- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

NANJEMOY, Md. — Dana Hubbell remembered how dark it was when he entered the woods with fellow Charles County resident Aaron Daye. "You could barely see the trees in front of you," he said on a morning when I had to return home without the game I'd hoped for. "We found ourselves a spot, waited until a little daylight showed, then hooted a couple of times with an owl call."
Hubbell's owl imitation produced the desired results: A thunderous response from a wild turkey, a gobbler as hunters call the male of a species that is by far the largest bird you're likely to encounter in forests all over America.
"When he answered the owl call and don't ask me why a turkey does that we set out two decoys. We knew he was in the area," Hubbell said.
During the waning days of Maryland's spring turkey hunting season the heavily camouflaged Hubbell and Daye tried to coax the bird into a narrow opening among the densely growing trees. But smart wild turkeys often are so wary that even the noise from an as yet unseen chipmunk is enough to make them seek safety elsewhere, running like the wind, covering ground nearly as fast as a frightened deer.
"He was somewhere nearby," said Hubbell, "and Aaron, who sat about 10 yards from me, started yelping like a hen."
Daye apparently knows his stuff. He alternately used a Primos diaphragm mouth call and a Knight & Hale box call, giving off the come-hither sounds that the love-sick, feathered woodland Romeo unquestionably was waiting for.
The bird, all blustered, his feathers puffed out in a display of his male attractiveness, entered the little clearing but quickly disappeared behind a tree. "Turkeys aren't dumb," Hubbell said. "This bird was going to make sure everything was OK before he committed himself."
What the gobbler did next turned out to be a fatal mistake. He could no longer ignore the comely hen decoys, which, from a distance, he believed to be the real article. It wasn't the first time that an affectionate male of any species would throw caution to the wind. Said Hubbell: "His head poked out from behind the tree and, well, you know what happened next."
Hubbell's expensive Italian Benelli shotgun sounded off, and that was it. The 3-inch-chambered smoothbore gun did what it was designed for. "It was my first wild turkey," Hubbell said. "Normally, I hunt waterfowl and deer, but I hope this turkey won't be my last."
The fact that Hubbell even heard a wild turkey nevermind shooting one for the table is an astonishing episode in American wildlife management history.
A quick check with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) provided a wealth of information that begins with 16th-century pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe that we believe provided wild turkeys for the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World. Native Americans hunted wild turkeys with arrows that were tipped with carved turkey wingbones. The birds flourished in every woodland, valley and mountain range from the Rio Grande to the Hudson.
However, by the early 1900s, commercial hunting and habitat destruction nearly wiped out the species. The NWTF says that by the Great Depression in the 1930s, only 30,000 wild turkeys were left in the entire United States.
But recreational hunters banded together, joining hands with game agencies and newly sprouted conservation organizations like the NWTF, none of which was afraid to spend money to restore the wild turkey to its former glory in every state that provided the proper habitat to support it.
Thanks to the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which placed an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and assorted hunting equipment, billions of dollars have been raised over the years to help restore wildlife. The result, to name one species, is a national turkey population that numbers around 5.6 million. You read that correctly, 5.6 million.
Take Southern Maryland, for example. It is no big revelation that across the Potomac River in Virginia especially throughout the foothills and remote mountaintops of the Blue Ridge wild turkeys always have been fairly abundant (the same is true with parts of western Maryland). But in the southern counties of Maryland, there was a time when you could have safely bet your homestead against a wooden nickel that there were no turkeys.
Don't make that bet today.
Residents in St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties nowadays report seeing not one wild turkey but eight, 10, 12 or more strutting across rural roads, yelping and chirping, loud gobbles echoing through the hollows and swamps. There isn't a Southern Marylander who isn't enchanted with the resurgence of these magnificent birds.
For that we owe a debt of thanks to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and its dedicated wildlife managers and biologists, as well as the NWTF's state chapter and hunters everywhere who happily paid high sporting equipment excise taxes as long as the result was as wonderful as the rebuilding of a woodland species that not long ago was in dire straits.

Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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