Opportunities for public-land deer hunts are what you make of them. These spots will put you ahead of the game. (August 2006)
The great state of Tennessee is commonly divided into three regions for a reason. The people and land in East, Middle and West Tennessee are diverse in many ways. So are the deer that inhabit these three historical divisions.
The bad news is public lands are getting scarce in Tennessee, just as they are across most of the country. The good news is that Tennessee's WMA system and public opportunity is alive and well. Deer opportunities are what you make out of them.
Last October, Brian Guinn dropped two of his buddies off in an area they had drawn the day before at Fort Campbell. The trio had driven from east Tennessee to the mid-state area for an opportunity to harvest a good deer. Just after daylight, Guinn said he walked in blind to an area to hunt off the ground with his muzzleloader. He sat down and did a radio check with one his hunting partners to learn his friend had just missed getting a shot at a big 6-point buck.
Guinn had no more than clicked the radio off when he looked up to see his big-buck opportunity standing no more than 45 yards away in a dry creek bed along one of the bottoms. The big 8-pointer would only travel about 60 yards or so before going down. With the help of his hunting buddies, Guinn finally found the buck just before lunch after having trouble locating the blood trail in the creek bed. By Fort Campbell standards, the folks at the checking station called it a respectable buck. For Guinn, it was his biggest ever. Opportunity taken, opportunity deserved.
Three good public opportunities at harvesting whitetails exist in each of the state's grand divisions: Chuck Swan WMA in East Tennessee, Fort Campbell Military Reservation in Middle Tennessee, and the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in the west.
How do you go from a 265-deer harvest in 2004 to one of 682 in 2005? In the case of the Tennessee NWR, what you do is implement a new harvest management tool that works. In 2005, the wildlife managers at the Tennessee NWR introduced the Earn-A-Buck Program.
Not only did the refuge move to the top of public lands harvests ahead of the likes of Fort Campbell and Land Between The Lakes, but also hunters increased their big-buck harvest by leaps and bounds. In 2004, hunters that took advantage of the Tennessee NWR hunts tagged 35 deer with 7 or 8 points, 11 bucks with 9 or 10 points, and two with 11 or more points. The 2005 hunts blew those marks away when hunters took 98 bucks with 7 and 8 points, 43 bucks with 9 and 10 points, and five bucks with 11 or more points.
"The deer population at Tennessee NWR is as healthy as it's ever been," said John Taylor, the refuge manager. He said they made a "good stroke," when the staff decided to implement the Earn-A-Buck Program. Taylor said the refuge has been known for having some big bucks, but they quickly realized hunters were passing up does because of the big-buck reputation. The long-term effect of this was a management problem.
Taylor noted that it is the refuge's goal to provide hunters with a good opportunity to harvest deer. The Earn-A-Buck Program requires hunters on the three firearms quota hunts to kill an antlerless deer before harvesting a buck. For this public land, the plan really worked out, as seen by the 2005 harvest figures.
The Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 50,000 acres on and around Kentucky Lake in northwest Tennessee. The refuge's three units, Big Sandy, Duck River and Busseltown, stretch for 65 miles along the Tennessee River. Established in 1945, the refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an important resting and feeding area for wintering waterfowl, as well as many migratory birds and resident wildlife.
The primary management objective on the refuge is to provide food and protection for wintering migratory waterfowl. This is accomplished through a cooperative farming program and moist soil management. Taylor said deer hunters will encounter a little of everything when it comes to terrain. There's good cover with rolling hills of the highland rim as well as plenty of bottomland habitat along the Tennessee River and the mouth of the Duck River. Hunters will find thick cover on a number of islands with brush, willow thickets and cane breaks. That's where deer go when pressured from the first hunting activities.
Though the area is managed primarily for waterfowl, deer benefit as well from the 3,000 acres of food plots, thanks to the cooperative farming program. Farmers are allowed to harvest 75 percent of the crops while leaving the other 25 percent for waterfowl and other wildlife. Crops consist of soybeans, milo and corn, all of which get the attention of deer. Deer also take advantage of the soft mast and hard mast provided by mature forests.
"We are certainly building a strong, healthy deer herd," Taylor said. The University of Georgia currently monitors the health of the herd through its sampling of the animals via an Abdominal-Parasite Count. Taylor said there are a good number of 10-point bucks in the population along with some 12-point and bigger animals. Each season, they see some nice 10-point bucks harvested, and a 300-pound deer on the hoof is not unheard of.
