WASHINGTON – While most Marylanders will hunt for their Thanksgiving turkey in the meat section of their local grocery this week, some have already hunted their bird in the wild.
State officials believe the number of wild turkeys in Maryland now tops 300,000, the most since the Department of Natural resources began efforts to reintroduce the population throughout the entire state in the late 1970s.
They do not yet know how many wild turkeys were harvested during the weeklong fall hunting season, which ended Nov. 3, the shorter of two seasons the state allows during the year.
While the spring season is larger, running a month and covering the whole state, Fred Russell said the fall season is a tradition in Western Maryland, where turkey hunting is allowed in Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.
Russell, who owns Russell’s Gun Emporium in Washington County, said several of his customers hunt turkey to cook for Thanksgiving dinner, including his brother-in-law, Bobby Sites.
Russell has eaten Sites’ smoked Thanksgiving birds and said they are much leaner than domesticated turkey and can be too dry. But Sites said he does not notice a difference in taste.
Last fall’s hunt harvested 188 turkeys, while this spring’s hunt — which ran from April 18 to May 18 — killed 3,075 birds. Bob Beyer, associate director of game management for the department’s Wildlife and Heritage Service, said there are typically about 12,000 spring turkey hunters and 4,500 fall hunters.
In the fall, hunters can take one bird of either sex, but in the spring, they may only take bearded, or male, birds because the season occurs shortly after mating. If a hunter did not take a turkey in the fall, he may take two males in the spring.
The Eastern wild turkey is the only turkey found in Maryland. Hunters said the turkey is difficult bird to catch because it is quick and has keen eyesight.
“They are as smart as they want to be,” Beyer said. “I don’t think you can kill a turkey unless they want to die.”
Danny Wright, general manager of Florida Point, a hunting and fishing lodge in Dorchester County, said the most difficult part of hunting turkey is calling them in with a mouth or friction call.
“You have to know what you’re doing; it takes a lot of skill,” he said. Wright said the Eastern Shore turkey population is up “probably 200 percent over the past few years” since the state reintroduced the bird to the area.
By the late 1970s, turkeys were living in only five Maryland counties. In an effort Beyer called “one of our best success stories in a long time,” the department trapped and relocated turkeys to restore them to all 23 counties, a 20-year project that began in 1979.
Beyer said the population is doing very well on the Eastern Shore because there had not been turkeys in those counties for so long. The reintroduced birds thrived because they did not have to compete for habitat.
Beyer said the birds are also very adaptive, however, and do well even in highly populated suburban areas.
But more turkeys means more targets for hunters. Some birds will end up stuffed in the middle of a Thanksgiving table.
Sites, who lives in Waynesboro, Pa., is still hunting for his Thanksgiving turkey. He said he didn’t have any luck during this fall’s weeklong hunt, so he will head to Western Pennsylvania, where the fall hunt is three weeks.