Sitting in the woods listening as a distant tom comes closer is one of the more exhilarating experiences one can have in life. Here are some experts' tips to help you feel the thrill. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
In the years before Lance Tangen's birth, Minnesota's annual turkey harvest never exceeded 200 birds. Of course, Tangen was born in the early 1980s when wild turkey repopulation efforts had been successful in only a few select pockets.
Today, the state's turkey population exceeds 100,000 birds, the number of hunters has exceeded 30,000, and the annual harvest may top 10,000.
Tangen, meanwhile, is a nationally recognized turkey expert and spends a fair amount of time as a cameraman/producer of television hunting shows and videos.
Growing up in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota, Tangen watched the sport morph from obscurity to an exciting opportunity to ignite a passion for the outdoors and turkey hunting in particular.
"It was a good area to foster a youth of growing up in the woods and encountering different scenarios with turkeys," Tangen said.
Perhaps he would have gone down the same path had the turkey population not blossomed as it did, but the opportunities it afforded him have also benefited many others.
Turkey hunting has become a rich part of Minnesota's outdoor heritage and it is an exciting time to be a turkey hunter.
It wasn't always that way.
In the early years of the repopulation plan, the number of hunters actually dwindled. In fact, 10 years after the 1978 inaugural season, the number of hunters applying for a permit shrunk from 10,000 that first season to less than 6,000 in 1985.
For those that aren't turkey hunters, this is a great time to get into it. With a growing and expanding flock, increased number of permits available and additional hunting opportunities, the present is bright and the future is even brighter.
"The turkey population is in really good shape and with good hunter success, (the Department of Natural Resources) has had a lot of positive comments on the turkey hunt," said Eric Dunton, the DNR's wild turkey research biologist.
Dunton is the lead biologist for our ever-expanding turkey flock and said he's excited to be a key element of such a successful program.
"There's a lot of public support for the turkey hunting and stocking programs, and overall our hunters are happy," he said.
Minnesota spring turkey hunters were surveyed last spring and the results were very positive, said Dunton, who helped compile the report that is available on the DNR Web site.
They speak volumes about Minnesota turkey hunting and can be used by hunters to help plan their hunt this year and in the future.
Hunters rated the quality of their hunt a 7.5 with 10 being excellent and 0 being poor. Considering that only 33 percent of turkey hunters were successful last spring, it demonstrates that a high-quality hunt doesn't have to include bagging a bird by most hunters' perspectives.
"The number one comment from the hunters we surveyed was that they enjoyed the opportunity to turkey hunt and simply enjoyed being in the woods," Dunton said.
Sitting in the woods listening to a distant gobble come closer is one of the more exhilarating experiences one can have in life. Waking up from a nap or having a big tom sneak up on you only to gobble a few feet away is even more exhilarating and something you have to experience to fully understand.
Take Advantage Of Changes
Not much has changed this season, although several major changes in the past two years should encourage turkey hunters to brush up on their regulations.
The only significant change this year is the addition of seven new permit areas and the combining of two metro permit areas into one. Waterfowlers know the benefit of having fresh birds in the area and turkey hunters could lend a few tips on this one. If there are extra permits available in one of the new permit areas, consider buying one of them.
Tangen said southeastern Minnesota turkeys are an experienced bunch led by trophy toms that have seen their fair share of hunters. Areas recently opened for turkey hunting should be considered because those birds are more easily decoyed, respond better to calling and are more forgiving with hunter mistakes.
Another change the last few seasons requires hunters to be aware of the expansion of shooting hours to sunset so more hunters can have more time in the field.
The most exciting adjustment was the addition of a spring archery license that may be purchased and used for the last two periods in any permit area with 50 or more permits.
The license is not available for lottery applicants who drew a tag, but those who were not drawn or missed the deadline can bowhunt the last two weeks of the season if they wish.
"Hunters said they appreciate the expanded hunting opportunity with the archery season," Dunton said.
There are 29 permit areas available to archers from May 16 until May 29. Check the permit map and chart to pinpoint the locations. A benefit archers have is that given the low success rate, even the staunchest landowners might be more willing to grant permission.
I took advantage of this option last year since I was not drawn in the lottery and it was great to be able to get out there. Bowhunting for turkeys is definitely more challenging than shotgunning, but I've never shot a bird with my shotgun that I couldn't have easily taken with my bow.
Being in the field observing birds in their natural habitat was a tremendous learning experience. In the end, I decided not to close the deal on any of the birds that came to the edge of my range. Still, the lessons I learned will definitely help me be a more successful hunter this year and into the future. If you have the time to get into the field, don't let the excuse of not being drawn keep you away. I can usually only justify the time away from work and home if I'm actually hunting and this has been great for that one!
It was an opportunity that I wouldn't have otherwise had and I encourage more hunters to look into it. A huge rule of th
umb that I'd advocate is to be even more respectful than usual when going into an area another hunter is working, especially if you know they were drawn in the lottery. Legally, you have as much right to be there as they do, but ethically and logistically speaking, you should give them the nod.
Karma points don't count when it comes to drawing preference points on next year's lottery, but it can't hurt and when you are drawn next time, hopefully, somebody will afford that same respect your way. Enough soapboxing, how about what does it take to get that bird this year whenever and wherever you are hunting?
