Spring turkey hunting seasons start Wednesday in Minnesota and Wisconsin and will continue through May, and - good news - there’s still time to plan a hunt for this year.
While early seasons required selection in a lottery process held over the winter, Minnesota’s third-through-seventh seasons are open to unlimited over-the-counter license sales. Those seasons run May 2-8, 9-15, 16-22 and 23-31.
Youth hunters can still buy unlimited licenses for any season (even the first two) as can bowhunters. And any Minnesota turkey hunter who doesn’t fill their tag during the first six seasons can hunt again during the seventh and final season.
In Wisconsin, thousands of unclaimed permits are available for later seasons in southern zones. For example, in the southwestern quarter of the state, Zone 1, there are some 3,000 permits still available for the May 8-14 session, 10,000 permits for the May 15-21 session and 11,000 for the May 22-28 session.
The problem in either state’s agricultural areas, of course, will be finding a place to hunt. But there are some parcels of public land in the best turkey areas - check out the Minnesota DNR’s recreation compass at www.dnr.state.mn.us/maps/compass - and, being later in the season, landowners may be more willing to let people onto their properties if their friends and family are already finished hunting for the season.
The expansion of turkeys across Minnesota has been nothing short of breathtaking. The state stocked a few hundred birds in the 1970s, imported from southern states. (The big birds hadn’t been seen in Minnesota in nearly a century.)
In 1978, 420 hunters registered 94 turkeys in Minnesota's first hunt. Last year, Minnesota issued 45,339 turkey permits during the spring season and hunters registered 10,705 birds. That was down nearly 10 percent from 2017, DNR officials note, probably because of a blizzard during the first week of the season and record heat in the final week.
Wisconsin, which has even more of the mixed woods-and-farmland that turkeys love, and which stretches far south of Minnesota (with less severe winters and more farm crops) issued 212,781 turkey permits in 2018 and hunters registered 38,885 birds, a 10 percent decrease from the spring 2017 season.
Turkeys are now common across all of Wisconsin and the southern two-thirds of Minnesota, roughly everywhere south of U.S. Highway 2 (including in urban areas) but have been moving north of that line, too, now seen frequently in and around Duluth. The National Wild Turkey Federation helped trap and relocate hundreds of turkeys to areas of good habitat in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. That effort has stopped but the birds keep spreading out on their own, filling in niches and slowly heading north.
“We continue to get reports of turkeys moving north,’’ said Lindsey Messinger, wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group.
Minnesota’s turkeys are the eastern variety, one of four distinct types of wild turkey in the U.S.
They eat a variety of foods, from insects and snakes to seeds and berries. But, especially in winter, they are often dependant on leftover and waste agricultural crops to make it through cold weather. If more than a foot of snow covers the ground for a month or more, they likely won’t make it - which means far northern MIneosta probably won’t have a large population of turkeys anytime soon.
Messinger said the statewide population appears to be stable but said the DNR really isn’t doing any intensive tracking of turkey numbers. Hunter harvest registrations and hunter success rates are about the only hard data the agency has on turkey populations. The DNR also gleans turkey sightings from bowhunters who submit reports on what they see each fall while waiting for deer.
“Hunter success has been fairly stable at around 30 percent. So, from what we see, it looks like a stable population right now,’’ Messinger said.
There has been some decline in the number of permits issued in recent years even after the DNR opened up the spring season to virtually unlimited hunters and harvest.
“We've seen it even in the first two lottery seasons, where the permits are going undersubscribed,’’ Messinger said. “We’re not sure yet if that’s weather related, people waiting to see how spring develops, or if there is a decline in hunter interest after the big increase when we opened up the seasons.”
The Minnesota DNR is considering making it even easier to get a turkey permit, and to shoot more turkeys, in 2020 and beyond. The agency is throwing out several ideas for hunters to comment on this spring, including eliminating the required lottery entrance for firearms hunters in the first two spring easons. Another action would extend the fall turkey season through November, which would allow hunters to shoot turkeys during deer season.
Another proposal also would eliminate the requirement that wild turkey hunters use shotguns 20 gauge or larger (allowing .410 shotguns, for example.)
Perhaps the most interesting is a plan to eliminate most zones for wild turkey permit and allow hunters to go most anywhere statewide. The exceptions would be a few small management zones like Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area and Whitewater State Park. Yet another change would allow hunters to take two turkeys annually in the Twin Cities metro area.
“These are just things we’re talking about,” Messinger sziad. “To be honest I’d like to see a little more hard (turkey population) data before we do anything major... But the general consensus is that turkeys are doing well enough to expand hunter opportunity.”
Hunters have until April 21 to comment on the possible turkey hunt changes. You can see the turkey proposals and other changes at mndnr.gov/input/wildlife-input.html or for a copy call the DNR at 888-646-6367 email email@example.com.
Basic Minnesota turkey hunting regulations
Legal firearms for turkey hunting are shotguns only, 20 gauge or larger, including muzzle-loading shotguns... Only fine shot size No. 4 and smaller diameter may be used… Red dot scopes and rangefinders are legal... Bows must have a pull of no less than 30 pounds at or before full draw... Legal shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset... The bag limit for the spring hunt is one wild turkey with a visible beard... The tag provided with the license must be punched with the date of the kill, and attached to the wild turkey immediately after taking the bird... The tag must remain attached to the bird during transit... Every person who takes a wild turkey must register the bird within 24 hours of taking the turkey either at a registration station (see mndnr.gov for locations) by phone or by Internet... The feathers, head, and feet must remain on the wild turkey until it is registered... Once registered turkeys may be transported with just a fully feathered attached wing, or an intact leg and foot.