Although turkey population numbers in New England have, along with the rest of the eastern United States, been in a long, slow period of decline, there are still plenty of birds available for hunters who are willing to rise at 3 a.m. and hunt as long as the law allows.
The joy of spring turkey hunting is that these big birds boldy tell you where they are via their lusty gobbling and, if you play your calls right, will literally come running to the gun â€“ easy, right?
Some hunts are just that simple, but of course most of the time the process is quite a bit more challenging, such as when a jealous hen decides to intercept your strutting tom at the very last instant. All in all, however, any turkey hunter in New England should be able to find and hunt a lusty longbeard this spring. What happens after that is entirely up to serendipity.
With these basic thoughts in mind, here's a look at each New England state's long-term trends, 2017 spring harvest numbers and the outlook for spring 201.
Bay State spring turkey hunters tagged 3,179 bearded birds in 2017. The overall harvest was about average over the previous five years, with very little variation across the state. Worcester County topped the harvest totals with 820 birds, nearly double the number of toms taken in any other county, which has been the trend in recent seasons. Other top-ranking counties included Franklin (482), Berkshire (364), Plymouth (256) and Hampshire (245).
Masswildlife biologists expect similar results for the 2018 spring turkey season. Turkey hunting is allowed in Zones 1-13 and the spring bag limit is two bearded turkeys. Hunters may also opt to kill one spring gobbler and one fall turkey, but the total number of birds that may be taken in one calendar year is two.
Hunters may use shotguns, muzzleloaders or archery gear to take their spring toms. Crossbows are not allowed except by special permit and Sunday hunting is illegal. Spring hunting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise till noon.
A person is allowed to call turkeys for another person provided that the person doing the calling has both a hunting or sporting license and a current valid turkey permit. However, if the person doing the calling has killed his or her season limit of turkeys, that person may not carry a firearm or archery equipment, or engage in turkey hunting in any way other than calling.
For more information including where to hunt on public land in each zone, log onto masswildlife.com.
The most recent harvest figures for the Nutmeg State revealed that turkey hunters tagged a total of 1,335 bearded turkeys in 2016, including 883 jakes, 450 adult toms and two bearded hens. A total of 8,655 turkey-hunting permits were issued. At least one bird was taken in every town in Connecticut. Nine towns posted harvests of 21 or more birds and four towns showed kills of 30 or more birds. Leading the list of turkey harvest towns were Woodstock (49), Stafford (33), Ashford (31) and Haddam (31).
Most hunters targeted Patchaug, Natchaug and Cockaponset state forests for their public land hunts, plus three wildlife management areas.
According to Connecticut turkey biologists, the 2016 spring harvest was near the long-term average of 35 years of turkey hunting in the state. Although 2016 showed a slightly lower harvest rate overall, biologists said that the reduced kill was likely a result of a decline in hunter participation rather than any reduction in nesting success or in the overall turkey population.
According to the most recent turkey nesting and brood survey results hunters can expect a similar number of birds to be available when Connecticut's spring turkey-hunting season opens in 2018.
For more information log onto ct.gov/deep.
The most recent figures available for Maine's spring turkey hunt are from 2016, but, as is the case throughout the Northeast, hunter success has not changed much over the last several years. Also, nesting success is on par with recent seasons as are winter survival rates, which, this far north in the turkey's range, can make a big difference from year to year.
In 2016 Maine's turkey hunters harvested a total of 5,154 birds. The bag limit in southern Maine is two bearded birds while in the northern districts (1 through 6) the bag limit is one bearded bird.
Maine's 2018 spring turkey-hunting season runs from April 30 through June 2 with few additional changes in seasons, bag limits or other restrictions. Crossbows are legal for spring turkeys but may not be used during the fall season. Sunday hunting is illegal in Maine.
As might be expected, the highest harvest occurs in the southern half of the Pine Tree State, which is heavily forested with some farm land and comparatively mild winters. Although turkey numbers are down from the historic highs of the 1980s there are still plenty of birds available for hunters.
One unique aspect of Maine's spring turkey hunt is that, under current law, hunters are allowed access to any private land that is not specifically posted. State game wardens recommend that hunters seek landowner permission to trespass whenever possible but in the most remote areas it's often difficult to discern who owns the land or where they live. Of course, hunters are advised to treat the land they hunt on with due respect, walking in whenever possible and returning all fences, gates and other improvements as they were found.
Maine also has over 100,000 acres of wildlife management areas where some good turkey hunting may be found. In southern Maine, try the 5,000-acre Vernon Walker WMA in Newfield, while in central Maine the 5,000-acre Bud Leavitt WMA is a good choice. Both areas are well managed for turkey habitat and have plenty of roads and trails that provide easy access.
For maps and more information about Maine's spring turkey-hunting opportunities, log into mefishwildlife.com.
Preliminary results for New Hampshire's May 2016 spring gobbler season shows that hunters harvested 3,821 turkeys during the spring hunt. This is 172 fewer gobblers (4.3 percent) than the 3,993 taken in the 2015 spring season.
"It was thought that the May 2016 harvest total might exceed 4,000 gobblers, but poor hunting weather the first week probably reduced the potential harvest somewhat," said Ted Walski, long-time New Hampshire Fish and Game department turkey biologist. "Opening day (May 3) was a foggy morning after a hard rain of 1.25 inches the previous day. On Wednesday, May 4, it rained most of the day dropping another 1.5 inches. On Sunday, May 8, it rained again in the morning."
