COL Expectations are high as turkey hunters take to the woods and fields
By Dan Butterfass
Like the doldrums of late winter, the months-long wait for Minnesota's estimated 24,000 turkey hunters is finally over.
When the first of the state's eight, five-day seasons opened Wednesday, the process that began in December with electronic applications for lottery-drawn permits began to yield what turkey hunters are after –; lusty gobbles, long beards and the patriotic red, white, and blue of a tom's head.
Having emerged from one of mildest winters ever recorded in our region, which provided twin blessings of above-normal temperatures and below-normal snowfall, turkey populations are likely as high as they have ever been throughout southern Minnesota.
The deep snow that can make it more difficult for the birds to scratch for acorns and waste grains simply never fell.
With few natural predators other than great-horned owls and coyotes to check those populations, along with longer legal shooting hours, southern Minnesota turkey hunters could be in for a windfall of success.
It's even somewhat likely, barring heavy spring rains, that they may even harvest a record number of gobblers.
The major change in store for Minnesota's turkey hunters this year is expanded shooting hours. Hunters who head into forest and field under cover of pre-dawn darkness won't need to quit the woods --if they should choose --until the shadows grow long at 5 p.m.
Until this year, legal shooting hours in Minnesota have been one-half hour before sunrise until noon, after which many hunters would head out for lunch, a nap, or a leisurely afternoon of trout fishing.
"Minnesota is following the lead of the majority of other states with more lenient shooting hours," says Gary Nelson, regional DNR turkey biologist. "Surveys [in some of these states] indicate that extended shooting hours have minimal overall effect on the harvest and pose no harm to the health of the resource."
Nelson also says there are several other practical reasons for extending the legal shooting hours to later in the afternoon, such as the individually short, five-day long seasons or often stormy weather conditions in the mornings during spring.
"By midday, late-morning weather systems have usually moved on and the birds become active again," says Nelson. "Many hunters do a lot of traveling to get here and chances are they will have some inclement weather conditions during their hunt. The extended hours will give them more time to hunt outside of bad weather."
The likely overall effect of extended shooting hours should be that hunting pressure will be spread out through the course of a day, unlike in previous years when there was intense, exclusive demand to harvest birds only in the mornings. In addition, if more hunters successfully harvest a bird during afternoons, the areas those hunters are in would become freed up for other hunters in a party to harvest a bird in coming mornings.
Longer shooting hours will also give turkey-hunting farmers and high school students, whose time is ordinarily occupied during spring mornings, a chance to bag a bird later in the day, adds Nelson.
As for the effects longer shooting hours might have on hunting strategies, Rochester turkey hunter Dennis Maurer, who has 22 years and nine states of gobbler-hunting experience under his belt, thinks that this should make hunters more inclined to "stay put" on land which, due to advance scouting, they know birds frequent at some point during the day.
Conventional thinking on the matter might be that hunters who have several more hours in a day to shoot a bird, might grow restless, bored, or impatient during long, slow periods without turkey activity, and thus be more apt to get up and move too often.
But that's not the case, according to DNR biologist Nelson. "If they know there are birds around, hunters will likely remain more stationary."
In previous years, with hunters needing to quit at noon, there might have been a tendency for them to feel rushed or pressured to get up and move if they hadn't yet shot a bird as the deadline approached.
Staying put is the key
If you haven't had time to do as much homework as you would have liked before heading out into the field this year, Maurer (a modest man who won't reveal exactly how many turkeys he has shot in his lifetime, but whose massive photographic scrapbook indicates that scores of birds have fallen to his gun) is happy to offer a crash course in gobbler behavior and hunting strategies.
When hunting, Maurer tries to live by the same essential piece of advice that he offers to both novice and expert turkey hunters alike: If you have done your homework and know that turkeys are present on the piece of land you will be hunting, scouted a piece of land where you know turkeys are present, be patient and stay put.
Maurer says that hunters who grow restless and impatient during slow times often unnecessarily spook and educate the very turkeys that they are trying to coax into range. "If you become bored and get up, any birds that you see as you move will almost always have seen or heard you first," he said.
According to him, getting up and moving is the single biggest mistake hunters make in the field.
Two other bits of practical advice that Maurer believes are tantamount to a successful outing concern seat cushions and calling.
He firmly believes that if you are going to skimp on anything, it should NOT be your seat cushion. A poor seat cushion will "fatigue your butt in a very short time" as well as cause you to squirm, adjust, and move around in a continual effort to get comfortable.
"Worst of all," claims Maurer, "you will have never seen that turkey that was sneaking in on your left side because you were twisting and turning trying to find a comfortable way to sit."
Any unnatural, extraneous movements can potentially spook a wary turkey, considering it's endowed with eyesight and hearing capabilities at least 10 times better than ours.
Know when to shut up
Maurer also reiterates the adage that when it comes to calling that big tom into shooting range (generally 35 yards or less), less is often more. Call sparingly, he advises.
"When a tom answers one of your calls, even if he is a couple hundred yards away, I'm convinced that he already knows exactly where you are," Maurer points out. "You don't have to keep on calling and calling to him; you should allow his natural curiosity and sexual excitement to get the better of him, and let him come to you."
After all, says Maurer, if turkey hunting were a business, its mantra would be location, location, location, which in his expert opinion is much more important than calling if your goal is to bag a bird.
In the sexual politics of a turkey's life, it's the hens that go to the toms and not vice versa. In effect, says Maurer, the better you locate your set, in the vicinity of hens, the greater your chances of luring in a male bird with your calling.
"By calling a tom in, you're really trying to make him do an unnatural act," says Maurer. "That's why he gobbles –; to tell the hen 'Here I am, come over to me.'"
Of course, the best way to select an optimal spot to set up on a particular piece of land, as well as to increase your odds of success, is to scout it well in advance of your hunting season.
Perhaps more important than in any other shooting sport is the preparation you do before you head into the field. The more homework you do (provided you don't spook birds before you hunt), the better your chances of having an enjoyable hunt.
"Having fun is the whole point of being out there," says Maurer. "And whenever it ceases to be fun anymore, I get up and leave the woods."
Butterfass is a free-lance writer and outdoors enthusiast who lives in Rochester.