By Larry Rea
Some people say I shouldn’t be writing this story.
They’d like to keep the Wolf River Wildlife Management Area to themselves, all 7,000 acres of what some say it is the best-kept secret in not only West Tennessee, but also the entire state.
“The more other people hear about it, the worse it’s going to be for people like me,” said Randy Burk of Hernando, Mississippi, who has been hunting on the Wolf River WMA since it opened in 1995. “You aren’t going to make a big deal out of this, are you?”
Sorry, Randy, but the word’s already out.
Or as Wes Winton, the refuge’s manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said, “If you want to come out and kill a deer, this is just about as good a place as there is. And you’ve got a good chance to not only see a big buck, but also kill one.”
Until Oct. 5, 2002, no one was really talking much about the Wolf River WMA, unless it was birdwatchers, who have said for years the area where the WMA is located was a sanctuary for hundreds of species of birds.
Burk, his brother, Mike, and friend, Robert Dismukes, almost had the refuge to themselves . . . other than an occasional early-morning visit by some coon hunters on their way home after a long night of hunting.
But all that changed.
It’s hard to keep a 14-point, non-typical buck a secret.
“I got lucky,” said Jim Nelson. “I was at the right place at the right time.”
Overnight, Nelson’s big buck, which weighed 180 pounds, had put the Wolf River WMA on the deer-hunting radar screen.
“It kinda opened up some people’s eyes,” said Winton, a former TWRA technician at Bridgestone-Firestone WMA in White County who was transferred to the Wolf River WMA in 2002.
It no longer mattered how many deer were killed annually on the refuge, only that it has the capability of producing a trophy buck like the one Nelson killed.
We’re talking about the new big-buck kid on the state block, which, by chance, just happens to be in one of the state’s big bucks hotbed – Fayette County.
Keeping track of actually how many deer have been killed on the refuge since it opened is hard, according to Alan Peterson, big-game biologist for the TWRA based at the Region 1 office in Jackson.
“We have some deer harvest figures for Wolf River (WMA), but I don’t know if we can trust them much,” Peterson said. “Deer hunters check their deer in at county check stations and if they don’t specify to the check station people the deer was killed at Wolf River, it may just be counted as a Fayette County deer.”
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt big deer like Fayette County.
In fact, according to the latest figures compiled for the Tennessee Deer Registry, 28 deer with Boone and Crockett scores ranging from 141 1/8 to 177 1/8 have come out of the county. Several, Peterson says, may have been killed in or near the Wolf River WMA. Since it opened, 57 bucks have been killed here. Nelson’s deer was among 10 killed in 2002.
“We don’t have any buck sizes specific to Wolf River,” Peterson said. “However, Fayette County does produce good bucks in general.”
Including some even bigger than the one Nelson killed?
“That’s more than possible,” Winton said.
Rodney Owen of Memphis won’t argue with that statement.
Owen was Nelson’s hunting buddy the day Nelson killed his big buck, which had an outside antler spread of 18 inches. He even helped Nelson lug the animal out of the woods, which wasn’t easy considering how far back in the woods they were and the size of the deer.
“We were so far back in the sticks that it took a lot of effort to just get to the deer, much less kill it,” Owen said. “But that’s why the Wolf River WMA is such a great place to deer hunt. You’ve got to work at it, but it’s worth all the effort. If you don’t believe me, ask Jim.”
You don’t have to ask Nelson. He’s a believer.
Within a matter of days there were so many copies of photographs of Nelson’s deer that it became better known than some of the area’s politicians. For sure, the photo was the centerpiece photo on the “Wall of Fame” at Glenn’s Deer Processing in Moscow, Tennessee.
“He earned a prominent spot on the board,” said Glenn Hilliard, the business’ owner. “He had a reason to be proud. It kinda put the refuge on the map. Oh, people knew a little about it, but when someone kills a deer like that, the word starts spreading.”
Winton wasn’t surprised to see a buck like Nelson’s show up.
He knows the refuge has unlimited potential for producing big bucks.
But why, you ask?
