Our Spring Turkey Outlook

Minnesota gobbler chasers are wondering what kind of season they'll have. It looks like it'll be a banner year.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Scott Bestul

With the annual spring turkey hunt close at hand, Minnesota gobbler chasers are gathering gear, patterning guns, tuning calls and asking, "What kind of season will I have?"

In terms of the turkey population itself, the answer may best be found by looking at population trends for another popular Gopher State game bird, the ring-necked pheasant. While comparing pheasants and turkeys may seem like quite a stretch, for Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologist Dick Kimmel the two species typically experience similar nesting success.

"Usually when pheasant brood counts are up, conditions are right for turkeys to have a good hatch, too," Kimmel says. "Last spring we had good nesting success for pheasants, and we expect much the same for turkeys. Of course, the 'X Factor' is always the winter. If we (had) a really bad one we'll undoubtedly lose some birds. But if turkeys can find food, they've proven to us they can survive about anything winter can throw at them. Based on nesting conditions alone, I think we're looking at a banner year for the 2003 spring turkey hunting season."

Kimmel does not make such predictions without thinking, especially when he knows our state's gobbler hunters set a harvest record during the 2002 season.

"We harvested 6,516 turkeys, which was actually another in a series of consecutive harvest records we've established," Kimmel says. "We can attribute those record harvests to several factors, but two stand out in my mind - expanding turkey populations and increased hunter opportunities. We've simply got more turkeys now than ever before, and we're able to allow a growing number of sportsmen to hunt them."

With those thoughts in mind, let's take a look at why Minnesota turkey hunters are now enjoying the bounty.

EXPANDED OPPORTUNITY
Kimmel is certainly correct about increased hunter participation. The DNR issued a record 25,016 permits for the 2003 spring hunt, an increase of 3.5 percent from 2002.

The DNR will also open two new zones to hunting for the first time this spring - Zone 221 (near the town of Little Falls) and Zone 249 (just south of Brainerd). The opening of these new hunt areas represents the DNR's continual expansion of turkey hunting opportunities through the creation of new hunt areas and additional licenses. While game managers issue a limited number of tags for the first few seasons in a newly opened zone, future seasons will usually see an increase in license quotas if the birds do well and the habitat allows expanded opportunity.

Another factor that's put more hunters in Minnesota's turkey woods is the sale of licenses for zones and seasons that were undersubscribed in the first drawing. Under the original system used for drawing turkey tags, licenses that weren't claimed in the first drawing frequently went unused. Since most hunters opt for the first, second or third hunt period, most of the leftover licenses are for later time periods, frequently in May. But in the last two years, the DNR has allowed hunters who've been unsuccessful in the first draw to purchase any leftover permits on a first-come, first-served basis starting in March.

This updated system has, for the most part, been quite popular with hunters, who wisely realize that hunting late is better than not hunting at all. As a turkey nut who's had considerable success in later time periods, I can attest that it is well worth your time to hit the woods in any season right up to the last time period in late May. While there may not be as many gobblers available - and the birds may act differently than they do at the mid-April opener - patient, persistent hunters have an excellent chance at bagging a tom during any of Minnesota's eight hunting periods.

The DNR notifies successful applicants in the first drawing by mid-February, then lists the time period(s) and zone number of any leftover licenses shortly afterward. Leftover licenses go on sale in March and can be purchased at any ELS agent in the state. Take my advice and take advantage of this wonderful second chance. As an added bonus, purchasing a leftover license doesn't affect any preference points you've accumulated, meaning that the following spring you'll stand an excellent chance of drawing the time period and zone of your choice. It's a win-win situation that any gobbler fanatic should take advantage of.

HEALTHY FLOCKS
While the last couple of springs have seen sub-par nesting conditions for turkeys, all indicators point to a decent hatch in most areas, and a very good one in many others, during the spring of '02. This will make more jakes available for the 2003 hunt and, barring any disasters, should promise a healthy crop of adult birds in 2004.