Since the refuge is managed primarily for waterfowl, deer hunts must end by Nov. 14 each year. The latest hunts tend to produce the biggest deer in the harvest, which is not surprising given that they are closer to the true rut.
Applications to hunt the Tennessee NWR are separate from the TWRA quota draw hunts and must be submitted by the Aug. 1 deadline each year.
Applications can be obtained through the main office and are usually available by the end of June each year. You can go by the main office in Paris or write for an application at Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, 3006 Dinkins Lane, Paris, TN 38242, or download one from the Web site at www.fws.gov/tennesseerefuge/. Unsuccessful applicants receive a preference point giving them more priority for the next season's computerized drawing.
Taylor said the refuge is currently working with the TWRA to have its refuge permit available through the REAL licensing agents this year. Applicants will have to pay a non-refundable $12.50 permit fee. Before the three firearms quota hunts, there is one refuge quota hunt that allows the use of primitive weapons of the following types: longbows, recurves, and side-hammered muzzleloaders only.
Other than the four quota hunts on four separate weekends usually in September, October and November, there is one non-quota archery-only hunt that's open during the state archery season through Nov. 14 but closed during all weekend quota hu
nts. Deer taken during the non-quota hunt count toward the statewide bag limit, but those harvested during the refuge quota hunts do not count on statewide bag limits.
To say the deer hunts at Fort Campbell are wide open could be an overstatement, but they are surprisingly close. The deer opportunities open at Fort Campbell each year on the third Saturday in September and continue until Dec. 31, except for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the hunts are closed.
For the hunts, the daily bag limit is two deer, with no more than one antlered. Possession and season bag limit are three deer, with no more than one antlered. Antlered deer at Fort Campbell are defined as having at least 3 inches of antler above the hairline on either side. Legal hunting equipment includes bows, muzzleloaders and shotguns on designated areas. Antlerless deer harvested in certain areas do not count toward the Fort Campbell season bag limit. And deer harvested at the installation do not count against Tennessee or Kentucky season bag limits.
Andrew Leonard, Fort Campbell's wildlife biologist, said the central part of the reservation features hardwoods and pines, while in other areas hunters will find tall prairie grasses. The western portion of the area has highland rim structure along the lines of ridge and valley. All in all, Fort Campbell encompasses 105,000 acres; some 65,000 of those are huntable.
Leonard said the deer population at Fort Campbell is not as high as it has been in the past, but the population levels now are apt to promote a healthier heard. There are currently approximately 30 deer per square mile, which is in the target range Leonard is shooting for. Managers have actually increased the doe harvest to bring numbers down in recent seasons to grow a healthier herd.
Fort Campbell deer benefit from the Agricultural Lease Program. This program allows farmers to sharecrop in return for leaving a portion of the harvest. Leonard said deer have access to a rotation of soybean and corn crops. The herd's nutritional options are also supplemented with food plots throughout the reservation.
Teresa Lee, the assistant manager of Outdoor Recreation, said that in her 12 seasons at Fort Campbell, the biggest bucks seem to be taken from the first week of November through the second week of November and tend to be related to the rut. Last season, she said the biggest buck harvested was a 12-pointer that field dressed at 183 pounds. The buck with the most number of points taken in 2005 was a very nice 15-pointer.
Overall, the 2005 harvest figures remained strong at Fort Campbell; 652 deer were tagged to hold the second spot just behind the Tennessee NWR. The harvest also included 134 bucks with 7 and 8 points, an impressive 43 with 9 and 10 points, and nine bucks with 11 or more points.
The deer hunting at Fort Campbell is its own entity as it is separate from the TWRA quota draw hunt system. Actually, the draw hunts at Fort Campbell happen on a daily basis. Let's just say it's nearly first come, first served. Starting with last season, hunters can put in for a hunt area two days prior to when they want to hunt. Military personnel get the first opportunities at reserving space by placing a call into the voice-automated system. Civilians must wait until after 10 a.m. to apply via the system or at the Hunting and Fishing Unit.
Recreation areas are assigned telephonically through the Hunting and Fishing Automated Assignment System by calling (270) 798-0401. In order to utilize the computerized area assignment system, you must have a valid Fort Campbell Post Permit and be registered in the automated system. Annual Big Game Hunting Permits at Fort Campbell are $15. Also, proof of successful completion of an approved hunter safety course is mandatory before hunting on Army land.
