My grandmother had a phrase, spoken in simple, colorful and direct terms like only a rural woman of the Midwest could, whenever something surprising would happen.
“Who’d have thunk it?” she’d ask.
Indeed. I speak the words often as I travel the corners of our great state while hunting and fishing, and discovering where else Minnesota’s wild turkeys have decided to call home.
Who could have imagined that from those initial introductions in 1973, when 29 Missouri turkeys were brought to Houston County, that we would someday be hunting gobblers in most corners of the stae — even all the way to the Canadian border?
The answer is, nobody foresaw that at all.
The hope way back then was that a huntable population of birds would develop in our southeastern hill country, where turkeys were once native and habitat appeared good. What nobody counted on was the wild turkey’s unsurpassed and incredible adaptability. Aided by trap-and-transplant programs and habitat work by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the National Wild Turkey Federation, the birds have pioneered places undreamed of.
And that has created a stream of good news for Minnesota hunters.
My latest wild turkey “eye-opener” happened last September when my friend Anthony Hauck and I traveled to northwestern Minnesota to chase prairie chickens. We found some chickens, yes, but I expected that.
What I didn’t expect was the number of wild turkeys inhabiting the countryside. Find a little area of woodlots, treelines, river bottoms or creek bottoms interspersed with grain fields and hay or pastureland, and you found turkeys.
“Oh, we’ve got the birds,” said one landowner who has lived in Polk and Norman counties his whole life. “I couldn’t believe it when we first started seeing them. Now there is no shortage! My friends are lining up to hunt them. Join the list!”
Other landowners also seemed amenable to overtures of hunting come next spring.
Fall broods were common in our travels, indicating a good hatch and good habitat. That string of counties — Otter Tail, Becker, Mahnomen, Norman, Polk, Clearwater, Pennington, Marshall and even Kittson — running from Fergus Falls on up to Detroit Lakes, Thief River Falls, and the Canadian border, is Minnesota’s newest turkey ground. And it is going to provide solid hunting into the future, given average-intensity winters.
I have always noticed a pattern when turkeys appear in new places on the landscape, and biologists have corroborated the idea. At first, a few birds appear here and there for a few years. Then they really take hold, a good hatch or two happens, and suddenly birds are everywhere. They go beyond the land’s carrying capacity, and then “back off” to some stable level the habitat can support.
Our northern turkeys, aided by relatively mild winters, are in such a mode in many areas right now. Move to the east and we’re also finding plenty of birds — and good hunting — in Todd, Wadena, Hubbard and Morrison counties, over to Mille Lacs, Benton and Kanabec counties. The good news here is more public ground to hunt them on. It’s also easier to access from the metropolitan area.
The surprising habitat factor here is the scarcity of agriculture in some areas, especially in Aitkin and Carlton counties. In winter, wild turkeys usually are tied to crop fields and agricultural gleanings for their food supply. That puts turkeys on the move for food, and so hunters must be mobile too. But if you can find a little patch of farm ground, there might be a home flock in the area.
Our prairie-forest transition zone is well established for turkeys now. That’s clear as can be, with Unit 507 as a top zone for turkey harvest. Still, who would have thought that we’d be even hunting turkeys here and in surrounding units — and have them be our top turkey producers?
East-central Minnesota, essentially Unit 508, is fine turkey ground now, right down into the Twin Cities metropolitan area. When you think about it now though, these flocks are no big surprise. The mix of farm ground and forestland is almost ideal in southern Pine, Chisago and Isanti counties. And the Metro Zone has a lot of pockets that harbor birds. There are still plenty of parcels and places to hunt if you’re willing to network and knock on a few doors.
Follow the Minnesota River out onto the prairies and turkeys seem natural, flanking the wooded river bottoms and hillsides on up to the crop lands. But get out in the west and southwest and it’s an eye-opener that we have huntable populations of birds. While not quite as surprising as the northwest, this area is somewhat of a turkey anomaly as well, as any student of the prairie would know. Find a tree claim or two, and you’ll find birds.
Of all the places Minnesota turkeys have pioneered, though, it is the northland that is most surprising.
“If you would have asked me five or so years ago about the turkeys we have in Minnesota’s northwestern area, I wouldn’t have believed they could do this well,” says Steve Merchant, Minnesota DNR wildlife program manager. “But the birds are so much more adaptable than anyone could have imagined. They are thriving all the way to the Canadian border.”
How do they do it?
First of all, wild turkeys are almost impervious to the cold. Years ago I interviewed an NWTF biologist about the wild turkey’s ability to thrive in northern climates. He laughed and told me, “If you gave a turkey a bale of oats to feed on and an old-fashioned power pole to roost on, he could survive at the North Pole.”
“There’s no doubt wild turkeys can withstand any kind of cold,” says Merchant. “But deep snow can be the factor that limits their ability to survive winter. Deep snow buries their food so far that they can’t scratch and get at it.
