From military options to overlooked fish and wildlife areas, here's where you'll find great hunting for gobblers this spring in Hoosierland.
In the late 1980s, I spent three years stationed at Crane Naval Weapons Support Center. Those years were my introduction to turkey hunting. The base itself boasted a high number of turkeys. Through trial and error and a lot of help from a friend, I began a journey that has yet to end, though it took 10 years for me to finally make my way back to southern Indiana.
Andy Reed (left) and the author show off the results of successful tag-team tactics, which fooled this wise public-land gobbler. Photo courtesy of Dennis Cecil.
Having lived here now for the last four years, I have been fortunate enough to gain access to some wonderful private ground. Not everyone is lucky enough to have access to private land. And, believe it or not, some private ground just doesn’t support huntable populations of turkeys. Fortunately, in Indiana, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for sportsmen to ply their trade.
Historically, many of Indiana’s military bases allowed turkey hunters to access their properties. Base closings and re-alignments, increased security procedures, and the present status of terror alerts have put a serious crunch on the opportunities for the average Hoosier turkey hunter on these military properties. There is currently only one military area that allows access and this is through a special drawing only.
Camp Atterbury is an Army outpost utilized as a staging point for many of our state’s National Guard and Reservist units prior to deployment overseas. It covers approximately 27,000 acres, with much of it being accessible to hunters. Camp Atterbury is adjacent to the Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) near Edinburgh, not far from Columbus. For 2005, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is offering five two-day hunts on the military installation itself. These hunts are set to take place on the following dates: April 27-28, May 2-3, 4-5, 9-10 and 11-12.
To be considered for these reserved hunts, a hunter must complete the 2005 Wild Turkey Hunt Application card located on page 21 of the published Rules and Regulations Hunting Guide. These guides are available at most DNR offices as well as license vendors. Officials at the Atterbury FWA office strongly suggest that you read and follow the directions carefully when filling out your application. The registration cards must be completed properly and entirely to be eligible for the drawing. Any blank spaces or mistakes will disqualify you and no exceptions will be made.
Applications will only be accepted between Jan. 1, 2005 and March 15, 2005. Applicants will receive their registration cards back via the postal service, regardless of successful or unsuccessful results, only if they are completed correctly. Late applicants or incorrectly filled out cards will be immediately disqualified and no notifications will be given.
Trust me, if you miss a section or make a mistake, you will be waiting a long time for your results. Successful applicants will be selected through a random drawing, which will be held at the Atterbury FWA office at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 21, 2005. Hunters are welcome to attend the drawing, but are not required to be present. Hunters can call the Atterbury office with questions at (812) 526-2051.
For the 2005 season, only those hunters selected through the drawing will be allowed to hunt. In years past, a successful hunter was allowed to bring a partner. The new 2005 rules allow for only the person selected to hunt.
Unlike the reserved deer hunts, this is not a bonus tag. If you harvest a turkey prior to your reserved dates, you automatically forfeit your hunts. Also, if you are successful in taking a turkey while hunting on Camp Atterbury, you are not eligible to take another bird elsewhere.
A successful draw for a reserve hunt at Camp Atterbury is not a good reason to sleep in and take your time getting started. Show up early and be patient. The staff at the Atterbury office is very professional and does an excellent job of keeping things moving each morning, but check-in and checkout procedures require a little extra time.
Selected hunters must be checked in at the property check station by 4:30 a.m. each morning prior to their hunt. Standby hunters may fill hunting spots not claimed by this time. Be sure to bring your hunter’s education certificate. I watched two hunters get turned away a few years ago because they forgot to bring this proof and the throng of standby hunters waiting in the shadows quickly filled their slots.
A LONG SHOT
All remaining Indiana military bases are closed to general public hunting. The Crane Naval Weapons Support Center contains a great population of turkeys, but access here is limited to active duty military personnel stationed at Crane, plus civilian and retired employees only. Escorted dependents of all the preceding groups are also eligible to hunt. In addition, Crane and tenant activities military personnel may sponsor two guests, and civilian and retired employees may sponsor one guest for turkey hunting. If you know someone who is currently stationed at Crane or employed there, I strongly suggest you discuss options for hunting with them, as this is quite possibly one of the finest opportunities to harvest a turkey in Indiana.
