The wild turkey is one tough bird. The last two Wisconsin winters have been among the nastiest on record, and yet each following spring, the state’s wild turkeys appeared to go about their business as if winter had brought nothing but a gentle rain. Since their reintroduction here in 1976, the big birds have spread to every corner of Wisconsin and they now occupy virtually all the suitable habitat in the state.
After several modifications, the spring turkey hunt now consists of six week-long seasons in seven zones covering the entire state. Each period begins on a Wednesday, with the first season opening on April 15. As always, permits are allocated by a random draw conducted each winter. Leftover permits go on sale in March, and many hunters take advantage of the opportunity to hunt for an additional bird or two and during a later period.
2014 Harvest and 2014 Permits
Despite another long and severe winter, hunters registered a total of 41,815 birds during the 2014 spring turkey season. This is a 10.7 percent increase from the 2013 spring season.
“I think many hunters were pleasantly surprised by the number of birds they were seeing in the field, given the prolonged winter weather,” said Scott Walter, upland wildlife ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “It certainly appears that impacts were localized, with winter flocks inhabiting areas without access to food likely seeing the greatest impacts.”
Zone 1 produced the highest overall turkey harvest at 12,188 birds, followed by zones 3 and 2, where hunters registered 10,519 and 10,363 turkeys respectively. Hunters registered 5,752 turkeys in Zone 4, 2,011 in Zone 5, 541 in Zone 6, and 354 in Zone 7. Success rates were up in zones 1-5 and down only slightly in zones 6 and 7, where winter weather likely had some impact on overall turkey numbers. In 2014, the statewide success rate was 19.9 percent, compared to 17.9 in 2013.
Adult toms made up 90.6 percent of the total harvest last year, a significant increase over 2013, when they made up only 73 percent of the total. This increase suggests brood production was down considerably in 2013, which is no surprise, given the long winter and wet spring.
“Decent weather for hunting throughout much of the season certainly allowed hunters to hit the woods hard this spring and likely contributed to the increase in harvest,” said Krista McGinley, DNR assistant upland wildlife ecologist. “The fact that we saw an increase also paints a picture of a turkey population that’s still in good shape.”
The number of permits issued for 2014 decreased slightly over 2013, from 211,307 to 210,496. This decline in part reflects a DNR decision to reduce over-the-counter permit availability by 25 percent in zones 4 and 5 and eliminate leftover permits entirely in zones 6 and 7.
Zone 1 covers the southwest corner of the state from the Illinois line north to Highway 10 and the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi. There will be 74,000 permits available again this spring, many of which will still be available after the drawing. Last spring, more than 8,000 permits remained at the end of the season so hunters who forgot to apply or who decide late that they want to try a turkey hunt will have no problem getting a permit. This is Coulee Country, with deep ravines and small woodlots dotting a rolling agricultural landscape and very little public land. Farmers usually welcome turkey hunters.
Zone 2 covers the southeastern corner of Wisconsin north to Oconto. There are 42,000 permits available there again this year. Leftover permits are sold out quickly when they go on sale in March. Public land there consists of the Northern and Southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and a number of large wetland parcels like Theresa, Horicon and Collins marshes. Much of the best habitat is on private farmland, and access is often hard to get.
Zone 3 covers much of central Wisconsin. Permit levels there are 63,000 again this year, and many leftover permits will be available throughout the season. Last spring, more than 7,000 permits remained after the season ended. There is plenty of public land, and farmers often welcome turkey hunters, and so access is easier than in Zone 2.
Zone 4 runs along the Mississippi River from Trempealeau County north to northern Burnett County and east to the Wisconsin River. Turkey habitat there ranges from steep coulees to small woodlots and big woods parcels. There will be 34,920 permits available, and there should be plenty left after the drawing.
Zone 5 encompasses most of northeastern Wisconsin’s big woods country. Permits will number 12,000, and the few leftover permits will sell out quickly. If you’ve got a permit and access to timber, this is a good zone to hunt, as hunters have more room to spread out than in Zones 1, 2 and 4.
Zones 6 and 7 cover the far north, where the past two winters took the greatest toll on birds. Permit levels are the lowest in the state, and there will likely be no leftover permits again this year. Birds are scattered, with the best concentrations near farms. Hunters there earn their birds and often cover many miles in search of a gobbler. Once you find an active tom, however, he should be happy to hear some hen yelping and ought to be fairly easy to hunt.
Hunters seem pleased with the reduced number of zones and leftover permit distribution system.
“Hunter satisfaction with the current turkey season structure remains high,” said McGinley. “In the 2013 spring turkey hunter questionnaire, in response to the statement ‘I feel the current 7-zone system affords me sufficient opportunity to hunt different locations,’ 22.4 percent of survey respondents said they strongly agree, 45 percent said they agree, 21.8 percent were neutral, 8.7 percent disagreed and 2.3 percent strongly disagreed.”
On that same questionnaire, an overwhelming majority of hunters in all zones indicated they had no problem with competition from other hunters.
Winter’s Impact and Brood Production
Some hunters were concerned that the harsh winter weather would have a significant impact on turkey numbers across the north. McGinley said there were verified reports of turkey mortalities in the northern counties, with scattered reports elsewhere.
