MADISON – From an ice cream social to hunting and fishing activities, Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, Madison, has something for everyone.
All visitors must view a safety video and sign an acknowledgement of danger form annually, prior to entering the refuge, because of the past use and history of the property as an ordnance testing facility.
Public use days are Mondays and Fridays and the second and fourth Saturdays from 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. from mid-April through November. Refuge hours may vary during special hunts or events.
The Big Oaks Conservation Society, a nonprofit friends group that supports the refuge, holds an ice cream social at the Oakdale School in August, reports park ranger Rob Chapman. The schoolhouse, which is maintained by the friends group, is in an area of the refuge that is not normally open to the public. For more information on this group, please visit bigoaksconservationsociety.org.
Old Timbers Lodge is open to the public a couple times a year.
Outdoor Women at Big Oaks, which is headquartered at the lodge, is held the second Saturday in June. Participants ages 12 and over can choose from a variety of activities. “We have anywhere between 80-120 participants,” the Batesville resident reveals.
During lodge day in September, attendees can receive tours of the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its interior contains beams “made from old timbers of barns. That’s how it got its name.”
In addition, members of the friends group celebrate a holiday party at the lodge Dec. 14.
Refuge officials also host two other annual events: a butterfly count and Christmas bird count.
Hunting is a very popular activity. Deer hunting is offered in October (archery) and November (gun) with turkey hunting in the spring and fall.
“The Indiana Department of Natural Resources does a lottery draw (random drawings) for us” for these animal hunts.
“Hunters call us to reserve a unit .... They have to stay in the unit that is assigned. You cannot just go anywhere on the refuge. That’s a safety feature for us, and it’s Army regulation. We need to know where you are. They are required to have some sort of compass or GPS device so they know where they are at all times. All units and boundaries are marked. We also have an app that has the units on it, which gives them an idea of where they are in the unit.”
“If you want to change units, you have to check out of the unit you’re in, and you can ask for another one.” In addition, all hunters have to hunt with a buddy, who will be in the same unit.
“They have to go through a safety briefing, which includes the safety video and a verbal briefing. We also go into more detail about hunting regulations, give them information on the refuge and tell them about any known hazards we want to make them aware of.”
“We have between 300-400 deer hunters each day and about 200 turkey hunters each day during hunting season.”
“A big draw is that we have a lot of very large bucks here,” Chapman reports.
Youth also have opportunities to test out their skills.
There is a youth turkey hunt in the spring and a deer hunt in the fall. “We do hunting seminars for the kids the night before the hunts .... The kids have a pretty good time.”
Squirrel hunting is allowed from August through November.
The ranger says, “Somebody is always fishing on the lake .... We have a very good quality fishery. Most anglers are looking for largemouth bass, white crappie, bluegill and redear sunfish. We have a healthy fish population, and there are nice sizes to them.
“We do have special regulations on bass fishing. Any of them between 12-15 inches have to be turned loose.”
The lake covers 165 acres, but there is a limit of 30 boats on the lake at a time. Take a Kid Fishing Day is a popular event, too. “Anybody can come to it as long as they have a kid with them.” Other lake activities include kayaking and canoeing. “We have three boat ramps, with a fourth that is best for canoes and kayaks.”
Many outdoor enthusiasts visit the refuge.
“People come to see the bird population and some to have a picnic. You can also go hiking. We get a few who are interested in the history of the area.
“About a handful of folks come who have ancestors who were here before the Army came in. They want to see the old home sites, but they don’t always know where they were. We try to accommodate those requests when we can.”
However, he points out, “If someone wants to reconnect with an ancestry site, come with as much information as you can. Don’t expect us to do it for you. We’re not a genealogy agency. We do have a few plat maps that show ownership, but not for the whole refuge.”
Camping is not allowed, he stresses.
“We do allow people to mushroom hunt in certain units. There are some big morels on this property.”
Also, “we’re a big part of the National Pollinator Project. We’re looking for volunteers to help with seed collections.”
Chapman adds, “We’re always looking for volunteer help and always happy to find something for the volunteers to do that meet our objectives and their interests .... A lot of our volunteers are part of the friends group.”
The entrance to Big Oaks NWR is located on U.S. 421, about five miles north of Madison. The refuge office is in Building 125. Office hours are 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays.
Entrance fees/permits are $3 daily or $15 annually. Hunting permits are $20 per year. They can be purchased at the refuge office.
For more information on the refuge, please call 812-273-0783 or visit http://www.fws.gov/refuge/big_oaks.