These birds aren’t a bunch of pen-raised domestic variety turkeys and this is not a guaranteed hunt by any means. The advantage comes in the number of birds available to hunt. Fact is, if you blow your chance at one bird, another one may come by to give you another try.
Here’s a good example. As my friend Donny and I sat on a big limestone bluff waiting for dawn to come, the night animals handed over the duty to the morning shift and an eerie calm settled over the big timber. The silence was replaced by the first distant gobble of the morning.
I jumped to my feet and said, “Let’s go get ’em, Donny!” A stiff arm to the chest kept me in my seat and I was soon rewarded with dozens of gobbles in every direction.
I was a rookie at calling turkeys, so Donny let me spend the morning blowing setup after setup. It was like going to turkey school; but you’ve got to keep trying until you get it right. Finally, everything went right and we stumbled across a pair of longbeards that wanted to go home with us. In the years since then, I have
enjoyed great success at Crane and can vouch for the numbers of birds and opportunities available. It may take you a little legwork to find someone to escort you, but it will be worth the effort.
Crane has several specific rules for hunting on station. Firearms hunting is only allowed on Saturday and Sunday. Weekday hunting is with archery equipment only, with several of the areas being restricted due to explosive operations. All Indiana state turkey-hunting rules apply as well while on Crane. As with all the other state and military areas throughout Indiana, a Crane hunt is not a bonus turkey tag. Harvesting a bird at Crane fills your one and only state tag. If you have access to hunting Crane, I would strongly suggest that you give the Natural Resources office a call at (812) 854-1165 to discuss the particulars for hunting on this Navy property.
Although our access for turkey hunting on military properties in Indiana is rather limited, all is not lost. Recently, I spent some time on the DNR’s Web site, http://www.in.gov/ dnr, researching some new areas. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we have public hunting areas covering more than 500,000 acres available to chase turkeys in 34 of our counties. Some areas are better than others, but all of them hold huntable populations of turkeys. Surely you live within driving distance of at least one of these areas.
Several of these properties are adjacent to large reservoirs. If you have not figured it out yet, these reservoirs provide excellent access to property that is often land-locked by private ground. Many of these reservoirs have campgrounds and hotels nearby. These isolated pockets hold flocks of birds that are virtually untouched.
When hunting these waterfront birds, a favorite technique of many successful waterborne hunters is to utilize their boats as mobile roosting sites. Bring your fishing gear along and catch a mess of crappies for supper as you wait for those good night gobbles to begin.
When the gobbling starts, mark the bird and move on to the next finger of cover. Repeat this process until you run out of daylight. On a good night, we marked as many as 10 different roost sites on the country surrounding Patoka Reservoir. If you are unable to roost birds the night prior to your hunt, be in your boat well before gobbling time the next morning. You can owl hoot or just wait patiently for the first gobbler to sound off. Mark the bird’s position and beach your boat nearby. These birds receive relatively little hunting pressure. There is no need to go too far away to beach your boat. The little hunting pressure these turkeys do receive rarely comes from the water.
I have hunted several state forests throughout our state. Two of my favorites are the Hoosier National Forest and the Martin State Forest. My access to both of these forests is in Martin County and both areas hold a lot of birds. I have hunted Green-Sullivan State Forest and found it to be well populated also. I have had success in all of these areas, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
My first involvement in public-land success came as a result of my turkey-hunting mentor’s experience and hard work. I had the pleasure of following him through the hills and ravines to a remote oak ridge crawling with turkeys. Shortly after dawn, we were walking back to the truck with vests full of turkeys. I spent three consecutive seasons on my own before I harvested another public-land turkey. Those three years taught me some important lessons.
One piece of advice I would give to anyone aspiring to harvest a public-land bird would be to show them something different. Every season, weeks before the opener, the woods echo with owl hoots and turkey calls as impatient hunters take to the woods to scout their birds. Although scouting is important, we really give the turkeys more of an education than they give us. It goes without saying, that any birds residing close to the public access sites are quickly educated and the few that are foolish enough to remain there are the first to feel lead on opening day. The remaining birds head for the hills and that is where you need to go.
