2020 Midwest Turkey Hunting Forecast

By author of Turkey Blog with Steve Hickoff

How are the prospects for spring gobblers looking in the nation's heartland? Read on

As in other areas of the country, turkey populations are trending downward in much of the Midwest. Disease, habitat challenges, management variables and predator influences (including, sadly, poaching) are all factors. That said, there are some bright spots.

Want to know where to go in the Midwest, get some insider intel along the way, plus details on the current state populations of turkeys and last season's spring kill? Sure you do. Get your read on with our turkey hunting forecast for these dozen midwestern states.

Check our our forecast for hunting turkeys in the Midwest. © Tes Randle Jolly photo

Ohio

The good news is Ohio turkey population estimates have risen in recent years, despite overall challenges to reproduction. All indicators say prospects for an enjoyable and productive turkey season are in place.

Where to Go

The Buckeye State has some excellent public hunting, with more than 651,000 acres available.

Huge tracts of ground, like the Wayne National Forest (200,000+ acres) in southern Ohio, allow hunters to truly get off the beaten path and get away from the crowds.

Other areas of public land, such as the Grand River Wildlife Area (7,400 acres) in Ashtabula County, are also worth a try.

Insider Intel

Be there when the starting bell goes off. Ohio hunters in the South Zone checked 2,965 wild turkeys on the first day of the 2019 spring season. 

Estimated Population

Wildlife researchers are guardedly optimistic. As mentioned earlier, officials report that though parts of Ohio have experienced consecutive years of below-average to fair turkey reproduction, other locations seem to be doing well. The current population estimate sits around 190,000 turkeys, up 25,000 birds from just two years ago.

Spring 2019 Kill 

Buckeye State hunters took 19,088 birds last spring. The limit is two bearded birds a season, one per day.

Turkey Hunting in Ohio

Michigan

Regulations for turkey hunting in Michigan are highly detailed, moreso than in a number of other Midwest states, so read laws closely.

Where to Go

Michigan offers 7.4 million acres of forest land open to public hunting. The bulk of those acres are in the northern Lower Peninsula as well as the Upper Peninsula. 

The northern Lower was once Michigan's turkey hotbed, but southern Michigan has taken over that title. The middle part of the Lower Peninsula has the best turkey numbers. The Upper Peninsula has a growing population of turkeys and virtually no hunting pressure. Allegan, Jackson, Kent, Lapeer, Montcalm, Newaygo, Saginaw, St. Clair and Tuscola Counties lead the turkey tally annually.​ Michigan hunters still indicate a good level of satisfaction with their hunts every spring. 

Insider Intel

There is no guarantee that leftover licenses will be available for any hunt unit, except Hunt 0234. If any licenses remain after the drawing, unsuccessful applicants may purchase one leftover license online or from any license agent on a first-come, first-served basis for a one-week period beginning March 23 at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Any limited-quota licenses that remain as of March 30 at 10 a.m. EST may be purchased by any hunter, including those who did not apply for a spring turkey license. 

Estimated Population

Turkey numbers sit at 200,000.

Spring 2019 Kill

Last year, hunters took 34,000 spring birds. The limit is bearded turkey per licensed hunter.

Turkey Hunting in Michigan

Indiana

Spring turkey hunting is allowed statewide in the Hoosier State.

Where to Go

Public-land hunting opportunities prevail in northwestern, southcentral and southwestern Indiana. Opportuntities are fewer than in other Midwest states.

Insider Intel

Special reserved turkey hunts are scheduled at select Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) fish and wildlife areas. These hunts also take place at Big Oaks and Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuges. Applications and drawings are managed through the reserved hunt system. For details and how to apply online, check out the IDNR website.

Estimated Population

According to sources, turkey numbers sit at around 120,000, up 10,000 from two years ago.

Spring 2019 Kill

Some 12,014 bearded birds were taken here last spring. The bag limit is one bearded or male turkey (some hens carry beards). 

Turkey Hunting in Indiana

Illinois

It’s mighty tough to argue with a 28% success rate for Illinois turkey hunters. In other words, if a hunter puts time in, he / she has a 1-in-3 chance of killing a bird. Low poult production over recent years could influence success this year, though some areas have seen increases recently. 

