Hunters with hopes of killing a wild turkey this spring or fall should find plenty of opportunity to do so. If current estimates are correct, New England is home to nearly 230,000 birds, which now occupy nearly all suitable habitats throughout the region.
In 2014 spring harvest figures were down in all six states, with a total of 15,710 bearded birds killed. In 2013 the regional spring harvest was over 21,430, which means that hunters killed about 5,700 fewer birds last year than they did the year before.
That does not mean however, that there’s anything wrong with the turkey population. Harvest rates for turkeys are heavily influenced by hunter effort, and hunter participation during the spring season is heavily dependent on weather conditions, especially in the northern three states.
And last year in northern Maine, the 2014 spring turkey season was actually suspended in Wildlife Management Districts 1 through 6 due to severe winter conditions and loss of birds the previous winter. While the season was not curtailed or shortened in the northern counties of New Hampshire and Vermont, overall spring breeding conditions and hunting conditions throughout New England were less than ideal.
The same is true of the fall season, which was unusually warm, with temperatures well into the 70s and low 80s, followed by rain. Many fall seasons also coincide with archery deer season when less attention is put on turkeys except coincidentally.
What to expect this spring and fall? The weather will tell, but one thing is certain: There are plenty of birds available for those who want to give them a go.
In 2013 Maine saw major changes to its turkey-hunting regulations, all of which will hold this year. During the spring, hunting will be allowed all day, from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset, just like in the fall. The cost of turkey permits will be $20 for residents; the tagging fee is $2.
Hunters will be allowed two bearded birds in the spring and two birds of either sex in the fall over much of the state, but in WMDs 1-6 and 8 the limit is one bearded bird in the spring. During the fall hunt in WMDs 15-17, 20-25 and 28 the limit remains two birds of either sex, but is reduced to one bird of either sex in WMDs 12, 13, 18, and 29. The fall season in WMDs 1-11, 14, 19 and 27 is closed.
Despite some hard winter and spring conditions of late, Maine’s turkey population remains stable. It is also the largest in New England at 60,000 to 65,000 birds, if not slightly higher, according to Kelsey Sullivan, a Bird Group biologist in charge of the turkey program for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“We’ve cut back on limits and shut down the fall season in some northern zones” Sullivan said, “but throughout the rest of the state, especially in core central and southern zones, finding birds shouldn’t be a problem.”
During the 2014 spring season, hunters tagged 4,587 bearded birds, down from 6,533 in 2013. This year’s spring opener will be May 4; the season ends June 6. The fall season runs the month of October, to coincide with archery deer season.
Some of the best hunting in these areas will be found on private property, especially farms and agricultural lands.
“Turkeys are starting to become somewhat of a pest on some properties,” Sullivan noted, adding that owners generally welcome hunters who ask permission.
Among public lands in Region A the 3,280-acre Agamenticus WMA in York, South Berwick, Wells and Eliot generally holds a fair number of birds. The same is true of the Vernon Walker WMA in Newfield, Shapleigh and Limerick.
In Region B top spots include the Alonzo Garcelon WMA in China, Windsor and Vassalboro and Frye Mountain WMA in Montville and Knox. Combined the two properties offer over 10,000 acres of prime uplands and old fields.
Maps and information on access on all of Maine wildlife management areas are available on the MDIFW web site.
The Granite State is currently home to about 40,000 birds, according to Ted Walski, Turkey Project Leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
“From my observations, and reports from folks, turkeys seem to be relatively abundant,” Walski said. “I see turkeys every day no matter where I travel, and hunters and other people tell me turkeys are everywhere.”
Walski goes on to say that the program to transplant birds ended in 1995, and for the past several years turkeys have probably reached their carrying capacity in most of the state’s 18 wildlife management units, although in some units birds numbers are lower than in other units.
Spring harvest figures for 2014 seem to suggest that prime hunting is available just about everywhere in the state. Turkeys were killed in all of the state’s 244 cities and towns except for a handful in the far north and highest mountain regions.
“These units experience more severe winter conditions and have less farmland, and as a result have not shown significant growth, which was not unexpected,” Walski said.
As in years past, the highest spring turkey numbers came from units in the southeast and southern regions, and along the Connecticut River Valley. This includes WMUs J2 south of Lake Winnipesaukee, L, M,K, H2, H1 G, and D2, not necessarily in that order.
“The order changes slightly year to year,” for various reasons,” Walski said, but notes that these units represent New Hampshire’s core turkey habitat and consistently produce the vast majority of birds each year.
That shouldn’t change in 2015. Hunters will find plenty of public land in these areas in the form of wildlife management units, state forests, state parks and sixty other properties open to hunting. Preseason scouting is a must, as always, and will suggest where to be opening day.
Information and maps are available on the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web site.
This year the statewide spring season will open May 3 and end May 31. The limit is one bearded bird. The fall shotgun season will be open in units D1, D2, G, H1, H2, I1, J1, J2, K, L and M. The fall archery season varies by unit, so hunters should check the regulations summary for details.
Spring turkey hunters took just over 4,590 bearded birds in 2014. That was not as many as the 6,200 or so taken in 2013 and just shy of the 4,621-bird three-year average, but still a descent season, according to Amy Alfieri, who took over as Turkey Project Leader from Forrest Hammond.
Current estimates put Vermont’s turkey population at between 45,000 and 50,000, about the level it has been for several years and high enough to keep the bag limit at two bearded birds in the spring, and one of either sex in the fall.
