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Pat Durkin column: State turkey hunt a success story

Since launching Wisconsin’s phenomenal wild-turkey restoration program in 1976, state hunters and wildlife managers have pursued the common goal of creating quality hunting experiences for Wisconsin’s biggest bird.

A pause to note the remarkable: Where deer are concerned, the same groups tear at each other like two cats hung by their tails over a clothesline.

But that’s not the issue today. No, let’s just note that turkey hunting seldom generates the hard feelings surrounding deer, or doves and wolves, for that matter.

All the relevant numbers indicate Wisconsin not only has big turkey flocks, but also good hunting success and hordes of happy, satisfied hunters.

By now you know the 2004 spring turkey harvest hit 47,373, the 22nd straight record-setting hunt since the spring season was launched in 1983.

It helps that the state also issued a record 185,369 hunting permits this year, but that connection isn’t perfect.

Even though this year’s 9.5 percent bump in permits helped generate a 10.2 percent larger harvest, such correlations aren’t the norm.

When permit numbers rose 14.5 percent in 2001 to 151,522, the turkey harvest increased only 1.35 percent to 39,211; and when permits rose 5.66 percent in 2002, the harvest hardly budged, rising only 0.3 percent to 39.336.

When discussing big permit numbers, many turkey hunters expect a hunter behind every shoulder-width tree.

Here’s why that doesn’t happen: After each season, the Department of Natural Resources mails a questionnaire to 10,000 permit holders, and it always addresses crowding and interference.

The agency then distributes permit numbers to ensure interference rates stay below 30 percent.

To achieve such tolerance, permit levels seldom exceed three per square mile of timber in any zone or time period.

That emphasis on interference rates keeps managers focused on hunting satisfaction, not ever-increasing harvests.

The reason we continue to see record numbers of permits and kills is that turkeys expanded their range and numbers well beyond expectations.

As more areas opened to turkey hunting, and turkeys kept increasing their numbers despite higher harvests, permit numbers kept rising. In other words, with turkey permits, people are the only real licensing cap.

The closest thing to resemble turkey hunting controversy was the debate to increase hunting hours.

From 1983 through 1998, spring turkey hunting ended at noon daily. Since 1999, it has closed at 5 p.m. Many hunters opposed the longer hunting day, believing it would reduce hunting quality.

Nothing I’ve read or interpreted from DNR surveys suggests the hunt degenerated the past five years because of afternoon hunting.

In fact, since then, less than 20 percent of each year’s harvest has occurred in the afternoon. If there had been a big jolt to turkey hunting, we probably would have noticed it that first year, but we didn’t.

Although the 1999 harvest rose 17 percent, the permit levels had risen 11 percent, and the overall success rate was 29.5 percent statewide, only 1.5 percentage points higher than in 1998.

Speaking of success rates, DNR wildlife managers have long tried to keep it between 20 percent and 30 percent for turkey hunting.

With a success rate of 25.5 percent in 2004, we’ve now had 10 straight seasons where the rate ranged between 22.3 percent and 29.5 percent.

Further, it has hovered between 24.6 percent and 25.9 percent the past four seasons.

Finally, the other important indicator of quality is the percentage of mature gobblers in the harvest.

For 2004, 78 percent of registered turkeys were bearded toms, with most of the rest being “jakes,” 1-year-old males with short beards. Only about 5 percent of hens grow beards, so their impact on harvest totals is nearly invisible.

This marked the fifth straight year mature gobblers made up at least 72 percent of the kill.

That means we’ve not only benefited from a large turkey flock, but that many hunters pass up jakes and bearded hens.

I suppose somebody could find something to hen-peck in the world of turkey hunting in Wisconsin, but I won’t beat the bushes looking for such malcontents.

Patrick Durkin writes a weekly column for The Northwestern. He may be reached at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981; or by e-mail at

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