Minnesota’s wild turkey hunters rank solitude near the top of their list of priorities, especially when it comes to keeping a distance from other turkey hunters.
So it was a careful balancing act at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) when game managers altered regulations to expand shooting opportunities while also protecting against overcrowding afield. Those changes will be tested in a season already taking shape in a lottery for early-season licenses that will close Jan. 22. For the luckiest lottery winners, the 2016 season will open April 13.
“Nothing indicated we had to make changes,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations program manager. “But we were pretty convinced we could provide more opportunity without damaging interference rates.”
Merchant said there’s been some resistance to the liberalization of hunting chances from hardcore turkey hunters in the state’s original hotbed for the sport — southeastern Minnesota. But the changes have been welcomed by the Minnesota chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and supported by a University of Minnesota-led survey of turkey hunters’ opinions and activities, statewide.
“Increased opportunity? Yes. We’re all for that,” said Tom Glines, a regional director of the turkey federation.
What’s new is that firearms hunters who fail to shoot a tom in their initially allotted week will get a second chance. If shut out in their first attempt, they can buy another tag for shooting privileges covering the last 14 days of the spring season, ending May 31.
The altered rules do not raise the traditional bag limit of one bird per hunter. But Glines said second chances for some of the state’s 50,000 wild turkey hunters could mildly increase the harvest by boosting what is now a one-in-four chance of a license-holder killing a bird.
There’s a fear in some quarters that the second-chance season could teeter toward overcrowding in some areas, but Glines and Merchant don’t see it that way. The university’s report on hunter opinions and practices, published late last year in conjunction with the DNR and U.S. Geological Survey, said the typical spring turkey hunter spends three days in the field.
In fact, shooting a wild turkey takes a back seat to seeing turkeys, calling them and hearing gobbling, the survey said. Enjoying nature is at the forefront of hunters’ motivations, the statewide survey found, and 80 percent of those who responded reported being satisfied with their experience, despite the overall 25 percent kill rate.
Glines said many hunters won’t take advantage of the second-chance opportunity because many of them move on to fishing by mid- to late May. “People switch to fishing and put away their camo,” he said.
Merchant said the DNR considered increasing the bag limit, but most hunters surveyed by the university perceived it as unfair for a hunter who has already killed a turkey to return to the woods for more hunting. That sentiment was in keeping with the extreme importance of solitude as voiced by survey respondents.
“It was not our intent to increase success” at killing turkeys, Merchant said.
Rather, he said, the state’s abundant resource of wild turkeys is underutilized and the agency sought ways to improve hunting opportunities. Even with the changes, Minnesota is sticking to a conservative approach in managing its wild turkey population, Merchant said.
Besides giving hunters a second chance, the new regulations ensure that every available spring hunting period includes a weekend. In prior years, some hunting periods without weekends drew as few as 1,000 license buyers statewide, Merchant said.
Under the changes, Minnesota goes from eight spring turkey hunting periods to six, with each new period at least seven days long, including the 14-day final period. The first two periods, available by lottery only, are April 13-19 and April 20-26. The lottery system is used to prevent overcrowding because early-season wild turkey hunting is the most coveted. Hunters are restricted to shooting in a single period unless they fail to get a bird and want a second chance in the final two-week frame.
Merchant and Glines said the newly designed hunting periods also are meant to give license-holders more chances to get outside if their allotted time coincides with a stretch of harsh weather.
Yet another change will give archers all season to fill their tag.
“We are trying to have a happy balance,” Glines said.