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There was a time when spring meant fishing in Maine, but thanks to the hard
work of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, sportsmen now have the option of chasing wild turkeys around the woods in the balmy month of May.
The state’s wild turkey management program has been one of those wildly successful “experiments” that made everyone happy – a rarity in the world of wildlife population manipulation these days. (If you’ve been following the ups and downs of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer program of late, you know what I mean! No one is happy there: the head of the deer research department quit and sportsmen are mad about every aspect of the state’s whitetail management plan. Maine’s turkey biologists have no such woes, however.)
Some 30 years ago, 41 turkeys trapped and transferred from Vermont were released in southern Maine. Maine’s first wild turkey season (1986) produced a paltry nine birds for 500 permittees. But, progress is a wonderful thing – last year, there were an estimated 20,000 turkeys in Maine, and over 24,000 hunters applied for permits last season. In all, 15,600 hunters were permitted to hunt wild
turkeys in Maine during two, overlapping three-week seasons: 7,800 hunters during Season A, May 3-8 and May 24 through June 5; and 7,800 hunters during Season B, May 10-22 and May 31 through June 5. This two-season concept was instituted to allow greater participation in spring turkey hunting while striving to keep it a safe and enjoyable experience. In 2004, 30 percent more hunters had the opportunity to hunt turkeys than in 2003. In addition to the 15,600 permitted hunters, an unknown number of landowners and their families took advantage of the new “landowner privilege" rule to hunt turkeys. Also new in 2004 was Maine’s first Youth Turkey Day, held on May 1, the Saturday preceding the opening day of Season A of the spring wild turkey hunting season.
Youths age 10-15 who possessed a valid spring turkey hunting permit and a junior hunting license were allowed to hunt on Youth Turkey Day if accompanied by a parent, guardian, or adult having a hunting license or hunter safety course certificate.
In 2004, the hunter success rate remained high – 34 percent - owing to an abundant turkey population in most areas where they are hunted in Maine. Turkey hunters killed 2,813 toms (adult males), 1,836 jakes (juvenile males), 11 bearded hens, and 15 registered birds of unrecorded sex or age, for a total of 4,675 turkeys. The high proportion of jakes in the kill relative to toms (1.5 toms per jake) probably reflects generally good turkey production in 2003, when we had less than average rainfall in May. Wet weather during the nesting season is correlated with poor nest success among wild turkeys because moist conditions are believed to aid mammalian predators such as raccoons and foxes, which rely on their keen sense of smell, in finding nests.
Maine even has a fall turkey-hunting season, which began in 2002. That hunt is limited to archers only with a limit of one turkey of either sex (the spring hunt is for bearded turkeys only). The fall hunt is held in October and has proven to be a popular diversion for many hunters.
I am able to hunt turkeys frequently during the long spring season and would recommend the sport to anyone who enjoys being outdoors, doing lots of walking and can handle rejection very well! While hunting a turkey may sound rather unexciting, you only need to do it a few times to realize that these birds are alert, easily frightened and entirely distrusting of anything they don’t like. A wild turkey’s first and only defense is flight, and they’ll allow you only one mistake.
This is a game of patience and determination. Sometimes a turkey will respond to your calls and come running in to investigate (we live for those events!), but in most cases the bird hesitates, stalls or comes sneaking in from behind. The process of finding a turkey, calling it in and making the shot can take five minutes or five hours. The fast-moving birds are usually easiest to kill – their impatience is their demise. But, a less-enthusiastic gobbler will come in one painfully slow step at a time, and if you can’t sit still, wait quietly and outlast the sharp-eyed incomer, you won’t have anything but a great story to tell when the hunt is over.
The basic approach is simple. Cover up in camo clothing. When you locate a gobbler (by calling to him with hen yelps or using a crow call to “shock” him into responding), sit down with a large tree, rock or log at your back. Get your knees up and rest your shotgun on your knees so you can be ready to shoot the instant the bird shows up. Call to the gobbler using your best imitation of a lusty hen (there are plenty of turkey-hunting videos and TV shows that illustrate these techniques), and just wait. You may be there for 10 minutes, you may be there all morning, but if you have patience and don’t give up, you can win the game.
Of course, turkeys have minds (however small) of their own, and anything can happen to ruin a hunt. Other hunters, other animals or, worst of all, another turkey can show up to divert your bird, at which point you may as well move and try calling elsewhere. Expect to walk at least a few miles every trip, especially when the birds are being difficult. And, hunt all day, too. It’s traditional to call and shoot your bird at daylight, but afternoon or evening turkeys taste just as good!
To learn a lot more about turkey hunting a lot quicker, plan to attend the April 23 Hunting Heritage Banquet sponsored by the Central Maine Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. The event will be held at 6 p.m. at the Waterville Elks Club. Advance tickets are required. Interested hunters may call Larry Pike at (207) 858-4263 for more information.
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