Tennessee's Best Small-Game Hunting

Small-game species are widespread, fun to hunt, and provide hunters with long seasons to get in on the action. Here are some of the best small-game WMAs across the state. (December 2006)

Photo By Ron Sinfelt

According to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Small-Game Coordinator Roger Applegate, there is no shortage of opportunities for hunters to pursue small game from now through the Feb. 28 statewide close of season on small game.

The most widespread small-game animal is without doubt the squirrel, and Applegate predicted a bountiful season this year.

"Because we had a huge mast crop in the fall of 2005, squirrel numbers are expected to be way up and hunting should be good in virtually any county within the state," he said.

Squirrels may be the most numerous and accessible small-game animal to hunt in Tennessee, but they're by no means the only one with a following among dedicated hunters.

If you want to find a class of hunters who are convinced they have more fun in the field than anyone else, find hunters who own a shotgun and a beagle. They'll be hunting rabbits.

"Finding good rabbit hunting on private land is not extremely difficult if one does not expect large numbers," Applegate continued. "Private lands throughout the state can hold small numbers of rabbits for those interested in a little winter activity."

Generally, rabbit hunting is one of the most social of small-game pursuits; though you can kick some rabbits up yourself, a beagle is about a thousand times more efficient. A pack of beagles is even better. And a pack of beagles and some friends is a social event.

On the opposite end of the extreme is grouse hunting. Hardcore grouse hunters don't mind walking a long way to find some birds, and they don't mind if the birds are so far away from people that no one else knows about them.

"Grouse hunting is pretty much entirely a public land activity," Applegate said. "Although there are likely a few grouse available on private lands scattered through parts of East Tennessee, the numbers are spotty at best."

For hunters with no access to private lands, there are thousands of acres of public land just teeming with game of every size. Below is a roundup of some of Tennessee's best small-game WMAs.

"Small-game hunting on WMAs can be challenging, but consider all your options," advised Tommy Edwards, manager of Yanahli WMA. "Scout hard. Know more than one place to go on the area in case your favorite spot is taken. The busiest time on Yanahli is around the holidays. Deer hunting comes to a close typically during the third week in December, offering unlimited opportunities for small-game hunting.

"Rabbit hunting exceeds all small-game hunting on the area," Edwards continued. "The weekend is usually the most crowded, but during the Christmas holidays, any day you will be able to find rabbit hunters and their beagles. Yanahli consists of many overgrown fields that are intentionally managed that way for the small-game hunters. Our staff will often mow shooting lanes for hunters during their fall management activities.

"During early season, squirrel hunting is popular," Edwards said, "but all interest dies out when deer season approaches. With this in mind, Yanahli offers some great opportunities for this sport with very little competition from other hunters."

During the late season, harvested waste grain draws concentrations of raccoons around sharecroppers' fields and "hunters take advantage of that," Edwards said. "Since the Duck River flows through the heart of Yanahli, this is particularly attractive to this nighttime bandit."

Squirrels, rabbits and raccoons all play a huge role in the history of hunting in Tennessee. But in the South in general, the pinnacle of traditional hunting was the quail. In Tennessee, as throughout the South, wild quail have fallen on hard times.

"Quail numbers have diminished considerably statewide over the last 30 years," Edwards noted. "Quail hunting is hard on Yanahli, but the numbers are there. Hunters that know the area are usually successful by having knowledge of where agricultural fields are, having good dogs and the stamina to walk a good deal. Again, sharecropper fields, especially soybeans, are very attractive to bobwhites and quail hunters alike. Typically, these fields will be in the river bottoms on the WMA. Fields are usually rotated from beans one year to corn another, so it helps to do some scouting beforehand to know what is planted where."

Royal Blue WMA's claim to fame is some very good squirrel hunting, and a fair number of grouse.

"And we have some increasing potential for rabbits as we develop more small-game habitat through the creation of food plots, plus native warm-season grasses," said Stan Stooksbury, TWRA Region II wildlife manager. "Here in this area, because there was so much pre-law mining and present mining, the warm-season grasses are excellent for stabilizing soil."

More restrictive mining laws were put in place in 1976, and much of Stooksbury's time and funding goes into reclaiming lands damaged before that period.

"We're getting federal funds to go back in and reclaim pre-law coal mines," he said. Reclaiming land and working with the timber and coal companies to protect wildlife habitat are all part of the management deal for Stooksbury, who oversees Sundquist WMA's 80,000 acres and the 2,500-acre Cove Creek WMA on Norris Lake in addition to Royal Blue's 50,000 acres.

