WASHINGTON – Wild turkey populations are growing by about 5 percent a year in Maryland, the product of a turkey relocation program that has been so successful that state officials suspended it last year.
There are now an estimated 30,000 wild turkeys scratching their way across the state, with many in Western Maryland and a strong rebound among populations in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
But there is “a vibrant population in every county,” said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
And with more turkeys come more turkey hunters. In 1995, Maryland expanded the spring turkey hunting season to every county in the state and turkey hunters this spring harvested a record 2,585 birds.
There are approximately 16,000 turkey hunters in the state, said Steve Bittner, a DNR forest and game biologist. He estimated that the number of spring-season turkey hunters has doubled in the last 20 years.
Bittner has been involved in trapping turkeys and deciding where to release them as part of the DNR trap-and-transplant program that has been credited with the bird’s resurgence.
McIntire said the program, started in 1979, catches wild turkeys in Western Maryland and lets them loose across the state.
Bittner said the turkey relocation program was suspended last year because the birds are reproducing well on their own. If necessary, the program will be reinstated in 2000 but “overall we’re in good shape,” he said.
To capture the birds, Bittner said, he first had to find them and then bait a trap with corn or scratch feed. Once a turkey takes the bait, explosive charges would throw a large net over the bird.
For the state’s growing number of turkey hunters, bagging a bird is not so easy.
Brian Catlin, a turkey hunter and clerk at Dave’s Sport Shop in Quantico, Md., said wild turkeys are hard to hunt because they are “very wise, wary birds.”
A hunter has to learn the turkey’s habits to be able to track it, Catlin said. Before daybreak, a hunter must set up decoys and use turkey calls to imitate a hen.
Once the turkey is in range — about 50 yards maximum — the hunter has to shoot it in the head because, “with its wings down it’s damn near armor-plated,” according to Catlin.
Catlin said turkey hunters have about a 3 percent success rate.
But that has not kept them from bagging record numbers of birds. The spring wild turkey harvest of 2,585 birds beat the 1996 record by 44 turkeys.
Maryland’s spring wild-turkey season is statewide and generally runs from April 18 to May 16. The fall season, in Western Maryland only, runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7.
Fall harvest numbers have not yet been calculated, state officials said.
Catlin said the expanded seasons have been good for business. Sales of turkey- hunting accessories, such as clothing, decoys, calls and instructional videos, has “probably doubled” each year since wild- turkey hunting was expanded in Maryland, he said.