Minnesota'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

This year marks the 30th spring season in our state's modern turkey hunting history. Here's everything you need to know before going afield in 2007. (April 2007)

Photo by John Ford

Get out the birthday candles because this is the 30th spring turkey hunting season in modern Minnesota history. Once on the brink of extinction, Minnesota's turkey population -- and the hunting of them -- has grown over the last three decades and has become part of our rich hunting tradition.

During that first modern season 30 years ago, 411 hunters shot a total of 94 birds. Fast-forward to 2006, which had the second-highest harvest ever and is only the second season to eclipse the mark of 8,000 birds killed. Last year, about 28,000 hunters bagged a total of 8,241 turkeys, which was only 193 birds short of the record set in 2004.

The really good news is that the growing turkey population is showing no signs of slowing down.

"Barring a rough winter, the 2007 season should be as good as, or maybe a little better, than last year," said Bill Penning, the Department of Natural Resources' Farmland Wildlife Program leader in St. Paul.

The growth of Minnesota's turkey population was a slow one at first but has ramped up over the last decade. Minnesota's 10th turkey season saw 2,520 hunters kill 520 birds, while the 20th season had 11,610 hunters harvest 3,302.

One of the biggest changes in turkey hunting today as compared with the early years is that hunter success is regularly within a few percentage points of 30 percent. In the early 1980s, there was a period of five years when hunter success rates ranged from 5.3 percent to 8.2 percent. Over the last five years, the success rate has averaged a whopping 31.1 percent.

NEW IN 2007

There have been a few adjustments made to the turkey regulations this year, including expanded hunting hours. For most of the 30 seasons, turkey shooting hours lasted from sunrise until noon.

"The nice thing about turkey hunting with those limited hunting hours was that you could get in some great trout fishing after the morning hunt," said Jim Luttrell, a longtime Minnesota turkey hunter.

Several years ago, that time restriction was changed so hunters could stay out there until 5 p.m. This year, hunters will be able to hunt from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. When asked why this adjustment was made, Penning said there was no biological reason to end hunting at 5 p.m.

"It just makes sense because it provides more opportunities for hunters -- particularly working people and kids who can come home from work or school and hunt in the afternoon," Penning said. When jokingly chastised for forcing hunters to spend every hour of daylight in the field, Penning commented that there's nothing forcing people to stay out there the entire time.

Luttrell doesn't plan to skip the trout fishing option. "I think it might be time to go back to hunting until noon, sneaking in some trout fishing in the afternoon and then getting back out to chase turkeys as they do their early-evening strutting before roosting for the night," he said.

To keep the numbering system the same for deer and turkey permit areas, the DNR had to change the numbers of a few areas this year. It's always a good idea to review the map and regulations before hitting the field each year.

There are also additional permits available this year, with most of them coming in the metro area and along the northern boundary.

"In some areas we hold the number of permits down, not for a lack of turkeys but a lack of huntable habitat," Penning said. "This prevents a lot of hunter frustration due to overcrowding." It also helps reduce the likelihood of an accidental shooting -- something Minnesota's spring turkey season has never had and never hopes to have.

IT'S NOT TOO LATE

It used to be that if you didn't apply by the Dec. 1 deadline or pick up a surplus license, your opportunity to hunt turkeys in the spring was gone. That is now a thing of the past if you are willing to go after turkeys with a bow.

Hunters who wish to bowhunt for gobblers this spring will be able to hunt during the last two time periods -- May 18 to May 31 -- in any permit area with 50 or more permits per time period. This special bowhunting season only pertains to hunters who did not participate in, or were not successfully drawn, in the spring turkey lottery. A total of 28 permit areas are open to hunting, and archers have the flexibility to hunt in a different area whenever they want as long as it has 50 or more permits per period.

The DNR increased the number of permits to 50 or more for several permit areas in the Twin Cities metro area to open them up to this late-spring archery season. "We pushed them over 50 so people could archery hunt where you can't discharge a firearm," Penning said.

Last year, the highest numbers of birds taken by archers came from around Rochester, the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.

"There's a great opportunity to hunt these turkeys by buying a license over the counter and going to a lot of areas where there's been only minimal hunting pressure," Penning said.

THE WEATHER

Weather is a big indicator for how successful a specific season will turn out, according to DNR Rochester-area wildlife manager Don Olson.

"It's more of an indication of hunter activity than turkey activity, although sometimes the birds are not as active or might not gobble as much," Olson said.

If you check the detailed harvest information over the years, there are always time periods where the harvest dips. Last year, that dip came during Period D, which ran from April 29 to May 3. Periods C and E each had hunter success percentages around 30 percent, while Period D's success rate was a paltry 23.7 percent. Examine last year's weather records and you'll find that there was an extended period of rain during Period D. In 2005, Period G saw a dip because of cold and rainy weather. Last year, periods F and G also had a dip because of cooler weather.

The important thing to keep in mind is that weather influences the kill because it impacts the hunters, not the turkeys. But every weakness can become strength, and the savvy turkey hunter who has poor weather during his or her time period should only become emboldened to get out and hunt. The reduced hunting pressure will allow you to hunt those areas where there always seem to be other hunters. If it's raining, a blind can be dry a

nd cozy, even if it gets a bit noisy with the raindrops bouncing off the roof.

TURKEY HOTSPOTS

OK, now that we have all that out of the way, let's talk about areas of Minnesota where turkeys thrive.

Rochester Area

The woods and fields around Rochester are prime turkey habitat, a fact that is no surprise to Don Olson. As the DNR Rochester-area wildlife manager, Olson said this year is looking to be excellent for turkey hunting.

"We had a good hatch of birds last spring that should make for a good population of jakes -- something that's been missing the last few years," Olson said.

