FLINTSTONE -- The weather was wet and raw, even for Western Maryland two weeks into April, and had it been the middle of spring turkey season, many of these hunters might have chosen to stay in bed. Instead, on the last weekend before opening day tomorrow, turkey calls and shotguns echoed through the hollow.
The occasion was the first Wild Turkey Seminar and Sight-In Days at the Green Ridge State Forest shooting range, a weekend of teaching and counseling put on by the Maryland State Forest and Park Service and the Natural Resources Police.
The seminar, the first of a series of Outdoor Adventures programs by MSFPS staff, provided expert advice on turkey biology and habitat, calls and calling, tactics and hunting, sighting-in and camouflage and safety.
"Hunting is something that needs to happen because we have disturbed the balance," said Outdoor Adventures coordinator Sgt. Gary Adelhardt.
"Because of that, hunting is now a legitimate wildlife management technique. Man is the highest level of predator, and this type of thing is for the betterment of those hunters," he said.
Spring turkey hunts are expanding in Maryland, where all or parts of 13 counties will be open until May 16, and the nature of the sport makes it more dangerous than many other forms of hunting.
"It is a sport that is not like the solitude of hunting deer by yourself, where it doesn't make any sounds or noises that attract other hunters," said Stuart Sommers, an avid hunter who manufactures game calls and teaches at hunting seminars throughout Western Maryland.
"When a turkey gobbles, you may hear it from a mile way. And if you are in the state forest, and only that one turkey is gobbling, every otherhunter may hear that turkey within a mile radius, they're going to go in and try to hunt him."
Every hunter, each heavily camouflaged, is going to go in with the same theory: get as close as you can, try to get in the proper
position, try to coax or cajole the bird into range and harvest it.
Roughly 10 percent of them will do so, as hunters seek a quarry with eyesight 10 times the resolve power of a human's,270-degree peripheral vision and hearing that is four times more sensitive than man's.
Where to find spring gobblers
A common mistake made by inexperienced spring turkey hunters, said MSFPS Lt. Bill Cihlar, who taught sessions on tactics and hunting, is thinking that turkeys sighted in the fall while hunting for deer or squirrel will be in the same location come spring.
"It doesn't always work that way," Cihlar said. "Turkeys have marked differences between winter range, fall range and spring habitat.
"They will hang in that winter habitat -- in mountain hollows and the spring seeps and south slopes until about the middle or end of March and then -- boom -- they are gone."
In spring, Cihlar said, turkeys typically move to wood lots that border pastures, farm fields, small clear cuts and other areas that have open edges where the hens find suitable breeding and nesting habitat.
"Nesting habitat is pretty simple for them because they don't build nests," Cihlar said. "They just find a place in the leaves, squat down and lay eggs -- next to a stump or a log, under a brush pile. Somewhere fairly inconspicuous, but really not hidden."
More importantly, Cihlar said, the hens need to be near habitat that will provide a high protein diet for the polts as soon as they hatch.
"They need lots of bugs, and hatches in fields and croplands provide lots of insects," Cihlar said. "So that is the draw for hens to go to these places in the spring, and the gobblers have no choice but to follow along."
Over the years, Cihlar has harvested 28 spring gobblers, all but a few from the edges of smaller open areas.
How to find spring gobblers
The best way to find spring gobblers is to go out long enough before sunrise to be in a good listening position at daybreak -- roughly 30 minutes before sunrise.
"You can spend a lot of time walking the woods and looking for signs and finding the right habitat," Cihlar said. "But the best way is to use your maps and compass and to go out by starlight."
Topographical maps, available from the U.S. Geological Survey, are an invaluable aid to this kind of hunting, especially if the hunter is new to a certain area. Cihlar said get the map of the particular quadrangle you will be hunting and study it.
"What you are looking for are ridge tops with not too steep elevation," Cihlar said. "Generally flat ridge tops that overlook fields, pastures and valleys. In turkey range you can look at a certain quadrangle and put yourself within a quarter mile of turkeys if they are there."
The fields, valleys and pasture edges will hold turkeys and the elevated ridge will make a perfect position from which to look and listen.
Calls and calling
The business of calling male turkeys is the business of fooling nature, of reversing the normal actions and attitudes of the gobbler.