Wisconsin's Spring Turkey Outlook

Wisconsin's Spring Turkey Outlook

Our state's turkey hunters had a great season last year, and the forecast is even better for 2005. Here's how your hunting zone stacks up.

Photo by Ralph Hensley

Badger State turkey hunters completed their 22nd spring hunt in 2004, and as with every previous spring since 1983, it was a record year.

The total kill of 47,477 birds in 2004 was 4,507, or about 10 percent, more than were taken in the spring of 2003. Wisconsin's spring turkey hunting success rate has held steady at 25 percent for three consecutive years now. In other words, one of four tags issued by the Department of Natural Resources has been filled each spring in those years.

Of course, the ever-increasing harvest follows along with the abundance of permits issued each year. Last year 186,625 permits were issued, and at this writing the DNR listed 193,623 spring permits available for 2005. At this rate, the department will be issuing over 200,000 spring permits in 2006, if conditions permit our turkey population to continue expanding. Permit levels keep increasing because turkey densities are increasing within their range.

Last year was also the third year running that 43 turkey hunting management units and 12 state parks were open to hunting. These same zones will be open in 2005. In some cases, especially in the southwest part of our state, fewer hunters apply than the number of available permits. In these cases the DNR issues second permits, and in 2004, more than 26,600 spring turkey hunters received second permits.

Wisconsin's overall turkey population is growing, but it varies across the state. In the southwest, populations have remained stable for several years. In the remainder of the state, recruitment has outpaced mortality and led to the steady population growth. Turkeys are being seen in increasing numbers in the far north in areas not open to hunting. As long as that trend continues, turkey hunters can expect increasing permit numbers and harvest

totals as long as hunter success rates remain about the same. While it's unlikely

more turkey management units will be created and opened to hunting, the continuing expansion of the flock could lead to that.

There were three non-fatal hunting accidents reported during the 2004 spring turkey hunt, according to hunting safety officials.

"The three accidents were either self-inflicted or cases of the hunters not positively identifying the target," said Tim Lawhern, DNR hunter education administrator. "Details of these accidents are typical -- the hunters were stalking what they thought was a turkey but shot another hunter."


Wisconsin's turkey hunting season is divided into six periods. The DNR issues an equal number of kill permits for each period to spread the hunting pressure out and ensure a quality hunt for all. In general, hunting success rates are highest during the first period and decline during each period as the season progresses. Exceptions occur if the weather is bad or spring arrives late. Last year, the overall spring success rate was 25 percent. Statewide, the hunter success rate during Period A was 39 percent. During Period B the success rate dropped to 29 percent. Periods C and D saw the rate continue to drop, with 26 and 22 percent, respectively. The last two hunting periods, E and F, had the lowest success rates of 21 and 15 percent.

Not including state park zones -- which are small and have limited permits and hunting opportunities -- our state has 43 turkey hunting zones. Permit levels for 2005 in 27 of these zones are at the same level as 2004 while none have been reduced. The remaining 16 zones (06, 07, 09, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 29, 34, 37, 38, 40, 41, 42 and 43) have increased permit levels for this year. With similar permit levels in most of our turkey hunting zones, and nearly 7,000 more permits in the noted 16 zones, the turkey kill in 2005 should exceed the 2004 spring totals.

Let's look at how well individual hunting zones ranked last year.


Wisconsin's most stable turkey population is found in hunting zones 1 through 15 in the southwest part of the state. The success rate in this 15-zone region averages 24 percent, only 1 percent below the statewide success rate. Drawing a second permit is common here. In fact, over 1,000 second permits were issued for the 2004 hunt in zones 2, 3, 4, 5 and 11. Zone 3 gets a special note since 2,438 second spring permits were issued for that one zone.

Last year, Zone 3 hunters had a success rate of 23 percent and killed 2,290 birds, which ranks this zone third overall in our state. Only three of the 15 zones in this region -- 6, 7 and 9 -- have higher permit numbers for 2005 than they did last year. It's interesting to note that Zone 9 also had the region's highest success rate at 28 percent last year, and this year the DNR issued 300 more permits. Curiously, Zone 14 had the lowest success rate in 2004 at 16 percent, and it is adjacent to Zone 9 to the northwest. This is an indication of how habitat changes over a short distance can make a drastic difference in turkey population densities between two adjacent hunting zones.

