If wild turkeys were like wine, Idaho hunters years from now probably would look back on 1991 as a very good year.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game recorded its best turkey transplanting season ever this winter in north-central Idaho. With the recent arrival of 80 turkeys from North Dakota, the department has released 176 birds in the region.The North Dakota transplants were released along Dworshak Reservoir and the Clearwater River. An additional 79 turkeys were transferred south from Fish and Game's northernmost region and released along the Clearwater, marking the first time the department had moved turkeys south from the panhandle.

The 17 other turkeys were caught near Kendrick and released along the Salmon River, said Bill Rybarczyk, Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist in Lewiston.

The Kendrick capture accounted for about half the birds needed to help build the turkey flock there, Rybarczyk said. "They have a healthy turkey population, but they had sites where they wanted to release more."

One more turkey transplant operation is in the works, capturing birds from the Keuterville area and releasing them along the Salmon.

The transplant operation was possible this year because the Region 1 staff has put turkeys into nearly all the places it plans to stock, and it has turned Region 2 into a favorite for turkey hunters.

Much of the popularity is due to most of the hunting units being open for general seasons, rather than controlled hunts requiring special permits awarded by lottery.

Telephone surveys of turkey hunters last fall showed 118 turkeys were bagged in north-central Idaho. That was nearly 41 percent of the statewide take.

Rybarczyk said Fish and Game has ambitious goals for expanding turkey flocks, with 26 more spots on the list for future releases.

"I guess my hope is that we would be able to complete that by the year 2000 and we would be near the completion of our turkey-stocking program in Region 2," he said.

Fish and Game's experiment with different subspecies of turkeys, including Eastern, Merriam and Rio Grande, also is about over.

"We're looking in the future to transplanting mostly Merriams," Rybarczyk said.

That subspecies' native habitat of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona includes open ponderosa pine forests resembling those in Idaho. However, Idaho has none of the scrub oak the birds are used to.

Because of the lack of acorn-bearing oaks, Idaho also lacks the winter food the birds need to thrive.

"If they can find an alternate food source, they seem to be doing quite well," Rybarczyk said.