Wisconsin'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

There has never been a better time to bag a gobbler in our state than right now. In fact, the upcoming season has the potential to be our best ever. (April 2007)

Photo by Travis Faulkner

Last year was the 30th anniversary of wild turkey restoration to Wisconsin, and 2006 marked a number of firsts.

For the first time ever, the entire state was open to spring hunting, over 200,000 permits were available and hunters were able to purchase leftover permits. Those three firsts will continue this season, as turkeys continue to thrive in the Badger State.

While hunter success rates have stabilized in recent years at about 25 percent, the state turkey population continues to expand its range. Bird density within that range is also increasing, which has led to an increase in the number of permits available. To help assure hunters a quality experience, permit numbers will continue to be evenly distributed throughout the six time periods of our spring season. The first five-day period starts Wednesday, April 11.

The Department of Natural Resources initiated the sale of leftover permits last spring in an attempt to put those permits in the hands of hunters who would use them, instead of simply distributing them to already successful applicants in a second random drawing, according to upland game specialist Scott Hull. Leftover permits will again be available this year at any license sales location, over the phone or online. The fee will be $10 for residents and $15 for non-residents, both of whom will have equal opportunity to purchase permits.

From all reports, turkey hunters like this opportunity to purchase extra tags. What they didn't like was the 2 1/2-hour hiccup when leftover permit sales began last March. That glitch was apparently caused by a software error on the part of the contractor that fulfills license sales, and DNR officials said it shouldn't happen again. Things went smoothly for leftover permit sales last fall, so perhaps the bugs are out of the system.

Except for that problem -- which kept hunters standing in lines, cursing their computers and jamming phone lines -- last spring's hunt was a whopping success any way you measure it. And this spring's hunt is shaping up to be as good, or better.


Last spring, Wisconsin turkey hunters registered 46,662 birds, which was up 1 percent from the 2005 spring harvest of 46,183. Hunters set kill records every year from the first spring season in 1983 through 2004 when 47,477 birds were registered. The harvest dropped 3 percent in 2005 due in part to cool, wet weather in 2004, which resulted in below-average brood production and fewer jakes available to hunters. That year, 87 percent of the birds taken were adults, which is unusually high.

The rebound in harvest last year, despite a lower success rate, suggests that 2005 was a good brood production year. In fact, the 2005 landowner brood survey showed an average of 2.46 poults per hen, compared with 2.25 in 2004 -- not a huge increase, but a step in the right direction.

Statewide, the hunter success rate in 2006 was 23 percent, down from 24 percent in 2005 and 25 percent over the three previous years. Hunters killed more birds (11,324) during the first hunting period when the success rate was 34 percent than in any other period. The second period showed a harvest of 9,478 birds and a success rate of 28 percent, the third period a harvest of 7,281 and success rate of 22 percent, the fourth period a kill of 7,174 and a success rate of 21 percent, the sixth period a total of 5,827 birds and 18 percent, and the fifth period, only 5,578 birds and a success rate of 17 percent.

Success rates and harvest totals generally decline from the first to the sixth period. The kill increase in the sixth period over the fifth last year could have been because hunters who purchased leftover permits spent more time in the field than did those who simply received second permits as a free bonus in past years.

Not counting state parks -- where the number of hunters is too low to get a comparative sample -- zones 33, 34, 35 and 43 led all zones with success rates of 33, 33, 32 and 32 percent, respectively. Next at 31 percent came zones 24, 37 and, somewhat surprisingly, 46, which was open to hunting for the first time last year. Zone 30 came in at 30 percent. All other zones logged a success rate of 29 percent or lower. In zones 1 through 15, where turkeys first became established and where hunting has been allowed the longest, success rates were at 25 percent or less.


Turkey numbers have stabilized in southwestern Wisconsin, while they continue to increase just about everywhere else.

In the southwest and southeast, most turkey hunting is done on private land, and hunters must secure permission well in advance of the season.

