People often look back to the "good old days." Well, if they are refering to deer hunting in Tennessee, the good old days are today. Not only that, but indications point to an even better future.
Deer hunters in the Volunteer State took a total of 167,339 whitetails last season, which marked the seventh year in a row the harvest has exceeded 160,000 deer — 90,000 bucks and more than 77,000 does. Hunter success was good with some 39 percent of Tennessee hunters scoring on at least one deer. The harvest was up approximately 1.5 percent from the harvest in the 2014-15 season.
Deer hunting in Tennessee remains strong for good reason; there are plenty of deer to go around with an estimated population of about 600,000 animals.
Tim White, wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), says the harvest last season was similar to the year before with no remarkable differences. He also reports no significant disease outbreaks, such as blue tongue or epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). There have also been no findings of chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is very good news for hunters and the Tennessee deer population, especially in light of the recent news from Arkansas.
CWD has been discovered in Virginia, West Virginia and Missouri. However, many Tennesseans are very worried over what has transpired this past year in Arkansas. CWD was first discovered in Arkansas this past February in a cow elk shot in October of 2015, with 62 confirmed cases found in a sample of 266 white-tailed deer, about 23 percent. Arkansas wildlife officials are working to see just how widespread the disease is within the state.
CWD is a major concern for Tennessee, as well as all surrounding states, but the TWRA does not believe, in the near future, infected deer from Arkansas will make it to Tennessee to infect the herd. Nonetheless, the TWRA is closely watching the actions Arkansas is taking in the area CWD was discovered. The TWRA is now in the final stages of completing a CWD plan for Tennessee that will address monitoring protocols and a response plan if it is ever discovered here. Chuck Yoast, TWRA Wildlife and Forestry Division assistant chief, gave an in-depth presentation at the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission (TFWC) meeting in May regarding CWD and the agency's response plan if the disease were to be discovered in Tennessee.
The TFWC meeting also served up some major changes for this coming deer season, the most notable being redefining the definition of antlered and antlerless deer. Previously, any deer that did not have antlers greater than 3 inches was considered an antlerless deer. The new ruling states that antlered deer are male or female deer with antlers protruding above the hairline. Antlerless deer are female or male deer with no antler protruding above the hairline. The new regulation now means any deer harvested that has antlers protruding above the hairline will count toward the statewide limit of two antlered deer, with changed last season. This was a significant change and one that was put before the public for input and discussed for some time before implementation. It was not expected there would large differences in buck harvest structure in just the first year of implementation and that was definitely the case last season.
The annual TWRA deer report indicated the most significant statistical result was a decrease in antlerless bucks harvested, with the total last year being 71 percent lower than the season before. Total buck harvest decreased some six percent from the 2014-15 season.
"The age structure of our herd is good and is slowly improving toward an older age-class of bucks being harvested," said White.
The TWRA anticipates the age structure of harvested bucks to continue to progress toward an older class.
Last season also marked the inaugural year for a five-day antlerless season that was open in counties falling within Unit L. The season was held in January after the close of the regular gun season and prior to the Young Sportsmen's hunt. A total of 3,208 deer were harvested during this special season.
Also new this year, the TFWC approved the creation of two additional units for management of the deer herd and hunting bag limits. The antlerless bag limit in these units is four with archery and one during muzzleloader season. The bag limit for gun season is one in Unit C for the first 16 days and one in Unit D for the first seven days. The counties making up Unit C are Cocke, Jefferson, Union, Grainger, Hamblen, Greene, Washington and Unicoi. Unit D is comprised of Polk, Monroe, Blunt and Sevier counties.
White said the two new units will allow better management of the deer herd in general and the management of antlered and antlerless harvest on a finer scale than what was capable in the past.
"Previously, we had counties that could withstand greater levels of harvest but other counties in the same zone could not," White said. "The end result is more antlerless harvest in certain counties and better management of our deer herd in various other counties."
There were also changes in Unit L, with the TFWC adding four counties along the Mississippi River to Unit L, so now all of west Tennessee falls into that unit. The counties added were Lake, Dyer, Lauderdale and Tipton.
