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Today is the opening day of Maine’s 2013 spring wild turkey hunting season, as popular among hunters as April 1 is among fishermen. For those who enjoy the pursuit of game with shotgun or bow, April is the equivalent of autumn with its warm, sunny days and open, airy woodland ambience. It’s a pleasure to be out there as the new season takes over, the early sunrise punctuated by the urgent songs of mating birds along with the lusty gobble of a big, mature male turkey. Hearing that sounds, the most listless of hunters will leap into action, sitting down quickly, setting up to call and hoping that his best efforts will lure the strutting longbeard into range. It can happen and does happen with enough regularity to get hunters out of bed at 4 a.m. every day throughout the season, which ends June 1 statewide. A successful turkey hunt is as exciting and dramatic as it gets: You must find a bird by getting him to gobble (using crow calls or seductive hen yelps and clucks), set up on him so he’s likely to investigate the source of those calls, and then wait with patience and determination as the bird ever so slowly struts his way into shotgun or bow range. Sounds simple, of course, but hours may pass between initial contact and the conclusion of the hunt. Much can go wrong (and often does), and there are no guarantees, which adds to the stress level and makes turkey hunting that much more appealing. Plus, it’s win or lose by noon because all hunting must end at 12 p.m.
Aside from being seen by the turkey, interrupted by other hunters, or simply ignored as live hens come in to take the boss tom away, there are other things that can go wrong – like missing the bird when it comes time for a shot. There are those who say, “How can you miss a turkey?” Well, there is a lot of room around them for one thing, their heads (the target of choice) is always moving and, well, there is the human element. Shoot too soon, too far, through brush, too high or too low and the game ends. Only rarely will a missed bird hand around and offer a second shot; and if you miss that one, just go home and don’t say a word to anyone!
In my experience the “other” options often include a “gobbler” shows up that turns out to be an immature “jake,” a year-old male, easily identified by his short beard and longer central tail feathers. (The beard is that tuft of long, black feathers that juts out from a mature male turkey’s breast – and also from some hens!)
Jakes are legal (and bearded bird, including a bearded hen may be taken) but they are the equivalent of a spike-horn whitetail buck – legal, but not a “trophy” in the popular sense of the word. Plus, there are occasions when the big, aggressive tom turkey ends up being one without a beard (I have several of those running around my neck of the woods), and they cannot be shot because they don’t qualify as being “bearded.” Even if a turkey looks, acts and struts like a gobbler it’s not legal game unless it has a beard. Check twice to be sure or plan on a fruitless, expensive chat with the game warden.
Last year I had an experience that I never expected. I called in a nice, big, legal tom and about to send him on his way to the freezer when I noticed (after checking twice!) that he had a unique, corkscrew-like beard that was a good 10 inches long. A trophy in every sense of the word, but there was a glitch (in my mind, anyway). I recognized this bird as a member of the flock I’d been feeding and observing all winter outside my office window. It’s often been said that it’s very difficult to shoot a bird after you’ve been introduced, such as a grouse or woodcock after you’ve made eye contact with them, and I hesitated just enough while mulling over this conundrum to allow the corkscrew tom to wander off, untouched. Sheesh! Four hours into the hunt and I have to give up because I am too familiar with my target!
Fortunately, there were many other gobblers out there whose acquaintance I had not made, so finding a new adversary was as difficult as walking across the road and using my crow call to locate a new challenger.
To hunt wild turkeys in Maine you will need a valid hunting license plus a spring turkey-hunting permit (two are allowed at $20 additional each), and it will cost you $5 per bird to have them properly tagged at the nearest game check station. Next fall, hunters may take a third bird (of either sex) by purchasing another $20 permit and paying the $5 tagging fee. So, over the course of the year you can tag three turkeys at a cost of $75. The practical ones among us might say that you can buy a lot of Butterball turkeys at the grocery store for $75, but hunters know it’s just not the same. Who can put a price on getting up at 4 a.m., slogging through the woods all morning battling black flies, mosquitoes and reluctant gobblers, and then doing it all over again the next day? Obviously, it’s not about the price per pound – and if we have to explain it you probably shouldn’t be reading this column!
For me, it’s all about hearing that first gobble at daylight, working my way into range and calling that fired-up tom close enough to see his brilliant blue head and wide-spread fan.
I romanticize that the colonists and Native Americans used the same basic techniques to acquire their turkey dinners back when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. A lot has changed since then, of course, but a lot hasn’t, too. Spend a few mornings chasing wild turkeys around the woods this spring and you’ll see what I mean!
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