As population thrives, fall turkey hunters see longer season, larger bag limits

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Citing a thriving wild turkey population that some have said is a bit too high, lawmakers this spring passed new laws that will allow fall turkey hunters to enjoy a long season and take more birds in many Wildlife Management Districts.

Those opportunities are coming right up, as Youth Turkey Day for the fall season will be observed on Saturday. Adult hunters can begin hunting on Monday, two weeks earlier than the previous fall season.

“[The general public’s perception] is we’ve got too many turkeys, and we have to do whatever we can to reduce the population and make hunting them easier,” said biologist Brad Allen, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s bird group leader.

Allen said some of the bill proposals were more extreme than he’d have liked, including one that would have increased the spring season bag limit from two to four birds per hunter, and the fall season bag limit from two to eight.

Allen said the DIF&W sought compromise, and the eventual bill increased the length of the fall season by starting it two weeks early, and came up with a flexible framework for bag limits that caps out at five birds per fall season in the areas that have the most turkeys, while not allowing any hunting at all in more northerly districts where the birds are still establishing sizeable flocks.

“While we respect the fact that we want more hunters and more harvest, how we get there concerns us,” Allen said.

Allen said that Maine has a turkey flock of around 60,000. In the more popular spring season, which coincides with the mating season for wild turkeys, about 6,000 birds were shot by hunters this year. Last fall, under the previous season framework, about 3,000 birds were shot. The number of hunters who purchase a turkey permit, which allows them to hunt both seasons, is typically between 18,000 and 20,000, he said.

Although other bills sought to make additional changes — such as allowing hunters to pursue a separate wild turkey permit, which currently costs $20, and tried to eliminate the mandatory registration of birds by successful hunters — both were unsuccessful.

Allen said mandatory registration is vital to the state’s management efforts, and said that it’s one thing that sets Maine apart from other states that have virtually no idea how many birds are taken each year, nor what the bird population is. And without a permit system, there would be no way of telling how many hunters were targeting the birds.

Among the specifics of this year’s fall turkey season:
— General season dates for all Wildlife Management Districts that allow hunting: Sept. 16-Nov. 7.
— There is no fall turkey season in WMDs 1-9 and 14.
— No more than two turkeys can be harvested by an individual per day.
— Season bag limits vary widely. Those hunting in WMDs 15-17 and 20-25 can harvest five birds of any sex or age per season.
— In WMD 26, the bag limit is three birds per season.
— In WMD 28, the bag limit is two birds per season.
— In WMDs 10-13, 18, 19, 27 and 29, the bag limit is one bird per season.

The fall season is different than the one staged in May. Hunters in the fall aren’t capitalizing on a turkey population that’s focused on mating, and turkeys don’t respond to calls that are designed to mimic lovesick birds.

Allen’s suggestion to turkey hunters looking to fill a tag or two is simple: Do your homework.

“I think you would have to pattern the birds and figure out where they are every day, what they’re feeding pattern is, and hunt them more like [you’re hunting] a deer I guess,” Allen said. “And there’s abundant wild foods out there right now. There’s acorns and apple crop is big, a lot of natural food.”

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