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Hard to believe but we’re only a week away from Maine’s 2011 spring turkey hunt, a sport that wasn’t even on the agenda 25 years ago. Most states, including Maine, consider their runaway wild turkey programs to be the model for wildlife management success, and well they should. Take a long-empty niche, fill it with a species that will thrive there and just sit back and watch. From no turkeys at all in the early 1970s to initial stockings of about 100 birds in 1980, we’ve come a long way. The first very limited legal hunting season for turkeys in 1986 produced 9 birds. This year we are allowed to kill two gobblers in spring and one bird of either sex in the fall. In just 25 years we have gone from the Dark Ages of turkey hunting to top shelf. I can’t think of any other game species introduced in the last 100 years that can compare to the success story of Maine’s wild turkey. Moose, deer and bear were already here and have had their ups and downs. Canada geese (actually other states’ nuisance birds) were brought into Maine with mixed reviews. Our native grouse do well on their own when provided the edge cover they need, while woodcock, black ducks, wood ducks and hooded mergansers were already here, protected and micro-managed for many years. Coyotes may challenge the turkey as far as moving in as fast as they did, but they did it all on their own with no help (or desire) by Mainers to increase coyote numbers. Wild turkeys win the prize for filling a vacant ecological niche precisely as state biologists (led by Phil Bozenhard) predicted, and next week we get to reap the benefits of that remarkable effort.
White-tailed deer have led the sporting industry in this country since the 1940s, and that will likely never change. But, in a single generation, wild turkeys have surpassed waterfowl, bears, moose and upland birds (grouse and woodcock around here) as the target of choice among hunters. In that short time the National Wild Turkey Federation, with all its state-based affiliates, has made huge strides in promoting turkey hunting and enhancing turkey habitat, and magazines about turkey hunting continue to sell well on the newsstands.
So, there are plenty of birds out there and interest in hunting them is sky high. It’s probably safe to say that most sportsmen will wait till they have put a turkey or two in the freezer before they head out fishing this spring, which is quite a statement considering that spring fishing was once the only game in town. Now, instead of going fishing too early and not catching much, we can spend our May mornings running around the woods doing our best to fool a 20-pound gobbler that’s not waiting till the poplar leaves are big as a mouse’s ear to assert his territorial rights.
I heard turkeys gobbling in mid-March this year, but they were jakes (second-year birds) that didn’t know any better. Jakes are well down in the hierarchy among turkeys, something akin to a spike buck among deer hunters. “Real” turkey hunters don’t shoot jakes – we leave those for first-timers and kids. What we want are the “trophy” gobblers, the ones with long beards (8 inches or more), full fans and long, sharp spurs. Jakes are a little too naive, a little too eager and a little too easy to hunt compared to the older, bigger birds, which is why most experienced hunters will let them walk.
A big, old tom turkey is a tough one to beat, and some of them, especially the ones with the 10- and 12-inch beards, are almost impossible to fool because they are no longer in their prime and don’t fall for the tricks that fool most 3- and 4-year-old birds. They are usually loners, don’t gobble much, don’t respond to seductive hen yelps and clucks and generally avoid all contact with all things – even other turkeys.
I used to see one of these old boys all by himself in a huge, open field every morning. His beard dragged on the ground as he walked but he stayed in the middle of that field, never gobbled, never even picked his head up when I called, and he always flew out of the field so that no one but a lucky pass-shooter could ever get him. And no one ever did, as far as I know. A beard like that would have made the front page of the newspaper! He likely died of old age or was eaten by a coyote, fox or bobcat. He had the longest beard of any turkey I ever saw and the closest I could get to him was about 200 yards.
All those “middle-aged” turkeys can be tagged by following a few simple rules. Wear camouflage clothing from head to toe including face mask and gloves. Get into the woods early and use an owl hoot, crow call or woodpecker call to locate a gobbler (he will gobble in response to your locator call). Stop calling once you find him – get above him and then sit on the ground with your back to a tree, set a hen decoy about 20 yards out between you and the gobbler and then start calling. Just a few yelps or clucks will do it. Give the tom time to close the distance. He might not show up for 30 minutes or more, but always (always!) assume he is coming your way. Some birds come in gobbling at every step while others won’t utter a sound. Have your gun up, ready to shoot, and don’t move!
Ideally, the gobbler will hear your calls, come in to your set-up, spot the hen decoy and strut his way over to her to get acquainted. As soon as you see his glowing white head coming through the woods, stop calling, sit up and be ready to shoot. When he’s standing beside the decoy, aim at the base of his neck (where feathers meet skin) and take your shot. That’s how easy it can be. Rest assured they will also show you how difficult it can be. Sometimes the stories about the birds that outsmarted you are the most entertaining ones!
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