Talking turkeys – viruses, harvests, season expansion, and more

DSCN3513Already eagerly anticipating the opening of the spring turkey season, two things jumped out at me last week. One was a national story about the tumor-causing virus found in wild turkeys. The other was an expansion of the turkey hunting opportunity into northern Maine.

Let’s tackle the virus first. The national story reported that the tumor-causing virus was first diagnosed in this country five years ago, in Arkansas, and has now spread far and wide, including into Maine. The virus had, until that time, only been found in Europe and Israel.

The virus, which we have been told does not affect humans, is now present in 17 states from Maine to Colorado. If you haven’t seen this, the virus turns a turkey’s head into a scabby mess. The tumors sometimes clog the turkey’s airway and even grow on internal organs.

I was very surprised to read that the virus is estimated to be present in 30 to 80 percent of the turkeys in these states. I hunt turkeys a lot and have only seen the virus once, on a turkey that was dead when we found it.

So I turned, as usual, to DIF&W’s Brad Allen, the exceptional director of bird management and research at the agency. Brad is skeptical that anything close to 30 percent of our turkeys have the virus. The department has not received a lot of reports from hunters that they have seen stricken turkeys.

Expanded Zones

Last year DIF&W scheduled an expansion of the turkey hunt into far northern Maine, but canceled it when population numbers declined. But they are back with another expansion proposal. And they’re structuring the expansion much like the original turkey hunting season.

In Wildlife Management Districts 1-6, two seasons will be open. In Season A, the first week will be May 4 to 9, and the second week will be May 18 to 23. In Season B, the first week will be May 11 to 16, and the second week will be May 25 to 30. Then all hunters will get to hunt the third and final week, from June 1 to 6.

Hunters will get either Season A or B depending on their birth year. Odd numbered years get Season A, and even numbered years get Season B.

No public hearing on this proposal is scheduled, but you can make comments until February 20 to Becky Orff, by email at You can also mail your comments to Becky at #41 State House Station, Augusta 04333.

The proposal will require the approval of Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council.

The legislature will get another turkey bill from me, sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello. Tom and I had great success with our turkey bill last session, resulting in a major expansion of the hunting opportunities in the spring and the fall, and a reduction in the permit and tagging fees.

Our new bill would eliminate the permit fee, allow online or phone-in tagging, require all deer tagging stations to tag turkeys, and expand the fall bag limit from two to three birds of either sex.

2014 Harvest

Apparently it is easier to call in a gobbler than to call in the tagging station books that record gobbler harvests.

Incredibly, we still don’t have turkey harvest figures for the fall season that ended on October 31, 2014. I’m told that the problem centers on the late delivery of tagging books by some agents. While game wardens used to pick up the tagging books immediately after the completion of each season, today the agents are expected to mail in the books.

We’re also waiting for harvest numbers from the moose season that ended in October, and the deer season.

Brad Allen was able to give me turkey harvest and hunter numbers for last year’s spring hunt. 16,333 permits to hunt turkeys were sold (this does not include the estimated 2500 youth who did not have to purchase a permit). Brad estimates that 18,333 of us hunted turkeys last year.

The spring harvest totaled 4,586 gobblers, with a Tom to Jake ratio of 3 to 1. Only 814 of us bagged 2 birds. In other words, only 2,904 hunters got a turkey. 15,429 hunters did not. Don’t let anyone tell you turkey hunting is easy!

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.