Is Hen Culling Good Turkey Management?

By Chris Larsen

A few years ago, I put a very nice fall gobbler on the ground. Any mature tom is a trophy in the fall. This bird was the total package. He weighed 23 pounds, sported 1 ¼” spurs, and a nine inch beard. In Wisconsin, you are required to take any harvested turkeys to a registration station to register them. As a law-abiding member of the hunting fraternity, I strutted right down to the registration station in town to complete the paperwork and have a chance to show off my bird.

Is hen killing in the fall good turkey management?

Sure enough, another group of hunters were already there. As hunters do, these gentlemen sauntered over to see what was in the back of the truck. They listened to my story with wide eyes and congratulated me on the gorgeous gobbler. I couldn’t help but notice the heap of birds in the back of their truck. There were six turkeys, all of them hens. In the fall season hens are legal game in Wisconsin and these guys were obviously more than happy to partake.

They told me their hen harvests were not the product of mistakes or desperation. They purposefully targeted hens in the fall to improve their prospects of a successful gobbler hunt in the spring. According to these guys, fewer hens mean fewer henned up toms come spring. Their logic is sound. But their science is off base.

Buck-to-doe ratio is an important component to Quality Deer Management. These fellas were taking those principles to the turkeys on their property. Quality Turkey Management if you will. The problem is deer survival rates don’t fluctuate as wildly as poult survival. One ill-timed rain storm can decimate the local turkey population. Areas with high hen populations bounce back from bad weather events much faster. It’s mainly a numbers game. Deer give birth to one, maybe two offspring per year. A successful clutch of turkeys may produce a dozen birds. But it’s a high risk, high reward game. Some years have very low brood survival, while others are bumper crop seasons.

Every harvested hen can lead to the loss of ten or more future turkeys. One in the hand may be better than two in the bush. But is one in the hand better than ten or twenty in the bush? More hens increase the opportunity for more successful nests. More successful nests lead to more gobblers.

Hen culling doesn’t make sense biologically either. Toms will breed several hens in the same day. They are not going to skip an opportunity to breed your decoy because they are too busy. But it doesn’t mean they have to breed every day. A single breeding can fertilize a hen for the entire nesting season. The “henned up” theory just doesn’t hold water. He may be chasing a hen at one particular moment, but a gobbler won’t pass up a chance to breed. He will eventually visit, you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

The bottom line is hen culling is bad business for turkey hunters. If the season is winding down and you want to put some meat on the table, I wouldn’t discourage you from taking a hen. The same goes for a youth hunter. However, purposely targeting hens in an attempt to improve hunting may have the opposite effect.

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