Major changes for turkey hunters this year

Maine’s youth turkey hunters took to the woods on Saturday and adults followed bright and early Monday morning, hoping to lure a love-stricken gobbler within shooting range.

And with the season now in full swing, it’s high time to … well … talk turkey.

Wild turkeys forage in a Levant field in 2007. (BDN file photo by Kevin Bennett)

Wild turkeys forage in a Levant field in 2007. (BDN file photo by Kevin Bennett)

Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, sat down the other day to talk about prospects for the 2014 season, and outlined some major changes that will affect turkey hunters this year.

Allen spent some time hunting on Monday, and said he thinks cold weather might have played a role in an unsuccessful session.

“I’m not really seeing a lot of turkeys displaying and pounding around after hens right now. It’s pretty lethargic right now,” Allen said. “I think there are better things to come. Maybe some warm weather will kick ‘em in the tail fan a little bit.”

Allen said he has always believed that photo period, or the amount of daylight during given day, is the most important factor in determining when turkeys will mate. In Maine, that mating season intentionally coincides with the spring hunting season.

But he admits that if the weather’s cold, tom turkeys seem less apt to try their hand at wooing the ladies. Rain, like much of the area experienced on Monday morning, further complicates matters.

“They sit in the trees,” he said. “They don’t feel like getting up, either, on a rainy day,” he said.

Among the important changes that hunters should be aware this year:

Two for the price of one

A few years back, Maine began allowing hunters to shoot two turkeys during the spring season, as long as they paid an extra $20 for the second tag.

That system is a thing of the past.

“You don’t have to buy that second tom [any more],” Allen said. “It’s our effort to get people out. We were hoping that $20 extra tag wasn’t an impediment to hunting some more.

Allen said the state has an estimated 60,000 wild turkeys, and only 20,000 turkey hunters.

The new system is actually a four-for-one deal, Allen said, pointing out that in much of the state, a hunter who purchases a single $20 turkey license can shoot two birds during the spring season and two more during the fall.

Another change this year: The $5 registration fee has been reduced to $2, with the tagging agent receiving all of the money. Previously, that tagging fee was split with the DIF&W.

“We get nothing out of it except the data [gathered on the tagging form], which is very important to us,” Allen said.

No more noon closure

Allen also said that many hunters are not aware that the hours of this year’s hunt have expanded.

In past years, hunters were required to stop hunting at noon. Now, the state’s turkey season is a daylong affair.

Allen said that a few more turkeys will be shot, but hunting techniques will have to change.

“It’s a totally different game. I’m not familiar with that [all-day hunting],” Allen said. “I’ve never done it, and I’m not sure how I would do it.”

Allen explained that the “traditional” method of turkey hunting involves setting up near a bird’s roosting spot, then trying to call them within range when they come down out of the tree in the morning. Morning hunters often hear the birds around them, and those birds will often answer the hunter’s calls.

“By afternoon, they’re typically quiet. They could be following hens around,” Allen said. “I think people are going to spot and stalk a little bit more in the afternoon, just drive around until they see birds. That’s not a traditional way of taking turkeys, but it’s certainly legal if you can get landowner permission.”

Allen said when Maine opened a turkey season in the 1980s, the state modeled its effort on the seasons that existed in other northeastern states. The thought was that hens, which are not legal to shoot during the spring, needed a break during the afternoons so that they could forage. Early in the morning, hens were often sitting on nests.

Another consideration at the time: Not many Mainers had turkey hunted.

“We had novice hunters that weren’t really good at picking out legal birds from adult hens,” Allen said.

DIF&W game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan said that the effect of adding seven legal hours of hunting each day won’t be as drastic as some might think.

“Pennsylvania went to all-day [hunting] and they saw a 6 percent increase in harvest,” Sullivan said.

No northern season after all

Earlier this year the DIF&W announced its plan to open six northern Wildlife Management Districts to turkey hunting for the first time.

On April 17, the department changed course and announced that the northern districts would not be opened after all.

“Late winter can be the most critical period for wild turkeys, and unfortunately, March of 2014 has been challenging for turkeys in northern Maine,” DIF&W commissioner Chandler Woodcock said in a press release. “This winter has taken a toll on younger wild turkeys, including hens. A spring hunting season in addition to the severe winter could impact not only this turkey season, but future seasons as well.”

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.