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Tennessee Sportsman Magazine

Deer Hunting the Chuck Swan WMA

After years of decline, the Chuck Swan WMA is coming back under the effects of new management efforts.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Dan Kibler

The Chuck Swan WMA in East Tennessee has been one of the finest public-land opportunities for deer hunters for decades. In fact, the deer herd on the 24,444-acre peninsula between the Powell and Clinch River arms of Norris Lake was so good during the 1970s that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency trapped almost 1,000 deer and moved them to other spots in the state to help establish herds.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, things started to go wrong on the big chunk of land in Campbell and Union counties. The herd got too big, and the deer didn't get big enough.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, when the deer density got real high, we were killing 1,200 or 1,300 deer every year, and there were 4 1/2-year-old deer taken here that weighed maybe 60 to 65 pounds (field dressed)," said John Mike, the TWRA's area wildlife manager for Chuck Swan. "Then, the deer herd really dropped off four or five years ago. We didn't even kill 200 deer that year.

"I've been here three years, and we've cut back on the number of hunts. Now, we're monitoring (the herd) real close, and it's coming back."

That should be great news to hunters across the state, and particularly in East Tennessee, who for years considered being drawn for a hunt at Chuck Swan as the highlight of their seasons.

This fall, the TWRA will hold two either-sex archery hunts at Chuck Swan (late October and early November), a muzzleloader hunt in November, a juvenile hunt in late October and two gun hunts (one in November and one in December). The hunts will be two days each, and they will be limited to between 750 and 800 each, except for the juvenile hunt - which will include 200 youngsters - and hunters must apply for hunts and be drawn by computer, usually in July before the season.

Bag limit for the special hunts will remain one deer, with some hunts allowing does to be taken and some allowing only antlered bucks. Except for the juvenile hunt, all deer taken will be considered "bonus" deer and will not count toward a hunter's statewide bag limit.

"A lot of people had become discouraged and had quit putting in for hunts, which is why a lot of people were drawn for two hunts last year," Mike said. "But it's improving. We're producing some good deer. Chuck Swan has always been, traditionally, a place where you wouldn't go for big deer, but you'd go because you'd have a good opportunity to take a deer.

"I want to get it to where it will be that, but where the deer will be in a little better shape."

To that end, Mike and two other TWRA employees who are assigned to the Chuck Swan WMA have been spending a lot of time afield. Make that, in fields. Mike is supervising a project that will go a long way toward providing quality food for wildlife on the Chuck Swan and will help improve the overall health of the deer herd in the process.

"Last year, we had 150 acres of corn planted, scattered all over the area, and about 130 acres of milo - the wildlife game food-plot milo. And we planted about 200 acres of lespedeza," Mike said. "We've got nine miles of linear openings planted in warm-season grasses and buckwheat."

Mike estimates that he'll have around 2,000 acres of open land under cultivation this year - about 6 to 8 percent of the Chuck Swan's total area.

In addition, state foresters have done a lot of timber cutting in response to infestations of pine beetles, so there are some recently clear-cut areas that are providing deer with a tremendous amount of browse.

The annual deer harvest on the Chuck Swan began to drop precipitously in the 1990s. In 1997, it was 457 deer; in 1998, 404. The low point was 2000, when only 198 deer were taken, but that's when things started to turn around. The harvest was 221 in 2001, 240 in 2002 and 261 in 2003. Mike said that the ratio of bucks to does in the harvest is around 4-to-1, a number that he's comfortable with as far as having a baseline to rebuild the herd.

"We haven't done anything to try and calculate the herd density as far as real numbers are concerned," Mike said. "The biggest thing we use is an APC count, a parasite count. We go out and kill five does during the summer and work them up, and while the condition of those deer doesn't give us a real exact guess at the number of deer we've got, it gives us an index of what it needs to yield. You can have computer-generated numbers, and they can either be way off or right on line, but with the APC, it's very, very accurate.

"I'd like to see our harvest back up to around 400 or 500 deer (around 10 per square mile). When we get to that level for two or three years in a row, I'll start thinking about adding antlerless hunts to help sustain the population."

Mike believes that an early-January either-sex gun hunt that was popular over the past 10 years was among factors that contributed to some overharvest of deer on the Chuck Swan. That hunt was discontinued recently, and Mike also got a non-quota bucks-only hunt and a December either-sex archery hunt discontinued.

"There are different sections of the Chuck Swan where we have different deer densities. We've had some areas with 3- to 5-acre corn fields where, by December, you couldn't find 12 stalks standing, and other areas that don't look like they've ever been touched," he said. "But we're starting to see big deer again. There was one muzzleloader hunt during the rut a couple of years ago where, in one day, we had 18 deer checked in that field dressed between 105 and 140 pounds. When you're seeing that, you know that something is right.

"We're going to really look at it closely and keep it monitored. I believe that body weights will be really high this year, but I don't think antler characteristics will be as good. We had almost a total mast failure (in the fall of 2003), and one key factor in East Tennessee, even with all the food plots we have, is the acorn crop.

"This year, we put out minerals, 600 pounds of salt. We put them out in the spring before the does started dropping fawns, because they need extra minerals in their diet while they're lactating. And the bucks can use them when they're forming antlers. This year, it looks to us like they used them all year long."

Mike said that the two-day muzzleloader hunt is easily the most popular among hunters, because it hits very close to the peak of the rut. "That's been our most sought-after hunt for deer," he said. "The two gun hunts are usually the first two weekends in December, and a lot of people will put in for the gun hunt. They'll go back and forth on the application between the gun hunts and the muzzleloader hunts as their first choices."

Hunters can obtain applications for the Chuck Swan and other WMA hunts from the TWRA through the regulations digest. Hunters are asked on the application to select their first, second and third choices for hunts. Mike said that the applications are processed by computer, and that the computer sorts through hunters' first choices, awarding hunts to the lucky ones drawn, then works through their second and third choices.

"It's possible to get drawn for two hunts, and last year, a number of people had that happen," Mike said. "But since the deer herd is coming back, I think everybody is hearing about it. Especially last year during the muzzleloader and the first gun hunt, there were some nice bucks killed, and the phone has been ringing off the hook ever since."

The archery and juvenile hunts are for either sex; the muzzleloader and gun hunts are for antlered bucks only. Because deer taken don't count against the statewide bag limit, Mike believes that the Chuck Swan hunts could become very popular again with hunters if the TWRA decides to lower the season limit on antlered bucks.

Hunters are not allowed to access the Chuck Swan via Norris Lake using boats. They must enter by vehicle through the main gates. Hunters who are drawn for quota hunts are allowed to come in and scout at any time that another organized hunt is not taking place, either for squirrels or during fall turkey hunts in October. Mike said that hunters are allowed to come in and set up portable or climbing stands up to two days before their scheduled hunts, but gates are locked the night before a hunt and hunters aren't allowed in until the next morning.

All deer taken on Chuck Swan WMA hunts must be checked in through the main check station, where Mike and his crew will get weights, measure antlers and gather age information by taking lower jaw bones.


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