Top Public-Land Bowhunting

Bowhunting for whitetails is as popular as ever in the Volunteer State. And there are some excellent opportunities to hunt with a bow on public land here. (September 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Unfortunately for most of us, we don't own thousands of acres of prime deer-hunting ground. However, most of us do own a good bow or perhaps a new crossbow these days, and you don't have to own land elsewhere in another state to kill a deer with a bow.

There are prime acres across the state to take a deer with archery equipment and plenty of days to get it done. Bowhunting for whitetail deer is as popular as ever in the Volunteer State. Here's a look at where to take a deer -- and maybe even a trophy -- on public lands in Tennessee.

REGION I

It's no secret that Presidents Island is the top public-land bowhunt destination out there, and that goes not only for Region I, but also for Tennessee as a whole. In fact, Presidents Island draw hunts are among the best public-land trophy hunts in the entire country. Region I TWRA deer biologist Alan Peterson would tell you the same thing.

When it comes to bowhunts, Peterson said there are few opportunities like Presidents Island to kill a deer of a lifetime, but the odds of being drawn are very low. If you just want to take a deer with archery equipment, your best opportunities may just lie in the Unit L counties where harvests are very liberal.

Peterson said that, for sheer quality opportunities, other WMAs that require your attention in Region I obviously include LBL, Fort Campbell and the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. There are also those WMAs like Natchez Trace and Chickasaw that don't see much pressure from hunters, especially during the archery seasons.

Natchez Trace features 40,000 acres with plenty of forest to hunt and Chickasaw has 13,000 acres. The biggest drawback at these areas is the lack of food plots and fields. Peterson said there are a handful of fields at best but more than enough forest and clearcuts to hunt, terrain that can make things tough, but by no means impossible, for a bowhunter.

LBL and Fort Campbell are just the opposite: They feature bunches of fields and plenty of edges to hunt. The archery season at LBL is open from late September through January; hunters can bowhunt the area anytime a quota deer hunt is not going on. LBL has about three to four quota hunts each deer season. At Fort Campbell, keep in mind hunter access is sometimes difficult depending on soldier training schedules. Hunters have to register and call on the day they wish to hunt to see if they can be selected to hunt there.

Peterson said most WMAs in Region I are managed for waterfowl. These are often overlooked little refuges where deer and bowhunters can meet. Travel routes and corridors to and from fields as well as entrances and exits are opportune places to hang a tree stand. Many of these numerous waterfowl refuges are also closed to hunting beginning on Nov. 1, and that means the deer living there aren't pressured by gun hunts.

These small havens can't handle many hunters, but for those willing to work at it and scout a bit, there may be a good deer awaiting you. Peterson said he knows of two Pope and Young quality deer that were taken off such waterfowl refuges last year. The waterfowl refuges hold plenty of corn and the opportunity to hunt the edges of such fields.

In Region I, archery season is more about opportunity than a harvest tool. It's about more time in the woods for sportsmen. Peterson said if you wanted to kill many deer to control a deer population, you wouldn't do it with a bow.

With regard to numbers of deer being killed by archers, Peterson, like most wildlife managers across the state, feels that the legalization of crossbows have had no significant impact on the archery harvest overall. In 2005, hunters took 19,897 deer with archery equipment. In 2006, bowhunters harvested 21,400 whitetails.

Presidents Island is obviously the top bowhunt around. What specifically makes it that way in Peterson's opinion is the deer found there. They have absolute protection, and the soils are rich and allow the bucks to grow big antlers. He said the island is off-limits to everybody but the farmers that farm it.

"It's like if you had a bowhunt in Cades Cove," explained Peterson about Presidents Island. "It's a deer Eden."

REGION II

Russ Skoglund, a wildlife biologist in Region II, said most of their WMAs would be good in the early seasons, but later on the archery-only WMAs, such as Shelton Ferry, Gallatin Steam Plant and Cedar Hill Swamp, would be the best bets for bowhunters.

When it comes to concentrating on terrain versus food, he said to look for persimmons early. This past spring, the region and much of the state had a devastating late frost that appears to have eliminated any chance of a hard-mast crop of oak, hickory or walnut. It is possible the red oaks will produce since they set their fruit the previous year. Travel routes to limited food sources will be key this fall.

