Find Your Turkey In East & Middle Tennessee

Find Your Turkey In East & Middle Tennessee

East and Middle Tennessee offer some of the best public and private lands turkey hunting -- not only in Tennessee, but in all of the South. (April 2006)

Elizabethton's Larry Profitt and I had endured a long early April day. We had been afield in both Carter and Sullivan counties, ambled up mountains, checked out hillsides, walked along creeks and slinked across fields -- all without ever hearing a single gobble. Finally, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Larry told me that he had to attend to business at his family restaurant, the Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City.

However, before departing, Larry instructed me to check out a Sullivan County mountainside where he had permission to hunt. Eager to experience new ground, I scampered up a point and almost immediately began to see fresh turkey scratchings. Slowing my pace, I noticed a mixed flock of gobblers and hens feeding along a bench about 75 yards away. Soon they disappeared over the rim of the mountain.

Perhaps the reason why Larry and I had not heard any birds was because the turkeys were still in their wintertime flocks. If that were the case, I thought, why not just bust up the assemblage as if I were fall hunting? So cresting the mountaintop, I cautiously moved down into a hollow looking for the gang.

Only a few minutes passed before I came across the turkeys, and I quickly charged into their midst. The scatter was a good one, and I set up to call. The sky had been becoming increasingly darker the entire afternoon, and the air was heavy with moisture. So when the booming of thunder began at 4:15, it was no surprise.

Nor was it any surprise when one of the gobblers I had scattered began to answer the thunder. I began to aggressively send hen yelps toward the tom, and he continued to gobble -- although I wasn't sure whether it was in response to my calls or to the continuing thunder. But one thing was for certain: The turkey was approaching my setup.

By 4:45, the gobbler was only 20 yards from my position, but he was on the other side of a hump. My shotgun was shouldered and trained on the top of the hump, and I kept waiting for a head or a fan to rise above the terrain. However, it was at that time that both the thunder and the gobbling ceased. After holding my position for 45 minutes, I walked to the other side of the hump and found it vacant of birds.

That was day one of a three-day excursion into the four-county region of Carter, Sullivan, Washington and Johnson counties in East Tennessee. Although this area had been a place of memorable hunts and punched tags in recent years, I only heard one more gobble (and that one was from a balky tom) during the remaining two days of my sojourn. Allen Ricks, information officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) in East Tennessee, uttered a wry comment when I asked him how he would describe the spring of 2005 in his region of the Volunteer State.

"The spring turkey season in East Tennessee was a bit strange this year," Ricks said. "I had sporadic luck hearing birds gobble. But I was able to take two WMA birds on Catoosa and Chuck Swan."

TOP EASTERN COUNTIES AND PUBLIC LANDS

As Ricks noted, the gobbling patterns of East Tennessee toms were a bit unusual this past spring; nevertheless, he said that the harvest did increase in Region IV from 5,358 in 2004 to 5,746 in 2005, an overall rise of 7.2 percent. In fact, of the 21 eastern counties, 17 sported harvest increases. Alphabetically, some of the counties with the most remarkable surges (with harvest figures and percent increases in parentheses) were Blount (170, 18.9 percent), Cocke (424, 12.2 percent), Grainger (368, 11.9 percent), Hamblen (144, 11.6 percent), Hancock (229, 32.4 percent) and Hawkins (674, 12.5 percent).

Also impressive were Knox (129, 24.0 percent), Monroe (153, 16.8 percent), Sevier (256, 28.0 percent), Sullivan (270, 23.3 percent), Union (189, 64.3 percent) and Washington (235, 47.8 percent). Interestingly, some of the highest kill counties experienced very little difference in harvest. This may indicate that these counties already host solid turkey populations, and that the flocks there have stabilized, as the birds already have expanded into all available habitat.

A county that is a good example of this supposition is Greene, which led all eastern counties in the overall kill in 2005. Yet Greene County only experienced a 6.8 percent increase from 776 to 829. But the reason for this small increase was that the county already was boasting a phenomenal turkey harvest every season. The aforementioned Hawkins finished second, with its harvest rising from 599 to 674, while the third place finisher, Claiborne, was another county that showed very little harvest change. The harvest in Claiborne changed from 540 to 546, a rise of just 1.1 percent. Rounding out the top six were Cocke that went from 378 to 424, Grainger from 329 to 368, and Jefferson, which increased from 312 to 329, a rise of 5.4 percent.

