First week may be best for turkey hunters

Posted April 23, 2010, at 6:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

In 10 days, many of the state’s adult wild turkey hunters will rise early, set up decoys, and spend the morning hours enjoying the opening day of a five-week spring season.

On Friday, I sat down with Brad Allen, the wildlife biologist who serves as the bird group leader for the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, to talk about the upcoming season and what hunters could expect.

Allen said the biggest change hunters may find this year has a lot to do with the early thaw and warmer-than-normal conditions Mainers have witnessed for the past several weeks.

“I think from a hunting standpoint, that will only serve to be better for the opening week,” Allen said.

Allen explained that many hunters have a common complaint during the early stages of turkey season: The male turkeys in the woods are already courting real, live females, and are not as apt to come to a hunter’s artificial calls.

“A lot of times, one of the turkey hunter’s biggest complaints is that all the toms are ‘henned up,’” Allen said. “Usually, [during] the first week of May there are still a lot of hens around. This year, because of the early spring, there is a pretty good chance that the hens would be away from the toms, nesting, possibly incubating [eggs], and the toms could be extremely call-receptive that first week.”

The theory makes sense: Turkey hunters are trying to fool mating male turkeys, and to get them to come within shooting range. To accomplish that, they imitate the calls of a female.

As more and more females are bred, however, and move to their nests, the male turkeys are still trying to find a mate.

At that point, an imitation call — even one that wouldn’t otherwise be so convincing — sounds better than nothing.

Allen explained that the early spring didn’t really change the mating urge that much, even though hunters may see a noticeable difference in turkey behavior compared to what they’ve seen in the early stages of past hunts.

“The thing that triggers breeding behavior is daylight,” Allen said. “So that hasn’t changed. The sun comes up when it always does [depending] on the calendar.”

The change, he said, is that turkeys nest a bit earlier than normal because of the warm spring and late winter weather.

“There’s some plant phrenology that’s slightly advanced [this year],” he said. “Turkeys like to hide their nest in vegetation that has a lot of good vertical structure, and if leaves on those raspberry canes are starting to come out early, they can hide their nest better early. Conditions have been absolutely perfect the last month for nest initiation.”

Allen said he saw breeding activity two or three weeks ago, which means those females should be sitting on nests, incubating eggs at this point.

That, in turn, makes them unavailable to the mating males, which could make the males more available to hunters.

If that’s the case — and Allen thinks it will be — the biologist has an important piece of advice for prospective hunters.

“I think if I was an avid turkey hunter, I would front-load my hunting this year. I think that first week is going to be excellent,” Allen said. “That first week of June (the final week of the season) could be very quiet.”

Allen said few hunters spend day after day in the woods during turkey season, and said those who plan to make their limited forays afield early in the season will fare best this year.

“The average turkey hunter only gets out four or five times anyway,” Allen said. “So I would definitely put [my hunting days] in the first couple of weeks. I think the hunting’s going to be excellent [at that point].”

Tom or jake?

Allen said hunters might notice another change that many would consider a positive trend.

The biologist expects hunters will see more full-grown toms, with fewer 1-year-old jakes coming to their calls.

That would be a switch from past years … and you can blame this change on the weather as well.

“Usually there are more young birds in a population than there are older birds,” Allen explained.

Last spring and summer, you may recall, was very wet and cool. Because of that, the survival rate of the birds that hatched in 2009 was lower than in many past years, and will show up this spring.

“There were plenty that hatched last year and survived, but it wasn’t a banner crop,” Allen said. “Usually you have a ton of jakes out there and some toms. This year I think hunters are going to see an equal number of toms and jakes, because there are just fewer jakes.”

After the “mediocre” 2009 nesting season, Allen said he expects hunters to bag slightly fewer birds this spring.

And he says there’s another complicating factor to keep in mind.

“I think hunters will shoot more older-age birds this year just because they’re available,” Allen said. “But you know, the older-age birds are a little harder to hunt than the one-year-olds, too. It will be an interesting season.”

How many birds do we have?

The state’s reintroduction of wild turkeys has been a tremendous success, and hunters have been able to take advantage of that effort since the first modern turkey hunt in 1986.

But just how many turkeys do we have?

“We don’t have a good handle on it,” Allen admitted. “But other states that have done more in-depth harvest studies have come up with a rule of thumb that’s pretty good. If you take your spring harvest of males and multiply it by 10, that approximates your statewide hunting zone population.

“Last year we killed 6,000, so we might have 60,000 turkeys out there,” Allen concluded.

Eddington breakfast on tap

Anglers won’t be fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River this year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t celebrate the river’s rich fishing tradition.

The Eddington Salmon Club will host a fisherman’s breakfast on May 1 — traditionally opening day on the river — which will run from 5-9 a.m.

On the menu: Eggs, ham, home fries, pancakes, biscuits, donuts, juice and coffee.

Conversation promises to be lively, and you can’t beat the view.

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