From August to January, here are six first-rate places to hunt pheasants, deer, doves and more this season in our state. Is one near you? (August 2009)
Hunting is good in Indiana. You can be in the field through most of the year and still have time to enjoy some tasty wild-game cooking during the down times.
Here's a look at Hoosierland hunting for 2009.
Squirrels At Tri-County FWA
Bushytails are the draw this year for Tri-County Fish and Wildlife (FWA) shooters. Bushytails are most always going to be a challenge, especially early with lots of foliage present.
Take your pick of places to hunt in the stands of white, red and black oaks, pignut and shagbark hickories, red, silver and sugar maples, American and slippery elms, red and white mulberries, white and black ash, beech and black cherry. These squirrels live in a smorgasbord and have the pick of the menu. They can be tough to zero in on as a result.
The food plots only add to their options and give shooters more places to set up. Corn and sunflower seeds are planted in the midst of the sorghum, millet, soybeans and wheat, and really ring the dinner bell.
Squirrels know where the best acorn crops are. Mast crops change from year to year and from location to location, even within Tri-County. Pre-scouting is an important element in any good hunt and it's more than a good idea here.
Hunting is best in the A, C, D and F areas, but all of Tri-County has wood lots and squirrel hunting opportunities, according to property manager Steve Roth. The harvest usually consists of fox squirrels with an occasional color phase of gray and black included as well.
Last year, 521 squirrels were taken off the property, an increase over the 353 animals harvested the year before. The squirrel population seems to have increased and promises a good hunt for this year.
The area is accessible from state Routes (SRs) 5 and 13 in northeastern Indiana. The headquarters is at the intersection of 850N and 850E in the northwestern part of the FWA. The Tri-County FWA covers 3,486 acres in Kosciusko County.
For more information, contact the Tri-County FWA at (574) 834-4461.
Mourning Doves At Hillenbrand FWA
Hillenbrand FWA has historically been a good dove hunt, but things are slowing down, according to property manager Ron Ronk. The deer are competing with the birds for food, and there's been a consequent drop in the number of birds harvested. Last year, only 120 doves were taken that basically meant limits for just eight hunters.
But the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) isn't giving up and all that can turn around if the food plots survive the deer herd this year.
Though the weather and the deer are the deciding factors, Ronk hopes to have four successful wildlife food plots again this year. Sunflowers are initially planned and should increase the number of doves that will be available.
With lower numbers of birds have been lower numbers of hunters. If the sunflowers take this year, the few hunters who repeatedly visit Hillenbrand might be in the middle of a shooting bonanza.
If the food plots aren't successful, hunters are going to have to do some serious scouting to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Doves prefer to spend time in areas that have a pond with a smooth dirt bank, high perches in trees or utility lines, nearby agricultural fields, and an open landing zone. They're ground feeders and need the security of open land to avoid predators. They'll fly into an area, set up on the high spots to take a look around, and then move down to feed on open patches of ground. Finding all of these habitat preferences in one spot is a good place to come back to when the season opens.
Hillenbrand FWA is north of Linton and covers 3,200 acres in Greene County. The FWA is divided into two tracts on the east and west sides of SR 59.
For additional information on Hillenbrand, call the Minnehaha FWA office at (812) 268-5640.
White-Tailed Deer At Owen-Putnam State Forest
Owen-Putnam State Forest's (SF) deer herd is looking good this year, according to property manager Bill Gallogly. Judging from his observations, the bucks are nice-sized, and there are a few trophy-class racks available. The area produces a lot of deer and hunters return year after year.
And it's no wonder. The bean and corn fields around this area provide a great source of nutrition, while the forest provides plenty of security and concealment. You'll find typical southern Indiana woodland here with mixed hardwoods and scattered stands of pine.
Be willing to go where it appears that no human has ever gone. The areas where storms have opened up the overhead canopy will provide new ground-level browse areas. This is where the bigger bucks will retreat to hole up while hunters are moving around. This stuff is thick and it's difficult to believe a deer could even get into it.
Swampy, low-lying areas are other places to look for the big racks. If it's wet, put on a pair of hip boots or waders and push into the most inaccessible, nastiest places you can find. The deer may or may not be there, but one thing's for sure -- there won't be any other hunters. Most hunters won't work that hard, but the bucks will. Aerial photos of the forest can be helpful in finding these spots.
Owen-Putnam gets many Indianapolis-area shooters, especially on the first day of gun season and on the weekends. Plan a midweek trip.
The forest covers a total of 6,193 acres near Spencer in Owen County. There is no mandatory check-in on the forest.
Call the Owen-Putnam SF at (812) 829-2462 for more information.
Ducks At Patoka Lake Project
There's plenty of room to spread a wing on Patoka Lake and the nearby Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is a beautiful area with lots of waterfowl habitat, so it won't take long for you to find several productive shooting spots.
Patoka Lake covers 8,800 acres in Dubois County, Crawford and Orange counties. The area is accessible from SRs 56, 64 and 145.
The Patoka NWR covers nearly 24,000 acres in Gibson and Pike counties and is continuing to get more land set aside.
At one time or another, every species of duck that passes through Hoosierland will make an appearance on the lake and the refuge, according to Bill McCoy, the refuge property manager.
Divers and dabblers will soon move in to their preferred stopover spots and the shooting can be excellent; but it all depends on the rain in the fall. If the rain has been good, thousands of acres of bottomland hardwood habitat floods and migratory ducks will come by the thousands. If the fall has been dry, the permanent wetlands at Snakey Point Marsh, Buck's Marsh, the Gray Wood Swamp and the Old 50 will still hold ducks.
