March–April 2023

Gobbler Dreams

A wild turkey hunt in north-central Minnesota benefits from the bird’s expanded range.

Tom Hazelton

The road is wet, and the tires of my mountain bike sink in just enough to prevent coasting. I stop, leaning on one leg, to catch my breath. My cousin and hunting partner, Hazen Elmgren, stops next to me, panting.

“Should we try here?” I ask.

“Looks like a good spot to me,” he says, grinning, and points to a wide three-toed track in the soft sand of the road. 

It’s late evening in mid-April, and we are deep into a section of public land near Mille Lacs Lake, scouting for turkey season, which opens in the morning. The gravel forest roads are soft and wet, so they’re closed to motorized travel this time of year. We’ve seen some tracks, but this is the first set that has the long, widely splayed toe marks of a tom turkey. During the spring turkey hunting season, hunters can take only male turkeys—adults called toms or one-year-old males called jakes. A set of fresh tom tracks is a start, but it can only tell you that a tom was in the area. To hunt one, you have to find where he is.

This road runs along a wide-open marsh, and across from us a low oak ridge juts out into the sedge grasses. It’s a picturesque turkey roosting spot: At night, turkeys use their limited flight skills to flap up and perch high in mature trees, often above water, where they are safe from predators.

I cup my hands around my mouth and let out a loud “who cooks for you-allllll.” Turkeys sometimes gobble in response to barred owl hoots. I don’t sound much like an owl, and no gobbler answers, but to our surprise, we get a reply from a distant owl.

Then we hear it. From the tip of the point across the marsh floats a faint gobble.

I owl-hoot again, and this time it’s unmistakable. There’s a gobbler over there.

Back at our campsite, the sound of that gobble rolling across the marsh replays in my head as I try to sleep. The gobble is everything to a turkey hunter. The sound--even a distant one, even outside of hunting season, even a recording in a bird-song app--always quickens my heart. 

Spring is the turkey’s mating season, and the gobble is like any other springtime bird song: The tom is staking his territory, warning other toms away, and hoping to attract hens. It makes him vulnerable to predators—including human hunters—but it’s an evolutionarily calculated risk. One that works for the turkey, on average, and for we hunters, occasionally. We need them to gobble to find them, and tonight we found one. 

A Crash, Then Restoration. The best way to find a gobbling turkey is to listen in a place where turkeys live. That’s why we are here, in north-central Minnesota. It has all the elements that turkeys need to thrive. Big blocks of mixed hardwood-oak forest provide acorns and other natural foods, and farmland offers corn and soybeans when times are lean. There is thick field-edge and river-bottom cover for nesting, mature trees for roosting, and open fields where toms can strut to attract hens and young birds can hunt the insects they need in their first year of growth. 

It wasn’t always this way, though. Historically, this area’s solid old-growth pine forest was probably not turkey habitat. Before European settlement, wild turkeys likely lived only in the southeastern part of what would become our state—roughly south of a line drawn from the Twin Cities to the state’s southwestern corner. 

Indiscriminate logging and conversion of the land to farms destroyed much of the turkey’s native habitat, and not just in Minnesota. Between habitat loss and unregulated hunting, it’s estimated that by 1940, the number of wild turkeys in North America had declined by more than 90 percent. The last recorded sighting in Minnesota was in 1886.

In the early 1900s, landowners and hunting clubs began trying to restore turkeys to their historic habitat in much of the country. Early efforts relied on pen-raised birds that seldom survived in the wild. Live-caught wild birds did well, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, when biologists started using cannon- and rocket-launched nets to trap whole wild flocks, that large-scale reintroductions began. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), founded in 1973, partnered with state wildlife agencies and managers to fund and facilitate the capture, transport, and release of turkeys across America’s regrown forests.  

Minnesota’s first successful reintroduction, spearheaded by the nascent NWTF, was during the winter of 1972–73. Twenty-nine wild turkeys from Missouri were released near Caledonia in the southeastern Driftless region. The turkeys thrived in the mixed forest-farmland ridges and coulees.

