Despite some uncooperative weather throughout 2013’s spring turkey hunts, Minnesota turkey hunting enthusiasts ended up with a pretty good report card between thunder-snow, blizzard-rain, gale-force winds, arctic cold and late leaf-out.
“It is reasonable to believe that the winter-like weather affected hunter effort and turkey movement patterns,” says Nicole Davros, upland game project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “This likely explains much of the reduced harvest success rates and hunter participation rates we saw, particularly during the first few hunting time periods. Wisconsin and Iowa both reported similar trends in spring 2013 wild turkey harvests as well.”
The extra effort hunters put forth later on, when conditions stabilized some, was key to a respectable harvest. In fact, we still managed to give 10,390 male turkeys rides home. That’s only 12 percent below the 5-year average harvest, and the fifth highest harvest on record since 94 birds were taken in 1978. Our record Minnesota spring take was 13,467 birds in 2010.
Last year, 38,391 permits were given out, meaning those 10,390 turkeys represented a 30 percent success rate for hunters. That compares favorably to long-term averages. Among the permits were 17,921 regular and 1,192 landowner licenses awarded in the draw for the first four turkey hunting periods (A, B, C and D), 5,529 youth tags, 4,550 archery permits, and 9,629 over-the-counter permits youth for the open hunting periods (E, F, G and H) in May.
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It’s interesting to look at the makeup of our spring harvest. Zone 501 — the state’s traditional turkey range in the hilly, woodlot-and-farmland southeast, led the way with 2,639 birds harvested, and a 29 percent hunter success rate. That’s some good hunting, and a result that is to be expected.
But Minnesota turkey hunters must take note: There’s a new kid on the block, and that is known as Zone 507. With 2,678 turkeys killed, it came within a hair’s breadth of 501 for overall harvest, and beat it out for hunter success, notching a healthy 32 percent clip. Zone 507 is roughly the prairie-farmland transition country stretching northwest from the Metro area. More on this up-and-comer later.
After that, the south-central region (Zone 503) comes in far back at 1,255 turkeys killed. That’s still a nice total, and the 32 percent hunter success rate is excellent. This is the gentler, rolling farm country that marches westward from the traditional Minnesota turkey country of 501.
Then we come to perhaps another surprise: Zone 508. The central farmland-woodland transition zone north of the Twin Cities boasted 1,176 birds killed last spring, and a 30 percent hunter success rate. Turkeys are steadily moving north in Minnesota and, given decent winters, are thriving beyond expectations and providing some great hunting.
After those four top harvest zones (501, 507, 503 and 508), we have two units that also provide some good turkey hunting. One is Zone 505, the Minnesota River corridor running westward across the state from the Metro area. With 908 birds, the harvest there almost cracked 1,000. The Metro zone itself (886 turkeys killed and a 32 percent hunter success rate) also pushed 1,000 birds. If you can secure a few acres to hunt, the Metro zone is another great bet.
Check out the Minnesota DNR Web site’s turkey page at www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/turkey/index.html to find complete harvest results and reporting.
“Last year, considering the weather we had, spring turkey harvest was about what we expected,” says Davros. “With the late spring and challenging conditions, expectations really changed. But then when May came and conditions stabilized, there were a lot of birds in the woods, and hunters made up some ground.”
That’s some of the best advice any Minnesota turkey hunter can ever hear: All the turkeys are not shot during the early seasons. Those over-the-counter May tags can be like gold — especially when conditions were rough early on. News alert: Hunting conditions usually are tough during Minnesota’s April hunting periods. If you don’t draw out for one of those early seasons, go the over-the-counter route in May and just hunt.
“Last year was a perfect example of that,” says Davros. “Mother Nature was not cooperating early on. Even the birds seemed confused! While it’s true that photoperiod (day length) drives turkey-breeding cycles, the birds still take many cues from the weather. Cold, rain and snow can really hold them off.”
Once May came, turkey harvest started coming back strong.
So how did the hatch end up last year? “Anecdotal evidence, field observations, and landowner and other reports, indicate that it was a very late hatch,” explains Davros. “And with late hatches, we always expect smaller broods, and of course, younger birds going into winter.
“Wild turkeys will try and re-nest if their first nest was destroyed before hatching,” continued Davros.
That certainly could have been the case last year, considering the conditions the birds had to endure later in spring and in early summer. Turkeys are resilient though, and it appears good numbers of new birds were produced.
What may be more important for hunters heading to the woods in spring 2014, though, may be what the hatch did in 2012. That would be the crop of birds forming the contingent of 2-year-old gobblers that are traditionally the spring turkey hunter’s bread-and-butter.
