Tips from turkey calling experts, plus some insight regarding Hoosierlands's top-producing counties, should put you into the thick of things this spring in the gobbler woods. (April 2010)
Old Man Winter appears to be loosening his grip on the Hoosier State as the last remaining signs of winter begin to melt away. The lackluster scenes of muddy fields, gloomy overcast skies and gray woodlands will slowly come back to life with the promise of spring. Various shades of green paint the countryside with bluebird skies overhead and the sound of geese heading north, seemingly magically breathing life back into everything.
But perhaps the sights and sounds that get us Hoosier sportsmen and women more excited than anything, though, is the sight of turkeys stretching out their feathers as if they, too, are trying to shake off the last of the winter blues. Or the sound of a gobbler on a ridge at first light, echoing a promise that spring has finally arrived. Or knowing that soon the birds will be performing their annual spring ritual in hopes of attracting a mate.
If the two previous turkey seasons are any indication, then the 2010 spring season could be another banner year for turkey hunters, especially in the lower portion of the state. According to Indiana Wildlife Research biologist Steven Backs, this past turkey season was the second highest in Indiana history. Backs' extensive data shows hunters harvested turkeys in 88 of Indiana's 92 counties in 2009.
In fact, 12,993 birds were taken during the spring season, which made it the second highest turkey harvest in the 40-year history of gobbler hunting in the Hoosier State. Backs pointed out that "the 2006 spring hunting season was the most successful thus far, with a record high number of 13,193 turkeys harvested around the state."
Yet perhaps equally as important, is the fact that the number of hunters taking to the field has also steadily increased from year to year. For example, the first turkey season in Indiana was held in 1970 and a mere 75 permits were issued. Fast-forward four decades and the number of turkey-hunting licenses increased by more than 100 percent with 75,161 permits sold. But probably the most promising numbers from the 2009 season is the number of turkeys taken during the youth-only weekends. An impressive 978 young hunters tagged Hoosier birds -- a telltale sign that the turkey population is getting bigger and the hunting tradition is also being passed on from generation to generation.
Although it appears from the extensive research data that number crunching is a major part of the job description for Backs, there is still no one who knows more about Indiana's turkey population and habitat than Backs. And with an estimated turkey population of nearly 130,000 birds and 342 volunteer check stations scattered across 92 counties, Backs no doubt has his finger on the turkey's pulse here in Indiana.
Backs attributes hunter success rates to the continued growth of the turkey population, and to an increased awareness of landowners who are taking an active role in planting and maintaining habitat and food sources. A steady increase in hunters heading afield, not to mention the increased availability of public land hunting, has also helped.
Although the southern counties of the state generally take up most of the limelight when it comes to producing turkeys, the turkey population in the northern counties also continues to be on the rise. For example, counties such as LaGrange, Steuben, Lake and St. Joseph all saw a noticeable increase from previous years in number of birds harvested.
Hunters in the west-central region of the state, however, did not fare as well. Monroe, Owen, Morgan, Clay and Greene counties, for example, saw a reduced number of birds harvested. As with most wildlife, extreme weather conditions can, and often do, affect the health of the general turkey population. The number of young hatches may have been affected by a higher than normal rate of spring and summer flooding in this region, especially the massive flooding of the western area of the state in early June 2008.
But for the 2009 season it seems that much of the attention goes to Indiana's southern counties. Switzerland, Harrison, Jefferson, Dearborn, Franklin and Perry topped the charts as the top six counties in 2009 for turkey harvests, keeping the name "the turkey belt" in place for another year. Not only is the habitat nearly perfect within these counties, but also there are several great public-land hunting options that hold healthy flocks of mature birds. Plus, the winters are less harsh compared with the northern parts of the state, no doubt aiding in the growth of the turkey population.
With the decrease of private hunting options throughout the United States and in Indiana, public hunting options are becoming increasingly popular. And with a little pre-planning, hunting on public land can produce results.
