Looking for a map to whitetail success this fall? This guide to the best Tennessee draw hunts provides you with some great options.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
There aren't too many treasure seekers in the past or present that venture out without a map of or guide to what they're looking for. Applying for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) annual wildlife management area (WMA) draw hunts and others should be no different.
This may not be a treasure map with the exact location marked where you'll take a deer this fall, but it can serve as a guide for choosing which WMAs to consider when filling out this year's application. Depending on your idea of a trophy, there are certain WMAs known for producing heavy-antlered whitetails and others are just good producers of numbers, effectively increasing your odds of refilling your freezer.
Whether you're looking for whitetail treasure or just overall success, this guide holds some answers for completing the WMA draw hunt puzzle. After all, WMA success begins with planning, and successful planning begins with gathering all the knowledge at hand.
LET THE NUMBERS SPEAK
With the TWRA 2004 deer season harvest figures still being tallied when we put this guide together, we'll rely on 2003 WMA harvest numbers for most of our look at top destinations for draw hunts.
The WMA figures in 2003 were down when compared to the 2002 hunt totals, but that doesn't mean plenty of public opportunity doesn't exist within the draw hunts. The total of 4,890 deer taken on WMAs in 2003 was the lowest managed harvest total since 1978. But if you play the odds, that hopefully signals higher numbers were present in 2004 and for the future.
The Fort Campbell deer harvest was down from 887 in 2002 to 707 deer in 2003 but was still good enough to claim the top WMA deer destination. LBL's deer numbers were up from 568 to 632 to take the second spot, followed by AEDC at third in 2003. Catoosa, despite the quality regulations on their hunts, moved up again in 2003 to the fourth spot among the best WMA hunts followed by Oak Ridge.
Catoosa's totals were down slightly, but the area still moved up, thanks to a significant drop at Oak Ridge where totals fell from 421 in 2002 to 2003's 256 deer. The significant harvest at Oak Ridge in 2002 was directly related to the reopening of the hunts following the 9-11 closures in 2001.
Cheatham WMA made the most impressive move in 2003 climbing up the top 10 from last in 2002 to sixth in 2003. Cheatham hunters harvested 202 deer in 2002 but increased to 242 in 2003. Chuck Swan maintained its seventh spot with a slight decrease in 2003 from 222 to 198 deer tagged. The 2003 eighth, ninth and 10th spots were filled by WMAs absent from the top in 2002. They were Laurel Hill, Natchez Trace and the Tennessee NWR, which all moved up the ranks in 2003.
There will be little argument in Volunteer deer camps that when it comes to public hunting, Fort Campbell and the Land Between The Lakes (LBL) are quality destinations when it comes to big bucks. These two management areas are tops in the number of bucks taken category each season. These two top spots also have their own draw hunt systems, which are separate from the TWRA's quota draw hunts held each fall.
Fort Campbell and LBL aside, there are some WMAs in the quota draw hunts that are gaining in reputation each year for producing quality whitetails, and one or two have become old standbys.
Oak Ridge, for example, has long been known for big bucks and produces some big-racked bucks each year. Catoosa WMA has the size and, after recent hunts, the reputation to hang with WMAs with the big reputations. And if you haven't heard of the trophy opportunity at Presidents Island, you must have never deer hunted in Tennessee. Other WMAs gaining in reputation are AEDC and Cheatham.
It's hard for other WMAs to compete with Fort Campbell's consistent harvest of well over 200 bucks with 7 or more points each season. It's just as hard to keep pace with LBL's leading 408 total bucks in 2003 among WMAs. LBL's take of seven bucks over 11 points was also best statewide.
In the draw hunts, AEDC's 284 bucks harvested in 2003 were good enough for the second best overall, and the area's 39 bucks with 7 and 8 points ranked in the fourth position. AEDC's 10 bucks with 9 or 10 points also tied the reputable Presidents Island for fourth in that respect, though the number of permits issued for Presidents Island was far smaller.
