"They'll come when they want to come, they know there are 'hens' down here," said Larry Proffitt, friend and turkey hunting mentor from Elizabethton.
It was opening day of Tennessee's spring gobbler season, and the time was around 7:30 a.m. when Larry spoke. We were sitting at the bottom of a mountainside in Sullivan County, a place where I have killed five gobblers since 2007, all of them at the beginning of the season and all of them with Larry calling. The first three days of the Volunteer State's turkey season is, in my opinion, the best time in the spring to tag a tom. If my turkey tutor wanted to sit in this spot — no matter how much gobbling was going on above us — I was perfectly content to remain at his side.
Every 30 minutes or so, Proffitt would send forth a series of yelps, clucks and assorted other music, then wait patiently for events to unfold. Finally around 9:45, the East Tennessee sportsman uttered another round of calls and then announced that he was going to take a nap.
"I'll wake up when you shoot," were his words before the snooze began.
I continue to peer about, though, and it was good that I did. For at 10:07, three longbeards stepped into the clearing where we were set up, looking around for the hen that had been calling before beginning to feed. A minute or so later, I was standing over a 3-year-old tom, sporting a 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs.
Killing a Tennessee gobbler anytime makes the day memorable, but doing so on opening day or opening weekend makes the entire season a good one. Each of the state's four regions host counties and public lands where action should be good early on this spring.
Region IV: East Tennessee
East Tennessee hosts some of the most rugged mountain land in the state; if not the entire South. The district also offers some enticing public land hunting says biologist Dan Gibbs, who is in charge of keeping tabs on deer and turkeys in the region.
"For us, Chuck Swan is a popular destination but the hunts are drawn," said Gibbs. "Other WMAs in Region IV include North Cumberland, Foothills and Cherokee. While all these areas have average numbers of birds, their unique attraction is the challenge of hunting turkeys in the mountains."
Each of these public lands (with the 2014 spring harvest in parentheses) has something to offer turkey hunters this spring. Chuck Swan (42) encompasses 24,444 acres in Union and Campbell counties and offers five, three-day long draw hunts with a limit of one bearded bird per hunt. For more information, contact Dustin McCubbins at 865-278-3248.
The North Cherokee (109) portion of the 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest runs along the Tennessee and North Carolina line in the eastern part of the state. One of my most memorable hunts ever was an outing where I killed a Cherokee tom just an hour or so before I had to go home from a three-day excursion. What had been a very frustrating trip turned into a glorious one.
As Gibbs notes, all of these public lands are very mountainous, and Cherokee is especially so. On that aforementioned hunt, I started at the bottom of a mountain, heard no birds, walked all the way to the top and then down. It was late in the morning when I came across a trio of toms, one of which travelled with me to a check station.
The North Cumberland WMA (49), and its 189,000 acres, rests in Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Morgan and Scott counties. Sportsmen who live in nearby Knoxville may especially find this public land a fetching destination. Yet another upland east Tennessee possibility is the 11,000-acre Foothills WMA (2) in Blount County.
Numerous east Tennessee counties feature good turkey hunting: Greene (777), Sullivan (491), Washington (415), Claiborne (377) and Blount (236) certainly qualify in that regard.
One relevant note is that the TWRA has a new wildlife population biologist, Roger Applegate, a position that had been vacant for a year. Brood data from both 2013 and 2014 was not available at press time but should be posted on the state's website by the beginning of the season. The season runs from April 4 - May 17, 2015, and, as usual, the limit is one bearded bird per day, not to exceed four per season.
Region I: West Tennessee
Daniel Stanfield, Big game and Furbearer biologist II for Region I, knows some promising public land destinations.
"Natchez Trace State Park (36) located in Benton, Carroll and Henderson counties offers quality turkey hunting because of the large acreage that it encompasses of around 48,000 acres," he said. "Chickasaw NWR (42) also offers some quality turkey hunting in Lauderdale County with around 25,000 acres. These two areas are noted due to the large tracts of available turkey hunting habitats.
"However, one thing that I would like to mention is that there will be some new turkey quota hunts on certain west Tennessee WMAs for the upcoming 2015 spring turkey season. This will include a quota hunt on the Upper Obion River Complex made up of Bean Switch, Hop-In, Maness Swamp, C.M. Gooch, Obion River and Three Rivers WMAs, as well as a quota hunt on the Bogota Complex made up of Bogota and Tumbleweed WMAs."
Stanfield adds that there will also be quota hunts on the Earnest Rice Sr. Complex made up of Earnest Rice Sr. and Thorny Cypress WMAs. Turkey quota hunts have been added to John Tully, Moss Island and White Lake WMAs as well. The biologist says that these outings "will offer some very good, quality turkey hunting opportunities for the hunters that take advantage of the quota hunts."
The biologist also relates that a number of counties produced super sport this past spring and will likely do the same this year. Incredibly, seven counties accounted for more than 400 birds tagged: Henry (674), Hardin (566), Hardeman, (482), Weakley (444), Carroll (434), Humphreys (431) and McNairy (404).
Region II: Middle Tennessee
Doug Markham, information and education officer for Region II, spends a lot of time following Middle Tennessee's turkey prospects.
