Commissioner Judy Camuso of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (right) shows off her first wild turkey, which she shot while hunting with mentor Liz Thorndike recently. Credit: Courtesy of Judy Camuso

Judy Camuso grew up in suburban Boston, and though she was always interested in various critters, was not from a hunting family. Now, as commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, she’s running the agency that manages the animals that Mainers hunt, and has become a hunter herself.

That new job is not, however, the reason she has enthusiastically taken up the sport.

It has to do with her health.

“I was vegetarian for most of my life,” Camuso explained. “Because of some health issues, doctors have recommended that I include a lot more protein in my diet than I’m used to having. Given that, I wanted to be sourcing my protein locally.”

A recent National Public Radio broadcast about climate change reinforced that decision to focus on local sources of nutrition, she said. The show focused on the global effects of South American deforestation in the beef industry.

To that end, she has been purchasing half a pig from a friend each year, and last year, she took up deer hunting in order to provide some organic protein.

And how did that go?

Let’s just say that luckily, Camuso had a half a pig to eat over the winter.

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But this spring, Camuso decided to get out and try her hand at turkey hunting thanks to offers from a couple of willing mentors.

First, she hunted with Christi Holmes, and enjoyed a wonderful (if ultimately unproductive) opening day of wild turkey season.

“It’s so funny. The way I sort of envisioned it would be and the way it was was so different,” Camuso said, explaining that she’d heard from so many people about how many wild turkeys they’d been seeing, she was getting concerned about the abundance of birds creating a problem.

“I was actually worried that I might shoot more than one bird. Or what if I shot a hen by mistake?” she said with a laugh. “I think now I have a better understanding that that isn’t the kind of scenario that most people encounter.”

That’s not to say that the duo didn’t talk to a few birds. They even saw a few.

But eventually, Camuso said she proved a bit too impatient, and couldn’t stop moving around while waiting for the birds to come within range.

“So, I scared them off,” she said.

The day wasn’t a failure though, as she enjoyed a hunt that had an unexpected fringe benefit. While sitting on the ground in full camouflage clothing, a little flock of warblers flew in and began feeding within a few feet of the hunters.

Camuso, an avid birder, thought that was pretty cool.

“We were just so quiet and so still, they weren’t bothered by us,” she said. “It was awesome. I didn’t even have my binoculars up. I was identifying warblers without even using my glasses.”

After that day afield, colleagues at the DIF&W started volunteering to help the commissioner get a bird. Camuso accepted a mentorship offer from fisheries biologist Liz Thorndike, and the duo headed to land owned by Maine game warden Cpl. John MacDonald the next week.

There, on the edge of a field, Thorndike began talking to a receptive tom and hen, and the male wasted little time in approaching the ground blind.

Thorndike, who grew up turkey hunting in New York state, had given her boss a piece of advice before the hunt: If the bird is strutting and displaying his feathers, hold your fire until they drop those feathers down.

“Sometimes, when they puff their feathers like that, it’ll repel the shot,” Camuso said.

Unless, that is, the shot comes from about 10 feet away, which was the range the turkey reached.

Thorndike whispered to Camuso, telling her to shoot, but Camuso, who describes herself as a rule-follower, reminded her mentor about the earlier advice.

“She said, ‘It’s OK. He’s so close, it’s OK to shoot,’” Camuso said.

So shoot, Camuso did, dropping a bird that weighed 16.8 pounds and sported a 8 1/4-inch beard and 7/8-inch spurs.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Camuso said. “Having not grown up with guns, I was so nervous I was going to miss. Just totally miss the bird and blow all the work that Liz had done calling it in. And when I did it, I was so proud I started crying.”

Camuso said she was proud of making an effective shot that killed the bird quickly, and that she had provided a meal for her table.

At home a bit later, she sliced the breast meat thin, like you would for a stirfry. Then she prepared her “standard marinade” of Italian dressing, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and orange juice, and added the turkey.

“It’s all I could think about all day — going home to eat my dinner — and it was great,” Camuso said. “I was so happy to be eating something that I know had lived its whole life in the wild, I knew it had had a happy life, it died quickly. No chemicals, and it was good for you. And I did it. I was so proud of myself.”

Since then, though, Camuso has had time to think about other aspects of the hunt. And she said she has learned another valuable lesson.

“The other piece that was so unexpected to me, both with Christy and Liz, is I feel so attached to those mentors,” Camuso said. “I trusted them so much, and it was such a bonding experience.”

Being new to hunting, Camuso has begun to learn about things she’d long heard to be true.

“I always hear about families out hunting and the tradition that is passed on, and never having experienced it, I didn’t understand how bonding that experience really is. It was really moving for me,” she said. “That was a totally unexpected benefit that was almost better than the meat itself, which is what I now consider to be these really good friends. That was almost the best part of the experience for me.”

Watch: A hunting pro demonstrates a turkey call

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...