In late October in Maryland, the first frost of the year signals the approaching holiday season, brilliant autumn foliage drifts to the ground in the crisp autumn breeze, and the aroma of freshly baked pumpkin pie fills the air. To many Marylanders, this is the essence of fall.

For some, however, this time of the year also means wild turkey hunting, which enjoys a long, rich tradition and a faithful A pair of adult gobblers.following among western Maryland sportsmen and women. It is a time when families come together and time-tested skills are passed down from one generation to the next. For many, it is the time to make their annual pilgrimage up to mountain hunting camps where they revel in stories of past outings and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow hunters. No matter what motivates hunters to pursue this magnificent game bird, a turkey hunt nearly always results in an experience not soon forgotten.

From the Verge of Extinction
Wild turkey populations are at all-time highs across the state and our western counties are proudly leading the way. However, this has not always been the case. With colonization came unrestricted hunting and extensive timber harvesting, a combination that sent turkey numbers, along with other forest wildlife that shared their habitat, plummeting.

By the turn of the twentieth century, only remnants of Maryland's once abundant turkey populations remained. In fact, in 1919, state Game Warden F. Lee LeCompte concluded, "Wild turkeys, outside a few sections in the western counties of our state, are practically extinct."

Thanks to a 30-year restoration program spearheaded by the Department of Natural Resources and partners such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, the bird can now be found in every Maryland county. Not since precolonial times have wild turkeys been so plentiful and widespread across the state, and with their comeback has arisen a renewed interest in turkey hunting, most of which is a result of the introduction of a spring season.


Big Toms Equal
Big Business for Maryland

Turkey hunters and watchers spend a great deal of money on everything from turkey calls and camouflage clothing to binoculars and cameras, resulting in millions of dollars flowing into Maryland's economy. Although it is difficult to assess the exact benefit of turkeys to the economy, reasonable estimates can be obtained from recent surveys.1

  • On average, big-game hunters, including turkey hunters, spend $529 annually on hunting trips and equipment in Maryland. The approximately 15,000 turkey hunters in Maryland bring an economic benefit to the state estimated to be more than $7.9 million annually.
     
  • It is estimated that each of the 1.3 million Maryland wildlife watchers spends about $566 per year observing or photographing wildlife. Even if as little as one half of one percent of those expenditures were related to wild turkeys, the economic gain to the state would be approximately $3.7 million annually.

1U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.


Turkeys typically congregate in flocks during the fall and winter.

This season allows for hunting at a non-traditional time of year-a time when sportsmen can experience the thrill of thunderous gobbles and dazzling mating displays that occur only during the spring.

Nonetheless, fall hunting is arguably more challenging than spring hunting, for it takes skill and perseverance to consistently outwit the wily mountain turkeys in October.
The fall turkey season is relatively short, about one week, which has minimal impact upon the overall population. This year, the season extends from October 25 to November 2. Only one turkey can be harvested in the fall season, which does count towards the yearly bag limit of two turkeys.

Wild turkey populations have increased from only a few thousand in the 1970's to more than 30,000 in recent years.As would be expected, DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service conducts a variety of surveys to monitor turkey populations, which aid in the management of the species. Through these efforts, Marylanders will avoid repeating the history of overexploitation, ensuring that wild turkeys continue to be a treasured part of our heritage for years to come.

Where to Go
The fall season is limited to the traditional strongholds of Maryland's turkey populations: Garrett, Allegany, and Washington Counties. Here, hunters will find picturesque mountains that create the perfect backdrop for pursuit of these wary birds.
The terrain is rugged and the forests are vast, so hunters should be prepared to log some miles on their boots if they expect to be successful. Turkeys are abundant throughout the region, but preseason scouting can help stack the odds in the hunters favor.

Large expanses of public lands enable everyone to find a great place to hunt, although the most popular sites are in Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County and Savage River State Forest in Garrett County. On nearly 100,000 combined acres, hunters can explore the remote forests with relatively little competition, but they should not overlook the region's smaller public tracts. Excellent turkey habitat can be found in most state forests and parks, and all six wildlife management areas in the region harbor plenty of birds.
 


