In 1978, Minnesota held its first modern-day spring turkey season. Hunters shot 94 gobblers. If you had told game managers then that 35 years later the big birds would be hunted from Houston County in the state’s ideal southeastern turkey country to the Canadian border in the northwest, and from the big woods of Carlton County near Duluth down to Rock, Nobles and Pipestone counties in the prairie southwest, you might have been asked to have your head examined.
As usual, the wild turkey fooled us all. Thanks to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Minnesota has become a turkey-hunting hotbed. Believe it or not, folks now travel here from out of state to hunt our birds. Our hunting is that good, and opportunities are expanding.
Let’s take a look at the good “new” days of turkey hunting in our state, and get primed for the spring season!
A LOOK BACK AT 2012
Last year was the 35th modern-day spring turkey season in Minnesota, and we’ve come a long way from those original 94 birds. Registered harvest in spring 2012 was 11,235 turkeys across the state. That harvest number represented a 13 percent increase from 2011’s spring hunt.
While that number was below the peak harvest of 13,467 birds we saw in 2010, it was still the third highest harvest on record. With 12,210 birds, 2009 was the only other year to beat 2012. The trend back toward a potential record harvest is on. Mild, favorable spring weather for spring hunting seasons is one wild card in the harvest equation; so is a mild winter for turkey survival.
Minnesota hunter-success rates are interesting too. Last year, hunters achieved a 29.1 percent success rate statewide. Almost 1 in 3 hunters gets his bird. While the state had higher success rates back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, 1 in 3 is nothing to scoff at. Let’s put that number into another perspective. A hunter can expect to get his bird one year out of three. If you’re doing that or better in our state, you’re doing well!
Happily, last spring was my season to catch up with the Minnesota odds. I was hunting in Isanti County, on the northern fringe of the metro turkey unit 510. After tough 2010 and 2011 seasons, I was on my third morning out in 2012. It was the first non-lottery season, and I was walking back to my vehicle in late morning when I spied a gobbler following a hen. They went across a country road and into a small woodlot. I had permission to hunt there, and so I swung around wide and set up on the far side.
I don’t know if I was lucky or good that day; probably more of the former. But a Minnesota turkey hunter makes his own luck by being out there and hunting hard. Success can happen at any time, and quickly. It was 11 a.m. and I was still out there working. My calls coaxed the hen in my direction and the gobbler tagged along. The 19.3-pound, 2-year-old bird felt mighty good slung over my shoulder on the walk out.
“We had a great spring for nesting in 2012 all across the state,” says Tom Glines, regional director for the NWTF in Minnesota “And in Minnesota’s turkey expansion areas, we continue to have reports of turkey flocks moving into new areas. We have turkeys as far as the Nemadji in the east, up to Duluth, and all the way up to the Canadian border in the northwest.
“I’m thrilled with what turkeys in Minnesota are doing,” adds Glines. “In the past, a hunter had to go to southeastern Minnesota. That’s no longer the case. Now there’s great opportunity north, and northwest, of the Twin Cities.”
The new frontier of Minnesota turkey hunting is shifting to units 508 and 507, even 506. Turkey densities in some areas of these zones, especially 507, may well surpass those in the great southeast zones (501 and 503) within a few years.
“And turkey hunting opportunity is expanding with the birds,” Glines points out. “That population expansion has made a lot of impact. The last four periods in 2012, we had over-the-counter tags. And in two of the zones, lottery tags increased by 10 percent (in the northwest/509) and 20 percent (in the northeast/508). So even in most of the lottery areas and time periods, it’s easier to get a tag.
“In the northern zones, turkey populations have not maximized yet. This can be good turkey country, especially where there is agricultural land. And of course, there is no shortage of roost trees. In the southwest, trees can be a limiting factor: There just are not enough of them around. In the north, winter weather is the limiting factor, but turkeys are pretty hardy.
“Last spring, turkey hunting extended all the way to the Canadian border,” says Glines. “There were huntable populations as far north as Kittson County, 10 years ago. This finally got recognized, and now we’re hunting these places.”
Who would have thought it 10 or 20 years ago?
With Minnesota’s new over-the-counter tag rule, you no longer have an excuse to sit out the hunt.
“If you want to go turkey hunting in Minnesota, there’s a tag for you. Even if you don’t get drawn in a lottery, there’s no reason to stay home,” says Glines.
Continuing this season, a hunter can purchase a tag for period E, F, G or H (most of May), without entering the tag lottery. It’s how I hunted last spring.
“May hunting is good, and often great,” says Glines. “It’s a fallacy that all the good hunting happens, and all the turkeys get shot, in April. I haven’t applied for a turkey tag in over five years because of leftover and over-the-counter tags!
“I’m a big fan of over-the-counter tags,” he says. “May is a great time to hunt. We figured that out early on, when we’d stop hunting here in Minnesota, and head on over across the river to hunt Wisconsin’s sixth period and have some of the best hunting of the spring, for some very big and lonely gobblers! So we said, ‘Why are we closing so soon? The turkeys aren’t done breeding. Let’s add some seasons.’ It just created more opportunity.
“Sometimes in the early seasons, you just can’t get away from the hens. You have a much better chance later, in May, to find a receptive tom.”
THE DNR VIEWPOINT
One reason Minnesota has become a turkey-hunting powerhouse is the way the NWTF and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources work together. “Last spring was a very good season,” says Steve Merchants, acting Wildlife Chief for the DNR. “We didn’t set a record, but you can’t expect that every year. The hard winter two years before that had some impact on the turkey population.”
