Understanding Indiana Deer Habitat

The state of Indiana is literally surrounded by top-tier buck-producing states. The sister states that border Indiana, deer hunting hotspots like Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky, often soak up much of the notoriety and there is no doubt great hunting for awe-inspiring bucks in all of these states. Both Boone and Crocket along with Pope and Young scores prove the caliber of deer in this part of the world.

Indiana, however, is often lost or left out of conversations regarding big deer. Many trophy whitetail hunters across the country can pick out Pike County, Ill., on a map but can't name a single county by name in the great state of Indiana. While Indiana might not get the national attention it deserves, buck potential in the Hoosier State might be one of the best-kept secrets and bargains in this part of the country.

A SWEET DEAL FOR ANYONE

This is particularly true for non-resident hunters; the license is cheap compared to neighboring states and licenses can be bought right over the counter. No points or wait is required to get a license. Comparable to other nearby states, Indiana just doesn't seem to attract the same kind of non-resident hunting pressure. Respectable racks, however, make Indiana the whitetail diamond-in-the-rough.

ON THE MAP

"We really saw the average racks score much higher in Indiana when the state went to being a one-buck state," explains well-known Indiana outfitter Mark Liebner of Camp Kay Outfitters. What this rule means is that hunters are only allowed to tag one buck per season with either archery or firearm. This rule cut down on bucks harvested and caused hunters to be more selective. The result for Indiana hunters has been larger deer. "I believe that this rule really set Indiana over the top as far as quality bucks. Our expectations have gotten higher over the past few seasons, but our success average has been phenomenal. Indiana is now on the map for hunters pursuing trophy whitetail deer."

What also set Indiana apart from some other states are the new laws passed this season that allow archery hunters to use crossbows. While controversial in some states, crossbows allow elderly and handicapped hunters the opportunity to pursue deer during the archery season and this is a niche that Liebner hopes to expand on in the future.

"We have several handicapped-accessible blinds and we are seeing a huge interest from archery hunters who want to use a crossbow to harvest an animal," explains Liebner.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES

For hunters who pursue deer in Indiana, what is striking are the vast differences in tactics, terrain and topography from one end of Indiana to the other. The Hoosier State has diverse deer habitat that grows big deer. To capitalize on this big-buck potential, hunters have to be adaptable and not overlook some areas or patterns.

"Basically, north of Indianapolis, you are going to find much wider open country with a lot of agriculture and some people might make the mistake of believing that there aren't enough big woods to grow big deer, but nothing could be further from the truth," says Liebner. "On the flip side, the topography south of Indianapolis is much more forested, with hardwood forests; the kind of habitat that many hunters associate with big-buck potential. And across the state, we have good deer, but how we hunt in each of these areas is strikingly different."

The habitat is varied and big bucks aren't necessarily found in one particular region. In all habaitats, respectable deer are shot across Indiana.

"In the very northeastern part of the state, we have counties with several lakes and in this region there are numerous swamps that big bucks use notoriously to avoid hunters. I run self-guided hunts on property in Carroll, Cass and White counties in north-central Indiana," explains Liebner, and some hunters who have only hunted woods like those found in Michigan and some other parts of the country, sometimes look at all of the wide-open agricultural fields and underestimate the deer numbers. Deer in farm country grow big because of good forage like corn and soybeans, and there are some real advantages to hunting this type of terrain. "I actually think the hunting is easier for several reasons," stresses Liebner.

When hunting Indiana's Corn Belt, hunters will generally see more deer. Deer can also be easier to pattern. Hunters can often scout from the roads as the infrastructure is laid out in a grid. As deer move out into harvested corn, soybean and other crops, they can be seen from considerable distances. The visual advantage of being able to use good optics to scan wide-open areas makes locating big deer much easier.

Much of Indiana's farm country in the north-central part of the state is broken up with small wood lots, fence lines, ditches, creek bottoms, hollows and some drainages, and deer use this cover to travel between crop land and bedding areas. Thick cover makes deer feel safe, but some of the areas deer choose to bed in are surprising to hunters who have cut their teeth chasing whitetails in woods.

"Any type of cover that just gets left alone where big deer can feel safe can be used as a bedding area for deer," adds Liebner. Hunting deer in this type of habitat is often just a matter of connecting the dots. Because there is not as much hardwoods and because the cover is chopped up in smaller parcels, travel routes become more focused and somewhat predictable.

"We have a great success rate in this area and there are good numbers of 130- to 150-inch deer. This is a solid region for hunters who are adaptable enough to hunt open country," explains Liebner. The advantages of being able to see more deer and being able to pattern deer easier makes this region of north-central Indiana a great pick for hunters.

