Tennessee's Top Spots for Bowhunters

Tennessee's Top Spots for Bowhunters

Looking for a place to get close to a whitetail during bow season? Here are the top spots in the state, including the best public-land options.

By Larry Self

Bowhunters are serious optimists. Any hunter who hopes to get within bow range of a white-tailed target has to be optimistic.

Of course, it's easier to maintain optimism if you have an edge. One of the best ways to get an edge is to put in hours of scouting time. Even so, there's no way to scout every good deer-hunting area in Tennessee. To expand your scouting horizons, we've scouted through some treacherous research to determine the top public-land bowhunting destinations in the state. If you're on the hunt for a bowhunt, here's where to look.

There are two ways to look at wildlife management areas (WMAs) and other game-managed lands: the number of deer taken overall and the number of bucks taken. It's safe to say certain WMAs will present many hunters with their best archery opportunities this fall. In the last couple of years, all the deer biologists across the state I've talked to have agreed on a list of the best WMAs and other public draws for bowhunting. That list is Fort Campbell, Land Between The Lakes (LBL), Oak Ridge and Presidents Island.

Highly regarded TWRA deer biologist Ben Layton ranks these areas in terms of best places to take a good buck in the following order: Presidents Island, Oak Ridge, Fort Campbell and LBL.

Some of these hunts are much harder to get drawn for than are others, however. If you combine ease of access with a good chance at a buck, Layton would change the order to LBL, Fort Campbell, Oak Ridge and then Presidents Island.

Photo by Tom Evans

Layton reveals it will take the average hunter three or more years to get drawn for Presidents Island and one to two years to get drawn for Oak Ridge. A hunter does not have to get drawn for LBL, but does have to be drawn for Fort Campbell. At Fort Campbell, however, applicants have a good chance of being drawn for daily hunts.

Although Fort Campbell features daily draw hunts and LBL has plenty of non-quota hunt opportunities, the details of these hunts aren't found among the WMA information in the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Tennessee Trapping & Hunting Guide. That's because LBL and Fort Campbell operate outside the state's WMA system.

For more information about Fort Campbell's hunts, call (270) 798-2175. And for LBL, call (270) 924-2065.

The Oak Ridge WMA swung back into action in 2002 following hunt cancellations in 2001. Oak Ridge is well known for quality bucks, and one of the most highly sought draws is for the archery-only hunting in the restricted Towers Shielding area (better known to bowhunters as "inside the fence"). We'll address Presidents Island further into the article.

With seasons open the same as statewide deer seasons, Tennessee's designated Public Hunting Areas (PHAs) are often inundated with hunters the first week of bow season and then far less crowded later on in the season. There are nearly 300,000 acres set aside for hunting at five PHAs in a cooperative agreement between the TWRA and various landholding companies. Almost all of them require the purchase of a permit at a cost of less than $30. That can be money well spent for hunters who are willing to scout for an inexpensive hunting opportunity. The TWRA hunting and fishing guide lists information on how to obtain permits for the Heartwood, International Paper, MeadWestvaco, Tackett Creek and Weyerhaeuser PHAs.

With 2002 whitetail season figures still in the hands of the bean counters, we'll rely on 2001 totals for breaking down our county archery analysis. The total overall archery kill for the state was up in 2001 from the 2000 figures by nearly 1,000 deer. Tennessee bowhunters took 20,756 animals during the 2001 bowhunts in comparison to 19,901 in 2000. Bow harvests were up in all of the TWRA's designated four regions and nearly every area in those regions saw increases. Of the Top 10 archery counties, six had increases over their 2000 bow numbers. A county had to harvest over 400 deer to make the Top 10 list in 2001.

Hardeman County has dominated the state the last couple of years in terms of total deer harvest by all weapons, but it is not the top bowhunting county. Montgomery County was the top bowhunting county again in 2001 with 520 deer taken, followed by Region IV's bright spot of Hawkins County with 481 archery deer harvested, a total barely larger than Giles County's 478 deer.

The archery hunts are where Region III and Region IV shine, putting three counties into the Top 10 among the more recognized deer destinations of Region I and Region II. Dan Gibbs, TWRA Region IV deer biologist, says since the antlerless hunting is more limited in Unit B than Unit A, hunters tend to take more advantage of the early archery season in Unit B, which lies in the eastern portion of the state in Region III and Region IV.

