It happens every time I’m working on calling in a Minnesota turkey on a spring morning.
Whether it’s a blustery April dawn spitting snow from gray clouds, a crisp early May daybreak that just makes you feel good to be alive, or a glorious late May sunrise that feels like summer is on the horizon, the wonder is the same. Is this really happening? Hunting turkeys in Minnesota?
You had better believe it!
If you hunt gobblers already, you know what I mean. If you’re looking to head out this spring for your first turkey, you’re going to discover the magic mighty quickly. Spring turkeys have become an integral part of our collective hunting culture.
And speaking of hunting cultures, whenever I am fortunate enough to bag a Minnesota gobbler, it always makes me think back to the days when Native American hunters roamed the land to stalk or call these magnificent birds, and anchored them with a well-placed arrow. There’s a certain kinship there with those fine hunters of the past, and it feels good to know that gobbles are resonating again over the Minnesota countryside.
So what about this spring? Are we going to hear plenty of toms chiming out their gobbles over the landscape?
The answer is yes. But first let’s look back into Minnesota’s turkey and turkey hunting history, review last year’s hunt results and explore this year’s season structure, investigate what kind of new birds hatched last summer, and look ahead to this spring’s prospects.
“The original range of wild turkeys is thought to have been in extreme southern Minnesota only,” says Nicole Davros, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources research scientist in Madelia, where the state’s Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group resides.
“Wild turkeys have become an increasingly common sight across much of Minnesota,” she adds. “With the exception of the most heavily forested areas north of U.S. Highway 2, you’re likely to spot the eastern wild turkey just about anywhere in our state.”
The original wild turkey habitat likely consisted of one or two different sets of conditions.
The first would have been the hilly southeast, which, to be honest, probably looked somewhat similar to the way the country does now, except that prairie grass existed then where crops do now, with productive oak forest dominating the steep hillsides and deep ravines. It was savannah.
The second habitat set would have been the river corridors of the state’s south-central and southwestern sections. This range probably looked much like portions of South Dakota do today, with sprawling prairies cut by wooded stream corridors. The Minnesota, Rock and Des Moines River valleys, and their tributaries, were all prime.
This is the kind of countryside the original Minnesota turkey hunters — including the Sioux communities of southern Minnesota — hunted. But settlement, land clearing and overhunting combined to eliminate wild turkeys from our state. “Minnesota’s last wild turkey was spotted in 1880,” says Davros.
That all changed in 1973 when successful re-introductions began in the perfect habitat of Houston County. The key was using truly wild-stock birds trapped in Missouri. “Several attempts failed in the 1920s,” Davros said. The 1960s saw some attempts too. But those efforts likely used “game farm” type stock — not truly wild, wary birds.
“The restoration of the wild turkey, and its expansion of its original range, is a wildlife management success story without match,” says Davros. And she’s right. But what allowed turkeys to come back, to and spread so far? Agriculture is the answer, specifically the strong habitat base that agricultural practices produced.
Simply put, wild turkeys could not have expanded northward as far as they did without the food supplied by waste grain. Dairy and beef farming benefit turkeys too, with good pasture and hay land to go with interspersed woods and grain fields. Grain-laced cow pies help in winter too.
1978 saw our first modern turkey season. Our first wild turkey season ever, you might say, as pioneer subsistence hunting knew no boundaries. In that original season — 29 years ago now — 411 hunters bagged 94 birds for a 23 percent success rate.
Our harvest first hit 10,000 birds in 2008, and we haven’t dipped below that threshold since. The high-water mark was 2010, with a whopping 13,467 birds registered by 46,548 hunters for a resounding 29 percent success rate. We’re back on a track to beat that again in the next couple of years.
Last spring saw a heck of an excellent harvest for Minnesota turkey hunters. The total harvest tallied 12,313 turkeys. That is absolutely amazing when you think back 28 years to those 94 birds in 1978.
2016’s kill was in fact the second-highest harvest on record, beat out only by the 13,467 birds in 2010. Interestingly, 2009 had almost the same harvest (12,210 birds) as 2016.
Since our memorably tough winter of 2010-11, right after that record harvest of spring 2010, wild turkey populations have worked their way back and expanded their way farther north. That has resulted in more birds, increased opportunity, and good hunting success as measured in absolute numbers and hunter success rates.
In 2016, hunter success was strong overall, as measured at a 25 percent clip statewide. Here’s how that number breaks down. Lottery (A and B) hunters had a 32.5 percent success rate, while unlimited license (C through E) hunters came in strong at 26.2 percent. Youth hunters enjoyed 20 percent success, and archery hunters turned in a fine performance at 14 percent.
