CASCO — Phil and Anna Gray wore big smiles Friday after coming all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the second annual Maine youth turkey hunting camp at the Point Sebago Resort.

“I like it here,” said Anna, 13, who has been a bowhunter for three years. “And there are turkeys. Last year I did have a chance at one, but didn’t hit it with my bow.”

Maine’s annual spring turkey hunt begins this weekend with a hunt Saturday for youths only. All turkey hunters can start Monday. The season runs until May 31.

Maine’s turkey hunt has been a success unlike any other hunt in recent decades. Since wild turkeys were reintroduced in Maine in 1977, the population has grown to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 birds statewide, according to state biologists. And since the spring hunt began with a lottery in 1986, it has grown in step.

For the first time, hunting will be allowed this year from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset, rather than ending at noon. And the price of a turkey permit has dropped, from $40 to $20.

“People felt that $40 for two birds was too much in the spring,” said Kelsey Sullivan, a turkey biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “The department is looking at increasing potential opportunities for hunters.”

The hunt had been scheduled to expand into Maine’s six northernmost hunting districts, but because of the severe winter in Aroostook County, those plans were put on hold for this year. The hunt will expand into the zone west of Moosehead Lake and north of the Bigelow Preserve in Carrabassett Valley. It’s expected to expand statewide for the first time next year, Sullivan said.

Turkey hunters say it’s a long time coming for a statewide hunt.

“We underestimated Maine’s birds. We all thought the snow would be too deep here,” said Jim Wescott, a registered Maine Guide from Windham who helped biologists trap and transfer birds in the early years of the reintroduction program.

Five hundred permits were offered by lottery in the first hunt, in 1986. When the lottery ended in favor of an open hunt in 2005, 23,951 hunters took to the field. The number of permits sold dropped after that all-time high, but it has stabilized since 2010.

In 2012, a total of 13,191 permits were sold; last year, the total was 14,976.

“Biologists have been working on moving the birds up (north) the past 10 years,” Sullivan said. “It got to the point there was enough interest in a hunt there, the department made the decision to make it a statewide hunt.”

Even with extended hours for the spring hunt, Sullivan said few hunters are expected to hunt in the afternoon because turkeys are most active in the morning.

Meanwhile, hunters say the spring hunt is poised to get even bigger, given the interest among hunters from nearby states and Canada – and the birds themselves.

“Our turkey population is incredible. The timber companies are creating turkey habitat every day,” Wescott said. “Every time they fire up a chain saw, they are creating early successional forestland, which the turkeys love. We have more turkeys and more places to hunt them than any state in New England.”

In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where a turkey hunt will be held for the first time next year, hunters are hungry for turkey-hunting lessons and opportunities. Many come to Maine to get them. Dozens are guided each year by Wescott and Robb Cotiaux, president of the Maine Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“It’s phenomenal,” Cotiaux said of the expanding hunt. “In the Northeast, we have the largest population of turkeys, even though our hunt started later.”

At the Point Sebago Resort on Friday, the turkey hunting camp brought together 10 parent-youth teams.

Surrounded by turkeys in the woods of Casco, young hunters learned to scout and call in turkeys, and about gun safety and turkey biology.

After one day of schooling and field seminars, they would take to the field Saturday to hunt. And on Sunday: a Portland Sea Dogs game, where the young camo-clad hunters will demonstrate turkey calling for the crowd.

“I just turned 50 and I’m having more fun than I ever have,” Phil Gray said of his Maine turkey-hunting experience.

“It’s the people. These (Maine hunters) are kindred spirits. And it’s an exciting hunt. You look at every state in the United States and every state has a turkey hunt of some kind. But me and my daughter will keep coming back here.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: @FlemingPph