Skoglund said probably the most successful time for a harvest is during the hours from 10 o'clock to noon, when other hunters are coming out of the woods and moving the deer. He said Region II's buck-doe ratio is improving, but hunters still do not harvest the number of does needed to control the deer herd there. He believes the late September to mid-October period is best.

More importantly, Skoglund said archery hunt dates in Region II give archers a chance at harvesting a deer before the onslaught of gun hunters enters the woods.

AEDC has long been noted as a place that hunters can go to see plenty of deer and maybe get a shot with a bow. Skoglund said even though these hunts are drawn out, they are generally very poorly participated in. He believes this allows a hunter a good chance at harvesting a quality deer. AEDC has a non-quota archery hunt in October that follows a quota archery hunt. Deer numbers are down somewhat on this area, but size and quality have increased.

Cheatham WMA probably offers one of the best opportunities for a bowhunter to harvest a deer because its seasons are open with statewide Unit L deer season through mid-December. Deer numbers on this area appear to be down from prior years, however. Hunters may have a long time to bowhunt there, but that advantage may be balanced or partially canceled by lower deer numbers.

George Buttrey, another deer biologist in Region II, said that because they are open with the statewide seasons, Cheatham and Yanahli WMAs provide more days of bowhunting, but Eagle Creek and Laurel Hill WM

As offer 21 and 16 days of archery hunting, respectively. He said you stand to kill a good buck on either area and a more mature buck with 9 points or better on Laurel Hill.

Buttrey also said the AEDC bowhunts are definitely worthy of pursuing. He said the first hunt on AEDC, which is non-quota for the first time in a long time, opens the day before the statewide archery season opens. Your chance of harvesting a deer is good. Bag limit is two deer, either sex on the archery hunts, but only one can be an antlered deer. The regulation allows you to go ahead, shoot that doe the first day, and still have two more days to shoot a buck.

REGION III

Ben Layton, a wildlife biologist well known for his whitetail knowledge across Tennessee, said if a bowhunter is seeking just an opportunity to harvest a deer each year without going through a drawing process, he would recommend Fall Creek Falls WMA.

Fall Creek Falls has a non-quota archery hunt in November that follows its three-day quota hunt. Each year, several older age-class bucks are harvested there. The area averages about one Pope and Young deer each year. The hunts are timed for the rut, but the hunts are the same time as the first muzzleloader segment of the statewide season, so this keeps hunter numbers down somewhat.

Catoosa WMA has nine days of non-quota archery hunting in October. Layton said this area provides bowhunters an opportunity to bowhunt without going through a drawing process and offers them a good chance at an older buck. At Catoosa, Layton said the biggest advantage for archers is the fact that they can hunt there without going through a drawing process. Hunters have a good chance at a quality buck there. In addition, archery hunters have a bonus of being able to take wild boar during the archery hunts.

Layton said other WMAs in Region III where hunters have to be randomly drawn, but are areas that produce good bucks and have good deer herds, include Oak Ridge, Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and Yuchi Refuge.

Oak Ridge WMA produces some good bucks and the archery areas have relatively high deer density. Those characteristics make this WMA a strong choice for hunters who want to take a deer with a bow, but don't want to completely give up on the possibility that they will have a chance at an older buck.

Layton points out that at Oak Ridge, even though hunters have to be drawn for the area, they stand a good chance of being drawn every other year. In fact, some hunts each year do not fill their quotas in the priority drawing, so some hunters may be drawn for a hunt without being on priority status. However, most of these openings are during the December hunts when it is more difficult to archery hunt because of leaf fall and reduced deer movement.

Layton said Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant has a healthy deer herd, including some nice bucks. It, like Oak Ridge, is a good area for hunters wanting to take a deer but still have a reasonable opportunity to harvest an older age-class buck. Presently, hunters have a good chance of being drawn for a hunt here at least every other year.

He feels Yuchi Refuge has relatively high deer numbers, but the overall quality of bucks harvested here is not as great as other areas. This may be due in part to low hunter quota numbers on the area. Bowhunters may have to apply for two years or more before they are drawn for a hunt there.

Of course, to a great extent, the experience you have hunting any of these public lands depends a good deal on how you hunt.

