Here are seven top-rated, but underutilized, fish and wildlife or conservation areas you should try this season for a chance at fabulous duck and goose hunting.
Photo by Albert Lavallee
By Ray Harper
A high percentage of waterfowl hunting in Indiana occurs on public lands. Traditionally, the favorite public lands for hunting ducks and geese are the state's 20 fish and wildlife areas (FWAs). These public lands are spread throughout Indiana, and many of these FWAs are managed to attract waterfowl. Hovey, Kankakee, Kingsbury, LaSalle and Willow Slough are so popular with hunters that the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) holds drawings for reserved waterfowl hunting.
However, a severe drought in the prairie pothole region of Canada and other environmental changes in the breeding grounds have resulted in a reduced fall flight in recent years. This has cut down on the duck harvest in Indiana, according to Ed Theroff, the division's south region property supervisor.
The total harvest on those FWAs for the 2003-2004 seasons was 8,628, down from 10,393 in 2002-2003 and 15,188 in 2001-2002, according to Theroff. For geese, the harvest on the FWAs also has declined over the past three seasons - from 1,132 in 2001-2002 to 934 in 2002-2003 to 916 in 2003-2004.
The declining fall migration and fewer birds on the FWAs, however, doesn't have to adversely affect hunting success. Local birds and migrators may be plentiful at out-of-the-way locations like coal stripper pits, highway borrow pits, oxbow lakes, farm ponds, rivers and creeks. Also, other public properties - like reservoirs, federal refuges, recreation areas and wetland conservation areas - offer great promise for the enterprising hunter. This kind of waterfowling often requires hunters to be highly resourceful and hard working - scouting birds, checking topographical maps, watching river levels, getting landowner permission, building blinds and carrying in decoys.
Here are public properties, outside the usual FWAs, which should offer excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities this fall.
RACCOON STATE RECREATION AREA
Raccoon is a 4,065-acre Parke County recreation area that includes waterfowl magnet Cecil M. Hardin Lake (2,065 acres). Bisected by U.S. Route 36 and located on the eastern edge of Parke County, Raccoon is better known for excellent crappie and striped bass fishing.
To succeed in waterfowl hunting on Hardin Lake, it is helpful to use a sizeable spread of decoys and a boat blind. It's also helpful to scout in advance. Sometimes the birds don't begin using Hardin until late in the season, according to Chris Newcomb, assistant property manager.
There is a check-in station at the main boat ramp where hunters are required to self-register and sign a liability waiver. Situated near the migratory route along the Indiana-Illinois border, "Raccoon has been a hidden place for waterfowl hunting in the past," Newcomb said. For more information, call the property headquarters at (765) 344-1884.
CEDAR SWAMP WETLAND CONSERVATION AREA
Managed from the Pigeon River FWA, Cedar Swamp is an 840-acre public hunting area in Steuben County. Acquired by the state in 1989, Cedar Swamp originally opened for waterfowl hunting with no restrictions on where you could hunt or how many hunters were allowed.
The swamp soon developed into a favorite spot for hunters and competition for the prime locations became fierce. Once the parking lot filled with 37 vehicles and reports surfaced that decoys left unattended overnight were spray-painted. Since then, Pigeon River has gone to a pre-season drawing for opening day and weekends of the waterfowl season. On other days, hunting is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Applications are made available at Pigeon River sometime after the hunting season dates are approved in August by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Mike Holcomb, assistant Pigeon River property manager. The swamp is divided into six zones. When hunters apply for the reserved hunts, they choose dates and zones. Maps of the zones are available and advance scouting is advised. For a map or more information, call the FWA headquarters at (260) 367-2164.
Al Van Hoey, District 3 wildlife biologist at Pigeon River, says excellent hunting is available in less pressured locations than Cedar Swamp. He suggests Elkhart, Fawn and Pigeon rivers, all of which have public access in Steuben County.
CREEK WETLAND CONSERVATION AREA
Little Pigeon Creek is a 1,000-acre tract of lowlands in northeastern Warrick County and northwestern Spencer County. The area is not well marked, but begins just northwest of Gentryville and stretches west along gravel county roads. When the creek is high, it floods adjoining marshes and provides excellent duck habitat. Managed from the Glendale FWA, hunting on the Little Pigeon wetlands is not controlled. A map of the land is available at Glendale's headquarters; call (812) 644-7711 for more information.