Professional hunter and nationally recognized turkey expert Alex Rutledge of Hunter Specialties has done his fair share of hunting public lands and offered some valuable advice for anyone heading out on government land this season.
"Safety is always the first priority when it comes to hunting, especially public-land hunting. Always wear some visible type of orange and even put a piece of orange ribbon around a tree just above your head. As long as the orange is not flapping in the wind, you should be able to get away with it, but more importantly, it alerts other hunters that someone else is also hunting. Also, never hunt a hen call. If you hear another hen call, do not approach that call because it could be another hunter," warns Rutledge.
For many hunters, public-land hunting may be their only option for places to hunt. Regardless of the reason you choose to hunt public lands, Rutledge offers some sage advice for bagging birds.
"Focus on areas that have lots of turkeys, get topographical maps and learn the lay of the land and find out where the birds are at. Don't ever assume that birds will stay in the same area. The reason that many pro hunters are successful is because they create their success. We scout a lot for turkeys. There are many different ways to scout, but basically, we use word-of-mouth, such as talking to local landowners and using trail cameras. Putting in the work days before you head into the field can often produce results."
The current NWTF state-calling champion Brent Leach of Deputy, strongly agrees with Rutledge regarding safety as the No. 1 goal.
"The main thing is safety. It is great to bring a bird home, but it is even better to get to come home. Make sure you know your target. Since I have gotten involved in calling contests, I have learned that there are lots of people these days that can gobble and sound like the real thing. Make sur
e you always know what you are shooting at," added Leach
Regardless of whether you're hunting public or private lands, most turkey hunters have encountered birds that do not respond to calls. Dealing with call-shy birds typically requires a little more patience.
"Don't be afraid to try a variety of different calls. Sometimes turkeys respond to different things. Remember that any animal that gets pressured can learn to associate certain sounds with danger. You can burn a turkey out with the same locator call. Also, volume can spook animals as well. So, start quietly and build from there," offered Rutledge
Leach also shared some tips on dealing with call-shy birds.
"Practice beforehand, know your equipment so you're not sitting out there the first day out and hit the call and go squealing. Talk softly to the birds. Sometimes when a bird is call-shy, he might not even gobble, you may instead hear him spitting and drumming and that might be his way of vocalizing. So talk soft, slow, and don't call a whole lot. If a gobbler hears what he likes, he will come to you," says Leach.
The reigning state calling champ also likes to mix it up a bit regarding locator calls.
"Often birds are used to people blowing owl or crow calls. Sometimes, if I am hunting in the middle of the day, I like to throw out a coyote bawl. I have had success this year with birds firing up after I have done a quick high-pitch bawl."
Expert callers like Rutledge and Leach tend to agree that it is worth the weight to carry a mixed bag of calls; both like to have a wide arsenal of calls to choose from, including locator calls.
"On a windy day I really like something that is going to reach out there and talk to them, and nothing beats a good old box call. The slate is good for soft talking a bird on the roost before daylight, but nothing beats a diaphragm when those birds are in close because there is no movement; hopefully, you can finish the deal," explained Leach.
SPLINTER RIDGE FISH & WILDLIFE AREA (FWA) IN SWITZERLAND COUNTY
Leading the state for the top turkey- producing county is Switzerland with big numbers for 2009 with 530 turkeys being harvested, which is down slightly from 533 birds in 2008.
Public-hunting options in this county actually cover two counties, Switzerland and Jefferson. The Splinter Ridge FWA offers hunters 2,500 acres of steep ridges and deep hollers with heavy wooded terrain, plus rolling hayfields with small creeks and thickets providing excellent habitat for the already healthy turkey population.
Named after the historic logging road that runs through the area, this FWA offers plenty of cover for a variety of species, including whitetails, furbearing animals, and of course, turkeys. And with several other public-hunting land options within a short drive of Splinter Ridge (such as nearby Crosley FWA and Clifty Falls), this area is worth checking into.