For more information about Fort Campbell's deer hunts and full details on hunting the installation, call (270) 798-2175, or visit the Web site at www.fortcampbellmwr.com.
When I was a kid, Chuck Swan WMA was the only destination that hunters talked about. If you don't believe me, just ask some of the older hunters that still refer to the area by its original title, the Central Peninsula. The 1970s and the early '80s were a heyday for the area. The 1990s weren't as kind; the deer herd dropped considerably.
In response, the TWRA eliminated a few hunts to help bolster the Chuck Swan deer herd. Gone are the non-quota bowhunts that many hunters counted on for taking their annual deer; gone as well is the early January gun hunt.
The 2005 deer harvest totals are a reflection of improved hunting at Chuck Swan. In 2004, hunters took a total of 23 bucks with 7 and 8 points and a total harvest of 242 deer. Those figures ranked Chuck Swan as eighth among Tennessee's WMAs. The 2005 season saw an increase of 7- and 8-point bucks to 42 and total harvest increased to 391, making Chuck Swan the fifth most productive WMA, and a viable choice for a good hunt in East Tennessee.
John Mike was a top deer biologist in TWRA's Region IV before taking the helm at Chuck Swan. It's a job he really wanted, and the timing couldn't have been better. Mike, the area manager, said he would categorize the deer population in density rather than a weak or strong population. The fact is the density is low compared with 25 years ago, but it is making an increase due to major changes in the hunts the past five years.
Sportsmen that haven't hunted whitetails at Chuck Swan will encounter terrain that Mike describes as ridge and valley. It features steep to rolling ridges. As far as concentration of effort by a hunter in certain areas, Mike said that depends greatly on which hunt is drawn and the mast production. During low mast, you should hunt one of the many clover and food plot edges. During high mast production, hunt the timber.
Geographically, Chuck Swan WMA consists of 24,444 acres with approximately 8 percent of the area in fields that the agency maintains. The recovering deer herd there doesn't go hungry. Mike said they annually plant approximately 150 acres of corn, 120 acres of milo, 120 acres of soybeans, 40 acres of buckwheat, 60 acres of sunflowers, 30 acres of millet, 100 acres of winter wheat and clover, and 40 acres of Kobe and Korean lespedeza.
Managers also put out approximately 800 pounds of trace mineral salt to aid in antler production and to aid does that are lactating. The remainder of the area produces hard and soft mast. The food source availability is plentiful for harvest opportunity. Mike said that there was no doubt that Chuck Swan had the ability to provide enough habitat and food sources to support a rebounding herd.
Mike said the first archery hunt produces quite a few deer since it is the WMA's very first deer hunt of the year. You can bet the muzzleloader and the first gun hunt are the best picks to catch the rut. Mike said these two hunts usually produce the biggest bucks, and last year, hunters harvested approximately 104 antlered bucks during the two-day muzzleloader hunt.
Numbers are a major concern at Chuck Swan as far as
rebuilding the herd, but Mike said Chuck Swan usually produces two to three 120-inch class deer per year. He added an average buck is approximately 85 to 105 pounds, with the number of points varying from a spike to 8 points. Of course, antler growth can vary greatly due to the age of the deer and the previous year's mast production. Even at Chuck Swan WMA with all of the supplemental food plots, mast production has a direct effect on the antler makeup.
As has been the case for five seasons or so, because of the management plan to increase the deer density, there are no open or non-quota hunts on the area; every opportunity available is a quota hunt.
Looking at harvest data, Mike said from all indications the deer herd is increasing in size. Chuck Swan had a harvest increase of approximately 98 whitetails in 2005. He said the size of the deer seem to be increasing as well. For more information on Chuck Swan WMA, call Mike at (865) 278-3248. And don't forget Chuck Swan when you fill out your next TWRA WMA quota hunts application.
In October, there are two two-day, archery-only hunts with an 800-hunter quota. These hunts have a limit of one deer of either sex and one turkey of either sex per hunter. There's also one two-day muzzleloader hunt held usually in November with a quota of 750 hunters looking for a one-deer buck-only harvest that is considered a bonus buck. In addition, there are two two-day gun/archery hunts held in December with a quota of 750 hunters with a limit of one deer-buck only that's also a bonus deer.
There you have it: three public lands that offer great hunting opportunities and improving deer herds. If you haven't hunted public land in a while, you might think about giving it a shot.