MANKATO, Minn. - Being a sportsman himself, Tom Conroy understands the excitement and pounding pulse hunters feel when they finally find the prey they're pursuing within the sights of their guns.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources information officer also knows how, if it isn't kept in check, that adrenaline rush can lead to tragedy as it did recently when Anthony Klaseus of Belle Plaine accidentally shot and killed his son, Hunter, while hunting wild turkeys in Sibley County. A high school friend Conroy remembers as a safe and conscientious hunter had a similar experience about a decade ago.
Conroy happened to run across his old friend shortly after the man had shot another hunter while turkey hunting in southeastern Minnesota.
The man had been hunting on private land with permission and thought he was the only hunter on the property. But another hunter, decked out in camouflage and carrying a turkey decoy over his back at ground level, passed through the woods near Conroy's friend.
He was sure he was seeing a tom turkey in his sights when he pulled the trigger, seriously wounding the trespasser.
Minnesota turkey hunters are only allowed to shoot toms, the male of the turkey species, which can be identified by his "beard," a hairlike appendage on his breast.
"It really points out how even a very careful hunter, if he or she has a lapse of attention and doesn't identify the turkey, can make a mistake," Conroy said. "Until you see that beard, don't shoot. In the excitement of the moment, the adrenaline is pumping and, with just a lapse of judgment for a split second, this could happen.
"Turkey hunting is so exhilarating. You're following the sound of the tom for a half mile. You hear him getting closer. You're so locked in waiting for the bird to appear that, when you see something move, you automatically think it's a turkey.
Unfortunately, if you pull the trigger before absolute identification, it's too late."
Despite the tragedy near Belle Plaine, turkey hunting in Minnesota is a relatively safe sport. There have been 15 turkey hunting incidents involving serious injury and Hunter Klaseus' death was the first turkey hunting-related fatality in the state, said Capt. Rod Smith, DNR southern region enforcement manager.
Hunters move around the woods in camouflage instead of the blaze orange clothing required for deer hunting, but they are required to identify the turkey they are shooting as a male. They also use shotguns, which have a more limited range than the highpowered rifles used by deer hunters.
Turkey hunting has been legal in Minnesota for about 30 years, since the DNR started aggressively stocking turkeys in southern Minnesota. Prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bird had been hunted nearly to extinction in the state.
The turkey populations have grown rapidly since then, as have the number of people hunting, Smith said. Native to southeastern Minnesota, wild turkey populations now stretch as far north as Norman County in northern Minnesota and there are turkey hunting seasons in about three-quarters of the state, he said.
The season is split into several segments and the number of hunting permits is limited.
"With the explosion in popularity of turkey hunting, there hasn't been a corresponding climb in accident numbers," Smith said. "We contribute a lot of that to our hunter education programs."
In Minnesota, anyone born after Jan. 1, 1980, is required to have a firearm certificate. The certificates are issued after safety training is completed.
The DNR also offers turkey hunting classes that give hunters safety tips, as well as tips on hunting the elusive birds.
There are higher numbers of turkey hunting accidents, when compared to other types of hunting, in other Midwestern states where permits aren't limited, Smith said.