Hoosierland's 'Urban' Pheasant Hunts

Hoosierland's 'Urban' Pheasant Hunts

Here are five "close to urban" area ring-necked pheasant hunts on public land in our state. One is surely near you! (November 2009)

You may not be living right next to fine upland game habitat, yet you probably won't have to drive too far to enjoy some of our state's finest ring-necked pheasant hunting. One of my earliest pheasant hunting memories was the rude awakening I received when a cock bird flushed right under my feet. That bird had nerves of steel to stick to that tuft of grass until I was right on top of it. It blasted out of the clump of grass while I nearly had an on-the-spot heart attack! When I recovered, I'd learned a big lesson about pheasant hunting tactics and quickly fell in love with the sport.

Ringnecks are unpredictable and mysterious creatures to the uninitiated among us. Even veteran wingshooters can expect plenty of surprises. One day most pheasants will flush too far out for a good shot, but only a few days later you might have to step on one to get it to fly. The habitat, hunting pressure, presence of a dog and probably a whole host of unknown or overlooked factors determine just how that bird will react on any given day. Toss in the difference between wild ringnecks and pen-reared, put-and-take birds and you can never quite be sure what you'll be up against.

Indiana's wild pheasant population has been holding steady over the last several years, but presents less-than-predictable hunting overall. Indiana's Division of Fish and Wildlife's (DFW) put-and-take pheasant hunting has been one answer. For a small fee, bird hunters can have a taste of private reserve hunting on public lands. Put-and-take properties are hunted for no more than 10 days during the season, and hunters are part of a limited draw to keep the number of sportsmen in the fields down. The goal is to provide a quality hunt that rivals those found anywhere else in the country.

Millions of acres have been lost in Hoosier pheasant habitat and the Farm Bill has been one solution. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers landowners the opportunity to protect land resources while providing good wildlife habitat in the form of cropland, grasslands, wetlands and idle fields.

Pheasant Priority Areas are another DFW focus with habitat in mind. In this case, wildlife biologists assist landowners with expertise and funding to develop quality ring-necked pheasant habitat. Warm- and cool-season grasses, legumes, shrubs, grains and food plots are combined with beneficial practices like fence­row rehabilitation, strip disking, controlled burning and edge feathering.

During wild bird hunts, only roosters can be taken, but put-and-take hunters can take either sex birds.

The first step to a successful upland bird hunt in Hoosierland is to be where the pheasants are. Here's where you'll find some of the best "urban" pheasant hunting this fall.

WILLOW SLOUGH FISH & WILDLIFE AREA (FWA)

Upland bird hunters from the Gary and Lafayette areas are used to lots of concrete and steel. What many hunters don't know is that some of the state's best shooting this fall will be at Willow Slough FWA, a surprisingly short drive from home if you live in the above-mentioned areas.

The wild birds are a tough hunt at Willow Slough during the first part of the season and many hunters sit back and wait for the put-and-take birds to be released, according to wildlife biologist Dave Spitznagle. The area depends more on released birds for consistent hunting since the numbers of wild ringnecks have been declining for quite a while. Last year was a repeat of other years with rain and not a lot of natural reproduction, said Spitznagle.

Hunters can buy a hunt for a fee and can get as many birds as they're willing to pay for. Reservations start early and hunts can be bought from the Saturday before Thanksgiving and throughout the following week. Hunts sold out at Willow Slough right after they became available on the DFW's Web site last year.

All total, 2,820 birds were released in the district and about 75 percent were harvested or otherwise recovered.

The habitat at Willow Slough is varied and productive. The 1,500 acres of ponds, marshes and J.C. Murphey Lake are good spots to poke around in, but the shooting is in the hundreds of crop fields and prairie lands. Big and little bluestem and switchgrass provide excellent habitat and are a great place to give your dog a workout. All total, the area has enough elbowroom to allow a couple of hundred hunters at a time.

More good hunting can be found on the region's scattered game bird habitat areas. According to wildlife biologist Bob Porch in Rensselaer, the game bird area special hunts are by far the best pheasant hunting in the region. These areas are managed specifically for ring-necked pheasants, and the hunts are by random pre-season drawing.

