February 26, 2016
Wisconsin's wild turkey program is the state's best wildlife management success story of the past 40 years. When our Department of Natural Resources introduced several hundred Missouri birds in southwest Wisconsin's Coulee Country back in 1976, no one could have anticipated that turkeys would eventually spread throughout the entire state, offering wildlife watchers a spectacular spring viewing opportunity and hunters a chance to bag what some have called the greatest game bird of all.
Today, turkeys inhabit every county of the state. Our spring turkey season consists of six weeklong periods in seven zones, each running from a Wednesday to the following Tuesday, starting this year on April 13. Permits have been allocated via a random drawing that took place in the winter.
Permits left over from the drawing went on sale in March. Hunters can purchase them at the rate of one per day until they are sold out. This opportunity, together with our spring harvests ranging from 37,000 to 43,000 birds for the past five years, make Wisconsin one of the country's top turkey hunting states.
2015 HARVEST AND 2016 PERMITS
Wisconsin hunters registered 40,962 turkeys last spring. This total was down 2 percent from 2014, when hunters took 41,815 birds. Hunters reported seeing good numbers of birds, and the weather was excellent throughout most of the spring season.
Zone 1 again produced the highest overall turkey harvest at 11,558 birds, followed by zones 2 and 3, where hunters registered 10,344 and 9,960 turkeys, respectively. Zone 2 had the highest hunter success at 23 percent, followed by Zone 3 at 19.9 percent, and Zone 1 at 18.9 percent. Success rates ranged between 14.5 percent and 18.2 percent for Zones 4 through 7. Overall, the statewide success rate was 19.7 percent, similar to the 19.9 percent success rate reported by hunters last year.
"There were some lingering concerns about turkey populations in the north following the very severe winter of 2013-2014," said DNR assistant upland wildlife ecologist Krista Pham. The good news is that we saw the highest harvests and success rates in the northern Zones of 6 and 7 since 2012. It was clear last year that our northern turkey flock made it through the winter in better shape than many expected, and good production levels last spring seem to have gotten northern turkeys right back on track."
Adult toms made up 79.5 percent of the harvest, down from an astronomical 90.6 percent in 2014. This decline suggests brood success improved in 2014 after two years of poor production.
A key objective of Wisconsin's Wild Turkey Management Plan is to maximize opportunities for hunters while ensuring that harvest does not lead to population declines. Biologists closely monitor harvest and other information to track turkey populations through time, with the goal of keeping harvests sustainable.
A total of 240,768 permits are available for this spring's hunt. Permit levels are the same for all zones except Zone 2, where 3,000 additional permits (500 per hunting period) are available this year. Last year, only 208,250 permits were actually issued: 134,568 in the preference drawing and 73,682 leftover permits sold after the drawing.
Assuming hunter interest remains similar to that seen in recent years, there will be plenty of permits still available for Zones 1, 3 and 4 for hunting periods C through F. Zone 2 should have leftover permits for periods E and F, and Zone 5 for periods D, E and F.
Zone 1, basically the southwest portion of the state from the Illinois line north to Highway 10 and from the Wisconsin River west to the Mississippi, is Wisconsin's traditional turkey country. This is where the first birds were released in 1976, and interest in turkeys remains high among residents and visitors alike. A mix of woodlands and agricultural fields, much of this region is hilly and difficult to traverse. There is very little public land, but most farmers will let you hunt if you ask permission ahead of time.
Zone 2 covers the southeastern corner of Wisconsin north to Oconto. There are 45,036 permits available this year. Leftover permits almost certainly will sell out. There are large blocks of public land, including the Northern and Southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and a number of large wooded wetland parcels like Theresa, Horicon and Collins marshes. Much of the best habitat is on private farmland, however, and access is often hard to get.
Zone 3 covers much of central Wisconsin. Permit levels there are 63,018 again this year, and many leftover permits will be available throughout the season. Last spring, nearly 13,000 permits remained after the season ended. There is an abundance of public land in county forests and state wildlife areas, and farmers regularly welcome turkey hunters, so access is easier than in Zone 2.
Zone 4 runs along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers from Trempealeau County north to northern Burnett County and east to the Wisconsin River. Turkey habitat ranges from steep coulees to small woodlots and big woods parcels. There are 34,968 permits available, and should be plenty left after the drawing. The western counties of Zone 4 offer some of the best turkey hunting in the state.
Zone 5 encompasses most of northeastern Wisconsin's big-woods country in Langlade, Oconto, Marinette, and parts of Forest, Florence and Oneida counties. Permits number 12,000 again this year, and the few leftover permits will sell out quickly. There is plenty of public land there, but birds are scattered, and so advance scouting is a prerequisite to success.
