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If you enjoy extreme challenges and don’t get frustrated easily, you’ll want to see what turkey hunting is all about. The Maine turkey-hunting season is now open, and perhaps you’ve already noticed lots of people dressed in camouflage outfits keeping strange hours and making weird noises (owl hoots, crow calls and a variety of clucks, yelps, purrs and cackles – the stuff of turkey talking in spring). You’ll need to be awake at about 3:30 a.m. to catch these people in full regalia at the local early-morning diner, though most of them will leave the woods at noon to tell their stories and explain the 101 reasons why the turkey’s still out there.
Crazy as it all may seem, turkey hunting is an addicting sport for a number of reasons. Turkeys are the slowest moving, most suspicious, over-reacting, panic-stricken game birds we have in Maine. A partridge (no slouch when it comes to finding a speedy resolution of its problems) is bovine in comparison. Turkeys trust no one, take no chances and are forever thinking something is wrong. They spend most of their time looking for, wondering about and reacting to the many things they see (or think they see) from the time their feet hit the ground at dawn till they’re back on the roost at dusk. In a word, they’ll drive a hunter crazy because they allow no mistakes and will run for the hills for no reason other than that something caught their eye (their own shadows in some cases) and they didn’t like what they saw! I’ve seen turkeys of a flock suddenly start running helter-skelter in a blind panic while other birds in the group continue feeding placidly. I’ve also seen turkeys suddenly jump and run across a field, come running back and resume feeding again as if nothing had happened.
I don’t know why this behavior occurs, what it means or how the turkey feels while all this is going on, but knowing it does happen helps me cope with the things that go on when I’m in the woods trying to put one in the freezer. I do everything I can to put the odds in my favor and leave nothing to chance, but I also expect the worst and, in most cases and rewarded for my efforts by a good look at a long-gone turkey flying strong and hard over the distant wood line.
I’ve mentioned here before the various tools and techniques required for a good, basic turkey hunt: Camouflage clothing (head to toe including face mask, gloves and black or brown socks), a variety of calls, a comfortable seat (usually built right into a turkey-hunting vest) and a shotgun patterned and loaded for turkeys.
That’s just the beginning. Anyone with money enough can buy the best of all these and still not tag a bird. The commodities that are most useful and necessary for turkey hunting are patience and perseverance, and you can’t buy them in any store. Oh, touristy stores might offer them in cans like “Maine Air,” but you know what that’s worth! When it comes right down to it, you have to be able to sit still, be quiet, have faith in your choice of hunting ground and possess the ability to stay there for hours, maybe days, before a shot presents itself.
For example, you’ve read here of some of my son, Kody’s, exploits as a turkey hunter. Truth be known, he’s been trying to ambush a gobbler for some eight years (not an uncommon malady, especially if you hunt on public land), but a lack of something each time has caused him to go home empty-handed. He has heard birds, seen birds and even shot at a few of them, but turkey hunting is no ordinary challenge and the least little mistake usually ends the game and sends the bird running for the hills. And, just like that, eight years have gone by!
But, turkey hunting is also not the Impossible Dream. If you keep at it, learn from your mistakes and force yourself out of bed at 3 a.m. just one more time, you can turn the corner. Kody’s big day came when Kody had set out a hen decoy about 30 yards from his position inside a nearby hedgerow. Hours late, a big gobbler suddenly appeared – furtively, silently and alone. The bird stayed as far away from Kody as he could (they have a remarkable knack for doing so) and managed to stay out of shotgun range for another two hours! But, Kody did all the right things: He stayed put, he sat still and he waited. Finally, the bird finished feeding and made a dash for the woods. It was now or never! Kody, who recently placed second in a statewide 4H skeet-shooting event, led the bird just right and dropped it with one shot!
As he ran out to claim his hard-won prize, I doubt that Kody thought about all the early-morning risings, long walks in the dark, endless hours of calling and waiting, and all the frustrating encounters with woods-wise birds that it took to get here, but that is often the minimum price one must pay for a successful do-it-yourself turkey hunt. There are hunters who will tag a turkey the first time they go out, but most hunters learn, in time, that you must earn every bird. Take the easy shots as they come but be prepared for some hard lessons.
Turkey hunting is a springtime addiction that has made many a Maine sportsman leave his fishing gear in the closet until the end of May. One or two near misses can turn this so-called “sport” into an obsession, and, as Kody discovered, it might take you eight years to win the game!
Having hunted everything in Maine for more than 40 years, I’d rate turkey hunting as first in overall difficulty. I think it’s actually easier to call a Maine coyote into gun range, and that is no cakewalk. Even though they are hunted only in spring under a restricted permit system (and only recently in fall with archery gear), turkeys are still turkeys, and you have to expend some (and often a great deal of) effort to bag one.
So, if you bump into a turkey hunter this month, look closely at his eyes. If he has that “thousand-yard stare” that comes from crawling out of bed at 3 a.m. morning after morning, have some pity. The poor soul is probably addicted and, who knows, he may still be years away from his first bird. There’s no point in telling him so, however, because it won’t matter. He’s going again tomorrow because it just might be his lucky day!
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