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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s Spring Turkey Season Pleasantly Defied Expectations

   Wisconsin’s turkey hunters broke the 50-K harvest mark for the first time in 15 years when the spring season ended May 28 with a registered kill of 50,435 jakes and gobblers.

   Who saw that coming?

   Not me, that’s for sure. In fact, here’s what I wrote two years ago in my postseason recap of the spring 2022 hunt:

   “Wisconsin’s largest flocks and best hunting are history, and that particular history won’t repeat itself. Wisconsin hit its turkey-hunting peak from 2007 to 2009 when the statewide harvest averaged 52,630 jakes and gobblers three straight springs. The spring-season harvest hasn’t cracked 50,000 since, and it’s doubtful we will again.”

   True, this spring’s kill fell roughly 2,000 short of those record-setting seasons—52,428 in 2007; 52,880 in 2008; and 52,581 in 2009—but if anyone predicted a 22% increase from 42,439 turkeys registered a year ago, I didn’t see or hear it in the preseason forecasts. After all, spring harvests averaged 41,024 from 2011 through 2023.

   The closest Wisconsin has been to 50,000 kills since 2010 was 45,501 in 2016 and 44,982 in 2020, and that latter uptick was attributed partly to increased hunting pressure because of Covid-19.

   Here’s a snapshot of Wisconsin’s modern-day spring turkey seasons:

   After the state re-established its wild-turkey population during the late 1970s and early 1980s, hunters set 22 straight harvest records from 1983 (182 kills) through 2004 (47,477 kills) as the flock grew and expanded its range statewide after the initial 1976 transplant from Missouri.

   After producing a record 52,880 kills in 2008, the harvests faded from 52,581 in 2009 to 40,133 turkeys in 2011, a 24% drop of 12,448 kills. From 2011 through 2023, spring harvests ranged from 37,266 (2021) to 45,501 (2016), with five of the past 14 harvests below 40,000.

   Hunting success rates also declined those years, hitting a low of 16.9% in 2021 when the Department of Natural Resources sold 220,812 tags (authorizations). Success rates during spring hunts ranged from 15.2% in 1983 to 29.5% in 1999, but since 2010 the statewide average is usually below 20%.

   This year’s 22% success rate is its highest mark since 2010 when it was 22.3%. Wisconsin turkey hunters enjoyed 16 straight seasons of 20-plus percent success rates from 1995 through 2010, but since then have reached 20% only five of 15 spring seasons.

   Those looking for easy explanations for this year’s success won’t find them in standard data. Yes, according to the DNR’s annual turkey-hunting data, Wisconsin issued a record 224,630 “authorizations” this spring. However, when the agency sold similar authorizations four years ago (224,452), hunters registered 44,982 birds, a 20% success rate, but 11% below this year’s harvest.

   We’ll learn more about this spring’s impressive hunting seasons the next few weeks as agency biologists evaluate our six one-week hunting seasons in each of the state’s seven turkey-management zones. All that’s certain is that the spring hunts started hot when the two-day youth-only season (those under age 16) produced 3,967 turkeys, a 33% increase from 2,972 in 2023 and a 37% increase over the 5-year average.

   No matter how one looks at this spring’s success, pessimists should stop insisting Wisconsin’s turkey flock is in decline and at risk of overkill. In recent years, some hunters even suggested selling fewer bonus tags, or setting an annual bag limit of two or three turkeys.

   In case you’re wondering, Wisconsin issued an average of 216,775 turkey tags from 2013 to 2024, ranging from 208,250 in 2015 to 224,630 this spring. Even so, the spring harvest never neared 50,000 those years until now. For perspective, during Wisconsin’s “golden years” of 2007 to 2009, the DNR issued 205,306 to 218,133 tags, an average of 210,804 tags.

   Nationwide, the most popular bag limit is two turkeys (17 states), while 13 states allow only one. Four other states allow one or two birds, depending on the location. Seven states, including Illinois, allow three birds. Michigan and Minnesota allow one.

   However, capping the spring bag at two or three male turkeys probably won’t boost the flock noticeably. Instead, this year’s harvest reinforces the idea it’s not necessary.

   Harvest data from 2012 to 2022 show 87.5% of Wisconsin’s successful hunters shot only one bird. Meanwhile, 9.3% of successful hunters shot two birds, and only 2.1% shot three. In other words, hunters shooting one, two or three birds accounted for over 98.9% of Wisconsin’s kill those years.

   In other words, hunters shooting four or more turkeys in spring accounted for 1.1% of the combined kill.

   In 2022, 86.8% of successful hunters shot one bird, which was 28,351 turkeys. Another 3,140 hunters (9.6%) shot two birds (6,280 turkeys), 764 (2.3%) shot three (2,292 birds), and 249 (0.8%) shot four (996 birds). Another 173 hunters shot five or more turkeys for a combined 877 birds, including one hunter who shot 11 and another 12.

   Granted, 11 or 12 turkeys seems excessive for one hunter, but those are exceptions, with local – not statewide – implications.

   Therefore, it’s impossible to show we’d gain anything with a three-bird limit. That doesn’t mean some folks won’t try, of course, even if it means reducing hunting opportunities for no biological benefit.

   Here’s an idea: Let’s celebrate Wisconsin’s amazing wild turkeys, and embrace the unexpected 2024 spring hunt. We might not repeat such success in spring 2025, but we’ll have fun trying.

Wisconsin hunters registered 50,435 jakes and gobblers during the spring season, the first time since 2009 that the statewide kill reached 50-K. Harvests during spring seasons averaged 38,093 from 2011 through 2023.Patrick Durkin photo

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