Hunter numbers are another measure of turkey hunting success. If folks are excited and buying licenses, it means there are turkeys out there on the landscape, and meaningful recreation days are being created. In spring 2016, 49,941 permits were issued, a record by far. Note that the number included 10,343 archery permits.
That number of archery permits is extremely interesting. It represents more than twice the number of archery permits issued in 2015 (5,052 then, to be exact) and the preceding years.
Here’s what happened. With the new season structure implemented by the DNR, archery hunters could hunt the entire season — including the coveted early A and B seasons statewide — without drawing a lottery permit. Our bowhunters took advantage of that opportunity.
Another expansion of opportunity was the reduced lottery (only seasons A and B had to be applied for), with unlimited licenses available for the C, D, E and F seasons. A hunter could apply in the lottery for A or B, but then have plenty of excellent opportunity to hunt later in the season if he or she didn’t draw.
In addition, period F (the long, late period, defined as May 18-31 last season and May 17-30 this year) opened back up to any and all hunters with an unused tag from seasons A through E. That created additional opportunity as well.
And if you’re as geeked out as I am by the numbers, here’s your reward for poring through them with me. In over-the-counter Season E (May 11-17 last year, which will translate to May 10-16 this year), only 602 gun hunters bought a license statewide. Yes, that’s statewide. Think of that if you are looking for a low-key hunting experience with few other hunters out in the woods!
Certainly, the fact that this hunt period contains the fishing opener is relevant. This year it is May 13. But think of it another way: You have all summer to fish! Plus, this can be just an excellent time to hunt turkeys in our state, with the toms often hitting a second gobbling peak as hens begin to sit on their nests.
HATCH AND EXPANSION INSIGHTS
“We don’t have any formal data to help track nesting or hatch success but the anecdotal 2016 hatch reports we’ve received are just as good, if not better, than 2015,” reports Davros. “We had a lot of rain in 2016 but, luckily, most of it came later in the nesting season. This means that poults would have had a chance to grow and likely had good survival rates despite the rain.”
“We believe turkey populations are growing in the north, and more hunting opportunities will be available there. Otherwise permit numbers will pretty much be the same as last year,” says Davros.
“I’ve received a report from another biologist who saw a turkey northeast of the Grand Rapids area, which is a bit farther than any of the trap-and-transplant locations,” says Davros. “Persistent deep snow cover, and thus an inability to access food, is what limits turkeys in the northeastern region of our state.”
Add to that the limited farming in that part of the state.
“The trap-and-transplant program was last active in the winter of 2008/2009, and there are no plans to start it again,” said Davros. “We believe that turkeys are currently distributed widely enough in Minnesota that natural immigration into unoccupied wild turkey habitat can occur.”
The whole state is currently open to turkey hunting, as long as you have a tag good for the unit you are in, numbered from 501 to 512.
Applications for Seasons A and B lottery permits were due back in January. But if you didn’t draw or apply, you can still buy a gun license for any period C through F. In addition, any tag not used previously (in seasons A through E) is good again in Season F!
Archery hunters can purchase their license over the counter at any time, and hunt the full season in any time period, A through F.
Here are the season dates for 2017.
A: April 12-18, B: April 19-25, C: April 26-May 2, D: May 3-9, E: May 10-16, F: May 17-30.
“We believe that hunters generally liked this new hunt format, established last year,” says Davros. “It certainly does provide a great deal of opportunity for our hunters.
“Some crowding did occur during the first three seasons at a localized level” on public lands, she says. “Plus, some believe there is a perception that hunters must hunt early to be successful.”
That last one’s just that — a perception. As any May turkey hunter knows, don’t ignore that May 10-18 timeframe, when that second gobbling peak usually occurs, or even later in the month for that matter. Weather is more stable in May too, which makes for better hunting.
Unit 501, the traditional southeast bluff country, and 507, the farmland/prairie/woods transition zone north and west of the Twin Cities, lead our turkey harvests in both sheer numbers and overall success rates.
Of the two, if I were starting out after turkeys, I would head up to 507. The bird numbers are impressive on localized levels in this prime habitat mix. And landowners are not necessarily inundated with turkey hunting requests. A courteous hunter can gain turkey hunting permission there. It’s not like asking to hunt deer.
The southeast is good, but public lands will be hosting other hunters, and many landowners have their hunters locked in. One caveat here: A late hunt (think periods E and F) can open grand possibilities, as most landowner guests are done hunting and access could free up.
If I had to pick a third hotspot to start my turkey search, I’d probably look to the lower part of Area 508. This is the transition country to the east of 507 and north of the Metro area (510). Turkeys range surprisingly far north there (yes, north of Aitkin, Cambridge, Pine City and beyond), especially if our winters stay mild.
Good luck this spring!