Where to Go

More than 97% of the land in Illinois is privately owned, making it one of the worst spots in the nation for public hunting opportunity. But the IDNR has created the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) by utilizing resources obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). IRAP is a public access program that allows semi-controlled, limited access to private property in Illinois for specific outdoor activities. 

Insider Intel

No permit? Remaining county-issued spring turkey permits go on sale over the counter at license vendors beginning March 10, 2020, on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Estimated Population

Roughly 150,000 turkeys live in Illinois. 

On the one hand, inclement weather has resulted in decreased poult production in recent years but good summer weather has seen, researchers say, a surge in nesting and poult observation. Late hatches are contributing factors, too.

But this comes on the heels of down production years in the past decade.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 15,190 turkeys were taken last spring. One bird is allowed per permit; three permits maximum per hunter.

Turkey Hunting in Illinois

Wisconsin

Originally, 334 Missouri birds were brought to Wisconsin. As these flocks flourished and expanded their range, they were trapped and transplanted elsewhere across the state. The rest is turkey-restoration history. As forecasts go, weather challenges can historically affect hunts, success rates and hunter participation.

Where to Go

One downside to Wisconsin is limited public-land opportunities. Most are in the north, where turkeys are more spread out. Sources suggest many landowners will let you hunt their turkeys; just don't ask about their deer. The western country (hilly and wooded with farmed ridges and valley bottoms) is prime, too. So is the east-central farm country (flatter, but still plenty of woods and fields). The southeast suburban landscape has birds as well.

Insider Intel

When should you hunt here? First you need to apply for licenses during particular week-long seasons.

Of course the early hunts are popular, but late-season sessions (when the hunting and the weather is sometimes better anyway) always have leftover tags for purchase. The second to third week of the month usually sees a second gobbling peak according to sources.

In Wisconsin, the southwest quarter of the state is the wild turkey's original stronghold.

Estimated Population

Population numbers are unavailable.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 38,576 bearded turkeys were taken. Bag limit is one bearded turkey per harvest authorization. One note, the 2019 turkey take was the second lowest in 20 years.

Turkey Hunting in Wisconsin

Minnesota

“We’re making it easier to hunt wild turkeys in Minnesota,” said Leslie McInenly, wildlife populations program manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). “Turkey restoration has been a great success for the state and, over time, we’ve been able to relax and simplify hunting regulations.” (See Insider Intel below.)

Where to Go

Right now there are turkeys on the prairie and in the farmland. There are birds in the Twin Cities. And gobbles ring out practically within earshot of Duluth.

The southeast hill country has been the classic, longtime turkey range in Minnesota since birds were re-introduced here in the 1970s, but a new stronghold is developing: Minnesota's extensive farmland-forest-prairie fringe country in the state's central areas; roughly a wide swath from the Twin Cities north and westward.

That's the good news. But for birds to thrive, winters do need to offer some level of cooperation in these northern climes.

Insider Intel

Hunters hoping to bag a tom turkey with a firearm this spring will no longer be restricted to a single permit area. With the exception of three major wildlife management areas, a spring turkey license will provide the opportunity to hunt all permit areas in the state. 

Beginning March 1, all spring turkey hunters can purchase a license over-the-counter. The MDNR is announcing the season details now so hunters can apply for permits drawn in a lottery for the three wildlife management areas.

Estimated Population

Population numbers are unavailable.

Spring 2019 Kill

10,699 bearded birds.

Turkey Hunting in Minnesota

A common scene in Midwest spring turkey country. © Tes Randle Jolly photo

Iowa

Despite high license fees for out-of-staters and a lack of public ground, Iowa still has some of the best turkey hunting in the nation.

Where to Go

There are roughly 356,000 acres of public possibility, such as the Loess Hills (11,000 acres/four units) along the Missouri River and Shimek State Forest (9,000 acres) in southeast Iowa. If a non-resident is willing to knock on a few doors, establish relationships and give it some effort, many Iowa landowners are still willing to grant spring hunting permission – and at no cost.

