Big South Fork National Recreation Area is one of the few properties managed by the National Park Service that allows hunting. Being a resident of Tennessee, I have long thought that I should take advantage of the opportunity to hunt not only such a large property that offers historical significance, but that I strongly believe many of our National Park systems should be open to hunters as a user group and, biologically speaking, the properties are in need of hunting. Alas, that is a different conversation altogether.
On the Tennessee side, Big South Fork is open to most of the statewide hunting seasons, but one should bare in mind, at least with regards to deer hunting, that Scott county is a “Unit B” county. For deer hunting, Tennessee has 3 different units. About half of the state consists of “Unit L” counties where bag limits are 3 antlerless deer per day every day, all season. “Unit A” counties have more restrictions on antlerless harvests and “Unit B” counties have the most conservative bag limit restrictions on antlerless deer. All units are open to 3 antlered deer per season. As the bag limits imply, many parts of Tennessee have fairly high deer populations, especially where there is agriculture, while other counties, mostly on the Eastern portion of the state, support far less numbers of deer. So, it may seem a bit non intuitive for a hunter who lives in, hunts in and is surrounded by not only counties with high deer populations, but some of the more “destination” deer hunting counties in the state to drive three quarters of the way across Tennessee to hunt in a county that has a very low deer population, but hunting is about experience as much as anything and Big South Fork presents the opportunity to turn deer hunting in Tennessee into a bit of an adventure, so why not take advantage?
Shaking off a whisky hangover after a night of catching up with an old friend, I arrived in BSF with plummeting temperatures and a light snow. Most of the country was experiencing an arctic blast and nightly lows were looking to be in the teens. I spent a little bit of time on the scenic and historic John Muir Trail.
This section of the trail follows an old railroad track. After making a river crossing, I was off trail and, finally seeing a little bit of deer sign. Going off trail, the first thing I noticed was how deep the leaves were and, with the frozen snow on the ground, how incredibly loud I sounded walking through the woods.
I spent some time investigating various terrain features and trying to figure out how the deer were using the terrain. Upon meeting a tributary, I turned North in a drainage towards the Kentucky state line, establishing camp about 4.5 miles from the nearest point of access on the Tennessee side, my thinking being that, short of hunters coming across the Kentucky state line (which would require a license in both states), I would find myself based in a unpressured area.
20.5 oz, Titanium Goat wood stove and chimney rolled up. The stove proved its worth on this trip as the temps dropped into the low teens with high humidity and most of my days were spent hunting shady drainage systems with cold air coming off the creeks.
In addition to providing warmth during the nights, the stove created a dry environment where my gear could dry out each night and that stood in stark contrast to the heavy, damp air that was constant throughout the trip.
As is typical with hunting rolling hills, the deer had a system of established trails traversing the mountain slopes and hillsides. In this case, there were usually three: One at the base, one a third of the way up and one on the upper third. In the event there was a saddle at any point along the ridge, there was usually a trial there leading over the top of the mountain. I was not able to find a place where I had the visibility or shooting lanes to cover an entire sloop that had multiple trails, but I did find places where the terrain got so steep that any trail systems were funneled into one trail. I focused on these funnels. I also spend some time sitting on ancient, overgrown logging roads, a saddle at the top of a mountain, and, the best looking and most used feature of all: the confluence of three creeks.
The upper portion of the hills and mountains were jungles of Mountain Laurel that were impossibly thick and made for perfect bear habitat. I had a hog permit for the area, but, despite such thick cover, I never saw any hog sign.
While down at the creek filtering water on the first day, I returned to find my Muzzleloader missing! I quickly found the gun laying down the hill. A bear had apparently wandered into camp and decided to eat my Muzzleloader! It picked up the gun, which was in this rifle cover, and slung it around. The gun came out of the cover and slide down the hill. The bear then ripped the rifle cover up, leaving holes and teeth marks. Fortunately, most of the snow had already moved out.
After posting a couple of pics and brief story on Instagram, the the rifle cover manufacture immediately offered to replace the cover. I thought that was a very generous customer service gesture on the part of SoloHunter. After all, it was not a manufacturing flaw that caused a bear to eat my Muzzleloader for lunch.
Hovering over the wood stove while rehydrating some dinner. On the coldest day, I returned to camp a few times over the course of the day to make sure there were coals still in the stove. As soon as I got back after dark, I cranked this thing wide open to warm myself back up.
With frozen snow on the ankle deer leaves, putting in long hours over terrain funnels was the only type of hunting that made sense. Walking around in the woods was incredibly loud. I did, however, spend some time stalking up shallow creeks (much to the dismay of my freezing toes!) since that was a relatively quiet way to move.
There is a new, boutique brand of dehydrated meals on the market called Heather’s Choice. They are made using all premium ingredients and most of them are Paleo. These meals are great. I ate the Chocolate Chili (I usually won’t eat dehydrated chili), Rancheros, and Salmon Chowder and they were all top notch. I also enjoyed the Buckwheat Breakfast and Snackaroos. Mountain House brand meals are just too bland for me. Backpacker’s Pantry gets more creative with the menu, but comes up short on flavor. Alpine Aire is my second favorite with Heather’s Choice at the top. -be sure to check these meals out.
I hunted this saddle on the last day. It was one of the few more open areas I could find up high. By this point, I was tired of sitting in cold creek bottoms and not seeing anything. There were a number of tracks leading up and over this feature, but only 1 set of deer dropping that I could find.
The home of Davy Crockett, the hills of Tennessee.
Overall, this was a pretty sobering experience in terms of deer encounters. The bear, population, however, must be on the rise as I saw bear sign everywhere. I did buy a hog permit, but saw no sign and I swear I heard an Elk cow call one night.
The wind was very funky and shifted constantly the entire time, blowing one direction in one drainage system and the opposite in the next. Hunting down low by the creeks at least afforded dependable wind since the cold air coming of the water is going to rise. *Note: You will feel every bit of that additional cold air*
I was also surprised at how rugged the terrain was off trail. I have pretty good ankle mobility and strength and that’s a good thing because even with burly hiking boots on, my ankles took a beating with all the twisting and turning on leaf covered rocks and hidden holes. Difficult deer hunting, good adventure; I’d do it again -might even make an annual trip out of it.
Gear: Exo Mountain Pack, Zamberlan Boots, Kuiu, First Lite, Sitka, Icebreaker, Knight Muzzleloader, Titanium Goat stove, Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter, SoloHunter rifle cover, Smartwool Socks, Heather’s Choice meals, Pemmican, JetBoil, Enlightened Equipment down quilt, Thermarest, Black Rock down beanie , Black Diamond , Alpine Aire Seek Outside Sawyer Filtration