Turkey season success about more than filling a tag

Dan Hansen

Most of the turkey calls, decoys and other gear have been put away, and the camouflage clothing likely now hangs in the closet. Wisconsin’s 35th consecutive successful spring turkey hunting season has ended.

Remaining alert enabled the author to spot this gobbler that was silently sneaking through the woods.

What began in 1983 in a handful of the state’s southwestern counties, with 1,200 hunters harvesting 182 birds, has grown into a statewide phenomenon that annually attracts more than 130,000 participants, second in popularity only to the fall deer hunt.
I joined the fraternity of spring turkey hunters in 1996, just a few seasons after the hunt had expanded into central Wisconsin, and I’ve been privileged to spend time each year since then trying to learn more about these fascinating and regal birds.
Some years my hunts have ended within a few hours or after a couple of days, as I left the woods with a gobbler slung over my shoulder. Other years I’ve hunted every day of my season, only to return home with a turkey tag still in my pocket.
Regardless of whether or not I’ve tagged a jake or gobbler, every one of my hunts has been enjoyable and successful.

Initial attraction

I first became interested in turkey hunting because it offered an opportunity to expand one of my favorite outdoor pursuits beyond the normal fall and winter months. 

Over the years, I learned to appreciate the spring season as much more than an opportunity to collect the main ingredient for a turkey dinner.

For me, much of the joy is being in the woods and fields as nature comes alive. 

Seeing the grass turn from brown to green, buds forming on the aspens, watching wood ducks fly up to their tree nests and hearing the sounds of Canada geese as they wing their way north, are all signs of spring that also lift my spirits.

Being in the woods with a species that can actually talk back to me is a special thrill. Listening to hens and their variations of yelps, clucks and purrs is enjoyable and instructive. But nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quicker than having a hot gobbler respond to my call. 

However, on the third day of my 2017 turkey hunt, the gobblers were uncharacteristically silent. For nearly three hours I regularly made a series of calls, hoping to attract a tom’s attention but there was no response. Even the hens seemed to have disappeared from the woodlot. 

Then, about 8:15 a.m., I noticed something moving between the oaks and aspen to my right. Maybe my luck was about to change.

Population boom

For those new to the sport, it may be difficult to comprehend that Eastern wild turkeys were largely absent from Wisconsin as recently as the 1970s. 

After some unsuccessful attempts to introduce pen-raised birds into the wild, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) struck a deal with the Missouri Conservation Department in 1974 that involved trading Wisconsin grouse for Missouri turkeys. 

The agreement brought 334 turkeys to several southwestern counties where they thrived in hardwood forests, spring seeps, south-facing slopes and the area’s agricultural land. 

In 1979, the DNR began trapping and transplanting turkeys from southwestern Wisconsin to other parts of the state. That program continued for 25 years until viable populations had been established in every region.

Turkeys are now so abundant that Wisconsin spring turkey harvests rank among the largest in the nation. They have also proven surprisingly tolerant of harsh winter weather, with populations established throughout the northern part of the state. 

This spring hunters purchased more than 212,000 of the available 240,768 permits. They registered 43,249 birds for a harvest success rate of 20 percent.

Zone 1, in southwestern Wisconsin, saw 12,573 birds harvested, followed by zone 2, in the eastern part of the state, with 10,675, and the central counties comprising zone 3, with 9,924. 

“These are preliminary totals that are not yet verified and are subject to change,” noted Jaqi Christopher, DNR assistant Upland Wildlife Ecologist.

New opportunities

The growth of the state’s turkey population has also brought longer seasons and increased hunting hours.

When I first began hunting, each season was five days long (Wednesday-Sunday), and hunting hours closed at noon each day.

Currently, each of the six seasons in the seven hunting zones runs for seven days, and hunting is permitted each day from one-half-hour before sunrise until 20 minutes after sunset.

There are also special mentored hunts for youth and other first-time hunters prior to the first regular spring season, which begins on the third Wednesday in April.

Staying alert

Among the lessons I’ve learned over two decades of pursuing turkeys is that they all possess acute hearing and superior vision, and that toms don’t always gobble. 

That lesson was reinforced again this spring, when that object moving silently between the trees turned out to be an adult male turkey when viewed through the lens of my 8-power binocular.

My guess was that he came in silently in response to my calls, and saw or heard something that caused him to give me, and my hen and jake decoys, a wide berth.

Spotting his 10-inch beard, I immediately put down the binocular and picked my 12-gauge Browning pump shotgun. Finally, I centered the elusive bird in the scope’s crosshairs, and two shots put him on the ground 55 long paces away.

Based on the length of his beard, 3/4-inch spurs, and 20-pound weight, the tom was likely an average 2-year-old male, but still a trophy to be sure. 

The future continues to look bright for wild turkeys, and turkey hunting, in Wisconsin. After 20 years of rapidly increasing turkey populations and turkey harvests, the population now seems to be stabilizing at levels suitable to the available habitat. 

Turkey numbers and, in turn, turkey harvests, will now likely fluctuate in response to natural factors such as weather and food availability.

Thousands of us should continue to enjoy seeing nature come alive each spring and experiencing the adrenalin rush of a gobbling turkey flying down from the roost, or heading toward the sound of our call. 

For me, that’s the real joy of spring turkey hunting. Heading out of the woods with my tag on a mature gobbler is just the frosting on the cake.