Minnesota'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

Turkey hunting is a grand old sport, with expanding roots that now extend deep into our state. That's why we should set yet another record harvest in 2005.

Minnesota is a rising star in the wild turkey world. Despite a rainy spring nesting season that appears to have impacted this year’s hatch, another record harvest is expected in 2005.

Our state’s modern wild turkey hunting history is brief. The first season was held in 1978, when just 420 permits were issued and 94 gobblers were killed. But in the seasons since then, we have seen a success story that continues to unfold, and that meshes with an age of enlightened understanding about where turkeys can survive and thrive.

We believe now that a mixture of agricultural lands and hardwoods may actually be the ultimate turkey habitat, and that these big birds can make it through cold winter temperatures and piles of snow, as long as they have good roosting trees close to a reliable food source.

On the modern landscape that man has made, wild turkeys may prove to be the most adaptable and resilient game bird of all. Today’s hunting has become all about providing opportunities and access, and the Minnesota spring turkey season in 2005 is shaping up to be a bright spot on both fronts.

Again, despite the fact that it looks like we had a below average turkey hatch, populations are stable or increasing in virtually all areas where turkeys now exist.

A record number of permits, 31,864, were made available through the lottery system in 2005. In ‘04, 27,600 were issued.

A new archery permit option has been created that will allow bowhunters to buy a tag over the counter. You do not even have to apply for a firearms license to get an archery permit, and you can get them right up until the final day of the last time period. You are restricted to archery hunting during the last two seasons, though, and have to hunt in zones where more than 50 permits are available for each time period.

There will be a greatly expanded series of special youth turkey hunts in 2005, with a separate application process. These hunts will largely take place on lands where turkey hunting is not otherwise allowed.

New zones will be opened or expanded in 2005. The current range of wild turkeys in Minnesota is fluid, thanks to a continuing trap-and-transplant effort jointly conducted by the Department of Natural Resources and state chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). The turkey hunting zones basically are the same as the firearms deer zones, clearly shown on the application when you apply for a permit. New or expanded zones for ‘05 include 222, 413, 424, 447, 456 and 458.

FINDING A PRODUCTIVE ZONE

In Minnesota, if you’re not sure where you want to hunt turkeys, you are in trouble during the application process because you have to declare a zone and time period. But it’s easy to see where the highest harvest numbers come from, because those zones offer the highest number of permits.

Consider, though, that some permit areas are larger than others, which can skew the numbers. Many hunters pick a zone because they have “connections” to it, such as relationships with landowners. Truthfully, there are no “bad zones” in Minnesota. If you get a permit and can secure permission on land that holds turkeys, your chances for success are then controlled by the vagaries of weather, the stage of the breeding season and your abilities as a hunter.

One myth that persists is that your odds of bagging a gobbler are better during the early time periods. Your odds of getting a permit are definitely lower if you insist on applying for the first three seasons, but statistics compiled by DNR show that hunter success is quite similar throughout the season. Especially when you factor in better odds of getting drawn during the later time periods, a mid- or late-May hunt remains an underappreciated opportunity.

NEW RECORD EVERY YEAR

In states with stabilized turkey populations, it’s no doubt a bigger deal to set a harvest record. In Minnesota, a new record has been set every spring for 10 years in a row.

The raw increase during that time period has been impressive. When you consider that as recently as 1994, state hunters shot less than 2,000 turkeys during the entire spring season and nearly 8,500 in 2004, that puts the growth into perspective.

In spring 2005, state hunters may flirt with the milestone of 10,000 turkeys killed. Gary Nelson, veteran turkey manager with DNR, feels comfortable predicting Minnesota hunters will hit that mark by 2006 at the latest.

How much higher can it go? Will wild turkeys continue to expand their range into areas of the state where we didn’t used to think they could?

“It will level off at some point,” said Nelson, “but we’re not sure yet where that point might be. Will it be 15,000 birds? I don’t know how much more we might expect. That will be quite a harvest.”

Biologists and managers who gathered in Bloomington in January 2003 for the Northern Wild Turkey Workshop presented current research into how far north the birds might be able to survive. The overall impression paints a picture that this is a hardy bird that can deal with unbelievable cold and significant snow, as long as the hike to scratchable food is close to reliable roosting cover.

For turkey fanatics who crisscross our state, like NWTF regional director Tom Glines, many stands of timber adjacent to European agriculture bring on visions of pioneering turkey flocks, even far into the northern reaches. It’s probably not realistic to think turkeys will one day roam the pine-dominated northeast, but most other areas hold unrealized potential according to those who have studied the situation.

