Indiana's Myriad Public-Land Turkey Option

Indiana's Myriad Public-Land Turkey Option

From reserved hunts to standby affairs, there is great gobbler hunting on select public property (even military lands) throughout our state. Here are some of the best to consider. (April 2009)

Almost every turkey hunter dreams of having available to them a large tract of land with exclusive hunting rights. This property would be expansive and hold a diversity of prime habitat. It would contain a good mix of hardwood forest, grassy areas, and maybe even some bottomland. This land would have water and food sources readily available for wildlife.

Realistically, and unfortunately, most of us don't have access to a spot like that. Obviously, much of the best turkey hunting occurs on private land; and those who are fortunate to own or have access to it are truly blessed. For the rest of the hunters out there without private land access, it means sharing time with other hunters on public access properties. Luckily, there are many public access sites across the state where Hoosiers can find great turkey hunting.

Our public lands here in Indiana are quite diverse and offer much for the turkey hunter. They range from small to large. These public lands are made up of fish and wildlife areas (FWAs), national forest, reservoir properties, are military installations and national wildlife refuges (NWR). Collectively these areas provide a huge amount of hunting land that is available for hunters seeking spring gobblers.

Of course, each of these properties is a little different and each offers varying opportunities. The good news is that most all of these properties have good populations of turkeys. Steve Backs is a wildlife research biologist who oversees turkey management for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).

"These public lands all have healthy populations of wild turkeys with the only real differences being the available public land base (acres or square miles). I think the choice comes down more to the individual hunter's desired travel distance and other accommodations, such as camping areas, campgrounds with open bathing facilities, fishing opportunities and boat rentals."

Although there are many properties in Indiana that offer public access turkey hunting, the opportunities and regulations for each are not uniform across the board. Some areas are open under statewide regulations and some are open only through a reserved hunt procedure that requires advance application and then being lucky enough to be drawn. Even though the deadline for applying for those hunts has already passed for this year, most of the reserved hunt properties also offer standby hunting to fill vacancies when drawn hunters do not show up on their assigned hunt day. The areas that do not have standby hunting include Fairbanks Landing, Chinook, and Hillenbrand FWAs, along with Roush, Mississinewa and Salamonie lakes.

Applying for reserved hunts is one of the best ways to get on these properties during the prime days of the season. The application is due in March, so mark your calendar early next year as a reminder to make the deadline. For those who didn't apply or were not drawn, here is a look at some of the great opportunities still available for this season.

BIG OAKS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

The Big Oaks NWR is located in southeastern Indiana with the main entrance about five miles north of Madison. It spreads across portions of Jefferson, Ripley and Jennings counties and provides over 25,000 acres of available hunting land. The property can accommodate 210 turkey hunters per day, which translates to about 120 acres per hunter.

Turkeys are in abundance at the Big Oaks NWR. Joe Robb is the refuge manager there and believes hunters have one of the best public access opportunities in the state at Big Oaks. "I think there is a lot of great turkey hunting in the state, but Big Oaks has some great hunting. But I am probably biased. It is all about the preference of the hunter."

There are several methods of getting in on the turkey hunting at Big Oaks NWR. The first is through the aforementioned reserved hunt system, which is conducted by the DNR. In addition to that drawing, there are also local lottery drawings that are held periodically at the NWR office. The last method is standby hunting, which provides a good chance of still getting in on the action this season.

With 210 hunters scheduled to hunt, there is always a good chance that some won't show up for one reason or another. If a scheduled hunter does not check in by 7 a.m., on the morning of the hunt, then that spot is available for standby hunting. Furthermore, if this no-show occurs on the first day of the scheduled hunt dates, the remainder of the hunt dates are also forfeited and become available for standby hunting. That is unless the hunter has made previous arrangements with the NWR to retain the remaining days.