Arrive much earlier than normal and get away from the crowds. I once hunted a small state wildlife area and it serves as a great example of how doing something different may pay off big. I arrived at a deserted public parking area and felt like I had found an untapped honeyhole as I drifted off to sleep. I awoke at 4:30 a.m. the next morning to find a parking lot full of eager turkey hunters. I was extremely disappointed, but I had traveled two hours to get there, so I figured I’d give it a shot anyway. As the hunters began to depart for their starting points, I began to notice a trend. Every hunter was heading for the northeast corner of the property.
As the last hunter followed the rest of the sheep to the northeast, I grabbed my gear and headed to the southwest. About 15 minutes after first light, I had seven gobblers vying for the attention of my lone hen decoy. As the dejected hunters began to return empty-handed from the northeast, I sat on the tailgate reveling in my success. Donning my best poker face, I told them I, too, had hunted the northeast and this was the only bird I had found. Did I mention that stealth is another good way to remain successful on public land?
You can greatly improve your chances by avoiding public ground during peak times. Opening weekend is probably the worst time to try your hand at public turkeys. The woods are crawling with hunters and the toms will be tight-lipped. My favorite time to hunt is midweek. Often you will have the woods to yourself. This doesn’t mean you can fall back into your routine of starting your hunt from the parking lot. Get back into the timber and survey your situation. If there is an easily navigated trail leading from the parking lot to a likely looking ridge, you can bet you’re not the only hunter to stand there and try to fire up a gobbler.
Avoid these obvious areas and throw something different at them. Pass up those easy trails to the top and slip around for an ascent from the opposite direction. If you find what looks to be a perfect setup within easy hiking of the access point, you can bet it has been used before. Avoid it and find something different. Remember, these birds pattern us long before we pattern them.
YOU’VE GOT TO HAVE PATIENCE
Patience is probably your biggest asset when hunting public-land turkeys. We all love to call too much and call too loud to a tom when he is hammering out gobbles from his roost. I find this to be one of the hardest temptations to resist. Repeated calling to a fired-up gobbler will accomplish two things for you. He will stand on his limb and strut and gobble back at you all morning long. During your high-volume exchange, every turkey hunter within earshot is going to begin moving in on your setup. This can create a bad situation and could result in a lot worse than a blown hunt. Remember the stealth subject I alluded to earlier? Now would be a good time to use it.
Pressured toms will not tolerate overcalling. They may answer you all mornin
g, but I’d bet my last shotgun shell that they would hit the ground and head away from you. Keep your calling soft and subtle. Use non-vocal sounds like wings scraping the tree bark and fly-downs. Throw in some leaf scratching and a soft cluck and purr to add as much realism to your calling as possible. By their nature, these subtle tactics won’t bring a tom running to you on a suicide mission as often as a hot and heavy exchange will, but they are deadly.
Be prepared to show some patience and give the gobbler some time to carefully work his way to you. These public birds are normally very careful and come in slow and quiet. Two ounces of lead crashing into his body once or twice tends to make a turkey a bit cautious. Give the birds time to work and make up their minds to come your way.
GETTING OUT ALIVE
If you are fortunate enough to take a gobbler while hunting public ground, don’t let the excitement of such a grand accomplishment cloud your judgment. Get your bird secured and immediately display some orange. Pull out a flag, put on your orange hat or utilize whatever means you have available to let the other hunters know you are not a turkey. Never, ever, carry your bird out of the woods over your shoulder without some orange displayed. Stick him in a game vest or wrap him in some orange. You’ll be glad you did.
Another tip to get you back to your truck in one piece is to show the proper etiquette. Yelling and screaming and dancing around like a mad man looks great on the hunting shows, but it’s about the rudest thing you can do. Show some respect for your fellow hunters and try not to disturb the area any more than you have to. It’s all right to celebrate and do victory dances . . . just do them at a reasonable decibel.
We all love the idea of having acre upon acre of turkey country all to ourselves, but as private land gets engulfed by big leases and more and more turkey hunters take to the woods each spring, those parcels are quickly becoming a dream. All is not lost. Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources has provided us with some truly awesome turkey-hunting opportunities. With a little research and some legwork, you, too, can find huntable populations of birds all over the Hoosier State.