The sun was just rising behind the barn on another fine May morning in Maine. I was sitting on our back porch with a hot cup of coffee listening to the woods come alive for the day. A high-pitched rapid "Gobble gobble gobble!" sounded from the woods. May is the mating season for wild turkeys and this was a male (tom) turkey, still on his evening roost in a tall tree, calling to attract a female (hen) turkey. This is what I was listening for, and within about 15 minutes I'd heard two other toms gobbling from different parts of the woods between our place and the Northwest River.
My hunting buddy BNoe taught me the porch hunting trick and insists that it is the only civilized way to start a turkey hunt. He and I have both spent time out in the dark, cold spring woods listening for gobblers, but sitting on the back porch with hot coffee in hand is definitely the way to go if you can.
About Wild Turkeys
The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is a large bird and the largest game bird in North America. Adult toms can weigh between 10 and 25 pounds. The average adult hen weighs between 8 and 12 pounds. Toms are dark in color with iridescent feathers, while hens are lighter in coloration tending more toward brown and buff colored feathers. Toms have a fleshy, unfeathered head that is brightly colored in red, white and blue, especially during the mating season. They also sport a "beard" or bristle-like feathers that protrude from the chest and can grow to a foot long on older toms, as well as spurs that can be 1 ½ inches long. A young tom is called a "jake" and has a visible "beard" or grown of feathers under his chin, as well as short spurs on his legs. Hens have neither beards nor spurs.
Originally the eastern wild turkey was found in 39 states but was nearly wiped out from over-hunting and loss of habitat. In 1672 English naturalist John Josselyn noted "The English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that 'tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the [Maine] woods." Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have suggested that the wild turkey be our national emblem because of his majesty and intelligence, but in 1782 the bald eagle got chosen instead.
Today wild turkeys are found in 49 states thanks to successful reintroduction programs through the generosity of private citizens and the Wild Turkey Federation, as well as state wildlife agencies. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began reintroducing turkeys into the wild in 1977. Since then the birds have made an amazing comeback and can be seen in nearly every Maine County that will support them. Snow depth is believed to be the major factor limiting distribution of turkeys in Maine.
We now see turkeys everywhere in our area. There is often a flock of about 7-12 birds feeding on insects in our fields and eating blueberries from the ground under the bushes. Last spring I watched a mother turkey and her 4 poults carefully work their way down the rows of freshly transplanted cauliflower and peppers in our garden, daintily eating every plant. On a ramble in the woods I once flushed a hen with a dozen young poults, each about the size of a quail.
Turkeys are most often hunted during their spring mating season. In Maine they breed during April and May, and dominant toms do most of the breeding. Through elaborate strutting and gobbling toms will attempt to mate with as many hens as possible. The tom will "gobble" to let the hens know where he is, and to warn off other toms in his territory. After breeding, hens confine themselves to nesting and will lay up to ten or 12 eggs. The young turkeys are known as "poults".
Toms and hens roost in trees at night to reduce their vulnerability to predators. In the morning they leave their roosts to feed. During mating season toms will gobble before they leave their roosting trees in the early morning. When they go to roost at night, they will also sometimes gobble, especially if they hear a predator.
I've hunted wild turkeys in Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire and found them one of the hardest big game there is. Turkeys have acute hearing and keen full color vision, and are very intelligent. They are agile fliers as well. To even the odds turkey hunters dress in full camouflage, with leaf-patterned pants, jackets, caps, gloves and face masks. Even shotguns are camouflaged!
In 1986 a Maine spring turkey hunting season was introduced with 500 permits issued and 9 turkeys harvested. Since then the numbers of permits issued and turkeys harvested have steadily increased. Today Maine's turkey population is nearly 20,000 birds. This spring 7,800 permits were issued, and there will also be a short season this fall. Only the tom can be hunted, and it must have a visible "beard" to be legal. Turkeys are hunted in the morning, and all hunting ceases at noon each day of the season. They cannot be shot when in their roosting trees.
This spring I drew a permit for the "A" season (May 3-8 and 24-29) for my first Maine turkey hunt. Like any hunt, preparation is key. Before the season opened I listened for gobbling toms in the mornings. Evenings I got them to gobble as they went to roost by imitating the call of a barred owl. I scouted the woods looking for signs where turkeys had been scratching the ground for food. With my cedar box call I annoyed Penny and the dog trying to sound like an alluring, sexy hen turkey.
I have a 12-guage Browning auto-loading shotgun chambered for 3" magnum shells, with a 32" barrel. When I went goose hunting on the eastern shore of Maryland with Bob Carpenter it was a good gun for the game, but the pattern was not as tight as I would like for turkey hunting. I set up a paper target out back and paced off 40 yards from it. When I fired a #4 magnum shot shell at it the pattern had a large "hole" in it. A second shell with a second target had the same results. However, the Browning is the best shotgun I have for turkey hunting, so I dressed it up in a camouflage sleeve and got it ready for opening day of the season.
Opening Morning and the one that got away
Opening morning came I poured a cup of coffee and sat on the back porch listening for my gobbler. About 6:00 a.m. he sounded off from about a ¼ mile or so down in the woods.
Camouflaged from head to toe I worked my way across the wet grass in the field and onto an old skid trail that would take me in his direction. He hadn't gobbled again, so when I got about to where I thought I'd first heard him I stopped and waited. From a couple hundred yards away he gobbled, so I quickly settled in behind a log and made a short hen "cluck" on my cedar box call. He heard my call and gobbled back. I called once more, and it wasn't a minute or two later and a gobbler flew in, with a hen turkey close behind. I could see him through the trees about 50 yards from me, looking for the hen he had heard.