Current estimates of the total population put it at about 60,000 birds, and Glines counts himself among those who haven’t placed an upper limit on what might be ahead.

“Turkeys are a bird of the future,” said Glines. “They’re like Canada geese in that respect. On the landscape we have now, there are lots of places where turkeys can make a go of it. We have a huntable population in Manitoba, after all, so why not northwest Minnesota? We (NWTF) believe there is viable wild turk

ey habitat extending all the way to the Canadian border, and we want that part of the state included in the turkey range for potential future releases.”

Nelson and others in DNR are always quick to laud NWTF for its significant part in trap-and-transplant, habitat acquisition and management, and other efforts that have forged the turkey numbers we have today. In an era of tight budgets in state agencies, the thriving NWTF may play an ever-growing role in future expansion. As evidence, NWTF regional biologist Dave Neu, who had been assigned to work in seven states, is now concentrating on Minnesota and Wisconsin only. During fall 2004, Neu traveled the northwest section of Minnesota to survey habitat and imagine the future for turkeys.

“I went up through Thief River Falls, Crookston, Bagley, Red Lake Falls, Park Rapids and places like that,” said Neu. “A lot of it looks really good when I compare it to some of the areas in Wisconsin where we already have turkeys.”

Neu is quick to point out that he and NWTF will always operate as a cooperating partner with DNR’s turkey committee, headed by Nelson, veteran researcher Dick Kimmel and new Farmland Wildlife Program leader Bill Penning, among others.

“They already have a list of a dozen counties where they want to see turkeys released,” said Neu. “We will work together to see what kind of a logical progression we can make northward.”

Even within the southern sections of our state with established turkey populations, Neu and DNR researchers see the potential for more turkeys in more places, which can mean even more permits for hunters.

“Our population is already healthy,” said Penning, “and the future is very bright. Clearly, turkey hunting is the fastest-growing segment of hunting we have in the state. At some point, we’ll get to the limit where all available habitat has birds, but we’re not there yet. We are still in a growth phase, both in bird numbers and hunter participation.”

Penning articulates the DNR’s long-range goals by saying the hope is to offer 35,000 permits by 2010, “and I think we’ll meet that,” he said. Beyond that, he and the turkey committee plan to study big-picture potential in an effort to map out ultimate plans to manage future growth.

Asked about whether there is any concern we may reach a point where there are “too many” turkey hunters in Minnesota’s springtime woods, Glines said, “We’ve got eight seasons. When you divide the total number of tags into eight periods, that gives you about 4,000 hunters spread across almost two-thirds of the state during any season. Compare that to Missouri (where all turkey hunters are given the option of being in the woods any day during a three-week season), or even Minnesota deer hunters, where you might have 300,000 people out there at the same time, and you see how spread out we are.

“Even when you factor in additional (spring turkey) permits in the future, you gain much of the growth by opening up new zones,” Glines continued. “Landowners who control access, and the hunters themselves, control the density of turkey hunters. Most of our turkey hunting (about 80 to 90 percent) takes place on private land.”

KEYS TO LANDING A PERMIT

In the short modern history of Minnesota turkey hunting, being drawn for a permit has become almost as thrilling as bagging a big gobbler. The number of people wanting to hunt has always exceeded the number of available tags, which necessitated a lottery system. Minnesota turkey hunters have been forced to plan early and make tight choices of where and when they plan to hunt. Application deadlines are in early December for the following spring, so there isn’t such a thing as going turkey hunting on a whim.

What has compounded the complexity is that the state appears to have cast-off computers from whoever invented computers, because applicants wait until February to find out if they are drawn. That has always made it difficult to plan complimentary outings in surrounding states, or plan for such trips in the event you are not drawn. Even after the advent of the Electronic Licensing System, which computerizes the entire process, it still takes far longer than it should to find out if you got a Minnesota tag.

The time lag will hopefully one day be dramatically shortened. On other fronts, there is already good news to report.

One great idea started several years ago allows hunters who applied for a turkey tag but were unsuccessful to purchase any tags that were not allotted. In select cases, there are fewer applicants than available licenses in specific zones and time periods. Those are sold on a first-come, first-served basis at a time and date announced in the media.