Minnesota’s trap-and-transport program, as it came to be known, was funded and jointly managed by the NWTF and the DNR. Money came from donations, license sales, and, starting in 1996, the turkey stamp program. These extra funds allowed for more research, public land acquisition, and habitat improvement across the state—to the benefit of all wildlife.

In 1978, just five years after the first turkeys were released in Caledonia, Minnesota held its first spring hunting season. More than 5,000 hunters applied for just 420 licenses. 

Not only were reestablished turkeys another challenging game species to chase, but you could also hunt them in the spring. And most of the initial turkey range was in the southern part of the state, meaning metro-dwelling hunters—and new hunters—had easy access to quality hunts. 

The restoration showed that reestablished turkeys could thrive and reproduce wherever habitat was suitable. The trap-and-transport program operated for decades and shut down in 2008, its mission accomplished. By 2021, more than 58,000 licenses were sold and more than 12,000 birds were taken annually.

To Tom Glines, development director for the NWTF in Minnesota, this is the measure of success: plenty of turkeys, and plenty of places to go chase them.

“We’re pretty happy,” he says. “Everyone who wants to go can go.”

Today, wild turkeys gobble throughout their historic Minnesota habitat and beyond—even up here, in the hardwood-timbered gravel eskers around Mille Lacs Lake. It’s a beautiful place to roam in the spring, with large sections of public land open to hunting. 

The Hunt Is On. At six the next morning, the eastern sky is graying through the skeletal trees, and swans are waking up in the marsh. We’re standing on the ridge, sweaty from our long hike around the south edge of the marsh. We are, we think, a couple hundred yards from the roost of the turkey we heard.

Softly, I say, “I hope we can hear him over those swans—” and the turkey gobbles. Right where he is supposed to be. 
“It’s on,” Hazen says, his eyes wide.

Fifteen minutes later, Hazen and I are shoulder to shoulder, leaning on a multi-trunked maple. 

I make a few clucks and a soft yelp with my slate-topped turkey call, but get no response.

We are faced with the classic turkey-hunting paradox: The tom turkey gobbles to attract hens. They go to him. We hunters are reversing the natural order, making hen turkey sounds and trying to get him to come to us. In the morning it’s doubly hard, because there are usually hens roosted nearby. Even for the best turkey callers, it’s hard to compete with the real thing. I am not one of the best turkey callers.

We wait. I make a few more yelps, as soft as I can. Gobble.

“That sounds farther away,” Hazen says.

It did sound farther away. Like he’s going the other way. He’s gobbling to tell us—a hen, he thinks—to follow him. A few more calls and then it comes: a gobble, much closer. Not just louder, but fuller, with rich overtones and a raspiness, a rattle I feel in my chest. I can feel Hazen shaking next to me. My eyes strain to see movement.

Interminable moments pass. I feel compelled to call. I want to hear him gobble again. To know he’s still there. But I can’t move. He is close, and looking for a hen—a hen he knows is here but is not here because she is us. His eyesight is three times better than ours. If he sees me use the call, it will be all over.

Suddenly, 40 yards in front of us stands a shockingly black tom turkey, blood-red head tucked into his body, his tail fan just unfolding, dark gold flashing in the soft light. He steps slowly toward us, angling behind a small spruce tree. Giving us a chance. 

“Wait for him to pop his head up,” I whisper. Hazen shifts the gun slightly.

The bird comes out on the other side in full strut, feathers puffed up, impossibly huge; his wingtips scrape the frosty leaves and his tail fan takes up the whole world.

He pauses and deflates, feathers laying down, tail fan drooping. He raises his head and turns it sideways, his black eyes searching. Looking for the hen he knows is here. 

Northern Turkeys. In the early 2000s, as Minnesota’s turkey range and hunting seasons expanded, the big question was: How far north can they go?

Turkeys tolerate extreme cold—as low as -40 degrees—if they can find food. But that can be hard, or impossible, if the forest floor is covered in deep snow. The DNR drew a line across the state, roughly from the Twin Cities to the northwestern corner, where snow depth was regularly more than 12 inches for more than 40 days per year, and they figured turkeys wouldn’t survive. The NWTF’s Glines called this the “line of death.”