They're small properties and make tremendous backup spots if Willow Slough is too busy. It's tough to get drawn, but the hunting is good. The successful applicants average one cock bird per hunter.

Willow Slough can be accessed by secondary roads west of U.S. Route 41 in Newton County. The area covers a total of 9,956 acres near Morocco. Check-in is mandatory.

For additional information, call District 1 at (219) 285-2704 or the Willow Slough office at (219) 285-2704.

WINAMAC FWA

The Winamac property is rare in that it offers both a well-established wild bird population and excellent put-and-take hunting. Its proximity to South Bend makes it a prime wingshooting destination and many hunters make a day of it here.

The difference between wild birds and production birds doesn't take long to figure out. The birds raised in close quarters to humans seem to lose much of their survival skills within the first generation, and though it's certainly not like shooting fish in a barrel, pen-raised birds are less likely to effectively utilize cover or show good escape tactics. Their wild counterparts have lasted into adulthood because they've learned to do both effectively. A bird born and raised on the area is an escape artist with an uncanny ability to outwit even the smartest shooters.

There are a couple of things to remember if you're using a dog. The reason your dog is so effective is its nose. Temperature and humidity make all the difference in the world in a dog's performance, and though you can't control the weather, keep in mind that dogs do their best work as the weather gets colder. When the frost is on the ground, dogs smell roosters much farther away and don't have to be right on top of them. When the winds and higher temperatures begin dehydrating the dog's nose and scent glands, even a good dog's sense of smell is much less efficient.

Winamac offers good pheasant habitat and is moderately challenging to hunt. The pheasants will slip right around hunters without rustling a leaf of grass. More challenging yet are birds moving around in the brushy spots bordering the woods or the marsh plants in the wetlands.

Put-and-take hunters register on a first-come, first-served basis. The first 110 hunters are accepted. Watch for the no-hunting and refuge zones. The DFW will release two birds for each hunter every day. The bag limit is two pheasants of either sex. The number of hunters on each section of the area is closely controlled and monitored.

Winamac is five miles north of the town of Winamac and covers 4,750 acres.

According to wildlife biologist Linda Byer, nearby Kingsbury FWA also harbors a fair share of wild pheasants, but it gets hunted heavily, and the number of wild birds seems to be diminishing. Kankakee FWA has a limited amount of ground that stays above water and has a small population of wild birds.

The several wetland conservation areas in Byer's management area have small concentrations of wild birds that can make for a tough but rewarding hunt. The 140-acre Round Lake Wetland Conservation Area is just a few miles north of Winamac in Starke County and might be a good spot to keep as plan B if Winamac is being heavily hunted. The Tri-County FWA has pheasant releases, but early registration is required.

For more information, contact the Winamac office at (574) 946-4422 or District 2 at (574) 896-3572.

PIGEON RIVER FWA

Pigeon River FWA is a great spot where both put-and-take and wild bird hunts can be enjoyed. Pigeon River is a bit of a drive for Ft. Wayne shooters, but the trip is worth it. With over 10,000 acres open to hunting, this hotspot is even larger than Willow Slough and Winamac, and there's plenty of opportunity to hunt singly or in a group.

Tactics become critical when the birds have plenty of room to run. When approaching a field that hasn't been hunted for a while, start on the low ground and work toward the highest point. Pushing the birds onto the higher ground makes them less likely to see hunters below them because of their eye placement. This is especially important in prairie grass, but applies to other types of cover as well.

At the same time, hunt the thin cover and work into the thick stuff. In sparse cover, the birds are more likely to run or flush early, which can be a problem when it's too far away to get a good shot. Deeper cover provides the birds more concealment and a sense of security; they're more likely to hold until a shooter is right on top of them.

Force these birds into flight by boxing them in. Flight is their second choice over running, but pheasants won't hesitate to fly when the pressure is on. Boxing them in against open country or other hunters takes some planning, but it works.