Our state's southwest corner contains excellent turkey habitat, but unfortunately it's also mostly private land where it's often difficult to get permission to hunt without serious pre-season preparations. Much of the terrain here is rugged, and steep hills and deep valleys make hunting difficult. Even so, this is a great turkey hunting experience awaiting those who do the work and hunt in Wisconsin's southwest.


For the purposes of this discussion, we're including turkey hunting zones 16, 17, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 in the group making up the southeast corner of the state. This region includes the Milwaukee and Madison metropolitan areas. Last year these seven zones combined had a hunter success rate of 27 percent, and 4,981 of the big birds were killed during the spring hunt.

For the 2005 season the DNR increased the turkey permits in zones 25, 26 and 29. Zone 25 received 600 more permits while 300 more were issued in both zones 26 and 29. Zone 17 had the highest turkey kill in 2004 in this region, with hunters registering 1,460 birds for a success rate of 29 percent. The poorest success rate was seen in Zone 29 where only 18 percent of the tags were filled.

Southeast Wisconsin is a heavily populated location where cities, suburbs and farms with small woodlots are common. Of course, turkeys will inhabit any place they can, even near human activity. The hunter's task is to find birds in an area where hunting is legal, get permission to enter the land, then successfully hunt the birds in the short five-day hunting period.


No matter what kind of turkey hunting you enjoy, the Badger State's northeast and lakeshore area has it.

In the far north you can hunt big-woods birds, which rarely see a farm field. Of course, year after year these hunting zones return the lowest success rate in Wisconsin. Zones 31 and 32 in Marinette and Florence counties usually show up near the bottom when we look at hunter success rates. Last year was no different, and Zone 31 had a 14 percent success rate, while that of Zone 32 was slightly higher at 17 percent. Permit levels here remain the same as in 2004, with 1,200 in each zone. This level has remained the same for several years.

Even with the low success rate, zones 31 and 32 are popular, and it's difficult to draw a permit every year since more hunters apply than there are permits available. Last year was an exception in Zone 31 when fewer than 1,000 hunters applied for the 1,200 tags. Both these hunting zones are heavily wooded and lacking in agricultural areas, but there are thousands of acres of public land on which to hunt. Another attractive feature is the proximity to the Menominee River and the Upper Michigan border. Timing your schedule for hunts in both states is possible.

Zone 36 is a transition zone from the forest habitat in zones 31 and 32 to one of Wisconsin most productive farmland zones, Zone 35. Permit numbers have remained the same for zones 36 and 35. Last year hunter success was 27 and 32 percent, respectively. East of Zone 35 is Zone 34, which includes the Door County peninsula. With a success rate of 37 percent last year, Zone 34 tied for the top honor with Zone 30.

The northeast region includes our state's top two turkey hunting zones. Once again in 2004, zones 22 and 23 were our top turkey kill zones. Zone 22 had a kill of 5,034 birds and Zone 23's harvest was 2,783. Both zones were slightly below the state's average success rate, but only by a point or two.

For this year the DNR raised the number of permits in Zone 22 by 1,500 to 22,500, while Zone 23 numbers remain the same as 2004 at 12,000. The reason for this many tags is simply that these zones cover many square miles, and it's mostly farmland mixed with woods -- in other words, excellent turkey cover.

Zone 41 is another very large zone. It's located just north of Zone 22 and is one of our newest turkey hunting zones. Last year hunter success was 27 percent, slightly above the state average. This year the DNR issued 300 more tags for the spring hunt. Turkey hunting is closed north of Zone 41, but turkey sightings are reportedly increasing in that far northern area. One advantage to choosing Zone 41 on your turkey hunting application is the abundance of public lands, and a good mix of agricultural and wooded areas. The turkey populations in these northern zones are still growing, and hunters can expect good hunting for years to come if our winters stay on the mild side.