Interlake is a former strip-mine area in southern Pike and northern Warrick counties and includes some 3,000 acres of the most remote, uninhabited land in the state. Owned by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and managed by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, Interlake includes nearly a dozen stripper pits representing more than 300 acres of water. The entire area is open to hunting. However, horseback riders and off-road vehicle drivers are common in this area.
The Interlake land originally encompassed nearly 10,000 acres. However, a private individual purchased 6,000-plus acres when the state was unable or unwilling to spend money for the acquisition. When this article was being written, the land was being divided into small tracts to be offered at auction.
To reach the state property, drive north of Lynnville on state Route (SR) 61 and turn east onto a county road after the second 90-degree turn. Sugar Ridge FWA, (812) 789-2724, has a map that shows the area. Plan to scout in advance of your hunting day. The land is not well marked.
PATOKA RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area, established in 1994, is located in Gibson and Pike counties along the Patoka River. Hunting is permitted on 5,093 of the 5,211 acres within the 22,083-acre authorization area. The various tracts that make up the acquired areas are not contiguous. Some of the tracts have poor access because of adjacent coal mining that remains under federal bond. Other areas are surrounded by private land. The only a
ccess to some areas is by traveling by boat on the Patoka River.
Hunting on the new refuge is hard work, but highly productive. In many remote areas, hunting pressure is non-existent. Other areas like Snakey Point Marsh, northeast of Oakland City in the South Fork of the Patoka, are very popular with waterfowl hunters.
Bill McCoy, refuge manager, confirms that duck hunting opportunities abound at Patoka. "When the Patoka floods, it is three miles wide in the Oatsville Bottoms (southeast of Wheeling)," he said. "But the Patoka has not flooded during the duck season for three years."
When it does, it makes for great duck hunting, he says. When it doesn't flood, McCoy says you've got Snakey Point, some beaver flooding, oxbow lakes or you can float the river and jump-shoot wood ducks. "Every place on the Patoka where there is an oak tree hanging over the water or a log creating an eddy, you'll find wood ducks," he said.
McCoy also suggests Buck Marsh, accessible from Snakey Point to the northwest, and McClure Marsh on Line Road north of SR 64 and adjoining a section of the Pike State Forest to the north. The southeast portion of Snakey Point is private land and its boundaries may not be clear.
Pits or permanent blinds may not be constructed or used on the refuge area. Only portable blinds or structures constructed of native plant materials are allowed. Blinds must be removed or dismantled at the end of each hunting day. Decoys also must be removed at the end of each hunting day. Motor vehicles must remain on maintained roads within the refuge. Vehicles cannot be parked in such a way that they block other vehicles. Off-road vehicles are not permitted on refuge lands.
A detailed site map is available at the refuge office, 510 1/2 W. Morton Street in Oakland City or call (812) 749-3199.
The map also shows portions of Pike State Forest (3,089 acres) that border on the Patoka River and provides duck hunting opportunities.
LOWER WABASH RIVER
The White and Patoka rivers both empty into the Wabash River just above U.S. Route 64 in Gibson County. Excellent bird hunting is available in many sections of the Wabash from Route 64 to the river's confluence with the Ohio River in Posey County in the extreme southwestern corner of Indiana.
Hunters have succeeded in harvesting ducks on the Wabash west of the 3,000-acre Gibson Lake, a power plant cooling lake operated by Cinergy. No hunting is allowed on Gibson Lake. However, last season during the peak of the migration, 7,000 ducks were using the lake. There are several hunt clubs near the lake.
Farther downriver, the Mackey bend area in Posey County can be a highly productive spot for duck hunters who can endure rugged conditions. For this section of the Wabash to attract ducks, the river has to be above flood stage. Conditions are optimal, according to one Wabash duck hunter, when the river stage at Mt. Carmel, Illinois, and the Ohio River stage at Uniontown Dam total 40 feet or more.
