Our Best Whitetail Draw Hunts

The deadline for applying to draw hunts is coming. Here's a profile of some of the top draw hunts in our state.

By Larry Self

July's heat may seem like a far cry from September's deer season opener, but if you haven't made a plan for the season, you should start now.

Sure, it's a long time before you set your sights behind the shoulder of that first deer, but increasing your odds for future success means doing a little homework well ahead of hanging tree stands.

One way of increasing your chances of tagging whitetails is to apply for a Tennessee wildlife management area (WMA) draw hunt.

We've isolated the top WMAs for bucks, top WMAs for numbers, and the best of the best whether you're seeking horns, freezer meat or both.

Wildlife management areas (WMAs) offer public-land deer biologists and managers a unique opportunity. By limiting the number of hunts, days and hunters in a given area, they have more control over the harvest and a better chance to manage the quality and number of deer on the WMA.

Some areas are limited to bow-only hunts, buck-only hunts or even antlerless-only hunts; others provide either-sex hunts.

Whether you prefer hunting with a bow, muzzleloader or rifle, you should be able to find a number of draw hunts to fit your style and goals, whether those goals involve nice bucks or filling the freezer for the winter.

Photo by Tim Black

With the help of TWRA Region III deer biologist Ben Layton and others, we've looked into which WMAs deserve your attention this season - and particularly this July, when you fill out your quota hunt application.

There's been a slight shift in the last few years among the top WMAs. The top spots tend to stay on top, but with the emergence in the last couple of seasons of the trophy hunting at Presidents Island WMA, it's now considered by many hunters and biologists to be a solid draw hunt destination for hunters who want to see the biggest public-land deer in the state.

Layton lists the top WMAs for the 2003 draw as Presidents Island, Catoosa, Fort Campbell and Oak Ridge, in that order.

If those are the WMA draw hunts that get the most attention from hunters, what are the top spots for big deer? Layton's answer was identical: Presidents Island, Catoosa, Fort Campbell and Oak Ridge WMAs.

But for hunters with freezer stocking in mind (and I'm with you when it comes to looking for a doe or two to eat), Layton's top choice list changes. For numbers and plain opportunity, he directs hunters to the AEDC, Oak Ridge and Laurel Hill WMAs. On these draw areas, hunters are going to see a lot of deer and an increased chance for freezer meat.

Layton himself is an experienced deer hunter, and he says that when he fills out his own draw hunt applications, he puts in for the Oak Ridge WMA and Presidents Island WMA hunts regularly and occasionally the AEDC WMA.

Alan Peterson, a deer biologist in Region I, hasn't changed his opinion about where Tennessee's top public hunting is found. He says for both total numbers of deer taken, as well as the number of large antlered bucks, Fort Campbell and LBL are probably the best in the state. For a quality hunt with a good chance of taking a large buck (although only a very lucky few will get drawn), Peterson says Presidents Island offers the best trophy buck hunt in the state.

Region IV's Information and Education officer Allen Ricks tells hunters to keep an eye on some future hunting possibilities. Ricks, an avid hunter himself, thinks the block of land on the Cumberland Plateau, which now includes Royal Blue and the newly acquired Cumberland Forest WMAs, is a good area to watch. The acquisition brings the land total to 125,000 acres. Ricks says as habitat work is done in these areas and the deer populations respond to that work, there should be some good deer coming from there.

A few clues on which WMAs are most popular or most promising are just one side of the draw hunt coin. Layton also has a few tips to offer eager hunters wanting to insure WMA draw success.

He says for most of the hunts mentioned, hunters are going to have to be on priority to even have a chance at getting drawn. This may mean that you have to list only high-demand hunts on your application. If you list a low-demand hunt as your last choice on your application, you may very well get that hunt, which will take you out of the priority drawing for the next year. In other words, if you want a high-demand hunt, then only list those hunts. The obvious drawback: It may take you a year or two to get drawn.

Also, Layton suggests protecting your priority status by only putting in an application with individuals that you know have priority status. If you put in an application with someone that does not have priority status, then your status is downgraded to non-priority automatically. The best way to avoid this is to put in with the same individuals each year.