The Rochester area has many massive toms with lengthy beards and long spurs, but jakes -- 1-year-old male birds -- are the ones that are the easiest to kill.

"You need a few dumb birds out there to increase your chances at being successful," Olson said.

The entire southeastern portion of our state is looking good right now, Olson noted, with better numbers showing up by Red Wing and Owatonna. Permit Area 343, which occupies almost all of Olmsted County and the area around Rochester, is always one of the top producers.

"I honestly can't completely account for that," Olson said. "Our habitat is not any better than some places, but hunters always seem to do real well around here, and that should be the truth again this spring."

Sauk Rapids Area

A healthy population of jakes is showing promise in the Sauk Rapids area, according to DNR wildlife manager Fred Bengston.

"We had an outstanding spring last year for turkey reproduction, and that should translate to a good spring this year," Bengston said.

Bengston said there haven't been any down surges in the population over the years. "Most of the time, the population has held its own or is increasing, but this year there should be a big jump," he noted.

The Sauk Rapids area is a relatively newer part of Minnesota's turkey range, though it's old enough that the birds have really taken hold. The turkey population continues to expand in the area, and they have occupied almost the entire area with the exception of a few open farmland sections. Because the population has increased, Bengston said they slightly increased the number of permits available for this spring's season. Along with the turkey population, the number of hunters has increased over the years, and it's becoming another traditional hunt for people in the area.

"It's really spreading around here as people who try it and love it introduce turkey hunting to their family and friends," Bengston said.

Bengston said the harvest for his area continues to go up every year, and is among the best in the state. The biggest challenge for hunters is that most of the available hunting land is privately owned. "I'd say 90 percent of the turkeys around here are taken on private land, making it harder for people to get on," Bengston said. "But if you have contacts or the time to make some contacts, you can get on some good places."

WHITEWATER WMA

I took up turkey hunting several years ago and have had nothing but a great time hunting the 27,500 acres this wildlife management area occupies. Some years, I've hunted the top of the bluffs in the many food plots the DNR maintains, while in other years, I've hunted down in the valley of the Whitewater River. The WMA is very accessible to the public, but big enough that you can be the only hunter in your area.

Jon Cole, the DNR's Whitewater area wildlife manager, said this year should be a great one because there has been good reproduction the last two years. That will make for plenty of first-year birds as well as numerous more mature gobblers.

"We have continued to see the population grow, which is why we increased our permit numbers from 110 to 140 two years ago," Cole said.

It is a very popular place to attempt to secure a permit and it can take years of preference to be drawn for one of the early-season hunts. I usually put in for one of the May hunts and have only missed one drawing in the last three years. Of course, it was last year I missed, so I'm chomping at the bit to get out this year. There are many huge toms throughout the WMA, but the increased number of jakes will help fill the tag just in case one of those big boys refuse to come into shooting range.

Lac qui Parle WMA

Just shy of 24,000 acres in size, the Lac qui Parle WMA is usually noted for its excellent waterfowling and deer hunting opportunities. Many hunters don't know that it's also a great place to hunt turkeys ever since they were first introduced here over 10 years ago.

"This has been one of the better production areas in the state over the last decade, but this past spring and fall, I personally saw more hens with broods and jakes than ever before," said Dave Trauba, wildlife manager for the LQP WMA.

Even though LQP is thought of as nothing but marshes and grasslands, there are many deep ravine areas and drier oak forests where turkeys thrive.

"We have old woodlots that most of the hunters use to turkey hunt, though the valleys of the Chippewa and Pomme de Terre rivers are good spots as well," Trauba said.

There are plenty of food plots throughout this WMA, and finding turkey roosting grounds near those spots is a great place to start.

"We have a very active food-plot program here that sustains the pheasants and deer throughout the winter, but it is a major food supply for turkeys as well, and I'm a true believer in the system," Trauba said.

Trauba invited hunters to stop by the LQP office for the locations of those food plots, though they show up on the aerial photography available on the DNR's Web site at no cost. The DNR also has ground-cover maps for all state WMAs on its Web site that show the different types of ground cover and vegetation.

"We are working on a more detailed map, but if you stop by our office, we're more than happy to tell you what's going on," he said.

Detroit Lakes Area

Located at the extreme northern fringe of Minnesota's turkey territory, the Detroit Lakes area is now a great place to do some spring turkey hunting.

"I think we had a good hatch and good recruitment of young into the population last year, and as of last fall, we were looking as good as we ever have," said DNR area wildlife supervisor Earl Johnson.

Winter severity is a bigger issue in this portion of the state than the south simply because it can have a larger impact on the birds. Fortunately, the eight winters before this last one were very mild, which has been good for the turkey population. "We are what might be the northern fringe of where turkeys can make it with gusto, and they could come and go with the severity of winters, but so far we've been lucky and they are cer

tainly doing well," Johnson said.

Johnson said the first release in Becker County was back in February 1995, and there have been several releases since then in Clay, Mahnomen and Norman counties.

"The turkey population up here has done nothing but expand and they are doing comparatively well in this county," he added.

Even though it's Minnesota's newest turkey territory, Johnson said a strong tradition is definitely beginning to flourish in his area.

"It's a little tougher around here to have a good experience with the birds, but those who are fortunate enough to kill one or have one come to their calling seem to stick with it," Johnson said. "And we see a lot of people from out of the area from places like Bemidji, Blackduck, Roseau and East Grand Forks. It's a growing tradition."

This portion of our state is jammed right between the prairies of North Dakota and the big woods of northern Minnesota. "We have this oak transition timberland with a lot of acorns, which is good for turkey hunting," Johnson said.

* * *

Let's be careful out there, and enjoy your hunt!

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