SOUTHERN STRATEGY

While hunters comment that they see more deer in Indiana's farm country, the numbers are misleading because the terrain allows hunters to see farther. Deer numbers and big-buck potential are excellent in the southern half of the state as well, but different topography requires a different style of hunting.

The southern half of Indiana is comprised of much more big woods and the terrain is much hillier. Note that these big woods are not necessarily thousands of acres of continuous forest but the amount of hardwoods is substantial enough where hunters typically won't be able to see as many deer but, rest assured, the deer are present and big-buck potential is just as strong as what hunters can find in the wider-open farm country to the north. Although the Morgan Monroe State Forest, for example, is 26,000 acres, most of these hardwoods are a combination of draws, hills and hollows where hardwoods are broken up. Many hunters are familiar with hunting deer in woods, and the patterns and hunting styles are compatible with how many of these sportsmen are used to hunting.

"We have some great hunting property in Franklin County, which borders Ohio in southeastern Indiana," explains Liebner, and "the biggest difference we stress is that hunters have to wait deer out and be patient when hunting thicker woods." This ravine-rich, rolling country produces some spectacular deer and while agriculture isn't as predominant on the landscape, much of these hardwoods are broken up with some farming or clear-cuts. Deer in this type of landscape typically bed in the thicker cover often found in the low spots and travel the ridges to and from bedding and feeding areas.

If you can find some agriculture, deer are often funneling to these open locations, but corn and soybeans aren't the only thing on the menu for deer in this country. Acorns are a big part of the diet for these deer, along with other natural forage. In this type of habitat, deer are less dependent on agriculture, so hunters have to spend some time in the woods to figure out travel routes, forage and bedding areas.

"I believe these conditions require hunters to hunt harder as deer can be more difficult to pattern but, make no mistake, this is a tremendous area for deer," stresses Liebner.

Other interesting habitats that hunters can encounter in Indiana include the rolling strip mines located in the west-central region of the state where coal mining exists. The far northern stretches of Indiana, above the Corn Belt, are comprised of wood lots and the sandy soil has more acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Much of the CRP acres are planted to native grass cover, which can be great for producing big bucks. Near communities like Indianapolis and Gary, urban sprawl breaks up the habitat but, again, deer numbers are strong across much of the state. The very southwestern corner of the state did get hit hard by epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) a few years back, but deer numbers seem to be recovering. The south-central edge of the state above the Ohio River is also recovering from an EHD outbreak, but there are still huntable numbers of deer.

ACCESS

Indiana is broken up into 15 management districts for whitetail deer. Most of the land in Indiana is privately owned. In fact, 92 percent of the ground is under private ownership. Finding good deer hunting locations on private land can be a challenge for hunters and some of the best land can be difficult to access.

There are public land opportunities scattered through the state like state-managed Fish and Wildlife Areas that can offer great hunting opportunities. Many of these locations do see a lot of hunting pressure, but great deer get harvested from these public lands each season. Most of these state-owned opportunities require a daily check in. Maps and locations of public hunting areas can be found on the Indiana DNR website.

Several FWA areas are located south of South Bend and there are also public areas north of Fort Wayne, near the community of Kokomo, and south of Indianapolis. Most of these public land opportunities have varied habitat managed for both hunting and fishing. Some of the more noteworthy areas include the Willow Creek FWA, Monroe Lake FWA, Chinook FWA, Brookeville Lake FWA and the LaSalle FWA. The Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge is a federally managed 50,000-acre area that also provides good public hunting opportunities.

Most years, the rut falls around the middle of November, which typically coincides with Indiana's gun season. During the gun season, archery equipment, slug guns, handguns and inline muzzleloaders are all used to harvest deer. The use of crossbows during the archery season is a new rule change for this upcoming season.

Another new rule allows hunters to use pistol cartridges in rifles during the gun season. For a complete list of rules and regulations pertaining to Indiana deer hunting, a great resource is the Indiana DNR website, http://www.in.gov/dnr/.

This website also has detailed maps and listings of all public hunting Fish and Wildlife Areas open to deer hunting in the state.

Indiana deer hunters are anticipating a great season ahead. Big-buck potential seems good across the board, from one end of the state to the other. With varied landscapes and drastically different topography come not only contrasting scenery, but contrasting hunting styles and strategy. Whether you are running and gunning wide-open whitetails in the corn belt of Indiana or using patience to wait out deer movements in heavily wooded hollows and ravines, there are respectable deer on the horizon. According to astute hunters like Mark Liebner, trophy potential in many parts of Indiana keeps improving each season and right now is a great time to be a Hoosier deer hunter. Mark Liebner's Camp Kay Outfitters can be found on the Web at www.campkayoutfitters.com.

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