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Maine’s 2009 spring turkey season is in high gear now. Early reports suggested that hens were scarce and so the gobblers were not very responsive to calls and decoys, but some lucky hunters have done very well. In fact, my friend Al Raychard, who lives in Lyman, shot a 21-pound gobbler with his muzzleloader at 8 a.m. on opening day! The bird was traveling with another, smaller gobbler and both just walked by the hunter, neither gobbling nor responding to calls. They simply showed up, walked into range and ended Al’s season then and there.
I have heard from hunters who have been using blinds, field setups (decoys and calls) and traditional “run and gun” tactics, and for the most part the more aggressive hunters have been having the most luck. This may be because there are few hens about. If the local flock has moved on or gone silent, it’s tough to sit in a blind or near a field edge all morning calling to oneself!
I tried the run-and-gun tactic last week and had great luck – to a point. I was hunting in a blind with decoys all around but nothing happened till around 8 a.m., when I made a few soft clucks and heard several gobbles off in the distance. I kept calling and they kept gobbling, but as far as I could tell the distant males were not closing the gap. Instead, they were staying on their highland strutting grounds and were determined to wait for the hens to come to them – which is the normal, traditional and biologically correct way (to turkeys, anyway). I knew what I had to do, and I wasted no time stripping down to a vest with a couple of calls (my trusty box call and my never-fail Cody slate), binoculars and shotgun, and headed out to do business, one on one.
I picked the nearest bird and made a basic stalk on him. A few yelps on my box call elicited several lusty gobbles, and I could tell that the bird was about 100 yards away and at the far end of a hardwood knoll. I ran up the hill opposite his position, crept up another 40 yards or so and then set up to call. I found a nice, big oak that was wider than my shoulders and had a nice root system that provided a comfortable seat for me while I called. Plopping down into the roots, I propped my shotgun across my knees, got my gloves and face mask on and gave the gobbler a little “come here, sweetie” series of purrs that sounded just like a love-sick hen in search of a mate.
The tom responded with a series of gobbles, and I could tell he was falling for my ruse. I finally spotted him with my binoculars, just 50 yards out. He was walking across the ridge right to me! All I had to do was get the gun up and track him till I had a clear, open shot.
The bird stalled about 40 yards away, so I gave him a few more plaintive yelps, just loud enough short enough to remind him that I was “right here!” He immediately came in running, barely giving me time to put my call down and get my shotgun into position. On he came, no hesitation at all, and when I stepped into the clear at about 30 yards I was able to tell that he was a gobbler alright — but a jake, not the desired longbeard I was after!
I let the young tom (his beard was barely two inches long) putt and cluck around for a while, but I had no intention of shooting him. Maybe next year!
Just then I heard more gobbling on a ridge about 200 yards farther out. I jumped up and ran toward the new bird, sending the little jake running for cover. I stopped just below the ridge and yelped, and received a quick gobble in response.
Again I climbed the ridge, got into position and called my bird in, and once again it turned out to be a jake! In fact, this time it was TWO jakes, walking side by side and calling in unison. I could not tell that it was two birds until they stepped into view about 40 yards away. I played with them a little, calling and shuffling the leaves with my foot (to emulate a feeding hen), and they came right in, finally presenting easy shots at 10 yards!
Still, I did not want to shoot a jake, and as they wandered off in confusion I heard another gobble, this time on a ridge behind my blind. Here we go again! I headed for the low side of the ridge, calling as I went, and getting an instant gobble every time I yelped, clucked or purred. I was sure this was the boss tom of the woods because he was loud, raucous and anxious. I quickly got into position and set up, then started my sequence of lonely hen yelps and purrs.
The bird came on steadily but slowly, taking two or three steps and then pausing to strut and gobble. I was ready for a break by then, so I just sat tight and let him come at his own pace, lightly purring now and then to let him know his “hen” was still in the area.
Some 20 minutes passed before I finally saw the bird, and he looked big, black and blue-headed – a mature tom! He stayed hidden in a copse of downed cedars for some time, though I could see parts of him as he walked back and forth, gobbling heartily at every step.
Finally, I lured him into the open, and was ready to pull the trigger when he cleared the last of the knee-high cedars.
What do you know — another big, fat jake, this one with a 4-inch beard, but still a jake! I had spent my entire morning chasing year-old birds that were legal game by definition but, by hunter’s standards, too small to shoot. A jake turkey is equivalent to a spike buck among hunters — a great trophy for a kid or first-timer, but nothing to brag about back at the country store.
I certainly had a great time that day, and could at least “count coup” on four wild Maine turkeys. I could have tagged any one of them, I simply chose not to shoot. There is plenty of hunting season left and anything can happen, so I left the woods with high spirits that day, looking forward to my next hunt.
And, as we often say about the Red Sox, “They’ll be back next year!”
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