Our Spring Turkey Outlook

As Wisconsin turkey hunters prepare to take to the spring woods, the outlook is good once again. Here's where you can get your gobbler!

By Gary F. Martin

Wisconsin's spring turkey hunters are looking forward to another great season in 2004. After all, what's not to look forward to after last year's record harvest?

Spring turkey hunters put another record season into the books in 2003 by registering 42,970 birds. That figure was 7 percent over the 2002 harvest of more than 39,000 turkeys. Another record will probably be set this year, because permit numbers are up in nearly half of the turkey hunting zones.

Modern turkey hunting in the Badger State began in 1983, and a record kill was set every year for 21 consecutive years as the turkey population expands its range and thrives. Hunters are taking advantage of the large number of permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources. Permit levels are increasing because turkey densities are increasing within their range due in part to several mild winters.

The 2003 spring season was also a safe season, and only the second spring turkey season since 1991 to be completely free of hunting accidents.

"Hunters who participated in this year's hunt can be proud that every one of them contributed to a safe hunt," said Tim Lawhern, DNR hunter education coordinator. "I'd like to throw out a challenge the fall turkey hunters to match this high point."

Photo by John Trout Jr.

Statewide, the spring turkey hunting success rate in Wisconsin has held stable at 25 percent for several years. Biologists estimate that turkey population densities now exceed 26 birds per square mile in some areas. The overall turkey population is growing, but there are variations across the state. In the southwest, populations have remained stable for several years with the balance between recruitment and mortality. In the remainder of the state, recruitment has outpaced mortality and led to the steady population growth. 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.

The Wisconsin turkey population now extends well into the northern part of our state because of mild winters, available habitat, and expanded habitat development and improvement. The spring hunt is divided into six permit periods to spread out the hunting pressure and ensure a quality hunt for all participants. Statewide, both the kill and success rates are highest in the first hunting period and fall off in the later time periods.

Not including state park zones, which are small and have limited hunting opportunities, our state has 43 turkey hunting zones. Permit levels for 2004 are at 2003 levels in 24 zones, and the remaining 19 zones (01, 05, 16, 17, 19, 25, 27, 28, 30, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 40, 41, 42 and 43) have more permits in 2004 than in the previous year.

For the 2003 spring season, a total of 168,696 permits were issued. After all applications were filled, 24,215 second permits were issued in any turkey hunting zones where there were fewer applicants than permits.

The success rate for 2003's Period A was 36 percent, Period B 31 percent, Period C 26 percent, Period D 22 percent, Period E 21 percent and Period F 16 percent.

Hunter success rates dropped in small Zone 31 and Zone 32 along the Wisconsin-Michigan border in 2003. Both zones had 16 percent success rates - down from 18 and 19 percent, respectively, in 2002 - and less than 200 gobblers were killed in each zone. Typically, these two zones have the lowest spring turkey hunting success in Wisconsin. In recent years, permit levels have remained constant at 1,200 each, but more hunters apply than the amount of tags available, so it's difficult to draw a permit in these zones unless you choose the later periods.

Zones 31 and 32 are also lacking in typical turkey hunting terrain, with few farms and fields mixed in with the forests. Since most of the birds are woodland birds, they are scattered and difficult to locate and hunt effectively.

The large northeastern Zone 22, covering a large part of the state west of the City of Green Bay, ranked as the No. 1 turkey zone in 2003 with an amazing harvest of 4,373 gobblers. The success percentage dropped slightly from 2002, even though more turkeys were killed. Permit levels remain the same for 2004 at 19,500, and this zone will be one of our top zones again this year.

Zones 34, 35, 36 and 41 in northeast Wisconsin all have higher permit levels for 2004 than they did last year. Zone 34 has 4,200 permits compared to 3,300 in 2003. Zone 35 has 1,800 for an increase of 300 over 2003. Zone 36 was raised from 2,700 to 3,300 permits, and Zone 41 has 1,800 for 2004, an increase of 600 from 2003.

