Our State's Best Turkey Hunting

Our State's Best Turkey Hunting

Here's a region-by-region breakdown of Indiana's best areas to find gobblers this spring, no matter where you live in the Hoosier State. (April 2007)

In the southern half of the state, the Hoosier National Forest provides turkey-hunting opportunities within portions of nine counties.
Photo by John Trout Jr.

If you read last month's Indiana turkey forecast story, you already know that Hoosier hunters bagged yet another record number of birds in the spring of 2006. In fact, the harvest increased 18 percent over the previous year's harvest. Moreover, when hunters shot 13,193 turkeys last spring, they had 88 counties open to hunting. At least 79 of those contributed to the state's total harvest, and at least one from each of the state's six regions stood above all the others.

Now, let's slip back in time a couple of decades and dig deeper into the paperwork. In 1987, only 31 counties in the state reported turkeys being harvested. Hunters took only 741 birds that year, with none reporting a harvest in the triple figures. The highest harvest occurred in Parke County where hunters took 98 turkeys, while the lowest harvests were reported in Johnson, Morgan and Warren counties where hunters took only two birds in each.

Some 19 years later, Parke County hunters bagged 376 birds. More than 35 counties reported harvests in triple figures, and at least seven counties harvested 400-plus turkeys. Warren County was one of those in the triple digits.

Of course, many changes have contributed to those counties that recently reported a record number of birds killed. First, consider the state's restoration program -- a successful operation that continues to bear fruit. This program has led to new counties opening to hunting, as well as birds expanding into areas that even surprised many experts. Then there's the hunter success statistics. In the 1970s, hunter success did not exceed 10 percent. Throughout much of the 1980s, hunter success was often below 10 percent. Over the last seven years, success has averaged about 26 percent. Thus, we can assume that many veteran hunters have sharpened their skills. We can also assume that the abundance of turkeys and hunting areas are factors as well.

Steve Backs, Indiana's forest wildlife biologist, divides the state's turkey-hunting range into six regions, with numerous counties within each. Several years ago, it wouldn't have been worthwhile to evaluate each region, simply because not all had a story to tell. Today, that has changed. Turkey hunters can now see and hear firsthand how each region fares. However, keep in mind that some regions are larger than others and are not limited to only a small portion of the state.

NORTH REGION

For instance, the North Region is one of the largest, extending from the state line east to west. Steuben County, located in the northeastern corner, led the way in 2006 with a harvest of 215 birds. Not far behind were Starke (191), Marshall (182) and LaPorte counties (153) on the northwestern side of the region. According to Backs, there are several fish and wildlife areas (FWAs) in the state contributing to the highest harvests.

Pigeon River FWA, one of the larger public areas of the state, is located in portions of Steuben and Lagrange counties. Lagrange County hunters took 85 birds last spring. Farther to the east, you'll find Jasper-Pulaski, Kankakee, Kingsbury and Willow Slough FWAs.

"In Marshall and Starke counties alone, we still have some pretty good habitat in the dairy industry areas. The FWAs in these areas act like islands of habitat that interconnect with some other forested areas. You also have Tippecanoe State Park in there, and you have a fair amount of woodlands with some real good habitat in the north-central portion," explained Backs.

The North Region contributed 12 percent to the total state harvest in 2006, with 1,533 birds. Of the 12 percent, 34 percent were juvenile birds. Backs suspects that the high percentage of jakes killed was because of hunters not being as selective as they are in other regions.

EAST-CENTRAL REGION

Eighteen counties make up the East-Central Region, yet it produces the lowest harvests in the state. At least four of those counties were closed to hunting in 2006. In the remaining 14 counties, several areas reported no harvests. Only 23 birds were taken in the top counties of the region. Six birds each were harvested in Grant and Howard counties. Hendricks County hunters took five, while Carroll County hunters harvested four birds.

The closed areas are one of the primary reasons for the low harvest. However, Backs said that even if these areas opened, he would not expect the region to contribute much more than a few percentage points to the overall harvest.

"There's just not a whole lot of habitat in this region. We did do some restoration in this area in 2004, and these areas will open to hunting in 2007. The East-Central Region should pick up as far as total harvest, but in proportion to the whole state, it's probably going to contribute less than 5 percent of the total state harvest," Backs noted.