Another good opportunity to get in on the hunting at Big Oaks is as a buddy hunter. The NWR requires that all drawn or standby hunters utilize the buddy system for safety purposes. This is due to an arrangement with the army because the NWR is overlaid on army land. There is no limit to the number of times a hunter can participate as a buddy hunter, as long as he or she does not exceed the statewide limit of one bird per season.

The turkey harvest figures for Big Oaks have varied quite a lot in the past several years. The birds are there, but other factors, such as weather, the timing of peak gobbling and breeding activity, as well as the skill level of participating hunters, all play a part in harvest success. The numbers from 2001 to present have ranged from a low of 31 birds to a high of 95 birds. Last year, hunters bagged 45 turkeys at Big Oaks.

Hunters must attend a mandatory safety briefing before hunting and must also purchase a special hunting permit for the site. Time may be saved by watching this safety video and purchasing the permit before the date of the hunt. They are available at the refuge office on public use days, which are Mondays, Fridays, and the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.

More information is available at the refuge office located in Building 125, which is accessible from the main entrance. Call the refuge office at (812) 273-0783 for more information.

CAMP ATTERBURY

The Camp Atterbury Military Maneuver and Training Center has five separate reserved hunts for drawn hunters. They include three sessions in April and two in May. Standby hunting is available to fill no-show vacancies.

The Atterbury property is located near Edinburgh. This area contains approximately 27,000 acres with most being available for hunting. This is subject to change if necessitated by military maneuvers. The property is adjacent to the Atterbury FWA.

Bird numbers are good at the property. The most recent turkey harvest figures for the Atterbury facility was just fewer than 30 birds.

Hunters are required to check in at the area office by 4:30 a.m. each morning of the scheduled hunt. If not checked in by the appointed time, the hunting slot will be available for standby hunting. Also, all hunters must present certification of hunter education or they will not be allowed to hunt. Hunting partners are not used at this property.

More information on hunting at the Atterbury FWA or the Atterbury Military Maneuver and Training Center may be obtained by calling the Atterbury FWA office at (812) 526-2051.

HOOSIER NATIONAL FOREST

The Hoosier National Forest (NF) is our state's largest public access area and provides over 200,000 acres of recreational activities. Of course, hunting is also available. The NF is broken into four separate units, each of which has a good population of turkeys.

The NF does not conduct reserved hunts, but rather is open under statewide hunting regulations. Hunting is regulated by the DNR, but other regulations apply and the DNR and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service patrol the area jointly.

Scouting is imperative to success on the NF. It is a vast property with diverse habitats and a wide variety of adjacent properties and habitats. Obtaining good maps of the area is not only important to learn the boundaries, but also to formulate hunting plans, learn access locations, and the best ways to avoid other hunters. All areas near easily accessible roads will be the most heavily hunted. Hunters who are willing to do a little research, and the necessary legwork to get away from the crowds will generally be well rewarded for their efforts.

The Hoosier NF does not require hunters to check in before the hunt. However, hunters are encouraged to learn all the rules and regulations about boundaries, traveling interior roadways, off-road vehicle use, and areas closed to hunting. A wide variety of maps is available and may be purchased from the Hoosier NF office or from the NF Web site located at www.fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier. The main office is located in Bedford and may be reached at (812) 275-5987. The Tell City Ranger District Office may be phoned at (812) 547-7051.

EVEN MORE CHOICES

The Kingsbury FWA is located in northwestern Indiana near the town of LaPorte. Kingsbury provides over 5,000 acres and is part of the reserved hunt program. However, standby hunting is always an option.

During the last reporting period, hunters bagged 45 turkeys. That was up four birds from the previous total. The area is managed by the DNR and may be reached at (219) 393-3612.

Another reserved hunt property with good harvest is the Pigeon River FWA, which totals 11,600 acres. The FWA is located near Mongo in LaGrange County. This property actually showed a drop in turkey harvests over the past two reporting periods, but still was one of the top areas in the state. Hunters took 38 turkeys last season and 48 the year before.