Beginning in spring 2005, those who want to hunt turkeys in Minnesota are now given the option of indicating on their initial application a second choice of time period. Your second choice must be during one of the final three time periods, but it can also be in a zone other than the one you selected for your first choice. Neighboring Wisconsin has had such a system for years, and Minnesotans have learned to request late time periods to consistently snag a tag.

Penning, who has analyzed the data, stressed that Minnesota turkey hunters who insist on applying for the first three time periods, “might have to continue to wait three years to get a license. But if we could redistribute hunter demand more equally (across the time periods), we could meet the demand better.”

ARCHERY OPTION

Turkey chasers willing to use archery equipment have the option of purchasing one of the new archery-only permits.

“You can get them even if you did not apply in the regular lottery,” explained Penning, “or if you applied but were not drawn. Either way, you can buy one over the counter.”

You can buy these tags right up until the final day of the last time period, and they allow you to hunt in any turkey zone where more than 50 permits are issued per time period. This is a late-season hunt, though. Archery tags are only valid during the last two seasons.

EXPANDING YOUTH HUNTS

The DNR has put increasing energy into recruiting young hunters, with special youth waterfowl, deer and turkey hunts. Last spring, limited youth-only hunts were held at Minnesota Valley State Park and Wildlife Science Center near Forest Lake, and their success is being built upon with an expanding youth turkey program.

“Our program is different than in a lot of states,” said Ryan Bronson, hunter recruitment an

d retention program coordinator for DNR. “We don’t have plans for a special youth-only season, although we might in the future. Instead, we are trying to identify specific places with a substantial turkey flock where hunting is not normally allowed.”

Special permission is then sought to hold controlled youth hunts in those locations.

This program is another shining example of the partnership between DNR and the NWTF. NWTF chapters across the state are approaching managers of public and private lands where hunting is not normally allowed — such as select state parks, ski areas and corporately-owned lands — and lining up permission, then filing a plan for each hunt with Bronson. Each hunt has to be approved after the specifics are studied.

Youth hunters are being recruited and selected through a separate youth lottery system. Every young hunter must pass firearms safety training and hunt with an adult mentor, most of who come from the ranks of NWTF volunteers. Certified instructors are holding special classes, where needed, to train youngsters without a firearms safety certificate. This extra effort is required, for example, when youngsters who express an interest are encouraged to apply even though they have no experience in hunting, and often no parents or other adult mentors in their lives with hunting experience.

Hunts are being mainly set up for weekends to avoid conflict with school. Each young hunter gets two full days to hunt, “and we are trying to create the camaraderie of a turkey camp,” said Bronson. “We try to get all the kids and adult mentors together for a lunch, and have the kids get back together at the end of the day so they can tell their hunting stories. That socializing factor is important for all hunters, but especially kids. They need to know there are other kids who are interested in hunting, too, and need to discover how much fun it is to hunt even if you don’t get a turkey.”

Candidates for the youth turkey hunts must be 12 to 17 years old and cannot have hunted turkeys before or even been drawn for a Minnesota turkey permit. “Our goal,” said Bronson, “is to give kids a chance to get started in the sport in the first couple years they are eligible.” Announcements are being made in the media, and posters being placed by Boy Scouts, FFA and other youth groups. Kids apply at any ELS location, just as other applicants do.

The state is sensitive to not having youth turkey hunts overlap with regular hunts. Most or all youth turkey hunts will take place during the regular season, but in locations where regular permit holders are not allowed to hunt. As hard as it is to believe, there are adults who have personal objections, for example, to the youth waterfowl season, which occurs before the regular opener. Apparently, there are adult hunters who complain because of the potential that youngsters with first crack at the ducks might impact their chances for success.

Two separate pieces of legislation made the expanding youth turkey hunts possible. Minnesota Statute 97B.112 authorized the Minnesota DNR to oversee and hold the special hunts. Plus, an earlier law making it illegal to assist a licensed turkey hunter if you did not also possess a valid permit for that same zone and time period was thankfully changed. Now, it’s still against the law to charge for such services, but legal to go call in a bird for your buddy who is just getting started, or a youngster in the youth hunts.

“Becoming a hunter is a learning experience,” said Bronson. “We are trying to take away the barriers that make it harder than it has to be.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

No matter how you study the blossoming sport of turkey hunting in Minnesota, it’s a story of barriers coming down. The birds are being introduced into areas we didn’t think could sustain them. And hunters from every age group are discovering that it’s getting easier every year to get a license.

Spring turkey hunting is a grand old sport throughout America, with expanding roots that now extend deep into Minnesota. Get in on the action!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.