When it comes to bucks, Catoosa's quality restrictions appear to be beginning to make even more of a difference. These restrictions limit the harvest to bucks with at least 4 points on one side. Of the 207 bucks tagged in 2003, Catoosa hunters bagged 146 with 7 or 8 points, 34 with 9 or 10 points, and one had 11 or more points. Catoosa's 34 bucks with 9 or 10 points rank them alongside LBL's 33 trophy whitetails.
The harvest restrictions at President's Island allow only bucks with at least 9 points as legal animals, and that makes it a dream hunt for whitetail enthusiasts. The area's take of 10 bucks with 9 and 10 points was the most yet for the area in 2003, and 2004 was even better. For consecutive seasons, hunters harvested two bucks with 11 or more points.
Oak Ridge is no stranger to harvest restrictions now. Relatively new restrictions limiting the harvest of bucks to those with 4 or more points or a 15-inch minimum outside spread have been in place for a couple of seasons. The 2003 buck harvest of 50 with 7 or more points was down from the 116 bucks with the same number of points in 2002. But the legendary WMA's 36 bucks with 7 or 8 points made it good enough for fifth among all areas, while its 11 bucks with 9 or 10 points was third, and two bucks with 11 or more points tied Cheatham WMA for the second spot in the biggest antler category in 2003. Cheatham also made some noise by ranking third among WMAs with 43 bucks tagged with 7 or 8 points.
Oak Ridge managers did release 2004 harvest figures at the close of the season. A little more than half of the deer taken were does with a harvest of 197 does out of the 342 tags filled. The 342 figure is an improvement over the 2003 total. Hunters also took 145 bucks from Oak Ridge in 2004 with the harvest restrictions settled in place. Two bucks, an 8-point and an 11-point, claimed a tie for the Oak Ridge heavyweight title at 170 pounds field dressed.
The biggest antlered deer of the 2004 Oak Ridge hunt sported 13 points. Keep in mind that 10 deer or 2.9 percent of the harvest were retained by personnel at the checking station due to internal radiological contamination during the 2004 hunts. That's slightly higher than in recent years, but that's t
he risk you accept when hunting Oak Ridge.
INSIDE LOOKING OUT
Daryl Ratajczak, the TWRA's Big Game Program Coordinator, took those reins last year and has made a steady transition into his role. He's insightful and is keeping an eye on what happens across the Volunteer State. From his position, Ratajczak has a clear picture of the best WMAs in the TWRA draw hunts as far as quality and numbers go.
Even though the overall 2004 whitetail harvest figures weren't completely tabulated when I last spoke with him, Ratajczak said there's no doubt that, statewide, Tennessee deer hunters set an all-time harvest record in 2004. He said he fully expects the final tally to easily surpass 170,000 deer tagged. There are locations statewide that will be down from the 2003 numbers, but the addition of Unit L with its liberal bag limits made up any necessary ground for breaking last year's record. Even the WMA figures with areas within Unit L are expected to boost the management harvest figures as well.
As many hunters know, numbers aren't everything and where the big boys are killed interests almost everyone. Ratajczak said undoubtedly the most coveted, most sought-after WMA draw permit is for Presidents Island. The trophy regulations of 9 points or better are producing some hefty animals and gaining the attention of whitetail enthusiasts. It's No. 1 as far as priority choices go and is head and shoulders above the rest when you look at the racks coming out of Presidents Island.
Ratajczak did have the information on the number of monsters checked in at Presidents Island, and it's a new high with 13 big bucks harvested in 2004. As good as last season was, it could possibly have been better. With heavy rains, Ensley Bottoms, which has become known as a big-buck haven, was underwater during the buck-only hunts and the opportunity was literally washed out. If hunters could have tested that section, there could have been even more wide-racked deer taken.
The next public draw hunt on the list comes as little surprise if you think about what Catoosa has produced over the last few seasons. Ratajczak said Catoosa isn't only producing big bucks as the harvest figures above in our breakdown show, but it's also a great opportunity to get a buck, period. The reason is, as the big-game coordinator put it, there are twice as many antlered deer taken at Catoosa than quality choices like Oak Ridge.