The southwest is rugged country, with heavily timbered bluffs, deep ravines, rolling farm fields and plenty of room to roam. Leftover permits were available in all these units last spring, including some right through the season, so this is a good choice for a late-season hunt.

The southeast is more restricted. It is mainly flat, with large farm fields and smaller woodlots. Turkeys are more concentrated here, which makes them easier to find and pattern, but not necessarily easier to hunt. The Kettle Moraine State Forest and a few other public lands have great habitat and more rugged terrain, but there's more hunting pressure and interference from non-hunters -- hikers, mushroomers, birders and anglers -- as well. Hunters quickly grabbed up the few leftover permits for these units last year.

The central Wisconsin region is a mix of farms and larger woodlands. There are more permits available for zones 22 (22,500) and 23 (12,000) than any other zones, and Zone 21 (7,800) has more permits than any remaining zone except Zone 3 (9,900). There will definitely be leftover permits in these three zones, so they could be a good choice for a second hunt option because there are several large state-owned properties in these zones.

The north is on the fringe of turkey country, but mild winters have allowed the birds to establish themselves. The northeast harbors many turkeys in heavily wooded and wild country north of Green Bay, and mixed farm and woodlands along the Lake Michigan shore. Most permits go to applicants for these units, so there are few left over. Farther west, zones 44, 45 and 46 were newly opened last spring. Scattered pockets of birds are hunted mainly by locals who jumped at the chance to join the gobbler bandwagon.

Most hunters apply for a permit in a zone where they have hunted before and have permission to hunt again this yea

r. If they receive a permit for their first choice and want to extend their hunting options, they can purchase one or more leftover permits for the same or other zones, depending on what is available.

There were over 40,000 leftover permits for sale last spring, and not all were sold. Excluding state parks, only zones 24, 32, 33, 35, 44, 46 and Fort McCoy were completely sold out in the initial drawing last spring. The rest had permits available for sale. Some had leftover permits for several hunting periods.

One way to gauge where there could be more birds and a better chance of buying leftover permits is to compare available permit numbers for this year and last year. These zones show an increase (in parentheses) in available permits over last year: Zone 24 (300), 25 (600), 37 (300), 38 (300), 40 (300), 423 (600), 43 (600), 44 (600) and 46 (60). Zone 45 is the only zone with fewer permits than last year -- 900 compared with 1,200. All other zones, including state parks, will have the same number of permits available this year as last season.

Fifteen state parks offer spring hunting. Newport, Interstate and Willow River state parks are open to hunting this year for the first time. Six state parks -- Natural Bridge, Nelson Dewey, Belmont Mound, New Glarus Woods, Rocky Arbor and the Loew Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest -- have a limited number of permits reserved for disabled hunters only. All of them had leftover permits available and none sold out, so disabled hunters who want to try turkey hunting will likely be able to purchase a permit for one of these hunts this season, regardless of whether they applied in December, as long as they have a Class A or Class C disabled permit.

NEW FOR 2007

Several new wrinkles will greet Wisconsin turkey hunters this spring. They are all spelled out in the regulations booklet, but here they are in case you wait until the last minute to read the rules!

Perhaps the biggest change is the move to a sunset closure to spring hunting hours. When Wisconsin initiated its modern spring turkey hunt back in 1983, shooting hours ran from a half-hour before sunrise until noon, as is the case in a number of other states. Ending hunting at noon pulled hunters out of the field so they would not disturb nesting hens, it was argued. And since most turkey hunting is done on private land, a noon closure meant less interference with farmers during spring planting.

In 1999, hunting hours were extended to 5 p.m. to accommodate young hunters who wanted to go afield after school and workers who had afternoons off. The sunset closure was proposed during last spring's Conservation Congress Hearings, where it got a good reception from hunters, so it is being instituted this year.

"It's another way to simplify things," said the DNR's Scott Hull.

