Hunting Indiana's Forestland Gobblers

Hunting Indiana's Forestland Gobblers

It's never too late to stake out a piece of our state's expansive forest acreage. Here are places you ought to consider for this season. (April 2006)

Hoosier hunters, and a few sportsmen from other states, have enjoyed wild turkey hunts in Hoosierland for some 30 springs. Interestingly, the state's public forested lands have been given little credit for providing good to excellent hunting. Yet, the public forested lands of the state have played an important role in the restoration of the state's largest --and most elusive bird -- since the early 1960s when a cooperative effort of wildlife management agencies of Indiana and Missouri launched this program.

Back then, a few turkeys from other states were released at the Naval Ammunition Depot at Crane (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center); but in the early 1960s, the Indiana Division of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) worked out a plan to trade three Hoosier ruffed grouse for each wild turkey its Missouri counterpart would send.

Under the direction of Woodrow W. Fleming, Indiana's first non-political director of our wildlife agency, some 60 Show Me State turkeys were released in the Morgan Ridge area of the Hoosier National Forest (Perry County) and the Harrison-Crawford State Forest, a distance of some 30 miles between release sites.

As Fleming explained it at the time, the rationale of his agency was to establish two flocks of wild turkeys, with the hope that they would grow in numbers and eventually meet at some point between the original release sites.

That wild turkeys would prosper in Indiana should have surprised no one. After all, this bird had lived in the forested eastern part of the United States (including Hoosierland) before the land was settled. Indeed, it is said to have served Native Americans as an important food source long before the white man's encroachment with axes and plows.

The released wild turkeys did prosper. So well did they prosper that in the fall of 1969, the wildlife agency adopted a discretionary order to establish Indiana's first wild turkey hunting season of modern times.

That first season in the spring of 1970 offered only 100 hunting permits (allotted by public drawing), 50 each for the two hunting ranges. One was in Harrison State Forest and the other was the Perry County area of the Hoosier National.

Four gobblers were taken in that first four-day season, and this meager total bag hardly hinted at what was in store for Hoosier hunters who sought this magnificent bird. The number of hunters was increased to 300 for the spring 1971 season. When the spring season of 1972 rolled around, the repatriated wild turkey was reproducing and spreading so well that hunting was opened to anyone who cared to hunt.

Nine counties were open to hunting in the 1971 spring season for 298 permit holders, and 224 hunters bagged 11 birds. Things didn't change a lot in 1972 when the same nine counties were open for five days to 585 permit holders, 422 of them hunted, taking 12 birds.

From there, the meteoric rise of the Indiana turkey population and hunting takes on legendary proportions, with all or parts of 90 counties giving up 10,765 birds for an estimated 46,000 permit holders during the 2004 season.

Steve Backs, wild turkey/grouse biologist for the DFW since 1981, put this success story into perspective by pointing out that when he walked into the picture, there were only about 1,000 turkey hunters in the state.

"Now we have more than 50,000 turkey hunters," Backs said, emphasizing that this is turkey hunters, not turkey-hunting efforts.

"I can remember when the naysayers said we would never kill more than 300 turkeys (in a season)," Backs said. "Then they said we would never kill 500, and when we killed 1,000, it was like big news."

Backs can't be sure about the role our public forests play in the success of the wild turkey harvest. In terms of numbers, he said this facet of the picture could be gauged, at least partially, by the size of the public lands in comparison with the total size of the various counties. Backs also points out that state and national forest holdings often offer the best turkey habitat, in both size and quality. He added that many birds are taken on private land, which is adjacent to or near public land.

Established in 1903, Indiana's Division of Forestry is made up of 13 properties that total roughly 150,000 acres. Turkey hunting is allowed --even encouraged -- on all of the 11 state forests, and Starve Hollow State Recreation Area, which is adjacent to the Jackson County holdings of Jackson-Washington State Forest.

The Hoosier National Forest covers roughly 193,000 acres in nine counties, almost all of it south of state Route (SR) 60. It extends all the way to the Ohio River in Perry County.

Neither state forest properties nor the Hoosier National requires hunters to check in or out while hunting turkeys or any other species of game birds or animals. Thus, it is difficult to say how many hunters avail themselves of these prime habitat areas, or how those hunters fare in terms of harvest.

