After a decline in 2015, Wisconsin’s spring turkey harvest took a substantial jump last year, when hunters registered 45,501 turkeys, an increase of 11 percent over 2015’s total of 40,975. Hunters recorded more turkeys in every zone except Zone 7 in the far north, where the harvest of 510 was down a mere eight birds from the 2015 tally of 518.
The overall hunter success rate was 21.4 percent, the highest since 2010. That rate is based on the number of permits issued, and since many hunters buy multiple permits, it’s likely that about half of Wisconsin hunters bagged at least one gobbler last spring.
“It was a very successful spring season for turkey hunters, with many positive reports coming in from throughout Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife ecologist Mark Witecha. “Turkeys went into the breeding season in excellent condition following a mild winter, the weather cooperated with hunters for the most part, and breeding activity appeared to stay strong throughout the entire season.”
As has been the case historically, Zone 1 led the state with 13,862 birds, followed by Zone 2 and Zone 3, where hunters registered 11,087 and 10,349, respectively. The highest hunter success rate was seen in Zone 2, where 23 percent of hunters tagged a bird. Zone 1 followed, at 22 percent, and Zone 4 was next, with 21 percent. The remaining zones had success rates between 14 and 20 percent.
Adult toms made up 83 percent of the harvest, an increase of 3.5 percent over last year, when toms constituted 79.5 percent of the take. This percentage is a little higher than average for the past decade, but well below the 91 percent rate recorded in 2014, suggesting improved brood success over the past several years.
“We were very happy with the high success rates seen across the state this spring,” said DNR assistant upland wildlife ecologist Krista Pham. “It’s clear that Wisconsin’s turkey population has enjoyed milder winters and good brood-rearing conditions recently, and hunters were rewarded for their efforts in the woods last year.”
A total of 241,228 permits were available for the spring 2016 season. Of those, only 212,772 permits were issued, 131,732 in the preference drawing and 80,040 leftover tags sold after the drawing. Zones 1, 3, 4 and 5 had more leftover permits than hunters wanted. Those excess permits were for the last two hunting periods, which typically attract fewer hunters.
As of our deadline, permit levels for this spring were not set, but they likely mirror last year’s numbers. 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 to buy your permits before they are gone.
Hunter success rates last year were highest during the first period in all seven zones, but there are still lots of birds left throughout the season. Don’t despair if you don’t have an early season permit. Some hunters, and I am one, prefer hunting during the later periods because the weather is warmer and the woods have greened up, offering hunters better cover.
Zone boundaries have not changed since the DNR reduced the number of zones to seven back in 2009. Zone 1 covers essentially the southwestern corner of the state from the Illinois line north to Highway 10 and from the Mississippi River east to the Wisconsin River. Most of that area is private land, so you’ll need to secure permission well in advance of the season. The landscape is rugged, with steep hills and valleys, but the mix of woodlots and agricultural fields creates perfect habitat for turkeys.
Zone 2 begins at the Wisconsin River and runs east to Lake Michigan, south to the state line and north to Oconto. Large blocks of public land in the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and several large marshes hold turkeys, but hunting pressure there is high. There is good habitat on private land, but it is not as easy to get permission as it is in Zone 1.
Zone 3 covers much of central Wisconsin. There is a lot of public land there in large blocks, mainly in state wildlife areas. Turkeys are abundant, too, and there are always leftover permits at the end of the season. These three factors make Zone 3 a top choice for hunters looking to hunt a new area, or those who failed to secure a permit in the preference drawing.
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 the 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 where birds are scattered and hard to pattern. There is plenty of public land, however, so if you are up to the challenge, this can be an enjoyable hunt.
Zones 6 and 7 encompass far northern Wisconsin. Highway 13 forms the boundary between them. Permit levels here are low, and there are few if any leftover permits. Turkeys hang out near the few farms found throughout the region and also along linear openings — logging roads, recreational trails and power and gas line 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.
Some state parks are open to hunting during the first three periods. Those parks have been merged into the respective surrounding management zones, so no special permit to hunt them is required. 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
Last winter was one of the mildest on record in both temperature and snowfall totals, which helped turkeys make it through to spring in good condition with likely minimal mortality. The early spring green-up was another blessing, providing good forage, protective foliage and early insect hatches.
And then came the rains. Rain can severely limit brood production, especially when combined with cooler temperature. That’s because poults cannot regulate their body temperature as effectively as adult birds.
“Surveys showed a 27 percent decline in brood observations in 2016 compared to 2015,” said Witecha. “This is likely due to the heavy rains throughout much of the state during the brood-rearing period (June and July). While we were able to avoid cooler temps, the rainfall we received was likely significant enough to impact poult survival.”
According to wildlife biologist Brian Dhuey, 4 of the state’s 5 regions showed decreases in the observation rate, with the largest changes occurring in the southeast (-53.4 percent), south-central (-48.8 percent), western (-31.5 percent), and northern (-24.9 percent) regions. The northeast region had an increase of 10.4 percent over 2015. The statewide observation rate was 35 percent below the long-term mean. The average size of a brood seen in 2016 was 4.4 young per brood, up slightly from the 4.3 young per brood seen in 2015.
The sharp decrease in brood sightings last summer will likely translate to fewer jakes on the ground this spring. There were tons of jakes last spring, thanks to a significant increase in brood sightings in 2015 over 2014. The surviving jakes from that year-class will be 2-year-olds this spring. Some hunters claim these first-year adults are the easiest birds to hunt, as they are eager to breed and respond readily to calls when more mature gobblers hang up.
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SEASON
Starting this year, the spring turkey season will begin on the third Wednesday in April instead of the Wednesday nearest April 13, as it has in the past. That change will ensure that Memorial Day weekend will always fall during the sixth period, instead of afterward, as it did last year.
The first-period hunt begins on April 19 and runs for seven days, with the five subsequent periods beginning on each following Wednesday. If you were not awarded a permit in the preference drawing, or if you want additional permits, you can buy them at the rate of one per day online at GoWild.wi.gov.
The youth spring turkey hunt will take place on April 15 and 16. Youth hunters are limited to the turkey management zone for which their carcass tag was issued. If they do not shoot a turkey during this two-day hunt, they can hunt during the season indicated on their tag.
There are opportunities for novice hunters in the learn-to-hunt and mentored-hunt programs. Under the mentored-hunt program, youths aged 10-15 may hunt during the two-day youth hunt without first having completed a hunter education course. They must be accompanied by a qualified adult mentor and follow all other rules of the program. Learn-to-hunt programs are offered by clubs and other groups at various times.
There are special hunts for people with disabilities and opportunities to hunt at Fort McCoy. Information on all these hunts can be found in the 2016-2017 small game hunting regulations and on the DNR Web site.
“The future continues to look bright for turkeys and turkey hunters in Wisconsin,” Witecha said. “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.”