A 2007 study by St. Cloud State University and the DNR looked at how turkeys would do in areas near that line, in north-central Minnesota. They found that corn food plots and waste grain in crop fields seemed to help turkeys survive those deep snows.

Turkeys, of course, cannot read maps, nor measure snow depth. They have continued to expand northward into suitable habitat, and apparently marginal habitat, throughout the state. Tim Marion, Cambridge area wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR, says that while turkeys may never reach the same densities in northern Minnesota that they have in the southeastern or north-central parts of the state, they are starting to show up well north of the old “line of death.”

“We never thought they’d get past that. But they did,” Marion says. “I’m a big ruffed grouse hunter, and I’m seeing turkeys in Koochiching County,” on the Canadian border. “In Koochiching County!”

He speculates that in Minnesota’s far north woods, with few oak trees and limited agriculture, it might be recreational deer and bird feeders and food plots might sustain the birds through deep-snow periods.

“I think they’re here to stay, to tell you the truth,” he says.

Turkeys in the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area, right on the old “line of death,” regularly travel from the deep forest to open farmland as winter sets in, says Steve Piepgras, DNR wildlife manager of the Mille Lacs WMA.

“Talking to some of the local farmers around here, it’s not uncommon for them to see flocks of 50 to 150 turkeys in some of their fields throughout the winter,” he says.

Even as the birds have expanded outside their historic range, they haven’t created much controversy in rural areas. DNR wildlife managers say turkeys don’t seem to have negative impacts on native species, like ruffed grouse, and they don’t do much damage to most crops, especially when compared to deer, geese, or sandhill cranes.

Turkeys are more adaptable than we tend to think, says the NWTF’s Glines.

“Where they never thought they would survive,” he says, “they’re thriving.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of both the founding of the NWTF and the first successful reintroduction of turkeys in Minnesota. Glines says the NWTF is planning a big party in Caledonia on July 22, 2023, to celebrate what’s become one of Minnesota’s most successful conservation stories. It’s been a win not just for turkeys but for turkey hunters, who no longer have to apply for a limited number of licenses.

An Iridescent Trophy. This morning, Hazen and I are feeling like winners. Some 20 years after the first birds were released here, just north of the “line of death,” we are looking at one of their descendants—the gobbler he just shot.

“It’s huge!” Hazen laughs, as he puts his hands on the bird, realigning a few feathers. They iridesce from black to dark bronze as shafts of golden-hour morning light play through the maples and oaks. Hazen fans out and admires the tail, the wings, the dinosaurian legs.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to do,” I say, still panting a bit from the adrenaline surge. “They usually don’t.”

We take some time and some photos before Hazen hoists the bird onto his shoulder and we return to camp. We talk about meals to come: the breast fried as cutlets or brined and smoked with maple sugar, the wings and legs slow-cooked into tacos and wild rice soup. The tail fan, a trophy as worthy as any set of antlers, will hang on his wall.

A Boreal Vision. Two weeks later, I’m self-quarantining with a mild case of COVID-19 at my hunting camp in central Lake County, on the edge of the great North American boreal forest. Before I drove up here, I’d been turkey hunting nearly nonstop. A few days after Hazen got his bird, I filled my Minnesota tag, one ridge over from where we’d been that first morning. 

The thighs of a Michigan gobbler are simmering in the crockpot. The aroma in the cabin is already making me feel better as I lie in bed, watching Canada jays on my suet feeder.

A large black shape appears below the trees at the edge of the field. A bear, I think—but then the bronze tail feathers resolve and the blood-red head peers around a red pine trunk. In a hundred years of family history in this place, nobody has ever seen a turkey here. We have no cornfields, no oak trees.

It seems like a fever dream. The bird vanishes into a stand of thick jack pines and I climb out of bed, dig my well-worn slate call out of my backpack, and make a few soft yelps from the porch.