Tennessee's Best Small-Game Hunting

Another good year is on tap for Tennessee's small-game and upland hunters. Here are some places to try your luck. (December 2008)

Like the spoiled little kid who sits in the middle of a pile of toys and says, "I'm bored and don't have nobody to play with," there is probably a would-be hunter somewhere in Tennessee who grumbles about not having a place to hunt. If so, Brother, you have not looked. There are almost 100 wildlife management areas (WMAs) across the state ranging from 53 acres to a whopping 625,000 acres in size. Toss in almost 63,000 acres of privately owned public-hunting lands and the idea that you're stuck in front of the boob tube instead of walking to the woods draws a collective "Ho-hum" from most Volunteer State sportsmen. There are very few locations in Tennessee that are more than a half-hour's drive from a place to hunt.

For the small-game fancier there is a downside. On most WMAs, management focus is on deer, waterfowl and wild turkeys in their respective seasons. Rabbit, squirrel and quail hunters who prefer to do their hunting with dogs are pretty much up against it, especially during deer season, although regulations and restrictions vary from place to place.

On the positive side, during those periods when small-game hunting is allowed on public land, the hunting can be relatively good. While much of the best deer hunting nowadays is on private land, truly excellent squirrel hunting is widely available on public land, and hunting pressure is typically very light.

Rabbit hunting quality varies with the type of habitat on a given unit of public land, but rabbits are also widespread and public-land hunting can be good.

Quail on public land are much harder to find. Sadly, the general decline in quail populations includes birds on public land. But there are some places where hunters and dogs can stretch their legs and with some luck still partake in the magic of a rising covey of quail erupting out of cover.

Finding out what the nearest public hunting lands allow is as simple as picking up your telephone and calling for details. Every WMA manager's office is listed in the Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide. The personnel there can give you accurate and timely information on small-game numbers, mast production and a host of other tidbits that will increase your odds of success. Think about it: You wouldn't go hunting on Uncle Bob's farm without asking him where to start looking for furred and feathered game. The same applies here, and asking the people who are there every day just makes sense.

This is also a better way to start than simply going by last year's published small-game harvest figures. Jim Hamlington of TWRA's Region I office in Jackson put that in perspective by saying, "The simple fact is, our management areas are woefully underhunted, especially when it comes to small game. It's hard to get accurate figures in terms of the harvest when few, if any, people are hunting there to start with. On top of that, a change in mast production or other food source can move squirrels drastically. If a spot had lots of white oak acorns last year but the red oaks across the ridge are more productive this year, your old hotspot can be empty, the hunter goes home empty-handed, and not far away the woods can be full of squirrels. The harvest figures for that day sure don't reflect the actual populations. It's that simple."

From the layman's point of view, consider my buddy Al Brown. These days, Al does virtually all of his deer, turkey and small-game hunting on WMAs. To give away exactly which ones would be to take my life in my hands, but the two that commonly get his attention are in West Tennessee and neither of them make the top 10 list of most productive areas, according to the surveys.

His success is based on nothing more exotic than starting his hunts when squirrel season opens in August and going every chance he gets for whatever species is open. The man loves to hunt, and by being there often he knows where the game is and what it is doing the way many of us did back in the days when we lived on farms and strolled the woods with a rifle or shotgun as a matter of course.

Getting away from generalities, let's take a look at some of the management areas that offer well-documented small-game hunting opportunities, as well as room enough to stretch your legs, not that there is apt to be a crowding problem even on the smaller public areas.

REGION I

John Tully WMA/Cold Creek WMA

These two areas share boundaries and could well be considered a single unit for our purposes. Combined, they offer over 15,000 acres in Lauderdale County, and because the Mississippi River is the western border, there is a high priority put on waterfowl hunting here. However, there is a huge chunk of mostly dry ground between Crutcher Lake Road and Sam Taylor Road on the edge of the John Tully State Forest.

There are lowlands as well in the areas of Whale Pond, Old River and other bodies of water. Between the uplands and lowlands, it is a pretty good bet that barring any major unnatural weather event, there will be some sort of mast production to carry the squirrels just fine. If you like to stomp brushpiles for rabbits, then by all means, kick the bushes in and around the damp areas, as well as the higher fringe areas, because both swamp rabbits and cottontails are found here.

Cold Creek WMA has a couple of smaller parcels that might offer a good place to start if you are a first-time visitor. You can get an idea of how the terrain lies and expand your hunting efforts from there.

White Oak WMA

Having mentioned swamp rabbits, I think it is only fair to mention this 7,000-acre tract in Hardin County. This is an area where I have hunted rabbits, both swampers and cottontails, for almost 30 years and the populations have remained stable except where habitat has been destroyed in favor of expanded agriculture. This is another WMA dedicated primarily to waterfowl, but there are excellent stands of bottomland hardwoods and enough short but steep wooded hills to make you glad to slip your boots off at the end of the day.

White Oak offers the visiting sportsman a chance to pull off a triple play: waterfowl in the early morning, rabbits and squirrels until lunch, then a chance to catch saugers, white bass and catfish in the Pickwick Dam/ Savannah area in the afternoon. When it comes to a place made to order for a hunter and angler weekend, this one is hard to beat.

Natchez Trace State Forest

With 48,000 acres on both sides of Interstate 40, this is one of the big ones. If you just drive the main roads, you might think the Natchez Trace is nothing more than a big pulpwood plantation. However, you'd be wrong: There are plenty of hardwoods, usually just out of sight. The ridges are steep in places but worth the effort to climb, and odds are good of f

inding an occasional covey of quail around the areas cultivated or otherwise managed for wild turkeys.