"We are having a few population problems in southern Middle Tennessee and so a few counties that have been historically good are down a bit: Giles, Lincoln and Lawrence among them," he said. "Maury County has had a lot of success in recent years and also includes the Yanahli WMA. Counties that have WMAs with decent turkey results are Rutherford with Percy Priest WMA and Franklin with its Bear Hollow WMA, which has good public access. Hickman County does well with its harvests, but hunters will have to knock on a door or two for permission."
The 12,800-acre Yanahli WMA accounted for 123 toms, while 14,500-acre Percy Priest recorded 38 and the 15,000-acre Bear Hollow contributed four birds.
Markham also had this interesting suggestion for sportsmen living in or visiting Region II.
"The Yanahli WMA has the Duck River running through it," he said. "The spring is a great time to catch fish and an opportunity to hunt for a while and fish for a while. The Bear Hollow WMA is unique for its beauty. It's a big mountainous place, but it has a good turkey population and is a great place to spend a night or two. There is a local private campground near Bear Hollow WMA and Tims Ford Reservoir is nearby, too."
The counties that Markham mentioned achieved the following harvests: Maury (1017), Giles (647), Hickman (599), Rutherford (553), Lincoln (481), Lawrence (261) and Franklin (181).
Region III: Cumberland Plateau
The dominant public land in Region III is the 250,000-acre South Cherokee. This unit of the Cherokee National Forest relinquished 153 gobblers to sportsmen in 2014. The North and South units of the Cherokee are linked by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With such a vast amount of acreage, just how does a turkey hunter begin a quest on where to go afield this spring?
A prudent first step is to check the national forest's website. Another helpful site is recreation.gov. Then contact one of the four ranger districts directly: Unaka, Ocoee, Tellico or Watauga. Personnel at these offices can give insight on individual coverage areas. But turkey enthusiasts will still have to narrow their searches on where to hunt. That's why pre-season scouting is so important.
Ethan Brant, who works in the hunting department at Mahoney's Outfitters in Johnson City, has numerous tips on finding a turkey friendly spot on the Cherokee.
"There are lots of things to look for," he said. "An ideal spot would be a flat bench on the side of the mountain that still has acorns left from the fall. I examine the crops on all the gobblers that I kill, and you'd be surprised on how many have acorns inside, even in the spring. I also like to find some tall roost trees overlooking this bench, maybe some pines or mature oaks. Gobblers and hens like to pitch down from somewhere steep onto a bench.
"If this bench was just absolutely perfect, it would also have a stream flowing through it, which would make the area surrounding it green up faster in the spring. A spring seep would be almost as good to have."
Lusher vegetation presented by springs, streams and seeps, also present another turkey draw — protein-filled food such as salamanders, crayfish, frogs and minnows. Look for turkey tracks and droppings around these water sources, and, of course, within the bench itself says Brant.
A number of Region III public lands boasted harvests of more than 300 birds: Clay (457), Overton (449), Jackson (405), Warren (352), White (333), Dekalb (324) and Putnam (300).
In addition to the South Cherokee, some other public lands are worth checking out this spring, too. Kirk Miles, Region III Wildlife Program manager, lists three public lands as likely being prime this spring: the Yuchi Refuge, Catoosa WMA and Bridgestone Firestone WMA.
The 2,474-acre Yuchi Refuge (5), located in Rhea County, is one of the TWRA's newer public land parcels, being added in 2010. Located along the Tennessee River, Yuchi is mostly known for its bottomland hardwoods. The 82,000-acre Catoosa WMA (57), situated in Cumberland and Morgan counties, is very heavily forested. And the 10,000-acre Bridgestone Firestone WMA (9), positioned on the White and Cumberland counties' line, is known for its wide variety of habitats.
Check for Point of Aim
Larry Proffitt believes that turkey hunters should check for their shotguns point of aim before entering the woods this spring.
"A shotgun should shoot to point of aim at 20 yards," he said. "There's no worse thing to a hunter than a gun that doesn't impact where you are looking. Hunters should also realize that though there's a lot of emphasis today on extra tight chokes, some may be too tight for an individual gun or for the type of hunting a person does.
Since Proffitt mostly hunts woods, with the occasional field, he wants a pattern that is a size of a grapefruit at 18 yards. He also, however, carries a modified choke in his vest, so he can easily change if he goes from the woods to a field or vice versa. He doesn't always believe that every turkey gun has to have an extra-full choke because many turkey loads already shoot tighter, making a gun shoot very tight before adding a turkey choke. He believes that saturating a piece of 8.5x11 inch paper at 50 yards may mean a miss at 18.
"Further, to test the point of impact of my turkey guns I buy a box of Winchester Super Sporting Clays shells in 7 1/2 or 8 shot. They shoot the same point of impact as my turkey loads, which are Winchester Double X 3-inch mag 2-ounce No. 4s. This is serious business to me when I miss. Remember, those who say they don't miss are plain liars, or they don't turkey hunt much. I am teaching my grandsons that the turkey is supposed to win more than half the time if we are hunting him fair chase."
I will be afield somewhere in East Tennessee on April 4 and imagine many of you will be hunting somewhere that day, as well — so good luck.