There's something to be said for gut feeling or just a hunch about your favorite WMA, but if you're looking to increase your odds in the way of a more scientific approach, you need to look at harvest numbers to see which WMAs are producing the kind of deer you're hunting. For our look at the top WMA harvests, we'll focus on the data from 2001 since the 2002 deer hunt figures weren't totally tabulated at this writing.

The 2001 WMA harvest was way down: 4,979 deer were tagged in 2001 compared to 6,043 in 2000. There was an obvious non-biological, non-hunting-related reason for most or the entire 2001 decline. However, due to the tragedies of Sept. 11, many of the hunts on certain WMAs were either cancelled or saw restricted hunting conditions for security reasons.

Fort Campbell limited hunting in certain areas and managers cancelled some hunts entirely early in the season, but other hunts were later continued. There were no hunts at the Oak Ridge WMA in 2001. Some hunts were cancelled at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant and the Holston Army Ammunition Plant. WMA hunts were back to a routine schedule in 2002 and should yield a significant harvest increase once those figures are tallied.

Despite the limited hunting at Fort Campbell in 2001, it maintained its status as the No. 1 deer hunting destination among Tennessee WMAs. At Fort Campbell, hunters checked in 631 deer. LBL had the second-highest total with 612 deer.

AEDC was in the third spot with 605 deer harvested, followed by Catoosa with 294. The fifth spot went to

the Tennessee NWR with 239.

The remaining top 10 WMAs were rounded out with Laurel Hill and the Cheatham WMA tying for the sixth position with 223 deer taken, followed by Chuck Swann in the eighth spot with 214 deer harvested, Natchez Trace with 213, and Cumberland Springs with 177 deer harvested.

With the absence of Oak Ridge hunts and the reduced hunting at Milan Army Ammunition Plant, the Natchez Trace WMA, along with Cumberland Springs, found their way into the top 10.

Among the top 10 WMAs, only LBL and Catoosa actually saw increases from the 2000 season to the 2001 season. The remaining eight actually had decreases.

One bright spot that stands out among the 2001 WMA figures is the fact that Catoosa continues its climb back into the short list of better WMA destinations, and the 2002 harvest numbers should be even higher. In 1996, Catoosa saw 526 deer taken, but in 1997, the harvest fell to 305. In 1998, a quality deer management program began, which in the short term decreased the harvest further. But in the last couple of years, even with the tighter regulations, Catoosa hunters have been bringing in more and more deer.

When it comes to WMA horn counts, LBL led the way with 405 bucks taken; of those, 161 had 7 or more points. The second spot for WMA bucks went to Fort Campbell with 386 taken - including 146 with 7 or more points. The third top WMA for bucks taken was AEDC with 319. Of those, however, only 37 were bucks with 7 or more points. Catoosa fell into the fourth spot for number of bucks taken on WMAs at 198. But 160 of those Catoosa bucks had 7 or more points.

Last season was the first year that 17-year-old Andrew Evans of Greeneville was too old to hunt the Young Sportsman Deer hunts in Tennessee. That fact didn't prevent him from scoring with a bow, though. Evans had already taken a deer with archery equipment in the past. And the young archer added to that total at the 2002 Holston Army Ammunition Plant (HAAP) draw hunt in October.

Like the Oak Ridge WMA hunts of last year, the HAAP hunts in east Tennessee were cancelled due to the tragedies of Sept. 11. Hunters who were drawn in 2001 were allowed to honor their draws in 2002. Many of these hunters had hopes of seeing plenty of bucks, since hunting had been closed for a season.

Evans, along with his father, Phillip, was drawn for the first archery hunt. That hunt allowed each hunter to harvest either two does or a buck-and-doe combination. Since his father was drawn on the same hunt, the younger Evans had to be accompanied on stand by another adult. The elected observer was his mother, Laurie.