The success rates for zones 34, 35, 36 and 41 are above the state average, and Zone 34, with a hunter success rate of 40 percent last year, was No. 1 in the state. The turkey populations in these northeastern zones are still growing, and hunters can expect good hunting for years to come.

The Lake Michigan shoreline counties and southeast Wisconsin turkey zones 25, 28, 30 and 33 have increased permit levels for 2004, while the remaining zones in this part of the state are at the same levels as last year. Hunter success rates vary from a low of 19 percent in Zone 29 to a high of 37 percent in Zone 24.

Zone 25 permit levels are up 300 from last year to 2,700 this year. Zone 28 levels were raised to 1,800, only 150 more than in 2003. Zone 30 also has 150 more to bring it to 1,500 for 2004, and Zone 33 saw the biggest leap with 450 more permits than the previous year's 3,300. As you can see, these are not dramatic increases, but increases nonetheless.

You can assume that wild turkey populations are growing when the DNR increases spring permit levels. On the other hand, increasing the number of kill permits can decrease the hunter success rate if the permits are not filled. Second permits are issued when fewer hunters apply for a zone than permits are available.

In the lakeshore and southeast turkey zones, only Zone 29 saw any second permits issued in 2003. While this is a large zone, only 900 permits were offered for 2003, so we can assume there is little hunter interest in this zone. Of course, this zone does cover a large portion of southeast Wisconsin urban areas.

The southwestern part of Wisconsin contains our best turkey-hunting habitat and has a st

able turkey population. It also has the majority of the hunting zones where extra permits are issued. Second permits are issued when more permits are available than hunters that apply, and this is common in the southwest turkey zones.

Success rates in the southwest are steady, too, with slight fluctuations in each zone from year to year. Since the highest turkey kill periods are the early hunting periods, it's important for turkey hunting success that the weather cooperates in April when the season begins.

Permit levels are up this year in Zone 1 and Zone 5. Zone 1 has 600 more permits than last year and Zone 5 has 900 more. The remaining hunting zones in the southwest are at the same levels as last year.

It is of interest to note that Zone 3 covering parts of three counties franked third in the top nine top kill zones for 2003. The other top zones for 2003 are located in the central and west-central parts of our state.

The south-central turkey hunting zones will have hunting success rates in 2004 much like 2003, if not better.

Permit levels are up in zones 16, 17 and 27, and at the same levels as last year in the other zones.

Wisconsin's far northwest turkey zones are large and most have increased permit numbers for 2004.

Zone 38 extends to far north into Burnett and Washburn counties, and the number of permits was increased by 600 to 3,000 for this year. There was a time when turkey experts stated that the wild turkey could not survive this far north, but mild winters have proven them wrong.

Zones 19, 37 and 40 also have more permits than last year. Zone 19 is up 500 to 6,000. Zone 37 has 4,800, up 600 from 2003. Zone 40 was increased from 1,200 last year to 1,500 this year. The success rate in all three zones was above the state average last year.

Zones 42 and 43 occupy the area between the northwest and northeast zones, depending where you draw the line.

Both of these hunting zones have increased permit levels this year. Zone 42 is up 600 to 3,000 permits and Zone 43 has 1,500 permits, an increase of 600 from 2003. The success rate in both zones was well above the state average.

Wisconsin turkey hunts were safe during the first few years, but since the early 1990s, gun injuries have been on the rise during the spring season. Hunting safety experts cannot say why, but they suggest that it has something to do with more hunters in the field and more opportunities to shoot at birds.

The firearm injuries that do occur almost always fall into one of two categories: those who shoot other hunters while stalking decoys and those who shoot other hunters because they failed to identify their target.

Turkey hunting is very safe, when it is properly done. You should be set up in a clear area with an unobstructed view of any birds you call to your location. Do not shoot if you are unsure of your target.