Tactical Turkey Tips
T.R. Michels is a multi-species hunting expert with tremendous hands-on knowledge about whitetail deer, elk and turkeys to name a few. A resident of the turkey-rich country of southeastern Minnesota, Michels said the more extra time spent scouting a hunter can do before the season the better.
"Pattern the birds so you know where to find them on a regular basis, including where they roost, feed and strut, as well as the paths they take along the way," he said.
Tangen said he'll frequently take a walk through the woods and fields he plans on hunting either to hunt for sheds or break in a new pair of hunting boots. "Whatever excuse you can find to get out there is a good one because turkeys tend to stick around the same general area throughout the year," he said.
Spring turkey scouting can be plenty of fun because there is often an abundance of sign around that is easy to spot. A common method of locating turkey-hunting spots is to find large roosting trees. These trees are frequently the tallest or densest ones in any given area.
The way to tell if it's a roosting tree is to look for white streaks running down the side of it. These streaks are evidence left behind by roosting turkeys much like what you find on your car windshield after parking under a particularly well-used tree. Roosting trees can be difficult to spot for the untrained eye or if weather conditions keep the trees relatively clean.
Turkey tracks are usually easy to locate in the spring because the ground is both wet and muddy or there's still snow around. Look for the middle toe of a turkey track because if it's more than 2 inches long, chances are there's a decent-sized tom in the area.
Fresh tracks are most easily found in fields, along creeks, old roadbeds or by feeding and watering areas. Don't be surprised if you find a feather or two as well.
Where the ground is dry, you can also find plenty of sign in the form of wallows, which are shallow bowls on the edges of fields or creek bottoms. Much like other bird species, turkeys take dust baths to keep mites off them. A series of these bowls in a particular area could mean it's a hen nesting area and might be prime strutting ground for toms once the mating rituals get going.
It should be noted that Tangen, Michels and most any other experienced turkey hunter will tell you that the best scouting is that which you do before the season begins. A primary reason for this is that you don't want to scout an area once the season is open even if it's not your particular season. Because turkeys are so elusive and so easily spooked, it's best to stay away from the general area being used by other hunters.
The kind of scouting that should be done during the season has been made more difficult with the recent regulation changes. It used to be that hunters would quit hunting at 5 p.m., grab a bite back at the truck, and then head back to the field just before sunset to "put a tom to bed." Find the tree he's roosting in and you have a great location to sneak into before sunrise the next morning.
Speaking of which, one of the biggest challenges of spring turkey hunting is waking up early enough to sneak into your hunting area. Deer hunters are fortunate in that their season runs three to six months after the summer solstice. Turkey hunters, on the other hand, only have a month or two before the longest day of the year meaning wake-up calls that begin with the number three are not uncommon.
Weather is also a big factor in the spring and any hunter with a few seasons of experience will have plenty of stories involving blizzards, sweltering heat, thunderstorms and extreme wind -- often in the same season.
The weather is not to be ignored because every year when the harvest results are published, there is a strong correlation between the lowest success rates and the worst weather conditions. It's not that the turkeys stopped coming off the roost in bad weather, it's usually that the hunter either wasn't willing to endure the conditions or didn't adjust accordingly.
Scouting With Data
Surveys aren't known for being thrilling reading material, but the spring turkey hunter survey report is actually a very interesting document that can be used to learn much about the habits of other hunters. Knowledgeable turkey hunters can use this information to their benefit and improve their odds of success by planning around what the "average" Minnesota hunter does each year.
The survey showed that Minnesota turkey hunters spend an average of 2.7 days on their annual turkey hunt. With some of the seasons lasting five days and others lasting seven days, it shows that hunters are not spending their entire season in the field.
As far as the weapon of choice, the vast majority of hunters prefer a shotgun to archery. Actually, saying the vast majority is an understatement, since 92 percent said they shotgun hunt, 4 percent said they bowhunt and the rest said they use both methods throughout the season they are allowed to hunt.
In the survey, hunters were asked about how many turkeys they observed and the statewide average was 12. Combine that with the number of days hunted, and it shows that the "average" turkey hunter sees four to six birds a day. The averages vary widely throughout the state, so that average could be as low as one to two birds a day and as high as almost 20 birds a day.
Another interesting statistic from the survey shows that 75 percent of the harvests came in the morning. The challenge behind this figure is wrapped up in the history of the hunt.
For the first two decades of Minnesota's hunt, shooting hours ran from a half an hour before sunrise to noon. That was expanded to the late afternoon until last year when it changed to sunset. The question remains as to whether or not that morning hunt has become a part of the tradition of turkey hunting or if it truly is the best time to bag a turkey.
The ever-pressing matter of land access is another issue the survey examined. The news is good considering the amount of development and the fact that the majority of Minnesota's turkey hunting habitat is in the southern and western two-thirds of the state where public land is in short supply.
Almost 86 percent of the surveyed hunters said accessing land was very easy or at least somewhat easy. A simila
r number said they mostly or exclusively hunted on private land, and less than 1 percent reported being denied permission by a landowner. Hunters reported observing very few other hunters in the field other than those in their hunting party and only 13 percent saw more than one person. Interference caused by those other hunters was also reported as being very rare.
Be smart this spring! Turkey hunting has added risks with no blaze orange requirements, the added foliage on the trees and challenge of fooling a turkey. Be sure of your target and keep turkey hunting as safe as it's been for decades.