Public-Land Gobblers in Indiana

Though most of our state's best turkey hunting occurs on private land, there are also lots of public-land opportunities for savvy sportsmen to try as well.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Ray Harper

Two decades from now, Hoosiers will look back on the early years of the new millennium as the heydays of Indiana turkey hunting. Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) research biologist Steven Backs predicts the 2003 turkey season (April 23 through May 11) will result in an increased harvest for the 21st consecutive year.

"Rough projections for the 2003 season indicate the harvest will be around 12,200 birds and, assuming a 25 percent success rate, we would expect an estimated 48,800 hunters in the field," said Backs, the state's foremost authority on wild turkeys.

Hoosiers are still gloating about the 2002 season when an estimated 42,300 hunters harvested 10,575 gobblers, a 6 percent increase over the 9,975 birds taken in 2001. Hunters harvested wild turkeys in 80 of the 90 counties open for pursuing wild turkeys. Sixteen Indiana counties opened for turkey hunting for the first time in 2001. Only Shelby and Rush counties remain closed. Also, legal shooting hours (which begin a half-hour before sunrise) were extended last season from the traditional noon closure to sunset.

Turkey hunting in the Hoosier State keeps getting better, with the prime wild turkey range covering more of the state each year. While the turkey populations in some areas of south-central and southeastern Indiana may be near a plateau, Backs says populations in portions of southwestern Indiana and north-central Indiana may continue to grow for the next decade. For example, Perry, Spencer and Warrick counties (in a row along the Ohio River in the central and western portion of the state), showed marked increases in harvest in 2002. Perry includes portions of the Hoosier National Forest and Warrick includes large tracts of reclaimed coal strip pits.

With the wild turkey population spreading over a wider range, a hunter may not have to travel as far from his home to find a good opportunity to bag a bird. Backs expects the wild turkey population to continue to increase and to spread over a wider area of Indiana for several more years.

Ask Michael Griffin about the Hoosier turkey population. Griffin of Franklin has taken eight turkeys in nine years of hunting Indiana's Switzerland County.

"If everything keeps going like it is, in a few more years there will be more wild turkeys in Indiana than deer," Griffin said. "I'm not sure it can get any better. I love it. I'd give up every other kind of hunting before I'd give up turkey hunting."

On last season's opening day, Griffin bagged a turkey that ranked second in the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) records for Indiana in 2002.

"I heard a turkey, set up and made a couple yelps on my box call," Griffin said. "But I think he was spooked by a deer. So I walked along this ridgeline and made a couple yelps with my mouth call. Then there was a car horn over the next ridge and the turkey shock-gobbled about 50 yards behind me. I set up, made a few soft clucks, purred a little and in about 30 seconds his head popped up over a ridge not 20 yards away."

The rest is recorded in the turkey federation books - a 22-pound bird, with 3/4-inch spurs and a double beard totaling 17.5 inches. The total score was 72 points, ranking 12th all-time among atypical birds taken in Indiana. Griffin also has the 11th all-time atypical bird, taken in 1999, in Switzerland County.

Joe Bacon of Indianapolis took the top-ranking bird in Indiana for 2002, according to NWTF records. His bird, bagged in Switzerland County, weighed 20 pounds, and two beards totaled 22 inches (16 inches for the longest). His bird ranks 10th all-time for atypical turkeys taken in Indiana.

"I've always joked that there is no way anyone should miss a turkey with a shotgun," said Bacon. "But last spring, I missed shots on two consecutive days. I just shot over the top of them. I didn't knock off a feather."

Bacon says he went out the last weekend of the season and called a bird in from 100 yards. "Before I shot the bird, I didn't notice anything exceptional about him," Bacon remarked. "But when I examined him closely, I saw that he had two beards." The longest beard had grown up under the feathers.

"When I straightened it out, it measured 16 inches," he said. "Because it had grown under the feathers, it never had an opportunity to rub against the ground."

The beard is the longest single beard in federation records for a turkey taken in Indiana. The bird scored 81.5 points in the NWTF ranking system.

Griffin and Bacon were among 571 hunters in Switzerland County who succeeded in harvesting a wild turkey last season. Switzerland, in southeastern Indiana, continues to be the top harvest county in the state and its harvest continues to increase each year.

Neighboring Jefferson County was second in 2002 with a harvest of 467 birds, a slight decline from 2001. Dearborn County was third with a harvest of 422 turkeys, followed by Perry (409), Harrison (387), Orange (366), Parke (359), Washington (354), Greene (346) and Ripley (326). The top 20 counties accounted for nearly 65 percent of the state's total harvest. Of the top 20 counties, 15 increased in harvest from 2001 and five declined.