The TWRA expects this season to be very similar again in harvest numbers and hunters should look forward to another great year. They do expect the change in the statewide buck bag limit to have an effect on the overall age structure of bucks harvested. However, they do not think this will have a dramatic effect in the short term and hunters will probably notice the difference over a time frame of several years. Overall the deer herd is in great shape with excellent numbers and an improving percentage of older class bucks.
This region is most always the No. 1 or No. 2 region in the state for deer harvest numbers, and the region ranks well with bucks with 9 points or more.
Hunters did very well in Region 1 last year with a total harvest of 53,446 deer. The buck to doe ratio was very good, too, with 26,140 bucks and 27,306 does harvested. There were only four counties in the entire state where the deer harvest exceeded 4,000 animals and three of those counties were in Region 1. The county with the largest harvest was Henry with a total take of 4,605 deer. Rounding out the top five were Fayette (4,474), Hardeman (4,135), Carroll (3,243) and Hardin (3,066).
The harvest in this Middle Tennessee region ranked as the highest of the four regions for the second straight year. The region harvest totaled 57,602 deer with 29,725 bucks and 27,877 does taken. Region 2 typically ranks either one or two for harvest, trading spots with Region 1. White said success rates in this region are good and most of the counties in the region rank among the tops in the state for harvest each year.
The best county in the region was again Giles County, which seems to be pretty much a given thing over the past few seasons. Hunter success has been very high there and it sure shows in the harvest numbers. Hunters tagged a total of 4,736 deer in Giles County. Other counties at the top of Region 2 were Montgomery (3,889), Lincoln (3,729), Franklin (3,413) and Maury (3,255).
Deer harvest in this region paints an
entirely different picture than Region 1 or Region 2, and typically ranks as the lowest in the state for number of deer taken per season. However, that does not mean there is not good deer hunting in the region and it certainly does not mean there are not some quality animals either. White says the deer densities are significantly lower and thus harvest is lower than in the middle and western parts of the state. Also, there is less agriculture in the region and the habitat is not quite as productive as the other regions.
Hunters in Region 3 tagged some 17,487 bucks and 11,894 does for a total take of 29,381 deer. Roane County once again came in as the top county for harvest with a total harvest of 2,536 deer. Other counties with a harvest over 2,000 animals included Cumberland (2,086) and Hamilton (2,044). Other notable mentions include Jackson County (1,948) and Rhea County (1,690).
According to White, deer densities in Region 4 are lower, being very similar to the Plateau Region or Region 3. The lower deer density is also reflected in lower harvest numbers just as is the case in Region 3. However, White emphasized that even though the overall harvest is lower, there are some very good deer hunting counties in the region.
The region as a whole had a harvest of 20,546 deer. However, the buck to doe ratio was heavily tilted toward a higher buck harvest obviously due in part to more restrictive harvest regulations. Hunters took a total of 13,369 bucks and 7,177 does.
The only county in the entire region to surpass a harvest of 2,000 animals was Hawkins County with a total take of 2,103 deer. This included 1,342 bucks and 761 does. The best of the rest included Sullivan County (1,907), Claiborne County (1,693), Scott County (1,342) and Carter County (1,191).
Tennessee has some really good public lands on which to hunt white-tailed deer and hunters take advantage of these properties. Compared to the statewide harvest though, a very small percentage of the total deer harvest occurs on public land. In fact, only about four percent of the harvest last season occurred on wildlife management areas. This data was down approximately one percent from the WMA harvest figures from the previous season.
The sprawling Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) led the way with a harvest of 365 deer. This property provides a lot of opportunity due to its size, and the quality of deer hunting there has been on the rise. Another great public land to consider is the Catoosa WMA in Morgan and Cumberland counties. Hunters tagged some 329 deer at Catoosa last season, which incidentally was the only public land besides LBL to eclipse 300 animals. Other great public land hunting occurs on the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC), Oak Ridge WMA, Percy Priest WMA and many others.
"I would recommend that hunters take advantage of some the excellent public lands we have in Tennessee," said White. "We have many wildlife management areas in all regions of the state, so enjoy your public lands."
While also recommends all hunters apply for the Presidents Island deer quota hunts and start building up priority points for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"We have some long and fairly liberal seasons and I recommend getting out early and often," said White. "Don't wait until late in the season to get out there. Don't be afraid to travel to new areas or counties. If your hunting is not as good as you would like, look at the top harvest counties and big buck counties and give them a try."