“This mortality, though, was likely localized and due to winter flocks becoming isolated by deep snow in areas without ready access to food sources,” McGinley said. “Where flocks could find food, such as standing corn, silage bags and bird feeders, in close proximity to roosting trees, they likely survived fairly well. Since larger individuals lose proportionately less heat than do smaller individuals when temperatures drop, and hence are better able to survive on limited fat reserves or available food resources, younger birds likely experienced higher mortality than adult birds in areas where long periods of cold and deep snow persisted for a long period.”
The statewide harvest and the increase over 2013 suggests that turkeys came through the winter in decent shape, even in the north, where concerns for their well being were most acute, McGinley said.
“In fact, harvest this spring in Zones 2 and 3 was near the highest (Zone 2) or the highest (Zone 3) we’ve seen in the past four years,” McGinley said. “The fact that harvest was up and that many hunters we heard from were seeing good numbers of turkeys across the state suggests the turkey population came through one of the hardest winters on record in better shape than many thought possible. They truly are hardy birds, and better adapted to life in the north than many believed.”
Brood rearing conditions in Wisconsin in 2014 were pretty good, with much of the state seeing temperatures about or slightly below average for the months of June and July and average for August. Above-average precipitation was the norm for much of the state for June, with the state average 2.53 inches above normal. Precipitation levels returned to normal or below in July and August for the southern parts of the state but continued to be average or above for the northwest.
Early June weather is the most critical for turkey broods as this is when recently hatched chicks are most susceptible to hypothermia if they get wet. Large rainfall events in much of Wisconsin could have affected brood survival during June. Much of July and August weather was excellent for brood rearing and survival.
DNR staff members record game bird broods observed during their fieldwork. There was an increase of 22 percent in the number of turkey broods seen per observer-hour and an increase in the size of the broods seen compared to 2013. The statewide observation rate was 22 percent above the long-term mean.
The average size of a brood seen in 2014 was 4.5 young per brood, up from the 4.2 young per brood seen in 2013. Despite the long and hard winter and late spring, there were many reports of turkeys having broods with small chicks late in the brood observation period, an indication of late nesting or re-nesting and successful nesting. Walter expects to see annual population fluctuations from this point forward, driven primarily by weather conditions during the spring brood-rearing period and — particularly for turkeys in our northern counties — winter severity.
“Hunters should expect the number of turkeys they see from one year to the next to ebb and flow a bit, depending upon recent spring and winter weather conditions,” Walter said. “But overall I would expect turkey populations to stay healthy given the high-quality habitat we’ve got across the state.”
Outlook for this Season and the Future
By the time you read this article, spring turkey permits will have been awarded and you should know when and where you are hunting. Permit numbers for each zone are allocated according to available forest habitat, with an eye to limiting hunter densities during each of the six hunting periods. Your opportunity for success will depend on the availability of turkeys in the area you plan to hunt, how well you have scouted and, of course, the weather during your weeklong hunting period.
A late spring, like the one we saw last year, can push courting and nesting activity back a week or more. The birds will still be out there, but whether they will have dispersed enough to hunt them effectively by the first period is impossible to predict in advance. Hunters who can take more than one week to hunt will increase their odds of scoring by purchasing one or more leftover permits for the later hunting periods.
The Youth Turkey Hunt offers hunters aged 10 through 15 a chance to hunt prior to the regular season. This year, the youth hunt runs April 11-12, the weekend before the first hunting period begins on April 15. Hunters who have not yet received hunter education certification must be accompanied by a mentor, someone at least 18 and who has hunted turkeys for at least five years.
Details on the youth hunt and other programs for novice hunters can be found on the DNR website under keywords: Youth Hunt, Mentored Hunt, and Learn to Hunt.
Wisconsin’s turkey management plan, in effect since 1996, is being revised this year. A public-comment period was held recently and the new 10-year plan should be available sometime this spring or summer.
“We’re very hopeful that the structure of the plan will appeal to hunters,” said Walter. “We designed it with the turkey enthusiast in mind, and produced what we feel is a very reader-friendly document that discusses the biology behind turkey management and the history of our turkey program in Wisconsin, and outlines important goals and strategies that we think will address the questions we heard from citizens through our public survey. I really think this document will make our program transparent, and will bridge the gap for interested hunters who care about turkeys and the way they’re managed.”
The National Wild Turkey Federation has identified a large portion of the heavily wooded northern region as a focus area. NWTF will concentrate funding and management efforts to address habitat-limiting factors within these focus areas.
“In the northern forest we need to provide foods that can sustain turkeys through harsh winters and brood habitat to increase productivity so that flocks can quickly recover from severe winters,” said Rick Horton, NWTF conservation field supervisor.
Overall, Walter believes the long-term outlook for turkeys in Wisconsin is excellent.
“Given our diverse mix of forests and agriculture, we’ve got high-quality habitat across the state that will support healthy turkey populations and quality hunting opportunities into the foreseeable future,” he said.
For the individual hunter, the proof, of course, is in that personal experience. When dawn stretches her rosy fingers across a gray April sky, you hunker by a big oak and listen for that magic sound that makes a year of waiting, months of preparation and several weeks of scouting all worthwhile. One gobble and it’s game on!