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Bag Limits Hiked as Maine's Wild Turkey Population Soars
10/25/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

We're into the last week now of Maine's fall turkey hunting season - just a few days left to bag yourself a wild-caught bird to put in the freezer for Thanksgiving. This year, for the first time, Maine's wild turkey hunters are being allowed to bag two birds instead of one. They're also getting a longer season - a month instead of one week. That's because wild turkeys have gone from being non-existent here 40 years ago, to being so numerous they're becoming a pest. Tom Porter tagged along on a turkey hunt earlier this week.

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Turkey hunting 1

It's a sunny, chilly morning in central Maine, and George Smith (left) is setting out on a wild turkey hunt with his father Ezra, who's 90. It's their 54th year hunting together.

George, a lifelong outdoorsman and former director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, has already bagged his allowance of two turkeys this fall. Ezra has got just one.

Tom Porter and Ezra SmithSo today, the plan is for Ezra (right in lower photo, with Tom Porter) to wait in one spot with his gun, while George and I look for turkeys and try to herd them in Ezra's direction.

"So we're hunting on one farmer's land - 150 acres - and turkeys and deer are both a problem for this farmer," Smith says. "So he really welcomes us out here and we enjoy hunting on his land."

Tom Porter: "So, Ezra, are you feeling lucky today?"

Ezra Smith: "I do. I'm lucky to be alive. This is a special place for me."

Ezra recollects how he used to come to this very farm to hunt with friends as a boy some 80 years ago. "Oh, I'd borrow my dad's shotgun," he says. "We lived on a farm down the road a couple of miles."

Tom Porter: "Not many turkeys, if any around in those days."

Ezra Smith: "No turkeys then, no. It was all partridge."

In fact, when Ezra was born, Maine had been turkey-free for about 100 years, says Brad Allen, a bird biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. They were hunted out of existence by about the time Maine became a state.

"They were absent from probably 1820 until 1977," Allen says, "and we restored them."

A few dozen wild turkeys were brought over from Vermont and released into the Maine wilderness. The birds proved tougher than anticipated and Maine's wild turkey population exploded. Thirty-six years later there are an estimated 60,000 of them throughout the state.

Some put the number at several times that. In residential areas, wild turkeys are getting into people's bird-feeders and ruining gardens. On the roads, they've flown into moving vehicles. And, says Allen, they're also proving a headache for farmers.

"We have, obviously, blueberry growers concerned about too many birds in their fields," he says. "We have dairy farmers concerned about, in the winter time when these turkeys are stressed, a lot of them end up on dairy farmers' fields and silos, and the turkeys like to get up on top of that and pick through for corn and things."

Allen says part of the solution to the problem is more hunting. About 8,000 wild turkeys were caught by hunters last year. The expansion of the bag limit for both the fall and the spring wild turkey seasons means hunters will, for the first time, be able to shoot four birds every year.

"What we've been doing lately is creating as much hunting opportunity as we can, because we'd like hunters to be able to take care of these issues," Allen says.

Meanwhile, back on the central Maine wild turkey hunt, George Smith points to some freshly-scraped patches of dirt - clear evidence that turkeys were here recently looking for food. "See these places?" he points. "Turkeys scraped all of this up."

Tom Porter: "Looking for acorns?"

George Smith: "Yeah. You can see they've eaten some. But there's plenty more."

As we head down a steep wooded hillside, George suddenly freezes, and listens. He spots some turkey hens in the distance.
I don't see them, but I can hear them - barely.

But instead of walking to where we want them to go - towards Ezra and his gun - the birds out-manuever us and cross a road at the bottom of the hill, into land which is posted, so we cannot pursue them.

Tom Porter: "They're pretty smart."

George Smith: "I believe their brain is like a pea size, so it's pretty embarrassing to be outwitted by a bird with a pea brain."

Joking aside, Smith says wild turkeys may be plentiful, but they're harder to hunt than you might think.

"People will say they're all over our lawns, they must be easy to get. They're actually quite difficult to get," he says. "They're pretty wary, they do run, they have tremendous eyesight. It's much more difficult than you would imagine. Sure you might be able to wander out on somebody's backyard sometimes and get one, but the way we hunt, it's not that easy."

More often than not, he says, you don't get to shoot a turkey even if you see one. But after more than a half-century hunting together, George Smith and his father have learned there's more to it than simply getting a kill.

"It's a really fun sport, and to be out at this time of year, on a beautiful morning here, it's just great," George Smith says.

George Smith pens an outdoor news blog. You can find it here.

Photo of George Smith:  Tom Porter

Photo of Ezra Smith and Tom Porter:  George Smith


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