One hint for the first-time visitor: Plan your hunt in an area where getting lost is difficult. For example, on the western side of the southern portion, you can meander around with Natchez Trace Wilderness Road to the north, Scarce Creek on the west, and Lewis Trail winding around the rest. Yep, you can get turned around on the Trace. Trust me.

REGION II

Bear Hollow Mountain

One of the TWRA's latest additions to the WMA list is this 15,000-acre tract in Franklin County that was first shown to the Tennessee hunting public in October 2005.

Located off I-24 (Highway 16, Winchester exit), Bear Hollow has allowed the TWRA biologists to start fresh. Food plots now augment the broad stands of mature hardwood trees and time will tell if the rabbit and quail numbers can be made to rival those of the squirrels already in residence.

My guess is that these plots, along with regenerating clearcuts, might just do the trick. For those unfamiliar with these not-so-lovely places where the timber has been scalped, they are prime locations for cottontails and bobwhites. The return of natural grasses and forbs in the clearcut areas is one of the best things that can be done for native small-game species. It doesn't hurt the turkey-nesting situation, either.

Another thing that makes Bear Hollow a natural draw for the hunter, or anyone else who prizes quiet in the woods, is the "no ATV" rule. No off-road vehicles are allowed here.

This WMA is made up of four "compartments," which in total include five pieces of property. Good, up-to-date maps are available and can be found on the TWRA Web site.

Laurel Hill

This is a personal favorite because its "crazy quilt" combination of fields, weed patches and timber is a consistent producer of quail. Whether or not it rests at the top of the harvest survey does not matter to the hunter who can bust through cover with the near-certain knowledge that eventually a covey is going to come up around his feet and elevate his heart rate.

Like a number of other management areas, Laurel Hill is closed to small-game hunting at sunset the day before and during big-game hunts. Since the number of these hunts is not excessive, small-game hunters still have plenty of opportunity.

For those who like to hunt the field edges that look so much like that quail and rabbit habitat we knew a generation ago, come early in the season. As the year goes on, flushes get tougher and call for you to get back in the thicker stuff to score.

Cheatham

One of the finest gentleman sportsman of the current generation, David Lawrence of Nashville, practically cut his hunter's teeth on Cheatham WMA and ranks it as being almost as good as private property managed to suit one's self. Since it covers some 20,810 acres and has had the same manager, Randy Cromer, for a number of years, Cheatham remains a steady producer.

"Hunters who come during the week have almost no competition," David Lawrence said. "That's even during deer season when you see peak use. If deer season isn't open, the first-time visitor may wonder if the place is even open for business."

Cheatham is known primarily for its deer and turkey populations, but the habitat, which includes plenty of good hardwood timber, food plots in varying sizes and controlled clearcuts, support all three of our major small-game species. It is also interesting to note that now and then during late October into November it is not unusual to see an occasional woodcock come fluttering in to roost late in the afternoon.

REGION III

Catoosa

Depending on whose figures you read, Catoosa covers somewhere between 79,740 to 82,000 acres. No matter which figure you believe, you can rest assured that it is a big chunk of property purchased back around 1940 with Pittman-Robertson funds and sportsmen's license dollars. Although there was once a fair amount of open ground here in the form of small pastures and farm plots, Catoosa is now about 98 percent forested. Obviously, the squirrels should have little problem making a living in the wide stands of mature beech, oak and other hardwoods, but do not go there looking for large numbers of quail and rabbits.

That does not mean that you will not find any at all, especially since the TWRA managers are now clearcutting a 75-foot swath along roadways and putting rock on many secondary roads. Game birds, notably bobwhites and ruffed grouse, should benefit from these changes. Pine beetles are causing major damage here, and whether or not the experts can find a way to make this "evil weevil" beneficial to game species remains to be seen.

Catoosa is divided into the Genesis (west) and Bicolor (east) sections, which are divided by Daddy's Creek. This is a beautiful area to hunt.

One thing that many sportsmen will appreciate is the Feb. 1 through Feb. 28 closure of the WMA to all but walk-in small-game hunters. This should be a prime time to go after squirrels and grouse.

North Chickamauga Creek

When compared with the giant WMAs, what can one of only 7,092 acres broken into eight units offer? In the case of Chickamauga Creek, plenty: time for the hunter to be just a hunter hoping that the grouse and squirrels will cooperate and the chance for that hunter to experience a whole lot of quiet to go along with it. This 10-mile-long gorge cut into the Cumberland Plateau is worth the effort. It is only open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and has a Jan. 31 closure but is certainly a spot that small-game hunters should consider making a trip to for a hunt.

REGION IV

Cherokee, Royal Blue And Sundquist

Combining these three huge management areas is not meant to be a disservice. In fact, it is meant to point out that to do justice to any of the three would require an entire article in terms of where to look and what to expect. Except for a few minor details (such as the fact that no permit is needed to hunt small game on Cherokee, or that mine hazards such as holes left from deep- and strip mines exist on Royal Blue, or that you had better not bring a loud ATV to Sundquist), they are much the same where small-game species are concerned.

Ruffed grouse are generally the game of choice, although there is no shortage of squirrels. There are rabbits in the brushy edge cover, too. If you come here looking for quail, then you are in the wrong place unless there are food plots around or maybe a regenerating cutover. Also, during the migration, you are very apt to put up a woodcock or two along the wooded flats and creek bottoms. Since this grand trio of management areas covers a total of some 738,000 acres, to some extent the idea of "going here" is the equivalent of considering a northeastern state or small European country as a "place to go." Tennessee's Region IV has far more small-game acres to hunt than people to hunt them.

Before planning your WMA hunt, check the latest edition of the Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Gui

de and do not be shy about contacting the area managers. After all, they are the ones on the ground and are your best sources of information on where all that overlooked small game can be found.

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