Approximately 58 percent of the 2002 harvest occurred during the first five days of the season with 33 percent occurring during the season's three weekends, Backs reports. Although shooting hours last spring were extended to sunset, statistics from 322 check stations show 77 percent of the harvest occurred before 10 a.m., 83 percent by noon and 11 percent after 4 p.m., leaving only 6 percent of the birds being taken between noon and 4 p.m.

Reserve hunts on public land accounted for a total of 393 birds in the 2002 harvest. The hunts were held on 13 fish and wildlife areas (FWAs), two reservoir properties, a military reservation and a national wildlife refuge. The reserve hunts at FWAs included Jasper-Pulaski (23 birds harvested), Kingsbury (25), LaSalle (5), Pigeon River (26), Tri-County (15), Willow Slough (12), Winamac (16), Atterbury (6), Crosley (24), Glendale (17), Hovey Lake (23), Splinter Ridge (8) and Minnehaha (25).

A total of 90 birds were harvested at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-acre tract in Jennings, Jefferson and Ripley counties, and part of the state's prime turkey range. Although it failed to show up in NWTF records, a 26.5-pound tom with 1.25-inch spurs and a 10-inch beard was taken at Big Oaks during the 2002 season, according to Joe Robb

, refuge manager. The National Wildlife Refuge System operates Big Oaks (formerly Jefferson Proving Ground) under a recent 25-year agreement with the U.S. Army.

The 2002 turkey harvest for Mississinewa Reservoir (Miami, Wabash and Grant counties) was 33. At Salamonie Reservoir (Wabash and Huntington counties) the harvest was 14. Harvests were up last season in Miami County (from 16 birds to 19) and Grant County (from four to 10), and were slightly lower in Wabash County (from 58 to 51) and Huntington County (from 18 to 15).

At Camp Atterbury Army National Guard Training Area near Edinburgh, last spring's harvest was 31 birds, compared to 47 birds in 2001.

Hunters had until March 15 to apply for reserve hunts in 2003. Hunts must use the Reserved Wild Turkey Hunt application card on page 21 of the 2002-2003 Indiana Hunting & Trapping Guide. The card must have been received - not postmarked - by the DFW by March 15. It may be too late by the time you read this, but keep it in mind for next season.

The same properties will hold reserved hunts in 2003. Jasper-Pulaski, Kingsbury, LaSalle, Pigeon River, Tri-County, Willow Slough and Winamac FWAs and Mississinewa and Salamonie reservoirs will hold five three-day hunts (April 23-25, April 28-30, May 1-3, May 4-6, May 7-9) and two 2-day hunts (April 26 and 27 and May 10 and 11). Atterbury, Crosley, Glendale, Hovey Lake, Splinter Ridge and Minnehaha FWAs and Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge will hold two three-day hunts (April 23-25 and April 26-28). Four two-day hunts are planned for Camp Atterbury - April 14 and 15, April 16 and 17, April 21 and 22, April 23 and 24. The Camp Atterbury dates that are earlier than the statewide season are allowed through Indiana Department of Natural Resources' administrative rules to work around National Guard training activities.

Hunters applying for reserved turkey hunting may choose only one location and one date and may return only one application card. The drawing will be held on March 24 and all applicants will be notified whether they were successful or unsuccessful in being selected.

Hunters who are selected may bring one hunting partner. Selected hunters and their partners must be checked in at the check station by 4:30 a.m. each morning of their hunt. Hunting spots that are not claimed by 4:30 a.m. will be filled with standby hunters. However, Splinter Ridge, Mississinewa, Salamonie and Big Oaks will not hold no-show drawings.

After the reserved hunts, five fish and wildlife areas - Crosley, Splinter Ridge, Glendale, Hovey Lake and Minnehaha - will open for hunting without reservation. From April 29 to May 11, hunters on those properties may obtain daily hunting permits at the properties' check stations. Hillenbrand, Kankakee River and Sugar Ridge FWAs and several reservoir properties offer self-service check-in hunting for the entire season.

Here are the best bets for reserve hunting:

This 2,501-acre FWA in Jefferson and Switzerland counties experienced a harvest decline last spring - from 13 birds in 2001 to eight birds in 2002, while the total number of hunter efforts remained nearly the same. That harvest decline probably does not reflect a decline in turkey numbers since the property is located in the two top harvest counties in the state. Location remains an overriding factor in the potential for hunting success on this land.

