PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Hunters interested in turkey won’t have to travel downstate this year, following the announcement last week by state wildlife officials that for the first time this spring turkey hunting will be allowed in various locations in Aroostook County.
For several years authorities have captured turkeys elsewhere, releasing them in a number of locales in The County, including Masardis and Perham. The birds have had several seasons to reproduce, with numbers now believed to be sufficient to support a hunt.
Rich Hoppe, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was the featured speaker at an informational meeting at the Northeastland Hotel on March 26, covering such topics as the history of turkey in Maine, their distribution throughout the state, the relocation program, breeding, hunting rules and regulations. This was the last of three meetings held in Aroostook; two earlier sessions were held in Fort Kent and Monticello.
“This will be the first turkey season in northern Maine. It’s prudent of us to come out and speak on the issue,” said Hoppe.
He said turkey numbers declined after colonization but through the efforts of wildlife specialists and volunteers, the birds are now making a comeback.
“Breeding begins in April. They have ground nests with 10-12 eggs, which incubate for 28 days. The young roost with the female for about four weeks. The hens, eggs and chicks are very vulnerable. Weather has an impact on their mortality rate,” he said.
Hoppe said this year’s weather could be a factor.
“They’ve done well the last four years. We started the northern Maine release program in 2007, with 166 turkeys released so far. Once grown, they roost in trees. We’ve seen some mortality as the result of owls attacking them as they roost in trees,” said Hoppe.
Under the spring hunt, Hoppe said each hunter will be allowed one bearded turkey — typically a male, although Hoppe said occasionally a female (jenny) will appear with a beard.
He said turkeys are known for traveling, with banded jakes (males) walking 40-50 miles away.
“About 90 percent of their mobility is through walking,” he said. “I’ve spotted them five or six towns away from where they were released. We’ve got them three miles north of Portage to north of Perham, down to Ashland and Masardis.
He said although they don’t have a sense of smell, turkeys have keen eyesight and hearing, making it difficult for hunters to get close in most cases. They’re also strong flyers at short distances.
“It can be difficult to trap them for transport, since their hearing is so good. We’re continuing to trap and transport them to this part of the state — may get more in a few weeks,” Hoppe said. “We’ve had great cooperation from the Northern Wild Turkey Federation.”
Hoppe explained the bird’s feeding habits and where hunters are most likely to spot them.
“Turkeys like open fields where silage is dumped; they like crab apple and apple trees, high-bush cranberries,” said Hoppe.
Hunting season will begin at the end of April.
“Youth season opens April 26, the rest opens April 28, and runs through the end of May. It’s a $20 license fee for residents and non-residents. The spring hunt will be in zone 1-6 and 8, for bearded only. Most of the turkeys are located in zones 2, 3 and 6,” said Hoppe.
Lt. Tom Ward of the Maine Warden Service was also on hand to address hunting laws.
“Some areas will have to be hunted using a decoy. The law may change so if you hunt with a decoy you don’t have to wear orange,” said Ward, noting that in the fall at least one area allows both turkey and moose hunting at the same time, thus the need for orange clothing.
Hoppe said for the most part Maine turkeys are healthy and safe to consume.
“There’s been no avian flu reported. We have had a type of pox (lymphoproliferative disease virus or LPDV) found in some birds downstate, which causes warts to grown on a turkey’s face and head. It impacts breeding, eyesight and increases mortality,” said Hoppe. “But this hasn’t been spotted in birds here.”
Ward said he didn’t think it would be seen up here but “if you find one and take one, notify authorities.”
“We won’t make you tag it,” said Ward.
Hoppe named four tagging stations in Aroostook: Quigley’s, in Fort Kent; Ben’s Trading Post, Presque Isle; Mac’s Trading Post, Houlton; and Gateway in Ashland.
Ward explained that property owners are required to have a license, unless their property has something to do with cattle. “It’s not like deer hunting, there’s a catch to it,” he said. “It has to have something to do with the cattle industry.”
Ward said his biggest concern is safety. He told a story about two friends who went hunting downstate.
“One friend shot at a bird near his decoy but the shrapnel from the shot traveled about 55 yards, striking his buddy. They didn’t want to sue each other but eventually insurance companies got involved and at one point the landowner was sued. The case got settled and the landowner didn’t have to pay. But this just proves the importance of knowing your target and what’s beyond,” said Ward. “This was a case of failing to ID your target.”
“Hunters need to know what they’re shooting at. You can’t bring that shot back into the barrel,” said Ward.
Ward said it’s also important to ask for landowner permission.
Hoppe described a quality turkey hunt as one “lacking in interference.”
“Always have a backup plan. What concerns me here is that we only have a handful of towns that are huntable, which could create a bottleneck. If a vehicle is there, you have to kiss that spot goodbye,” said Hoppe.
Ward, who lives in Masardis, said there’ll likely be a lot of hunters out in Ashland, Masardis, Garfield Plantation, Washburn and Perham.
“Everyone will be hunting the same group of birds. It’s a good idea to contact the landowner prior to hunting their property,” said Ward.
Ward and Hoppe responded to questions from the audience. Maine guide Scott Cyr closed the meeting by demonstrating various turkey calls, from box calls to slate and electronic versions.
“It’s hard to beat an electronic call. You can place it right with your decoy, so the bird’s not hearing noise away from the decoy,” said Cyr.