Cole Dykstra of Alton grew up in an outdoorsy family, but his grandfather, guide and taxidermist John Dykstra wasn’t sure the 7-year-old was all that interested in getting up early in the morning to try to bag his first wild turkey this year.
Then, the turkeys showed up.
“When his nana and I had a tom and three jakes [young male turkeys] come by Wednesday morning he caught the itch,” John Dykstra said.
Later that day, Cole asked his grandfather if they’d be able to go hunting the next day.
“I told him sure if he wanted to go that’d be fine. Didn’t even have any questions about getting up early,” he said.
For many, turkey hunting is an early morning event, as it’s easier to pinpoint a bird’s location if you know where it roosted the night before. The turkeys will fly down around first light, and if the hunter is set up nearby, they’ll be able to call to those birds.
“[At] 4:30 next morning we left the house for a short walk out behind the house. While setting up we heard the first gobble,” John Dykstra said. “I made a few calls to let the birds know where the ‘hen’ was and soon it sounded like there were at least three birds gobbling in response. They weren’t in any hurry, but we could tell they were working closer.”
Any turkey hunter will tell you that when calls are answered by a gobbling tom, the excitement is palpable. And Cole was finding that out, first hand.
“Eventually a pair of jakes made their way into view and worked their way closer to us and our decoys. At about 25 yards they were getting suspicious and I told him to take one if he could see it well,” John Dykstra said. “The little 20 gauge pump boomed once and only one bird flew away.”
That’s when things got really interesting. Cole’s first career turkey was special.
“On reaching his bird we saw it had a bonus as well, as [Cole] said ‘Grampa, look at its legs.’ Each leg had a metal band on it,” John Dykstra said. “I had heard [the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife] had tagged some turkeys but sure didn’t expect one in our backyard!”
Dykstra reported the bird to the DIF&W — a phone number is on the tag — as required.
Some might think that harvesting a bird that has been banded by wildlife officials should be avoided, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, biologists are counting on a certain percentage being shot each year. The data they receive from hunters who tag those banded birds is vital, and helps inform future management decisions.
“We get a few pieces of information from reported bands from hunters. One key piece is getting a harvest rate of turkeys,” said DIF&W game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan. “This helps us to generate a population estimate by looking at the proportion of banded birds reported versus those that are unbanded.”
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the in-person registration of turkeys has been discontinued. But during a typical year, hunters are required to present their birds at tagging stations. That registration allows state officials to determine how many birds are harvested in any given Wildlife Management District.
If 100 male birds in a specific WMD were banded, and 20 of those birds were shot, biologists can estimate that 20 percent of a district’s male turkeys were taken in a given year. And overall population estimates can also be made based on that data.
In addition, biologists can get an idea of what kind of season-to-season survival is taking place, as some of the reported bands come from turkeys that were captured in 2019 or 2018. And researchers also get a better idea of a single turkey’s range. Some birds have been shot 20 miles away from the spot where they were captured and banded, Sullivan said.
DIF&W bird group leader Brad Allen said that the data is very valuable, but stressed that hunter participation is an essential piece of the puzzle.
“We can generate a lot of useful information from the fairly simple recovery of a banded bird,” Allen said. “If hunters don’t return the band then all that cost and effort that went into the banding and then harvest and recovery information is totally lost to us.”
On Wednesday, Sullivan said he’d checked the records on Cole’s turkey — band number 1255 — and found that it had been captured and banded on Jan. 8 off Kittredge Road in Bangor. It was shot some 11 miles away, “as the turkey flies,” though it likely traveled farther than that, walking to the north.
“He was with a flock of 28 other birds in the area and 19 were caught with him,” Sullivan said. “On the day of capture he weighed 14.5 pounds, had a 1.5-inch beard and nubs for spurs.”
For hunters like Cole, there’s an added benefit to taking a bird that’s wearing ‘jewelry.’ His responsibility was to report the harvest of the banded bird. But those bands? They’re his to keep.
And that’s not a bad souvenir from your first successful turkey hunt.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.
Watch: The joys of turkey hunting