Last spring, amid a raging pandemic and the first year with an unlimited number of permits, a record number of Minnesota turkey hunters went afield and killed a record number of turkeys.

The increase from 2019 to 2020 was stark, with the number of hunters up 31% and the turkey harvest up 36%.

The increase since the state’s first turkey season 43 years ago is breathtaking. In 1978, 420 hunters registered 94 turkeys. Last year, Minnesota issued 63,194 permits during the spring season and hunters registered 13,996 birds.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials aren’t sure if it was the unlimited permits, the first year hunters could hunt during any time period and in any zone statewide with no lottery, or if it was part of the unprecedented pandemic push of people getting outdoors that spurred the increase.

“That’s the big unknown,’’ said Leslie McInenly, wildlife populations and regulations manager for the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. “It was probably some of both. The turkey season aligned almost perfectly with the stay-at-home order for the pandemic, so there wasn’t much else for people to do but go outside and recreate socially distanced. … But it also was the first season where we opened up the (permit) options.”

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An eastern wild turkey gobbles in a meadow. Minnesota set a record in 2020 for most turkey hunters and most turkeys harvested with unlimited licenses available for all time periods and zones. (Photo courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation)
An eastern wild turkey gobbles in a meadow. Minnesota set a record in 2020 for most turkey hunters and most turkeys harvested with unlimited licenses available for all time periods and zones. (Photo courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation)

Wildlife officials also note that a mild winter in 2019-2020 across most of the state probably allowed more turkeys to survive in more places, increasing the harvest. And weather during the hunting season was generally favorable.

It may be another year or two until the DNR knows for sure if the increase in interest in turkey hunting is here to stay, bucking what has been a national trend of declining hunter numbers. "We don’t expect another increase like we saw last year. We don’t expect that to continue at that level," McInenly said.

Of the overall increase in participants, 2020 saw a 59% increase in youth license sales with archery licenses up 24% and adult firearms licenses up 20%.

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McInenly said the DNR will continue to monitor turkey harvest as the primary tool to measure turkey population trends. If the harvest begins to drop noticeably, the DNR may need to take action to limit hunter access.

McInenly said the DNR also is watching hunter harvest by time period and monitoring complaints of overcrowding in the woods during the first two time periods. The vast majority of turkeys taken each year — including 66.7% in 2020 — are killed during the first two time periods, with hunter participation dropping off rapidly as the season progresses through the month of May.

“If that becomes an issue, too many people in the early (time periods), then we may need to bring back the lottery,’’ McInenly noted.

Clayton Lenk, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said it appears Minnesota is still making more turkeys than it is killing, in part because the birds continue to expand their range into new habitats.

“And Minnesota, by allowing hunters to take only one turkey per year, is pretty conservative. That helps limit the overall harvest compared to some states that allow two and even three per year,’’ Lenk said. The federation, which in large part pushed the expansion of turkeys across Minnesota with a trap-and-transport effort that ended a decade ago, is now focusing on habitat improvement projects.

McInenly said the 2020 harvest, while way up from 2019, was only a little higher than the previous record in 2010. And she said mild winters, coupled with the turkey’s uncanny ability to thrive much farther north in the state than previously believed possible, bode well for the birds.

“I think we can handle this harvest level,’’ she said. “We’re monitoring it. We can make adjustments in the future if we see an issue.”

Most of Minnesota’s wild turkeys are in the southern two-thirds of the state, namely south of U.S. Highway 2, especially where there is a mix of agricultural and forested lands. Yet turkeys have been seen all the way north to the Canadian border, as they continue to surprise wildlife experts on how far north they can survive winters.

"I’m based out of Brainerd and, 15 or 20 years ago, if you saw a turkey in this area it was something crazy," Lenk said. “Now they are everywhere around here. … We have them way up north into the Superior National Forest.”

Lenk said turkeys appear able to adapt to northern Minnesota's cold winters as long as they can find food.

"It helps when we have had mostly mild winters lately, at least as far as snowfall goes," he said. “If they can find some food they can make it just about anywhere.”

Minnesota 2021 turkey season dates

A - April 14-20

B - April 21-27

C - April 28-May 4

D - May 5-11

E - May 12-18

F - May 19-31

Permits are available “over the counter” for purchase (one per hunter, per year) for all zones and time periods through license agents or online at dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/online-sales.html.

Any hunter with an unfilled turkey tag from an earlier season can hunt again in season F. Archery and youth hunters can hunt in all of the seasons until their tag is filled.

For more information go to dnr.state.mn.us/turkey/index.html.

Minnesota turkey hunters can pick any zone and any time period to hunt in again in 2021 with no lottery and no limit on licenses. (Image courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
Minnesota turkey hunters can pick any zone and any time period to hunt in again in 2021 with no lottery and no limit on licenses. (Image courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

Wisconsin harvest up 17%

Wisconsin, which has far more turkeys than Minnesota thanks to a statewide mix of forested and agricultural lands, had smaller but still significant increases in birds bagged and overall hunters in 2020.

A total of 224,452 permits were issued for the 2020 Wisconsin spring turkey season, a 5% increase from 2019, with 132,037 harvest authorizations awarded through the lottery and 92,415 sold over the counter.

Wisconsin turkey hunters registered 44,963 birds during the 2020 spring turkey hunting season, nearly a 17% increase from the 38,576 birds registered in the 2019 season. The 2020 youth season resulted in a total of 2,880 birds registered, up 47% from 1,953 in 2019. Harvest increased significantly across all zones and time periods compared to 2019 levels, the DNR reported.

Permits remain available for later seasons in Wisconsin's turkey hunting zones 1 and 3. (Image courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR)
Permits remain available for later seasons in Wisconsin's turkey hunting zones 1 and 3. (Image courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR)

Wisconsin turkey permits available in southern counties

Plenty of Wisconsin turkey permits remain available for Zones 1 and 3 in the southwest and south-central portions of the state, but only for the last two time periods, May 19-25 and May 26 to June 1. For more information go to dnr.wisconsin.gov/permits/springturkey.html.