Leave the concrete, the retail, and the noise behind and disappear for a few hours at Blue Grass Fish & Wildlife Area.
This former strip mining site open to the public covers 2,532 acres and 28 pits and lakes totaling around 600 acres of water, and offers an outdoor escape less than a half hour away from Downtown Evansville. Visitors to the natural resource area near Elberfeld, Indiana, (in Warrick County) frequent its grounds for hunting, fishing, wildlife watching opportunities, and physical activities such as running and bicycling.
“With as busy as everyone is these days, we all need some quiet time to get away from our busy day-to-day lives and to get outside and enjoy some space. The question then is, where do you go?” says Haubstadt, Indiana, resident and bird enthusiast Steve Gifford. “Whether it is to do some fishing with the kids, biking with some friends, or just taking a nice Sunday drive, Blue Grass has been protected and set aside for the public to enjoy.”
Blue Grass Fish & Wildlife Area is named after the Blue Grass Creek, which lies just east of the property managed by Sugar Ridge Fish & Wildlife Area in Winslow, Indiana. Before being acquired by the Department of Natural Resources in 2004, according to Sam Whiteleather, former property manager at Blue Grass and current DNR wildlife staff specialist, all of the land was stripmined.
Amax Coal Company began its mining operations in October 1973, and ceased its operations in 1993. Revegetation was carried out using herbaceous cover and woody species planted in clumps and strips, per the DNR’s website.
“After mining operations ceased, mine reclamation operations continued until the property was successfully restored,” says Whiteleather of Winslow. He served as a property manager at Blue Grass for three years. “DNR acquisition took place in phases beginning in 2000 and ending in 2004.”
Current management practices include controlled burns, planting sunflower fields to improve dove activity, tenant farming contracts use, and phragmite control, which is a common reed that is an invasive species that takes over shorelines, according to current Blue Grass Property Manager Mark Pochon.
The majority of the revenues used in the land acquisition, development, operation, and maintenance of Blue Grass can be attributed to the sale of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses. The federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs provide funds to aid the fish and wildlife restoration. Funds also are derived from taxes levied on sport hunting and fishing equipment.
“Blue Grass is managed to provide quality hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife watching opportunities,” says Whiteleather. “Wildlife management activities focus on providing grassland habitat for upland game species including cottontail rabbit and bobwhite quail. Fisheries management efforts focus on providing quality-fishing opportunities in the properties numerous lakes and impoundments.”
Deer, turkey, quail, rabbit, and waterfowl are often seen at Blue Grass and are legal to hunt. Guidelines are posted on its website and self-service permit check-in is required. There are seven boat ramps available on five pits for fishing purposes. No check-in is required for fishing, although the activity is prohibited during late waterfowl hunting seasons.
“With the decline of available acreage for upland game hunting, opportunities at Blue Grass become especially important,” says Whiteleather. “The property also offers several lakes and impoundments that provide good fishing opportunities, especially for largemouth bass and crappie.
“Blue Grass is special because of the abundant grassland and aquatic habitat that it provides to fish and wildlife species. This habitat is valuable for game and non-game species alike.”
Because of the more than 2,500 acres of upland habitat, impoundments, and lakes, a wide variety of song birds, hawks, and waterfowl are attracted to Blue Grass making the area prime for bird watchers like Gifford.
“One of the great things about Blue Grass is no matter the time of year, there is always something to see,” says Gifford. “In winter, ducks and geese of all sorts gather in the open water of the larger lakes as the small, shallow lakes freeze over. In springtime, Gander Road is a fantastic array of color by day as brightly colored warblers feed on berries and bugs and a delight at night as sounds of whip-poor-wills and owls echo through the trees. Ospreys and eagles scan the lakes for fish in the summer along with herons and egrets and fall is great for migrating hawks.”
His personal favorite bird to watch at Blue Grass is the American Woodcock, which Gifford describes as “a cartoonish looking bird about the size of a pigeon with a very long bill, chunky body, and very large eyes.”
Photographers like Evansville resident Tom Barrows flock to the area for the sunrises and sunsets, sunflower fields, terrain, and wildlife. Barrows, who worked for FedEx for 20 years before retiring last June, also flies drones and photographs aerial views of Blue Grass.
“When I was working, I would go out to Blue Grass even just for an hour or two,” says Barrows. “Now I will go out to photograph during the day or at 2 a.m. to catch lightning storms or meteor showers. It is just such a broad expanse of wild area after the mining ended and when the moon is rising you can hear the coyote howling. There are so many different photographic experiences. There are many opportunities for wildlife.”
The area allows an escape from traffic for Evansville cyclist Logan Everly, who rides with three different teams at Blue Grass. The 26-year-old stumbled on the area by bicycling in 2012 and it has become a staple in his riding routine. He will bike anywhere from 11 to 50 miles in the area.
“The scenery at Blue Grass is the biggest reason I go out there … and there are hardly any cars,” says Everly. “Anyone who does drive out there knows there are cyclists and respects the distance.”
Everly is involved with the Tour de’ Eville Team, the Evansville Bicycle Club, and the Southern Indiana Triathlon Team. He stressed the feeling of safety at Blue Grass and it being a great place to introduce new riders to the sport.
“Blue Grass is pretty much a stomping ground for anyone who rides,” he says.
For more information about Blue Grass Fish & Wildlife Area, call 812-789-2724 or visit in.gov/dnr/fishwild.