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Maine’s spring turkey hunting season, which opens today except in the northern portion of the state, has been subject to quite a bit of tweaking for 2014. Several long-time restrictions have been lifted giving hunters more time and more opportunities to put a fat tom turkey in the freezer. The spring season bag limit is now two bearded birds, and hunters are allowed to hunt from sunrise till sunset where previously the hunting day closed at noon. For the first time hunters will be allowed to use crossbows for spring turkeys, another tiny step in the right direction.
The recent harsh winter has caused the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to suspend the spring hunt in the most northern zones (1 through 6) but with 10 or more hatchlings per nest there’s no doubt that the turkey population will rebound quickly in that region.
Truth be told, wild turkeys in the central and southern portions of the state have been doing well and were busily strutting their stuff in early March. I have gobs of images of big gobblers puffed up and pirouetting for the hens which appeared to be ignoring them, but every so often I’d catch a pair doing more than just dancing. Turkeys can mate a month or more before the eggs are laid so the hottest action is over long before the hunting season opens. And, only bearded turkeys are legal game (a small percentage of hens have beards, but nothing like the standard, normal male), so the future of the species is assured long before the first hunter heads for the woods on opening day. Harsh winters and localized disease outbreaks are far more injurious to the population.
Most turkey hunters want to shoot the biggest of the males, so the hens are safe in spring as are the “jakes” (immature males) and most three-year-old birds that have beards averaging 6 inches or so. An older, mature tom may have a beard that’s 10 to 12 inches long, which means he’s in his prime and pretty much rules the roost at least where male turkey interactions are concerned. The “boss” tom spends most of this time escorting his harem of hens around and chasing lesser toms away. The bickering begins at dawn as soon as the birds leave the roost and continues throughout the day.
This is where the hunter comes into play.
The strategy is a simple one but requires a great deal of persistence and patience. In simple terms, the hunter sets up before dawn on a ridge or high spot 100 yards from the roosted flock. Just before daylight, he begins appealing to the boss tom with seductive clucks, yelps and purrs, doing his best to emulate a very friendly, receptive hen.
In textbook situations the gobbler takes the bait, flies down, begins to strut and gobble for the unseen hen, and ends up getting a free ride to the tagging station.
Ah, but if only it were so easy! Factor in deal breakers such as live hens who do not like sharing their mighty mate with lesser, unknown females, other toms and jakes that want to steal the new hen away from the boss plus a flock of suspicious birds with excellent vision and hair-spring escape reflexes, and you have the makings for many an “almost” hunt. For every textbook-perfect hunt there are a dozen that end with the birds walking disdainfully away from the hunter’s carefully-planned setup. Turkeys are doubtful of everything, afraid of their own shadows and choose to flee in a panic regardless of the situation. Make one mistake and the flock will disappear for several hours. No hunter kills every bird he attempts to call in, but the most experienced hunters learn from past mistakes and try to narrow the window of lost opportunities.
This year the most persistent and patient hunters have all day (Monday through Saturday) to practice their techniques and strategies. This is good news because that busted flock from this morning will have moved on and forgotten the event by afternoon. The birds will feed all day, and then gradually work their way back to their roosting site. They may not go to the exact tree that they roosted in the night before but they’ll be on the same ridge or hillside unless something spooks them.
Hunters who have been studying their local flocks will know where the birds are most likely to roost. The way to a successful afternoon hunt is to get there first, settle in and wait. Call occasionally using turkey calls, crow calls, woodpecker calls or owl hoots in an effort to get the boss tom to respond. Because some toms do not gobble all day every day, it’s important to remain vigilant, patient and determined. He may come in gobbling or he may come in silently. Sit still, call occasionally and let him know you are still there. The birds may come by in early afternoon or not till near sunset. Wait, watch and be ready – this isn’t necessarily rocket science but not every rocket scientist gets his bird, either!
Turkey hunting has evolved into a gigantic industry that includes all sorts of innovations in blinds, clothing, guns, calls, decoys and other gear, but the basics for success have not changed since the Pilgrims landed. I killed my first wild turkey in 1971 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I wore basic Marine Corps green fatigues with no gloves or face mask, no decoys and had nothing but a hand-made turkey wing-bone call. I sat still, called every few minutes and waited patiently for almost three hours till my bird showed up. Some 40-plus years later I have lots more cool turkey-hunting stuff but in the end it comes down to sitting patiently, calling occasionally and making the shot when the big boy comes strutting into view.
These days I prefer to do the calling and let someone else shoot the bird. The unspoken rule is that the shooter must carry his bird back to the truck. Some of Maine’s boss toms weigh over 20 pounds and can be quite a load to carry. This way I get to have all the fun and the shooter gets to do all the work!
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