One advantage to choosing Zone 41 on your turkey hunting application is the abundance of public lands, and a good mix of agricultural and wooded areas. The turkey populations in these northern zones are still growing, and hunters can expect good hunting for years to come if our winters stay on the mild side.

Three zones make up the southern end of our northeast corner of America's Dairyland, zones 24, 30 and 33. Last year these three zones had impressive hunter success rates. Zone 24's success rate was 36 percent, while Zone 30 came in at 37 percent and Zone 33 at 33 percent. This year an additional 300 tags were issued in Zone 24, while the zones 30 and 33 tag numbers remain the same.


Zones 18, 21, 42 and 43 form a north-south line in central Wisconsin. Last year, Zone 18 hunters tagged 1,547 turkeys for a 21 percent success rate and to rank that zone eighth overall in total turkey kills. Permit levels remain the same this year in this zone.

Zone 21 is just north of Zone 18, and last year's harvest was 1,996 birds to rank this zone fourth in the state. That number reflects a success rate of 26 percent, and permit numbers remain the same between 2004 and 2005.

Zones 42 and 43 are the last two central zones, and both have more permits this year than last. Zone 42 permit levels were increased by 900 this year to 4,200. Last year hunter success in Zone 42 was 27 percent, while the success rate in Zone 43 was 33 percent. Approximately 600 more turkey tags were issued in Zone 43 in 2005 than in 2004.


Zones 19, 20, 37, 38, 39 and 40 are Wisconsin's far northwest turkey hunting zones. Hunters killed 1,717 birds in Zone 19 in 2004 to rank fifth in the state. That number represented a success rate of 27 percent, and permit numbers for this year are the same as 2004. Zone 20 had a hunter success rate of 26 percent last year with 1,177 registered spring turkeys. The DNR issued 100 more tags in this zone for 2005.

Zone 37 had a success rate of 31 percent last year and 600 more tags were issued this year. Just north of 37 is Zone 38 where permit levels are also up 600 from 2004, and hunter success was 23 percent last year. Zone 39 is the smallest in the region, and the success rate was 18 percent in 2004. Permits levels remain the same this year. Zone 40 also sees increased permit levels for 2005, up 600 from last year when the success rate was 31 percent.


Firearm safety should be your primary concern when you hunt wild turkeys. The most common gun injuries almost always are those in which someone shoots another hunter while stalking decoys, or someone shoots another hunter because they failed to identify their target. Avoid mishaps by never stalking wild turkeys, and make 100 percent sure of your target and what's beyond it.

The greatest pleasure in turkey hunting is calling the birds to within shooting range of your shotgun. Not only does calling take practice, but it takes patience, too. It might take minutes, or hours, to get that long-bearded tom to come close enough for a clean shot.

Of course, you won't shoot a gobbler if there are none in the area. Scout your chosen hunting zone as close to your permit period as possible so you're not hunting a bird that another hunter has already killed, or one that has moved out of the area in search of hens. Alternatively, rely on past knowledge of turkey locations to guide your hunt. If an area was good for one tom, another will move in there when that one is killed.

Everyone knows that the early morning hours are the best for turkey hunting, but don't underestimate the value of hunting later in the day. Often, the noon hour is a good time to get toms fired up to come running into your location. Take a lunch and stick it out.


Since 1983 the Badger State's turkey hunt has grown from a kill of 182 birds in four zones to 47,477 turkeys in 55 zones in 2004. The hunter success rate statewide topped out at 30 percent in 1999 and has held steady at 25 p

ercent from 2002 through 2004. To date, Wisconsin turkey hunters have set a new harvest record each year since 1983. Only time will tell how long this record setting will keep up.

Once again the outlook for the spring turkey hunt of 2005 is excellent, but every year the outcome of the hunt depends more on the weather than anything else.

For more information on wild turkey hunting in Wisconsin, log on to www.dnr.wi.gov and follow the links to the wild turkey hunting page.

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