Wild turkeys should have plenty of food available and a robust population so there should be plenty of birds around this spring, as long as the winter weather is not too severe. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Happy New Year, and it should be. There are plenty of reasons for Maine hunters to be optimistic about what 2021 has in store. Game populations are healthy and opportunity abounds.

Let’s take a look.

We’ll start with turkeys as they’ll be first up on the 2021 hunting calendar. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) has, until recently, taken a fairly conservative approach to managing our turkey population, allowing it to grow while still providing ample opportunity to harvest some surplus. Recent liberalizations on both the spring and fall bag limits gave cause for concern that the flocks might be over-harvested, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

While the turkey population continues to grow and expand its range statewide, local populations have leveled out in many areas. They also fluctuate from year to year based largely on environmental conditions like winter severity and spring rains. Last spring’s hatch was about average, so with plenty of food available and a robust population going into winter there should be plenty of birds around this spring. Of course, that hinges on how the rest of the winter works out. Turkeys can travel on top of crusty snow but deep powder makes moving and finding food more difficult.

Canada geese will often ‘migrate’ from inland waters in Maine to the coast, like these standing near ice floes in the Cousins River in Yarmouth in 2014. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Resident Canada geese are, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a nuisance. That’s why they established early seasons with liberal bag limits of 10 birds a day. The migration of these locals consists of little more than moving to the coast and open water, where they’ll while away the winter before returning inland to occupy golf courses and backyard ponds. There’s little reason to think there won’t be at least as many around this fall, maybe more.

The story is different for their more migratory cousins. Their populations are down, in large part due to late, cold springs that left breeding grounds covered in snow and ice when the birds arrived. This is important as more migratory populations take longer to mature and reproduce, lay fewer eggs and generally have lower survival and annual productivity rates. Expect bag limits to be similarly conservative and geese less abundant during the regular waterfowl seasons.

Last fall’s duck migration was strong, a result of average to above-average breeding conditions and a stable population of breeding ducks. It was something of a question mark as the federal breeding population and habitat surveys were cancelled last spring. However, long-term data indicate most populations are well above average. Here again, much will depend on spring breeding conditions but the future seems bright.

There was a good crop of grouse around last fall, owing largely to a relatively mild and dry spring. Here, too, nesting conditions are the key variable to how many birds will be around this fall. Cold and rain after hatching can have a significant impact on productivity, while a warm, dry spring could produce another bumper crop of birds.

The population of black bears is healthy. Abundant food also means bears entered their dens in good shape and a hunter should expect a good season. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Our bear population continues to grow while IFW explores ways to stem the tide and reduce human-bear interaction. From a hunter’s perspective it’s a good problem. The 2020 harvest was above average and above objective levels, despite an abundance of natural fall food. There’s no cause for concern, however, as the bear herd could use a little extra thinning. Abundant food also means bears entered their dens in good shape and productivity should be good. Expect a good season and possibly an opportunity for hunters to harvest multiple bears.

The moose herd has struggled in recent years, in large part because of winter tick infestation. Productivity is down and hunter success rates average around 70 percent. Much depends on management as permits are limited and awarded on a management district basis. Winter will be a factor – as it always is – but things should be about on par this fall.

Last but not least are white-tailed deer. The herd is healthy to say the least, as evidenced by the abundance of any-deer permits issued this fall and a total harvest of over 33,000. We had a bumper mast crop for the second consecutive year so deer entered winter in very good condition. Mild conditions so far bode well for winter survival and this year’s deer crop should be as good as, or better than, 2020.

All in all, 2021 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for hunters. Interest is high and opportunity abounds. Greater interest among youngsters and a mentoring program for adults will also help keep this proud tradition strong. Good luck out there and be safe.

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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