December 18, 2017
While the weather is cold and sometimes harsh, Tennessee fishing and hunting options still abound in the winter months for sportsmen and women.
The cold winter morning was filled with anticipation as the seasoned hunter laced up his boots. Slipping on an old hunting coat and filling a pocket with a generous handful of shells, he eased toward the back door and alerted a little feist that it was time to go hunting.
He grabbed up his Remington single shot and the pair headed out across a hayfield toward a hardwood ridge. The sun had already cleared the tallest trees as the duo made their way to the top of the ridge.
After reaching level ground, the man quickly located a huge white oak to lean against while the pup combed the area. The entire area was loaded with red and white oaks, which had produced an outstanding mast crop that year. A few dogwoods filled in gaps between the oaks and numerous hickory trees.
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Several beech trees, which had also produced well, dotted the ridge. The feist wasted no time barking out a signal that a squirrel was in one of the bigger beeches. The hunter readied his rifle while scanning the limbs.
Finally spotting a critter, he eagerly waited for an opportunity to take a shot, which came in an instance. The rifle's report echoed through the woods and a thud soon followed as a healthy gray squirrel hit the forest floor.
This hunt was one of many that my old friend Kenneth Myatt enjoyed more than 50 years ago, long before whitetails and wild turkeys were the prominent species on hunters' minds.
Small game hunting was king and many outdoorsmen regularly chased rabbits, squirrels, quail and more. As deer were stocked, small-game hunting sort of took a back seat to the growing popularity of whitetail hunting.
Many hunters were first introduced to the outdoors through squirrel hunting. Others were broken in chasing a pack of beagles in hopes of getting a shot at a wily rabbit, while more still felt the rush of watching a bird dog go to point before a bobwhite quail flushed as their first hunting experience.
In modern times those same encounters can be created to bring back the passion of small-game hunting, but hunters must find quality areas to hunt.
Fortunately, Tennessee contains thousands of acres statewide available to the public for hunting and fishing activities. Stretching from the Mississippi River to the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee offers hunters and anglers plenty of choices of where to go fishing or hunting.
Doug Markham of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency noted that unlimited opportunities exist for sportsmen across the state, many of which are underutilized in terms of small game, even though squirrels are abundant. Many areas also have decent populations of both rabbits and quail.
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As with any type of wild game, food, water and habitat are key components in having a good population for hunters to pursue. Squirrels mainly depend on a good mast crop each year to help them thrive. In low mast-producing years or in areas with little to no mast producing trees, squirrels have been known to work on corn crops.
Quail food sources range from insects to a variety of wild seeds and fruits, but populations have declined in recent years because of habitat loss, such as the loss of hedgerows and overgrown fencerows. Bobwhite quail are one of the most sensitive small-game animals in regards to habitat conversion and alterations.
In the western portion of the state, Markham describes Natchez Trace WMA as a prime destination for avid small-game hunters in search of getting a limit of squirrels. The 48,000 acres almost entirely consist of woods with some thick areas that should hold cottontails and quail. And since the property is located on both sides of I-40 within Benton, Carroll and Henderson counties, access is excellent.
Another location to consider for both big and small game is Yanahli WMA, as the area has very diverse habitat. The abundant hardwoods hold a hefty squirrel population, while other areas contain fair numbers of both rabbits and quail. However, weekends can be crowded, so consider a trip during the week.
Further east is another destination to consider. Catoosa WMA contains more than 79,000 acres, with an excellent squirrel population. Also, the Cherokee National Forest is a main draw for big- and small-game hunters alike, in both the north and south sections. Squirrels are notoriously abundant but could possibly pose some difficulty due to the rugged and vast terrain; scouting before the season should help.
Cherokee NF is also a good area to pursue grouse. The habitat is more than sufficient, but grouse are very reclusive, which thwarts many hunters.
One place that is often overlooked, according to Markham, is Chuck Swan WMA. The area holds healthy rabbit and squirrel populations, but there is no quail hunting allowed on Chuck Swan.
LATE SEASON DEER
In addition to small game, Natchez Trace WMA is an excellent choice for whitetail hunters, as it is no slouch when it comes to deer populations and actual harvests.
Of course, since the rut is pretty much over, food is key in the late season, as deer are trying to put on weight.
Deer hunting on Yanahli has been pretty good in recent years with it routinely ranking fairly high in harvest numbers. Additionally, being open with the statewide seasons offers plenty of chances, but that can also mean it might be a little crowded.
Go For The Food
The late season can be uneventful for deer hunters who are not targeting food sources. Keying in on what is available in the area can lead to harvesting that big buck that has eluded previous attempts. An oak tree that is holding on to a few acorns could be the hotspot as the season winds down. That small food plot created in an opening deep in the hardwoods just might pay off as other foods diminish. Or simply logging time around crop fields that contain just enough to keep the deer interested is a good late season plan.
Catoosa WMA offers whitetail hunters some challenging real estate in their attempt to punch a tag. Archery hunting is non-quota, as are youngster hunts on specified dates, but all firearm and muzzleloader hunts are limited draw, and the whole area has antler restrictions.
Deer hunting the Cherokee National Forest is popular, but it is also challenging to outwit a mountain whitetail. Hunters need to diligently prepare and plan ahead when deciding to tackle a hunt in this area regardless of what game. The South Cherokee late season deer hunt is being held from Dec. 11 to Dec. 25. North Cherokee is open for deer under the statewide season but during the gun season only antlered deer can be harvested.
Fishing is an activity that can be utilized year 'round for many different species of fish. Just because it is cold outside does not mean the fish are not biting.
In fact, winter is an excellent time to pursue sauger on Kentucky Lake with jigs, in a variety of colors, tipped with a minnow, especially around Pickwick or Paris landing.
Another wintertime fishing destination is the Dale Hollow Lake because of its reputation for trophy smallmouth bass. In fact, Dale Hollow just happens to be where the world record smallmouth — 11 pounds, 15 ounces — was caught. The winter months are prime time to try and break the existing record from the crystal clear lake. In recent years, its largemouth bass population has grown extraordinary, which has escalated its notoriety as a pristine fishing tournament destination.
In addition, striper fishing on Tims Ford has long been a wintertime pursuit.
Even though a lot of time has passed and things have changed dramatically, there is no reason the tradition of small-game hunting cannot gain some popularity back. I am as guilty as anyone of losing interest mainly due to other hobbies, priorities and excuses. We all need to think back when just being in the outdoors was good enough no matter what you were hunting for or trying to catch.Our state is chock-full of wild game and we are all fortunate for their existence and the opportunities they all provide for every Tennessee sportsman.