The turkey hunt in Maine seems to have plateaued, despite two extra weeks and an increase in the bag limit in the fall. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Last year, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife expanded hunting opportunities and attempted to encourage a larger harvest by opening the fall turkey season two weeks earlier and increasing the bag limit from two to five birds of either sex in some Wildlife Management Districts.

Despite this, the total 2019 harvest of 1,980 turkeys was about on par with recent trends. Why?

One possible explanation is the abundance of natural foods. Maine experienced a bumper acorn crop in 2019. With a preferred food in such abundant and widespread supply, turkeys were spread out across the landscape, potentially reducing encounters with hunters. That’s expected to change and the harvest could be higher this year, but there are other factors to consider.

A likelier reason for the less-than-expected harvest is that interest in fall turkey hunting has reached a plateau. That certainly seems to be the case for spring turkey hunting. Despite a five-week season with a two-bird limit, the spring harvest has not changed significantly over the last five years. Additionally, turkeys are about the only game in town for spring hunters. In fall, the birds have far more competition for attention with upland bird, waterfowl and archery seasons all open too.

Fall hunting is different as well. Spring is mating season and the birds are more vocal. The object of the spring hunt is to lure a randy tom into range by mimicking a love-sick hen. It’s interactive and exciting. The fall hunt tends to be more casual, and many birds are taken as targets of opportunity by bowhunters.

Still, the fall hunt has a certain charm. For starters, its roots go much farther back than the spring hunt. It is the true traditional method, so eloquently described by scribes like Archibald Rutledge, who placed the birds – and those who pursue them – in a higher class of sportsmen.

Fall hunters have more options as well. Lying in ambush and calling can be effective but requires far more patience. Rather than the urgent quest to find a breeding partner you’re relying on the turkey’s proclivity for social interaction. Turkeys like to be with other turkeys in the fall. Unfortunately, they usually are, which makes the likelihood of drawing one away from a group to find another loner a very low percentage prospect. However, this predisposition presents an Achilles’ heel to the hunter.

Another traditional fall method consists of busting or scattering a flock. Rather than waiting for them to approach, the hunter tries to get as close as they can to a flock of birds, then charges at them, whooping and hollering as they do. Sometimes you get a bad break and all or most of the birds flee in one general direction. If you can scatter them in several different directions, the game is on.

Now it’s time to apply a variation on spring hunting methods. The hunter sets up at or near the location of the break and begins calling. It may take hours, or only minutes, but eventually you’ll hear the plaintive “kee-kees” of lonely young birds and the long, drawn out assembly yelps of adult hens. The hunter need only to mimic what they hear, with a little more volume and intensity than the real thing. This method can sometimes yield multiple opportunities and shots from a single break.

Another advantage to the fall hunt is that it’s not so time sensitive. In spring, most of the activity takes place in the first hour or two of daylight. You don’t need to be in the woods before dawn in the fall, though it helps. Turkeys are active throughout the morning and afternoon, and busting a flock can be effective most any time, though the action does slow down considerably during the middle of the day.

Yet another advantage is that there are more birds, and in larger assemblages. Hens and their nearly grown young often form large flocks with similar family groups making them easier to spot. These groups can be quite noisy as well, scratching the leaves and yelping and whistling, which makes them easier to hear from a distance. Walking quietly along a hardwood ridge, listening for the distant din you can sometimes predict their general direction of travel and position yourself to intercept them. They may waltz right into your lap but if they don’t you can always revert to the scattering method.

There’s something to be said for serendipity as well. Bowhunters waiting patiently for a wily whitetail to wander by should be prepared for a troop of turkeys to tromp through. Their keen eyesight makes your odds of drawing and shooting a bow far less likely than with deer, but it can be done. Targeting toms in the fall is another story, which we’ll save for another day.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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