Tennessee's Best Small-Game Hunting

Tennessee's Best Small-Game Hunting

Some of the best small-game hunting of the year can happen in December. (December 2005)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It might be a bit late in the season, but there are still plenty of small-game opportunities in Tennessee for those who appreciate the finer things in life. The finer things in life would, of course, include plenty of game close to home, fewer hunters and a fine wild game dinner over the holidays.

Small game -- rabbits and squirrels to be specific -- is in abundance across Tennessee. And with other hunters' attention focused on deer and turkeys, there's plenty of opportunity for a small-game hunter to have a successful and solitary hunt. Let's face it, there aren't many of those left. It's foolish to let them slip away.

The statewide season for both rabbits and squirrels runs through Feb. 28. Bag limits are generous. Hunters are permitted to harvest five rabbits and 10 squirrels per day. Keep in mind, however, that some WMA seasons close early, some require permits, some require nontoxic shot and many have "off-limit" areas. Check with the TWRA before you hunt. Don't make an expensive mistake.

So, with all these factors in mind, let's take a look at some of the best places in Tennessee for a small-game hunt. No doubt there's one near you.

REGION I

The Natchez Trace State Forest offers plenty of top-quality rabbit and squirrel hunting for those hunting in Region I. At 48,000 acres, it's big enough to support good populations of both rabbits and squirrels and also big enough to enjoy a quiet and peaceful hunt. And yet, it's conveniently located in Benton, Carroll and Henderson counties. Take Exit 116 off I-40 between Nashville and Memphis to get there.

This place offers darn near anything you might possibly be interested in when it comes to small-game hunting. There are huge areas of grasses, briars, berries and fencerows to hold and feed rabbits. Their population is high; they are well fed, healthy, fat and waiting for you to arrive.

Hunt them nearly anywhere you can find a little forage along with some ground and overhead cover. Pay particular attention to bottom areas along the old access roads that run around and through this forest. The roads offer clear shooting lanes for those hunters shooting from the jump. That's something that isn't found everywhere in Natchez Trace.

If you're interested in rabbits, give the White Oak WMA in Hardin County or the Wolf River WMA in Fayette County a try.

The squirrel hunting may be even better than the rabbit hunting. They are a little-targeted species with a ton of acorns to eat and plenty of big trees to climb. That's a combination that could make for some fine hunting. Look for squirrels anywhere there are numerous hardwood trees.

That may not sound very detailed or sophisticated, but that's the way it is with squirrels. They hang out around hardwood trees. It's really not any more complicated than that.

For complete and detailed information on Natchez Trace, visit the TWRA Web site at

www.state.tn.us/twra, or call Region I wildlife biologist Jim Hamlington at (731) 423-5725. You can also contact David Ulderich at (731) 968-5351.

REGION II

Any serious discussion of public-land small-game hunting in Region II must include the Cheatham WMA and the Yanahli WMA, according to TWRA wildlife biologist Russ Skoglund.

Both areas have been renovated with native warm-season grasses, which are beneficial to rabbits. Unlike other grasses, these varieties grow 3 to 4 feet tall and offer excellent overhead cover for the bunnies.

The importance of this can't be overstated. In remote, wild areas, the primary rabbit predators are large birds of prey. When the bunnies can hide in tall, thick grasses, they are much more difficult to see from the air.

Cheatham WMA was made by Mother Nature for squirrels. Its 22,000 acres are located in Cheatham County south of the Cumberland River near Ashland City. It can be accessed from I-24 or from I-40.

Cheatham is mostly hardwood forest and hunts "big." It's an area of steep ridges and sharp, deep valleys. Make sure you're up to the task. This is rough territory. It's easy to get into trouble here if you don't know what you're doing. Always hunt with a friend.

That warning notwithstanding, Cheatham's mix of white and red oak trees make an excellent forage base for the squirrels season after season and year after year. Their numbers are high and the hunting opportunities nearly endless. It's possible to squirrel hunt Cheatham all day and not see another hunter.

The best way to hunt this one is to break it into several areas of lesser size, perhaps between 100 and 200 acres. Obtain a map from the TWRA and study it carefully. Pay particular attention to the old logging roads that crisscross the property. They offer convenient access inside the lands and will help keep you oriented.

