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Maine’s 2004 wild turkey hunting season opens next week in a split set of seasons to include: Season A: May 3 - May 8 and May 24 - May 29;
Season B: May 10 - May 15 and May 17 - May 22. Then, all permit holders may hunt from May 31 - June 5.
To say that wild turkey hunting in Maine has become popular is like saying we get a little snow here in winter. There is much to recommend turkey hunting aside from the fact that wild turkey meat tastes so much better than the store-bought kind, and it hasn’t taken long for the sport to catch on here.
The first Maine turkey-hunting season was held in 1986 after several years of experimental stockings, and a total of nine gobblers ended up in the freezer – an inauspicious start to be sure. But, the birds found a way to thrive in the cold North Country (that part of the experiment went exceedingly well!) and now there are some 20,000 wild turkeys in the state. Last year, 12,000 Maine hunters harvested nearly 4,000 bearded birds (males or toms), for a success rate of about 35 percent, among the highest in the Northeast. Biologists admit that the season could be longer, more permits could be issued and more birds could be taken without harming the ever-expanding population (in fact, a new fall archery-only turkey season was implemented last year), but thrift is a traditional Yankee trait that carries over into wildlife management circles, and state officials are going to keep their conservative hold on the sport until they are sure that the turkey population can handle the pressure. If the results of most other state seasons are any indication, Maine will soon be inundated with turkeys and opportunities to hunt them.
The real problem of late is that the number of birds available and the number of hunters chasing them has created a conflict of sorts when two or more hunters find themselves in pursuit of the same bird. This is a sport where the male turkey’s gobbling is answered by the hunter’s attempts to sound like a lonely hen, with the idea that the gobbler will be attracted to the hen calls and come running into a well-placed pattern of bird shot. Because turkeys can distinguish (and don’t like) colors, hunters must dress in full camouflage, which keeps them from being spotted by the turkeys but also keeps them from being seen by other hunters. Potential conflict already! Then, a good turkey caller can sound just like a real turkey – more potential for conflict. During the last few seasons, increasing numbers of hunters have complained about the number of other hunters they have to contend with. The complaint is a legitimate one because you can start working a turkey literally the night before, when the bird’s location is pinpointed by using locator calls at sunset, when turkeys go to their roosting sites for the night. The plan is to get back there, set up and ready to shoot, before sunrise, when the gobblers leave their roosts and go off for a fun day of feeding, breeding and showing off for other likely mates. The process of finding, calling and shooting a turkey can take minutes or, more likely, hours, and if several hunters are unwittingly working the same bird, problems can arise. At worst, no one gets the bird, and that’s a poor way to end a balmy spring day.
The split seasons are set to spread the hunting pressure out a little, with some hunters going early, some hunting during the second split and others waiting till the wide-open end of the season, when most other hunters have gone off fishing.
As with most other seasons, it’s certain that opening day is going to be the most crowded, as are Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. To ensure the least number of conflicts with the competition, you can plan your hunts for the middle of the week or, even better, head for places no one else knows about. The majority of hunters will do their hunting near roads and open fields, but if you know where to find turkeys in the back woods, your odds of success are exponentially greater. Other possibilities include paddling a canoe or small boat along a lake or river and listen for gobblers in isolated areas that are far from roads and trails. A slowly meandering river that takes you through active farm country will produce birds that have never been pursued, and the odds are that you won’t be bumping into other hunters along the way.
I have conducted waterway turkey hunts with great success in a number of states, and the process is a simple one. This is the familiar “run-and-gun” technique where you don’t use decoys or even much calling. Simply paddle along the shoreline and use a crow call or loud hen yelp to locate lonely gobblers. When a bird gobbles, head for that spot (as close as you can get without spooking the bird), land the canoe and tie it off (so you can get out again later!). Climb the bank and set up at the base of a large tree and call a little more - two or three easy, plaintive yelps will do it. If the gobbler responds and comes in, just sit tight, wait for him to strut into range and that’s that. If he’s playing hard to get, move around (left, right or closer) and try to tease him in with more clucks, yelps and purrs. You may need to try several different tricks (moving away while calling, loud calling, no calling or switching calls to emulate the sound of several different hens) but that is all part of the game.
If you have been issued a turkey hunting permit this spring, make the most of your opportunity. Hunt well away from other permittees, have several different hunting areas in mind (in case one or two end up being someone else’s “secret” spots) and be flexible in your approach. If nothing else, let the other hunter try his best at dawn and come back later. Many a gobbler is taken at 10 a.m. or close to noon, long after most other hunters have grown tired of the game and have gone home. Sometimes, being last means being best, and a last-minute turkey tastes just as good as a sunrise bird.
In any case, try to be sporting about it. We’re all out there for the same reason and there’s no reason we can’t get along. There are more than enough turkeys to go around!
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