Another factor reducing the harvest, according to Walski, was the very early green-up. Spring-like conditions typical for the end of March were in evidence by March 7. The month of April saw 18 "thawing days" of 50 degrees or greater. By May 17, leaves were budding out on the trees, reducing visibility and absorbing sound — and making it more difficult for hunters to see and hear turkeys.
"Interest in turkey hunting continues to grow in New Hampshire," Walski noted. "We've come a long way since 1980, the first year a turkey hunting season was offered in New Hampshire in modern times, when just over 700 permit holders harvested 31 turkeys."
Of the Granite State's 18 wildlife management units, J2 (north of Route 4 to Lake Winnipesaukee) had the most turkeys taken (627), followed by K (mostly western Hillsboro county) with 461, then M (435) and L (381) in the Rockingham/Strafford county region, and then H2 (409) in Cheshire County.
The 2017 spring season (May 3-31, 2017) resulted in a harvest of 4,482 turkeys, the second-highest total on record, Walski added, noting that dry conditions in 2016 resulted in good hatching conditions. The winter of 2016-2017 was relatively easy for turkeys, resulting in good survival.
Overall, New Hampshire's current harvest levels are within the levels set by the department and no additional changes in seasons or bag limits are expected in 2018.
To simplify matters for spring turkey hunters the best advice is to head for the White Mountain National Forestlands (generally the north-central portion of the state) where more than 800,000 acres are open to hunting in some of the best turkey habitat in the state. New Hampshire also has several state forests and wildlife management areas where spring turkey hunting is allowed.
For more information log onto wildlife.state.nh.
In 2016 a total of 7,929 turkey licenses were purchased for the spring and fall turkey seasons, and that led to an annual harvest of 6,809 wild turkeys. Of those, 6,065 were bearded turkeys, including bearded females. Turkeys were harvested statewide in all 21 WMUs. Most turkeys (81 percent) were harvested during the regular spring season.
During the two-day spring youth season, young hunters accompanied by older mentors harvested 662 bearded turkeys and enjoyed a success rate of 31 percent. This is higher than the previous two years (23 percent) and combined reflects a 26 percent rolling three-year average.
Vermont allows only half-day hunting during both the youth season and the regular spring season. The youth season is traditionally the last weekend in April while the regular spring season is through the month of May. The bag limit is two bearded birds in the spring. Harvest registration is mandatory for all successful turkey hunters.
Vermont's 2016 spring seasons resulted in a harvest of 5,537 bearded birds, which is slightly above the rolling three-year average of 5,497. The 2016 spring figure includes the 662 turkeys taken during the April youth turkey hunting weekend. The youth season contribution to the total spring turkey harvest was 12 percent, which is 2 percent higher than occurred in 2015. Resident hunters took 93 percent of the total spring harvest. Hunter success rates for the regular spring season remained high in 2016 at 21 percent. As in most years, an impressive 33 percent of successful hunters also harvested a second bearded bird to fill their two-bird regular spring season bag limit.
Hunting pressure in 2016, measured in terms of spring turkey license sales sold by June 1, 2016 (16,655), was higher than the rolling three-year average of 16,091 licenses.
As is the case in neighboring New Hampshire, Vermont's spring turkey hunters would do well to focus their efforts on the Green Mountain National forest, which covers more than 350,000 acres in central and southern Vermont. This region is replete with mountainous, hardwood-covered terrain plus plenty of open fields and farmland, which provides excellent habitat for turkeys year-round.
For more information on Vermont's wild turkey hunting opportunities, log onto vtfishwildlife.com.
The 2016 Rhode Island spring turkey season was held April 28 to May 23, 2016. Turkey hunters reported harvesting 122 birds, a 7-percent increase from a harvest of 114 birds taken during the 2015 season. The harvest includes 7 birds taken during the youth hunter and paraplegic hunter seasons. The hunter success rate was 12 percent.
Mandatory harvest reporting is required using pre-paid kill report post cards distributed with the hunting permits.
This years' reported harvest total is an increase from the number of birds reported in 2015. The 2016 season was preceded by a very mild winter with average temperatures well above normal in December and January.
Turkeys were harvested in 22 of 39 towns from around the state. The top five towns in harvest this year were Tiverton (13), Foster (10), Coventry (11), Richmond (9) and Burrillville (8). Private land accounted for a majority of the harvested birds (89 percent). Only 12 birds were taken on eight different state wildlife management areas.
The first week of the season accounted for 49 percent of the harvest (56 birds). Another 21 percent (24 birds) were taken during the second week, with 12 percent (14 birds) were tagged during the third week and 18 percent (21 birds) were taken during the final week. Resident hunters took 78 percent (95 birds) of the harvest compared to 22 percent (27 birds) for non-resident hunters.
Obviously, the way to success on spring turkeys in Rhode Island is to seek permission to hunt on private lands well before the season opens. Hunters may also want to spend more time scouting state-owned lands and WMAs which, despite their low low harvest numbers, may simply not be hunted as hard during the spring season.
For more information on Rhode Island's spring wild turkey hunting opportunities, log onto www.dem.ri.gov.