Not too many years ago, hunters who wanted to take part in Maine’s spring wild turkey season had to apply via a lottery, then hope they received a permit. Nowadays, that’s not the case: A burgeoning wild turkey population has state biologists hoping even more hunters choose to take part when the season opens for youths on Saturday and for everyone else on Monday.
“Our hunt plan for the restoration period was a very conservative one. In the very beginning we used to control the number of hunters,” said Brad Allen, bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Then we realized we’d been too conservative there … We want more people hunting, and we want more birds shot.”
The five-week wild turkey season kicks off on Saturday morning with Youth Turkey Day, which allows hunters younger than 16 years old a day of their own. Adults are required to accompany those hunters, but are not allowed to carry firearms.
Allen said giving youngsters the first crack at filling a tag leads to an exciting opening morning.
“At the beginning of the season when the turkeys haven’t been hunted, the success rate seems very high,” Allen said. “They tag a lot of turkeys on youth day. So participation, I think, is very good and success is very good.”
And on Monday, all hunters will be allowed to head afield, with those in Wildlife Management Districts 7 and 9 through 29 enjoying a liberal two-turkey seasonal bag limit, with both birds sporting beards; Those hunting in WMD 8 are allowed just one bearded bird per year. And in WMDs 1 through 6, a split season is still in place, with hunters born in odd-numbered years allowed to hunt April 30-May 5, May 14-19, and May 28-June 2. Those born in even-numbered years can hunt May 7-12, May 21-26 and May 28-June 2.
And while the state’s modern turkey hunt took place only in the morning hours — starting a half-hour before sunrise and ending at noon — that’s no longer the case. Beginning in 2014, hunters have been able to hunt turkeys throughout the day, from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset.
Still, most prefer to hunt turkeys in the morning, Allen said.
“Maybe 10 percent of the harvest is taken in the afternoon. Most people still hunt at daybreak and get out of the woods by 9 or 10,” Allen said. “And we haven’t had problems with [allowing afternoon and evening hunting]. I haven’t perceived landowner issues, I haven’t perceived biological issues affecting nesting success.”
Allen said his colleague, game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan, spent much of the winter capturing and putting tracking devices on turkeys as part of a new wild turkey research project. Sullivan’s field reports indicate that hunters might have plenty of birds to choose from this spring.
“It’s his impression that the last couple of years production of Maine turkeys — nest success and survival of young — has been really good,” Allen said. “Despite the long, cold winter that we just experienced, featuring some record snow depths, he thinks the population the last couple of years has been strong. And with two good nesting seasons prior to last winter, he thinks the population is in really good shape for a good spring hunt.”
Allen said Maine has between 16,000 and 18,000 wild turkey hunters who bag between 5,000 and 6,000 birds each spring. Another 1,800 to 2,000 birds are taken during the annual fall turkey hunt.
And Allen said a turkey hunt can be a thrilling experience.
“When you’ve got a bird responding to you and coming, there’s nothing like it,” Allen said. “It’s just an outstanding hunt, with a lot of interaction between you and the game. Our population is so strong and our hunter interest is so modest, there’s a pretty high probability of success.”
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