Insider Intel

Through the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP), Iowa landowners open their land to public hunting and in turn receive funding and expertise for habitat improvements. IHAP has enrolled more than 22,000 acres across 51 counties that are now open for walk-in public hunting from September 1 - May 31 each year.

Estimated Population

Iowa hasn’t had a real winter in years, so survival rates have been good. Couple this with some good hatches, and there are plenty of gobblers to be found. Officials estimate the turkey population at around 110,000 to 150,000 birds.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 11,387 Iowa birds were taken. The season limit is one wild turkey per tag.

Turkey Hunting in Iowa

Missouri

Show-Me-State turkey numbers are slowly creeping back to what they were a decade ago; things are starting to turn around. The forecast for a season of opportunities is good, based on rising turkey population numbers shared below.

Where to Go

Over 93% of land in Missouri is privately owned, so many turkey hunting opportunities are on private ground. Before you hunt, you must identify the landowner and get permission to hunt or enter their land. (See the Missouri Department of Conservation website for more details.)

Insider Intel

As mentioned, private landowner permission rules here. And if you enjoy hunting agricultural farmland similar to places like Kentucky, northern Missouri is the place for you. In fact, Bluegrass State birds were originally trap-and-transferred from Missouri. 

For some reason, Missouri (and Kentucky) spring longbeards seem more intense than other turkeys as they work to the calls (at least to me). Beards are also typically thicker across and closer to the "paintbrush" moniker than say, Rios.

How did we hunt those Missouri Easterns? We often glassed flocks, carefully walking well-hidden creek bottoms below big greened-up fields to reposition – a technique that's quite common here, as the terrain often makes it possible. We'd set up and cold call. Sometimes a hot gobbler would break off and come running. Other times, they played tough, hung up, did what turkeys do.

Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. As a result, after closing time and lunch back at camp, our stroll-and-scout strategy proved a great way to roost birds.

Estimated Population

Numbers sit at 390,000 turkeys, up from 317,000 birds several years ago.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 38,800 Missouri birds were taken. Limit varies; see regulations.

Turkey Hunting in Missouri

North Dakota

Wild turkeys are not native to the Peace Garden State, and so North Dakota won't make the list of must-hunt gobbler spots. It's only open to residents, though there are some opportunities to hunt on tribal land, if killing a turkey in all 49 states (no birds in Alaska) is on your to-do list. 

Where to Go

North Dakota's turkeys are officially listed as hybrids of the Merriam's and Eastern subspecies. 

For the best hunting, look to the counties adjoining the Missouri and Little Missouri Rivers in central and western North Dakota.

For that matter, any river corridor with timber can possibly produce birds.

Insider Intel

Poor poult production has been a trend over the past decade.

Estimated Population

Actual numbers aren't available as of this posting. But in the end, they are wild turkeys.

Spring 2019 Kill

Harvest data is unavailable. One bearded turkey is the limit.

Turkey Hunting in North Dakota

South Dakota

Wild turkeys are not native to the Black Hills. The white-tipped Merriam's turkeys, for which the area is so well-known, were introduced from New Mexico in 1948 (eight birds), 1950 (15 birds) and 1951 (six birds). The rest is turkey-restoration history. 

Where to Go

South Dakota turkey hunting takes place in one of two regions. You have the famous Black Hills to the west, which cover over 2.3 million acres, three-quarters of which is public (mostly U.S. Forest Service land), and open for hunting.

Will you have competition? Maybe.

Basically, in the Black Hills, if it isn't posted, it's open for hunting. Of course this makes the area somewhat popular too, but there's room to roam if you're willing to work.

The other spring turkey hunting game in South Dakota is the prairie. These units are all lottery draw, with recent applications due mid-January through late-February.

Insider Intel

In my experience turkey hunting both South Dakota, and neighboring Wyoming, flying into Rapid City is your gateway to both locations (and another nearby state).

It's tough for non-residents, but you can eventually pull a license (check "leftover licenses" availability). 

The secret to hunting success in the Black Hills is simple: Get away from the roads and two-tracks, and hike in at least a mile into roadless areas. If you're not willing to walk and get away from the easy-to-hunt spots, don't bother hunting the Black Hills.

