Maine’s wild turkey hunt is now 25 years old, and despite the fact it became an open hunt five years ago, interest has dropped off.

Meanwhile, in long-established turkey-hunting states like New York and Pennsylvania, interest in the springtime pursuit of gobblers is huge.

In New York there were 81,222 turkey permit holders (and likely more general hunting license holders) who pursued turkeys last year. They tagged 25,800 birds in New York in 2010.

Pennsylvania has roughly 232,000 spring turkey hunters, who bagged 42,500 birds last year.

Maine now has fewer than 20,000 turkey permit holders, who consistently enjoy a 30 percent success rate, taking roughly 6,000 birds annually.

“It’s the highest quality hunt in New England,” said Brian Smith, the director for the National Wild Turkey Federation in New England and Atlantic Canada.

“We have the highest success rate and the least amount of hunter interference. There is so much more land here, and so much more public access. It’s not like other states.”

For the hunters that’s all fine. But if Maine offers such a quality hunt, why hasn’t interest here taken off?

Some think it’s because there are not as many people in Maine. But it may be because there aren’t as many birds. Access is said to be better here, but Maine’s estimated flock of 60,000 turkeys can’t compete with the 250,000 in New York or 360,000 in Pennsylvania.

“I think one of the factors is population. The human population is lower. There are 1.2 million people in Maine, and compare that to another state that has 20 times that, it’s why our overall participation might be lower. And it’s also not a statewide hunt,” said regional wildlife biologist Scott Lindsay with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

But Smith thinks the turkey craze in Maine just died off, and somehow has less allure today.

“People got the initial excitement in trying it for the first time. But the popularity leveled off. There is so much to take people’s attention this time of year. May is fishing season. Turkey season is kind of competing with that,” Smith said.

“And Mainers are famous for the lottery, whether it’s moose or turkey, or the Maine State Lottery. They like playing the chances.”

From 1986 to 2004, the state used a lottery system and the number of applicants grew. Then in 2005, Gov. John Baldacci revoked the lottery, because the number of permits won was about the same as the number of applicants.

After two decades, interest hit a plateau.

Sure enough, in 2006 when the spring turkey season became an open hunt, permit numbers began to drop.

Now Kelsey Sullivan, Maine’s top turkey biologist, said IFW officials may change the hunt after 2013 to spark more interest, perhaps with an all-day hunt.

“For some reason the lottery had more interest. When the lottery was taken away, the numbers went down,” Sullivan said. “I think the drop is representative of the trend overall in hunting. There is less recruitment of new hunters.”

Hunter Joe Saltalamachia in Unity said it also could be the expense.

“Guys tell me, they can get one cheaper at the store. Twenty dollars gets you a spring (license, and another license costs an additional $20),” Saltalamachia said. “It’s definitely expensive in this economy.”

Saltalamachia thinks IFW should change the hunt — and make it cheaper. He suggested spicing things up by allowing for a third bird in certain areas or reinstituting a lottery to dole out third-bird permits.

“There are ways to do it. I don’t think they get creative enough,” said Saltalamachia, a turkey hunter for 34 years. “In certain areas, they let farmers shoot them during the winter. But most farmers I know are not avid hunters. They shoot them because the turkeys are a pest.”

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

[email protected]