Last spring was not a good one for Minnesota turkey hunters — nor for the turkeys. For the first time in a long time, the turkey harvest dropped as compared to the year before. While that might seem like good news for the turkeys, it was also a tough winter with a wet spring, making for difficult nesting and breeding conditions.
That was then and this is now. Our 2012 spring turkey season is shaping up to be another banner year, and, barring horrific weather, will likely best the 2011 harvest with strong odds of another record harvest.
"Based on the latest wild turkey population survey, the overall health of the turkey population in Minnesota is good," said Kurt Haroldson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife research scientist with the Farmland Wildlife Population and Research Group in Madelia.
The 2013 season will probably be even better since it can take two years to fully recover from the harsh winter of 2010-11 and the cold, wet spring of 2011. "Those two events likely had a negative effect on poult survival but those sorts of population fluctuations are expected with bad weather," said Haroldson.
Funny thing about turkey hunting in Minnesota, it is an opportunity that didn't even exist a few decades ago and was only about half as big as it currently is just a decade ago. Turkey hunting in Minnesota is a well-documented success story that continues to expand, even with a "rougher than we've gotten used to" season last year.
The population in southeastern Minnesota appears to be stable with the possibility of some modest decline while the population in the rest of the state appears to be stable to growing modestly. Numerous deer hunters last fall throughout central and northwestern Minnesota reported seeing turkeys in areas they've never seen them before and seeing more in spots where they've only seen a bird or two in the past.
Last season saw 43,521 turkey hunters harvest 10,055 birds, way down from the record year in 2010 when 13,467 birds were shot. Haroldson said there were fewer hunters in the woods last year, most likely because of the cold, rainy weather that existed throughout April and May. Turkey hunters are a diehard bunch, but it's gotten easier to get a permit these days, and so fewer hunters feel compelled to hunt if the weather is rough.
"Reduced hunter effort was likely a function of poor weather during the 2011 spring turkey hunting season," Haroldson pointed out.
Weather conditions in April and May were relatively cool, wet and windy across much of Minnesota, with below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation, reported the Minnesota Climatology Working Group.
The spring was delayed and many field reports showed that the turkey mating season was delayed as well. Some reports showed it two weeks behind while others suggested an even longer adjustment.
"I was seeing birds strutting and fanned out in fields well into June while I normally see that behavior end in mid-May," said avid turkey hunter Jim Luttrell.
DEALING WITH WEATHER
Weather is often cited as the primary reason why some turkey seasons are better than others. Look at the harvest rates over the years for the various five-day seasons, and the lowest harvests always coincide with stretches of poor weather, either excessive cold and snow or excessive wind and rain.
"The birds are still out there doing what they do for the most part; it's the impact of the weather on humans that makes the biggest difference," said Luttrell.
For that reason, hunters who are looking to tag a bird this spring should pay attention to the weather report and then pack accordingly to adjust for the changing conditions. An avid turkey hunter, I know that the birds are going to be out there at all times if I'm willing to be out there with them. I shot my first bird during a brief break in a 10-day stretch of rain that flooded the Whitewater River Valley shortly after I was finished hunting.
Springtime in Minnesota is a meteorologically volatile time. Fronts can come in bringing a mixture of precipitation. Cold snaps can come down from the north and warm fronts can blow in from the southwest. The opening five-day season has seen more than its fair share of blizzard-like conditions over the years but it has also featured highs in the 60s and 70s. So it goes in Minnesota, but it's better to be out there than inside.
The toms are still out there in pursuit of hens, no matter the conditions. Some argue that weather impacts turkey movements while others suggest that it's not true, but there's no doubt that weather has some impact on some birds. Turkeys live in the outdoors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and the one constant in their life is the amount of daylight, otherwise known as photoperiodism. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't hunt. It means that you need to be willing to adjust your approach to fit the area you are hunting and the birds you are after," Luttrell said.
The interesting part of this debate is that most research points to toms being impacted by the sun and hens being impacted by the weather. It makes sense. Hens build and maintain nests as well as care for and nurture the eggs and young. Toms just have to be ready to go at roughly the same time every year. When their schedules don't align, it creates stress on the behavior of the birds.
That stress can be utilized by hunters to their benefit — hens unready to nest, plus toms ready to mate is going to equal a lot of male birds searching around for partners.
"When those conditions exist, as they do at least part of the time in any given season, you can have a great hunt if you get out there and try to figure out what the toms are reacting to," Luttrell said.
A challenge that goes along with this scenario is that in tough weather, toms often don't say much and won't always give gobbles from far away as they try and coax a hen to meeting them part way.
"I've had toms come all the way to being within yards of my hunting blind before they said anything," Luttrell said. "When that happens it always makes me jump, which is good because I hunt in a blind."
The hunting blind allows him to sit tight and endure through cold, wind and rain relatively unscathed and able to have a minimum of movement that could potentially scare a bird. Rain is horrible for hunters with contacts or glasses, as is Luttrell's situation; a blind makes life that much better.