This FWA also participates in the reserved hunt program. For information on standby hunting, contact the area at (260) 367-2164.

One property that has shown a nice increase is the Minnehaha FWA in Sullivan County. It is located approximately 1 1/2 miles from the town of Sullivan. This FWA has over 11,000 acres.

Turkey hunters bagged 23 birds there during the last tally, which was up from the 15 taken during the previous season. That is a nice jump and possibly indicates increased opportunity for this year.

Hunting there is controlled by the reservation system, but standby hunting is also made available when there are no-shows. Contact the FWA at (812) 268-5640.

Winamac FWA is another good choice and also showed an increase in harvest. Hunters bagged 23 turkeys in the previous reporting period and increased that number to 25 turkeys last year.

Hunters will find the Winamac FWA in northern Indiana in the county of Pulaski. It has a total of 4,770 acres and like the other areas mentioned, is part of the reserved hunt program. Hunters may call (574) 946-4422 to learn more about hunting at the area and the opportunity for standby hunting.

PLAYING THE ODDS

Gamblers and those who play the stock market look for trends, statistics, and the highest percentages for success. Turkey hunters can do the same when choosing where to hunt. Some hunting areas are located in portions of the state with higher hunter harvests. By looking at the counties with the best harvests and then identifying public hunting areas within or near those counties, hunters can position themselves in the more favorable areas for success.

For instance, last year Switzerland County recorded the highest turkey harvest in Indiana. It was also the high county from 2007, but it showed an increase of 66 birds last year or a difference of 14 percent. Switzerland County accounted for 4.4 percent of the total harvest in the entire state. Located within that county is the Splinter Ridge FWA near Madison. It is not part of the reserved hunt program and may be reached at (812) 346-5596.

Rounding out the top three counties from last year are Jefferson and Harrison. Both of these counties also held down the No. 2 and No. 3 positions in 2007, which shows consistency. Both counties also had an increase in the harvest from 2007 to 2008.

Jefferson County yielded a harvest of 464 birds last year and 399 birds the year before. That was up 16 percent and an increase of 65 birds from one year to the next. That total represents nearly 4 percent of the overall state harvest. Within that county is the aforementioned Big Oaks NWR.

The third spot last year was Harrison County with a harvest of 428 birds. That is a 6 percent increase from 2007 when the harvest was 402 birds. Harrison held the No. 2 position in 2007 and has been a consistently good county for harvest. The Harrison-Crawford State Forest is located in Harrison County and provides some 24,000 acres of access. It is managed by the DNR's Division of Forestry and may be reached by calling (812) 738-8232.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Hunting public land is far different than hunting on private land. The birds are more pressured and don't react the same as those that aren't called and hunted every day. Hunters must take that into consideration and adapt calling sequences accordingly. Less calling, more patience, and lots of hunter savvy is required to consistently bag public land birds.

Another very important aspect of hunting public land is when to hunt. If possible, hunters should avoid peak hunting times by other hunters. Backs concurs.

"The main advice I give to hunters is if you want to avoid heavy hunting pressure, avoid hunting during the first five days of the season and on weekends. Try to hunt weekdays during the second and third weeks."

Lo

oking at the statistics for hunter participation and harvest shows why. Last year, approximately 58 percent of the harvest occurred during the first five days of the season. Also, 37 percent occurred on weekends.

The need for scouting can't be emphasized enough. It was touched on earlier regarding the Hoosier NF, but it's very important for hunting on all public lands. Not only must hunters find where the birds are located, but also they absolutely must realize where other hunters will be entering the woods and hunting, too. Steering clear of this pressure is the best bet for finding workable birds.

There are many more hunting properties than what space will allow here. Hunters should check the 2009 Indiana Hunting & Trapping Guide to learn more about the state's other public hunting areas. These areas are also listed on the DNR's Web site at www.wildlife.IN.gov.

Find more about Indiana fishing and hunting at: IndianaGameandFish.com

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