Normally, noise in the field is your enemy. Here you can make it work in your favor. If other hunters are making some noise, it may help force the birds into flight. As the season progresses, pressured birds only get wilder and feel the pressure keenly as other hunters push them toward you. Not only are they dodging humans, but also they've become a prime focus for predators like coyotes, hawks and large owls. The birds will often flush easily with loud noises. High winds make them even spookier, as they're unable to hear hunters and dogs approaching and will flush or run sooner than expected.

Check-in is mandatory before the hunt.

The Pigeon River FWA is located in LaGrange and Steuben counties. Contact the Pigeon River FWA office at (260) 367-2164.

J. EDWARD ROUSH LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA (SRA)

Northeastern populations of ring-necks might be on the upswing if recent trends and last year's estimates mean anything. The Roush Lake SRA property is a prime spot for excellent habitat, high chick survival rates, and good over-wintering. As popular as it is with Ft. Wayne shooters, Roush Lake may actually be a better hunt than its reputation gives it credit for.

The harvest statistics haven't been crunched yet from last year, but things will probably look good, according to District 5 wildlife biologist Pat Mayer. The wild birds throughout northern Indiana seem to be holding their own, though future prospects look a little bleak. A tremendous loss of habitat over the last several years has resulted in millions of acres going out of DFW-funded programs and back into land development and heavy farming practices. That makes properties like Roush Lake all the more important.

Several reasons make Roush Lake a focal point of many hunters who know what they're looking for. Birds are blessed with a prolific tenant-farming project that covers 1,400 acres of the property. Much of the crops are left standing through the winter to serve as sources of food and cover. Additionally, DFW personnel plant another 250 acres in wildlife food plots.

The habitat is another plus. About 6,200 acres are open to hunting and include fields and brushy habitat. The put-and-take pheasant hunting takes off during the week of Thanksgiving, and either sex can be harvested until Jan. 15. Ideally, several hundred birds will be released, but that's always open to change depending on the available number of birds and hunter interest.

Hunters are required to check in and strictly adhere to their assigned areas. Cleanup shooting will usually last for a week or so after the put-and-take season ends.

Do everyone a favor and only bring your dog if it's reasonably well trained. There can be a lot of hunters on the area, and if your dog runs off and starts visiting other groups, your popularity will reach new lows.

Roush Lake lies 20 miles southeast of Ft. Wayne in Huntington County. Indianapolis-area shooters are only a couple hours' drive from the property. The area is busy with a variety of activities, and safety zones are marked where no hunting is allowed. The check station is off state Route 3 1.5 miles south of Markle.

An early fall registration is required to hunt the property. For more information, contact the office at (260) 468-2165 or District 5 at (260) 468-2515.

ATTERBURY FWA

The pheasant hunting at Atterbury FWA is all put-and-take since there isn't an established wild bird population. Most of the released birds are going to be on areas 12 and 14, with area 12 being a little more on the brushy side and area 14 leaning toward the grass and open fields.

The word is that a lot of guys get a bird. The put-and-take ringnecks are disoriented when they're first let go and it's up to the hunters to figure out where they're holding. The cleanup hunt following the put-and-take season finds dogs doing some of the work and even more birds being bagged. The first couple of days after the put-and-take shooting can be pretty hectic.

The cleanup hunt may be just as

popular as the put-and-take shooting, or maybe even a little more so. Dogs can be used during the mop-up operation, and it's a great time for hunters that didn't get signed up for the special hunts.

Put-and-take birds are undoubtedly more susceptible to predation than their wild cousins. Coyotes, foxes and hawks all take advantage of birds that really don't have the experience of how to avoid them.

A good map saves a lot of trial and error in finding the fields and edge habitat these birds will eventually move into. The put-and-take birds can hole up anywhere since they didn't mature on the property and will naturally move into the closest and best-looking cover they see.

Registration is required for the put-and-take hunting, but the clean-up shooting is open to anyone with the right hunting license. A daily hunt permit card must be carried and recorded through the self-service drop boxes.

Atterbury covers 6,206 acres near Edinburgh in Johnson County south of Indianapolis. For more information, contact the Atterbury office at (812) 526-2051. Information on where to stay is available from the Franklin Chamber of Commerce at (317) 736-6334 or online at www.southernin.com.

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