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State workshop prepares women for wild turkey hunts

Participants in the state’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman seminar for first-time turkey hunters get some tips at Shirley Rod and Gun Club.

Ellen Harasimowicz for the Boston globe

Participants in the state’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman seminar for first-time turkey hunters got some tips at Shirley Rod and Gun Club.

Doris Burre used a shotgun equipped with a laser sight in last month’s workshop at the Shirley Rod and Gun Club, where 16 new hunters — three men and 13 women — learned how to hunt turkeys.

The gun belongs to her wife, Anne Poole, a veteran hunter, who will be one of the guides for a women-only turkey hunt Monday on the sprawling grounds of what used to be Fort Devens.

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“I took part in the deer hunt two years ago. She got me involved,” Burre, of Ayer, said after her turn shooting at high-visibility paper targets — bearing the profile of a wild turkey — from 25 yards away.

“The whole point was to let women who had never shot deer before to get a chance. I think only one of us got a deer. I think four of us saw a deer and shot, but missed. That’s what happened to me. My aim was high, that is why I’m trying the laser scope.”

The April 12 seminar was part of the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, or BOW, program, which has been introducing women to activities such as forestry, shooting, fishing, and camping since 1995, MassWildlife spokeswoman Marion Larson said.

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The workshop drew a variety of first-time hunters, including sweethearts Andrew Davis, 38, of Seabrook, N.H., and Elizabeth Browne, 40, of Groton. Only Browne will be taking part in next week’s guided hunt, but Davis said he valued any hunting wisdom he could glean from the workshop.

Browne said she’s always wanted to go hunting.

“All my life,’’ she said while unpacking her new Mossberg shotgun at the target range. “My grandparents, aunts, and uncles down South all are hunters. My parents went hunting as kids but never took me. Now I can.”

Karen Petitt of Uxbridge said her husband and sons hunt.

Ellen Harasimowicz for the Boston Globe

Doris Burre of Ayer fired at a paper target during a practice session at the Shirley Rod and Gun Club.

“They are avid sportsmen — duck hunting, pheasant hunting, deer hunting,” said Petitt, 45. “I used to just walk along with them in the woods. I figured if you can’t beat them, why not join them? There are no dollhouses in my house. I cook it all, but now I will catch it, too. Why not?”

Petitt lowered her left knee as she aimed at the turkey decoy.

“Snug your butt up against the tree,” instructor Phil Mailhiot told the mother of two as a half-dozen other new hunters watched. “Swing around slowly. Imagine that’s him. When he sees you, he’s going to poke his head right up — up periscope. That’s when you shoot.”

Petitt has gone kayaking and learned archery through BOW, which she joined two years ago. She said she is excited to take part in the hunt on Monday. It is taking place on the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area, and is limited to 10 women, who all must have valid hunting and gun licenses, wild turkey permits, and their own shotguns.

Petitt has spent a lot of time over the last few months shooting trap and skeet with her husband, Mark, and their boys, ages 12 and 14. At the Shirley gun range, she used a 12-gauge shotgun — borrowed from one of her sons — as volunteer BOW guide Joe Barreiro helped to refine her technique for shooting while seated, a mainstay in turkey hunting.

“I’ve always been afraid of guns,” Petitt said. “Now touching it, feeling it, I’m not afraid of it anymore.”

As common as the sight of entire bands of wild turkeys has become in suburban Boston, the species had vanished entirely from Massachusetts in the 1800s, as the birds are dependent on woodlands and most of the state’s woods had been leveled for agriculture, fuel, and construction, Larson said.

“The last wild turkey we know of was shot . . . on the Mount Holyoke Range in 1851,” Larson said.

However, 37 wild toms, jakes, and hens — as adult males, juvenile males, and females, respectively, are known — captured in upstate New York were reintroduced to Western Massachusetts in the early 1970s.

As the population grew in Berkshire County over the next few decades, 561 of the birds were trapped and transplanted to 10 other counties across the state. MassWildlife officials put the current population calling the Massachusetts woods home at 25,000 to 27,000.

“It’s a great success story — maybe too successful in some places,” Larson told the would-be hunters at last month’s session. “We never expected to see turkeys in Kendall Square or chasing mailmen down the street in Newton or Cape Cod.”

The turkey population is now so healthy that the state holds two hunting seasons.

The spring turkey hunt runs April 28 to May 24. The fall season runs Oct. 20 to Nov. 1.

Last spring, 21,115 licensed hunters killed 2,778 turkeys. The shorter and less popular fall season saw 160 birds taken, Larson said.

During the classroom session in Shirley Rod and Gun’s log cabin, Larson flashed a map of the state on a screen to show how widespread the turkey hunts have become, with areas reporting birds being taken colored in blue. The map also had glaring patches of white around Greater Boston and Worcester, where population densities preclude hunting despite thriving and sometimes troublesome gobbler populations.

Other presenters touched on safety, how to dress for the hunt, and the behavior of the birds — especially during the nesting season that coincides with the spring hunt. Regulations require hunters to exit the woods by noon to avoid interfering with nesting hens.

Knowing the anatomy of a wild turkey is crucial for hunters, since regulations allow only the taking of turkeys with beards, the tough horsehair-like feathers that grow out of the chests of mature males. The regulations are meant to prevent hunters from targeting nesting females and immature males. However, some hens and jakes can also sprout beards, so hunters who inadvertently shoot a hen or jake are safe as long as the bird has a beard, Larson said.

Ellen Harasimowicz for the Boston Globe

Karen Petitt, from Uxbridge, readies her shotgun for the range. They plan to take part in a turkey hunt at the former Fort Devens on Monday.

Mature males also boast shiny plumage of iridescent black and bronze, broad tail fans, and featherless heads of white, red, and blue. Toms also have fleshy snoods hanging over their beaks, and sharp spurs on the back of their legs.

Females are smaller, and generally dull brown and gray.

Mailhiot, a lifelong hunter from Westminster, had the class of novice hunters laughing as he explained the intricacies of using turkey calls to lure toms close enough to shoot. Use the technique sparingly, and patience is key, he said, citing his father’s routine of using a box call to sound just four chirps, waiting about 20 minutes, then repeating the same four notes.

“He’s using the bird’s need to breed against itself. She calls, he gobbles, she’s supposed to go to him. But the pressure to breed gets to him,’’ Mailhiot said. “He knows if he doesn’t go there, Mike will — and he hates Mike!”

Mailhiot also told the story of a friend who loved to hear the toms gobble back after a call, but couldn’t understand why the birds weren’t coming any closer. So he called Mailhiot on the cellphone for advice. The instructor explained that the toms can either answer the hen’s call, or strut very deliberately in her direction, but not at the same time.

“I told him, ‘Shut up, dummy!’ ” Mailhiot said. “You can overcall. Less is more.”

Ultimately, whether to shoot a turkey that shows up within range will be a personal decision each hunter will have to make, even on the guided BOW hunt, Larson said. The guides will not pressure anyone to shoot, she said.

“Even if you have a bird in your sights and everything is perfect, you still do not need to pull the trigger. That is OK,” Larson said. “Once you pull the trigger, you can’t pull it back. That is your decision.”

Jose Martinez can be reached at martinezjose1@mac.com.
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