Eric Atherton: How to spark interest in fall turkey hunting | Outdoors


Like a lot of Minnesota hunters, I thought about buying a fall turkey permit this year. And, like a lot of hunters, I thought better of it.

Minnesota’s month-long fall turkey season ended a couple weeks ago, and the numbers aren’t good. Just 7,755 people bought permits, and just 945 birds were registered. You don’t have to be a math whiz to recognize the lousy success rate, and license sales are down about 30 percent since 2012.

Granted, this isn’t the end of the world. The DNR doesn’t really need hunters to chase birds in the fall, and interest in the spring hunt has never been higher.

Still, wildlife managers are a bit puzzled by the decreasing interest in fall turkey hunting. Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations and regulations program manager, has said “We hate to see those numbers going down,” and “I hope that’s just an anomaly and not a trend.”

The DNR’s best explanation for the fall hunt’s lack of popularity is that people have too many other things to do in the areas of Minnesota where turkeys are common. With options like waterfowling, bowhunting and pheasant hunting, most hunters probably don’t feel like they have time to hunt turkeys, too.

I get that, but if the DNR is serious about getting more people to hunt turkeys in the fall, there are some easy ways to accomplish that goal.

I got my start in hunting in Missouri back in the mid ’90s, and like a lot of hunters, I started with squirrels. But in Missouri, a fall turkey permit was so cheap that you were crazy not to buy one, just in case you stumbled into a flock. I always bought one, and the permit was valid for two birds of either sex.

Then I started bowhunting, and much to my surprise, my archery deer permit not only allowed me to shoot two deer (both could be bucks), but it also came with two archery turkey tags.

I checked this week, and the system hasn’t changed. A Missouri resident pays $19 for an archery permit that comes with two deer tags and two turkey tags. And if you also want to hunt turkeys with a shotgun, that permit costs $13, and again, it comes with two tags. So in total, you can shoot four birds in the fall.

Last year, fall turkey hunters in Missouri harvested 3,698 birds.

In Minnesota, we pay $26 for a fall turkey tag, and it’s good for just one bird. Is that a budget-busting proposition? Of course not. In the spring I don’t think twice about forking over that money as I look forward to glorious spring mornings with gobbles booming through the hills.

But fall turkey hunting, put simply, doesn’t hold a candle to the spring hunt. There’s little gobbling, so, for the most part, you’re either ambushing birds or picking one off from your treestand while you bowhunt. And frankly, that $26 pricetag seems pretty steep when the bird you shoot might not be much bigger than a good-sized rooster pheasant.

So for starters, I’d propose that Minnesota dramatically reduce the cost of a fall turkey permit. Anyone buying any kind of fall hunting license should be able to add a fall turkey tag for no more than $10. At that price, I dare say that quite a few people — myself included — wouldn’t think twice before adding it to their shopping cart.

The next step — and this one might be a bit more controversial — would be to allow the use of dogs by turkey hunters.

There are states with a longstanding tradition of using specially trained dogs to hunt turkeys, but I have no illusions that such a tradition would gain much traction here. Rather, what would happen is that pheasant hunters would be able to shoot a turkey when their dog finds one.

That happens to me at least once or twice each fall. On several occasions, my dog has pointed in tall grass, only to have a huge gobbler erupt right in front of her nose. It feels like it takes 10 minutes for such birds to fly away, but even if I have a fall turkey permit in my pocket, I can’t shoot a turkey that’s been flushed by my dog.

Frankly, given the abysmal pheasant population right now, it would be nice to be able to let my dog chase turkeys for a few weeks each fall.

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