Minnesota's Spring Turkey Outlook

Minnesota's Spring Turkey Outlook

Turkey hunting sure has come a long way in our state, and it looks like another good season is on tap for 2006 -- if Mother Nature cooperates. (April 2006)

Dig out that Minnesota turkey permit area map from 10 years ago and you'll be amazed at how many more opportunities there are today for chasing struttin' toms. Turkey hunting in Minnesota has come a long way since the first season in 1978 when 411 hunters went out and shot a total of 94 birds.

Fast-forward nearly three decades to the spring 2005 hunt where a total of 27,638 turkey hunters killed a total of 7,789 birds. Math nerds will be interested to know that while the number of hunters from then to now has increased by 67 times, the harvest has increased by 82 times. That means more hunters are having a lot more success, and the gobbler population is growing.

What's on tap for Minnesota's 2006 spring turkey hunting season?

"Turkey hunters can look forward to more great opportunities this spring," said Bill Penning, Department of Natural Resources farmland wildlife program leader. "Turkey numbers remain strong and their range continues to expand into parts of northern Minnesota."

This will be the 29th turkey season since the re-introduction, and there will most likely be a record number of hunters. With a record number of permits available -- 32,856 -- the number of turkey hunters will most likely surpass 30,000 for the first time in history.

Penning said the spring 2006 hunt should be a good one, but it probably won't result in a record harvest.

"It's not going to be a bust, but it's not going to be phenomenal," Penning said.

One reason for this is that when eggs were hatching last June, the weather was cold and wet, putting more stress on the young birds.

"It's hard to tell at this point, because in the spring we thought our production would be way down. But we saw more young birds in the late summer and fall than we thought we would."

The number of year-old turkeys may be down, Penning noted, but the number of two-year-old birds is very solid.

Cold, wet weather is rough on turkeys, and also on turkey hunters. The spring 2005 harvest was slightly lower than spring 2004, even though there were more hunters and probably more turkeys in the woods. The 2005 kill was on track to meet or surpass 2004's until the weather turned cold and wet in May, impacting the last four harvest periods.

THE OPPORTUNITIES

In 2006, hunters have eight different seasons, beginning on April 12 and carrying through until May 25. The first six seasons are each five days long while the last two are each seven days in length. Generally speaking, the earlier the season, the higher the success rate, but there's a lower chance of your being drawn.

The reason so many hunters want to hunt the first five-day period is the same as why so many deer hunters want to be out on opening day. The difference is notable. Over the last five seasons, almost 43 percent of the hunters in the first season were successful, while the last two seasons, despite being two days longer, had success rates in the low 20s.

Even though the application deadline was back in December, it's not too late to become a part of the 2006 turkey hunt. Check the DNR's Web site or your nearest ELS agent on the status of any surplus permits. Last year, 13 percent of the available permits were not issued, meaning that many opportunities were missed.

Starting last year and continuing again this year, bowhunters who were not drawn for a permit can purchase a license to hunt the last two weeks of the season in areas with more than 50 permits still available. This hunter and outdoor writer plans on taking advantage of this opportunity should my name not be drawn for a permit to my favorite permit area.

I hunt in the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area near the town of Elba, which is home to the famous Elba House and Mauer Brothers Tavern. This is Permit Area 344 on the map. Actually it's the only area I've ever hunted, but when you have a success rate of 67 percent, you tend to stick with what you know. I'm sure I'll be skunked the next few years, so my average will drop to that of a typical hunter. Turkey hunters must be cautious about being too cocky!

QUALITY TURKEY MANAGEMENT?

In 2005, juveniles made up 10 percent of the kill, which is a lot lower than in years past, when it's been in the range of 20 to 30 percent. Penning said one reason why so many adult birds are taken is because hunters have a preference for adults. But he added there's also probably some level of error in the reporting, since hunters are more likely to report that they shot an adult than a juvenile.

Some hunters like to hold out for a true trophy tom -- that heart-shaking bird with lethally long spurs, a double-digit-length beard and weight in the mid-20s. These birds are a rarity and a true gamble, with success rates hovering between the high 20s and low 30s.

Turkey biologists said management of the turkey is such that it doesn't seem necessary to have a "size limit" as many deer hunters do. That belief is held both by DNR biologists and Dave Neu, the regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation in Minnesota and Wisconsin. "We don't want to go there with turkey," said Neu. He's a representative on the DNR's turkey committee and in that role makes recommendations along with DNR biologists about Minnesota's turkey management.

This is a can of worms that Neu thinks just doesn't need to be opened. He said permit levels determine management, and if hunters have a permit for a bearded turkey, then they should take a bearded turkey. Likewise in the fall, there are places where it's okay to shoot hens, and in these areas, hunters should take the opportunity presented to them.