Layton believes bowhunters ought to approach hunting a WMA's food sources and terrain by taking into account what they, as hunters, are looking for in their hunting experience.

If they want quality bucks, they should concentrate on areas that have abundant food resources and regulations that prevent the harvest of younger bucks. However, this being said, areas with difficult terrain will often produce good bucks simply because areas that are hard to access tend to be the places older experienced bucks go in the face of hunting pressure.

This is somewhat the case at Fall Creek Falls. This area has difficult terrain, limited hunt dates, and limited parking areas (which have the effect of reducing hunter distribution into areas far from the parking). If hunters want to kill any deer, they should concentrate on areas that have good food resources and abundant deer numbers.

Layton said the best bowhunts are those that are timed around peak deer movements, which are generally associated with the rut and the advent of colder weather. Best bowhunting times are typically late October and early November. For WMAs that have bowhunts earlier in the year than this, hunters should concentrate on hunting early in the day and late in the day.

On these hunts, most hunter effort is expended in the morning, so bowhunters may find conditions less crowded if they do also hunt later in the day. Also, on most WMA quota hunts, hunter effort drops to a very low level on the last day of any particular quota hunt. Hunters wanting to hunt in uncrowded conditions should consider hunting this last day, particularly the afternoon of the last day.

Most WMAs offer archery hunts to provide more hunting opportunities for hunters, which is similar to what the statewide archery season provides. Layton said the agency could manage deer herds without archery hunts, but providing these hunts gives hunters more time to hunt without overharvesting deer.

At some WMAs, such as areas within Oak Ridge and VAAP, archery hunting is the only hunting option because of safety concerns. Layton said VAAP can only be hunted with archery equipment or not at all. Fall Creek Falls is archery-only hunting not exclusively for safety concerns but for public relations concerns. Since the hunting area there is in a state park, the area is restricted to bowhunter use only so non-hunters recreating there will not hear gunshots that might affect the aesthetics of the area.

REGION IV

The bowhunting in Region IV (basically, East Tennessee) is a little different than most of the rest of the state and so are the opportunities at WMAs here. Region IV wildlife biologist Dan Gibbs specializes in deer management among other duties. He said archery opportunities in Region IV depend on what the hunter considers a quality hunt or "great opportunity."

If you want solitude with no other hunters and don't care about seeing many, if any, deer, then go to the Cherokee. On the other hand, Gibbs said Chuck Swan WMA offers many more deer, but you're going to see other hunters as well. He added Oak Ridge WMA has the possibility for big deer, but of course, it isn't like Presidents Island, where you can have the hunt of a lifetime.

Region IV bowhunters can choose to concentrate their efforts on food plots and terrain depending on the area as well. Gibbs said terrain and food sources are specific to the management goals of each WMA. For example, food plots are everywhere at Chuck Swan but basically non-existent at Cherokee.

He also suggests that whatever property is hunted, hunters should always have a topo map of that area, especially if they are hunting unfamiliar and large blocks of land.

The role of archery hunting in Region IV with respect to season dates, harvest and management differs from the role archery plays in the rest of the Volunteer State. Gibbs said in West and Middle Tennessee, one could argue that archery seasons are basically for opportunity. In East Tennessee, archery hunts are definitely used for management. In fact, he added the agency has not been able to be as progressive with muzzleloader and gun antlerless opportunities because of the popularity of archery hunting in East Tennessee.

Archery hunting is so popular in East Tennessee that many hunters were opposed to the addition of crossbows because they feared there would be a significant impact on bow harvests here specifically. So far, as Gibbs and other TWRA managers expected, crossbows have not had the effect that many feared.

"We did not track crossbow harvest prior to the legalization," Gibbs explained. "Last year, crossbows made up approximately 25 percent of the archery harvest. However, archery harvest has certainly not increased by 25 percent."

Some traditional archery hunters, compound bows included, still resent the legalization of crossbow use. In 2005, the first year they were legalized statewide, about 20 percent of the archery harvest was from crossbows. The agency speculates that crossbow use will bring more hunters back into the bowhunting arena. These may not be new hunters; in many cases, they will be hunters who had previously stopped archery hunting because of age or physical restrictions.

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