Our Best Primitive Weapon Public Hunts

If you bowhunt or are a blackpowder enthusiast, these public-land hunts represent more than just time in the woods: They're great places to get a deer. (September 2009)

The Volunteer State has nearly 100 wildlife management areas (WMAs), so it's a safe bet that you live within easy driving distance of more than one or two that offer some decent, and possibly downright good, deer hunting.

Let's take a look at some viable primitive-weapon public-hunting options all away across the state from a mixture of open hunts to draw hunts. If you've been drawn for a quota WMA hunt this year, this look should offer some help; if you haven't, we'll look at some non-draw primitive weapon options as well.

It's definitely time to weigh your primitive options for Tennessee whitetails. If you bowhunt or are a blackpowder enthusiast, these seasons give you more hunting time in the deer woods. Taking a buck with a bow is a challenge, and even killing a doe is rewarding to anyone with a couple of favorite venison recipes. And the challenge of harvesting either with a muzzleloader is often as rewarding.

We'll take a look at some notable public-land hunts, starting from Region I in the western part of the state and working our way east. Regardless of where you live in the Volunteer State, there is a WMA nearby, and almost all of them feature some type of primitive weapon hunting.

REGION I

Presidents Island

There's no doubt in anyone's mind this is the best public bowhunt for trophy whitetails in the state -- maybe even in the country. It takes years of patience and years of building up priority without getting drawn to get one of the coveted spots at Presidents Island. Even with the slim odds, there are thousands of hunters who put in each season for this opportunity to harvest a big buck.

You just can't overlook mentioning the state's top trophy destination and most highly sought big-deer draw hunt. Presidents Island WMA only produces a handful of bucks with 9 and 10 points each season and few more with 11 or more points harvested to boot, but they are all world-class takings.

Presidents Island is obviously the top bowhunt around. What specifically makes it that way is the deer found there. They have absolute protection, and the soils are rich, which grow big antlers. The island is off-limits to everybody but the farmers that farm it.

The first bowhunt usually happens the third weekend in October with a quota of 100 hunters. On this first three-day hunt, participants are allowed two deer, but the harvest is limited to antlerless deer or spike bucks. The second three-day hunt occurs the next weekend and features the same quota and limits. The last three-day archery hunt is held the first weekend of December with a 50-hunter quota on the main WMA and an additional 30-hunter quota on the Ensley Unit.

This final hunt, which is the trophy hunt for the year, allows hunters to harvest one deer of either sex on the main unit, but bucks must have at least 9 antler points, and the points must be 1 inch or longer. Hunters drawn for the Ensley Unit can harvest one deer, buck only. Access to the Ensley Unit is permitted from Shelby Drive only. Scout days for the hunts occur one day before the hunt.

Federal Lands

There's plenty of primitive weapon hunting to be done at two renowned federal land opportunities in Tennessee: Land Between The Lakes (LBL) and Fort Campbell's military installation.

LBL and Fort Campbell both feature bunches of fields and plenty of edges to hunt. The archery season at LBL is open from late September through January, and hunters can bowhunt the area anytime a quota deer hunt is not going on. LBL typically has 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.

Both of these legendary deer havens still have quality bucks roaming them and a bow may be the best chance you'll get at taking a trophy home this year. Fort Campbell is and will always be a viable choice for taking a big buck. That doesn't mean if you get drawn there it's a guarantee, but it's definitely possible to bag a trophy buck there.

Daryl Ratajczak, our state's big-game coordinator, said LBL is not only a top WMA when it comes to numbers, it's also a great place to take a big buck. He said the buck-to-doe ratio is right at 1-to-1 and features a well-balanced herd. Plus, the age structure there is phenomenal.

Sleeper Hunts

Ratajczak said Moss Island and even Big Sandy WMAs are good destinations and draw choices for crossing paths with a big buck. Moss Island is in Dyer County and features 3,400 acres in duck country. There are two archery hunts, and the first one that begins in September is over a month in length. There's an additional gun/archery two-day hunt in mid-December that's one deer-buck only and each buck must be a spike or have 9 points or better. Deer taken here count toward the statewide limit.

The Big Sandy Unit, a potential "sleeper" spot for a nice buck in West Tennessee, is not only seldom mentioned in big-buck circles, it's hardly on the map except when you think about ducks. Yet Ratajczak said there are some ample bucks still there to be harvested at Big Sandy. With only 2,370 acres, Big Sandy is a small option, but it is open the same as the statewide deer season -- increasing your opportunities with more time in the field.

REGION II

AEDC WMA

With 32,000 acres lying off I-24 near Tullahoma, AEDC features hunts that allow the use of archery and shotgun equipment, along with muzzleloaders. AEDC has been a consistent deer producer for years, and in 2008, the area had the top deer harvest among WMAs.

AEDC features draw hunts each season, but there are also opportunities on two bowhunts each year in September. These hunts allow the use of archery-only equipment and there is no hunter quota on the two three-day hunts. The harvest quota on each of the hunts is two deer of either sex, but only one can be antlered. The best news is that the whitetails taken on the hunts are considered bonus deer and do not count toward the statewide bag limit.

There are also two wheelchair-bound archery/shotgun hunts -- one in late November and the other in early December, with no hunter quotas. Disabled hunters are allowed one deer of either sex on the hunts, and the deer are also bonus harvests. There is a designated wheelchair-bound hunt zone.

EAGLE CREEK WMA

If this one's got you scratching your head, it's understandable. But just because Eagle Creek WMA isn't whispered in the same circle

s as Fort Campbell, LBL, or Oak Ridge doesn't mean the opportunity there is lacking. This WMA has consistently found itself in the top 10 of WMA total harvest and buck harvest for the past several years.

