The first opportunity for hunters to pursue deer each year is with a bow, and Tennessee has many places for bowhunters. In fact, there are some locations where only bowhunting is allowed.
It's nearly silent on a clear dark morning except for the fading buzz of mosquitos being pushed back by the Thermacell.
It's comfortable in the treestand, not only from the physical elements of a soft cushion and warm air, but the mental aspect as well.
Long ago, when I was introduced to hunting, I only entered the woods to kill. Nowadays it's my retreat from life.
At daybreak, the woods come to life along with my senses, which are no longer dulled by the noise created by society. The only sounds are squirrel barks, cardinal whistles and the beating wings of wood ducks along the river.
Even though I've been bowhunting for 20-plus years, I still get the shakes when a shot presents itself.
I'm not talking about a big buck either. A doe at 15 yards can send me into a tailspin if I think about it too long. That kind of excitement and fear is what keeps the drive alive. It's the essence of hunting with stick and string rather than a tool that burns powder.
Once deer season ends, hunters often feel lost for the first week or two. Then, after catching up on sleep and regaining balance, they realize that fishing and turkey season are around the corner, so life isn't too bad, especially since deer season isn't that far away, and Tennessee is full of opportunities.
Now when I lived on my little family farm in south-central Tennessee, I took for granted being able to hunt seven days of week and getting to my makeshift office within minutes of leaving the stand. It was convenient not only from that point but also the fact that I knew the lay of the land, and that I'd be the only human presence around. Now that I'm in Nashville, I've been reduced to the occasional weekend and holiday when I'm able to make it back to the farm.
Because of that, like many people, I now have to feed my addiction by hitting one of the many Tennessee wildlife management areas or some other public land. It takes some work and a bit of fortitude to muster the energy to first find what's close and pick up the phone to make inquiries about the lay of the land, deer numbers, harvest rate, etc. Thankfully, that extra labor pays dividends.
Most WMA managers are outdoor men and women who are happy to answer questions and provide pointers about their areas; most people just never ask.
These folks are also on the property seeing where game is present, as well as where and how folks are hunting. According to most managers, the average hunter never ventures very far from the roads, actually leaving the best hunting spots virtually untouched. Given that this is the case, the biggest piece of advice provided by them is go further and find the deer. If you do, the reward may just be something you'd never expect to hang on your wall.
Just east of Memphis in Fayette County, along the Wolf River, is a honey hole called Wolf River Wildlife Management Area. Fayette County has long been known among Tennessee bowhunters to produce quality bucks. The county also has a healthy population with a high annual harvest rate.
Besides a two-week muzzleloader season, Wolf River WMA is bowhunting only. According to Wolf River's manager, Brandon Gilbert, very few hunters stick around once the rifle season begins.
"Only a handful of bowhunters stick around," Gilbert said. "It's kind of crazy. Rifle season opens and the place becomes abandoned."
This means that Wolf River is a good place for dedicated bowhunters to try, as Gilbert says that the few bowhunters that continue to hunt when everyone else leaves are the ones who consistently kill big bucks.
"The thing about this area is that the rut kicks in a week or two after Christmas, yet it's like a ghost town," Gilbert said. "And the majority of those don't want to get too far from the parking lot."
He also says that one of the best areas to hunt is near the WMA office in La Grange. Gilbert sees big bucks on a consistent basis, especially during the rut when they chase does freely throughout the property, unpressured by human presence. For best results, hunters just need to get deeper in the woods than most are willing to go.
The Standing Stone State Forest was acquired by the state of Tennessee back in 1955 and became a state forest in 1961 through lands purchased by the Resettlement Administration and deeded over to the Volunteer State. It is located about 20 miles north of Cookeville, on the Eastern Highland Rim in Overton and Clay counties. When acquired, the land was badly eroded and degraded due to poor agricultural practices, timber harvests, high grading and frequent fires.
As deer were reintroduced to the Southeastern United States and found their way into properties like Standing Stone, the area became a favorite destination for deer hunters. At just under 8,500 acres, the state forest had a high annual harvest rate until bluetongue intervened, decimating the population. However, the herd is healing and coming back to the numbers that once drew hunters.
"This is a great spot for bowhunters," said Larry Hull, Standing Stone State Forest forest technician. "The hardwoods are extremely accessible and we plant fields with warm season grasses like clover, orchard grass and others."
Hunters need to be sure to start scouting early, as the area can get crowded. But according to Hull, those who find spots away from the crowd are going to see deer.
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The Cumberland Mountains in eastern Tennessee provides the backdrop for one of the most beautiful areas the state has to offer. In fact, the 189,000-acre North Cumberland WMA (formerly known as Royal Blue WMA and Sundquist WMA) encompasses much of the area, making it one of the largest areas open to deer hunters, anglers, bird watchers, nature enthusiasts and even elk hunters.
"North Cumberland WMA has a good deer population year after year," said Tim White, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife biologist.
During the archery season, hunters can take one antlerless deer and one buck. During the 2015-16 season, 198 bucks of 9 points or greater were taken off of North Cumberland. While the area requires some work, hiking up and down mountains and wading creeks, it is easy to forget the toil when just around the next bend is a vista leading to the most beautiful sites in the world. Bowhunting North Cumberland is truly an adventure to behold.
Camping is permitted on the entire WMA, providing a good way to get away from the onslaught of hunters who don't push farther than a few hundred yards from the parking lot; just be sure to carry a map — most public land maps can be found online — a compass and possibly a GPS unit. For bowhunters, being able to get away from the common areas is always a huge advantage. Even though the archery season doesn't open until the last week of September, it's well worth the wait. North Cumberland WMA is known for its steep mountainsides and rugged terrain, which means it's also known for housing big deer. Those willing to put forth the effort and be persistent have chances of a trophy buck early in the season when hunting pressure is low.
Regardless of where you find yourself bowhunting this September, always exude safety, especially on public land. Having some orange — required during firearm and muzzleloading seasons — and hunting with a buddy are good ideas. As most bowhunting is performed from a stand, a good full-body safety harness is necessary, as is a cell phone in case the unthinkable happens, and be sure to let someone know where you will be hunting and when you will be returning.
I can hear the squirrels barking and the birds whistling now. I can see the woods waking before my eyes. And I know that once deer season arrives, the mental relief will keep me in the stand for just a little bit longer.