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Walz hosting first turkey hunting ‘governor’s opener’

Gov. Tim Walz

ST. PAUL -- On Saturday, April 27, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will wake up around 3:45 a.m., don camouflage clothes, and try to shoot a wild turkey.

Not just for himself, but to draw attention to wild turkey hunting, a springtime pursuit that’s at once comical and addictive.

Making good on a campaign promise, Walz is holding the state’s first “governor’s turkey hunting opener” in the vein of the long-standing Governor’s Fishing Opener, the Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener inaugurated by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener started by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Also hoping to shoot a gobbler in Dakota County with Walz: U.S. Rep Angie Craig (D-2nd District), Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen, state Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, a man who immigrated to Minnesota from China when he was a child, and another man who emigrated from Cameroon in his teens.

They all have one thing in common: They’ve never hunted for wild turkeys in Minnesota before.

“It’s more of a ‘governor’s mentored hunt,’” said James Burnham, who heads the DNR’s efforts to “recruit, retain and reactivate” hunters and anglers. Each hunter will be paired with an experienced turkey hunter from the Dakota County Strutters Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation to guide them in their pursuit.

‘Maddeningly unpredictable’

Turkey hunting involves remaining motionless and silent — except perhaps for trying to reproduce the sounds turkeys make — to lure amorous and pugnacious males, also known as toms or yearling jakes, to within shotgun range, preferably 30 yards or less.

There are about 50,000 turkey hunters in Minnesota, up from, well, basically zero before the birds were reintroduced in the 1970s. As everyone can now attest, it’s a conservation success story, and healthy populations are now widespread throughout all but the far northeast corner of the state, where the pine forest habitat seems to not favor them.

But to actually shoot one is a challenge. Statewide, success rates range from about 23 percent to 33 percent — making them the most elusive quarry of any game.

“It’s so maddeningly unpredictable,” said Burnham, himself a turkey hunter.

Burnham said highlighting turkey hunting for those who have never done it is helpful because, unlike southern states, Minnesota doesn’t have a long tradition of it.

“We’ve only had 41 years of turkey hunting,” he said. “We’re just having the first generation of hunters behind us where the birds were widespread enough to really have statewide hunting.”

Walz, a devoted pheasant hunter, dabbled in turkey hunting in his youth in Nebraska, but hasn’t gone since, he said.

Nonetheless, he wants to try to call a bird in himself by imitating the clucks and cuts and other vocalizations of a female hen, so Burnham lent him a slate call.

“I’ve been practicing and it did not make me popular in my home with me turkey calling throughout the house,” Walz said this week. “I think it’s working great. My cat runs and my kids leave.”