Still, autos and pickup trucks parked along the back roads during hunting seasons speak volumes about the popularity of the state's public lands. Further evidence that state forests and the Hoosier National are extremely popular spots for turkey hunting will be seen in county-by-county turkey harvest figures.

The three most popular and productive state forest properties are Harrison-Crawford, Jackson-Washington and Green-Sullivan. And each of these areas is so big that they cross county lines.

Harrison-Crawford, 26,000 acres, is about 10 miles west of Corydon south of SR 62, via SR 462. Additional details on turkey hunting at the Harrison-Crawford property are available by calling property manager Dwayne Sieg at (812) 738-8234. Hunters in Harrison County reported taking 387 birds in 2003 and 381 birds in 2004. In Crawford County, the two-year total harvest figures were 320 in 2003 and 306 last year.

Jackson-Washington State Forest, at 16,500 acres, has its headquarters on SR 39 south of Brownstown. Roughly, 10,000 acres of this facility lie in Washington County off Indiana Highway 135 south of the Muscatatuck River. Jackson County holdings and Starve Hollow State Recreation are north of the Muscatatuck River. Eric Johnson, property manager, will provide additional information by telephone at (812) 358-2160. Jackson County hunters recorded harvest figures of 209 birds in 2003 and 218 birds in 2004. Washington County yielded 319 birds in 2003, 288 birds last year.

Greene-Sullivan State Forest, 7,964 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land, is situated on the Greene-Sullivan county line south of the town of Dugger on SR 159. Property manager Steve Siscoe, a successful turkey hunter, can be reached for additional hunting details or a map of the area at (812) 648-2810. Although birds are well scattered at this property, as they are at most state forests, prime hunting areas seem to be in the section southeast of the forest office around Goodman Lake and Reservoir 26. Hunters in Green County reported taking 316 birds in 2003 and 359 in 2004. Sullivan County hunters reported harvests of 239 birds in 2003 and 284 in 2004.

Although it is not a state forest, the Hoosier National Forest has played -- and is playing -- an important role in the success of the DFW's turkey restoration program.

The Hoosier National spans some 193,000 acres in all or parts of nine counties, a very high percentage of this public land being situated in southern Indiana, where Indiana's wild turkey restoration program was launched.

Jason Engle, wildlife biologist for the Hoosier National, sees the forest holdings in Jackson, Brown and Monroe counties as the hub of this massive turkey-hunting mecca. But holdings in all of the other six counties offer good turkey hunting as well. Turkey-harvest figures for these counties the last two seasons were: Brown, 194 (2003) and 232 (2004); Jackson, 209-218 and Monroe, 187-230.

Turkey-harvest figures for seasons of the last two years support the importance of the other six counties of the Hoosier National to the total turkey-hunting picture in Indiana.

Orange County hunters bagged totals of 322 (2003) and 317 (2004). The figures for those two years in the other five counties are: Johnson, 19-35; Lawrence, 284-293; Crawford, 320-306; Martin, 250-217 and Perry, 373-401.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the other state forests, each of which offers good turkey hunting, along with the Hoosier National Forest, including telephone numbers and other helpful information for those who would like to plan hunts in specific areas of the various public holdings.

Clark State Forest, at 23,900 acres, is 10 miles south of Scottsburg off U.S. Route 31 at Henryville. Walt Zak is manager, and he can be reached by telephone at (812) 294-4306. Clark County posted turkey harvest figures of 292 birds in 2003 and 277 birds in 2004. Sandy Derringer, assistant property manager, said suggesting a best spot would be difficult. "I see turkeys everywhere," she said.

Martin County State Forest, 7,023 acres, is four miles east of Shoals on U.S. Route 50. Manager Jim Lauck, or Darrin Bridges, assistant manager, can be reached by calling (812) 247-3491. Spring turkey hunters took 250 birds in Martin County in 2003 and 217 birds in 2004. "You see and hear them (wild turkeys) everywhere," Bridges said, noting that the Indiana turkey restoration has been a huge success. "I'm 33 and I can remember when we did not have wild turkeys." He suggests hunting the tops of wooded ridges.

Morgan-Monroe State Forest contains 23,680 acres in both Morgan and Monroe counties, off SR 37 south of Martinsville. Property manager Jim Allen or assistant manager David Ramey can be reached at (765) 342-4505. Hunters reported bagging 52 birds in Morgan County in 2003 and 48 birds in 2004. The Monroe County turkey bag was 187 in 2003 and 236 the next season.

