This area of western Wisconsin, one we often refer to as God’s Country, could have another moniker attached to it when it comes to wild turkeys — for them and for us.
No, I’m not taking you down a religious pathway, but instead stating the facts when it comes to the turkey population in a 16-county area the Department of Natural Resources refers to as turkey Zone 1. The DNR breaks the state into seven zones, with zones 1, 2 and 3 comprising the southern two-thirds of the state.
And in 2021, 28,113 of the 37,266 turkeys harvested statewide came from Zones 1, 2 and 3.
Yes, La Crosse, Vernon, Monroe and Crawford counties, in particular, feature prime turkey food and habitat and, therefore, prime numbers of the thunder chickens.
And this spring is no different, as hunters should encounter lots of action — calling, and sometimes harvesting. There is one season already in the books, with the second of six seasons (Period B) having opened Wednesday (April 27) and running through May 3. The final season, Period F, runs May 25-31.
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For more information on the seasons, how to get started, where to hunt, how to apply for an authorization tag, go to the Wisconsin DNR website (dnr.wisconsin.gov). It has a plethora of easy-to-read, and important, information.
“Absolutely, that (Zone 1) is probably one of the best places we have in the state, where we have most our turkey numbers. The more open habitat that is generally in the southwestern part of the state, and in west-central, is where we have seen the most (turkeys),” said Taylor Finger, whose job as game bird specialist with the Wisconsin DNR is to know nearly all things related to turkeys and pheasants.
“We allow the most authorization tags in Zone 1 (61,121 in 2021). Turkeys are a species that can take advantage of agricultural habitat and forest habitat.”
The wild turkey, which was reintroduced to Wisconsin in 1976, has been one of the state’s biggest wildlife management success stories. There is incredible interest in turkey hunting — not to the point of white-tailed deer, at least not yet — that ranges from the different types of calling to the business of making calls, from equipment used to hunt gobblers, to weapons, to blinds, to the camouflage clothing worn by turkey hunters.
When it comes to talking turkey, nearly 250,000 authorization permits were issue this spring, compared to 245,943 in 2021. Some people, like Jeff Fredrick, are non-stop turkey thinkers.
“I love the wild turkey and want to see everything done in their power to help them flourish,” said Fredrick, a 12-time Wisconsin State Champion Turkey Caller who lives between West Salem and Mindoro.
“Just being in nature brings you right down to earth. Hearing a wild turkey out in the spring, the best part of turkey hunting is the majority of one-on-one actions, even if the turkey wins. That (the challenge) is why we like it. When it does work in your favor is why it is so special.”
While turkey numbers in Wisconsin remain strong, they have likely reached a plateau. That’s not a bad thing, Finger said, as with the current six-season structure and the ability to regulate how many authorization tags are put out for sale, managing the population is an attainable goal.
“Fifty years ago we didn’t have any turkeys in the state of Wisconsin. This spring we put out nearly 250,000 tags for people to hunt. This is an awesome resource that is homegrown and that people have a chance to enjoy,” Finger said.
“People still like seeing them, and are happy with seeing them. It is a feel-good story.”
It’s not like that everywhere in the country, or the Midwest in particular. Missouri, which had an estimated 600,000 wild turkeys in 2004, has seen that number drop to 350,000. According to an article on the Missouri Department of Conservation website, MDC Wild Turkey Biologist Reina Tyl explained part of the reason for declining population.
“Loss of quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat, changing weather, an increase in predators, and potentially low insect abundance are likely all playing a role,” Tyl said of the reasons for decades of declining population.
The rapid decline in Missouri’s, as well as some other state’s, turkey population hasn’t gone unnoticed by Wisconsin DNR officials.
“Missouri has seen huge losses in their turkey numbers. It is always a concern and we are continuing to monitor it,” Finger said. “We have to maintain our hunting strategy, limiting our permits to tag turkeys in different zones based on population.”
In other words, the population in each of Wisconsin’s seven zones is closely monitored each year, and the number of authorization tags is based on how those populations are doing. There are some uncontrollable factors, such as predators, that make their way into the equation.
“The two things (hard to control) are habitat and predators. Habitat is the big one. Turkeys benefit from young forest situations. In old growth, turkeys don’t do well,” Finger said.
“And everything will eat a turkey. There is not much out there that won’t take advantage of a turkey. They have a tough road to hoe (in terms of predators).”
With that said, those hunting turkeys in Wisconsin this spring should have a decent shot at seeing, and perhaps harvesting, a turkey — which is not an easy thing. In 2021, hunter success — statewide — was 16.9%.
“Statewide, our turkey numbers are looking pretty good. It is not a case of the population growing, but starting to level off. We are reaching our carrying capacity type of situation, where we are reaching that plateau, which is nice to find out,” Finger said.
“We don’t have an (exact population) estimate. We don’t have a good method of surveying those numbers. Trying to find them on forest and land habitat is difficult. We can’t use gobbling as a metric. We don’t have a firm grasp on what it is (total population), so we look at poult-to-hen ratio and overall harvest. We have been kind of leveling off.”
And while highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has made the news in recent months — having been detected in Wisconsin in domestic poultry and some species of waterfowl and raptors — it has not been found in wild turkeys.
“Right now, with avian flu, waterfowl are the primary carrier,” Finger said. “We have noticed a higher mortality of wild birds. Because turkeys don’t come in close contact to waterfowl, there is limited concern.
“We have not had a single turkey test positive in Wisconsin, not that it couldn’t happen. If you do see a sick or dead bird, do not approach it. Contact your local DNR warden.”
There are a number of things to remember while turkey hunting, and while calling a tom to within shooting range of your decoys is fun and exciting, it should never be at the top of your list.
Safety should be always No. 1.
“First and foremost, remember firearms safety,” Finger said. “We get reports every year of incidents.”
Remembering the four primary rules of gun safety, also known as TABK, is vital. They are: Treat every firearm as if it were loaded; Always point the muzzle in a safe direction; Be sure of your target, what is before and beyond; Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
This is never more important than now, as a new strategy to hunt turkeys — reaping — can be dangerous, Finger said. Reaping is the stalking and harvesting a tom turkey using a mobile decoy of a strutting gobbler as cover. Sometimes the fanned-out feathers are attached to a gun or bow. Want an eye-opener? Google turkey hunting and reaping.
“It (reaping) is one of the next fads, where people crawl or walk behind a turkey fan. It may be an exciting way to do it, but on public land, or any land, you have to be careful,” Finger said. “It may be quite a rush for the person doing it, but you need to recognize what scenario you are in.”
ANY IDEAS? I’m always open for ideas, as the outdoor community is full of interesting people who do fascinating things. I just need help finding them. It can be someone who is into canoeing, trapping, turkey hunting, fishing, skiing or runs ultramarathons. If you know of someone, send me a note at email@example.com
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Fifty years ago we didn’t have any turkeys in the state of Wisconsin. This spring we put out nearly 250,000 tags for people to hunt. This is an awesome resource that is homegrown and that people have a chance to enjoy.”
Taylor Finger, game bird specialist with the Wisconsin DNR