Spring Turkey Outlook

Spring Turkey Outlook

Wild turkey numbers are at an all-time high in Minnesota. That should translate into yet another record harvest in 2004.

By T.R. Michels

It was about 20 minutes before sunrise when I heard the first gobble of a turkey from across the coulee.

For my early-morning setup I had purposely picked a spot near the tip of a bluff, not too far from the plowed fields on the top. I set up there because I had been told turkeys often head for open food sources shortly after they fly down from the roost in the morning. I'd also read that turkeys didn't like to go downhill when they responded to a call. So, a setup site near the top of the ridge, not too far from a food source, seemed like the place to be.

As I heard another gobble from across the coulee, I thought, "I got everything right, except I picked the wrong ridge to sit on."

I waited in the pre-dawn darkness, hoping another tom might sound off below me so that I could call it up to where I sat waiting. But it didn't happen. The turkey across the coulee continued to gobble, and I finally whispered to my hunting partner that I'd try to call the bird to us. Maybe he would work his way around the top of the ravine onto the ridge where we sat.

I placed a double-reed turkey diaphragm call in my mouth and blew a fly-down cackle, imitating the sound a hen makes when she flies down of the roost in the morning. I hoped the tom would think a real hen had heard his call, and had flown down and sounded off to let him know where she was at. My first attempt must have sounded good to the tom, because he cut me off with double gobble. Having heard that I should wait a few minutes before I answered a tom, I waited about three minutes. Then I blew a soft yelp, trying to sound like a hen turkey feeding, and maybe looking for some male companionship. The tom answered back with another double gobble, sounding closer than he had before. "He must be really hot." I thought, "He's double gobbling and headed this way."

Photo by Ralph Hensley

But instead of staying up high on the ridge and coming around the top of the coulee, it sounded like the tom had headed down into the coulee and was going to come almost straight up the side. "He's not supposed to do that," I thought. "Maybe he didn't read the same book I did, the one that said turkeys don't go downhill when they respond to a call." Well, no matter, he was coming this way, and he was answering my calls.

I yelped again, louder this time, just in case he didn't know right where I was. When the tom responded again he sounded farther away and there were two gobbles, followed by another two gobbles that seemed even farther away. After thinking about it I realized the gobbles seemed farther away because the tom was not in a direct line with me - he was down in the ravine - and the second set of gobbles were probably an echo.

Not knowing exactly where the bird was, and not wanting to give my position away in case it was close, I waited about 10 minutes before calling again. There was no response to my first soft yelp, so I tried again, but louder. Still no response. I blew a fast cluck, hoping to fire the bird up so it would give its position away. Nothing. I waited another five minutes, and when I still didn't see or hear anything, I yelped again softly, just in case the tom was close by. Again there was no response. I waited a couple more minutes and called again, but louder this time, yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp. My call was immediately answered by a thunderous gobble. He was right below me.

I quickly looked toward my hunting partner, motioned for him to get ready, and pointed in a downward motion, indicating the bird was just below us. And I was right. Well, almost. Just then, two bright red, white and blue heads popped up over the rocks below me. The double gobble I had been hearing hadn't come from one bird, it had come from two birds, and they were here, now. I looked toward my hunting partner and nodded my head toward where the birds were. He shook his head, indicating he couldn't see the birds, but I noticed that his gun was resting on his knee and shouldered. He was ready.

I could have shot anytime within the next five minutes, but because I was hoping that we would both get a shot, I waited. Then I lost track of the birds and heard a shot. The next thing I saw was one of the birds sailing through the trees toward the bottom of the coulee and my hunting partner running to a large turkey 20 yards from where he sat. Well, at least one of us had gotten a turkey.

That hunt occurred about 12 years ago. It was the first time I ever called in turkey, the first time I had ever seen a turkey get shot and the first time I had ever hunted turkeys. Since then I've hunted several years in Minnesota and other states, I've learned not to believe everything I hear or read about turkeys and turkey hunting, and hopefully I've learned a few things about turkey behavior, turkey calling and turkey hunting.

One of the things I've learned is to find out which areas of the state have good number of birds, which areas have good success rates and which weeks of the season traditionally have the best success. To do that I contact either the state turkey biologist or the state turkey specialist, ask them where the highest populations are and how the winter survival rate was. During the last five years I've usually talked to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources turkey specialist Gary Nelson and turkey biologist Dick Kimmel. This year I ended up talking to the new turkey biologist in Madelia, Wendy Krueger.

One of the main things affecting hunter success rates is the number of birds available, and one of the things that impacts spring turkey numbers is winter survival. When Krueger was asked about recent winter survival rates she said that due to the mild winters during 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, turkey numbers are at an all-time high of about 50,000 birds. And if we keep having mild winters, turkey numbers will keep increasing.

On the other side of the coin, Krueger said the recent mild winters had not been good for transplanting turkeys. The Minnesota DNR usually traps about 300 turkeys each January. These birds are then released in areas where the biologists believe they could survive and prosper, or in areas that could hold more turkeys.

