Spring Turkey Hunting Preview

By Nick Simonson

With an increase of nearly 800 tags over last season, North Dakota’s turkey hunters are getting set for a spring hunt which may be one of the best in recent memory, which is especially amazing considering a near all-time high for turkey hunters last spring, and the second-highest harvest of turkeys ever coming in 2020.   In all four corners of the state, spring has been in fast-forward and toms are already beginning to strut, but North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross, says hunters should expect good action all season, right up until the last week.  Touring the four corners of the Peace Garden State and the units within each region, Gross provides insight on populations and habitat for this year’s spring turkey season. 

Solid Southeast

Hunters can expect good numbers of wild turkeys along the well-known riparian corridors of the Red, James and Sheyenne River valleys in southeastern North Dakota.  Retaining some of the abundant moisture from late 2019 and early 2020, the area should have better ground cover in the form of grasses when compared to other stretches of the state, and the larger riverine areas provide great roosting for the state’s biggest upland birds.  There were no significant increases or decreases in the population of wild turkeys in southeastern North Dakota, and Gross describes the populations as stable.

Notable Northeast
Turkey sightings are on the rise in the northeastern stretches of the state, with more nuisance turkey calls being reported to NDG&F agents along the northern Red River Valley, in the Pembina Gorge area and along the Forest River.  Stable habitat in those areas has helped maintain a solid population of birds headed into spring of 2021.

“We had a few depredation calls up in that area this year,” Gross relates of units 50, 04 and 45, adding, “that turkey habitat isn’t really changing very much and the birds are pretty stable.”

Northwest is Best

The state’s most successful region remains the northwest, as large populations of the birds roam the breaks and draws around Lake Sakakawea, the Little Missouri and its feeders and areas of the badlands.  The section boasts the best success rate in the state over the last five years, and also has the greatest increase in tags available to hunters during that time.  While access is sometimes an issue based on the birds’ affinity for private lands that support cattle in the region and many hunters knock on the doors of the same operators for access, Gross suggests that the numbers are in sportsmen’s favor and offset any of those issues.

“There’s almost too many turkeys out there, I can’t get enough people to go out there,” he states with a laugh, “that’s where the last four or five years there have been the majority of license increases, we’ve been switching it from the eastern part of the state to the west, because we get a lot of depredation calls and success, because there’s a lot of turkeys,” Gross concludes.

Select Areas in Southwest

The Southwest sports a sparser set of toms for hunters this season, and where their flocks are established, they are plentiful along drains and creeks.  However, the limited habitat means stiff competition for access to those sites that hold birds, and hunters would be wise to scout and reach out to landowners now before the season starts to get a shot at filling their tag.  Unit 21 in the region remains closed in 2021 due to low numbers and lack of the suitable riparian reaches which provide the right habitat for wild turkeys to flourish.  Nevertheless, good sites include Unit 4 around Medora, which has a nice selection of public land and Stark County.  Another high point includes Bowman County.

“We’ve been transporting nuisance turkeys down to Bowman-Haley Dam, and we’ve been doing that for the last few years trying to augment the population down there and get it back going again,” Gross relates.

Where It’s At

Gross and other NDG&F agents are reporting an uptick in spring courting behavior by toms in recent days and figure birds which are lingering in their winter groups will begin to break off and begin their annual mating rituals soon, with the warmer than average start to the season.  He expects that as the males find and court their first mates of the spring, hunting may be tough, but as the season gets near its end, those toms will become desperate and easier to fool in the field with a call and a decoy.

“I have seen a few strutters and actually heard a couple of gobbles,” Gross states of his time in the field on Mar. 23 while counting sharptailed grouse, and he expects that turkey activity to escalate in the coming days, but the best hunting may be more than a month away: “the last week of the season is usually the best; personally, myself, I usually don’t even go until after May 1, just because so many times those toms care less about you, and you can call until you’re blue in the face and they won’t turn away from those hens,” he advises.

More information on the upcoming spring turkey hunting season can be found at: gf.nd.gov/hunting/turkey.  The season, available only to residents of North Dakota, opens April 10 and closes May 16 this year and hunting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset daily.  Hunters are reminded that they must possess: a valid 2021 Fishing, Hunting, and Furbearer Certificate and Small Game License (not required of residents under age 16) and General Game and Habitat License; or a Combination License which includes Small Game, General Game and Habitat, Furbearer, and Fishing licenses; and their Spring Wild Turkey Lottery Tag.  To obtain a 2021 license, visit: gf.nd.gov/buy-apply.  

Featured Photo: Moving On Up. A pair of wild turkeys make their way through a drain and up a hill.  Good hunting throughout North Dakota awaits the thousands of sportsmen who drew a spring turkey tag in 2021. Simonson Photo.

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