The face of deer hunting at Oak Ridge has changed over the last two seasons. Quality restrictions and new bowhunting areas are on the top of the list.
Photo by Tim Black
The name Oak Ridge on the quota draw hunts application has caught the eye of many Volunteer whitetail hunters over the years. As wildlife management areas (WMAs) go, its reputation has been solid. Known as a place with big-buck appeal for archers drawn to hunt "inside the fence," and for solid bucks taken on the muzzleloader and shotgun-only hunts, Oak Ridge's personality is evolving. For hunters willing to be patient, the opportunity there will only get better.
That's not to say you can't tag a trophy there now, but the quality management now in place should produce even bigger buck dividends down the road. Throw in chances for taking a doe on many of the designated hunts and the odds of sighting some significant horns, and you have a WMA not only on the rebound but increasing with quality.
Oak Ridge managers released the 2004 harvest figures at the close of the season, and the new restrictions limiting the harvest of bucks to those with 4 or more points or a 15-inch minimum outside spread appear to be working.
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 a good improvement over the 2003 total of 256 deer tagged. Hunters took 145 bucks from Oak Ridge in 2004 with the harvest restrictions settled in place. Two bucks, an 8-pointer and an 11-point buck, 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 (2.9 percent of the harvest) were retained by personnel at the checking station due to internal radiological contamination during the 2004 hunts, but that's the risk hunters accept when hunting Oak Ridge.
When you want to know about Oak Ridge's whitetail status, you talk to Ben Layton. Layton, TWRA's Region III big-game biologist, said as with most QDM programs, Oak Ridge's could take up to four to five years before any trend can be positively identified. At Oak Ridge, he said the TWRA would hope this would be a positive trend toward the harvest of more adult bucks (2 1/2 years old or older). With luck, hunters will be seeing more and more adult bucks show up in the harvest.
Layton added that the limited data they have for the two years the QDM tools have been in practice could already be showing such a trend. In 2003, hunters harvested 47 adult bucks, and in 2004 they harvested 113.
However, the appearance of a trend based on limited data is approached with caution by biologists.
Why? Layton explained that in the four years prior to QDM, the average number of adult bucks harvested per year was 84. This figure includes 132 adult bucks killed in 2002, and the figure may not be representative of prior years since Oak Ridge was closed to hunting in 2001 due to the events of 9-11. There was a carryover of bucks into the older age-classes. If you "throw out" the 2002 data, the three-year average prior to QDM was 68 adult bucks.
Managing Oak Ridge differs from other WMAs, particularly Presidents Island and, say, Catoosa. Layton said the primary reason for TWRA's presence on Oak Ridge is to reduce deer/vehicle collisions on the facility and to reduce other negative impacts that a deer herd can cause. Other WMAs are not under this constraint.
He added that hunting and access onto Oak Ridge is controlled to a significant degree by the Department of Energy. Many sections of Oak Ridge are closed to hunters for safety and security reasons. Again, other WMAs do not have these management conditions.
Lastly, he said each area is different, with habitat productivity varying from area to area. Presidents Island has the most productive habitat, followed by Oak Ridge and then Catoosa. Along with differences in habitat, the areas also have differences in deer densities, which can lead to management problems and concerns.
Is the Oak Ridge gene pool strong enough for major league trophies with the current quality restrictions? Layton said the answer to this is determined by what you consider major league trophies.
"I would like to believe that Oak Ridge would consistently produce some bucks in the 150- to 160-class with a few bucks being even better than that," Layton said. "When hunting first began at Oak Ridge, the area produced several bucks in this class. It is our hope that the area can again produce this size of buck consistently."
He said if in the future this does happen, then we can term the QDM program a success there.
Greene County hunters Davey Fillers, Mike Rednour, Terry Rednour and Sean Wheeler have a passion for hunting the Oak Ridge WMA. It's not only a hunt close to home for them, but a place they know is filled with potential. They've hunted it off and on for the last eight seasons getting drawn every other year for four hunts altogether.
Why Oak Ridge? Wheeler said the answer is simple: The big bucks are there; you just have to find them. The big-buck sign still exists from season to season, and he said there's a chance of killing one at any time. The band of hunters prefers to put in on the WMA's bowhunts and hope to get drawn for the dates featured around the famed "inside the fence" section, officially known as the Tower Shielding Facility Unit.
Hunting Oak Ridge starts with finding sign, but Wheeler goes on to say that you might find the best big-buck sign you've ever seen and another hunter will inevitably walk right through your choice area. The pressure can be great during the hunts there. Wheeler said their successful strategy involves getting to areas where hunters aren't, because that's where the deer will be pushed to. It takes some serious scouting and walking, but you have to find the thickets overlooked by the average hunter.
It's a strategy that's paid off not only in the harvest of does but with two good bucks, one of which was a very nice 8-pointer with a big rack and a big body taken by Terry Rednour.
Wheeler couldn't emphasize enough how important it is to get back away from the main crowd of hunters. He said there hasn't been a hunt at Oak Ridge yet that his party hadn't seen a trophy buck from the stand. And Wheeler added he and the others in his hunting group couldn't be happier about the new QDM regulations already in place because he knows what lives at Oak Ridge.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
If you're one of the
fortunate hunters drawn for Oak Ridge this year, you can find a ton of information about the hunts on the Web. Some of the information includes past hunt maps detailing where the big boys were taken, as well as a map of the facility's deer hunt properties. Doing your homework never was this much fun. Access the hunt info at
November and December are special times to be at Oak Ridge. The first hunt of the season normally occurs around mid-November followed by early December and mid-December hunts. Hunters can hunt the legendary WMA with shotguns, muzzleloaders, or archery equipment only. Legal fluorescent orange must be worn during all hunts, including the archery-only areas.
You'll also want to make sure you have not only your permit and hunting license in possession but valid picture identification and a signed current hunt map that you receive with your permit prior to the designated scout date for your hunt. And although Oak Ridge is tightly controlled for obvious reasons related to its history and current Department of Energy operations, there are still 37,000 acres sprawling within the WMA's boundaries.
For the three designated hunt dates, some hunters will be drawn for the 500 hunter quota and restricted to gun zones only, where there are plenty of opportunities for getting off the beaten path. Some of the best shotgun and muzzleloading action can be found on the ridges behind the checking station and also in gun zones on the edges of the property.
During the same hunt dates, hunters possessing permits for archery-only hunts will have plenty to choose from, including some still fairly new areas that have opened in recent years. The success found in the Towers Shielding Facility Unit is well documented over the years and the two small bow areas across from the checking station have potential. But don't overlook the Park City Road and Chestnut Ridge zones and the acreage along the Poplar Creek Road zone.
The best advantage you'll ever have at Oak Ridge is to study the maps and be sure to make your designated scout date. There's a revival going on at Oak Ridge that may be four or five years in the making -- be a part of it.