Over the next month, more than 13,000 hunters will hit the woods to hunt bearded turkeys during Maryland's spring season, though fewer than 20 percent of them will bring home a bird -- even in a record-setting season such as last year.
The low success rate is due to the wily nature of the wild turkey, which Benjamin Franklin once proposed as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle.
In Maryland, the wild turkey population has been re-established in all counties through a trap-and-transfer program in which Department of Natural Resources game managers have relocated wild birds from Allegany and Garrett counties.
Steve Bittner, the state's forest game project manager, said recently that prospects are good in all counties because birds across the state "did very well over the winter." It is possible that hunters will surpass the record of 2,541 set last year.
"However, last summer's brood was off more in the western part of the state, so we might experience a drop in the kill out west," he said. Still, the bulk of the birds taken this spring again will come from the western counties, where populations have been established.
"In the eastern and central counties, birds are still growing into new habitat," said Bittner.
The turkey, the state's largest game bird, has keen hearing and eyesight and even during the spring usually is cautious, almost secretive.
Although the spring season is timed to come after the majority of birds have mated, the male turkey's interest in mating lingers, and the decoy yelp of a willing hen should still turn the head of an eager tom, while the imitation gobble of a male might draw gunfire.
Hunter orange is not required when hunting turkeys, and total camouflage is the rule for hunters -- which in crowded public hunting areas can make the spring season a nervous time.
To help avoid confusion, mark your position by tying a strip of fluorescent orange to an easily visible tree trunk and secure the ends so they do not flap in the breeze. Also avoid wearing clothing that includes black, red, blue and white, all of which are included in the male's plumage.
Shooting time begins 30 minutes before sunrise, but plan on being in position perhaps an hour earlier.
Once there in the morning, use the owl call again -- sparingly -- to see if roosting birds respond. And if they were there the night before, they probably will still be around.
As the darkness thins, before sunrise, the challenge of the hunt begins in earnest, by calling to a gobbler as if an eager hen, yelping just enough to allow the gobbler to fix the location and begin to move. Be patient, be still, be silent except for periodic yelps.
If the gobbler is talking turkey with you, let him carry the conversation, all the while (hopefully) moving closer to your position.
Some hunters also have experienced dominant hens moving to check out the yelp of another female moving into their territory. As you see or hear the bird moving through the brush into your field of fire, check your target, check the backdrop and shoot only when you know the turkey is bearded -- and feathered, of course.
Dates: Today-May 16, all counties
Hours: Thirty minutes before sunrise until noon, Monday through Saturday
Limits: Season is open on bearded turkeys only, with a limit of one per season, unless no turkey was taken the previous fall season, and then two per season on separate days.
Pub Date: 4/18/97