Successful winter trapping efforts depend to a great extent on snow depths that make it hard for the turkeys to find food. Trapping is often accomplished by using food as bait, and then large cannon-fired nets are used to capture the birds. The lack of snow and cold weather in previous years has made it difficult to trap a large number of birds because there was not a shortage of food for the turkeys in the winter. This has resulted in the birds not gathering in the large flocks that they often do when winter food sources are low. During the winter of 2002-2003, only 144 birds were tra


In spite of the low transplant numbers in the last few years, winter survival rates have been high, and turkeys are abundant enough in Minnesota to offer hunts in most of the units in the southern and central portions of our state. Turkey hunts are offered as far north as Sandstone and Mille Lacs in the east to just south of Brainerd, including most of the areas west of Brainerd and south of U.S. Highway 10 to Moorhead on the western Minnesota border, then to the Iowa and Wisconsin borders. That's a lot farther north and west than the state's turkey experts originally thought possible. The few areas that aren't open to turkey hunting include Units 421, 423 and 424 in the west-central portion of the state and Unit 414 west of Little Falls.

Krueger stated that because the turkey population is doing so well, and since success rates could be increased during the later hunting periods, five new turkey permit areas have been added. Unit 157 near Mora, Unit 159 near Pine City, Unit 248 northwest of Little Falls, Unit 414 near Staples and Unit 420 south of Moorhead will be open to spring hunting in 2004.

Since the DNR feels that harvest rates could be higher in the last two hunting periods in all units - without negatively affecting the state's turkey population - two additional days have been added to the last two hunting seasons in all the units, giving hunters seven days to hunt instead of the five days they are allowed during the earlier seasons.

Minnesota uses a preference system for turkey permits, whereby turkey hunters who have not drawn a permit in a specific unit but continue to apply for a permit in the same unit in the following years are given preference over hunters who have already drawn a permit in that unit. In the past few years this preference system has resulted in turkey hunters being granted a permit for their third year of application. Krueger stated that hunters can still expect to be drawn in their third year, and often more frequently than that if they choose the later hunting periods because the late hunts are often undersubscribed.

For the spring 2003 season there were 44,415 hunter applications for 25,016 spring turkey permits, with 22,770 permits issued and 7,650 turkeys killed. This is up from 42,415 applications and 24,136 permits available with 22,607 permits issued and 6,516 turkeys harvested in 2002. The highest number of permits offered in 2003 were in units 346 and 349, with 2,200 and 2,800 permits available, respectively.

Overall turkey hunting success rates have been fairly constant over the last few years. They were 33 percent in 2000, 29.8 percent in 2001, 28.8 percent in 2002 and 33.6 percent in 2003. When asked which units posted high success rates in 2003, Krueger said that several units exceeded 50 percent success rates.

Another measure of success is how many turkeys were harvested per square mile of available turkey habitat. Unit 448/449 near Marshall posted a 57.1 success rate and .31 birds harvested per square mile. Unit 442 along the Minnesota River posted a 58.8 percent success rate with 2.65 birds harvested per square mile. Honors for highest success rate go to Unit 451/452/453 in the far southwestern corner of the state, with an astounding 61.5 percent success rate and .25 birds harvested per square mile.

Several other units exceeded 45 percent success rates in the spring of 2003. Unit 450 had a 47.2 percent success rate with .30 birds harvested per square mile, Unit 440 had a 48.9 percent success rate with 1.90 birds harvested per square mile and Unit 427 had a success rate of 48.6 with .27 birds harvested per mile. All three of these units are along the Minnesota River. Unit 235, the Carlos Avery Game Refuge just north of St. Paul, had a 49.2 success rate with a whopping four birds harvested per square mile.

The average number of turkeys harvested per square mile in 2003 was 1.04. The highest number of birds harvested per square mile were in the southeastern units of 337 (2.18), 341 (2.01), 342, (2.48), 343 (4.67), 344 (2.38), 345 (2.23), 346 (2.65), 347 (2.40), 348 (2.25) and 349 (2.45). These units are all in or near the Whitewater Game Management Area, where turkeys were first released in Minnesota. Units 442 and 443 near Mankato and St. Peter along the Minnesota River harvested 2.65 and 2.10 birds per square mile, respectively.

As to which seasons had the best success rates, Krueger reported that the first two seasons, which traditionally occur during the first gobbling peak in Minnesota, had 42.0 and 42.5 percent hunter success rates, respectively. Success rates then decreased to 35.1 and 29.9 percent during the third and fourth hunting periods, but increased to 34.9 and 31.7 percent during the fifth and sixth hunting periods, which traditionally occur during the second gobbling peak in Minnesota. Success rates then dropped to 27.2 in the seventh hunting period and 24.9 in the last hunting period.

Another measure of the status of the turkey population is the relationship between the number of mature toms and jakes harvested in each unit. High jake harvest rates suggest hunters did not see many mature birds and/or opted to settle for jakes instead of toms. But these same statistics often reflect a turkey population that is still increasing, and areas that could provide good hunting in later years.

Units 463 and 464 east and west of Waseca in southern Minnesota both reported that over 43 percent of the birds harvested were juveniles. This may indicate growing populations and will be good areas to hunt in 2004. But there were only 160 permits available for each of these areas.

Unit 442 near Mankato and St. Peter may offer hunters a good chance to kill a turkey. The unit posted a 38 percent success rate, with 432 birds harvested, 2.65 birds per harvested square mile and with 31 percent of the birds harvested being jakes, which could lead to high numbers of male turkeys this spring.

When you add up all the numbers, it looks like 2004 could be a good year for spring turkey hunters in Minnesota.

(Editor's note: T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict's Manuals. For a catalog of books and other hunting products, write: T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, P.O. Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983; phone: (507) 824-3296; e-mail: TRMichels@yahoo.com; Internet site: www.TRMichels.com.)

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