Eagle Creek features 22,000 acres of hunting in Wayne County near Waynesboro. The first archery hunt at Eagle Creek is split into two segments, with the first beginning in late September and running for two weeks. The second archery hunt is a few days later in October and runs for a week. There is no hunter quota on either hunt, and hunters are allowed two deer of either sex that are considered bonus deer. In addition, make note that there is not an area checking station in operation during the bow-only dates.

Later, there are also four gun/arch­ery hunts in late October through early December. All feature no hunter quota. During these hunts, you can harvest one deer of either sex, which is also a bonus deer. The checking station is operated on the late October hunt, and all deer taken during this time must be checked in. All deer taken on the other hunts must be checked at the nearest county checking station.

There is also a wheelchair archery/gun hunt in late October with no hunter quota. Disabled hunters are allowed one deer of either sex on the hunt, and the deer is a bonus harvest. There is a designated wheelchair-bound hunt zone.

Dark Horses

Cheatham WMA used to be consistently in the top 10 in public hunts each year but fell out of the best of the best in recent seasons. That doesn't mean there are no longer good deer or good hunts to be had here, however. The deer hunts are open with the statewide season, except that deer hunting is closed after Christmas. That means there are plenty of archery hunting and blackpowder options. A couple of deer there met their fate to my Knight muzzleloader in recent years. The best news is there's plenty of room to hunt and plenty of deer on 20,810 acres.

Ratajczak said Laurel Hill WMA is another dark horse when it comes to good buck chances. Bucks harvested at Laurel Hill must have 2 points or less or have at least 9 points. There's a good muzzleloader hunt with a 500-hunter quota in late October just as the rutting activity starts to show signs of beginning. There are also three gun/archery three-day hunts during the peak rut through November and into the first part of December. For bowhunters only, there's a two-week or so hunt that begins in late September and allows the harvest of three deer of either sex, and all are considered bonus deer.

REGION III

Catoosa WMA

The Catoosa WMA is big, with over 79,000 acres. It features quality deer management and there are quota draw hunts and non-quota hunts to take advantage of. Since the inception of the Quality Deer Management program a few years back, Catoosa has steadily moved up the WMA harvest ranks.

With its quality deer management, Catoosa is a great place to harvest a good buck. There are a good number of 2 1/2-year-old (and older) deer to be harvested. Looking at the number of 7- and 8-point bucks, Catoosa led the way over such places as Fort Campbell and LBL in 2008. That same season, Catoosa hunters also took 51 bucks with 9 and 10 points.

Other than some great archery and muzzleloader quota dates that you need to look into if you haven't, there are three archery-only deer and boar hunts to take advantage of that have no hunter quotas. They are held in the cool days of October on the Plateau, and hunters can harvest two deer, no more than one of which may be antlered, and they're all bonus deer. Plus, you can kill as many boars as you want. No limit-either sex to boot. Note that area checking stations are in operation for these non-quota hunts.

Then there's a gun hunt in December that allows the use of archery equipment as well and features no hunter quota with a bag limit of one deer (buck only), which is also a bonus harvest. The boar hunting is wide open on this hunt too.

Oak Ridge WMA

One word describes Oak Ridge WMA: legendary. This renowned WMA in Roane and Anderson counties features 37,000 acres and only has quota hunts that you have to be drawn for to hunt there. Putting in at Oak Ridge is worth your time wherever you live because it's been consistently in the top five for WMA deer harvests and big bucks for years.

Each year, the shotgun/muzzle­loader hunts yield some big kills (horns to body size), and the archery-only area known by hunters as simply "Inside the Fence" (Tower Shielding Area) is highly sought after. There are three hunts each on four designated areas every season.

Overlooked Opportunity

The Yuchi Refuge is another sleeper hunt, and this one is in Region III. Ratajczak also said Yuchi Refuge is a good destination and draw choice for running into a big buck. Special regulations apply on the refuge and antlered bucks must have 4 or more 1-inch antlers on one side of the rack or an outside antler spread of 15 inches (outside the ears).

Yuchi Refuge features a muzzleloader hunt each year in October with a 50-hunter quota and another shotgun/muzzleloader hunt in November with a 50-hunter quota. Again, you have to be drawn, but it's worth a look. There's also a wheelchair-bound-only hunt in November with no hunter quota.

REGION IV

Chuck Swan

Chuck Swan WMA has been a top draw, especially for East Tennessee hunters, for decades now. Not only does it remain in the top 10 for deer harvest annually among WMAs, it often breaks into the top 5. Chuck Swan isn't the only WMA in Region IV, but it's by far the best when it comes to quota hunts. The non-quota hunt held there for years was removed a few years back and that change has probably helped with the deer comeback in the last five years. There are not only opportunities to harvest a deer for the freezer, but the occasional big buck still comes out of there, and deer taken are considered bonus whitetails.

There are two archery-only two-day hunts held in October each year with a bag limit of one deer of either sex. The two gun/archery hunts held in late November and early December remain popular draws and are one-deer, buck-only hunts. The muzzleloader/archery hunt held around Thanksgiving often hits during the rutting cycle and is a popular draw as well. It has a bag limit of one deer, buck only. Chuck Swan offers 24,444 acres of hunting surrounded by Norris Lake in Union and Campbell counties.

Outside Options

These Region IV WMAs may not be as attractive as some, but they do offer a lot of time in the woods and an outside option at taking additional deer this fall with primitive weapons. Royal Blue WMA features 50,000 acres of hunting, while adjacent Sundquist WMA has 73,000 acres to hunt, and both are open to deer hunters during the entire statewide season. Also, you can't forget the vast Cherokee WMA with its 625,000 acres, and there are several no hunter quota hunts on the area's several units each season.

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