“We’ve got good habitat,” he answered. “Plus, you can hunt as close to the road as you want to and you can still get as far away from somebody as you want to. It’s just a beautiful place.”
Not only to see deer, but kill them.
“People will go out and see 15 to 30 does in one morning,” Winton said. “They may see a big buck walk by just out of range, too. Our big thing is that we really need to kill some more does. That would really make me happy. We’ve got way too many does. I’d like to one day have as many bucks as does.”
So would Burk, 35, an avid bow-hunter who is perhaps the refuge’s most faithful visitor. He has walked and scouted most of the refuge’s available deer hunting areas.
“It’d be good to get it (doe-to-buck ratio) more balanced,” Burk said. “I’ve got some good deer on tape and my brother has killed a good 12-pointer that scored something like 150 or so.”
Actually, Burk wasn’t all that impressed with Nelson’s deer.
“Don’t get me wrong. It was a decent deer,” he said. “I’m not going to lie about that. But when he put that big photo up, everybod
y saw it and started talking about the refuge. I’d like to keep it a secret. There are some good deer on this refuge that a lot of people have never seen because the majority of hunters I see park and then go, maybe, and I say maybe, 200 or 300 yards to hunt.”
To get to the bigger bucks, Burk says to keep walking.
He estimates that he travels at least a mile to get to his hunting locations, which is about the same distance Nelson went to find his big buck.
Or, as Winton said, “The deer he (Nelson) killed was a good one, but there are some bigger ones out there somewhere. “If somebody wants to come out and kill x-number of bucks, well, that’s fine, but they’ve got to drag them out.”
That’s because four-wheelers and other motorized vehicles are not allowed on Wolf River WMA. For that matter, we’re talking about a refuge where you’d better leave your rifle at home. Other than a one-segment muzzleloading season, it’s archery-only at the Wolf River WMA.
All of which makes deer like the one Nelson killed even more of a prize.
“Rodney and I must have hauled that rascal three-quarters of a mile or more,” said Nelson, who bagged his big buck at 6:10 p.m. “I know the exact time because I looked at my watch. The sun was going down and it was right in the deer’s eyes. He never saw me. But he saw something else. He kept looking back in the woods. To this day, I believe there was a bigger one in the woods watching everything that was going on.”
For sure, you can certainly get up close and personal with a big buck at this refuge. In fact, Nelson’s buck was only about seven yards away from the gum tree where his climbing stand was located . . . 30 feet up.
Nelson says that’s the place – up high – to view all the deer that seem to congregate at the Wolf River WMA, which is located about an hour east of Memphis near LaGrange, Tennessee.
Nelson, who is a salesman and lives in Memphis, says it took less than five seconds for the deer to drop after his perfectly placed heart shot struck the animal.
It is the biggest deer of the 30-plus Nelson has killed with a bow in his career and easily the most memorable, he says. Moments before he shot the big buck, it was “sparring” with a smaller buck.
“The 14-pointer presented his left shoulder to me perfectly as he looked hard over his shoulder back into the woods,” Nelson said. “There was some noise in the woods where the deer came from.”
That’s why Nelson thinks an even bigger deer was watching.
Nelson, who has been hunting deer with a bow for about 19 years, used a bow at 70 pounds draw weight and 29-inch aluminum arrows equipped with 145-grain, four-blade broadheads.
“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime bucks,” said Nelson, who was shooting three-fletch arrows with a shooting glove. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Peterson says Wolf River WMA’s reputation is growing as a hunting destination for not only deer, but also squirrels and other small game, such as raccoons.
“The first year I hunted there I had the hardest time getting used to the coon hunters way back in the bottoms,” Burk said. “I’d find lots of (deer) signs and then when I’d get to a place well before dawn, here would come a coon hunter. It took me about a year or two to get a better grasp of how to hunt the refuge. That’s when I started seeing more and more deer.”
At press time, the TWRA had not determined hunting dates and regulations for 2003. However, Winton says it appears likely the state will allow bowhunting on Wolf River WMA through the second season of the regular gun season. In 2002, the season stopped after the first segment of the gun season.