Spring Turkey Hunting Just Keeps Getting Better

Unlike the traditional fall turkey season, spring hunters can venture into the woods anywhere in the state to test their skills against these magnificent birds. Spring hunting allows sportsmen and women to hunt when other popular hunting seasons, such as those for deer and waterfowl, are closed. This type of hunting can be exciting, for the birds readily respond to calling and often send thunderous gobbles echoing through the forest.

Since the spring season was opened in 1970, interest in the sport has risen to an all-time high. Currently, there are more than 15,000 spring turkey hunters in Maryland, and they harvest about 3,000 turkeys annually. The season now lasts five weeks from mid-April to late May, giving hunters ample opportunities to head afield.

The Strategy
Scouting is the key to consistently bagging a fall turkey. Typically, turkeys travel and feed in flocks ranging in size from a dozen to more than 100 birds. Unlike in the spring when their attention is focused on breeding and nesting, turkeys in the fall concentrate on locating foods that will prepare them for the coming harsh winter conditions. Acorns rank at the top of the list, but they also readily consume beechnuts, wild grapes and other wild fruits and seeds. Hunters who can locate the food source are well on their way to finding the turkeys.

Wild turkeys have exceptionally keen eyesight, finely tuned hearing and an uncanny ability to escape danger. The chances of stalking within range of even one turkey are low, let alone a flock of 50. Imagine 100 eyes diligently searching for something out of place!

For this reason the most commonly employed tactic is to break up the flock. This is accomplished by charging the flock while screaming and shouting, causing the birds to scatter in all directions. The skilled hunter will then patiently sit motionless, occasionally imitating their assembly call, aptly termed the "kee-kee run," as it consists of a series of kee-kee notes. It may take several hours, but the call should eventually entice a curious turkey within gun range. Later, that turkey will become a delicious Thanksgiving feast, but the fond memories of outwitting the clever bird will far outlast the meal itself.


Turkey Hunting Safety

Turkey hunting is a very safe pastime. In fact, it is four times safer than ping-pong, and you are 50 times more likely to end up in the emergency room when playing golf. However, there is some inherent risk in hunting wild turkeys. To help reduce the probability of an accident and allow for an enjoyable hunt, the National Wild Turkey Federation developed the following Code of Conduct that every turkey hunter should follow.

A responsible turkey hunter should...

  1. Not let peer pressure or the excitement of the hunt cloud his judgment;
  2. Learn and practice safe hunting techniques;
  3. Hunt the wild turkey fairly;
  4. Know the capabilities and limitations of his firearms, and use them safely;
  5. Obey and support all wildlife laws, and report all violations;
  6. Respect the land and the landowner, and always obtain permission before hunting;
  7. Avoid knowingly interfering with an- other hunter, and respect the right of others to lawfully share the outdoors;
  8. Value the hunting experience, and appreciate the beauty of the wild turkey;
  9. Positively identify the target as a legal bird, and insist on a good shot;
  10. Share responsible turkey hunting with others, and work for turkey conservation.

More safety tips...

  • Although not a legal requirement, the DNR encourages turkey hunters to wear fluorescent orange.
  • Do not wear clothes with the colors red, black, white or blue, which are the colors found on wild turkeys.
  • Never stalk a turkey or a turkey sound, for it may in reality be another hunter.
  • Should you see another hunter approaching in the woods, shout to the hunter to indicate where you are. Do not wave your arms or make turkey noises, you might be mistaken for a turkey.
  • Protect your back by sitting against a large tree or rock.

Bob Long...
is the Wild Turkey and Upland Game Bird Project Manager for DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. He is an avid hunter and has spent many hours pursuing fall turkeys near his family's cabin in north-central Pennsylvania.

Additional information regarding wild turkeys and turkey hunting opportunities in Maryland can be found on the DNR website at www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/

For more information on the National Wild Turkey Federation and current conservation activities in Maryland, visit www.nwtf.org. The NWTF provided the photos for this article.
 


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