Kimmel was enthusiastic about the 2002 hatch, noting that "we're seeing nice broods of birds in areas where we've never seen turkeys before. All in all, last spring was a very good one for turkeys in the state."

Perhaps nowhere is Kimmel's optimism more warranted than in the opening of the two new zones mentioned earlier. Established well north and west of Minnesota's prime turkey range, these flocks are living evidence of the success of the DNR's trap-and-transplant program. This reintroduction program has been guided by biologist Gary Nelson since 1976, and even he remains awed by its success.

"I can remember when we thought that Wabasha County was about as far north as we dared to go," Nelson says. "Now we have birds clear up by Detroit Lakes."

Nelson and his crews continue to trap 250 to 300 birds per year within the state for relocation to other areas. Most of these birds are taken from southeastern counties like Houston, Winona and Wabasha.

How far northward can Minnesota turkeys thrive? It all depends on habitat, according to Nelson and Kimmel.

"The birds have proven time and again that winter weather is not much of an issue," Kimmel notes. "They can survive snow and bitter cold as long as they can get at food. We've had some rough winters since we established flocks in our farmland regions, but while there is always some mortality, they always manage to make it through."

When introducing a flock to a new area, DNR biologists look for an ideal mix of timber and agriculture.

"That pretty much rules out the northeastern corner, but it leaves a lot of other regions that have potential," Nelson says. "We always have a lot more requests for birds t

han we can fill."

Some possible places in which to establish flocks are Kittison, Becker and Mahnomen counties, as well as some areas east of the Red River Valley.

"They're hunting turkeys in the Pembina Hills region of North Dakota, as well as in some areas in southern Manitoba," Kimmel notes. "That indicates we might have some success getting some birds going in the Red River Valley. We're studying the situation to see if the potential is there."

Minnesota biologists have gained nationwide attention for the success of our turkey program, and they trade information and advice with Wisconsin turkey managers about the management of northern turkey populations.

"Since the beginning we've talked about an imaginary 'line of caution' which we considered the northern limit for wild turkeys to thrive," Kimmel notes. "Every year we seem to erase the line and draw it a little farther north. We've had a couple of releases that failed, but it's been a pretty rare happening since we started nearly 30 years ago."

This fall, DNR biologists will begin work on population surveys that give an estimation of the health of turkey flocks across our state. Completed every three years, these surveys are not an exact count of populations, just an estimation of bird numbers derived from the field observations of biologists and hunters, as well as harvest data from spring hunts. Given the harvest records of the last several years, all indicators point to the continued growth and health of Minnesota's wild turkey flock.

WHERE TO GO?
Deciding on a management zone is one of the most important decisions a hunter makes when filling out an application each December. Many veterans opt for the southeastern zones, where the flocks are firmly established and the hunting areas are large.

"Zones like 349 are perennial harvest leaders because there are a lot of permits and a huge land base," Kimmel says. "There is a mix of private land where hunters have long-established relationships with farmers, as well as tracts of public ground that hold good numbers of turkeys."

But don't neglect smaller zones or newly opened areas if you're looking for a hard-gobbling turkey to come to your call.

"We've had some excellent success rates coming from new areas in the farmland regions, and along the Minnesota River Valley," Kimmel says. "More hunters are taking advantage of opportunities close to home where they can hunt more often than a weekend. The key to hunting success in smaller zones is to gain permission to hunt before you even apply for a permit. Frequently the habitat is much smaller and that concentrates hunters. So finding a place to hunt can be more difficult than it is where the birds are spread across a broader chunk of habitat like in the southeastern zones."

Zones dominated by public hunting areas, like 235 (Carlos Avery WMA) and 344 (Whitewater WMA), are another popular choice among hunters. Public hunting areas eliminate the need for asking for permission, which appeals to a lot of people who don't have the time to do pre-season work. And the habitat on WMAs is usually good to excellent, which often translates into good numbers of birds.

However, demand for such permits is always high, and the possibility of interference increases. Nevertheless, I'd never rule out any chance to hunt public areas for turkeys regardless of the season, with the understanding that whenever you hunt public areas, you need to keep safety - not killing a turkey - at the forefront of your hunting plan. If you ever suspect that another hunter is working a turkey, walk away from it no matter how ardently the bird is gobbling. Such respectful decisions not only keep our sport safe, but they also ensure the high ethical standards that turkey hunting is known for.

AFTERNOON DELIGHT
I was thrilled when managers decided to expand the hunting time to include the noon to 5 p.m. hours. After hunting several states that allowed afternoon hunting, I knew we were missing out on some excellent opportunities by quitting at noon. On several occasions I've walked away from hard-gobbling birds when my watch - not the turkey - told me my hunt was over. My frustration was shared by many a turkey addict, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the noon closure became history.

"There was simply no biological reason to quit at noon," says Kimmel. "It was suspected early on that hunters would disturb nesting hens in the afternoon, but later research revealed that nesting hens were actually more active in the morning hours, when everyone was hunting."

But the noon closure was a tradition, and many hunters and landowners opposed dropping it because of social implications.

"There were thoughts that farmers didn't want people on their land all day, but they're used to that from deer hunting," Kimmel says. "We even heard that there would be less money spent in local communities if hunters could hunt all day and not come in at noon. But I don't think that's the case at all."

While there's no doubt that more turkeys are shot in the morning hours, I believe the biggest factor contributing to that is simple hunter effort. I've lived in the heart of turkey country for more than a decade now, and have observed hunter effort and patterns the whole time. Many turkey hunters leave the woods by midmorning, shortly after the day's first gobbling peak ends. Big mistake. While you'll undoubtedly hear more turkeys from dawn until 9 a.m., the percentage of birds you'll be able to work effectively will be relatively small. It's an often-repeated phrase among turkey nuts, but if you strike a bird after 10 a.m., your chances of "calling him up" are excellent. Savvy hunters remain in the woods as long as they can, so do yourself a favor and take advantage of every minute of hunting time available. With only five days to hunt, you need every break you can get!

A SATISFIED BUNCH
While Minnesota's turkey management program is a model for many states, our success extends far beyond sheer numbers of birds. It extends to the attitudes of spring hunters, who've recently revealed their impressions of their experience to Kari Dingman, a graduate student seeking her master's degree in wildlife biology. Part of Dingman's graduate work involves devising a survey that records hunter satisfaction with their spring hunt.

"I created the survey myself by using some questions that hunters were asked in previous surveys and devising some questions of my own," Dingman says. "Last spring was the first year of my survey, and I'll continue it next year."

Among the questions that Dingman included on her survey were regarding the following: 1) the participant's season; 2) the number of days hunted; 3) the number of turkeys seen; 4) the number of turkeys shot at; 5) hunter success; 6) the hunter's ease of access; 7) whether the hunter was on public or private land; 8) interference from others - hunters and non-hunters; 9) the hunter's sense of danger; and 10) overall satisfaction.

"I selected eight different permit areas and sent the survey to a random sample of hunters," Dingman says. "The survey was mailed to 1,839 hunters and I received an 88.6 percent response rate, which was incredible. In a voluntary survey like this, it's not unusual to have response rates of only 60 percent. So I was really happy to see the response I did."

Dingman noted that hunters from Permit Area 450 (Redwood County) posted a 100 percent response to her survey.

While Dingman is still tabulating the results from her survey, she has been able to pull some interesting facts from her preliminary data.

"The last survey the DNR did was in 1999," she says. "And from what I've seen so far, hunter interference had decreased since that survey. For example, in Zone 450, hunters reported a 10 percent interference rate in '99, and no interference last spring. Also, when we asked hunters to rate their overall hunting experience from one to 10 (10 being completely satisfied), our average rating over the eight permit areas was a 7.2, which indicates that most hunters were pretty happy with their experience. That was encouraging, since it was a rough season weather-wise in many permit areas. But most people seemed to see birds and enjoy their hunt."

With some warm, sunny days come April and May, it's a good bet Minnesota's turkey hunters will be an even happier bunch in Dingman's next survey! Happy hunting.



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