Talking turkey at the Maine legislature

DSCN3513We were talking turkeys at the legislature on Thursday, when the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee hosted a hearing on LD 781, An Act to Eliminate Permits for Turkey Hunting and Expand Turkey Hunting, sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello at my request. My testimony, presented here, gives you a bit of history of these issues, along with justification for changes proposed in this bill.


Maine has lost about one third of its turkey hunters over the last nine years. That’s astonishing, because spring turkey hunting is an exciting experience. I’ve been hooked since my first day when Harry Vanderweide accompanied me to a field near my house and called in a large gobbler. I shot the bird at about 5 yards.

“It’ll never be that easy again,” said Harry. And he was right! Turkey hunting is challenging, requiring lots of skill and a bit of luck, plus persistence.

It’s persistence that brings this bill to you today.  Last session, concerned that we’d suffered a decline in licensed turkey hunters from 24,050 in 2005 to 13,179 in 2012, I proposed a comprehensive expansion of turkey hunting opportunities. Senator Tom Saviello sponsored that bill at my request and worked closely with me on it.

Three years earlier, on behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I successfully proposed to address one of the problems – cost – by combining the fall and spring turkey hunts into a single permit and fee and increasing the bag limit to two Toms. We also successfully advocated to allow junior hunters to hunt turkeys for free (at that time they had to pay the adult fee). Those changes were enacted as part of the agency’s budget in 2009 and took effect in 2010.

Unfortunately, some people got greedy and tried to turn turkey hunting into a bigger fundraiser, adding a second $20 fee to the second Tom in the spring. Consequently, very few turkey hunters purchased the second permit.                 Over the years I asked a lot of hunters why they don’t hunt turkeys and almost always the answer was: it’s too expensive.

Senator Saviello’s bill last session called for eliminating the turkey hunting permit and fee, adding turkeys to the big and small game licenses, expanding the spring season to all-day hunting, expanding the fall season from one week to the entire month of October and doubling the fall bag limit from one to two birds of either sex, authorizing tagging of turkeys by phone or on the agency’s website, and eliminating the tagging fee.

I had little hope that we’d get any of this because the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife vigorously opposed all of it. The agency even whipped up a one day “task force” and issued a report indicating the group only supported an extension of the October turkey hunt to four weeks.

But DIF&W’s Judy Camuso delivered a big surprise at the final work session on the bill, informing the committee that the agency decided to offer a package of ideas, very similar to many of the items in our bill, and all of which the committee enthusiastically embraced.

The bill reduced the turkey hunting permit to $20 for both residents and nonresidents, with no additional fee for a second Tom in the spring, expanded the fall season to the entire month of October and added a second turkey of either sex to the fall bag limit, reduced the tagging fee from $5 to $2, extended the spring hunt to all-day (1/2 hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset), and authorized all-day hunting for youth day.

Although DIF&W had recommended all-day spring hunting only in the final two weeks of the spring season, many committee members, including the two chairs, Senator David Dutremble and Representative Mike Shaw, and Representative Paul Davis, strongly supported all-day hunting throughout the spring season, and that’s what the committee did. Unfortunately, to pick up the vote of Representative Ellie Espling and make it unanimous, the committee sunsetted all-day hunting in the spring after 2016, meaning the legislature will have to reaffirm it if it is to continue in 2017. I hope you will use this bill to accomplish that.

All of those changes were inserted into a bill sponsored by Representative Tim Marks that originally called for an extension of youth day to a full week. In addition to those changes, the department said it would take other changes to rule-making that essentially was supposed to open the entire state to turkey hunting.

Which, finally, brings us to LD 781. I am sorry to take up so much of your time here, but I thought the history of this issue would be important to this new discussion. I have no doubt that the department will, again, oppose the changes in this bill. But we need them, if we are ever going to increase participation in turkey hunting here.

This bill tries to finish the job this committee started five years ago by eliminating turkey permits, adding turkeys to the big and small game licenses, and allowing us to register turkeys by phone or on the department’s website. I did toss in one new idea: to require deer registration stations to also register turkeys. Many of them don’t, requiring turkey hunters to drive long distances to register their birds.

I initially was going to propose adding a third turkey to the fall bag limit, but Brad Allen, DIF&W’s very capable top bird biologist, talked me out of it. Hardly anyone hunts turkeys in the fall, so I don’t think it would make much difference really, if you wanted to do that.

Now please let me finish with one more disappointing thing about turkey hunting and the department. Even though we are nearing the opening of the 2015 spring turkey hunting season, they still don’t know how many turkeys we harvested in the 2014 fall season.

In the spring 2014 season, hunters harvested only 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, of the total estimated number of turkey hunters, 16,573.  Even that number of turkey hunters is only preliminary, and won’t be confirmed until May.

Yes, turkey hunting is tough, but it’s also fun, and we should spread the fun to more hunters. That’s what this bill is all about.



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.