"I saw a bunch of 8-points and a 10-point before killing my deer," said Evans. Evans and his mother had to endure watching several good bucks work around their stand before his quality buck came into bow range. When the time was right, he put the arrow where it needed to go and after tracking the deer nearly 200 yards, he had his trophy. The high-racked 8-pointer field dressed at 110 pounds and will have a new home on Evans' wall. It was his first big buck.

Lynn Weems had taken one decent 8-point buck in his hunting career. The Oak Ridge WMA definitely added to his trophy total. Weems had been drawn for the touted hunt on one other occasion and came out of the hunt without seeing a deer. That didn't stop him from putting in again for the 2001 draw.

The events of Sept. 11 did stop him from getting to hunt that year, but he was ready when the hunts reopened in 2002 and had high expectations for a good buck. Weems used the scout days on the reservation to find what he described as an area that was "worn out" with buck sign from scrapes to rubs along a secluded knob leading up a ridge. Weems also did his homework and studied the prior hunt maps of the Oak Ridge facility to see where bucks were taken in the past.

Weems was drawn on the first muzzleloader hunt of the season at Oak Ridge; the hunt allowed the harvest of either a doe or buck. The area hadn't been hunted since 2000 and Weems' thoughts were far from taking a doe.

Within 20 minutes of getting on stand, his scouting and research turned into a healthy 8-point buck standing within 10 yards of his tree. You know the rest: After the smoke cleared, the buck fell within 30 yards. His buck wasn't the only full-grown deer at the checking station; the ground was littered with them. The absence of the hunts in 2001 translated into a total of 161 deer (112 bucks, 49 does) harvested during that first October hunt. The total included a 6-point that field dressed at 184 pounds and two 11-pointers. To see more of the 2002 total and to research next year's hunts, visit http://www.ornl.gov/rmal/huntinfo.htm on the Web.

As Ben Layton pointed out, getting drawn for your first hunt preference may require obtaining priority status or at least maintaining it from one year to another.

But you also have to fill out the application properly and in time. If you don't get your Quota WMA Deer Hunt application in by the deadline (which falls on the third Wednesday in July) and make sure it is mistake-free, your name won't be in the hat when it comes draw time.

Getting your application in on time doesn't mean you're home free either. It has to be postmarked on time, arrive on time and be correctly filled out. I guess I've been involved in just about all the mistakes you can make on an application from failing to mail it on time, not putting on correct postage and leaving blanks.

However, I made one mistake for our party last year that I hadn't realized could be a problem. After our application was duly rejected, I reviewed the guidelines and realized the mistake. If you are close to the deadline, don't send the application through any mailing service other than the U.S. Postal Service. I dropped our application off at one of those convenient mailing services and made sure it was postmarked a day or two ahead of the deadline. The only problem is those secondary services send their mail through the regular postal service, and that's the postmark that the TWRA counts on. Our application was officially postmarked one day after the deadline.

In addition, each applicant must provide a TWRA identification number on the hunt application. That number is assigned to you when you buy your license through the R.E.A.L. computer system. That means if you've never purchased a license before, you'll need to get one before you put in for the draw hunts in order to be able to provide your TWRA ID on the application.

Other complaints often heard at TWRA offices are from hunters claiming they never put in for the hunt they were drawn for. Double-checking the application typically reveals that the hunter wrote down the wrong hunt code on the form. Mistakes of those types can include transposing numbers such as with your social security number or TWRA ID. Always double check your application for errors before mailing it in.

The best safety valve for getting your application in mistake-free is to mail it in early. Getting it to the TWRA early means it gets reviewed and if mistakes are discovered, you often get it back in time to make corrections and return it before the deadline arrives.

For those like myself who wait until the last minute, if you failed to pick up a quota application at one of the TWRA regional offices or licensing agents, you can print the form from the TWRA Web site at www.tnwildlife.org. Remember to include the correct application fees that apply based on the number of applicants and hunts marked, fill it out and mail it in. One plus of having a Sportsman License is that you don't have to pay an application fee for the quota hunt draws.

TWRA notes that the results of the draw won't be available until the first week of September. I think I'll go shoot my bow until then.

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