Ferdinand State Forest, 7,657 acres, is approximately 15 miles south of Jasper (Dubois County). Manager Doug Brown can be reached at (812) 367-1524. Hunters reported taking 191 birds in 2003 and 205 birds in 2004. Brown said it would be difficult to pinpoint any area of the forest as a best place to hunt because the birds are everywhere on the property. Brown also manages nearby Pike State Forest, 2,914 acres, three miles east of the town of Winslow (enter from SR 364). Hunters took 250 birds in Pike County in 2003 and 268 birds in 2004.

Owen-Putnam State Forest, 6,245 acres, lies roughly six miles west of Spencer on SR 46 off Fish Creek Road. Manager Bill Gallogly cautions that while a good portion of this forestry property will be found at the headquarters in the town of Atkinsonville, the forest offers numerous other parcels in both Owen and Putnam counties. Maps of the forest area are available at the forest office.

Salamonie River State Forest, at 850 acres, is off SR 524, one mile south of Lagro in Wabash County. This property is managed by Salamonie Reservoir, which can be reached by calling (260) 468-2125. Hunters reported taking 52 birds in Wabash County in 2003 and 53 birds in 2004. Salamonie River State Forest proper recorded at least 17 birds last year.

Selmier State Forest's 355 acres are located two miles northeast of North Vernon in Jennings County. Rob McGriff, manager, can be reached at (812) 346-2286 for additional information on turkey hunting. He said that while birds are found in all parts of this property, the best hunting and most popular areas probably are in the southern part of the property (south of an east-west power line). Hunters reported taking 268 birds in Jennings County in 2003 and 248 birds last year.

Yellowwood State Forest is 23,000 acres in Brown County. Take SR 46 some 10 miles east of Bloomington and follow signs on the north side of the roads to the forest office. Property manager Jim Allen said turkeys are well distributed, adding that many hunters use private lands close or adjacent to forest property lines, but stresses the fact that hunters must have permission to hunt on private land. Maps are available at the forest office, or call (812) 988-7945. Brown County gave up 194 birds in 2003 and 232 birds in 2004.

Hunting the state forests and Hoosier National is much like hunting private land. Success in hunting the forests, as hunting anywhere else, is predicated on preparation, including pre-season scouting.

However, hunting state and national holdings can be considerably easier than hunting some private lands, for the simple reason that the public lands are crisscrossed by fire lanes, horse and hiking trails and other avenues that make walking easier and infinitely more quiet. The rank-and-file turkey hunter knows stealth is requisite to success.

Brenda Cooper, who lives at Brownstown and is office manager at Jackson-Washington Forest, decided to take up turkey hunting after seeing the big birds as she drove around the property.

Her efforts went for naught for a couple of years, but in 2002, she bagged her first bird while walking a fire trail in the Washington County portion of the forest about 5:30 a.m.

"I was coming up on a pine thicket and I didn't want to scare them off the roost, so I sat down on a log that crossed the fire trail. Pretty soon I heard movement in the leaves down the ridge to the right, and I let out a yelp."

Cooper said the answering gobble shattered the silence of the woods and almost shook her off the log. A few minutes later, she bagged a 21-pound gobbler with 9-inch beard!

She adds th

at many other turkey hunters she talks with equate the importance of trails in the forest to turkey-hunting success.

It is interesting to note, too, that many of the other state and national forest managers and employees mention pine plantations.

With all of the above in mind, we went back to Backs to see what the person who knows our wild turkey flock best thinks about this year's spring season.

"We are projecting a total bag of 12,000 to 13,000 birds," Backs said. "We had good production in 2004 which will make for quite a few 2-year-old turkeys in 2006; however, although I haven't analyzed it yet, I'm a little concerned about what kind of production we had in this past summer (2005), which usually makes up 27 to 30 percent of our harvest. I guess I am being a little cautious. I have told some people I expect a total harvest of 12,000 birds, plus or minus 1,000."

Backs said weather always is a factor in turkey-hunting success, and noted that there are many other variables that enter the picture, especially these days with the turkey range extending the length and breadth of this oblong state.

In noting that the harvest of birds in last year's first fall turkey season should not adversely affect this year's spring harvest, Backs said 2-year-old birds make up a good percentage of the annual bag. "We should have a lot of 2-year-old birds this spring."

That sounds promising to me!

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