For a state over 400 miles wide, with whitetails found in numbers from one end to the other and public land sprinkled all around, Tennessee gets little notice as a bowhunting destination.
That’s probably because these days most whitetail bowhunters have plenty of deer around home — wherever home might be — and aren’t inclined to travel far unless lured by the dream of bigger antlers than are realistic to find locally. And until recently, Tennessee never had produced enough mega-bucks with any weapon to be considered a magnetic draw for the trophy crowd.
That perception began to change when, on Nov. 7, 2016, Sumner County muzzleloader hunter Stephen Tucker downed the world’s top-scoring hunter-taken buck of all time. A 47-pointer with a net score of 312 0/8 inches on the Boone & Crockett system will tend to get folks’ attention. Sure enough, overnight Tennessee was on every whitetail hunter’s mind, if not on their travel itinerary.
Of course, one buck doesn’t make a pattern, no matter how big he might be. Bowhunters interested in exploring the Volunteer State should prepare themselves for the reality that, in terms of trophy deer, Tennessee can’t compare with Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois or Indiana, the other states in the unofficial “300 Club.” But from a bowhunter’s perspective, what Tennessee can offer is an affordable over-the-counter license, a multi-buck bag limit and the opportunity to hunt just about every imaginable type of inland whitetail habitat.
The extremes of elevation range from 6,634 feet above sea level atop Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies down to just 178 feet near Memphis. And as you might imagine, the landscape changes a lot between those spots. East Tennessee is largely forested mountains of hardwoods separated by scenic river valleys. Just to the west lies the Cumberland Plateau. Then you hit slightly less rolling Middle Tennessee, of which Nashville is the human hub. Finally, keep heading west and you’ll reach the flatter Gulf Coastal Plain, known for the inland port city of Memphis and some of the South’s most fertile farmland. Geographically, it’s a really diverse state.
As the accompanying map of all-time P&Y entries shows, the most productive trophy areas are more scattered than in some other states. Despite the Tucker buck having made the farmlands of Sumner County a known whitetail location, that northern county hasn’t historically been one of the top places for big bow bucks. It doesn’t mean Sumner can’t produce them, only that if you look in the record book you won’t see many from there. This of course can happen anywhere in whitetail country, as many factors other than trophy harvest can impact how many deer end up being entered and certified at qualifying scores.
Most of the best deer hunting in Tennessee is on managed private land, as is almost universally the case across the whitetail’s range. Fortunately for the nonresident, the Volunteer State has a ton of public ground with good deer numbers and reasonable trophy prospects. You can access wildlife management areas and other public areas in every physiographic region, including some spots that offer a true backcountry experience. The big mountains of East Tennessee will challenge a deer hunter every bit as much as many places in the Rockies will, with a lot less time and money required for travel and tags. The deer densities in Appalachia aren’t high, but there are some mature bucks for those willing to work hard and smart.