Wild Turkeys in the Northwoods

Here in Wisconsin, the spring turkey season lasts from early April through late May, but an individual permit is for one designated week (Wednesday to Tuesday) in one designated Zone (1-7).  I had Period B, Zone 5, which put me in northeast Wisconsin in the third week in April.  Applying for that season (applications are due in December) can be a bit dicey – we often have snow on the ground or falling from the sky that time of year up here – but it’s also a beautiful time to be out in the woods.  Plus, a lot of people don’t like being cold so there’s a better chance of getting that week, and since I had never applied for a permit before I wanted to improve my odds.  I don’t like being cold, either, of course, but I have plenty of cool weather clothing!

I started scouting about a week before my season started.  Around here, there are a lot of birds in agricultural fields that border woods.  I work on public lands, though, so I wanted to hunt in one of the areas where we’ve worked to improve turkey habitat.  It’s a prettier spot, but also more challenging because they don’t necessarily follow the rigid patterns that develop in farmlands where they have consistent food sources and less danger from predators.

The area where I was scouting was burned last spring to improve wild turkey habitat by setting back brush and stimulating the grasses and flowers.

My first morning scouting, I chose an area that I had heard had good turkey activity.  I parked my car and walked around a firebreak and up an old trail.  It looked “ideal” for turkey, but I only scared up a few deer in a small draw next to an oaky ridge.  I saw some canid scat that was too old for me to be able to tell coyote from wolf, but not much else.  The songbirds were nice to listen to, but I didn’t hear a single gobble, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes soon drowned out the other sounds.  They sounded like they were down in an open bog to the south of me, then I heard them in the air, then again to the west, and then they flew again.  Their resounding trumpets echoed off the hills.  The turkeys were probably just as annoyed as I was with the din, and had moved on to a place where they could call to their potential mates and actually be heard!  I continued walking down and up the hills, overlooking a couple small lakes, though it was well past dawn and I hadn’t seen any sign, just to enjoy the morning off of work.  As I walked back up the road to my car, I saw my first black bear tracks of the spring in the soft surface.  Continuing on up the hill, I saw several turkey tracks in the sandy surface, including thin lines where the strutting toms had dragged their wings to attract the hens.   They must not have been gobbling, or else I had arrived too late to see them and missed their tracks on the drive in.  I would have to come back to this spot.

The next time I went out, it was already light, and threatening to rain, but I thought that I might look around for some tracks anyway, or hope to hear a gobble in the distance.  I was on a different part of the same property, a couple miles away – over the river and through the woods, you could say.  At first, I didn’t see much other than a few wolf tracks, but when I turned off onto a narrow, rarely-traveled road that is sandwiched between denser woods, not only did the wolf sign increase, but I began to see turkey scat and tracks in the hardened mud.  Turkey signsare interesting, because you can tell males from females without being an accomplished biologist or DNA-analyst.  On female turkeys (hens), all three toes are approximately the same length.  On males (toms-adults, or jakes-juveniles), the middle one is noticeably longer.  Hens poop comes out in a spiral shape, whereas males poop out

Hen poop!

a long segment.  I saw a little of each on the trail, and got my hopes up.

When the trail opened up again, my turkey tracks faded out – not sure if it was because they moved off the path, or because the grass growing on it obscured indentations.  I continued on, mostly because I love that area and enjoyed being far enough back off the road that I knew I wouldn’t encounter any other people.  I thought I might walk all the way down to the river, as I’d never quite gotten there from this direction before.  I scared up a couple small groups of white-tailed deer along the way, although they all stared at me for a long time before running away, as though they hadn’t seen people since last fall.  I veered off the trail to poke my head into a little wetland area, checking for interesting plants since I had given up on the turkey.  As I came back out onto the trail, I heard a rustle behind some bushes that didn’t seem like a deer, and my hopes rose that I might have found a turkey after all.  Instead, as I rounded the corner, a round and furry head appeared, tawny yellow and gray and white mixed together, and I found myself face-to-face with a wolf, not 20 yards away.  It was as surprised as I was, and bounded back a few paces before stopping to look at me again.  I backed up quickly and steadily, keeping my eyes on the bushes that it had come from, and it ran downhill a little farther, also keeping its eyes warily on me, before running across the trail into the brush and towards that little wet area I had come from.  A moment later, a second wolf came out of the bush and ran across the road, too.  I didn’t see another sign of them, although as I walked back the way I came, I did hear one more quiet commotion in that direction.

As I walked up the hill, my heart was beating and hands shaking as adrenaline pumped through me.  I was much more excited than if I had found the turkeys I had started out stalking – I knew that there was a pack of wolves out here somewhere, but I’d never managed to come across one before!  They hadn’t been particularly alert when I’d happened along, or they never would have let me see them.  The deer must have known they were close by, but hadn’t seemed disturbed, either.  Probably they were all enjoying the unusual warmth of this spring, and had enough to eat and drink, and several square miles to roam undisturbed.  Fawns haven’t begun to drop yet, so the does don’t need to be worrying about protecting them, and wolves are still cleaning up the carrion from the winter.  I felt lucky to have gotten such an uncommon glimpse into the world that these animals inhabit every day.

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