Unlike deer, turkeys seem relatively unbothered by hunting blinds and will decoy just fine to the area around a blind. I've had several birds walking around my blind at one time without any of them seeming the slightest bit concerned. Having a decoy or two is a great way to bring in wandering toms but having live birds hanging around your blind is always a blessing. That's possible to have happen without a blind, but any little movement by a hunter is easily picked up.
Hunting blinds are also excellent in adverse conditions because a lot of times turkeys head into open areas and fields where they have a wider scope of vision. Anybody who has hunted in the woods in the rain or wind knows how loud it is and how it is nearly impossible to hear something walking nearby. Turkeys have figured this out as well and will visit open areas so that they can see approaching predators rather than rely on hearing them. Field edges are great but oftentimes the hunter needs to be set up right in the field, and a blind is a great way to do that.
CHANGES FOR 2012
No doubt, if you are reading this article, the odds are pretty good that you are holding a spring turkey permit. For those still considering it, you have time and plenty of opportunities but there are some major changes to be aware of this year.
For one thing, the multitude of turkey permit areas has greatly diminished. Last year's 81 permit areas have been consolidated into only 12 permit areas.
"Our turkey populations are doing exceptionally well and we no longer have a need to manage turkeys on such a small scale," said Bill Penning, Minnesota's farmland wildlife program leader. "These changes will provide additional flexibility and opportunity to hunters."
The changes allow more access for hunters who can move throughout the larger permit area. For example, a hunter who used to hunt permit area 223 encompassing most of Sherburne County, would now hunt in permit area 507. The area open to them to hunt would still include Sherburne County and would run south to Delano, West to Willmar, north to Clearwater and encompass all or most of 12 counties.
All permit areas include large swaths of land with numerous public-hunting opportunities. The exceptions to the rule are areas that are almost completely open to the public including: Permit Area 512 encompassing the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management area; Permit Area 511, encompassing Carlos Avery WMA; and, Permit Area 502 encompassing Whitewater WMA.
Permit Area 510 is also an interesting one in that it occupies much of the "Metro Zone" deer hunters know so well. All of Anoka, Hennepin, Washington, and Ramsey counties are in this area as are parts of Isanti, Chisago, Dakota, Scott, Carver and Sherburne. Turkey hunters who have found those "niche" areas of public land to hunt in the Twin Cities will be able to roam around even more than they could with the old Permit Area 601.
"Our rationale for consolidating permit areas was that the wily turkey population in Minnesota was well enough established that it didn't need the protection of small permit areas," Haroldson said. Originally set up in the late 1970s to carefully regulate Minnesota's small and growing turkey population, the permit areas distributed hunting pressure evenly throughout the population range.
"We solicited hunter input on the proposed permit area consolidation last September and October and 80 percent of respondents supported the change, while 16 percent opposed it and 4 percent didn't care," he added.
Like any change, hunters will need a few years to adjust to the new permit area map. Like most deer hunters, turkey hunters are a pretty immobile group when it comes to their hunting grounds. Most hunters hunt the same places year after year and won't be impacted by the change. Those hunters who are mobile, however, are really going to love this change, and even those who don't explore new areas will now have the opportunity to do so.
The permit area changes also allow for better population management, which was complicated with so many small permit areas. The number of permits available to hunters will not be affected by this change, and the number of permits available in the large permit area will basically be the sum of all the permits from the original permit areas.
The season structure remains the same with six five-day time periods followed by two seven-day time periods. The opening season of turkey hunting runs from April 18 to 22.
Some changes to the seasons are that archery-only licenses are valid for the last time periods (May 8 to 31). Winners in the lottery are not eligible to purchase archery-only permits. Also new this year is that hunters do not need to enter into the lottery for time periods E through H. Those licenses are sold as surplus licenses at ELS locations in mid-March.
Youth seasons for deer and ducks have garnished some grumbling among hunters but very few turkey hunters seem to have a problem with the expanded opportunities for young people. As hunting competes with other youth activities, turkey hunters have figured out that bringing kids into the sport is the way to keep bringing new hunters into the sport.
To meet that end goal, again this year, all youth age 17 and younger can purchase a youth turkey license over the counter to hunt any single time period and a selected permit area. Those licenses went on sale on March 1 and are available throughout the season.
"We're very excited about the number of youth who got out hunting last year and as this becomes more of a tradition in Minnesota, we are excited about the new hunters it will bring to the sport," said Mike Kurre, DNR mentoring program coordinator.
There are also numerous mentoring programs available to youth through organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation. The deadline for most of those mentored hunts have come and gone, but contact Kurre or your local NWTF chapter to get on the list for the 2013 season and any last-minute opportunities.
Start a tradition of your own this year and get into those turkey woods and fields. Just be warned, it is a very addictive sport. Once you start turkey hunting, it's very difficult to stop.
And here's another thought: Why not send in your photos of that successful hunt for the Camera Corner page in a future issue of this magazine?