According to all indications, Wisconsin’s 2018 spring turkey season is shaping up to be another good one. Last year’s spring turkey harvest of 43,305 continued the seesaw pattern of the past few years, falling 5 percent below the 2016 take of 45,501 birds. That tally was still better than the 2015 total of 40,975, and it keeps Wisconsin among the top five or so states in spring harvest.
There were 241,153 permits available last spring. Of those, 135,698 permits were issued in the drawing, and another 76,758 permits sold over the counter, for a total of 212,456. The statewide hunter success rate was 20.4 percent, a decline of 5 percent, but because hunters buy multiple permits and the success rate is based on the number of permits sold, the actual hunter success rate was likely much higher.
Zone 1 led the state in harvest once again, with 12,564 birds. The other zones followed in order: Zone 2, 10,664; Zone 3, 9,919; Zone 4, 6,774; Zone 5, 1,966; Zone 6, 817; and Zone 7, 514. Adult gobblers made up 81.7 percent of the harvest, a decline of 1.3 percent from 2016. That percentage is higher than average for the past decade, but still below the 91 percent rate seen in 2014, which suggests continued improved brood success.
Turkey permits are now called “harvest authorizations,” a change that came with the elimination of carcass tags last fall. As of this writing, harvest authorization levels are essentially the same as last year, with only minor changes: Zone 1, 74,646; Zone 2, 51,036; Zone 3, 63,018; Zone 4, 34,968; Zone 5, 12,000; Zone 6, 4,950; Zone 7, 3,600.
As in past years, there should be plenty of leftover permits available for Zones 1, 3 and 4 for hunting periods C through F. Zone 2 usually has leftover permits for periods E and F, and Zone 5 for periods D, E and F, but most of those will sell out, so if you want an extra permit or if you forgot to apply for a permit in the drawing, you should act quickly. Since hunters can purchase one leftover permit per day once they go on sale in late March, it is technically possible to possess more than 50 permits for the spring season. One acquaintance regularly shoots five or more birds each spring and fall.
Hunter success rates are always highest during the first period in all seven zones, but there are still lots of birds left throughout the season. Some hunters actually prefer hunting during the later periods because the weather is warmer and the woods have greened up, offering hunters better cover. Hens usually are nesting by mid-season, which means fewer toms will be “henned-up,” making them more responsive to calling.
In 2009, the DNR reduced the number of turkey zones from 46 to seven, and those boundaries have remained the same. Larger zones allow hunters more flexibility in where they hunt, while still allowing biologists to effectively monitor the population and regulate harvest.
“According to the 2016 spring turkey hunter survey, 74.7 percent of respondents feel that the current seven-zone system affords sufficient opportunity to hunt while maintaining acceptable hunter densities, and 75.5 percent are satisfied with the current season framework,” said DNR upland game bird ecologist Mark Witecha. “Also, 13.9 percent of hunters reported there was too much competition where they hunted.”
Zone 1 covers most of the southwestern quarter of the state, from Highway 10 south to the Illinois border and from the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi. There is some public land there, most notably in Vernon (Kickapoo Valley Reserve) and Jackson (Black River State Forest) counties, but most of the turkey habitat is on private land. Landowners are more willing to let outsiders hunt turkeys than deer, but you should still get permission in advance of the season. This is prime turkey country, with a mix of farms and woodlots scattered throughout steep ridges and valleys.
Zone 2 runs from the Wisconsin River east to Lake Michigan and from Oconto County south to the Illinois line. With two large cities (Milwaukee and Madison), hunting pressure is high, but there are large blocks of public land in the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and other state properties. Farms and woodlots provide good habitat on private land, but landowners guard hunting privileges more jealously than in Zone 1.
Zone 3 covers much of central Wisconsin. There is a lot of public land in large blocks, mainly in state wildlife areas and the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Turkeys are abundant, too, and there are always leftover permits available throughout the season. These three factors make Zone 3 a good choice for hunters.
Zone 4 lies north of Zones 1 and 3 and runs along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers from Pepin County north to Highway 77 in Burnett County. It is bounded on the south by Highways 10, 73 and 29 and on the north by Highways 77, 53 and 8. Habitat is similar to that in Zone 1, with steep hills and ravines, but larger sections of forest. There are large blocks of public land in county, state and federal ownership, with good opportunities to find a bird or two. Ample leftover permits make this zone another good choice.
Zone 5 lies east of Zone 4 and covers Marinette, Langlade, Shawano and parts of Lincoln, Oneida, Forest, Florence and Oconto counties. It also encompasses most of the Menominee Reservation, where only tribal members and their families can hunt. This zone is heavily forested; birds are scattered and often hard to pattern. There is plenty of public land, and so if you are up to the challenge, this can be an enjoyable hunt.
