilience and ability to pioneer into new areas. In extreme northern Wisconsin in particular, turkeys now occupy land that has probably never before supported a wild turkey population. Turkey numbers are highest in the southern and western parts of the state, but the population is growing faster in the north.

"Following the introduction of turkeys in the state in 1976, there was a huge boom and people were seeing huge flocks of 200 or 300 birds," says assistant upland wildlife ecologist Sharon Fandel of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Typically, when turkeys are introduced to a new area, there is a rise and peak, then the population falls a little bit before it stabilizes."


There have been no major issues with disease, and predators don't have much impact on overall numbers. Next to available habitat, winter and spring weather are the primary limiting factors for the state's wild turkeys. Prolonged periods of deep or crusted snow that make it difficult for turkeys to find food can kill birds in remote or heavily forested areas, but in farm country, turkeys will usually find enough food to get them through the winter.

Spring flooding can destroy nests, and a cold, wet spring can make survival difficult for poults. That was the case in 2008, when devastating floods swept across much of southern Wisconsin. Despite better weather in 2009, observers saw fewer broods than in 2008, according to a report by WDNR research scientist Brian Dhuey, entitled "Preliminary Ten-Week Brood Survey Results, 2009."

"Brood rearing conditions in 2009 were cooler and significantly drier than in 2008," the report reads. "Most of Wisconsin experienced a cool summer, with the average daily temperature running 1 to 3.5 degrees cooler than normal. Precipitation was average to below average over most of the state. No major weather events should have affected the brood rearing season like in 2008."

WDNR field personnel report the number and size of game bird broods observed from mid-June through mid-August. Turkey broods declined 11 percent last year, down from .038 broods per observer hour to .034. Three WDNR regions showed a decrease (northern, down 37 percent; southeast, down 16 percent; west-central, down 62 percent), but two regions showed a significant increase (south-central, up 70 percent; northeast, up 94 percent). The number of poults per brood remained the same: 4.4 for both 2008 and 2009.

The spring harvest has increased every year but two since Wisconsin's first modern turkey season in 1983. The harvest total dropped slightly in 2005 and again last year, when hunters registered 52,581 birds, compared with 52,880 in 2008. Success rates have remained consistently around 25 percent for the past decade. The success rate is based on the total number of permits sold, so the actual hunter success rate is higher. Many hunters who purchase extra tags do not kill a second or third bird.

"Harvest data and brood surveys demonstrate what we already know from first-hand experience -- the turkey population is growing in most areas," says WDNR upland wildlife ecologist Scott Hull. "Of course, poor brood conditions in some years, like in 2008, add to the variability in turkey numbers in certain parts of the state. Overall, the population is in very good condition."

After a year of good recruitment, toms make up about 70 percent of the harvest. Adult toms made up 75 percent of the harvest in 2007 and 81 percent in 2008. That figure jumped to 86 percent in 2009, which probably reflects the loss of poults in the spring floods of 2008. Fandel expects a higher percentage of toms in the harvest again this year because recruitment was still below par in 2009. Jakes and 2-year-olds will likely be comparatively scarce.


Several rule changes made in recent years will continue this season. The sunset closing time on hunting hours, in effect since 2007, has apparently set well with hunters.

"That rule seems to be working fine," says Hull. "We haven't had any specific feedback from turkey hunters or DNR staff."

This will be the second year for the seven-zone system, after 25 years of many more zones. This, too, appears to be working.

"The new system provides hunters with a few more options and choices," says Hull. "They aren't restricted to 46 small zones any more. Crowding has not been a major problem because the six time periods are still in place, spreading out the pressure."

Hull heard a few complaints of crowding in the new Zone 2, especially on public land in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. "We will continue to watch that," he says.

This year, a record 225,729 spring permits were available, an increase of just 300 over last year. Those 300 were all for Zone 6 in northwest Wisconsin, where a growth in the population warranted a slight increase. Most permits were issued by lottery drawing earlier this year, one per qualified applicant. Leftover permits were to have gone on sale some time in March, starting with one zone per day.


