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We’re barely into the 2009 open water fishing season but already it’s time to start thinking about the spring turkey hunt, which opens May 4 this year. There is no longer an A or B season, or any other restrictions on spring turkey hunting other than needing a hunting license and bagging one bearded turkey per year. We have come a long, long way in wild turkey management in Maine since the first few birds were released in York County back in the early 1980s. The first hunting season (1986) had 605 participants and a harvest of nine birds. Last season, an estimated 20,000 hunters took 6,384 gobblers – a remarkable return on our initial investment!
Anyone who hunts wild turkeys in Maine should give a nod of thanks to biologist Phil Bozenhard, who pretty much single-handedly brought the wild turkey back to Maine. Such projects are never a one-man show, of course, but Bozenhard and his crew are essentially responsible for the great spring (and fall) turkey hunting we enjoy now. If you’re looking for a wildlife management program that has worked far beyond the planners’ wildest predictions, this is one shining example.
To be successful at spring turkey hunting you are going to need two essentials: patience and a good pair of boots! Most hunters spend their time acquiring special turkey guns and an arsenal of calls, but all it takes to kill a turkey is already in your head and on your feet. More turkeys have been saved by hunters’ inability to wait and reluctance to move when the situation dictates. Only long experience can teach the limits of these conditions, but if you can teach yourself to wait longer and move faster, you’ll get your bird this spring.
The standard turkey-hunting tactic is to drive the roads in the late evening and try to “roost” a bird, which simply means getting a longbeard to gobble as he’s settling into his roosting site near dark. A crow or owl call should elicit a response from a lusty tom, and in some cases you may hear three or four gobblers respond at once. When you do hear a bird, simply back away, drive home and prepare to be back there early the next morning. Those birds will be there and will be ready to play before sunrise.
Ideally, you’ll be back on the scene well before sunup. You know the bird is there, so don’t waste time calling them. Move close under the cover of darkness, somewhere between 50 and 100 yards away from the roost site and above the birds if possible. If you know the flock well, set up on a high spot along a known travel route. Move quickly, set up a decoy or two and sit back against a wide tree facing the decoy. Relax, calm down, get your stuff ready. Make yourself comfortable because you may be there for two or three hours — or more! Have your gloves and face mask on, your shotgun or bow up and ready, and be sure there is nothing white, shiny or flashy showing.
Just before sunrise you’ll hear the birds yelping or clucking. The gobbler may well answer distant crows or owls, but don’t worry about him. Do a little yelping and purring of your own, but just enough to let him know you are there. This will work for you twice before noon if you are patient and can maintain your enthusiasm that long.
Most of the time the birds will leave the roost and file past you, offering an easy shot at close range just a few minutes after daylight. It’s very exciting to have a big tom turkey come flapping in off the roost to land smack in front of your hen decoy, and that’s just how easy a turkey hunt can be — sometimes! More often, the birds will pitch out of the roost tree going in the opposite direction! This can drive the average hunter insane and cause him to do reckless, stupid things in order to catch up to the birds.
Though you may be able to sneak up on or ambush a moving flock, revert to your patient self. Keep calling to the flock, maybe once every 15 minutes, and just wait. Even though the gobbler may have several receptive hens with him at dawn, he will have bred them all by 9 a.m. or so, and then he will find his way back to you and the “lost hens.” This may take him until 10 a.m. or later, but be patient, he will return.
The fun part of all this is that the gobbler may come in silent, he may gobble once or twice on the way or, as often happens, he’ll “hang up” on a distant knoll and gobble his head off and wait for YOU to come find HIM! (This is actually the “natural order of things” among spring turkeys: the tom turkey struts and gobbles, putting on a fabulous display, while the hens work their way to him, suitably impressed with his gallinaceous prowess!).
When a bird stalls on his way in, this is where you burn some boot leather. As soon as it’s evident that he’s stopped, get up and run toward him, closing the distance to 40 yards or so. Sit down and call again, just to see where he is and what mood he’s in. If he won’t move, get up and run to the left or right in a flanking maneuver. Sit down, set up and call again. This game can go on for an hour or more, but if the bird is interested and conditions are right, you can convince him that you are a lovesick hen but are too shy to show yourself. As with any amorous male, the gobbler will eventually let lust cloud his judgment. You may have to run circles around him in an effort to get above and closer to him, but you should have a chance for a shot.
There’s really nothing to it. Being patient and moving when you have to will give you plenty of time to tag and dress your bird, have some lunch and get back to trout fishing!
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