by Brandon Butler
When warm, sunny weather appears magically in mid-winter, my mind always takes off on a tangent about all the places I plan to fish in the coming months. From Minnesota to Mexico, I can name 100 or more waters I could happily spend a day on trying to put a few fish in the boat. In the end, I won’t make it to half the destinations I dream of, but one lake that always draws me back I make a point of visiting as frequently as possible, is Patoka Lake in Southern Indiana.
At 8,800 surface acres, Patoka Lake is the second-largest reservoir in Indiana. The lake is an amazing fishery, with deep coves and standing timber scattered throughout. But in my book, it’s the roughly 17,000 acres of public land surrounding the lake, and the public lands of the nearby Hoosier National Forest and numerous state forests, that make Patoka a very special destination for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts.
Patoka isn’t just a lake. It’s a nature experience. River otters, osprey and bald eagles call this place home. It’s wild and scenic. You can hunt, fish, hike, bird-watch, paddle and more. Plus, the Department of Natural Resources campground offers 500 sites with modern amenities and many activities.
When it comes to cast and blast opportunities in Indiana, Patoka has to be right at the top of the list. All at once, crappie fishing catches fire, turkey season opens and morel mushrooms start popping up in clusters. You can experience all three of these rights of spring in the same day at Patoka.
Crappie fishing is one of my favorite pastimes. These hard-fighting panfish are fun to catch and great to eat. Using minnows under slip-bobbers is the most common tactic for catching crappies, but jigs often work just as well. This time of year, you’ll catch fish shallow in less than 7-feet of water over solid bottoms. The crappie bite should remain strong for the next couple of months.
Turkey hunting is an obsession of mine. There’s nothing I love more than working a gobbler into range with a slate call. With so much public land around Patoka, you are sure to find a place to escape the crowd where an old gobbler has been left undisturbed. For those of you who have not hunted these large expanses of public lands before, it’s a great feeling to hear a gobble off in the distance knowing there are no fences between you and that bird.
While you’re out stomping the hills chasing turkeys or after you limit out on the water, there are bushel basket loads of morels to be found in the sprawling woods. Good areas to look for morel mushrooms include south facing slopes, around fallen logs, and around the bases of elm trees, especially dead ones. South facing slopes are prime spots early in the season because they warm up first.
There are multiple options for lodging. You can camp or rent a cabin on land, or you can sleep on the water. There are both floating cabins and houseboats for rent on the lake. If you choose to rent a floating cabin, you can pull your boat right up to our door. If you go with a houseboat, you can move your camp to the most remote regions of the lake, where you can step off on to public ground and start hunting or sit in a lawn chair and cast for crappies off the back.
Once you’ve had your fill of the great outdoors, the historic and exciting towns of French Lick and West Baden are just 15 minutes north. If you’ve never been inside the West Baden Springs Hotel, you owe it to yourself to stop. The elegance and architecture are like nothing else in Indiana. Jasper is about the same distance west. For a special dinner, visit Schnitzelbank Restaurant. This authentic German dining destination is must.
See you down the trail…