If you think late-season hunting lacks action, you haven't checked out the small-game and upland hunting in our state. (December 2009)
Late-season small-game hunting opportunities in Tennessee show some striking similarities across the state, despite the vast habitat differences.
First, the status of a prime small-game species, the squirrel, is excellent. In addition, while rabbit populations are not quite as stable as squirrels, there are enough of them across the state to provide good hunting.
Roger Applegate, Small Game Coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), said that overall these two species are doing well on a statewide basis.
"Actually, both squirrels and rabbits are doing quite well and both species could actually handle more hunting pressure than they're receiving now," Applegate said. "Both species potentially offer plenty of hunting action and are great ways to introduce youth to the sport of hunting. Particularly on squirrels, I'd say we have areas that are simply under-utilized. That may surprise some, but those enjoying these hunting resources generally have plenty of room in terms of competition from other hunters."
Applegate said that another trend statewide is the lack of quality quail hunting.
"There are isolated pockets of good quail populations, but overall, the basic habitat requirements on a large scale are missing," he said. "It is an issue we are aware of and addressing."
When looking at the overall picture on a region-by-region scale, the local wildlife mangers are able to put some specific local trends into the mix. Plus, they have excellent suggestions for specific wildlife management areas to focus your hunting effort for specific species.
In the West Tennessee area of Region I, Jim Hamlington, the TWRA Small Game Coordinator for Region I, said the status of both squirrels and rabbits is good.
"The squirrel population took a beating from the late spring freeze a couple years ago," Hamlington said. "However, the numbers have rebounded and are increasing this year. The negative impact of that freeze was destroying the mast crop for that year. That hurt the short-term squirrel population, but they've rebounded very quickly," Hamlington said. "Overall, the rabbits are doing well. However, the habitat requirements are more critical in one sense in that the good huntable populations of rabbits are more scattered than the squirrels."
Hamlington said the rabbits need plenty of heavy cover to thrive anywhere in the state.
"But the good news is there are good pockets of rabbit-hunting territory in our portion of the state for rabbits," he said. "A prime place would be three- to five-year-old cutovers from pine forests. This would be about prime re-growth for providing great rabbit habitat. There are some areas where hunters will be able to find this situation on some of our WMAs.
"A couple that I'd suggest would be John Tully and the Wolfs River WMAs. At John Tully, there should be a good number of swamp rabbits. At the White Oak WMA in Hardin County, there should be good numbers of both swamp and hill rabbits in the appropriate areas. Of course, all along the Tennessee River bottom you'll find areas where the habitat is ideal for good rabbit hunting. There are areas there that have outstanding hardwood bottoms and drains that provide ideal habitat for squirrels as well."
Hamlington added that the Natchez Trace and Chickasaw state forests both have the type habitat he described as being excellent for rabbits right now. He said that hunters will need to scout the area to find these places, but they should provide good opportunities.
As for squirrels, Hamlington said the population in Region I is very good and the hardwood stands that support high squirrel populations are more widespread and abundant than good rabbit habitat.
"There are potentially more areas to find plenty of squirrels," he said. "I've seen more squirrels in 2008 than in the last few years. One place I'd recommend is the Hatchie River bottom that covers portions of three counties. Also remember, anytime a person is hunting on private lands, they have to have landowner permission."
Hamlington said several WMAs have ideal habitat for squirrel hunting.
"Some of the top WMAs I'd recommend for finding good squirrel populations would include John Tully, Wolf River and White Oak. Also, the same state forests I noted as having good habitat for rabbits, the Natchez Trace and Chickasaw forests, have good squirrel habitat as well."
Hamlington said the overall hunting prospects for quail are not as abundant in Region I.
"Actually, quail populations are decreasing thought the Southeast in general," he said.
He said the Natchez Trace State Forest does have some quail-hunting potential.
Hamlington said that there are some late-season dove-hunting opportunities in Region I; however, the potential for finding a lot of doves is certainly a hit-or-miss prospect.