Whether you consider yourself a meat hunter or trophy hunter, you're probably interested in knowing where the majority of bucks are taken. That's why we've isolated which counties in each region are the top producers of antlered deer killed by bowhunters. In Region I, Weakley County took the top honors for antlered bucks harvested using archery equipment, with a total of 168 deer taken, followed closely by Carroll at 167, Henry at 165 and Hardeman and Humphreys counties at 114 harvested. Region II's No. 1 bow destination for bucks is Montgomery County with 241 tagged in 2001, followed by Sumner with 209, Dickson with 202, Giles with 195 and Maury County with 170.

Looking eastward to Region III, Roane County also led the way for antlered bucks taken with a bow at 194 taken, followed by Rhea at 132, Jackson at 127, Meigs at 126 and Dekalb County at 112. The top bow buck harvest in Region IV isn't a surprise: Hawkins County hunters killed 213 antlered bucks in 2001. Sullivan County produced 135; Grainger, 107; Greene 106 and Carter County, 100.

Gibbs agrees that although the rut is a distant thought with the beginning of bow season, it's still a good time to take a quality buck before huge numbers of hunters enter the woods and pressure deer. Gibbs says one look at the Tennessee Deer Registry and the bucks in the archery category will confirm this.

"There are only a few places a bowhunter can go d

uring gun season, kill a good buck, and not have to compete with a rifle," says Jeff Martin, area manager at Presidents Island WMA.

Presidents Island is such a place. Many hunters and some biologists cite the extreme limitations on hunters as a reason for not ranking it among the top WMAs. That didn't stop thousands of other hunters from putting in for 1 of 50 chances to take a trophy. The reason thousands of hunters are buying what amounts to a lottery ticket chance for this hunt is simple: Those hunters who do draw are likely to have a chance at the buck of a lifetime.

After the 2001 hunts at the WMA, Martin sent out surveys to hunters who had participated. Eighty percent of them voiced the opinion that current regulations at Presidents Island shouldn't change. And they won't, at least not for 2003. Martin says the majority of hunters didn't want to see a muzzleloader hunt introduced and were very comfortable with the 9-point or better restriction. He recalls more than one hunter torn up about having the biggest deer they've seen in their lives right under them - but being unable to shoot because the buck had only 8 points. Yet most of these hunters agreed that they were in favor of keeping regulations that give hunters a chance to see deer like these.

The odds of getting drawn at Presidents Island may seem like slim to none, but once your name is on the roster, your odds change greatly. In 2002, of the 50 hunters drawn for the trophy hunt in December, only 43 actually showed for the hunt, even though hunting conditions were excellent. Of the 43 chosen ones, seven scored by harvesting a 9-point or better buck, and three bucks were reported missed by archers. If you're keeping score, that's a 1 in 7 chance of bagging a lifetime trophy with a bow. The biggest buck taken in 2002 was a 3 1/2-year-old that field dressed 186 pounds and featured 13 points and a 22-inch inside spread. The WMA decided to go to the 9-point-or-better restriction simply because of the number of bruiser 8-point Pope and Young-quality bucks at the facility.

"We're not really concerned about our buck-to-doe ratio," added Martin. "But we do want to take a few does out."

They're taking a few out through the two doe/spike hunts held in October, when 100 hunters are drawn for each hunt. Martin doesn't want to see a repeat of last year's downpour followed by high winds on the two October hunts. The weather helped lead to only eight deer being taken by bowhunters on each of those hunts.

Other than trophy bucks, Presidents Island has one other interesting feature - its location. The 6,300-acre Memphis island is three miles from Beal Street, within eyesight of The Pyramid sports complex, and right in the middle of an industrial park. All of this sounds like little to be desired by a whitetail, but the WMA is two-thirds row crops and one-third woodlands consisting mostly of cottonwood and hackberry trees. Martin says hunters really do well during the October bowhunts in and around the travel path to persimmon trees. Martin says the rich bottomland ground, good genetics, and the fact that deer have been allowed to age are all factors that produce the great hunting on Presidents Island.

"You want to fill in the loopholes Mother Nature leaves," said Stuart Wolcott. "Loopholes are different variables depending on habitat."