Three separate programs offer new hunters a chance to hunt turkeys under the supervision of an adult. Experienced hunters who enjoy locating and calling turkeys as much as or more than killing them see these programs as additional opportunities to hunt.

The Youth Turkey Hunt will enter its fourth year, and by all accounts, it appears to be a success. This program allows any hunter between the ages of 12 and 15 who holds a hunter education certificate, spring turkey license, stamp and carcass tag for any zone or period to hunt on April 10 and 11 in the zone for which the permit was issued. The

youth hunter must be accompanied by an adult 18 years of age or older. Youth hunters who purchase additional permits must use those during the period for which they were issued. Hunters who do not kill a turkey during the youth hunt may use their unfilled permit during the period for which it was issued. More information can be found online at dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/ HUNT/turkey/youthhunt.htm.

The Learn To Hunt program offers inexperienced hunters of any age a chance to hunt under the guidance of qualified hunter education instructors and mentors. Participants receive classroom and field instruction, then enjoy an actual hunt. They do not need a license or hunter education certificate. Novice hunters are paired one-on-one with mentors to provide a high level of instruction and safety. These events are usually sponsored by local conservation clubs or National Wild Turkey Federation chapters under WDNR supervision.

Most LTH turkey hunts are held the weekend before the Youth Turkey Hunt. I have served as an LTH mentor for five years and can honestly say that they were among my most memorable hunts. My second LTH hunter, 12-year-old Mitch Heupel, killed a nice tom late in the afternoon on an exciting hunt during which we saw dozens of birds and witnessed a field full of fighting toms. For more information on organizing or participating in an LTH program, go online to http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/ hunt/learnhunt.htm.

As of last September, Wisconsin offers a third opportunity for novice hunters through the Mentored Hunt Program. This program allows hunters ages 10 and older to hunt under the supervision of an adult mentor who remains within arm's reach at all times during the hunt. Designed for 10- and 11-year-olds, the mentored hunt is open to anyone born after Jan. 1, 1973, who does not have a hunter education certificate.

A novice who participates in a mentored hunt must have a valid turkey license, stamp and permit. The license will be marked "Mentored Hunt." Qualified adult mentors must be at least 18 years of age and be the youth's parent or guardian, or have the parent or guardian's permission to mentor the youth hunter. Only one firearm, bow or (if eligible) crossbow may be possessed jointly between the mentor and the hunter. More information on this program can be found online at http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/ wildlife/hunt/mentor.htm.

The state also offers free turkey hunter education clinics throughout the state in February and March. Dates and locations are posted on the DNR Web site.


In a typical year, most breeding takes place in late April and early May. During the first and second hunting periods, toms often eagerly come to a call because most hens are not yet receptive. In the middle two periods, toms are often "henned up" because breeding is going on in earnest. By the later periods, most hens are sitting on nests and toms are again responsive to calls.

Some hunters use this rough timetable to plan their hunts. You might have better luck sitting tight and calling early in the season. Calling aggressively to pull in boss hens sometimes works when a tom won't leave the girls to come to you. Later in the season, when toms are wandering and foliage is dense, you can "run and gun" to find a talkative tom, then set up close to him and try to call him in.

If you do not have permission to hunt private land, you can sometimes find a spot to yourself on the larger blocks of public land. In the southwest, the 8,500-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve in Vernon County is a good bet. Hunters must buy seasonal or daily access permits. Black River State Forest in Jackson County is another spot where you'll find room to roam. In the southeast, the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest attract a lot of hunters, but hike in far from a road to find elbowroom.

In central Wisconsin, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and large state properties, like Meadow Valley and Wood County wildlife areas, have plenty of oaks and turkeys. In the north-central and northern regions, county forests are a good bet. County foresters can help you find oak stands.

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