Land Of 10,000 Turkeys

Land Of 10,000 Turkeys

Spring turkey hunters bagged more than 10,000 gobblers in 2008, and this season looks to be as good -- if not better. Here's what to expect in the turkey woods this spring.

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.

Thanks to intense DNR management efforts and growing popularity among hunters, Minnesota turkeys are expanding into new regions of the state.

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.

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY

The southeastern corner of Minnesota is considered our "traditional" turkey territory. It is the home to Minnesota's original reintroduced turkey population and was the only place to hunt during those first seasons.

"The southeast corner has the history to it," Dunton said. "(It's where) the turkey population for the rest of the state comes from, thanks to our southeastern Minnesota trap-and-transplant program."

Filled with river valleys and a mixture of hardwood stands and cropland, the southeast corner represents what turkey hunting in Minnesota is all about for many. It is also home to the largest number of available permits and some tremendous public lands to boot. "There is a certain mystique with hunting the southeast," Dunton added. "It's a destination hunt for lots of people."

The author has hunted the southeastern region of the state since his first hunt -- sometime around the turn of the century. There are always birds gobbling it seems, and there always seems to be numerous options for hunting locations. As a hunter who utilizes public land almost exclusively, it's nice to be able to scout around and try different areas among hundreds of other hunters and still be able to find open areas without issue.

A similar region of the state with a long tradition of turkey hunting exists between the Twin Cities metro area and Mankato. The area around Jordan is full of river valleys and agriculture but also is home to development and subdivisions.

"A lot of my area includes land where people don't choose to allow hunting," said Diana Regenscheid, DNR area wildlife manager in Jordan. "Harvest can be limited down here by virtue of limited access to land to hunt."

There are only a handful of public lands in the areas Regenscheid manages, including permit areas 338, 339 and a portion of 601. "I believe if you are talking harvest as a whole, in any given season, more birds in this area are coming off of private land versus public land," she said.

Regenscheid said things are looking very good for her area, and it appeared that the broods they scouted over the summer had good size and should have survived the winter healthy. "We've had a reasonably strong and stable population of turkeys down here, and the DNR has gradually increased permit numbers over the years," she said.

NORTHERN FRINGES

Ever adaptable, the turkey has continued to spread north throughout the state, much to the surprise of biologists. "The southeast might be a destination hunt, but more and more hunters are realizing that there are some great opportunities for turkey hunting without having to travel far from home to get into a good turkey hunting area," Dunton said.

One of the chief wildlife biologists responsible for managing this "northern flock" of birds is Earl Johnson, the DNR area wildlife manager in Detroit Lakes. "In my area the best turkey hunting tends to be south and west of Detroit Lakes," he said. "As you move northwest, you have more agriculture and less bird habitat, and as you move east toward Park Rapids, you have less farmland and a higher winter severity."

Johnson's area is close to permit area 266, one of the new areas in the state. "There are birds to be had there even though it's only five permits per season," Johnson said. "The big challenge is that it's not a continuous turkey habitat area, so birds are going to be kind of hit-and-miss."

A longtime veteran of turkey management in Minnesota, Johnson is especially impressed with how well turkeys have adapted to northern Minnesota. A release of birds recently by Red Lake Falls and in Pennington County will further demonstrate the possibility of the population expanding farther north.

"In the 1980s, we thought they couldn't make it north of St. Cloud, and then by 1985 we were saying these birds are rewriting the book," Johnson said. "The thought then turned to Fergus Falls or Alexandria, but it's continued to increase. We've been blessed with mild winters. I also think that with all the food plots and people feeding deer, the turkey range will continue to extend."

That expansion should remain in the northwest portion of the state, he added, because northeastern Minnesota, with snow depths, agriculture and habitat, is not very conducive to a turkey population.

EXPANDED 2008 FALL HUNT

The DNR greatly expanded its fall hunt in 2008, adding 3,070 permits and 17 permit areas for a total of 50 areas. That 76 percent increase in permits translated to 2,000 more hunters in the field and almost 500 more birds harvested.

"We have a very healthy turkey population, which is why we expanded the opportunities, but we were also responding to an increase in complaints," Dunton said. "We thought we'd let hunters get a chance at some of those birds and deal with some of those issues through harvest."

SOBERING REMINDER

Despite all the records, there was a bittersweet moment during last year's spring turkey hunt, when the first-ever Minnesota turkey-hunting fatality was recorded. Many hunters remember the story of the 8-year-old boy who was shot by his father while turkey hunting in Sibley County.

In Minnesota's first 30 turkey seasons, there were only 15 accidents and zero fatalities. Last year's accident was a shock to turkey hunters around the state who take great pride in their safety record, especially because of the potential for turkey-hunting accidents.

Unlike the fall season, spring turkey hunting takes place when foliage is increasing. As the season progresses, visibility in the woods and fields decreases. The use of calls and decoys can also create situations in which a hunter can confuse a fellow hunter with a real bird.

ADDITIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

As you read this, the permit application deadline has already come and gone, but there are still surplus permits available for purchase. Even though hunters apply for more permits than are available, the applications are not uniform throughout the state. Plenty of opportunities exist for hunters willing to travel. In any case, there's a good chance of getting on plenty of birds no matter where you go this spring.

Hunters who are pickier about where they hunt can have the run of almost the entire state, provided they are willing to bowhunt. Permit areas with 50 or more permits per time period are open to archers in the last two weeks of the season. These licenses can be purchased over the counter and are available to hunters who were not drawn in the lottery. With the expanded shooting hours in place, bowhunters can put

in a full day of work and then head afield for an evening turkey hunt.

There really is no excuse for not turkey hunting this year if you've never done it before. Get out there and experience a hunt that is more addicting than the average.

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