The pre-dawn sun was beginning to make the woods come to life, as the trees became more than silhouettes against the morning sky. I could finally make out individual limbs against the glowing backdrop, and I strained for any sound that might give up the presence of roosting turkeys.
I was standing high atop a skyscraping ridge in the South Cherokee portion of the Cherokee National Forest, and a hit on my crow call drew a response from a gobbler on the ridge directly in front. My box call drew another response, a thunderous gobble that let me know this guy was more than interested in a meeting. The sound of flapping wings coming off the roost started my heart into overdrive, and each call I made was met with a response that echoed off the ridges.
I could tell he had flown across the valley instead of walking, further confirming that he was soon to be in view. I hurried down the steep ridge to a point that I thought would put me close, but not too close, to where he had landed. I gave a soft call to further pinpoint him, and his gobbles let me know that he was only a few yards away, but I knew the steep drop into the valley would keep him hidden until the final moments. Fighting the urge to "talk" to him too much, I silenced my calls, and let him strut into view. Squeezing the trigger seemed anti-climactic, considering the show he had just provided. The morning was capped by catching a limit of trout from a creek that meandered along the road that led home, and I could not have been more satisfied with my morning spent in the mountains of east Tennessee.
Tennessee is blessed with hundreds of thousands of acres of mountainous public land that is open during the Tennessee statewide turkey season, though some are open only on certain dates or open during quota hunts. The mountain turkey population is at its zenith right now, and using the right tactics in the right place will put you in range of these birds.
CHUCK SWAN STATE FOREST
Dustin McCubbins, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency manager for Chuck Swan Wildlife Management Area, is very positive about the current population and future of turkeys on this mountainous peninsula on Norris Lake.
"Turkey populations seem to be increasing slightly," said McCubbins. "We seem to have had a decent hatch, better than 2015-16."
With five quota hunts, and 150 people on each hunt, 75 birds were harvested in 2017, and 71 in 2016, which indicates an increase since 2013, when 48 birds were harvested.
Located in Union and Campbell counties, Chuck Swan's 24,000 acres can go from rolling ridges to very steep hollows, testing the will of even seasoned hunters. With hardwood forests throughout, turkeys have plenty of habitat and roosting areas. Within these hardwoods, there are patches of pine thickets that the birds love to use as roosting areas. Scout before the hunt to find several pine thickets close together for a great starting point. Use a crow call or box call to see if birds are roosted in a particular thicket. If not, move to another.
Once a roosting thicket is found, the approach can become fairly simple; looking at a topographical map of the area reveals that steep ridges run like "fingers" through the area, with creek bottoms between the ridges. Position at the bottom of one of these ridges, adjacent to the pine thicket the birds are roosted in, and begin calling. Birds can often be heard flying down the ridge, even without calling, so be ready.
South Cherokee is a hidden gem that is avoided by many hunters due to the challenge of its topography, providing enough land to hunt without seeing another soul. This 250,000-acre parcel of federal land can make a hunter believe he has gone back in time, as some of it is still in virgin timber. South of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and bordering the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, South Cherokee is loaded with gobblers. The approach to bagging a turkey in this wilderness is a little different than other areas, but the sheer number of birds keeps the action hot most days.
The most efficient method to begin any spring morning is to start high on one of the numerous ridges on the Citico or Tellico side of the mountain. Clucks and purrs will carry a long way, as the valleys act as funnels for calls. Responding gobblers may seem close, and "as the crow flies," they may be, but walking in their direction will, more than likely, lead hunters down a rhododendron choked valley and back up another mountain. So be sure to call when heading toward the bird to reduce the number of steps and chances of spooking the bird.
Once mountain turkeys decide to chase a hen, most times, they will come at a fever pitch. This being said, resist the urge to call too much. Call just enough to let him zero, and be prepared for him to appear at a moment's notice. In mountain country like South Cherokee, birds can be really close, but unseen due to topography.
With the best access being via Monroe County, South Cherokee is open with the statewide seasons, and is also home to stocked trout streams, many of which parallel the forest service roads. Also know wild hogs and bears call this place home, so don't be shocked if one of these critters wander through.
Mixing with the topography of the Cumberland Plateau, and located in Cumberland and Morgan counties, Catoosa WMA is known best for its deer hunting, but this 79,000-acre spread is home to a huge population of turkeys. Daddys Creek, Crab Orchard Creek and the Emory River, all part of the Obed River system, have carved huge valleys, bluffs and ravines in this portion of Tennessee, creating a mountain habitat similar to that in the eastern portion of the state. Split into two segments, Bicolor and Genesis, for management purposes, Catoosa presents hunters with a mixture of hardwoods, pine thickets and open fields.
Much like Chuck Swan, Catoosa turkeys love to roost in the many pine thickets that dot the area. Catoosa, however, has more fields, and turkeys will feed in these fields, especially early in the morning. Finding one of these pine thickets on the side of a ridge that overlooks a morning feeding area can be a "sweet spot" on Catoosa, as turkeys love to use gravity to glide into feeding areas as the sun first breaks over the horizon. Often, the TWRA will disc a field at Catoosa in preparation for planting, and turkeys love to feed in this turned soil. With proper scouting, gobblers can be killed on their way to their food source without ever picking up a call.
There are six, three-day hunts that take place in April, giving hunters ample opportunities to bag a bird. There is also a juvenile hunt in the middle of April. There are primitive campgrounds for hunters that might want to stay more than one day, and the forest service roads are well maintained throughout the area.
Located in Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne and Morgan counties, North Cumberland WMA is an outdoorsman's playground, with 189,000 acres available, all of which are open to turkey hunters with the statewide seasons. To be successful in this vast area, the first step is to not try and hunt the entire area all at once.
Start by getting a good map, picking an area and learning that section well. The best time to do this is after the deer season when the leaves are still off the trees, so topography and food sources can be seen.
There are turkeys here, but the high-rising mountains can make it difficult, acoustically, to pinpoint a gobbler once he answers a call. The echoes from ridge to ridge can fool even the most seasoned hunter. There are numerous valleys and creek bottoms that can channel calls, as well as the gobbles of responding birds.
Set up at the bottom of these draws and where the creeks lead out of a valley, and let the acoustics of the hillsides help locate the bird. These are rugged mountains to be sure, but hunters have the opportunity to be secluded, and hunt birds that have never seen another human being, or heard the sounds of a box or slate call.
There are numerous trails on North Cumberland. Some require a four-wheel-drive, some an ATV, and some are only passable on foot. The best hunting for turkeys is tough to access. These places can be located on a topographical map before ever leaving the house, and then scouted on the ground. Camping is allowed over the entire area, so that is an option for staying overnight.
For hunters that are willing to put forth the effort, hunting for turkeys in the mountains will be rewarding. In most cases, you aren't going to be able to just drive to your location, get out of your truck, walk a few steps and shoot a turkey; there is effort involved. There is also a learning curve, as the sheer size of the mountains can be overwhelming to a hunter that is accustomed to flatter, or even more rolling terrain.
Once success is achieved, however, you will find yourself addicted to the solitude of the endeavor, and your favorite hunting ground for turkey, and probably most big game, will become the mountains of Tennessee.