"The January dove season can be very productive; however, it can also be very slow," he said. "The Wolf River and White Oak WMAs have some dove-hunting opportunities. But like most of the state dove-hunting areas, they are focused on early-season hunting when we have a lot more interest from dove hunters. However, if a hunter will check on the status of doves in these areas, there are times when a bunch of doves will migrate through for a brief period. There can be some outstanding dove hunting at those times."
Region II Wildlife Manger for the South District George Buttrey said the rabbit and squirrel status is very good in Region II.
"It's a good time to be a small-game hunter in this portion of the state," Buttrey said. "The populations of rabbits and squirrels are good, and the hunting pressure is down. If hunters are looking for some good hunting action with plenty of elbowroom, these are good species to focus on right now."
Buttrey said the rabbit populations are cyclic in terms of numbers, and right now they are doing well in Region II.
"We're hunting a good surplus of rabbits right now," he said. "As for squirrels, the same is true. Overall, we've got a lot of squirrels in the hardwood areas. I have seen a good increase in the number of hunters using dogs for squirrel hunting, and that seems to be something hunters of all ages enjoy
. Overall, we have plenty of squirrel-hunting areas that are not receiving a lot of pressure."
Buttrey said that some of the top WMAs he'd pick in Region II for squirrels would include Laurel Hill, Percy Priest and Cheatham.
"Squirrel hunting is still very good late in the season whether you're still hunting or using dogs," he said. "With the leaves off the trees, using dogs for squirrel hunting can be a lot of fun. There are plenty of private lands with good squirrel habitat as well, but remember to get landowner permission prior to hunting any private land.
"As for rabbit hunting, last year the rabbit population was up good," Buttrey said. "Some of the top WMAs where hunters can find good rabbit habitat include Yanahli (formerly Duck River WMA), Williamsport, Old Hickory and Bear Hollow Mountain. At Bear Hollow Mountain, there's a good rabbit population, but the hunting can be hard with some rough terrain. But based on what I'm hearing, it can be worth it."
Buttrey said that the upland sections of the Hanes Bottom waterfowl area near Clarksville are good places for rabbits as well.
In addition, the Bark Camp Barrons WMA is a good place for both rabbits and quail.
"Quail hunting is pretty tough just about anywhere," Buttrey said. "Bark Camp Barrens WMA is one area where there is some potential for quail. Otherwise, hunters will need to do some thorough scouting to find a few isolated areas that may have huntable quail populations."
Buttrey said that the lack of pressure on the squirrel and rabbit species does create a good opportunity for hunters in Region II, and throughout the state, to get youth involved in hunting.
"Rabbit and squirrel hunting are kind of like bluegill fishing in terms of breaking youngsters into the sport of hunting," he said. "There can be a lot of fast action on squirrels or rabbits, and that gets them hooked on the sport. Youngsters getting into the outdoors and enjoying our resources is what we like to see. From there, they can hone their skills and progress to deer and turkey hunting if they wish, with good, basic woodsmanship skills already developing.
Buttrey added that, as in Region I, Region II's dove hunting during the late-season hunt will be a hit-or-miss proposition. While the potential exists for some doves to migrate into some of the WMAs, he advised hunters to scout the areas before planning any hunts.
Ben Layton, Region III Wildlife Manager, said that the squirrel population has rebounded from the poor mast crop related to the late freeze Hamlington noted earlier.
"The squirrel population had been down after the poor mast crop year, but they are now doing well," he said. "I'd say the outlook for this season is good, and with another good mast crop should be very good by next year.
"There's a number of WMAs that will have some good squirrel hunting, but a couple of large areas that stand out as potentially very good are the Catoosa and Prentice Cooper WMAs," Layton said. "Both of these are relatively large landmass areas with lots of hardwoods. I'd say both of these are 80 to 90 percent forested, with some pine interspersed in some of the hardwood areas. But overall, they are both full of great squirrel habitat."