“Spring and summer 2012 were really good for turkeys,” reports Davros. “Given an average or not-too-bad winter, that should bode well for spring 2014’s hunt. Even if we had a little rough weather though, it never hits turkeys as hard as pheasants. Coming out of a good winter, with that strong 2102 hatch and decent hunting conditions — better than last year anyway — 2014 is shaping up well.
“But,” she warns, “some of the late storms can be the most devastating. And weather effects can be regionalized too.”
That means you need to scout before the season and at least make sure there are birds in your area. Don’t despair if turkeys are not right in your hunting spot though. As winter wanes and spring blooms, birds break out of their winter groups and spread across the landscape. If there are bids within a few miles of your hunting spot, it will fill up with turkeys as spring wears on.
2014 SEASON STRUCTURE
This year, we are working under a season structure similar to last year. The regular season hunt consists of six 5-day hunt periods and two 7-day hunt periods. If you wanted to hunt in one of the first four seasons, you had to apply by early January, so put it on the calendar for this December if you want to apply to try and hunt an early season in spring 2015.
But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. As mentioned, May turkey hunting can be great turkey hunting in Minnesota, so don’t hesitate to buy an over-the-counter tag for any of the last four hunting periods.
Here are the hunt period dates for 2013:
Season A: Wednesday, April 17, to Sunday, April 21.
Season B: Monday, April 22, to Friday, April 26.
Season C: Saturday, April 27, to Wednesday, May 1.
Season D: Thursday, May 2, to Monday, May 6.
Season E: Tuesday, May 7, to Saturday, May 11.
Season F: Sunday, May 12, to Thursday, May 16.
Season G: Friday, May 17, to Thursday, May 23.
Season H: Friday, May 24, to Thursday, May 30.
Permit areas were consolidated from 77 to 12 units in 2013, and hunters seemed to receive that well. It really is nice to have a large area to hunt. Here’s one example from my own experience.
I had access to several properties within 8 to 10 miles of each other. But in the middle of them sat a crossroads of two highways that formed zone borders. I could only hunt one of the properties. They fell in three different zones! Under the new system, I at least got the benefit of several of the farms now falling into one zone. I have heard similar tales from many other hunters.
Be sure to check the zone boundary maps closely this year, though. Specifically, one slight change alters the boundary between permit areas 501 and 503. Check the map at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/turkey for details.
You already know which units produce the most birds. And the best place to hunt is where you have some access, as turkey hunting is largely a private-land proposition in Minnesota. Fortunately, landowners usually don’t protect their turkeys like they do their deer; access can be had, usually for the price of a friendly visit and the willingness to hunt later in the season after any of the landowners’ relatives or friends are done hunting.
That said, here are six good target areas beyond the traditionally prime southeast, where turkeys are doing well.
* Detroit Lakes Area. More and more turkeys continue to pioneer this mixed country of farmland, lakes and woods.
* Alexandria-Glenwood. The wooded glacial ridge country holds plenty of birds in a place you might not expect them.
* Redwood Falls-Granite Falls. Don’t overlook the Minnesota River valley. Bird numbers are still strong in this wooded corridor through big farmland.
* Cambridge-Milaca-Mora Triangle. Turkeys are coming on strong in this transition country north of the Twin Cities.
* St. Cloud-Holdingford-Foley Triangle. Another great zone of farmland and woods.
* Center City-Rush City-Chisago Area. The east-central farmland country holds plenty of birds and opportunity close to the Metro area.
Back to my hunt: The turkey, on the ground now, belted out a couple of more gobbles, but I managed to hold off from calling and sounding too eager. That bird knew where I was.
Then I heard a sound you don’t always hear in the turkey woods. Except maybe in Minnesota sometimes.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Leftover snow patches still littered the woods, and the gobbler was walking through them on his way to me. Then I saw him, ghosting through the shin oaks maybe 30 yards out.
He cautiously walked to the edge of the woods against which I sat. He stopped and peeked out into the field, looking for that hen that had called, but I couldn’t get a shot through the cover. So I clucked once on my mouth call. The gobbler stepped back in the woods and started walking my way. When I clucked again he stopped, and I pulled the trigger. He was mine.
After securing the bird, I knelt next to him a long time, admiring the classic 2-year-old gobbler with big body, good spurs, black-tipped chestnut tailfeathers, and that trademark thick beard — a classic Minnesota gobbler indeed!
After tagging the handsome bird, I slung the gobbler over my shoulder for the long walk out. It was time for this turkey to hitch his first truck ride.
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