The difference between an adult and juvenile bird sounds simple enough. Once it has been around for a year, it's officially an adult. But determining the difference between a juvenile and young adult can be difficult after you've shot the bird and next to impossible to do in the field. "Jakes have shorter beards and spurs, and don't have all the color of an adult bird," Penning said.

GO NORTH, YOUNG TURKEY!

Wild turkeys are found throughout the country, but Minnesota is not home to as much "ideal" habitat as Wisconsin to our east.

"Almost all of Minnesota appears to have suitable turkey habitat, with the exception of the northeastern portion, which will never be turkey habitat," Neu said. "There's just no way Minnesota will

ever approach the type of population found in Missouri, the most turkey-rich state."

Minnesota's first turkeys were re-introduced in the southeastern corner of the state over 30 years ago, and the population in that area is now well established, having gone through the usual biological adjustments over several generations.

"The population went through its eruption stage, went up to a carrying capacity, and now it's leveled off to a pretty steady population," Neu said.

The northern reach of the turkey zone, however, is still booming for the most part.

"The population in the north is increasing rapidly in that eruptive stage, and it's hard to say where the population will eventually level off at," Neu added.

Among the projects Minnesota's turkey committee has worked on includes a map tracing a line across our state where there is a snow depth of one foot or greater for more than 40 days. Current research suggests that habitat south of this line is good for turkeys, and management efforts are going to focus on filling in the region south of that line. Several large-scale research projects will examine how turkeys survive along this northern edge, and if they do well, the line could move even farther north.

"In the past where we introduced populations of turkeys, there was not much of a logical pattern," said Neu. "This will allow us to really focus on this area and then decide how to proceed in the future."

In January 2005, turkeys were released in Marshall County and Red Lake County, the farthest north turkeys have ever been released. The previous mark was in the Detroit Lakes area. Paul Telander, the DNR's regional wildlife manager in Bemidji, said the female birds released were tagged with radio equipment, thus allowing biologists to track their movement, preferred habitat and survival rates.

"Birds in that area have not existed historically, and we want to do more than just plant them there and hope for the best," said Telander. "We want information that will help us make effective releases in the future and see how to proceed with expanding the population."

Turkeys in Minnesota's southern range have minimal difficulties surviving, as long as the snow doesn't get too deep, Penning said.

"Birds in the northern part of the range are more sensitive, with food sources being scarce and snow depth having a big impact on those birds," Penning said. There's evidence that turkeys can withstand extreme temperatures as long as they have access to food.

The research being conducted by the DNR is sure to be watched by turkey biologists around the nation because it should shed some light on how far north the birds can survive on a long-term basis without artificial feeding. Telander said the DNR wants turkeys to be self-sustaining and not dependent upon supplemental feeding.

Sharon Goetz, the lead biologist on the research project, said that the expanding turkey population goes beyond weather and releases.

"A lot of it depends on the habitat we have and can preserve while at the same time generating better habitat," Goetz said. "Forestry practices and private land management can have a big impact on the wild turkey if not done in a way conducive to quality habitat."

LAND OF 10,000 TURKEYS?

Our population of turkeys continues to increase as their range expands and critical habitat is preserved. Efforts by the DNR and organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation are making sure that happens. Still, a lot of hunters have wondered out loud about the possibility of Minnesota eclipsing the 10,000-bird mark in the future.

"That number has been discussed, but so have a few others," said Neu. "It's really just a number, and while future goals might be lower than that, there's a pretty good chance that it will be higher."

Though a spring kill of over 8,000 birds has happened only once -- in 2004 -- the odds are pretty good that 2006's turkey harvest will run somewhere in the range of 7,500 birds. In 2003, a total of 7,666 birds were killed, and last spring's harvest was 7,789.

"We've been trying to get permit levels increased and move turkeys into areas they are currently not located," Neu said of the management efforts.

Eclipsing the 10,000-bird mark would be a milestone, though Neu said a lot of factors can change that number as a goal.

"We are currently working on setting a turkey management plan that is two-pronged, meaning it's going to be both long-term and short-term in nature," Neu said.

This plan will be released soon, and it addresses habitat needs, population goals, harvest numbers and season parameters. The ultimate goal, Neu said, is to improve turkey hunting in Minnesota now and into the future. When asked how regular hunters can help manage turkeys in this state, Neu's response was, "Join NWTF and put your full support behind the organization."

SAFETY FIRST

Turkey hunters may want to consider attending at least one turkey clinic in the spring. The DNR hosts clinics, as do numerous sporting goods stores. Among the most important lessons taught at these clinics are ways of staying safe in the turkey woods.

There were no turkey hunting accidents reported in 2005, and since 1978, only 12 spring hunting accidents have been reported. None of these resulted in a fatality, and there's no sense in ruining that streak in 2006.

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