Tennessee's Public Land Turkey Prospects

The Volunteer State has a lot of areas of public land open to turkey hunting. But that doesn't mean they're all created equal! Let's see which should stand out this year.

Regardless of how many gobblers are on the WMA, the proof of the pudding is getting one into gun range. Photo by John E. Phillips.

With the onset of the spring turkey season upon us, Volunteer State hunters are faced with the annual challenge of picking where to look for a gobbler. For many that is on the family farm, the hunt club or leased land.

For many more it means picking out a patch of Tennessee's public hunting land. With 41 tracts from which to choose, that task may not be as simple as it might appear. Those wildlife management areas, refuges and other government-controlled properties come in many sizes and with a variety of regulations.

On the other hand, for some hunters the choice is as simple as heading to the closest WMA. Schedules and costs often mandate staying local and saving gas.

If you have the luxury of traveling for your turkey action, it is probably more important to pick out the destination that offers the best bets for downing a mature bronze baron of the woodlands.

Although past history never ensures a repeat performance, what has gone before is often our best or only way of guessing where the hottest hunts are likely to take place this season. For that reason, we've looked at the turkey hunting success on Tennessee's public lands during a five-year period from 2005 to 2009. During that stretch, 6153 gobblers were taken on public land. With a database of that size, the statistics should tell a reliable story.

Based on the data available we can see which tracts have been producing the most gobblers on a year-in, year-out basis. Also, it's possible to see how each of those is trending. We can identify those WMAs where the harvest is improving, declining or remaining stable.

Based on that information, here's a look at the best 10 prospects on public land for finding a tom this year.

CHEROKEE

This one can be a bit misleading. Suggesting a hunting trip in the Cherokee WMA, which covers the property in the Cherokee National Forest, is a bit like suggesting you just go turkey hunting in East Tennessee. After all, this WMA covers 650,000 acres of mountain woodlands in 10 counties along the eastern edge of the state.

But, the fact remains that the area produces more turkeys than any other public land in the state. In the five years beginning in 2005 Cherokee gave up 960 toms, for an average of 192 per year. Also, with 235 killed in 2009, the trend is upward. The two previous seasons the harvest had been below 190 per year.

It's worth noting that the Cherokee WMA is actually managed as two tracts -- the north and south. In 2009 the South Cherokee, which is comprised of 250,000 acres, accounted for 150 of the 235 birds taken.

LAND BETWEEN THE LAKES

This tract takes in the property of the Land Between the Lake National Recreation Area in the western part of the state. Although the LBL covers a total of 170,000 acres, most are in Kentucky. The WMA tract in Tennessee stretches across 60,000 acres. All of that property lies in Stewart County.

For the five-year period this WMA gave up a total of 553 gobblers, giving it an average harvest of 111 turkeys. The kill rate on the tract has been very stable in recent years, ranging from a low o 91 to a high of 124. For 2009 it was at 110 toms, almost exactly on the average.

CHUCK SWAN

This WMA is composed of property belonging to the Chuck Swan State Forest. The tract covers 24,444 acres of woodlands in Union and Bell counties in the northeast corner of the state.

The WMA averaged giving up 106 gobblers per season for the past five years, for a total kill of 530 birds. Back in 2006 there was a one-year jump to 150 turkeys taken, but the norm has been around 90 per year. In 2009 the harvest was 105, so the trend here is on the increase.

Those numbers are more impressive when you consider that the WMA is open only during seven, three-day hunts each year.

MILAN ARSENAL

The Milan Arsenal tract covers 28,000 acres in Gibson and Carroll counties in the northwest quadrant of Tennessee. The land surrounds the Department of Defense facilities, which manufacture mortar shells and grenades for the armed services.

The five-year average of gobblers killed on the area was 93 turkeys. The total taken was 465 toms. The heaviest gobbler downed on the property last year tipped the scales at 25 pounds.

Although the actual annual harvest for the period has run in the high 80 to 90 range, it's worth noting that in 2010 the take fell to just 66 birds. That decline is not mirrored in hunter effort. For both 2009 and 2010 the hunts on the area drew a few more than 500 hunters during the season. That apparently indicates a declining harvest trend on the property.