“The population seems to have stabilized after rather dramatic growth in the 1990s through 2008, and seems to have recovered from the severe winter conditions in 2010,” Alfieri said.
This year’s spring season will commence May 1 and run through May 31. Both shotguns and archery gear are allowed. According to recent figures, 36 turkeys are killed for every 100 hunters during the spring season and an impressive 25 percent of successful hunters take a second bird.
Although all 24 wildlife management units during the spring season have been producing birds in recent years, the top producers are typically those along the border with Canada, namely WMUs B, D1 and D2 and those just to the south, Units J1 and J2. Units N and K2 and F1 along the western border and O2 in the southeast corner generally produce good numbers as well.
Counties that typically top the list include Orange, Windsor, Caledonia, Rutland, Windham, Addison and Franklin. Things shouldn’t change much this year, but with all things considered, finding birds throughout much of Vermont shouldn’t be a problem.
But keep in mind Vermont birds have been hunted longer than any in New England, have become rather educated — outsmarting them can be a real challenge.
In 2010 the fall archery season was expanded state-wide and will run through October as usual. That year the fall take jumped 71 percent, but has since leveled off to around 1,000 birds. The fall shotgun/archery season is only held in 17 WMUs, and dates vary so be sure to check the regulations for details.
Hunters should also keep in mind the boundaries of several WMUs were changed in 2014 to better reflect current populations and habitat changes.
For information on some public hunting areas, of which there is an impressive list, and turkey hunting in general visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department web site.
According to David Scarpitti, turkey project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, no new regulations are expected for 2015.
The two-bird annual limit will stay the same, which means two bearded birds can be taken in the spring and none in the fall, or one bearded bird in the spring and one of either sex in the fall. The seasonal structure will also stay basically the same. In 2013 the spring season opened April 28 and closed May 24. The fall season opened October 20 and closed November 1.
Currently, Scarpitti estimates a statewide population of around 35,000 and birds are hunted spring and fall in thirteen of fourteen counties.
“Top counties have been pretty consistent,” the biologist said, “with Worcester, Franklin, Berkshire, Plymouth and Hampshire generally in the top five.”
Also, according to 2014 spring harvest figures, Hampden, Bristol and Middlesex Counties each produced over 150 bearded birds.
But competition is getting tough. For the first time spring turkey permit sales topped 20,000 in 2012 and have been increasing each year since. In 2014 21,542 were sold. The fall season is also growing in popularity. In 2002 just 612 fall permits were sold but sales increased to 2,676 in 2012 and 3,582 in 2013.
“With the added pressure birds are getting smarter and hunters will have to hunt harder and smarter,” Scarpitti said.
One way to do that is to get in the woods even when conditions are not ideal, on drizzly or rainy days. Another way is to concentrate efforts on some of the smaller wildlife management areas and other public lands that are often overlooked.
A list of WMAs and other properties open to public hunting is available on the MDF&W web site.
Of all New England states, Connecticut may be the real sleeper when it comes to turkey hunting.
The population is currently estimated at 35,000 and birds, which occupy about 3,750 square miles of range in all 169 towns, says Michael Gregonis, the man in charge of the turkey program for the Connecticut DEEP.
Add in three separate, generously long hunting seasons with easily obtained permits for each, generous bag limits, and you have the ingredients for some prime hunting. Yet Connecticut has few hunters.
During the 2014 spring season, just 8,850 permits were issued, a decrease of 1.9 percent from 2013. Fewer than 4,000 permits were sold for the fall 2013 archery and fall firearms seasons.
Part of the problem may be finding a place to hunt. Private property can be difficult, but many of the state forests such as Natchaug and Nipmuck in the northeast, Tunxis, Peoples, American Legion, Housatonic and Naugatuck in the northwest corner and west region and Salmon River and Pachaug State Forests in the southeast offer plenty of room to hunt, to name but a few.
Weekends can get crowded, making weekdays best. Preseason scouting is a must. It also helps to get away from roads and parking areas — go into hidden pockets many hunters neglect.
The 2015 spring season will commence April 29 and end May 30. The general framework for the fall archery season is September 16 to December 31, although Management Zones 11 and 12 remain open to the end of January, and the fall firearms season runs the month of October. Details at Connecticut DEEP.
Back in 2002 Rhode Island turkey population was estimated at around 6,000, but due to poor spring weather conditions in recent years and an increase in predators, especially coyotees, foxes and birds of prey, the number is down to about 3,500,
“Spring 2014 was a prime case in point,” Tefft said. “The spring season was preceded by cold, wet weather which seemed to slow the onset of breeding activity. Heavy rain also persisted the opening day.”
Opening day rain kept many hunters indoors. As a result hunters killed only 113 birds during the 2014 spring season, down from 153 in 2013.
But low numbers are not the only reason turkey hunting can be a challenge in Rhode Island and why harvest numbers are low.
“There also seems to be a shift in the population,” Tefft noted, “from rural and wild areas toward the suburbs, towns and even cities.” These areas are less suitable for hunting, even where hunting is allowed at all.
But for the hunter who scouts before the season opener and puts his or her time in, birds can be found, even on public land. Towns such as Tiverton, South Kingstown, Burrillville, Coventry, Exeter and Scituate are generally among the top turkey producers. These towns are home to Eight Mile Farm WMA, Arcadia WMA, and Big River WMA, which have been top public land producers of late.
The 2015 spring season will commence April 29 and end May 24 with a limit of one bearded bird. The fall archery-only season typically takes up the month of October. The limit is one bird of either sex.
For more information on places to hunt visit the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management web site.