Henry County will remain closed to hunting in 2007, because of turkey/ vehicle collisions that have been reported.

There is little public area in the East-Central Region. Backs said there is a small parcel of public land in Randolph County that could contribute to future harvests in the region. He refers to this as a satellite parcel to the Wilbur Wright FWA.

WEST-CENTRAL REGION

Backs noted that the high harvests of the West-Central Region have not been a big surprise. Hunters took 2,566 birds there in 2006, or 20 percent of the total statewide harvest. Parke County dominated the region with a reported harvest of 444 birds, which ranked it No. 5 in 2006. Nonetheless, that's not to say that other counties haven't fared well. Consider Greene County, where hunters took 397 birds, and Sullivan County that reported a harvest of 288. In fact, every county in this region reported harvests in the triple figures, with the exception of Montgomery (66) and Tippecanoe (47).

"Parke County has always been our mainstay in this region," Backs added. "We've also seen other counties coming up, such as Sullivan, Vigo and Putnam counties. Vermillion County has got a lot of agricultural land, but it's also doing fair."

Restoration took place in the West-Central Region in the early 1980s. Supplemental turkey releases were completed in the early 1990s.

Several FWAs and state forestlands are found in the West-Central Region. Backs claims that several have done well, with Minnehaha FWA, and Greene-Sullivan State Forest making a solid contribution to the region's total harvest. Adult birds made up 88 per

cent of the harvest in the region last year, which made it close to the state's average take of jakes at 14 percent.

SOUTHEAST REGION

Veteran turkey hunters are probably aware that the Southeast Region is home to the state's No. 1 turkey harvest county. In fact, I recall mentioning Switzerland County for more years than I can remember as the top producer. Last spring, hunters took 562 birds there, which increased 17 percent over the previous year. But make no mistake, the surrounding counties in the region are also producing a large number of birds.

Consider last year's No. 2 -- Dearborn County where hunters reported harvesting 489 birds (an increase of 121 over the previous spring). The region is also home to last spring's No. 4 Jefferson County. Hunters took 461 birds in 2006, compared with 415 in 2005 (11 percent increase). Then there is Franklin County, which just missed the 400-bird mark last spring.

Although there isn't a large quantity of public-hunting land in the Southeast Region, it does offer some of the best turkey habitat. Backs said the southeastern portion of the region contains excellent habitat, with the central part of the region being a close second. Some areas of the region, though, are not producing record numbers of turkeys. For instance, Decatur County, located along the western side of the region and right next door to Franklin, reported a harvest of only 57 birds last spring. Backs added that this area consists of intense agricultural lands. The same applies in Fayette, Union and Wayne counties where harvests are yet to hit the triple figures.

There are bits and pieces of public land within the region. Crosley and Splinter Ridge FWAs, in the southern portion of the region, offer public-land hunting opportunities. Brookville Reservoir provides turkey hunting in the northern portion, as well as Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson and Ripley counties, and Clark State Forest in Clark and Scott counties.

SOUTH-CENTRAL REGION

Moving on to the South-Central Region, currently ranked No. 1, you'll find it contributes the highest percentage of the total statewide harvest. It made up 30 percent of the state's harvest in 2006, with hunters taking 3,946 turkeys. Only 10 percent of the harvest was jakes.

The Hoosier National Forest is found within the boundaries of several counties in the South-Central Region. However, additional public lands also offer hunting opportunities on state forestlands. You'll also find there are two Corps of Engineers reservoir properties that provide turkey hunting -- Monroe and Patoka -- that are leased by the DNR.

"The South-Central Region is blessed and probably has the greatest proportion of public land than any other region, with the Morgan-Monroe State Forest, Yellowwood State Forest and Hoosier National Forest in the northern portion. Then you move south into Harrison, Perry and Crawford counties. Besides more of Hoosier National Forest, you've got Harrison-Crawford State Forest," Backs said, claiming that Martin State Forest is producing plenty of birds on the eastern side of the region.

Backs also mentioned Crane Navel Depot in the South-Central Region. It's about 100 square miles and does not offer public turkey hunting, but he claims this area is somewhat of an epicenter. It holds a number of birds that filter into surrounding counties. Crane is also the first place in Indiana where wild turkeys were released in 1956. I should also mention that it was a few select counties in this region that first opened to turkey hunting in 1970. Although restoration work occurred early in the region, it continued into the early 1990s.

