WILLMAR, Minn. -- “Four hens, six jakes and five deer,” Tom Kalahar whispered into his phone.
The noon-time call to Kalahar was made on Wednesday, the opening day of Minnesota’s 2021 turkey season. It found him still hunkered down in his blind like an undercover agent on a stakeout. That was his tally of sightings from the blind at midday as he hosted a friend from Cotton, Minn., on a turkey hunt in the Minnesota River Valley.
By all measures, Kalahar, of Olivia, ranks as one of the region’s most passionate turkey hunters. A call placed one week earlier had found him in the field with binoculars in his hands as a steady, cold rain fell. He reasoned that the cold rain would flush the turkeys out into the open and allow him to get a better feel for the number of birds out there. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I see plenty of turkeys around,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting that nice weather,” he said from his blind that day.
Our call ended abruptly. “I see a bird.”
It's anybody's guess today how many other hunters have said the same since the start of the first of six shotgun seasons that will continue to May 31. Prospects for the 2021 turkey season in our area are good. Cory Netland, wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, New London, shares Kalahar’s optimism for the 2021 season.
“As far as outlook, I expect a season similar to last year,” said Netland.
That's saying something: Last year, a record number of hunters chased turkeys during the COVID pandemic and harvested a record number of birds, 13,996, according to the Minnesota DNR. That beats the 13,467 registered in 2010, and above the 10-year average of 11,400.
Netland believes that Kalahar made a good choice in hunting the Minnesota River Valley. Its mix of farm fields and woodlands provides good habitat and consequently good numbers of birds.
But. Netland doesn’t have to go far from his home near New London to find good numbers either. He spotted a tom strutting just a half mile from New London when he took to the road Wednesday morning.
He said turkey numbers in both Kandiyohi and Meeker counties look good this year. He gives the edge to Meeker County.
The cold start to the season on Wednesday probably made the opener slower than some would have liked, according to Curt Vacek, wildlife manager for the DNR in the Appleton area.
“I’m sure it will impact it,” said Vacek when asked what he thought the cool weather would mean for hunters. “The birds won’t be quite as feisty. Hunters won’t be as comfortable.” He noted that cold temperatures probably effect hunters more than the birds, and pointed out that temperatures were in the low teens when the season opened one year ago.
Hunting will only get better as the weather warms. “It can turn around in a hurry,” said Vacek of hunter success.
As of the mid-week, plenty of turkeys were still grouped up. Hunters who did their scouting should do well, Vacek said.
Netland agrees: Plenty of toms are still roaming around together, he said. “They haven’t completely duked it out and separated and everything to this point just yet,” he explained.
Vacek said he expects a decent enough harvest this year, but he has some concerns about overall numbers of birds in the region he manages. There are no surveys or hard data, but turkey numbers do not appear to be as high as they once were in the western area, he said.
Turkey numbers exploded when the birds were first released in the area, and flocks established themselves in all sorts of nooks and crannies. Now, he’s seeing signs that the numbers are down in some of the prime habitat. Small flocks have disappeared in some of the nooks and crannies where they were once found, although sometimes a flock will pop up in a new area, he said.
We’ll know more as the season progresses, but this much is clear. Hunter interest remains strong, although license sales at this point are behind last year's record pace. As of the opening day, the Minnesota DNR reported a total of 27,639 license sales of all types, including 13,770 resident firearm turkey, 7,351 archery and 3,655 youth. That's 11 percent behind last year on opening day, when there were a total of 31,360 licenses of all types including 14,268 resident firearm turkey, 9,039 archery and 4,782 youth.