Registered Maine Guide Tenley Skolfield hunts turkeys with her hunting dog, Tinker, in Athens earlier in October. The bell on Tinker’s neck helps Skolfield keep track of her dog and also, by Tinker’s cadence, know if she’s running or searching. Some hunters use a beeper collar or even a GPS collar, but Skolfield prefers the more traditional, old-school approach. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOLON — Run, flush, retreat. Eat treat, nap, repeat. 

This is turkey dogging, and while its popularity has not yet flourished in Maine at least one Registered Maine Guide takes her German shorthaired pointer in pursuit of wild turkeys in the fall.

Tenley Skolfield’s 9-year-old dog Tinker, or Tinkerbell, flushes flocks of turkeys with perfection. The goal is to break up the flock and give Skolfield – a bird hunter of 35 years – a crack at them when the birds reassemble, as this very social bird always does.

Except in Tinker’s case, the hunt is not textbook fall turkey dogging, as it’s called in the South. Tinker is a bit of a latecomer to the fall hunt – albeit an enthusiastic one. When Skolfield took up fall turkey hunting two years ago, Tinker already had retired from grouse hunting to the life of a much-loved family pet. So the older dog hasn’t grasped the sit-still part of the hunt after the birds flush. Instead, Tinker goes in for a nap in Skolfield’s truck following the obligatory treat reward.

But to Skolfield, old Tinker’s routine represents the sheer beauty of “turkey dogging.” 

“She flushes them, then gets a treat and takes a nap. It shows that any dog can do this,” Skolfield said.

Skolfield may be among the few Mainers turkey dogging, but the sport has grown significantly across the country in the past 30 years, said Pete Muller, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s communication director. Fall turkey hunting with dogs took off nationally in the early 1990s, when it was then legal in 11 states. Today, there are 42 states where fall turkey hunting is legal and 25 allow hunting with dogs, according to the federation. 

Turkey dogging was first legal in Maine in 2002 when the fall hunt opened for archers only, but use of dogs wasn’t practical until shotguns became legal in 2007.

A turkey flies into a trees after Tinker breaks up two flocks at a farm field near Solon on Oct. 9, where Tenley Skolfield had landowner permission to hunt. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The practice is popular in the Northeast and as far south as Tennessee – as well as across several states out West including Oregon, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.

“The majority of where it takes place is in the Northeast, around Pennsylvania, New York,” Muller said. 

Skolfield knew few in Maine who turkey hunted with dogs – and Maine State Bird Biologist Kelsey Sullivan also has not run across many who do.

“I think it’s a niche method,” Sullivan said.

Certainly, it’s not for a lack of turkeys in Maine, which has a fall season that runs from Sept. 20 to Nov. 6 in 2021, with a bag limit of five birds (either sex, any age).

Since the early 1970s the number of turkeys nationally has grown from roughly 1.3 million to 6.2 million birds, according to the federation. In Maine the population has grown since birds were first relocated here in 1977 to upwards of 70,000 statewide in the spring and 175,000 in the fall after the breeding season – although many perish after the winter due to national causes, said Sullivan.

“Maine has a bustling population of birds that have helped out other states with trap-and-transfer in recent years,” Muller said. “Maine hunters are just focused on other things in the fall.”

But not Skolfield, who has pursued her share of grouse in the North Maine Woods. But she never had hunted turkeys with dogs until she recently moved to Cape Cod and started hunting on fall weekends at her boyfriend’s camp in Solon, which is smack in the center of farm country – always ground zero for turkeys.

In turkey dogging, the dogs flush a flock, return to the hunter and stay with the hunter, often under a camouflage blind since turkeys have such keen eyesight. Turkey hunters dress in camo head to toe.  

After the flock is busted up by the dogs, turkeys eventually try to reassemble. Generally, a hunter has about 30 minutes until the birds find their flock mates again, said Kevin Antonovitch of South Dennis, Massachusetts, Skolfield’s partner and an avid turkey hunter. 

In that time, hunters must hold still, waiting like statutes. The older hen – or “boss hen,” – will make a loud, insistent call to draw the younger birds to her. This is how the hunter knows where the birds are – and if they’re drawing near. An experienced turkey hunter can call in that boss hen using a call they hold in their mouth. 

In the case of a novice turkey dog like Tinker, the hurry-up-and-get-still fire drill that happens as soon as the birds scatter happens a bit differently. 

But, Skolfield – a native of Harpswell who operated a northern Maine sporting camp for 13 years, is not deterred. With permission from a farmer near Solon, she and Antonovitch park near the field where Tinker flushes the birds. Then Skolfield puts the dog in the truck and rewards her with a treat before returning to the field. 

A quintessential turkey dog – which Tinker is not – will bark at the birds as it runs after it. But because turkeys fly so remarkably fast for their size – as fast as 55 mph – Tinker does not come close to catching one.

“You can bust them up yourself. But it’s way more fun with a dog. Plus, a dog is quicker,” Skolfield said.

Tenley Skolfield puts Tinker in the truck before going to stalk turkeys in the woods. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

From there Skolfield and Antonovitch head to the woods beside the field as the birds prepare to reassemble – and wait.

They sit against trees about 40 yards apart. Antonovitch calls in one of at least two hens that appear to be from two different flocks, but the other birds – roughly two dozen – are skittish. 

The hen walks within 10 yards of Antonovitch, occasionally repeating its assembly call, but this is a bird with keen eyesight and Antonovitch doesn’t dare draw his shotgun.

“The bird would see it and run,” he said with a shrug.

So after 70 minutes, Antonovicth and Skolfield leave the woods and join Tinker in the truck to go look for another flock, which they eventually find. At that point, the fun starts all over again. But the day ends without bringing a turkey home.

“It wouldn’t be hunting if it was easy,” Skolfield said with a smile – mimicking Tinker’s enthusiasm. “Having her (on the hunt) is like having a kid. She knows she’s going out. And when she sees them, she’s so excited.”

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