"We worked with the coal companies and changed their re-vegetation plans to benefit wildlife," Stooksbury said. "We require them to have wildlife as a major focus in their plan and we work with them on this.

Our most sought-after species is grouse," Stooksbury continued. "There seems to have been a region-wide reduction in numbers over the past few years. However, with the significant increase in timber management, we expect to turn that around and have an increasing grouse population here for the next several years. We saw good brood production this year. We had a maturing forest, and harvesting on the total property (all three WMAs) now is about 2,000 acres a year," providing grouse with the early successional forest they need for nesting and brood habitat.

"Over the years, squirrel hunting has lost a lot of popularity, and this is as good a place as any in the state to hunt squirrels," Stooksbury said. "We've had good to excellent mast three years in a row. Because this a

rea was mainly timbered forestland, there wasn't really a lot of open areas for wildlife, except for mine sites that were not conducive to rabbit populations," Stooksbury said. "Now we are seeing ever-increasing rabbit populations."

TWRA Lands Management biologist Jim Zimmerman in Region III said that squirrels are the most plentiful small game on Catoosa WMA's 80,000 acres.

"They're all over," Zimmerman said. "Catoosa is predominantly forested and pretty much everywhere on the area we have squirrels. It's more about where you find food -- if you have a lot of acorns, you have a lot of squirrels.

"We have grouse, but quail populations have been down for 10 or 15 years and they're really at a low point," Zimmerman continued. "We are right on the southern edge of the grouse's natural habitat, so we don't have a lot of grouse, but it is not uncommon to see grouse. We have a lot of area for grouse. We saw a few more grouse this past winter. We'll just have to see what happened last summer as far as production went," Zimmerman noted.

"We have an active forest management program for wildlife," Zimmerman explained. "We do direct habitat management practices like planting food plots. We've had an outbreak over the past few years of pine beetles -- a major explosion of pine beetles that killed acres and acres of pine. At Catoosa, we tried to salvage what we could by cutting pine as fast as we could cut it. Because of that, hardwoods were left in those areas. We began burning, trying to create a savanna situation with native grassland scattered with hardwoods."

Now the 850-acre savanna is burnt annually to encourage growth of native warm-season grasses with scattered oak trees. Catoosa is in the process of creating similar savanna habitat on an additional 1,500 to 2,000 acres.

"There's a lot of benefit, specifically with grassland, open area and early successional habitat," Zimmerman said. "It creates good nesting habitat for birds -- particularly turkeys and quail, possibly grouse. It offers real good brood habitat for quail and turkeys. It's a habitat that is really economical to us, and is native and natural. We can burn 850 acres with four or five people in a day with the right weather conditions. The cost for a food plot can be $100-$300 an acre depending on how far we have to travel to get there. It can be pretty expensive."

Chuck Swan WMA is a great place for small-game hunts, according to Wildlife Manager John Mike. The area is closed to small-game hunters during three weekend deer hunts, but is open the rest of the time for those in search of smaller critters.

"We have an excellent squirrel population," Mike said. "We had great mast last year. They raised two different litters; I observed two different age groups."

Squirrels aren't the only small game doing well here, however.

Rabbits weren't doing that great," he continued. "We got rid of the hay sharecroppers and boosted the soybeans -- that's the only thing we changed, but apparently that had a direct effect on rabbits because the last two years we've seen more than ever. There were our loyal hunters who came every year whether they got a rabbit or not, and last year I talked to some of them and they were tickled to death. They hadn't jumped a rabbit in a long time."

Chuck Swan doesn't allow quail hunting at this time, but restoration efforts are underway. Quail have not responded to calling efforts in recent years, underlining their scarcity. At Chuck Swan, local landowners have allowed TWRA folks to trap wild quail to be released onto the WMA.

"We know we have three coveys in one release area now," Mike said. "We're trying to bring in other birds so we get a better gene pool. Once they get established with a good, healthy population, we will look at different management techniques as far as allowing the public to utilize the birds."

On the Wolf River and White Oak WMAs, small-game opportunity begins with habitat management.

"Our focus at Wolf River and White Oak is small game -- especially rabbit and quail," said Wes Winton, TWRA Wildlife Manager at both WMAs. "Here at Wolf River they've done pretty good and we've seen a lot of young rabbits. A lot of the open fields we keep in early succession stages. We do warm-season grass management and burn on a two to three-year rotation. We have very limited food plots, and we have dove fields."