Also, the TWRA recommended that the refuge be closed on the opening day of the rabbit and quail seasons in 2003. A one-week muzzle-loading season was also recommended for 2003. Check the latest TWRA hunting guide for rules and regulations on the Wolf River WMA.
“It’s pretty wild around here during the muzzleloading season,” Winton said. “We get a lot of pressure during the muzzleloading season. Our close proximity to Memphis (less than an hour away) isn’t a bad thing, but it does create a lot of pressure. If you come out during the week, you’ll be a lot better off.”
To better understand the Wolf River WMA you have to go back to 1995, when the 6,500-acre Beasley Farm was acquired through the collective efforts of state, federal and private organizations and individuals.
That’s also the same year the Wolf River WMA was born.
A portion of the property is designated as the Ghost River State Natural Area by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
“That’s another strong point for the refuge,” Winton said. “The good thing about the refuge is its diversity.”
Not to mention its close proximity to the Wolf River, which borders about eight miles of the refuge’s northern boundary.
It’s an area that includes a wetland system featuring sections of a meandering river channel, shallow over-flow swamps and thick stands of old-growth cypress and tupelo forests. About 2,400 acres are in open fields with about 59 percent of the acreage in the Wolf River floodplain.
Because of its diversity, Winton says a wide range of management initiatives is possible for a variety of species. Not only for deer hunting, but also such activities as fishing, hiking, bird-watching, photography, field trials and canoeing.
“One of the things about the (Wolf River) WMA that I really like is that we are really focused toward the multi-use,” Winton said. “We’ve got a state natural area next to us. It’s not just your standard WMA. We have a lot of neat things.”
Like a 200-yard boardwalk that allows nature lovers to journey into the heart of an area of the refuge known as the Mineral Slough. The boardwalk, which opened in June, was built through the cooperation of the TWRA, TDEC and Wolf River Conservancy.
The best thing about this boardwalk is that it is located within walking distance of one of the refuge’s main roads, Winton says. In fact, despite its remote location, accessibility really isn’t a problem on the Wolf River WMA. That and, of course, the Wolf River.
“The good thing about the Wolf River, especially here in West Tennessee, is that it has not been channelized,” Winton said. “It’s a natural (river) system. It floods like it’s supposed to. It takes care of itself.”
The river also helps hide some big bucks.
“I like to get about as high in a tree as I
can,” Nelson said. “You’ve got plenty of good tree locations on the Wolf River WMA. There are trees everywhere. Deer never see you. Of course, you might not see them either. You really have to keep a close eye out.”
You might need to watch the Weather Channel, too.
Due to its close proximity to the Wolf River, there are areas of the refuge that are prone to flooding.
“When we have a big rain, say 4 inches or so, the bridge at Mineral Slough on Bateman Road is usually under water,” Winton said. “A lot of people ask me about putting boats in and going up and down the river. The Wolf River Conservancy does a good job of keeping the (river’s) canoe trails open . . . but as far as using a small johnboat with a motor, that’d be tough. You aren’t going to get very far.”
And, on top of that, you might get lost.
“We had one guy whose wife called the (agency’s) Jackson office one night about 10 o’clock,” he said with a laugh. “The guy got home about 10:30. We’re not sure what happened to him, but we figured he got lost.”
Kind of like what happens to the refuge’s big bucks?
“Oh, they’re not lost,” Winton said. “They’re just hard to find.”
If you’d like a site map of the Wolf River State Natural Area and Wildlife Management Area, check out the TWRA Web site at www.tnwildlife.org; or call the Tennessee Wildlife Foundation at (615) 831-3480.
Here are the latest deer harvest figures for the Wolf River WMA:
1995 – 25 (15 bucks, 10 does)
1996 – 1 (buck)
1997 – 0
1998 – 24 (10 bucks, 14 does)
1999 – 9 (6 bucks, 3 does)
2000 – 14 (3 bucks, 11 does)
2001 – 21 (12 bucks, 9 does)
2002 – 21 (10 bucks, 11 does)
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