This area of the Wabash is located in a portion of the flyway where birds travel between Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois, Sauerheber Refuge in western Kentucky and Indiana's Hovey Lake FWA. Tens of thousands of ducks and geese often populate this area. Hunting the flooded Wabash requires a well-built V-bottom boat of at least 18 feet in length, with a reliable outboard of at least 40 horsepower.
The boat will need to carry hunters, guns, dozens of decoys and probably a dog. The Dogtown Ferry Ramp offers access to this section of the Wabash. However, hunters say, when the river is at its necessary height, there are several flooded county roads that provide access.
Patoka Lake is an 8,880-acre water in Dubois, Orange and Crawford counties and managed by the Division of Reservoirs. The state's second largest manmade lake couldn't be considered remote or obscure. But its large size makes it at once a formidable objective for duck hunting and an opportunity to hunt waterfowl in a fairly low-pressure situation. The surrounding land includes seven state recreation areas. The only special requirement for waterfowl hunting at Patoka is a mandatory check-in.
When waterfowl are not flying in large numbers and prime locations are not producing, that's when scouting becomes an important factor in hunting success.
"There are nearly a dozen of us who hunt together off and on," said Jeff Musgrave, an Evansville waterfowl hunter. "On any given day during the hunting season, there's probably at least one of us driving through the stripper pits or through the bottoms looking for birds."
If they see a flock of geese using a farmer's field early in the morning, for example, they will knock on the farmer's door, ask permission to hunt, dig a pit or build a blind the same afternoon, set up a few dozen decoys and be on that field ahead of the geese the next morning.
"Depending on how many of us hunt, we may bag five or six geese or more. But that flock of geese may not use that field again for a week," Musgrave said. "So we'll pick up our decoys, put everything back like it was before we came and look for another spot."
Because these locations don't get much pressure from hunters, landowners often are willing to give one-time permission, Musgrave says. Offer them a share of the game - cleaned and ready to cook - or bring them a home-baked pie and they will probably allow hunting again sometime. On the other hand, brag to a lot of other hunters so the landowner is swamped with hunting requests, and the landowner probably will just stop giving permission.
Another time last season, this hunting team found ducks using a borrow pit near an interstate spur. (The pits are made by "borrowing" dirt to build up the roadway when the interstate is constructed. Many of the pits are shallow and provide excellent waterfowl habitat.) One of the hunters talked with neighbors and found the owner of the pit. The owner gave permission and the hunters found ducks rolling in over the pit at 7 a.m. sharp for several days in a row - until water from a nearby creek receded, leaving the pit half its high-water size.
"A three-acre pond in just the right location may attract enough birds to support several days of hunting. You just have to be willing to put in a little work," Musgrave said.
When you hunt waterfowl apart from the comfortable confines of a FWA, you most often will need a sturdy duck boat, reliable outboard motor, several dozen decoys and a well-trained retriever. When you have those ingredients, you have what it takes to go to the ducks, instead of hoping the ducks come to you.
To hunt waterfowl in Indiana requires a hunting license ($14.75 for resident annual), a signed Indiana Waterfowl Stamp ($6.75), a HIP Validation Number (call 1-80
0-WETLANDS) and, if you are 16 years of age or older, a signed federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp ($15). There is a place on the back of your hunting license for the HIP number. There is no cost and the number is relatively easy to obtain. You only need to make the call once each season, not each time you hunt. The information you provide helps wildlife managers gather information on migratory game bird harvests. Duck and goose hunting in Indiana is divided into three zones - North, South and Ohio River.
The state offers weekend youth hunting dates in each zone. The dates are set outside the regular hunting season. Hunters must be 15 years of age or younger to participate and must be accompanied by an adult at least 18 years of age. An adult may accompany more than one youth. The accompanying adult may not hunt waterfowl that day (except snow geese during snow goose season).
When using a boat in one of these out-of-the-way areas, there are some rules that must be followed. Migratory birds may be hunted from a boat only when it is beached, anchored or tied to a stationary object. The boat must be without motion except movement caused by wind, current or hand-operated oars or paddles.
Season dates and bag limits for waterfowl hunting in Indiana may be obtained on the DNR's Web site, www.IN.gov.dnr/fishwild/, or by writing Publications Request, Division of Fish and Wildlife, 302 W. Washington St., Room W273, Indianapolis, IN 46204-2781.
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