HARRISON-CRAWFORD STATE FOREST IN HARRISON COUNTY
Coming in second place with 511 turkeys harvested in 2009 is Harrison County. As with Switzerland County, Harrison County is in the extreme southern part of the Hoosier State and borders the Ohio River.
The public-hunting option for Harrison County is Harrison-Crawford State Forest. With over 24,000 acres of working forest consisting of deep ravines, caves and high ridges and natural bluffs overlooking the Ohio River, this forest makes for ideal wildlife habitat. And with plenty of natural cover and food sources, this area is a turkey magnet.
BIG OAKS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE (NWR) IN JEFFERSON COUNTY
With 447 birds harvested in 2009, Jefferson County comes in at No. 3 of the top six turkey-hunting counties in the state. Perhaps there is something special about southern Indiana that attracts and holds so many birds as does Jefferson County.
Hunters in this area know the place to go for public-land hunting is the Big Oaks NWR. With approximately 50,000 acres that span over three counties, including Jefferson, this area offers plenty for the avid hunter.
The Big Oaks NWR offers the largest continuous block of undisturbed forestland in the state, and its massive blocks of natural grasslands make it a perfect hangout for wildlife, especially wild turkeys.
Not only did Jefferson County come in as No. 3 in the state for overall turkey harvest numbers, it also produced the new state-record gobbler. Veteran turkey hunter Lloyd Roberts has harvested a few big birds since the Hoosierland game managers opened the first turkey season, but nothing prepared him for the trophy he would take last April.
According to Roberts, the morning started out just like many other mornings in the woods. He noticed a gobbler following two hens in the corner of a field.
"I could see that he had a beard and that he was a shooter; I didn't know at the time how many beards he had or how long they were. Plus, this shot would be the longest I'd ever taken at a turkey," recalled Roberts.
According to Roberts, he stepped off the yardage after the trophy tom was down and it measured a whopping 62 yards. But more impressive than the shot distance was the size of the gobbler. With spurs measuring over 1 3/8 inches each and five beards tallying up to 47 12/16 inches, Roberts' bird scored an impressive 148, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation's scoring system. The score catapulted Roberts' April gobbler to the No. 1 bird killed in Indiana and No. 55 in the entire country.
LIMITED HUNTING OPTIONS IN DEARBORN COUNTY
Maybe there is something special in the water or terrain in the southeastern portion of the state that produces high turkey numbers. Whatever the secret, Dearborn County helps complete the turkey belt. Although Dearborn County offers little to no public hunting options, it still ranks fourth in the state for turkeys harvested in 2009 with an impressive 397 birds killed.
BROOKVILLE STATE RECREATIONAL AREA (SRA) IN FRANKLIN COUNTY
Rounding out one end of the "turkey belt" is Franklin County, which produced 355 tagged turkeys in 2009. The Brookville SRA is primarily known for it outstanding fishing opportunities, but locals know not to overlook the hunting opportunities either. The SRA contains nearly 16,500 acres of thickets, steep ridges and natural cover, perfect for a variety of species including wild turkeys.
HOOSIER NATIONAL FOREST IN PERRY COUNTY
On the other end of the "turkey belt" is Perry County with 352 birds taken in spring 2009. This county is keeping with the tradition that some of the best turkey hunting found in Hoosierland comes from the bottom tier of the state. Perry County is no exception.
Hoosier National Forest is by all accounts a turkey hunter's dream with more than 200,000 acres of possibilities and 59,000 of those acres being in Perry County. The national forest
offers a variety of turkey-loving habitat, such as high ridges, deep ravines, bottomlands, grasslands, and an abundance of acorn-producing trees make this area ideal for turkeys.
As with any hunting forecast, many things factor into the final equation, such as weather conditions, predation and the number of actual licensed hunters who take to the field. Although one would be hard-pressed to give an exact number of birds that the 2010 season will ultimately net, it goes without saying that chances are a string of counties dubbed Indiana's "turkey belt" will live up to their name.