The river channels and oxbows lined with big maples, sycamores and cottonwoods are prime wood duck habitat, and the woodies are making the best of it. Wood ducks are numerous on the McClure Marsh north of SR 64 and on Buck Marsh off Snakey Point. The oxbows and wetlands on either side of Houchins Ditch are tough to access and provide some of the area's best wood duck hunting.
The Oatsville Bottoms becomes the hotspot for waterfowl hunting once it floods. The Houchins Ditch joins it when the river is high. The Ditch will put forest and croplands under water for a path up to three miles wide. Hunters can launch boats on the county roads where the flooding stops. This is when the mallards, pintails, widgeons, gadwalls, shovelers, and ringnecks will come out in large numbers.
The Patoka River NWR manages two outlying areas for hunting. The Cane Ridge WMA covers 488 acres of river bottom and lies 24 miles west of Oakland City, just northwest of 3,000-acre Gibson Lake. The second area is the White River WMA north of Oakland City. The area covers 219 acres just to the northwest of Petersburg on the south side of the White River.
For more information and a map, contact the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge office at (812) 749-3199 or online at http://midwest.fws. gov/patokariver; or call the Patoka Reservoir office at (812) 685-2464.
Ring-Necked Pheasants At Willow Slough FWA/Kankakee Sands
Willow Slough FWA has a respectable put-and-take pheasant hunt, though overall numbers are down. According to wildlife biologist Mike Schoonveld, the fields have begun to grow into successional woodlands and other habitat areas have been built up. Not the best state of affairs, said Schoonveld, but there are pheasants if you want to look for them.
But there's good news.
The real pheasant hotspot is the 7,000-acre Kankakee Sands area. The Sands borders Willow Slough and is one of the best pheasant hunting spots in the region.
"When you stand and look out over the fields, you think you'll never be able to cover them because they're huge," said Schoonveld. "The pheasants definitely have the advantage in there."
The Kankakee Sands is a Nature Conservancy property but is managed for hunting by the DFW. Hunters on the Sands are required to participate in the daily draw at the Willow Slough headquarters every morning of pheasant season at 7 a.m. Early in the season, there are more hunters than units to hunt. Later on, most of the hunters who show up will get a spot.
Kankakee is being restored as a prairie and the birds love it. Warm-season grass, various weeds, scattered farm ground and stands of willow trees create a pheasant paradise. A dog is a big help as the birds quickly realize there are many hunters around and start backtracking and holding low. Some days, hunters are spread out enough that there will be birds that don't even know the shooters are there.
U.S. Route 41 bisects the property and hunting is allowed on half the property on alternating days. Each side of the highway is reduced into units and depending on the habitat available, a designated number of hunters are allowed in. The goal is to provide exceptional pheasant hunting without ruining it by letting it be overrun with hunters. So far, the plan is working.
Willow Slough covers 1,500 acres of marshes, ponds, and the J.C. Murphey Lake near Morocco. A few hundred acres of crop fields are available. Access to the slough is via secondary roads west of U.S. 41 in Newton County. The area covers a total of 9,756 acres near Morocco. The nearby Pogue Marsh provides some additional limited opportunities.
Call the Willow Slough FWA office at (219) 285-2704 for additional information.
Cottontail Rabbits At Mississinewa FWA
It looks like things will be picking up again at Mississinewa. Though the golden years of rabbit hunting are in the past, a slight increase over last year's harvest is already making it look like the rabbit population is beginning to make a comeback.
According to Mike Remie, the area's wildlife specialist, almost 400 rabbits were taken off the property last year, which isn't bad. This was up a bit from the year before and just part of the cyclic nature of rabbit populations.
"We don't know why the rabbit numbers go up and down," said Remie. "It's probably got something to do with disease, parasites and predators, or a combination of all three."
Coyotes have made a real inroad into the area, but their numbers are on the wane as well, said Remie. One hunter told Remie that a group of shooters chasing coyotes with dogs had 17 separate coyotes running across the ice and through the fields, all at one time. Fox numbers are increasing, but probably not enough to have a significant effect on the rabbit population.
Remie has seen the rabbit numbers fluctuate in his 35 years on the job and he's not worried. The population is already easing back up.
Most of the hunting is done on the east side of SR 13 where nearly all of the warm-season prairie grasses grow. The best shooting is in management units 3, 4, 5 and 6. The road divides the property in half.
The regulars on the scene rely on dogs because of the high grass. Most of the shooters use shotguns to prevent stray .22 bullets from bouncing around in the thick cover and hitting a dog or worse. Some use .22 rifles for the challenge in the high grass, but most hunters shy away from them because of the safety considerations.
Watch for the no trespassing signs that are put up to protect waterfowl resting areas and other restricted sections. No hunting is allowed in the marked safety zones and around the major recreation areas. Signing in is mandatory at any of the 12 sign-in stations. All harvested rabbits must be reported.
The Mississinewa FWA covers 11,176 acres of land. The area is seven miles southeast of Peru in Grant, Miami and Wabash counties. It's easily accessible from SRs 13, 15 and 19.
For more information, call the Mississinewa FWA at (765) 473-6528. For statewide info, contact the Division of Tourism at (800) 289-6646 or at www.in.gov/enjoyindiana.