Located in middle Tennessee's deer heartland and in Hickman County, Primm Springs Wildlife Company attempts to close the loopholes to improve bow opportunities for quality whitetails. Wolcott, owner/operator of Primm Springs, says the keys to quality deer management are controlling your doe population, providing food and nutrition and maintaining an average age of deer. Go ahead and get the images of deer preserve or ranch out of your mind. Primm Springs is strictly a fair chase opportunity on free-ranging whitetails.

Wolcott is in his 17th year as a wildlife manager, having worked at several well-known hunting establishments and has operated Primm Springs for seven years. The managed area consists of 3,500 acres of which 600 acres are in food plots under a rotating nutritional plan. Wolcott says he wants to mimic a working farm as closely as he can. That's why you'll find traditional crops such as corn, milo and wheat. The area is also supplemented with chufa, sunflowers and millet.

Managing crops, of course, isn't all Primm Springs is about. The area offers primitive weapon hunting only and has a 15-inch minimum inside spread requirement on taking a buck. Management like that is what Wolcott says leads to 2 1/2-year-old 8-point bucks scoring 115 to 120.

"We didn't damage the inventory last year," says Wolcott. "But this past year did prove to me that this can be done in Tennessee." Primm Springs ran a 25 percent success rate on bucks. Of that percentage, 17 hunters harvested a quality buck, five missed their mark and nine of the bucks taken scored over 140 inches. The biggest 3 1/2-year-old buck field dressed over 180 pounds. Wolcott is seeing bucks that will go 225 to 235 pounds on the hoof each season. He also keeps stats on deer seen from each of their 45 stands already in place. For every four bucks observed, one was a shooter. For every three does, hunters saw a buck. And taking does is something Wolcott believes in, saying if you don't harvest your mature does, they'll run off button bucks once they start exhibiting rutting tendencies.

For more information about Primm Springs Wildlife Company, call (931) 729-0392 or look them up on the Web at www.primmspringswildlife.com.

Sometimes the best opportunities are those unexpected ones. Many of us, and this hunter included, will go to great lengths searching out the most difficult deer to harvest, often hunting far from the friendly confines of our home territory. There are a good number of great places to hunt within the Top 10 archery counties, top WMAs and other public lands that we've identified. And more than one probably lies within a short distance of your home.

Randall Jones of Greene County was specifically chasing a certain deer the first few days of the 2002 bowhunt. He'd seen the decent 8-pointer on opening day and the Monday thereafter, but had no opportunity to draw his bow. The following Thursday would hold a surprise. On this evening hunt, the 8-pointer was accompanied by a much more impressive 9-pointer. The 8-point led the big buck to the feeding area where Jones was on stand. By the time the 8-point stood beneath his stand popping acorns, the veteran bowhunter had been watching the two bucks feed for over an hour, and Jones' nerves were beginning to become an issue.

Finally, the heavier antlered deer came within 10 yards and presented the classic broadside view. Jones smartly drew his bow on a spot 15 yards in front of the buck. He had learned to draw in this manner to focus on not forgetting to look in his peep sight and then his pins rather than peering haphazardly at the side of a deer.

"When I heard my arrow hit home, I knew I'd made a good hit," remembers Jones. Nerves were definitely involved at that point, and he immediatel

y climbed down from his perch and retrieved the bloody arrow. Jones went straight to his truck, leaving the deer in the woods to give it ample time to lie down and die. He just didn't want to push this deer. Jones then drove a short distance to his father's house to seek his aid in tracking the deer. The shot opportunity came just after 6 p.m.; it was right at dark when the pair returned to track the buck.

How far the buck went after getting introduced to Jones' arrow came as a surprise. Jones figures the 8-pointer led the bigger buck farther than he would have run alone. The fatally wounded deer crossed an open field of tall grass, causing difficult and nerve-wracking tracking. From the field, it cut through some hardwoods and eventually ended up in a sinkhole 250 yards from where it was shot.

"You don't know what caliber of deer you have until you get in the woods and spend time," acknowledged Jones. The buck should have been a natural 10-point but had one point broken off. The scales used to weigh the buck only register to 150 pounds, and the buck easily bottomed those out. But the yardstick Jones laid inside his horns measured an inside spread of nearly 21 inches.

So when you are looking for the best place to hunt, don't overlook the closest place to hunt. As long as you're in Tennessee, you've got a chance of killing a nice deer.

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