Perry County, which ranked No. 3 with a harvest of 470 birds in 2006, and No. 2 with a harvest of 445 in 2005, is not that far ahead of other South-Central counties. Consider neighboring Crawford, where hunters took 376 turkeys in 2006. To the northwest, you'll find Washington County that reported a harvest of 372 birds. Just north and east of there, Lawrence County hunters took 354 birds.

The region does contain superb habitat, some of the best in the state, as well as an abundance of public-land hunting opportunities. Every county reported a harvest in the triple figures, except for Johnson and Morgan at the northern tip of the region.

SOUTHWEST REGION

Although I've been fortunate to hunt throughout much of the state's prime turkey land over the past 30 years, I've always been fond of the Southwest Region. After all, this is where I learned to turkey hunt, and for that matter, still do. Nevertheless, I've also watched the region's turkey populations grow in the past couple of decades, and harvests steadily increase in many of the area's counties. However, the growth of the turkey population in this region has not been a shock to biologists.

"The Southwest Region includes some of the initial turkey releases. We stocked birds in Pike State Forest and Sugar Ridge FWA (at the time of the releases it was called Patoka FWA) in Pike County," explained Backs, adding that this was excellent turkey habitat.

"I suspect the Southwest Region has come on pretty strong. The Warrick and Spencer county areas have done really well. There were some real good years of production. I feel like they leveled off a little this year, like some of those counties we saw in south-central Indiana this past year. Some of them raise up and then bounce off for a year."

The Southwest Region had a harvest of 1,667 turkeys in 2006. Warrick County led the way with 349 birds, slightly less than the 356 turkeys taken there in 2005. Pike County hunters took 333 birds last year, but this was 26.7 percent more than they took in 2005.

I've always been amazed with some of the counties near the river on the western side of the Southwest Region, such as Gibson and Posey. It wasn't but a few years ago that hunters took only a handful of birds in Gibson County. Last year, 120 turkeys were tagged.

"There are a lot of open river bottoms that might support turkeys in the summertime as far as broods are concerned. For the most part, it wouldn't be considered quality turkey range," Backs said.

Spencer County along the eastern side produced 306 birds last spring, and is where my wife, Vikki, shot her late-season longbeard. I took a bird there on opening day last spring, and have found the hunting in this county has gotten better over the past few years.

Although Pike State Forest and Sugar Ridge FWA continue to offer turkey-hunting opportunities in Pike County, you'll also find Glendale FWA in Daviess County. Along and near the river in Posey County, Hovey Lake provides public hunting. New Harmony State Park is also nearby. It doesn't offer turkey hunting, but Backs reminds us that this closed area does what many others do -- provides an opportunity for the turkey population to expand. Ferdinand State Forest is also open to public hunting in Dubois County.

Although many of the state's FWAs and a few other public hunting areas are open to turkey hunting, some of these areas provide hunting by random draw only and have deadlines for a

pplying.

So, should we expect to see any major harvest changes within each region for the future? Backs suggests we don't look for a major transformation.

"As far as contribution to each of the regions, I don't see any proportion of the kill changing much, other than a few percentage points here and there," Backs said. "The north is still growing. The southeast, south-central and southwest are growing in some areas, but in others, they might have hit the max. Those areas are kind of in that mode where you have some good years and bad years. They go up and down, which is a sign of turkey populations stabilizing. The East-Central Region probably has the biggest opportunity to experience a harvest increase. But I don't see it getting anywhere close to what we are seeing in the other regions."

Backs added that there's much industrial, agricultural and human development in some of the regions, which is sure to alleviate habitat and prevent some regions from experiencing a major increase in harvests.

The good turkey production in 2004 led to the high record harvest of 2006. Backs reported that the latest hatch and brood production numbers aren't as good in 2006. However, he does believe, that because of the large number of adult hens still around in 2006, the carryover could mean plenty of turkeys in the spring of 2007. Backs ended with saying that the major harvest increase last spring is sure to attract new hunters in 2007. Thus, he projects a harvest similar to that of 2006.

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