The other evening, Gene Hyatt was at home in Glen Burnie doing what he likes best -- working on game calls and talking turkey.
Hyatt, president of the Central Maryland Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is an acknowledged master of both after spending 26 of his 44 years hunting wild turkey in Maryland, West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
"It's a tough bird to fool, and I guess that is the best of hunting it," said Hyatt, an electrician currently recovering from surgery on his back, which was broken in three places.
"You have to work in real close to them because the birds have eyes like 10-power binoculars and their ears are just as good -- and even then you can't move because turkeys have a 270-degree field of view."
The challenge of taking such a wily bird and a highly successful state repopulation program in the past decade has raised the popularity of turkey hunting in Maryland, which will open its spring season for bearded birds on April 18.
The season is open statewide until May 16, with a basic limit of one bearded turkey. Hunters who failed to take a turkey in the previous fall season can take two bearded birds in the spring.
With the opener less than three weeks away, hunters should be scouting areas they plan to hunt, and Hyatt said the simplest way to start is to get out early to the wood lines where turkeys roost and to listen and look carefully.
"First, you go out and scout, looking for scratches [where birds have cleared away ground cover to expose dusty patches] and droppings of the male, whose is in a J-shape, and the female, whose is in a pile like an ice cream cone," said Hyatt, who for the past five years has spent much time making videos of turkeys in the wild for call manufacturers in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
"If you're hunting the mountains, you want to look around spring seeps on the southeast slopes, where it gets the first sun, the first vegetation and the first bugs. The hens will be there because when the polts hatch they will need the bugs, which are very high in protein."
The hens, said Hyatt, will draw the bearded males, or toms.
Prospective areas in flatter terrain are the edges of wood lots where the sun hits the ground at the most effective angle at this time of year and the plants and bugs should be most abundant early.
At this time of year, the birds will be breaking out of winter flocks, with the change in assembly staggered east to west in stages roughly governed by warming conditions.
"What you get is groups of 30 to 60 hens together, with a group of six, eight, 10 bachelors close by," said Hyatt, and in the spring hunt that is when the skill of the hunter comes into play.
"In the spring, you're really trying to reverse nature," said Hyatt, for several years a guide with Briary Mountain Lodge, which has parties hunting West Virginia and Western Maryland.
"Because when you call the birds, you're trying to change their normal behavior."
In the natural course of events, hens go to the toms to mate, with the dominant male handling most of the action and the dominant hen keeping order among the females.
"To get the tom to come to you, you have to get the hen to come first," Hyatt said, adding that dominant males and females are extremely territorial. "If you can pick up on what the dominant hen -- she'll be the loudest of them -- is doing, you can argue with her while calling. If you can do it right, she will come to where you are to run you away and bring the rest of the flock -- and most likely the dominant male -- with her."
Hyatt said spring tactics are entirely different than those he uses in the fall, when he will find the birds, get them airborne and move 50 yards uphill before calling them to assemble where he has taken a new position.
In the spring season, hunters can have a decided advantage if they can read the phase the birds are in -- breaking winter flock, assembling, mating or nesting -- because the phases are staggered from east to west.
And in a year such as this, when Western Maryland was particularly hard hit by the severe winter, there is the possibility of a pronounced difference in the timing of the phases.
In 1993, after another long winter, Hyatt and friends opened the spring season in Calvert County, and the birds were making little noise, suggesting the mating had begun.
"They had hit what we call a lull, when there was not much gobbling or activity, and the hunting was tough," Hyatt said. "But the word in Western Maryland was that the birds were still in winter flock."
Wanting to find birds that were noisy and on the move, Hyatt and his friends moved out to Green Ridge State Forest, where the turkeys could be expected to be breaking winter flock or assembling.
"And even though I hadn't been there in 18 years, we found some promising birds at 8: 20, and by 8: 35 had called two long beards in," Hyatt said. "We didn't get either one of them, but just watching and filming them can be good enough."
A good plan this year, Hyatt said, might be to try for the birds on the Eastern Shore early in the first week of the season, and when the lull hits there at the end of the first week or the middle of the second, move to the area from the Frederick Municipal Watershed west toward Hagerstown.
In the third week, try the area from Hagerstown to Deep Creek Lake, before finally moving to the far western reaches of the state.
Pub Date: 3/31/96