CATOOSA

This WMA, located in the Cumberland Plateau region of the state, covers 79,740 acres, providing plenty of room for hunters to spread out in their search for a turkey. The tract is situated in Cumberland and Morgan counties.

This is another area that hosts one youth and just six other hunts in the spring. Each of those runs for three days.

The five-year average for Catoosa is 91 gobblers harvested, for a total of 455. However, for virtually the entire period the take has been declining. In 2009, only 77 toms were felled. That's down from a peak of 114 in 2006. The trend here appears to be one of decline.

CHEATHAM

Cheatham WMA lies on the south side of the Cumberland River near the town of Ashland City. It spreads across Cheatham County in the mid-section of the state. In total it comprises 20,810 acres of land.

In all, 414 toms were harvested on the tract during the previous five seasons. That resulted in an average of 83 turkeys per season. In fact, the kill here has been in a very narrow range for most of that time. In 2006, which was a banner year all across the state, the harvest jumped to 98, but has been near the norm for the other years. In 2009 the kill was 84 toms.

AEDC

The Arnold Engineering Development Center is located in middle Tennessee on 32,000 acres in Coffee and Franklin counties, between Manchester and Tullahoma. This is a military in

stallation, with access to hunting closely controlled and monitored.

This is another area where the harvest average data suggests a declining trend. In 2005 to 2007 the tract yielded season totals ranging from 73 to 99 gobblers. Since then the take has fallen.

The five-year average for AEDC is 74 birds, with a total of 369 killed. The 2009 kill, however was just 66.

YANAHLI

The Yanahli WMA is one of the smaller tracts of land on the list, at just 12,800 acres. It lies in the center of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's Region II, totally contained in Maury County and southeast of the town of Columbia.

Despite its size, this is a destination to consider. The trend line for turkey harvest here has risen for the past half decade. In all, the tract has given up 217 toms in the period, ranging from 35 in 2005 to 60 in 2009. The average harvest has been 43 birds per year.

LAUREL HILL

The Laurel Hill WMA lies in Lawrence County, to the west of the town of Lawrenceburg. It is another relatively small tract covering 14,952 acres, which includes it Shields Farm Unit. It is, however, open for turkey hunting throughout the regular statewide spring season, so hunting opportunities are abundant here.

With regards to harvests, for the five-year period the tract yielded 172 toms. The average per season stood at 34 gobblers.

The trend of the harvest sends a bit of a mixed message on this WMA. In 2005 and 2006 the property gave up 53 and 44 birds respectively. That dropped to just 27 and 18 during the next two seasons. In 2009 it rebounded to 30 turkeys. So, the jury is still out on where the turkey hunting is headed at Laurel Hill.

OAK RIDGE

The final WMA rounding out the list of 10 is Oak Ridge. This tract is located in the Cumberland Plateau region in Roane and Anderson counties. In total it spreads across 37,000 acres of woodlands. This is another federal tract of land that has stringent regulations on entry.

For the five-year period a total of 164 gobblers were harvest here. That averages out to 33 birds per season. For the entire stretch of years the harvest has been very stable.

That stability and the size of the harvest are both rather surprising when you consider that the WMA holds just two turkey hunts each spring and they last for just two days each. That means an average of more than eight gobblers per day were killed for the five years.

Despite the stability mentioned earlier, the trend here has to be considered on the up swing. For 2010 the area yielded 53 gobblers or close to double the average. Of those only five were jakes, with the rest being mature birds.

Another interesting trend is the size of the gobblers. The five-year average in weight for turkeys killed on Oak Ridge was 18.8 pounds. For 2010, the average bird weighed in at 19.5 pounds.

SUMMING IT UP

There you have it -- a look at the top 10 producing public land tracts in Tennessee for turkeys over the last five years. The data suggests any of these should be prime spot for bagging an old bronze baron this spring.

If you try one of these this month, you might help continue the trends!

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