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Today is the opening day of Maine’s 2012 wild turkey hunting season, a miraculous thing when you consider that in 1980 there were few turkeys in Maine and it was illegal to hunt them. Thanks largely to the efforts of retired biologist Phil Bozenhard and his dedicated crew, there are turkeys all over the state, the population is growing and hunters may now take three birds (two in spring and one in fall) per season – one of the most generous bag limits in the turkey-hunting world.
Overall, the return of the wild turkey in the East is one of the region’s greatest wildlife management success stories, and if the number of birds raiding my backyard feeders every morning is any indication, things are only going to get better! Despite the same coyotes, harsh winters and other maladies that have plagued our deer herd since wild turkeys arrived, the big birds continue to thrive and have become a common sight in roadside fields all over the state. If only our whitetails were doing so well!
Predators, weather and accidents remain a threat to the turkey population, but hunters quickly learn why these birds are able to survive in this unforgiving world. While not necessarily smart in an MIT sort of way, wild turkeys have some of the best survival instincts of any game species. Suspicious to the extreme and always alert for trouble, turkeys don’t waste time thinking things over – if it looks bad, they run. If it looks worse, they fly. The eyesight of a turkey is probably equal to that of any hawk or owl – suffice it to say that if you can see a turkey it can see you no matter how close or far away. Distant birds will walk away slowly, but turkeys surprised by a human intruder will take off on foot or awing like giant ruffed grouse, putting plenty of distance between themselves and the perceived threat. No mistakes are allowed: They see, they go!
Hunters seeking a wild turkey this week should keep their quarry’s evasive talents in mind. Turkeys are not impossible to fool, it just sometimes seems that way!
Fortunately, turkeys do have two weaknesses: The spring breeding season and their deeply ingrained flocking instinct. No wild turkey likes to be alone, and they cluck, yelp and purr back and forth all day just to keep in touch with each other.
During the spring breeding season (roughly mid-April and most of May) male turkeys are vulnerable because they spend most of their day seeking mates. A hunter who can emulate the various calls of a lonely hen can lure lusty gobblers into bow or shotgun range – if he follows a few basic rules of the game.
Move slowly while in the woods and call occasionally to locate nearby flocks. A crow call or any typical turkey call will get a response from a love-struck tom.
At the moment the hen-herding turkey gobbles in response the hunter must decide where the birds are, how far away they are, what advantages the terrain provides, and where he can set up to call them in. Generally, gobblers like to strut their stuff on high ground in open woods, on a logging trail or field edge and in most cases they expect the “hen” to come to them. When hens are scarce a gobbler will literally come running in to meet his new mate, but when hens are abundant he will play hard to get in a variety of ways. These are the birds that make turkey hunting a real challenge!
In a perfect world the hunter will sit with his back to a large, comfortable tree, utter a few yelps and clucks on his box call or slate and just wait for the curious tom to come in. This can take one minute or an hour, depending on how coy the bird wants to be. All the hunter needs to do is keep his gun up and wait, patiently, for as long as it takes.
What makes turkey hunting sporting is that few gobblers just walk in and offer an easy shot. They may hang up just out of range, gobbling and strutting for all they are worth but not willing to take even one step closer. They may be ambushed by live hens that lure them away from you, or they may sneak in silently and surprise you by showing up unannounced. When this happens that game is over, but the battle may still be won.
Eventually the birds will wander off and return to pecking and scratching in the leaves. When this happens, the hunter must pick up, circle around the flock and try again. In Maine we can hunt from one-half hour before sunrise till noon, which in May allows at least six hours of hunting time. Call them in, circle around, call them in again – this can go on all morning!
Sooner or later, however, the stars align and things start to go the hunter’s way. It may require the use of decoys, blinds, special calls or ambush tactics but the persistent hunter will eventually get a shot at a big, beautiful longbeard. If you wait till he is fully exposed at 30 yards and if you place your shotgun bead at the base of his wattled neck you should have your trophy in hand the instant you pull the trigger. Nothing to it!
Spring turkey hunting is a sport of its own, unique in that hunting and calling skills matter more than shooting ability; and hunting conditions are as close to perfect as they get. It’s just nice to be out there in the warm sun, green grass and flowers all around, a big, boss tom turkey high on a ridge gobbling for all he’s worth. It’s not often that your quarry will tell you exactly where he is and then dare you to come and get him. Even so, the outcome is never certain. We have five weeks to figure them out and the clock starts ticking today!
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