But there is turkey treasure there if you give yourself a few days for scouting and use your legs. The Black Hills are beautiful, with ponderosa pine, Black Hills spruce, quaking aspen and bur oak forests, interspersed with green meadows.

The prairie hunting is superb if you can get the tag and gain access. There are often unbelievable bird densities in prime river-bottom and river-break habitat.

Estimated Population

No numbers are available from wildlife officials.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 5,350 birds were taken. Check regulations for bag limits.

Turkey Hunting in South Dakota

Nebraska

Nebraska turkey roosts are often rowdy, with dozens of birds waking up in the day. It's a great place to start your season and take the edge off.

Where to Go

You'll find Merriam's in the West (the Pine Ridge complex and Sand Hills hold birds and public access), and hybrids (usually some mix of Merriam's, Rio and Eastern) in much of the rest of the state, with some pure Easterns on the state's far “right” side.

Nebraska is mostly private, but there is good public land to be found. Head west to the Pine Ridge complex, where you can hunt Merriam's in the Nebraska National Forest and numerous Wildlife Management Areas. Elsewhere in Nebraska, look to the river bottoms. Those waterways and the associated “breaks” habitat, where forest and prairie intertwine, are where the turkeys live.

Check out the Niobrara, North Platte, South Platte, Republican, Loup and Elkhorn River systems. The Missouri River is excellent turkey country too. The Central Loess Hills, with its pretty cedar habitat, is also good.

Insider Intel

We had maybe a half-dozen guys in camp. Most everybody had killed a couple turkeys, and one guy had three, all legal with permits. We walked into a local diner, giddy with success. Some of the local farmers saw us, struck up a conversation.

"You boys get any birds?"

"Yes, sir, we did."

"Do you want some more?"

Laughter all around. You see, those hard-working guys, with plenty of land to tend, and from which they make their livings, don't care all that much for the gamebirds we love and travel for and live to hunt. Nebraska turkey hunting is tough to beat.

UPDATE, March 31, 2020Nonresident spring turkey permit sales to end immediately

Estimated Population

Officials have no population estimates.

Spring 2019 Kill

Some 18,131 birds were taken. Three permits are available; one bird per permit.

Turkey Hunting in Nebraska

Kansas

Birds run heavy: 22- and 23-pounders don't even raise an eyebrow here. Kansas has solid hunting access.

Where to Go

Nearly 1.5 million acres of walk-in hunting access. Get your mind around that number.

What’s Kansas habitat like? Expect prairie river bottoms to hill-country timber and farmland. And you'd better be in shape for a long walk to the truck with a dead gobbler in the back of your turkey vest.

Outfitters have some land tied up, but hunts are often affordable, and they make good options for the turkey hunter short on time. These guides will put you on birds.

Second, Kansas is as great a place as ever for knocking on doors and getting access. Much like Nebraska to the north, farmers here aren't enamored with seed-eating turkeys.

Insider Intel

Kansas might be one of the best turkey hunting states in the country right now.

Two different specific turkey subspecies are available – Rios in the west, Easterns to the east, with hybrids of the two in the middle. Though admittedly, flocks don't read such posts as this, so birds of these variations might end up anywhere.

In the end, they're wild, and they're turkeys. 

Over-the-counter tags offer additional appeal, with a long spring season, including some exceptional fall and winter turkey hunting. As of this update, future management strategies may influence the latter opportunities. As always such decisions are based on revenue streams to wildlife agencies, hunter perception of spring turkey vs. fall/winter seasons and, one always hopes, science over sentiment.

UPDATE, April 10, 2020: Sales of general nonresident Kansas turkey permits suspended

Estimated Population

Officials have no population estimates.

Spring 2019 Kill

A total of 23,296 turkeys. Limits vary; see regulations.

Turkey Hunting in Kansas

2020 Southeast Turkey Hunting Forecast

2020 Southwest Turkey Hunting Forecast

2020 Northwest Turkey Hunting Forecast

2020 West Turkey Hunting Forecast

2020 New England Turkey Hunting Forecast

2020 Northeast Turkey Hunting Forecast

More Realtree turkey hunting.