Layton said that Mt. Roosevelt WMA in portions of Roane, Cumber and Morgan counties is 11,000 acres with plenty of hardwood habitat as well.
"The rabbit population is not doing as well in Region III as the squirrels," he said. "However, I think the population has come back some and there are some WMAs that will provide good rabbit hunting if hunters will locate the right habitat," he said. "These WMAs include Bridgestone, Yuchi (rabbit hunting only) and North Chickamauga Creek. In Yuchi and North Chickamauga Creek, we do have a different bag limit for rabbits. The bag limit on rabbits in those WMAs is three instead of five, the normal statewide bag limit."
Layton advised that hunters throughout the state should check closely for any bag limit or open season dates in WMAs to ensure they know the specific regulations. Occasionally, they will deviate from statewide seasons and bag limits.
"Sometimes there will be differences because of specific management efforts needed in certain areas," he said. "I'd recommend checking before you go every year, just in case."
Layton said there is not a lot of a good public-land quail hunting opportunity in Region III. He said perhaps the best opportunity would be the areas around the Cordell Hull WMA where some specific work has been done to improve quail habitat.
Dove hunting for the late season may afford some opportunities, but he said it will be scattered.
"Most of our dove-hunting areas are managed for the high-intensity early-season hunts," Layton said. "There is potential for good numbers of doves to build up for short time periods, but then they'll also quickly leave. I'd suggest just keeping your eyes open if you are squirrel or rabbit hunting and check out some dove fields prior to planning a trip."
Wildlife biologist David Brandenburg from Region IV echoes what others wildlife mangers are saying about the squirrel population.
"In Region IV, we've got a lot of squirrels and a lot of places to hunt them," Brandenburg said. "I remember when there were a lot of squirrel hunters, but for the past 20 years or more, this resource is basically under-utilized. Those squirrel hunting seem to really be enjoying the resource."
There's no lack of places to find squirrels in the rugged eastern portion of Tennessee, he said.
"Almost any hardwood forested area has the potential to hold squirrels," Brandenburg said. "The population is good and improving right now. But one place that provides excellent squirrel habitat and plenty of game is the Chuck Swan WMA. Much of the 625,000-acre Cherokee National Forest is also ideal for squirrels. Those are certainly places I'd go."
The picture on the rabbit population is not as bright in Region IV, Brandenburg said.
"The general trend regarding rabbits in Tennessee is the farther west you go, the better the density of rabbits you'll find," he said. "However, there are areas for good rabbit hunting in Region IV if hunters are willing to scout them out. I'm a rabbit hunter and I have a passion for working rabbit hounds, and using dogs seems to be the best way to hunt rabbits here.
"The population of rabbits, partly because of habitat changes, is not what it was many years ago when it was reasonable to literally walk up rabbits and harvest some," he said. "Now, walking up rabbits is a difficult thing to do in our portion of the state."
Brandenburg said there's not a lot of good quail hunting on the public lands in t
his sector of the state. Also, the dove-hunting opportunities are limited as well during the late season.
"I've known of late-season dove hunts that were super," Brandenburg said. "However, it's a situation where I'd check before planning a trip. One thing all hunters can do is contact the specific WMA managers and ask them what the status of doves, squirrels or rabbits are in a late-season situation. It could be they are planning to do some work that would be beneficial for attracting doves for the late season, for example."
As the above information indicates, the prospects for late-season small-game hunting are good throughout the state this year for some species.
According to Roger Applegate, the overall picture for quail and grouse is not as bright statewide. Quail habitat is the major issue for that species, he said.
"But we (the TWRA) are working on some bold plans for quail," Applegate said. "We're trying to generate both funding and support to help with the goal of improving the quail habitat and populations.
"But the outlook on squirrels and rabbits is positive, with the squirrels being particularly good," he said.