If you're looking for a few rabbits, hunt the grasses that have been planted. Be especially mindful of any grass that borders an old fencerow or perhaps a berry patch. That's where you'll find most of them.

For detailed information about Cheatham, visit the TWRA Web site as noted above, where you can also download the 2005-2006 Hunting and Trapping Guide; or call Region II at (615) 781-6622.

The Yanahli WMA is a smaller area in Maury County not too far southeast of Columbia. It covers 12,800 acres and offers great rabbit and squirrel hunting. The rabbit population is solid and the squirrel population is extraordinary.

Yanahli is a mix of hardwoods and grasses interspersed with abandoned fencerows, some clover and several big berry patches. For rabbits, hunt the planted grasses, and for squirrels, hunt the hardwoods.

For complete and up-to-the-minute information about this area, visit the TWRA Web site, or call Tommy Edwards at (931) 840-4042.

REGION III

Region III hunters should take a close look at the Catoosa WMA. This one's big, nearly 80,000 acres. It's located in Cumberland and Morgan counties and can be reached from the Peavine, Genesis and Westel exits off I-40.

Catoosa suffers more small-game hunting pressure than most other spots in Middle Tennessee, but the rabbits and squirrels are thriving nonetheless. That's no doubt because of the excellent habitat that Catoosa offers bo

th species.

Rabbit hunters don't like to run their dogs in places that don't have rabbits. If rabbit hunters return to places like Catoosa year after year, it's because year after year, there are rabbits there.

These rabbits have access to huge, expansive areas of tall grasses, berry patches, briars, old fencerows and even some clover. That's about all they need to make it through the winter. The grasses protect them from above, the berries and briars from the ground and the clover and other wide-ranging forages keep them fat and healthy.

The squirrels live for the most part -- like they do almost everywhere -- in the vast hardwood forests that cover much of the acreage. If you want to bag a limit, simply find a hardwood stand covering 10 or 20 acres and hunt it carefully and thoroughly. Pay particular attention to any area where you see one squirrel. Squirrels do not live alone -- where there is one, there are probably more. Remain patient and success will be yours.

For detailed and up-to-the-minute information about Catoosa, go to the TWRA Web site, or call Mark Thurman, Region III wildlife biologist, at (931) 484-9571.

REGION IV

TWRA wildlife biologist David Brandenburg said that rabbit and squirrel numbers look good across Region IV. His top picks include the Cherokee National Forest and the Lick Creek Bottoms WMA.

If you like big hunts, give the Cherokee National Forest a try this year. This 640,000-acre tract of land lies at the foot of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Range in southeastern Tennessee along the North Carolina state line. It's a primitive area, rugged in the extreme.

Rabbit habitat abounds in this area. There are acres and acres of berries, miles of old fencerows and nearly limitless fields of tall grasses. The rabbits take advantage of this. They can be found scattered about the forest with good populations just about everywhere.

The best way to hunt the Cherokee National Forest is to follow the old logging roads -- many built during the early part of this century -- and then hunt likely spots within a reasonable walking distance of the traveled areas. It's much too big to hunt any other way.

After heavy logging early in this century, the hardwood forests are unequalled for size, maturity and beauty. They hold huge populations of squirrels. Acorn flats drive the forage base.

If you're up to it, this may be the best place in Tennessee to combine a true wild backcountry experience with a little hunting.

For detailed information on the area and up-to-the-minute reports, go online to the TWRA Web site, or call Region IV at (423) 587-7037.

If you're not up to the Cherokee, give Lick Creek Bottoms a try. It's another great place to hunt rabbits and squirrels in Region IV. It's located in Greene County and at just under 1,000 acres is one of the smaller areas in the state. Still, it offers great small-game hunting in December and January.

There's plenty of rabbit habitat and forage to hunt with an excellent population of cottontails. Local experts suggest concentrating on the old fencerows and berry bushes that are found throughout the area. They seem to hold the best numbers of bunnies.

The squirrels can be found in the hardwood stands scattered about the area. The TWRA reports that the squirrel population is good and getting better owing largely to the declining popularity of hunting them.

For detailed information on the area and up-to-the-minute reports, visit the TWRA Web site, or call Region IV at (423) 587-7037.

NO MATTER WHERE YOU HUNT . . .

