The dawn of the fifth decade.
That is what will rise Wednesday, the opening of Minnesota’s spring wild turkey hunting season. And as it does, hunters will silently slip into an experience few could have imagined in 1978 when the state’s first turkey hunt was held 40 years ago.
“I still remember opening day of ’78,” recalled Gary Nelson, 70, a retired wild turkey biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We hung one scale at Caledonia and another at the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area office near Winona. Those were the only two places hunters could register a bird. It was a big deal back then. We weighed every bird, measured spurs, measured beards, took pictures and even asked hunters to show where they hunted on a map. We registered 94 that first season, which meant about a fifth of the hunters were successful.”
Today is so different.
The wild turkey population is likely north of 70,000, which was the DNR’s last estimate several years ago. The birds now exist most everywhere but the deep forests of the far north. Over-the-counter hunting permits are unlimited rather than the original 420. And hunters consistently kill 11,000 or more birds, and register them by phone or computer. There’s no scouting for a DNR scale in a parking lot.
“It has been quite a change,” Nelson said. “Back in the ’70s, a lot folks, including those of us trapping and transplanting turkeys, didn’t know how this would all play out. Yet over time it became apparent the original 29 eastern subspecies turkeys we received from Missouri and let loose in the southeast were mighty fine stock. Bob Tangen, Mike Tenney, other trappers and I relocated some 5,000 birds before the agency ended its trap-and-transplant program in 2008. All of those birds were the descendants of the original 29, and all of the releases took hold where suitable habitat existed.”
What follows is a roundup of turkey tidbits with the 41st spring season near.
Dates and license information
Only those age 18 and older who want to hunt using a firearm during the first two time periods (April 18-24 and April 25-May 1) need a permit obtained though the lottery process. This means an unlimited number of permits are available for the remaining four hunting periods (May 2-8, May 9-15, May 16-22 and May 23-31). The lottery does not apply to archery and youth hunters. They can hunt anytime beginning Wednesday until May 31. Licensed hunters who do not bag a bird during their time period can try again from May 23-31. Get more information online at bit.ly/turk2018.
This year’s lingering snow and cold is not expected to have a significant effect on the hunting season. DNR wildlife managers report turkeys fared fine this winter. Said John Williams, DNR regional wildlife manager for northwest Minnesota: “Wild turkeys have proved to be more adaptable than anyone imagined. I doubt there was little if any winter loss up here. Some of the last trap-and-transplant releases ever were in the riverine and beach ridge areas of the Crookston, Thief River Falls and Karlstad areas, and those populations have grown and are doing great.”
Youth and archers take a third of the harvest
Last year, the DNR issued 49,919 spring turkey hunting permits resulting in a harvest of 11,854. Archers accounted for 11,249 of those permit holders; they harvested 1,665 birds for a 14.8 percent success rate. Youth age 17 and younger accounted for another 11,355 hunters. They harvested 2,168 birds for a 19.1 percent success rate. The remaining group (17,315 adult firearms hunters) killed 8,021 birds. Those who obtained permits through the lottery had a 37 percent success rate and those who did not had a 24.6 percent success rate. So, adult firearms hunters harvested two-thirds of the birds, and youth and archers the remainder, with adult firearms hunters having the highest success rates.
Earlier is usually better
Not surprisingly, Minnesota’s turkey harvest is higher at the beginning of the season than toward the end. Last spring, those hunting the first seven-day time period bagged 3,793 birds, or nearly a third of the spring season total harvest. Those hunting the second seven-day time period accounted for the second-highest harvest at 2,815 birds, or roughly 24 percent of the harvest. The harvest declined in the third, fourth and fifth seven-day time periods but rebounded in the final and longer 14-day period when unsuccessful hunters could hunt again.
Central Minnesota tops
Though the rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota remain quintessential turkey country, the large swath of farm-and-forest land from the northwest edge of the metro to beyond Bemidji is where the most turkeys were harvested last year. Known as Permit Area 507, this area includes the Buffalo, St. Cloud, Alexandria, Wadena and Park Rapids areas, and extends as far north as the White Earth Reservation. Larger than some zones and farther south than others, it accounted for 3,098 birds, or 26 percent of last year’s statewide harvest.
Participation has leveled off
Spring turkey hunting interest has leveled off. Hunting by firearms peaked in 2010 at 46,548 permits. Since then the number of permits issued to firearms hunters has been slightly below 40,000 four times. Still, archery permits recently have trended higher. They were 22.5 percent of total sales in 2017, an increase of 8.8 percent from 2016.
No accidents the past two hunting seasons
No turkey hunting accidents have been reported during the past two hunting seasons, said Jon Paurus, DNR education program coordinator for the enforcement division. Still, there have been serious accidents, and underway is a growing trend to sneak-up on gobblers while holding a real or manufactured turkey fan in front of one’s body. This “reaping” technique is the exact opposite of sitting still and calling-in a bird. Instead, it is about grabbing a gobbler’s attention by crawling or moving directly toward it. Said Paurus. “In our safety classes, we teach kids not to sneak on turkeys … often the sound you hear is simply another hunter.”
National Wild Turkey Federation improves habitat
The National Wild Turkey Federation has supported Minnesota turkey conservation since the 1970s. It is partnering with the DNR, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and others on a number of habitat improvement and protection efforts throughout the state by leveraging Legacy Amendment habitat money. In addition to a major effort to regenerate older maple and basswood forests to red oak, white oak and bur oak in southeastern Minnesota, the NWTF is working on oak-related habitat projects throughout a large portion of central Minnesota.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.