You can avoid becoming the victim or the shooter in a hunting accident by not attempting to stalk turkeys. First, it's unlikely you will succeed at stalking the wary birds, but even more important you may be stalking a life-like decoy and be mistaken for a turkey by an excited hunter. On the other hand, if you shoot at a decoy, you may hit the camouflaged hunter who is concealed beyond it.

Spring turkey hunters wear full camouflage, set up realistic decoys and use calls that sometimes attract not only turkeys but also other hunters to their location. Because of this, hunting safety experts advise the following additional safety measures:

  • o Never wear or carry anything colored red, white or blue. Those are colors of a wild turkey's head and might cause someone to shoot in your direction.
  • o Never use a gobble call to attract turkeys. Another hunter might stalk and shoot you;
  • o Never carry or move an uncovered turkey decoy;
  • o Never assume that what answers your call is a real turkey;
  • o Never stalk or try to sneak up on a turkey; and
  • o Choose a hunting location from which you can see 40 yards in all directions.

As soon as your spring kill permit comes in the mail, it's time to plan a pre-hunt scouting trip to your turkey-hunting zone.

Pre-season scouting is an important part of preparing for a turkey hunt, and the toms will be vocal long before the hunting season begins. A scouting trip anytime in March or the first two weeks of April will help you pinpoint the locations of the birds. Since the season is not yet open, you will not be interfering with other hunters.

It's important to locate birds prior to your hunting period, but there are several factors influencing the wild turkey in spring that may mean they will not be where you found them during pre-season scouting trips. Spring weather is in transition, and with the warming weather, large winter turkey flocks will begin to break up and disperse. Competition between gobblers, and hens seeking a place to nest, tends to scatter the birds.

You will get the most up-to-date information on gobbler location in your hunting zone by scouting on the two days prior to the valid hunting period for your permit when hunting is closed. If turkey hunting is important to you, plan to get out scouting on those two days. You won't be disturbing other hunters, and any toms you locate will be there on Wednesday when your five-day hunt begins.

If you hunt public lands, it's a good idea to plan on alternative hunting locations so that you have a backup hunting site if someone else gets there before you do.

Your last alternative is to scout while you hunt. Scouting during the hunt provides you with the most up-to-date information available about turkey location and activity patterns. Hunting pressure has an effect on turkeys, and they get wiser as the weeks pass.

As mentioned above, turkey hunting success rates drop off as the season progresses. This makes combining scouting and hunting even more important when you draw a permit for the later hunting periods. In fact, late-season hunts may find you spending more time scouting and trying to locate gobblers to hunt than actually working a particular turkey.

The important thing, if you scout while hunting, is to be ready to deal with a tom as soon as you decide to make a few calls. He might come in fast. Choose a location from which to call that will allow you to quickly set up. During the late part of the season, when the hens are on their nests, gobblers often respond to hen calls and come in fast at a run.

Spring in Wisconsin has been very warm in recent years. Warm weather is not only uncomfortable for hunters, but the tom

s tend to go quiet shortly after sunrise. The only way to hunt under these conditions is to focus your efforts on the early morning hours. Get into the woods before daylight and you will still have three good hours of hunting time.

The Wisconsin wild turkey reintroduction is a success story. A few hundred Missouri birds were brought to our state and released in Vernon County in 1976. As the flock grew over the years, Wisconsin biologists captured and relocated turkeys to new areas. In 2000, the flock was estimated at over 200,000 turkeys.

In the spring of 2004, wild turkey populations are thriving and the hunt will be excellent so long as the birds didn't have to deal with an extended period of ice-crusted or deep, fluffy snow during winter. The DNR issued over 9,000 more turkey permits for 2004 - a 5 percent increase - and if the weather is decent, especially in April, turkey hunters should expect a similar or better hunt in 2004 than they had last year.

For more information on turkey hunting in Wisconsin, go on-line to www.dnr.state.wi.us.

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