“Crop lands and other agricultural areas are important for wintering birds,” he says. “And if the snow doesn’t get terribly deep or long-lived, the birds are going to do fine. Biologists continue to be surprised at the wild turkey’s adaptability to northern conditions.”
GOOD SPRING PAST
“Generally speaking, 2017 was a good year for spring turkey hunting,” says Merchant. “It was in the Top 5 all-time years for spring harvest. We shot 11,854 birds, which is really good. Few years are better than that.
“That said, it was not quite as good as 2016, which was the second-best all-time harvest. The top year was 2010 with just about 13,500 spring birds in the bag.”
“More important,” adds Merchant, “the average harvest over the last five years is better than any other five-year period in the state’s modern turkey-hunting history.” Our turkey populations are strong, and still growing.
As the turkey hatch goes, so goes turkey harvest. So it’s important to look at spring nesting conditions and brood production.
“DNR doesn’t do brood counts on turkeys though,” says Merchant. It’s just too tough to get meaningful data. All our evidence is anecdotal.
“We do know that 2016 was an excellent hatch. That should bode well for the 2018 hunt, with plenty of 2-year-old toms in the flock.
“This year it seemed like the hatch may have been ‘off’ a bit,” Merchant said. “But that’s compared to some excellent production the last few years. I still think we had decent production in 2017. And harvest data supports the evidence.”
Check Out the Video Above For Great Turkey Calling Tactics
“Turkey harvest seems to have plateaued in the southeast,” says Merchant. The turkey range in hill-and-valley country is at an equilibrium for carrying capacity. Bird populations are strong, but will fluctuate some year-to-year. This is still our core turkey range — classic Minnesota habitat. Look to Olmsted, Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties.
“Turkey populations are still growing in the west-central and east-central areas. In fact, area 507 led the state in turkey harvest. There are more turkeys there than ever before.
“Area 508, in east-central Minnesota, is also strong. This includes parts of Chisago, Pine and Carlton Counties. Here, as in 507, birds are still in pioneering mode as far as how they are spreading across the habitat.”
According to harvest data, there are other top opportunities to explore if you are looking for Minnesota turkeys to hunt. In fact, it’s hard to pick a “bad” area to hunt Minnesota turkeys. If you do some scouting and find some concentrations of birds, you’re going to do well.
Statewide, hunter success runs at about 25 percent. Top units for hunter success include 501 (the southeast) and 505 (the Minnesota River Valley) at more than 35 percent. Units 503, 504, 507 and 510 all average more than 30 percent success.
Time-wise, it’s true that earlier seasons (periods A, B and C) see the highest success rates, averaging more than 30 percent. It’s easy to think that the season is over after that, but the May seasons (D through F) also have excellent success when you factor in that hunting effort is much lower then.
It’s hard to beat May turkey hunting in Minnesota, especially in that mid-month timeframe of May 10 to 18 or so. The hunter who hangs up his shotgun or puts away the bow is missing out.
Here are the dates for this spring’s turkey hunt.
April 18-24, Spring Turkey “A” season (lottery/surplus).
April 25/18 to May 1, Spring Turkey “B” season (lottery/surplus).
May 2-8, Spring Turkey “C” season (hunter selected).
May 9-15, Spring Turkey “D” season (hunter selected).
May 16-22, Spring Turkey “E” season (hunter selected).
May 23-31, Spring Turkey “F” season (hunter selected, plus any unfilled license is valid).
Significant changes were made to the spring turkey season structure in 2016, and those changes continued into 2017 and will be in place again in 2018. Only seasons A and B utilize a lottery system for drawing a permit. Periods C, D and E are unlimited in hunter permit quotas, and you can choose any one time-period to hunt. Any hunter with an unused tag from periods A through E, along with anyone buying their license late, can hunt in period F.
Archers have it good in Minnesota. Archery-only licenses for the spring season are valid for the entire season — that’s period A through period F!
Minnesota is still a one-bird state. The bag limit for the spring hunt is one wild turkey with a visible beard. Note that you cannot purchase both a firearms and archery license.
Military residents on leave who have maintained legal residency in Minnesota can hunt turkeys without charge after obtaining the appropriate licenses and tags from an ELS license agent by presenting official leave papers. No need to apply in the lottery.
However, military residents who have served at any time during the past 24 months, resident Purple Heart recipients, and residents with a 100 percent service-connected disability who want to hunt in a lottery time period must purchase a turkey license, and apply for time periods A or B, and will receive first preference in drawings.
Every spring when I hit the Minnesota woods for turkeys, I think of Grandma’s words, “Who would have thunk it?” And every time I hear a gobble and my heart races in anticipation, I thank the lucky stars above, fading with the coming of dawn, that we have so many turkeys to hunt in so many places.