Ron Barefield with a nice tom from last spring. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
This past weekend, the 2013 Wisconsin spring turkey season officially opened with the Youth Turkey Hunt on Saturday and Sunday. Wisconsin has come a long way since the first spring turkey hunt in 1983 when there were only three hunting periods of 5 days each. The number of hunting days during the spring season has changed over the years with days being added to the hunt as the turkey numbers increased and their range expanded throughout the state.
The different hunting periods allow for more hunters to participate without the probability of interference or hunting accidents. The timing of the hunting periods was designed to include the peaks in turkey gobbling activity that occurs in April and May. Regulations were created to insure that only 30 to 35% of the males were harvested during the spring season to allow enough turkeys for the following spring. This meant that there would always be enough turkeys left even if there was a year or two of poor reproduction.
Wisconsin has gone from the initial three hunting periods to today’s six, each seven days long. The reintroduction of wild turkeys into Wisconsin is one of the better game management stories in the country. The Eastern Wild turkey is native to Wisconsin, but by the mid to late 1800s the birds were very rare due to over harvesting, extensive forest harvesting and diseases from domestic poultry. The state realized that they had lost a very unique gamebird and made numerous attempts at reintroducing turkeys into the state. But, the problem initially was that domestic and game farm turkeys were released and they did not do well in the wild from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Beginning in the 1950s, states began live trapping wild turkeys and they did much better. The introduction of wild Missouri turkeys started the first 'real' recovery of the wild turkey in Wisconsin. Wisconsin entered into a trade agreement with Missouri in 1974. We traded 135 Coulee Region ruffed grouse for Missouri turkeys. The first turkeys were released into the prime turkey habitat of the Bad Axe watershed in Vernon County in 1976. Also from this agreement, 334 Missouri turkeys were released into Buffalo, Iowa, Sauk, Trempealeau, Jackson, Lacrosse, Vernon, Dane, and Lafayette Counties. These locations were chosen because they had the ideal turkey habitat; mature hardwood forests, spring seeps, south-facing slopes, and a mixture of agricultural land mixed in with the woodlands.
In 1979, the Wisconsin DNR started live-trapping themselves and stocking turkeys in eastern and central Wisconsin. Though this habitat was not as good as southwest Wisconsin, it was found that turkeys were hardier than thought and they did well and expanded throughout Wisconsin.
The rest is history with over 234,000 permits available for the 2013 spring season and a spring harvest expected to be over 42,000 turkeys. Turkeys are now found as north as Vilas and Oneida Counties, partly due to milder winters and the hardiness of the wild turkey. The three day season is now seven days; there are Youth and Mentor Hunts, DNR Turkey Clinics, and even a fall hunting season where it’s legal to use dogs. Who would have thought that all of this would happen from the release of 334 wild Missouri turkeys in 1976?
The spring season of 2013 should be another good hunting season in Wisconsin. Last spring was warm and dry which made for good nesting, reproduction, and poult survival. The DNR said that this was the third highest brood count since 1987. Weather is always the key in turkey nesting and also survival rates. Turkey hens have only about a 20% success rate in brood production, with predators taking many eggs and young turkeys or poults. The hens will re-nest, but will have only one brood. Early hay mowing and logging operations also take a toll on turkeys.
Hunters had to have their preference applications in by December 10 and were notified by mail if they received the zone and time that they wanted. There are over 100,000 permits now available for over the counter sales for time periods D, E and F. You can go online to dnr.wi.gov and see what is available for those who didn’t apply early.
I hope that you’ve done your scouting on the land that you plan to hunt this coming Wednesday when Period A opens 30 minutes before sunrise. It’s important that you’ve scouted your area to see where the turkeys are located. Most of the snow is gone in the southern half of the state and the flocks of turkeys should be breaking up with the longer days which triggers the breeding behavior in tom turkeys (gobbling and strutting) and makes the hens receptive to the toms.
The dominant male turkeys do most of the breeding and you’ll find toms alone or in twos and threes as more hens are bred and start nesting. Hens like to make their nests in brush, downed timber, and depressions in leaves and cover on the edge of forests and woods. Turkeys like to have their nests near fields and pastures that have insects which provide protein for the young birds. Mast crops (acorns) and waste grains are also important food sources. Studies have shown that spring turkeys spend 62% of their time in woodlands, 23% of their time in agricultural fields, and 15% in pastures and fallow areas. This should be taken into account when scouting and finding good areas for your set-up.
Be sure to be into the woods well before sunrise because you’ll hear turkeys begin to gobble before first light and their fly-down. Then, tom turkeys will gobble and strut to attract the hens. As I earlier said, the dominant males do most of the breeding. Hens average 11 eggs which take about two weeks to complete. The incubation period is only 28 days long and during this period the hen leaves the nest for only short time periods and that is why it is necessary to be close to a food supply. The young turkeys or poults can fly short distances in two weeks and they roost on the ground with the hens until two weeks old. About 50% of the brood will survive and reach adulthood.
Weather is a key factor in both brood survival and hunting success. It’s a good idea if you are hunting on the ground to be against a tree that is wider than your shoulders for safety reasons and never wear the colors of red, white, and blue which are the colors of the tom turkey’s head and neck area.
Make sure to have good camouflage clothing, a shotgun that is sighted in at various distances, a call or two that you are proficient with, and a good natural blind or a commercial one that allows you good access for shooting. Decoys are also a good addition in your hunting arsenal because with proper placement they will draw the turkey’s attention away from you. It’s always a good idea to get some tapes and videos to help improve your calling. The Deer and Turkey Expo last weekend had many top pro’s giving seminars and tips to hunters. The more people you talk to and the more research that you do will increase your odds of success in bagging a turkey.
This past weekend was the Youth Turkey Hunt and my neighbor, Tom Vils, and his son, Sam, were out hunting the Blackhawk and Mazomanie Public Hunting Grounds. I drive this area most every day and usually see turkeys year-round. It didn’t take Sam long to get his second turkey of his young career. Sam’s father, Tom, called the turkey in from the roost and Sam did the rest with his trusty Mossberg 12 gauge Bantam shotgun. The tom weighed 23 lbs. and a ten-inch beard, and one-inch spurs. Sam is eleven years old and attends the Sauk Prairie Schools. This is his second turkey having bagged a 25 lbs. turkey last spring with one shot from his Mossberg Bantam. This is what the Youth Hunt is all about; father or mother hunting with their son or daughter and connecting to the outdoors! Congratulations Sam and Tom!
Be safe while hunting because 80% of all hunting accidents come from being shot by hunting partners or people on public lands that hear a call and see a decoy and mistake it for a turkey. The weather has vegetation and spring growth behind anywhere from two to four weeks, but you never know what’s going to happen when hunting. If you’ve done your “homework’ all that is left to do is get out and hunt.
Gear and anything you may need; Wilderness Fish and Game, Sauk City, Wi. (608)-643-2433
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990’s and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.