Watch The Video Above For Great Turkey Calling Tactics
Zones 6 and 7 encompass far northern Wisconsin. Highway 13 forms the boundary between them. Permit levels are low, and there are few if any leftovers. Turkeys hang out near the few farms found throughout the region and also along linear openings — logging roads, recreational trails, and powerline rights of way. On some county, state and federal forestland, turkeys can also be found along hunter walking trails. These designated trails are gated to keep out motorized vehicles, seeded to grass and clover, and mowed to attract wildlife. In several trips up north last summer and fall, I observed numerous turkeys, including several large groups of gobblers, picking up gravel and insects along roadsides. You must do some scouting, but if you can find a gobbler willing to respond to calls, you ought to have a good chance of killing him.
Some state parks are open to hunting during the first three periods. Those parks have been merged into the respective surrounding management zones, and so no special permit is required to hunt them. You will need a vehicle admission sticker, however. For more information, visit the DNR Web site under keywords “state park hunting.”
WINTER’S IMPACT AND BROOD PRODUCTION
Wisconsin enjoyed another mild winter in 2016-17, with below-average snowfall and above-average temperatures, which was beneficial to turkeys, especially in the north, where winter can have a major impact on survival. The early spring green-up was another boon to turkeys, as it provided more cover and food for nesting hens and poults. An early spring also boosts insect numbers, a major food source for poults.
Temperatures during the spring brood-rearing period were average, and precipitation was above normal for much of the summer brood rearing season. Early June weather is the most critical for turkey broods as that is when recently hatched chicks are most susceptible to hypothermia if they get wet. Most of the summer was wet, but it didn’t seem to impact brood survival as drastically as it had in 2016.
“Wild turkeys saw an increase in brood production last spring, with a statewide increase of 47.8 percent in the number of broods seen per observer-hour over last year’s level,” said DNR wildlife survey coordinator Brian Dhuey. “Four of the five turkey regions saw increases: northeast (28.2 percent), northern (88.7 percent), south-central (16.9 percent), and western (25.2 percent). Only the southeast saw a decrease (-33.4 percent). The size of those broods did show a decrease, though, from 4.5 to 4.1 this summer.”
Brood production surveys are conducted by DNR employees during June through August as they go about their normal work duties. Over the long term, the surveys can be used as an index to production and as a forecast for hunting success.
Two rule changes will affect turkey hunters from now on. The big change in hunting opportunities for youths is the elimination of the minimum age limit for participants in the mentored hunting program. As of last fall, anyone can hunt, regardless of age, as long as they hold a mentored hunting license and are accompanied by a licensed adult hunter who remains within arm’s reach.
The other rule change eliminates carcass tags. Hunters are no longer required to carry a paper carcass tag or attach it to a harvested turkey. You must carry proof that you have a turkey license, turkey stamp and harvest authorization for the time period and zone you are hunting. That proof can be a printed or digital copy of your license, stamp and authorization; your Go Wild Conservation Card (cost: $3.50); or your driver’s license, if your hunting license information has been entered in that database.
As before, you still must register a harvested turkey by 5 p.m. the day after you shoot it, and you must have the unique number on your harvest authorization to do so. You can accomplish this by phone by calling 844-426-3734, or online at gowild.wi.gov/wildlife/harvest.
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SEASON AND BEYOND
As of last year, our spring turkey season now begins on the third Wednesday in April, which ensures that Memorial Day weekend will always fall during the sixth period.
The first period begins on April 18 and runs for seven days, with the five subsequent periods beginning on each following Wednesday.
The youth spring turkey hunt for those under age 15 will run April 14 and 15. Youth hunters are limited to the turkey management zone for which their harvest authorization(s) was issued. If they do not shoot a turkey during the two-day hunt, they can hunt during the season indicated on their authorization.
Learn-to-hunt programs are offered by clubs and other groups at various times. These are open to hunters of any age. There is a required classroom and hands-on session, followed by the hunt itself. There are also special hunts for people with disabilities and opportunities to hunt at Fort McCoy. Information on all these hunts can be found in the 2017-2018 small game hunting regulations and on the DNR Web site.
“The future continues to look bright for turkeys and turkey hunters in Wisconsin,” said Witecha. “We have an ideal mix of agriculture and forest throughout much of the state, and barring any landscape scale changes in cover or land use, Wisconsin should continue to be a premier turkey hunting state. After decades of population growth following the successful reintroduction of the species, the turkey population appears to have stabilize over the last seven years or so, with small fluctuations generally associated with variation in annual nesting and brood-rearing conditions.”