Sitting on the ground, back against a tree, you’re on the same level as the bird. In his territory.
If all goes well and you can get your heart out of your throat and he keeps coming closer and your aim is true, well, that’s the big close. And you get to take a photo and brag a little and plan a great feast.
If not, well, it was still one heck of a show.
There’s something about being in the woods in spring when everything comes alive around you; so many songbirds and waterfowl it’s impossible to distinguish between the singing, flowers trees and bushes sprouting new green and now — across much of Minnesota, more of the state than anyone ever believed possible — the sound of gobbling tom turkeys looking to mate.
This spring marks the 40th anniversary of modern turkey hunting in Minnesota and the 30th anniversary for me hunting the big bird. And it never gets old. The interaction between the calling hunter and the responding tom is truly unmatched in the outdoors. In only took one goble answering my imitation hen call 30 years ago to hook me for life.
But it wasn’t always possible here.
Trap and transplant
Wild turkeys were occasionally reported by early pioneers arriving in what is now Minnesota, but the bird had disappeared from the state by 1900. Settlers realized turkeys were easy targets each night when the birds roosted in trees.
Several efforts were tried to restock turkeys in southern Minnesota over the years but the first successful transplant happened in 1973. The state traded 85 ruffed grouse to Missouri for 29 wild turkeys released just a few miles from where I hunt in Houston County near the Iowa border.
The turkeys did well in the bluff country of mixed hardwood forests and dairy farms and the DNR held the first turkey hunting season in 1978, strictly limited to a few hunters a few weeks each spring shooting only toms with hens protected.
Since then it’s been a wild success story. Thanks to the National Wild Turkey Federation and the DNR, turkeys were trapped in Houston County each winter and released across the southern and central regions of the state, as far north as Carlton County, Bagley and Thief River Falls. Trap-and-transplant worked so well that the effort was halted a decade ago — mission accomplished.
The Minnesota DNR used to show a map of the state with the southern half called “turkey range” and the northern half, north of a line from about Hinckley to Alexandria, called “non-turkey range.” Eventually, the line moved north to about Highway 210. But the turkeys didn’t read the map. Now, the DNR’s map shows the whole state as turkey range, with just the far Arrowhead is called “marginal range.”
Turkeys have even populated the Twin Cities, showing an amazing ability to adapt wherever they can find food, much like whitetail deer.
Everyone has given up guessing where turkeys might go.
“When we stopped (trap-and-transport), turkeys occupied all of the habitat we thought was suitable for them. Yet they keep moving north,” said Rick Horton, Grand Rapids-based regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “We have reports of them on the Gunflint Trail, up in Koochiching County, Lake of the Woods County… They aren’t supposed to be able to survive winters that far north, but they keep surprising us.”
It’s the same story nationwide. Wild turkeys are now found in stable, huntable populations in 49 of the 50 states and across much of southern Canada. Only Alaska has no wild turkeys, but don’t count them out just yet. Turkeys may walk across the Yukon to get there.
After ending the Minnesota trap and transport program in 2008 the turkey federation has moved on to a new set of conservation goals — namely acquiring, preserving and enhancing habitat and preserving and enhancing the number of hunters.
The number of turkeys in Minnesota skyrocketed during trap-and-transport years, but has probably leveled off at “some sort of equilibrium,” Horton said. “I don’t think we’ll see the kind of big increase in numbers we saw in the past. We’re probably where we’re going to be.”
Winter habitat and food will decide how many turkeys the land can carry, Horton noted. Modern farming techniques and technologies are leaving less missed or spilled crops in the field, while pesticides and herbicides are leaving fewer weed seeds and bugs that are critical for young poults. In places without quality mast crops like acorns and hickory nuts, turkey numbers probably won’t increase, Horton said. Encouraging better forestry practices for those trees is a turkey federation priority.
The state is however adding new turkey hunters each year, thanks to mentoring programs and the season’s unique drawing power: A hunt with plenty of excitement and a decent chance — about 1 in 4 — at success.
Thirty years ago, when I first wrapped an old duck hunting gun in camouflage tape and bought a pair of camouflage overalls for my first hunt, Minnesota turkey hunting permits were very limited and a hot commodity. It sometimes took two or three years of applying before hunters successfully drew a tag.
That finally happened to me and my dad in 1988, and we had a perfect place to search for birds on and around the dairy farm of old family friends. Sometimes we’d miss a year or two due to the lottery, so I started wandering to Iowa, the Black Hills and Nebraska to get my spring gobbling fix.
Unlimited licenses, limited land
Now, Minnesota licenses after the first two weeks of the season are available to everyone who wants one. So I can come back every year without fail. And I do.
In 1978 hunters registered 94 turkeys in Minnesota’s first hunt. Last year, Minnesota issued just under 50,000 turkey permits during the spring season, and hunters registered 11,854 turkeys. A similar harvest is expected this year. Wisconsin, which has even more mixed woodlot-farmland and which stretches far south of Minnesota, issued 212,456 turkey permits last year and hunters registered 43,305 birds.
Now, instead of driving for more than four hours from Duluth to get to Minnesota turkey country, I could drive less than 40 minutes and find plenty of birds. But it’s hard to give up 30 years of history after getting to know the hills and the farmers and the birds in bluff country, the yipping coyotes and hooting barred owls and bellowing cows at dawn.
The wealth of available permits has created some problems. When turkey hunters were limited, it was easy to find places to hunt. Now, with so many people trying the hunt and unlimited permits, nearly every farmer/landowner has a relative, friend or in-law who wants to hunt on their land. We used to have six or seven farms on which to hunt each spring; now, we’re down to two.
The success rate for turkey hunters in Minnesota is just under 25 percent statewide, so three out of four hunters go home empty-handed each season.
Just like me last week.
But I’ll be back next year, undaunted. There’s just something about that gobble when that tom is getting close.
Minnesota’s spring wild turkey season continues through May 31. Licenses are available over the counter for the remaining periods. Wisconsin’s spring turkey season runs through May 29.