Regarding public lands, the Cherokee National Forest dominates East Tennessee landscape. Back in the 1980s, I hunted East Tennessee for the first time. When I decided to go there, I studied maps to see which counties contained national forest land. In 2003, I killed a Cherokee gobbler in Washington County and also worked a bird there this past spring.

Of course, in the Cherokee, sportsmen sometimes have company along with the birds with which they are dueling. For example, this past spring I heard a gobbler and quickly set up on him. But during the calling process, I began to hear "hen" yelps. While I was debating whether those yelps were actually coming from a turkey, I heard a shot and someone whoop -- two sure signs in the South that someone has tagged a tom.

I must emphasize that the individual that scored was in no way interfering with my outing, as neither one of us knew that the other was present. I also must proclaim that both of us happened to be afield near an access road. Whenever I have trekked deep into the Cherokee National Forest, I have never experienced any competition or even have seen any other hunters.

Region 4 hosts five WMAs, and, cumulatively, their harvests rose from 197 in 2004 to 206 in 2005, a slight uptick of 4.6 percent. The Chuck Swan State Forest in Union County saw its harvest decline slightly from 97 to 91, while the Foothills saw its rise from 0 to 8. The Holston AAP declined from 18 to 14, while the Royal Blue WMA in Campbell and Scot counties increased from 60 to 65, and the Sundquist WMA in Campbell County went from 22 to 28.

TOP REGION III COUNTIES AND PUBLIC LANDS

Last year, the overall harvest in Region III dropped slightly from 5,183 to 5,156, a miniscule slip of 0.5 percent. Of the 24 counties, 17 experienced harvest increases. Alphabetically, some of the most impressive increases took place in Bledsoe (178, 14.8 percent), Clay (354, 12.4 pe

rcent), McMinn (73, 15.9 percent), Overton (364, 18.6 percent), Putnam (264, 16.8 percent) and Scott (364, 15.2 percent).

As is true in Region IV, the top harvest counties often don't show the largest increases from year to year. In Region III, Jackson was the top kill county with its tally increasing from 524 to 554, a 5.7 percent increase. Fifth place finisher Dekalb even recorded a major harvest decline of 20.4 percent from 442 to 352. In between were the aforementioned Overton and Scott, which were tied for second and Clay in fourth place.

In Region III, the regional WMAs recorded a harvest drop of 357 to 318, a slip of 10.9 percent. The Cherokee suffered a major drop of 27.3 percent from 154 to 112, as did the Catoosa from 122 to 108, a decline from 122 to 108. Conversely, Prentice Cooper surged from 34 to 48 (a plus of 41.2 percent) and Oak Ridge went from 35 to 38, a rise of 8.6 percent.

TOP MIDDLE TENNESSEE COUNTIES AND PUBLIC LANDS

Region II spans the midsection of the Volunteer State and often hosts counties that are among the statewide leaders. Overall, 13,015 turkeys were checked in this region, a slight move upward of 0.1 percent from 13,004 in 2004. Dickson certainly falls into this upper echelon category, as it was the top finisher in the region and state with 982, a modest increase from 927, a rise of 5.9 percent.

Alphabetically, the counties showing the most promising increases were Coffee (247 to 287, an increase of 16.2 percent), Moore (118 to 135, a rise of 14.4 percent), Sumner (511 to 603, plus 18.0 percent) and Wayne (806 to 887, an increase of 10 percent). After Dickson, the top counties were Wayne, Montgomery (877 to 864, minus 1.5 percent), Maury (741 to 649, minus 12.4 percent), Williamson (614 to 643, plus 4.7 percent) and Hickman (643 to 628, minus 2.3 percent).

The Middle Tennessee WMAs saw a precipitous decline of 32.1 percent from 683 to 464. Fort Campbell led the harvest parade with 180, but the kill was down mightily, 346 to 180 -- a plunge of 48 percent. In fact, most of the major Middle Tennessee WMAs showed significant drops: AEDC (83 to 78, a 6 percent change), Cheatham (108 to 84, minus 22.2 percent), Eagle Creek (33 to 24, down 27.3 percent) and Yanahli (50 to 35, a skid of 30 percent).

A LOOK AHEAD

Russ Skoglund, the wildlife manager for Region III, describes the turkey population in Middle Tennessee as being "abundant." A very important consideration on how good the 2006 spring season in this region will be is what the hatches were like in 2003 and 2004. That's because 3-year-old and especially 2-year-old males are the main quarries of hunters. In any given year in any state, 2-year-old gobblers almost always constitute the majority of the turkey harvest.

"The poult per hen ratio should be about 2.7 to maintain the existing population," Skoglund said. "In 2003, the poult per hen ration was 2.4 and in 2004 it was 3.0. This indicates at least a stable population with slight growth possible. The 2005 hatch season, however, was hot and dry."

The results might be down, continued the biologist, because of those conditions, but at press time, he was unable to make a definitive prediction on how the 2005 hatch turned out. In any event, the 2005 hatch will have more of an effect on the 2007 season than it will on the 2006 one. Moderate weather, that is, warm and dry conditions, is much better for poults than cold and wet or hot and overly dry weather.

For this season, Skoglund predicted that the top public lands in the past should be just as productive. Among the upper echelon choices are Percy Priest, Cheatham, Fort Campbell, Laurel Hill, Yanahli, AEDC and Land Between The Lakes, he said. Look for counties such as Dickson, Giles, Wayne and Montgomery to remain hotspots.

For East Tennessee, David M. Brandenburg, TWRA biologist, offered the following.

"I do not have any info on the 2005 hatch and do not know how the 2004 and 2005 hatch will affect the 2006 season," he told me. "Additionally, I do not like to speculate on hunting seasons. However, looking at the past, harvest records have been set nearly every year. In 2000, our strategic plan projected the statewide turkey harvest for 2005 would be approximately 22,000 birds and we have exceeded that estimate by 11,000 birds. If the past is any indication of the future, then I would expect the 2006 harvest to be a good one."

Allen Ricks listed the following public lands as likely providing quality outings this spring: Chuck Swan State Forest, Royal Blue WMA, Sundquist WMA. Look for Greene, Grainger, Hawkins, Jackson, Dekalb, Overton and Scott to be among the most productive counties once again. And although turkey numbers on the Cherokee National Forest aren't what they are on private land, no private property can top the Cherokee in terms of elbow room.

Allen Ricks was right; the 2005 season was a bit strange. On my third day in East Tennessee last spring, Larry Profitt and I returned to the same bench where two days before I had encountered over a dozen turkeys. Although we scoured both sides of the mountain, no birds were in the area, and all the turkey scratchings we found were at least two days old. Larry even speculated that the reason the birds had disappeared was because they had been busted -- something that is perhaps a bit strange for East Tennessee spring gobblers to experience.

We can only hope that the temporary weirdness of last spring is over, and that the hunting in Middle and East Tennessee will return to normal -- as if anything about turkey hunting can ever be considered to be the norm.

SEASON DATES

This year, the statewide spring gobbler season runs from April 1 through May 14. The statewide limit is one bearded bird per day, four per season. A statewide Youth Hunt, open to kids from 6 to 16, will be on March 25 and 26. The limit is one bearded gobbler for the two-day season. Every youth must be accompanied by a non-hunting adult, 21 years of age or older. WMAs are not open for this season unless listed as open during the statewide season.

Hunting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset unless otherwise listed. For complete information on these and other turkey season related topics, consult the Web site www.tnwildlife.org.

IF YOU GO

Jonesborough in Washington County is a marvelous place for sportsmen to use as a base. This small town is close to some excellent hunting in the northeastern corner of the state, as well as the Cherokee National Forest. For planning a trip, contact the Historic Jonesborough Cooperative (866) 401-4223; visit the Web site, www.historicjonesborough.com. Places in Jonesborough where my wife and I have stayed and can recommend include the Hawley House, (800) 753-8869; the Eureka Hotel, (877) 734-6100; Cherokee Mountain Llama B&B, (423) 913-2781; Franklin House B&B, (423) 753-3819 and the Climbing Rowes, (423) 423-913-2229. Numerous quality family owned restaurants can be found in the town.

Another excellent source of information is the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 852-3392; www.johnsoncitytn.com. A goo

d place to visit for planning an East Tennessee hunt is Mahoney's Outfitters in Johnson City, (423) 282-5413 or (800) 835-5152. Unlike the super stores, Mahoney's actually has store personnel who are avid fishermen and hunters and can provide valuable tips. The phone numbers for the TWRA offices in Middle Tennessee are (615) 781-6622 and (800) 624-7406; and in East Tennessee, they are (423) 587-7037 and (800) 332-0900. Visit the Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.

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