This 4,425-acre FWA is in the southwestern tip of Posey County, the most extreme southwestern county in the state - at the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash rivers. The turkey population in Posey County continues to grow. The harvest in Posey County declined slightly in 2002 - from 62 to 56. However, the harvest on the fish and wildlife area increased from 20 to 23, while hunter efforts declined from 283 to 263.

This 11,400-acre FWA is located in Sullivan County in west-central Indiana. Both Minnehaha and Sullivan counties experienced increased harvests last spring, from 16 to 25 and 200 to 231, respectively. And hunter efforts at Minnehaha declined from 217 to 214.

Formerly Jefferson Proving Ground, Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge is another property located in the heart of the state's best turkey range. The 50,000-acre tract saw a decline in harvest last spring from 95 to 90. However, size and location make it an attractive turkey-hunting destination.

This 3,486-acre fish and wildlife area is located in Kosciusko, Noble and Whitley counties in northeastern Indiana. It is the state's newest turkey hunting territory. Tri-County opened for turkey hunting for the first time in 2002 with a harvest of 15 toms in 183 hunter efforts. Whitley and portions of Noble and Kosciusko counties opened for the first time in 2002. Harvests increased in Noble and Kosciusko, from three to 11 and four to 18, respectively. Two birds were bagged in Whitley County.

Reserved hunts obviously offer excellent opportunities to bag a Hoosier longbeard with intense turkey management on these properties with controlled harvests. However, there are also tremendous possibilities for success on large tracts of public land in areas where the wild turkey population is growing rapidly.

Your best bets for public hunting without reservation include Hillenbrand FWA (3,200 acres in Greene County), Sugar Ridge FWA (7,300 acres in Pike and Warrick counties), Interlake Recreation Area (3,000 acres in Pike County), Pike State Forest (2,814 acres in Pike County), Greene-Sullivan State Forest (7,964 acres in Greene and Sullivan counties), Ferdinand State Forest (7,640 acres in Dubois County), Morgan-Monroe State Forest (23,555 acres in Morgan and Monroe counties), Harrison-Crawford State Forest (25,349 acres in Harrison and Crawford counties), Lieber State Recreation Area (8,075 acres in Putnam and Owen counties), Raccoon State Recreation Area (4,065 acres in Parke and Putnam counties), and Patoka Reservoir (25,583 acres in Dubois, Orange and Crawford counties).

To hunt Indiana wild turkeys, Hoosiers must have a resident turkey hunting license ($23) and a game bird habitat stamp ($6.75), or a lifetime or youth license. Turkeys may be hunted from ground level or from elevated blinds. Turkeys may be called with hand-operated or mouth calls but not with recorded calls. Decoys are permitted, but live decoys and electronically powered or controlled decoys are illegal. Turkeys may not be hunted with dogs or baited over fields. Successful hunters must attach the temporary tag (provided with the turkey license) to their bird's leg just above the spur. Birds must be taken to an official check station within 24 hours. Legal equipment includes bow and arrow or 10-, 12-, 16- or 20-gauge shotguns and muzzleloading shotguns with pellet sizes of Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7 or 7 1/2.

As Indiana's wild turkey harvests increase year after year, Backs also expects the number of hunters to increase. Eventually, Backs says, the wild turkey population and hunter demand will collide. "This increased harv

est cannot go on forever," he said. "This is not an endless well. At some point we are not going to have a record harvest."

Hunter success has been higher than 17 percent since 1985. The average has been above 25 percent since 1997 with a peak of 30 percent in 2001. But that high success rate won't continue indefinitely either, Backs says.

Biologist Steve Backs is evaluating a proposal for a fall season. The biologist says some hunters are pushing to increase the spring limit to two gobblers as an alternative to a fall hunt. It's possible that Indiana could provide limited fall turkey hunting opportunities without a heavy impact on the turkey population, Backs says. A high percentage of jakes usually make up a fall harvest, and many of those birds would not survive the winter anyway. However, a two-bird limit could cut the population dramatically and signal a quick end to record harvests and high hunter success rates, according to Backs.

A majority of the state's good hunters bag their birds early in the season and leave the woods to pursue crappies or bass. "Some stay and call for friends, but most leave," Backs said. "If the limit were two birds, the best hunters would stay out there and the harvest would increase dramatically. Hunter numbers are still growing and Indiana is not manufacturing more habitat. At some point, all these factors are going to come together. We could reach that point soon with a two-bird limit."

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