On April 13, 1989, at 8:40 a.m. in the woods north of Mankato, Joel Haferman of Shakopee laid his cheek tight against the stock of his shotgun, carefully sighted down the barrel at his target and squeezed the trigger.
A moment later, he became a historical footnote in southern Minnesota hunting history — the first modern day hunter to bag a wild turkey in the Minnesota River Valley.
The tom, which weighed in at a hefty 24 pounds, two-ounces, wore a leg band that revealed his trophy was a New York transplant, live-trapped in that state as a 12-pound jake and then flown to Minnesota where, with another dozen birds, it was released at Seven Mile Creek, Feb. 16, 1985.
There was a time not so long ago in south-central Minnesota when, come April, about the only thing an outdoor enthusiast had to look forward to was ice-out and the soon-to-begin crappie bite.
But the successful re-introduction of wild turkeys in the state, which began in the early1970s in southeastern Minnesota, has changed that.
The first successful release of wild turkeys in Minnesota occurred in 1973 when 29 Eastern subspecies turkeys, live-trapped from Missouri and swapped for 85 live-trapped ruffed grouse, were released in Houston County.
Earlier attempts to establish a turkey population from pen-raised birds had been met with failure. Likewise, attempts to establish a population by stocking wild-trapped birds of the Merriams subspecies failed.
But the Eastern strain of wild birds took hold and in spring of 1978, Minnesota’s first wild turkey hunting season was held. More than 10,000 hopeful hunters applied for the 420 available permits. Just 94 birds were harvested.
The Seven Mile Creek bird release in 1985 was the first in south-central Minnesota. Three more releases using New York transplants — at Blakely, East Union and Rapidan — soon followed.
Richard Kimmel, a wildlife biologist who recently retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had brokered an arrangement with New York that would swap four or five Hungarian partridges for each turkey.
“Fundraising for the stocking was a pretty informal deal,” Kimmel recalled. “The Key City Conservation Club, with members like Jack Jones, seeded the pot initially and started pulling in donations from other smaller sportsmen’s groups in the area.” The National Wild Turkey Federation also assisted in the bird releases.
Kimmel said the traditional view that vast acreage’s of unbroken woods were needed for wild turkeys faded as populations thrived in a mix of woods and agricultural land.
As wild turkey numbers increased in original release sites, birds were live-trapped from those areas and transplanted elsewhere.
In just four short years, the Minnesota River Valley flock had grown sufficiently to allow its first spring hunting season. Nowadays, huntable turkey populations can be found as far north as Red Lake in northwest Minnesota.
Kurt Haroldson, a DNR wildlife biologist who presently serves as the state’s turkey guru, likened the wild turkey to the wolf.
“Wild turkeys were thought of kind of as wilderness animals, sort of like timber wolves,” he said.
As it turns out, both the wolves and turkeys have proven more adaptable than originally thought, able to expand their ranges far beyond what anyone originally expected.
Just how much more of Minnesota can be seeded with turkeys is uncertain. Haroldson said that pending analysis of data from a study on the extent of potential turkey range in state, the agencies own trap-transplant program has been suspended.
But even if turkeys aren’t introduced into another acre of Minnesota, by any measure, it remains an unparalleled success.
Wild turkeys were extirpated from Minnesota as early as 1880, mainly due to timber harvesting and unregulated hunting. In 2010, the statewide population was estimated to be more than 60,000.
In 1978, 10,740 hunters applied for the 420 available permits and bagged 94 birds.
Last year, 51,312 hunters applied for 55,982 permits and when the last feathers settled, bagged 13,467 wild turkeys.
Wednesday marks the first of Minnesota’s eight, five-day seasons.
Before the final five-day stint ends on May 26, more than 50,000 turkey hunting enthusiasts over much of Minnesota will have sneaked into the woods hoping to entice a gobbler within shooting range.
Nearly 40 years ago, when those first wild turkeys sailed into the Minnesota countryside, who would have believed it?
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.