Zones 6 and 7 cover the far north, an area of the state that historically never had turkeys, as it was primarily mature pine forest. Permit levels are the lowest in the state, and there likely will be few leftover permits again this year. Birds frequent farm woodlots and oak forests. You might walk miles to find a bird, but you'll have little competition from other hunters.
Hunters continue to express satisfaction with the state's turkey management and with the current zone structure. State park zones were absorbed into the respective surrounding zones last season. Those parks where hunting is allowed are open to turkey hunters during the first three periods only. More information on hunting within state parks is available on the DNR Web site, keyword "state park hunting."
WINTER'S IMPACT AND BROOD PRODUCTION
After back-to-back severe winters, turkeys and other wildlife got a break last winter.
"Winter conditions in the forested central and northern regions were more normal compared to the past two years of harsh winter weather, likely decreasing mortality events and/or depressed production this spring," Pham said. "And the lack of snow cover led to an earlier-than-usual spring green-up."
Brood-rearing conditions in the state in 2015 were good, with much of the state seeing temperatures about average for the month of June and average to slightly below for July and August. Precipitation too was about normal, with no large or prolonged rain events followed by cold weather.
"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," said Pham. "Weather during July and August was excellent for brood rearing and survival. Wild turkeys saw an upturn in brood production this year, with a 9 percent increase in the number of broods seen per observer-hour. The size of those broods did, however, show a decrease."
According to Pham, four of the state's five regions showed increases in the observation rate in 2015 compared to 2014 levels, with the largest changes occurring in the south-central (up 196 percent), southeast (up 195 percent), and western (43 percent) regions. The northern region had a slight increase (up 0.2 percent), while the northeast region experienced a decrease (down 43 percent).
The statewide brood observation rate was 14 percent below the long-term mean. The average size of a brood seen in 2015 was 4.3 young per brood, down slightly from the 4.5 young per brood seen in 2014.
The increased number of broods observed should mean there will be more jakes available this spring. Many hunters prefer to hold out for a mature tom, but most will welcome a shot at a jake late in their hunting period or to fill an extra tag.
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SEASON AND THE FUTURE
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Pham says things have never looked better for Wisconsin turkey hunters. You should have received notice in the mail indicating whether you were awarded a permit in the preference drawing. If you did not get one, forgot to apply by the December 10 deadline, or if you want additional hunting opportunities, consider buying one or more leftover permits online or over the counter.
The Youth Hunt, Mentored Hunt, and Learn to Hunt offer three more opportunities for newcomers to experience turkey hunting. Mentored and Learn-to-Hunt options are available to novice hunters of any age.
The 2016 spring turkey youth hunt will take place on April 9 and 10. The two-day spring youth hunt, initiated in 2007, allows one-on-one mentoring of future hunters in a relaxed atmosphere without competition for hunting spots from regular-season hunters.
Under the Mentored Hunting Program, youngsters ages 10 through 15 can hunt during the two-day youth turkey hunt without first having completed hunter education, as long as they do so with a qualified adult mentor and follow the rules of the program. Youth ages 12 through 15 who have completed hunter education can hunt during the youth hunt while accompanied by an adult 18 years of age or older. Each youth must have a valid spring 2016 turkey harvest permit, license and stamp.
Youth can hunt on April 9 and 10 in the turkey management zone for which their permit is valid, regardless of the time period their permit is issued for, and may harvest only one male or bearded turkey during the two-day hunt.
A youth who does not successfully harvest a turkey during the two-day hunt can use the unfilled permit during the time period and in the zone for which the permit was issued. There is no special application procedure for the youth hunt, but young hunters must either be issued a tag through the drawing or purchase a leftover tag. All other spring regulations apply.
Details on the youth hunt and other programs for novice hunters can be found on the DNR Web site under keywords Youth Hunt, Mentored Hunt and Learn to Hunt.
The state's Wild Turkey Management Plan has been updated and is now available on the DNR Web site, under keywords Turkey Management.
The DNR Turkey Advisory Committee, which consists of DNR staff as well as members from a variety of partner groups and organizations, developed the new plan in order to update goals, identify opportunities to enhance wild turkey populations and habitats throughout the state, and to increase access to quality hunting.
"The plan is a great read for anybody interested in how we manage turkeys in Wisconsin," said Pham. "The contributions we received from stakeholders and the public were invaluable as we developed this revised management plan."
Winter flocks should be breaking up about the time you read this, and gobblers should be staking out display territory and sparring for dominance with their brothers. Grab your map and GPS, head for the woods a week or two ahead of your hunting period, and try to locate a bird to hunt.
What it all comes down to is a one-on-one encounter with a gobbler willing to talk to your bogus hen. When that bright red head pops over the hill 30 yards from your position, you want to be ready to seal the deal!