Like the other areas, they also had great mast production and expect abundant squirrel populations.

At White Oak, deer hunting is archery only, so the deer hunters aren't out with high-powered rifles.

"We cater more toward small-game hunters," Winton said. "They don't have the pressure of the big-game hunters, so they have a place to go where they don't worry about that."

Winton noted that there is a new proclamation this year at Wolf River.

"Hunters can't release their own game birds that they bought somewhere else. The biggest concern is disease. They will be cited and they could pay a fine of $200 or more."

Because White Oak is more rural (north of Savannah, on the Tennessee River), it doesn't see the kind of hunting pressure that many other WMAs receive, and Winton suggested that it could be more utilized, as could the quail hunting at Wolf River.

"We do a lot of work specifically for quail. We have many hunters come for rabbits, but quail hunter numbers are kind of down," he noted. "We do have ample opportunity for quail."

Different WMAs see different use patterns among hunters; in Tennessee, by far the highest sustained participation rate in hunting comes during deer season, though turkeys and doves are also hotly pursued during their seasons. WMAs with good deer and turkey hunter participation manage those game populations accordingly, but that doesn't mean the small-game species are left out of the management picture.

"Each WMA in the state prioritizes for species with a five-year plan," explained Cheatam WMA Wildlife Manager Randy Cromer. "The practices in that plan state what you are managing and how that management affects each species. Our number one species in Cheatam is wild turkeys, then deer, squirrels, rabbits and quail. After that, it's raccoons and non-game species."

Cromer noted that the Haynes Bottom WMA, which he also manages, is the "mecca of small-game hunting." The 1,000-acre WMA, along with the 5,000 acres at Cheatam Lake WMA, are popular duck-hunting destinations, but "half of Haynes is uplands, and we manage it for small game -- rabbits and quail. The hunters are very happy. It was a working cattle farm before TWRA bought it. We planted warm-season native grasses that grew in Tennessee 100 years ago. The thing about these grasses is they grow in clumps and get real tall. Under there are travel lanes for small animals, cover and things they need to do better. We are really pushing the plantings of warm-season grasse

s because it helps quail and rabbits, too."

Haynes is 56 miles from Cheatam on the other side of Clarksville off Highway 79. In December, Cromer said, "most everything is open -- ducks, squirrels, deer, rabbits, quail, raccoons." There is also a dove field. When Cromer took over at Cheatam in 1988, there was a draw quota hunt, which he did away with.

"Now I open Cheatam the same as Unit I, only I stop Dec. 25, about two weeks early," he said. "A lot of WMAs close small-game hunting during big-game hunting. Cheatam does not. It has the same small-game seasons as statewide. The only problems I've had is during archery season, because the leaves have not come off and deer hunters (not required to wear orange) are up in trees -- and squirrel hunters shoot into trees -- it can be a little testy. I have not had one shot or anything like that, but there can be some harsh words."

"The squirrel population is really making a good comeback," Cromer said. "The winter of 2005 was the best mast crop that I have seen since I've been at Cheatam. The white oaks were absolutely loaded.

"Cheatam has 63 miles of road we build and maintain for access and harvest. We are also creating more permanent wildlife food plots for turkey. Our GIS system has as much data on Cheatam as any other place, and it shows me where the red oaks are, where in the turkey program the available water is within a quarter of a mile. If there is none, the program places an X on the map and we'll build a pond -- turkeys have to have water. Of course, everything else needs water, too. There is no place on Cheatam that year-round water is not available now. We have about 125 acres of permanent openings, which attract insects for mama (turkey) to take the poults in and let them eat bugs.

"For raccoons, we plant corn and leave it standing. When a hunter comes in and drives past a food plot with corn in it, if he's a deer or turkey hunter, he likes that. If he's a raccoon hunter, he loves that. Other than that when we do timber harvests, we leave dead end pieces that the birds and raccoons use to nest. We also do quarter-acre islands in even-age stands; for every 20 acres cut, we leave a quarter acre uncut so we will still have mast production.

"We do not have grouse. The TWRA stocked grouse in the late '60s and they did not fare well. Biologists feel that with the openings and water now available, which we didn't have back then, grouse might do better here. It wouldn't hurt my feelings. I think it would be great! Once that little grouse gets big enough, it is primarily a woods dweller -- and we've got plenty of woods!"

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Seasons and regulations on all small-game species vary from one wildlife management area to another, so be sure to check the 2006 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide

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