Hull acknowledged that some hunters may shoot turkeys off the roost in the evening, but points out that that is already an option on morning hunts. The practice is legal, although frowned upon as unethical by most traditional turkey hunters. One result of afternoon, and now evening, hunting is that hunters can be actually hunting when they were simply scouting in the past. While the 5 p.m. closure has not resulted in an increased success rate, it will be interesting to see if the sunset closure will.

The Youth Turkey Hunt is also new this year. Following the popular youth hunts for deer and waterfowl, the Youth Turkey Hunt allows hunters ages 12 to 15 who have successfully completed a hunter education program and who hold a spring turkey license, stamp and a valid spring turkey carcass tag to hunt turkeys on April 7-8 (Easter weekend). Youth hunters can apply for and receive a turkey permit through the regular drawing, or purchase one or more leftover tags. Carcass tags can be for any hunting period of the spring 2007 season, but hunters are limited to hunting in the turkey management zone for which their carcass tag was issued.

The bag limit is one male or bearded turkey per spring turkey carcass tag. A youth who does not kill a turkey during the two-day youth hunt can use unfilled carcass tags during the time period and in the zone for which they were issued. A tag used to register a turkey during the youth hunt may not be reused during the regular season. Young hunters must be accompanied by an adult 18 or older, who may not carry a gun but who can call for and otherwise assist the youth hunter.

What this boils down to is an extra two-day hunt for young hunters when there is little hunting pressure before the regular season.

Don't confuse the Youth Turkey Hunt with the Learn-to-Hunt (LTH) program. This program, which has been going on for the past several years, operates under a different set of rules. It is open to first-time turkey hunters of any age, who can participate in only one LTH program for a given species. Learn-to-Hunt programs are conducted by sportsmen's clubs and other groups that secure permission to hunt on private land and recruit hunters and mentors, both of whom must attend a turkey-hunting workshop.

LTH hunters are limited to one carcass tag, valid only during their LTH program. In past years, LTH programs were generally conducted the weekend before the first spring hunting period, but that weekend is now reserved for the youth hunt. This year, most LTH programs will likely take place one week earlier, March 31 to April 1.

As of this writing, DNR officials were considering some changes for the way leftover tags are sold because of last year's bottleneck. Hull could not say what changes would be made, but he did say one possibility was that the total number of leftover permits for each zone may not be made available for sale on the first day. The date leftover permits would go on sale was also not available as of press time.


It is likely that permit numbers in recently opened zones will increase in future years as turkeys become established in the northern parts of the state. If a severe winter kills a significant number of turkeys in a unit, however, permit numbers will probably be reduced the following spring.

One major proposed change is a severe reduction in the number of turkey zones from the current 46 down to seven. Each zone would encompass several current zones. The new zone structure will be proposed at this year's spring hearings. If it passes, Hull expects it will be in place for spring 2009. State parks would remain separate zones as they are now.

"The Conservation Congress turkey committee favors this change because it would increase hunting opportunities by giving hunters larger zones to hunt," Hull said.

Permit numbers would probably remain proportional to current levels, with increases or decreases depending on brood production and harvest from the previous year. This is not a done deal, and the proposed structure may need some tweaking. Some opponents of the new structure fear it will lead to crowding in popular areas such as the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

"The original turkey zones were a product of wh

ere we released birds and were opened as hunting became available," Hull said. "As turkeys moved farther north, the zones got bigger. We want to make it easier on hunters and easier for DNR to manage."

And so, after 30 years of continued growth, Wisconsin's turkey program has matured into a well-managed operation. The state supports at least 300,000 turkeys, some 200,000 hunters enjoy a spring hunt, and the harvest has stabilized at about 46,000 birds with a success rate of 25 percent. Recent and proposed regulations changes should assure that our wild turkeys provide maximum recreational opportunities for hunters while maintaining a viable, statewide population.

That's a picture we can all be proud of.

(Editor's note: For more information on wild turkeys, listen to the author's weekly radio show, "Outdoors with Dan Small and Judy Nugent," on stations throughout the state and on the Web at Lake-Link.com/radio.)

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