The spring wild turkey season begins April 28 and these days many Maine hunters are going wild about hunting this wily, intelligent, big-game bird. (“Big game” is right, too. Hunters need a big-game license and turkey permit to hunt this feathered rocket, which can fly 55 mph and run 25 mph.)
Yes, hunting turkeys excites Maine folks so much that many have given up the productive, salmonid fishing season from April ice-out through May. Preseason scouting in the fourth month and hunting from late April through May keep them that busy. Many outdoor friends whom I never dreamed would give up spring fishing have done just that to hunt turkeys.
These days it’s difficult to remember when turkeys were not a part of the Maine scene. After all, turkey season began in 1986, nearly 30 years ago.
But Maine’s modern wild-turkey introduction began slowly. State officials have tried to re-establish wild turkey populations since before I was born, beginning in 1942 when the old Department of Fish and Game (DF&G) released 24 captive-reared birds onto Swan Island on the Kennebec River in Sagadahoc County.
Some of these birds survived for about four years, and that was enough for many Maine hunters to begin dreaming of one day hunting turkeys in this state, including folks in my family.
In the 1960s, fish-and-game clubs in Bangor and Windham made similar attempts to re-establish these large game birds in the state, using hatchery-reared birds, but the stockings also failed.
In fact, just as an aside, the fall 1963 issue of “Maine Fish and Game” magazine carried an article by Kenneth H. Anderson, a DF&G game biologist who wrote about the future of turkeys in our state.
“What about wild turkeys for Maine?” Anderson asked rhetorically, before answering his own question by saying, “Considering all the facts, it seems extremely doubtful that a shootable (sic) population can perpetuate itself by natural reproduction.”
Then, in 1977 and ’78, wildlife biologists in Maine wised up and started using trapped turkeys from the wild in Vermont and moved them to the towns of York and Eliot in extreme southern Maine. The wild birds were better suited for surviving in the wild, so that effort blossomed.
Another milestone arrived in Maine during spring 1982, when biologists captured 33 wild turkeys in York County and released them in Waldo County. In 1984, biologists captured an additional 19 turkeys in York County and released them in Hancock County. By then, many of us had great hopes of the program becoming a raging success.
Anderson must have cringed in 1986 when a turkey spring season began. That year, hunters harvested nine birds, and partners Nate Mitchell, now of Gardiner, and Harry Vanderweide of Augusta killed two of them – nearly a quarter of the harvest. By 2013, the turkey introduction has been such a success story that the spring and fall harvests totaled 6,533 birds.
Since 1990, instate trapping and transfer turned into an annual event and spread turkeys over much of Maine, and they survived in northern towns, surprising me with the species’ tenacity during bad winters.
Wild turkeys really thrive around agricultural areas in the southern third of the state, where this game bird eats grasses, seeds, fruits and insects, the latter a high-protein forage.
In 2013, 14 Maine towns produced harvests of more than 50 turkeys: Berwick (55 turkeys), North Berwick (52), Lebanon (52), Sanford (54), York (56), Arundel (83 … a red-hot turkey spot), Windham (52), Gorham (58), Monmouth (53), Leeds (55), Sidney (55), Augusta (55), Vassalboro (59) and Waldoboro (58).
These are not the only towns in Maine to hunt, though, because many have harvests in the 30- and 40-bird range. Furthermore, coastal towns and communities near urban areas may have low harvests because of excessive development, but the turkeys are there if someone can find a wood lot away from dwellings.
I do not hunt turkeys because it’s more fun for me to fish and bicycle, but many friends live for turkey hunting. The good ones who usually shoot a turkey each season tell me that a good spot to avoid hunting is anywhere turkeys hang in a field within sight of the road. That attracts hunting hordes. If someone knows of a backwoods field adjacent to oak and beech ridges that cannot be seen from the road, that’s the spot to find solitude – maybe.
Which reminds me of a corny quip that I often use when folks tell me about a great hunting or fishing spot. With the most serious face and voice tone I’ll say, “If you draw me a map, I can get that info into the newspaper.”
Many people immediately laugh, but my suggestion often catches listeners off-guard. When that happens, I can see the gears grinding, as the person tries to think of a polite way to tell me where to go.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: