By Larry Self
It’s August and deer season draws closer everyday. You’re looking for a place to hunt (or a backup for the place you already have). You pull out of the driveway after knocking on the third door of the morning – another answer of no.
Even the land you killed your first deer on when you were a kid is now leased by a hunting club. Just when you think your hunting opportunities have gone the way of dinosaurs, your chances could be saved by a select group of hunting properties that offer what you’ve been searching for: public hunting areas (PHAs).
Ask any deer hunter around about deer hunting on wildlife management areas and you’ll get a fairly informed answer. Ask the same hunter about the closest public hunting land to him and you may get a look of confusion. Hundreds of hunters utilize public hunting areas every season, but more than that number don’t realize the opportunity afforded them.
There are thousands of acres of public hunting lands in a dozen or more counties in three of Tennessee’s hunting regions. PHAs are often overlooked, underutilized and are unfortunately slowly disappearing. Here’s where and what to look for if you and your usual deer-hunting property have parted ways.
“For years, hunters have read in major outdoor publications that public hunting lands are overcrowded and should be avoided if a hunter wanted a quality hunt,” noted Dave Gabbard, TWRA Region I information coordinator. “This is not the case for the majority of lands available for public hunting. Some of our lands receive very little hunting pressure throughout the season and can offer Tennessee hunters an excellent opportunity for a good day afield.”
One aspect that makes hunting easy on PHAs is that they’re open on the same dates as statewide seasons. Another is that the same equipment is allowed as is generally allowed in the county where the PHA is located.
One slight management drawback is that PHA deer are checked at county check stations, making it difficult to track harvest numbers. It’s hard to determine the productivity of a particular PHA because harvest figures can’t be directly tied to individual PHAs. Hunters who bag deer on PHAs need to remember those animals count toward their statewide bag limit.
Further discussions with Gabbard and Alan Peterson, TWRA deer biologist for Region I, revealed the Heartwood PHA in Perry and Wayne counties differs from some public opportunities in the South in that the number of deer here is greater than the number of hunters. Peterson said the lay of the land consists of hardwood ridges with some clearcuts that have been replanted with pines.
The cuts range from 50 to 200 acres. The pine trees on the clearcuts are about 5 years old, so visibility is starting to be restricted in the cuts. Heartwood has been selectively cutting the timber since they have owned the property. No specific food plots are on the property, leaving the deer to rely primarily on mast and browse.
Perry County wildlife officer Richard Stockdale said the tracts are just not hunted that much. The going can get tough, given the terrain, but the hunting opportunity can be worth the effort.
The toughness is related to location. The hunting tracts are in the southern part of the county where the terrain is rugged. Stockdale said hunters who do make the effort to scout and hunt this PHA kill some good deer. Perry County is one of the least populated counties in West Tennessee, but it holds a lot of deer.
Earlier in the year, Region II lost nearly 150,000 acres from the PHA program.
TWRA Region II information and education officer Doug Markham said the agency lost over half of the acreage allotment in the International Paper PHA. Of the 60,000 acres International Paper land available for public hunting last season, only a little over 28,000 acres will remain this year.
An even worse case of land lost from public access is that of the Weyerhaeuser PHA in seven Middle Tennessee counties. More than 111,000 acres are being leased to private clubs and individuals.
“The paper companies figured they could make more money off leasing the land to hunting groups then they were from individual hunting permits,” said Markham. He said the recent losses have cut Middle Tennessee’s PHA properties to about 28,000 acres of permitted land open now to hunters. Markham also pointed out that hunters can still contact the timber companies about leasing options.
Markham said the agency has at times planted food plots on Middle Tennessee PHAs and created habitat suited for big game. With the loss of land, he expects that to decrease somewhat. Markham explained that Middle Tennessee PHAs have regenerating clearcuts, which can be very good for wildlife as those cuts begin to grow back. The remaining PHA properties do have plenty of ridges, hilly terrain and bottoms. Middle Tennessee has historically the state’s highest deer harvest, and PHA lands are located in the area’s best counties for deer hunting.
“The public hunting lands program has been great for hunters,” concluded Markham. “However, many lands are beginning to be taken out of the traditional permit system and placed in a leasing program. This is unfortunate, but is brought about for economic reasons.”
Region IV has never been the whitetail deer stronghold in Tennessee. But with continued disappearance of public hunting lands in the rest of the state, Tackett Creek’s 51,000 acres may get something it hasn’t always seen a lot of: attention from deer hunters.
The 51,000 acres of fairly difficult deer-hunting terrain in Campbell and Claiborne counties have for a few years now been recognized by biologists and others as a good deer opportunity, including decent bucks for those willing to take the Tackett Creek challenge.
The Tackett Creek property isn’t far from the Kentucky state line and has its share of steep hunting ground. Hunters need to note that Resources Management Inc. is no longer managing the property, as was the case in the last couple of years. Current information is available through the Region IV office.
A complete listing of Tennessee public hunting lands and the rules and regulations that apply to them
can be found in the 2004 Tennessee Hunting and Trapping Guide available at all TWRA offices or wherever hunting licenses are sold. Hunters can also go online at www.tnwildlife.org. Local businesses that sell permits near PHAs are listed in the guide.
- Heartwood PHA – Permit costs $15 for adults and $12.50 for persons under 16 and over 65. Maps are included in the price. Contact the TWRA Region I Office at (731) 423-5725 for more information.
- International Paper PHA – Permit costs $25 for adults and is free to persons with a juvenile license or those over 65. A permit can be obtained through the mail by writing Permit Request, International Paper, P.O. Box 1060, Waynesboro, TN 38485. A map is included. Send a certified check or money order along with full name, address, license number and a self-addressed stamped envelope with 75 cents postage. Call the Region II office at (615) 781-6622.
- Tackett Creek PHA – Permits and maps available at local businesses and the Region IV office. For more information, contact the Region IV office at (423) 587-7037.
If you really want to get a jump on deer hunting, there is an additional opportunity. For the past few seasons, the Ocoee Unit of the South Cherokee Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Region IV and the Prentice Cooper WMA in Region III host archery hunts before the statewide opening day in Unit B.
Allen Ricks, Region IV’s information and education officer, said the reasoning behind the two WMAs’ early starts is that both of the areas now have fairly low archery participation, and this management move encourages more hunters to go.
Bow season traditionally opens across the state the fourth weekend of September. South Cherokee’s early opportunity is a nine-day hunt that normally opens the weekend prior to the statewide opening date. The archery hunt is two-fold with a limit of one deer of either sex and one boar of either sex.
Prentice Cooper holds three-day archery hunts leading up to the statewide opener. The first hunt usually falls the weekend before opening weekend and is a quota hunt that typically draws 500 hunters with a bag limit of one deer of either sex. There are two more three-day hunts that have no hunter quota, with a limit of one deer of either sex.
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