In 1972, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) completed a gigantic project creating a shortcut for moving commerce between the Tennessee River in the northeastern corner of Mississippi and the Tombigbee River in western Alabama. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is the nation’s largest water resource project ever, and it remains the largest earth-moving project in history.
How big? This project moved 301 million cubic yards of soil to create the waterway and series of 10 locks and dams. By comparison, constructing the Panama Canal took moving only 201 million cubic yards. The result was a 234-mile-long waterway that allows barges to cut hundreds of miles off the distance from Point A to Point B. It’s estimated the transportation savings to American consumers is about $113 million per year.
Another result of this gigantic project was the creation of hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland wildlife habitat and 52 public recreation areas. Most of these lands are owned by the COE but managed by the respective state wildlife agencies in Mississippi and Alabama. Above each lock and dam is a lake that tails down into more river-like conditions before it reaches the next impounded area. This creates an abundance of varied wildlife habitats.
Around 70,000 acres of land open to public hunting border the waterway, mostly bottomland hardwoods. Another 110,000 acres of public hunting land don’t touch the water. This land of course has formed a mecca for waterfowlers, but an entire culture of deer hunting has grown up around these opportunities as well.
An online search of deer hunting along the Tenn-Tom turns up a lot of photos of proud hunters holding onto good bucks while sitting in jonboats. Many of the public properties have road access, but they get heavy hunting pressure during deer season. For that reason, savvy hunters take to the water to access out-of-the-way places offering better chances of shooting mature bucks.
The hunter using a boat should be aware that this is a commercial waterway; large barges plow big wakes as they travel up and down the river. Care should be taken when tying off a boat so it doesn’t get swamped by a barge or other large vessel.
There’s not much farmland surrounding the waterway, so the daily focus of deer during the hunting seasons revolves around native mast and browse. Various oaks, along with hickory and sweet gum, are the primary tree species present. Because much of the floodplain is relatively open timber, deer often bed away from the water on brushy hills. Many of these hills are on private property, but the deer leave them in the evenings to feed in the lowlands.
The rut is a drawn-out affair compared to that seen in many other places. On the plus side, the presence of so much water, levees and borrow pits creates many “pinch points” in which a hunter can sit and wait out a rutting buck.
Most of the public properties are small blocks scattered among private properties, ranging in size from 200-300 acres to 20-30 acres. Some islands have good deer habitat and the deer along the waterway are not opposed to swimming from one area to the next, even in their daily feeding-to-bedding routines.
These smaller blocks can provide good hunting. Some offer little in the way of deer habitat, but others are overlooked gems. Research through aerial photos and on-the-ground scouting is the way to find out what a given property offers. Along the waterway public properties are well marked, and exiting your boat onto private property is trespassing. So extra care must be taken when scouting and hunting the waterway.
Mississippi and Alabama are well known for their deer-hunting clubs and managed lands. Large blocks of well-managed private properties border some public areas, so a hunter who does the research can find a public spot offering a chance to shoot a buck that’s 4 1/2 years old or older.
Most deer in this area lack the quality soils, agricultural food and genetics it takes to grow big racks rivaling those of Midwestern bucks. The average mature buck will score between 120 and 130 inches, with an occasional trophy of 140. A few outliers reach 160, but they’re rare. Hunters who take on the challenge of hunting the Tenn-Tom do so for the unique experience it offers, rather than inches of antler.
Hunting these areas is restricted to the use of primitive weapons: shotguns loaded with slugs and archery. Also, more than a dozen areas are designated archery-only. No firearms of any kind are allowed until after archery season, when small-game hunting is allowed. These properties offer an excellent chance to hunt deer in their natural daily patterns and are good choices for early-season bowhunts.
Once the rut arrives, more hunters arrive with it, but most of these archery designated areas still offer a hunter some elbow room. Naturally, the harder it is to access the property, the more space a hunter will find there.
Some hunters enjoy success by locating backwaters they can penetrate with a small boat, then hike to places where most other hunters aren’t willing to go. Many also use hip boots or waders to get away from hunting pressure.
To hunt deer you’ll need licenses and deer tags for the state in which you’re hunting, along with a free permit from the COE. Licenses and tags in both Mississippi and Alabama are reasonably priced and available at any license vendor. Free COE permits are available online or from any COE office.
Looking for a different kind of DIY whitetail experience? The Tenn-Tom Waterway offers a chance to see some unique country and hunt deer in unusual habitat. It’s not a big-buck destination in the classic sense, but it offers the chance to try something new and go home with a representative deer for the area. That combination should appeal to the adventurous whitetail enthusiast.