In 2008, for the first time ever, hunters shot more than 10,000 birds in a Minnesota spring turkey season. A total of 10,994 turkeys were harvested last spring, shattering the previous record of 9,412 set the year before.
Will this spring see another record? Perhaps a “three-peat” for turkey-hunting records? The possibility is very likely when all variables are considered. With an ever-expanding population and the addition of three new permit areas and more than 4,000 new permits for hunters, the 2009 season might not break the record, but it will give it a run for its money. This is a great time to be a turkey hunter in Minnesota, and the outlook is sunny for the future.
The 2009 spring season kicks off on April 15, so make sure your taxes are done if you are hunting time period A, the first of eight time periods over the course of the season. The final time period ends on May 28, making for five weeks of craziness for the ever-wily turkey.
Last year was the 30th turkey-hunting season in Minnesota history, and the season really came of age. Topping the 10,000-bird harvest mark, Minnesota ranked among the top turkey hunting states in the Midwest, earning credibility as a turkey-hunting destination in the process.
To put that progress into perspective, more birds were taken last spring than the first 16 seasons combined. “Our best estimate on a statewide population is around 70,000 birds, and that’s based on harvest (data). Some research has shown that spring harvest is around 15 percent of the population,” said Eric Dunton, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ wild turkey biologist working out of the Farmland Research Group in Madelia.
A native of Michigan, Dunton has extensive turkey hunting experience in both his home state and in Tennessee, where he attended graduate school. Last year, he participated in his first Minnesota turkey hunt near his home in New Ulm and bagged a first-quality bird. He has inherited management of the state’s turkey system at a great time and said he is looking forward to continuing to support turkey hunters and turkey-hunting opportunities.
Dunton backed that statement up with the announcement that the DNR has opened three new permit areas in northwestern and north-central Minnesota, including permit area 266 between Highway 10 and Twin Valley, permit area 246 in southern Cass County and permit area 242 just north of Brainerd in western Crow Wing County. (Continued)
There are also more permits being offered in several existing permit areas around the state. Combining the effect of the new areas with the new permits, there are 4,336 more permits available to Minnesota hunters in 2009, pushing the statewide total to 42,328 hunting permits. The last five years have seen a steady increase in permits and permit areas, but this year is the broadest expansion in years.
INCREASING OR PEAKING?
Plenty of work went into making Minnesota’s first season possible in 1978, and the reintroduction of wild turkeys to the state garnered the most attention. A total of 10,740 hunters applied for only 420 permits available that first season, when only 94 birds were harvested.
Times have changed. Today, there are five times as many turkey-hunting applicants and 100 times more birds harvested. Biologists and others who worked hard to expand turkey-hunting experiences in Minnesota had a strong feeling that, once introduced, turkeys would thrive. Undeniably, the turkey far surpassed even the most optimistic predictions in Minnesota.
“Even 40 years ago, they said turkeys needed 10,000 acres of virgin timber and nothing but wilderness,” Dunton said, “but the birds are thriving. Turkeys are amazingly adaptable as to where they can live and the habitats they can fill.”
The ancestral range of wild turkeys in Minnesota ebbed and flowed throughout the years, with winter severity being a dominating force, Dunton said. Because the last turkey was removed from Minnesota long before modern biological practices, nobody really knows the true extent of our state’s natural turkey population. Most likely, turkey hunting today is as good as it has ever been in Minnesota.
“One rule of thumb for our trap-and-transplant programs is the 30-day snow line of depths greater than 12 inches,” Dunton said. “We won’t consider putting turkeys into those areas based on research about food availability and snow depth.”
Turkeys have shattered long-held beliefs about their adaptability and durability in the past and they might do so again, but Dunton said the spread of turkeys in the state has been slow and deliberate because neither the DNR, the National Wild Turkey Federation nor local volunteers want to put birds into a situation where they won’t thrive. That sort of experience just hasn’t happened yet on a large scale, which is why the turkey population is still rapidly increasing.
HIGH SUCCESS AREAS
Check the success rate map for the 2008 spring season and you’ll find that the top areas last year were in the central part of the state. “I think what we are seeing is strong turkey population growth,” Dunton explained. “Compare that to southeast Minnesota, which has had turkey hunting for 30 years. The numbers are stabilizing there, and we are seeing routine success rates, which I expect we’ll start to see more of around St. Cloud and other areas as time goes on.”
The number of permits available and the number of hunters applying for those permits are increasing in the central portions of Minnesota’s turkey territory. Dunton said the population in the central portion of the state is still growing. “We are still going through the process of increasing permit numbers to keep up with the population,” he said, “and we don’t want to issue too many permits to adversely impact the population or hunting experience.”
Permit area 156 in east-central Minnesota had the highest success rate last year with 66.7 percent of the permits available being filled. This was the first year hunting was open in the permit area, and the number of permits in 2009 is double that of last year.
Permit area 422 posted the second-highest success rate last year. Almost entirely in Traverse County on the western border “bump,” this permit area has been a top producer over the last five years, with an average of 53.4 percent of all hunters filling their tags.
Perusing permit area success rate maps can be a good way to plan your spring turkey hunt, but hunters are largely homebodies and like to hunt how — and where — they have hunted in the past. Those who traditionally hunt the southeastern corner of the state most likely have done so for many years. Those who are new to turkey hunting in Minnesota are more likely to try new territory. Who has the better hunt? It all depends on your perspective.
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