Still, 2012 was the third highest harvest on record — a testament to Minnesota turkeys’ resilience, as well as their ability to expand and pioneer new habitat.
“This spring should be good,” predicts Merchants. “Of course, how good will depend on what the winter brought, and what spring weather is bringing. But the fall harvest in 2012 was a record, and that always indicates there are a lot of birds out there. Barring a hard winter, they should be readily available.
“The spring of 2012 also saw a very good hatch of turkeys,” adds Merchants. “That bodes well for this spring’s hunt too.” That’s especially true if you’re willing to take a jake. It also could mean good numbers of 2-year-old birds for spring of 2014.
What about the larger turkey zones we currently have — only nine major zones across the state now, compared to the dozens and dozens we used to have?
“I haven’t heard anything negative about it,” says Merchants. “It sure didn’t limit any opportunity. If anything, it expanded opportunity. And with our current structure, anybody who wants to hunt turkeys can.”
For Merchants, this spring is bright, as is every future one. “I think you’re going to continue to see turkey population expansion on that northern fringe range,” he says. “This range isn’t fully occupied yet. I suspect the northwest area of the state in particular (portions of area 507 and 508, as well as 509) will see a lot of growth in turkey populations. This is a function of the agricultural land up there, as well as the availability of trees.
“What you typically see in a new turkey area is a period of rapid population growth, followed by a stabilization,” he explains. “That happened in the southeast a long time ago, and the population there is at capacity, more or less. It fluctuates year to year according to what the winter was, or the hatch, or the habitat.
“The southeast, the classic original turkey range is beyond this growth stage that the northwest is seeing, and the southwest needs to see more of. I guess static is the right word. Winter weather and the hatch will have localized effects on turkey populations — rises and falls — but the expansion is done.
“Where we still need some expansion is in the southwest,” Merchants echoes. But the limiting factor in our big prairie country is fairly obvious: Turkeys need some trees. DNR and NWTF will work on that habitat factor in appropriate areas. There’s plenty of feed for birds in the southwest, and winters tend to be somewhat milder.
Like Glines, Merchants really likes Minnesota’s new over-the-counter tag system. “I’d even go so far as to say we might someday look at that fourth period (D) as a possibility for over-the-counter licenses. We’re not ready to say ‘go’ yet, by any means, but with a few more years of experience with the E through H seasons under our belt, you might someday see non-lottery tags in period D.”
That would essentially open up almost all of May. “And May is sure a good time to hunt in our state,” says Merchants. “The weather is usually more stable and nice, the birds are certainly active, and it’s just a great time to be out on the spring woods.”
BRIGHT TODAY, BRIGHT TOMORROW
The wild turkey has a bright future in Minnesota. Working with game managers at the DNR, The NWTF has three goals in the state.
“First, we need to continue to work on, maintain and improve habitat,” says Glines. “That is the key. In the southwest, for instance, trees for roosting are needed. In the southeast, it’s promoting the oak groves that turkeys love.”
In a lot of the farmland mix country — like west, northwest and north of the Twin Cities — factors like those just take care of themselves.
“Second, we need to recruit new hunters. NWTF conducts one of the largest youth turkey hunts in the nation in Minnesota,” he explains, “with over 300 kids participating every spring. We’re creating opportunities for veterans and disabled hunters. And we advocate for the over-the-counter tags for the later seasons.
“We just need to keep creating opportunities for Minnesota sportsmen and women to go out and chase turkeys,” concludes Glines. “We’ll continue to look at modifying the regulations to what the resource can handle.”
The new zone structure of fewer but larger zones also creates opportunities by allowing hunters to expand their wings more.
We bought my middle boy, Ethan, an over-the-counter youth tag for period A last season. Hunters 17 and under can do so for any period A through D — another great youth opportunity in our state.
It turned out to be a rainy weekend. Undaunted, we hunted hard on Saturday morning. A satellite gobbler sneaked in behind us through the woods as we called to a bruiser of a tom out in an Isanti County pasture. All twisted and contorted to turn around and attempt the shot, the experienced young hunter missed — his first whiff ever on a turkey!
I laughed and said, “Well, now you really are a turkey hunter!”
Despite misty conditions again Sunday morning, we trekked back into the area before first light, and lucked into a gobbler on the roost. We eased in and set up, and I made a few light yelps. The bird roared back, and we knew we were in business.
But the gobbler stood his ground. As we waited for him to fly down, I heard a turkey drumming — spit-boooooom. But it wasn’t “our” bird! Looking off the to the right, I spied a silent gobbler strutting on a limb only 30 yards away! No sooner could I whisper to Ethan to point his gun toward the right, than the bird jumped off the branch and fluttered down, landing with a thud 15 yards in front of us!
Boom! Ethan pounded the 20.1-pound bird, and we jogged over to secure the gobbler. I would bet my next lottery tag that it was the subordinate bird that sneaked in on us and we missed the day before. He was a beauty.
By now the turkey we were originally targeting was on the ground gobbling, so we sat down and called him in too! He eventually wandered off, after not being greeted by a real hen or load of No. 6s.
That’s the new Minnesota turkey hunting — big birds in traditional places and new ones, making lifetime memories for hunters. There’s plenty of opportunity awaiting you this spring.