Oak Ridge isn't used to being overshadowed and don't expect it to last forever. The trophy WMA is Ratajczak's third choice on the list of quality buck destinations, and he expects it to get better with the trophy regulations in place. He said Quality Deer Management works on well-contained populations like those found at Oak Ridge. Ratajczak said time has proven the best way to improve the quality of the deer herd is to manipulate it.
Asked which WMA he'd list on his application -- you guessed it -- Ratajczak said Presidents Island because it's just such a good hunt. He said if you could see the buck rubs the size of a grown man's thigh there, you'd understand his selection.
If you want a particular hunt like Presidents Island, you're going to have to maintain priority status. You get priority status the next year when you fail to get drawn for the upcoming season. The key is keeping it. Ratajczak said the best method is to list the hunt you want as the only selection each year. There are no guarantees, and after you reach priority status, the luck of the draw comes into play. With Presidents Island, for example, Ratajczak said with the number of hunters applying who have priority status, you could possibly be drawn only one time in 55 years. But then again, the luck factor plays a huge role.
When it comes to the chance of putting deer meat in the freezer, Ratajczak agrees that you have to go where such opportunity lies. The WMA in Tennessee where the consistent numbers are taken is AEDC. Ratajczak said somewhere between 500 and 600 deer came out of AEDC in 2003, and he and other wildlife personnel believe it will remain a consistent producer of tagged whitetails. And the big-buck opportunity is real as well.
COMMON APPLICATION MISTAKES TO AVOID
Over the years through conversations with TWRA personnel and hunters who have failed to correctly fill out draw hunt applications, just about every mistake that can be made has been encountered, including those I've made myself. Here's a list of common mistakes to avoid if you want to have your application accepted before the actual TWRA WMA draw takes place. Don't take the deadline for granted. Make note now of the deadline for submitting your party's application or your single attempt. For years, the TWRA Quota WMA Deer Hunts application deadline has been the third Wednesday in July and don't expect it to change. This year's deadline is Wednesday, July 20, 2005, and all applications must have a U.S. Postal Service postmark by this date.
Maintain your priority status. On the WMA Quota Draw Hunts, you either have priority or you don't. Getting priority is easy, keeping it is tough. To obtain priority status, you had to have been unsuccessful in the draw the prior year. If you're drawn for any of your choices, the next year you would have no priority status. Also, priority status is by application not applicant, so if someone has priority and someone on the same application does not, the application would be in the regular draw instead of in the priority draw. Many hunters want to know how long it takes to get drawn on a desired hunt once they attain priority status. If you have a specific WMA that you want to get drawn for, it's best to only list that WMA on your application. Once you have priority status, you should submit an application each year. Persistence pays off.
Always apply early. We're all guilty of getting the application in at the last minute just under the deadline. The only real problem with this scenario is that you risk missing the draw altogether if the application is rejected due to a mistake. Application mistakes include failing to list the draw hunt choice number, not providing your TWRA I.D. number, transposing a social security number, and others. If you turn the application in early, there's always the chance it could be returned to you in time to make corrections and resubmit it before the deadline arrives.
DESTINATION AND HUNT INFORMATION
Whether or not you get drawn on a quota hunt, plan to hunt on an area's non-quota dates, need hunt information, or want to inquire about future hunts, here are some links and phone numbers to gather details.TWRA Quota Draw Hunts:
www.tnwildlife.org or consult the TWRA's 2005 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide.Milan Army Ammunition Plant:
www.milanarsenalhunting.com. Plenty of information about hunt dates, regulations on the site's Hunting Notice Page.Oak Ridge: To see the 2004 harvest figures and to research this year's hunts, go to
www.ornl.gov/rmal/huntinfo.htmFort Campbell: For more information about Fort Campbell's hunts call (270) 798-2175. You are required to have a hunter's safety certificate to hunt Fort Campbell.
LBL: You can call the main office for hunt information at (270) 924-2065 or get details under the hunting section at
.org/RecreationLinks.html on the Web site.Holston Army Ammunition Plant: The Hunt Information Line for Holston Defense is (423) 578-6291.