Regardless of which WMA you choose, keep in mind that when it comes to hunting rabbits -- cottontails -- toward the latter part of the season, forage and cover should be your primary considerations.

The importance of clover as forage can't be overstated. If it's available, it's the rabbits' first choice. Clover's not hard to find. As a legume, it deposits nitrogen into the soil. That means it stays green nearly all year and so does everything around it. It can usually be found growing in loose, sandy and well-drained soils. It grows best in areas with a lot of sunshine. Look for it in old pastures or in areas adjacent to them.

As a second choice, blackberry and raspberry bushes are hard to beat. Berry tangles protect young, tender shoots from the elements long after most plants are brown and dead. Those same tangles also offer some of the best cover available. Hunters and other predators may find thick patches of berries and their thorns nearly impossible to penetrate. Not so with rabbits. They easily make paths through them.

Look for berry patches growing wild along old fencerows, on hillsides, near old campsites, around old dump grounds and in old, long-neglected fields.

And keep this in mind: Nearly every expert on the planet will tell you that a rabbit will eat anything a deer will eat. So, if you can find where the deer are feeding -- or even where they were feeding earlier in the year -- you can usually find a few rabbits.

The obvious first choice is a food plot. In some of our profiled public areas, they are planted by the state DNR. In others, they are planted privately in cooperation with the state agency. In still other areas, you can find food plots on private land alongside the public land you're hunting. (Don't trespass -- stay on the public land no matter how good farmer Jones' corn field looks!)

By December, most of these areas won't look like much. The crops are broken down, there is little visible grain and the area generally looks abandoned and ravaged. Well, maybe it is, but it doesn't take much to feed a rabbit and if food is scarce, they'll eat what's available. After all, it beats the alternative.

And, never, not ever for any reason, pass up a stand of persimmon trees. Better known as a delicacy for feeding deer, they also attract feeding rabbits. Persimmon trees lose their leaves in the fall and produce a delicious orange fruit. It is generally ripe and available as forage relatively early in the hunting season. They will attract rabbits long after the deer have abandoned them.

Finally, when hunting rabbits, pay close attention to old fencerows. They may not offer much to eat, but they do offer cover and protection from predators. There are a surprising number of them on public hunting lands throughout Tennessee. Long abandoned and long neglected, these fencerows are often overgrown with trees, briars, brush and brambles. In many cases, they are nearly a solid mass of undergrowth. This is a natural hiding place for cottontail rabbits.

Now when it comes to squirrels, you'll need to think a little differently, or maybe a lot differently. On the public lands profiled in this article, most of the population will be found in and around hardwood trees. As a practical matter

, oak trees are what you should be hunting.

White oaks are usually best. Not only do they produce every year, but also they are less bitter than reds and are therefore more palatable. That said, don't ignore red oaks if they're producing and that's all that's available in the area. They may not be as tasty as whites, but they still provide food to a hungry squirrel.

Most squirrel activity occurs in the early mornings and late evenings. That's when you'll find them scurrying to and fro in search of a meal. That's also when you should be hunting. The middle of the day might suit your constitution and schedule, but it doesn't suit theirs.

Squirrels can be harvested in any number of ways. Perhaps the most common is to pull on an old set of camos, find a comfortable spot at the base of a tree and wait for some activity. Make sure you have a couple of open shooting lanes before you settle in for the morning or evening. Once the squirrels start moving, it's too late to find one.

Less popular, but no less fun, is to walk about the woods looking for activity. Work your way along, slowly and carefully, until you see two or three of the little critters. Then stop, blend into the area as best you can and hope that a shooting lane opens up for you.

Either way you go about hunting them, you'll have an experience that's worthwhile and rewarding. Squirrel hunting is much slower paced and less intense than most hunting experiences. The adrenaline rush is often replaced with a quiet appreciation of Mother Nature at her finest.

And it's a great opportunity to introduce someone to the sport of hunting. It doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment and clothing, doesn't require long days in the field and, for the most part at least, squirrels are plentiful throughout Tennessee, so your chances of success are better than with some other species.

Well, there you have it; an overview of some of the best rabbit and squirrel hunting in Tennessee. Pick your spot, schedule a day off work and take advantage of what nature and the TWRA have provided.

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