He was a medium size tom with a brilliant red-white-and-blue head and a short "beard". He was close enough so that he would have seen me if I moved. I didn't dare move to use my box call again and I didn't have a mouth call with me (I'm not very good at using a mouth call anyway and would probably have spooked him if I'd tried). The best I could do was sit still without moving a muscle and hardly breathing, and hope that he would come closer.
He worked his way closer looking for the new hen, but no closer than about 40 yards. He started to move away from me and it was now or never. I drew a bead on his head and fired at him. Everything happened all at once - the tom flew off in one direction and the hen in another, making loud yelps as she did!
I stood up and quickly went over to where the turkeys had been. My #4 birdshot had cut a few twigs and leaves, but there were no feathers, no bird, and no sign that I'd hit anything. I searched the area thoroughly just to make sure, but I figure that the tom had walked right through the hole in the pattern of my shotgun at that distance. He got away clean, a little smarter and wiser, and lived to see another day. By 7:30 I was back at the house, empty-handed.
Another try and I get my turkey!
I told my tale to Gene Bahr a friend up the road, and also a top-rate taxidermist and wildlife artist (see the website for his shop Wildlife Creations. Gene said "Why don't you borrow my turkey gun next time, and I'll come with you to help call him in."
"Sure," I said, tickled at a second chance to get my bird.
That evening I drove up to Gene's place and we went into his taxidermy shop where he made up a couple of targets. On a large piece of brown paper he traced around a plastic blank from his taxidermy supplies and drew the profile of a turkey head.
"Try this shotgun," he offered. "It has a lot of gobblers to its credit, and I think you'll do better than with that old goose gun you've been using. He has a Winchester Model 1300 pump shotgun; chambered for 3" magnum 12-guage shells, with an extremely tight full choke. He handed the gun to me and I found that it fit my shoulder nicely. Gene had painted it in muted camouflage colors just right for turkey hunting.
I leaned against the post on his front porch and fired a round of #5 shot at the paper turkey target propped up against a board at the edge of his field. We tried this three times, with different targets, and I was amazed at how tight and dense the pattern was at 40 yards. There were no holes big enough for a turkey to walk through, and it put my gun to shame. I was very pleased that Gene was willing to let me borrow it, and felt very comfortable with it.
I had some meetings to go to in Massachusetts the next couple of days, and couldn't go hunting again until the fourth day of the season. Gene came over about 5:30 a.m. and joined me on the back porch to listen and have our morning coffee. We only heard one tom, and he sounded pretty far away, down on the Northwest River somewhere. We finished our coffee and headed down in his direction. I carried Gene's Model 1300 and he had a couple of foam turkey decoys and his turkey calls.
We'd not gone more than half an hour when we heard first one, then two, and finally three gobblers calling much closer than the bird we'd heard from the porch. All of them were close at hand.
"Can we get uphill of one of these birds?" Gene asked.
"Yes, follow me," I said and led him over a little brook and along one of the ski trails I use in the direction of the bird we had heard to the south. We climbed a small ridge and got to where we were above where we thought the bird should be, and stopped to listen and get our breath.
The sound of a hen "Cluck, cluck" came up the ridge to us. Then the hen called again, loudly and persistently. "That's a hunter," Gene said, "and he's calling to much and too loudly. Let's get out of here and leave him be."
I agreed, remembering an embarassing incident while hunting turkeys in Michigan several years ago. From a spot under a big oak I was making hen noises on my call and was thrilled when a tom answered and slowly moved in my direction. Unfortunately it turned out to be another turkey hunter who was using a gobbler call, but fortunately I spotted him and left the area before he could get within shotgun range. With everyone in the woods in full camo it is always best to be cautious.
We headed north along the ski trail off the ridge, back across the brook. We heard two gobblers. One was close to where I had been hunting on the first day and might have been the bird I missed on opening day. There was a second further north.
"Let's try that one," Gene suggested. The second tom seemed to be calling louder and seemed to be down back of one of my neighbor's farm. We moved in its direction.
As I settled in behind a stone wall Gene put out two decoys and started to call. The gobbler was only about 75 yards away but was calling so steadily that he couldn't hear Gene. Gene signaled to me that he was going to move closer to the gobbler, and when he did he called again. Then he moved back, called again, and did the same one more time. The gobbler heard the call, and must have thought "There is a hen, and she is going away - I'd better go to her" because he immediately stopped gobbling and the next thing I knew I heard a "swoosh" as he flew in and landed about 45 yards away.
It was a good sized tom with a visible beard and brightly colored head. He immediately spotted the two hen decoys and started walking towards them, and then Gene called again, softly. Gene was behind me about 10 yards, and the gobbler came right towards me heading for the hen he heard. I already had my shotgun raised and aimed at the turkey, so I didn't have to move to shoot. It was a clean shot at about 25 yards and a nice bird.
I tagged the bird and we gathered up the decoys and walked back to my house. We got back about 7:30 and shared a couple of fingers of Black Bush in a toast to the turkey. When we checked him in at Jordan's store in East Sebago he weighed 16.1 pounds with a beard just shy of 5" long. He was a "jake" and not a full mature turkey. Not a record breaker by any measure, but legal and nonetheless a nice bird for my first Maine turkey.
Gene will mount the turkey's tail feathers and beard for me in a traditional board mount, and we'll have Gene and his family over for wild turkey dinner sometime soon. I have found wild turkeys are more flavorful than domestic, farm raised birds, but the pleasure is as much as getting out in the woods, attuning your senses to the wild, and enjoying good companionship. Being able to start the hunt from the back porch makes it even more special.
Last updated June 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree