It took 27 years, but it finally happened. I was selected for the opportunity to hunt on the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant -now better known as the Enterprise South Nature Park.
But for those of us who grew up in Chattanooga, it will always be “VAAP.” For decades the 7,000 acre area was a top-secret, high security government operation where explosives were manufactured. I am told that a large percentage of the explosives that fell on Vietnam originated from behind the fence at VAAP. The area is dotted with munitions bunkers encased in six feet of concrete.
Long story short, that war ended, there was no need for so many bombs and VAAP went out of business. It took 30 years of cutting bureaucratic red tape, environmental studies and politicking, but now a major portion of VAAP is Enterprise South, home of Volkswagen Chattanooga and Amazon.
EARLY DAYS OF DEER MANAGEMENT
Deer were first released behind the fences at VAAP in the early 1970s when Roy Anderson, former assistant director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), brokered a deal to try and an experimental effort to establish a herd of black-tailed deer. Black-tailed deer are typically a western species, but Anderson wondered how they would thrive in a Tennessee environment. That effort failed when it was discovered that a parasite called “brain worms” thrived here. The parasite kills black-tailed deer, but oddly does not affect our native white-tailed deer. In the last 30 years the VAAP black-tails have died out, only to be replaced by large numbers of white-tails. While the general public has a tendency to believe that the huge fenced area is a relatively controlled environment, in reality fences mean very little to wild animals. When they wish, they will always find a way over, under, through or around.
TWRA has long cooperated with whatever government entity controlled VAAP to keep the deer population in check through restricted hunting. Hunters have always had to apply and be drawn lottery-style to be selected to hunt on the area. I have applied for the hunt, and failed to be drawn, since 1985-until this year.
Of course the only area hunted now is the 2,800-acre area known as Enterprise South Nature Park. Oddly, no one has ever protested the deer hunters using the area for the last 30 years-that is until Hamilton County made it a park and other people started using it. Then some of those folks wanted to kick the hunters out, even though a limited number of hunters get only four days a year to use the area while everyone else gets the remaining 361 days a year. Go figure?
When I was drawn for the hunt this year, I thought, “Oh great. I wait 27 years to get drawn for this special hunt and I will likely be greeted by protesters.”
THE HUNT – DAY ONE
Thankfully, the leader of the protests backed-off and I was greeted in the pre-dawn hours only by a kindly park ranger who bade me, “Have a good day.”
Mother Nature, and the deer, had other ideas however.
The weather forecast called for a mere 30 percent chance of rain. I pondered that while sitting high in my tree stand and the anticipated sunrise was virtually non-existent, blocked out by torrents of rain. My handy-dandy iPhone radar App showed me the rain would likely last until the afternoon. If I had shot an arrow into the air, I could almost have hit my house, but I’d waited for 27 years for the chance to sit in that tree with weapon in hand, so I wasn’t budging.
For this hunt, only bows or crossbows were allowed. With a primitive weapon such as a bow, in a forest before the leaves fall, you are generally limited to a maximum of a 30-yard shot — and often much less. Hunters might call that 30 yard radius around a tree stand the “Zone of Death,” for the non-hunters in the crowd however; we’ll call it the “Zone of Influence.” Which is actually far more accurate because as was about to demonstrate, it is far more common to “influence” deer than it is to kill them.
About 8:30 I peered through a hole in the underbrush and thought, “I don’t remember those two little trees right there.”
It is amazing how often hunters don’t spot a deer; they simply spot a little piece of a deer. In this case those two little trees were deer legs, more accurately, deer ankles. When one of the trees finally took a step, I was very proud of my keen eyes. With a little more movement, I was able to discern the entire deer… and its partner.
Hunters always expect deer to be moving through the woods from Point A to Point B. We forget however, that for much of their lives deer are like cattle in a field. They don’t go anywhere because they are already there. That was the case for those two deer because for an hour-and-a-half they grazed within a 30-square-foot area in a thicket just beyond my “Zone of Influence.”
Not long after they eased off deeper into the thicket, my keen eyes failed me. Every deer hunter knows that sometimes these animals possess the skills of David Copperfield. They can disappear, or appear, like magic. Such was the case as I scanned the forest in one direction for 30 seconds, only to turn the other direction and see an 8-point buck nearly under my tree. Later the range finder told me the buck was only 48 feet away, and closing at a fast walk.
Bowhunting for deer is all about decisions… where to sit, which direction to face, when to move and most importantly, when not to move. Sometimes the best decision when a deer is extremely close is to stay frozen, waiting until the animal walks past, or behind cover that with shield your movements. In the split-second I had to make it, that is the decision I should have made.
Some who protested the ESNP deer hunts felt it unfair to hunt “tame deer.” I wish those folks had been in that tree with me. One slight move of my hand to the crossbow and I was busted. The buck locked eyes with me for a millisecond and then turned, white tail waving like a flag of anything but surrender as it was consumed by the thich underbrush. The entire scenario from “seeing the buck” to “buck disappearing” transpired in perhaps two seconds, three on outside. I’m not sure, but it’s possible the rain disguised a tear or two on my cheek.
Four long hours later my keen eyes are back and I detect the tiny flick of an ear through the undergrowth. Three deer make their way parallel, again, moving fast. I see the largest doe headed for an opening just inside the “Zone of Influence.” She hits the opening and I grunt, stopping her in her tracks. The arrow flies and I see it sail cleanly, and harmlessly, just over her back. The fluorescent orange feathers gleam against the forest floor, mocking me as the doe rockets back into the thicket.
I wasn’t mad. I fully understood the error of my ways. The rangefinder told me instead of 30 yards, the doe was 26 yards. Plus from a tree, an arrow’s trajectory always tends to go higher than when you practiced on level ground. I failed to compensate for that and with the slightly misjudged distance, it was a clean miss. Chalk that one up to the fact that I don’t deer hunt as much as I used to.
Three hours later… about 6 pm and after 11 full hours perched in tree… I see another doe approaching along the creek bottom. I have tunnel vision watching her browse and pick up acorns along the creek bottom. Suddenly, from my right, another doe trots off the hill and stops 20 yards away. I know that this time because I have ranged the exact tree she stops beside. The sight finds the rib cage and I drop my aim slightly to compensate for the elevation. “Twang,” and the arrow flies.
It felt perfect and I assumed a hit even though I didn’t hear the tell-tale “Whack” of arrow piercing flesh. The deer bounded up the creek bottom as the other doe began to stomp her foot and snort her displeasure with the commotion. The deer I shot at stopped 60 yards out where I expected it to falter and fall.
Instead however, she turned broadside and ambled toward the thicket. I could see the ribcage clearly and it was all too obvious that this deer was unharmed. I was shocked. I climbed from my tree stand to check the arrow for blood, thinking maybe it was a third deer I watched amble off. The arrow was bloodless and I was left only with a primal pain that only hunters can know. It is an ancient reminder that there was time when missing meant you and your family may not survive.
That’s no longer true. There is a Bi-Lo just a long arrow shot in another direction. But as I’ve written before, my soul hasn’t caught up with my culture. I left the woods that evening thinking, or hoping, that, “Tomorrow is another day.”
THE HUNT – DAY TWO
Without any rain, sunrise of Day Two came more quickly. Unfortunately the deer did not. Perhaps it was bad luck, perhaps the deer just “weren’t moving,” or perhaps after Day One these “tame deer” had figured out that something was amiss. Whatever it was, six-and-a-half hours passed with no deer. Typically most deer hunters leave the woods midday when statistically, deer are less likely to be on the move. It’s a good time for lunch or a break from sitting on 2×2-foot platform 20 feet up in a tree. But on this 2-day, high demand hunt, I went in the woods determined to make it a “day-long sit.” It paid off.
About 1:30 I look up from my book (that’s a future article, BTW) and see a deer 60 yards up the creek bottom. Everything seems right about this situation… the deer is approaching from the exact direction I’d hoped and expected, the wind is right and I just barely have to shift in the stand to get ready.
I quickly realize it’s a buck… a spike buck, but its body size is quite small. As the buck approaches I ponder whether or not to try and take it, considering its size. Biologists say the small size is largely a factor of over-population on ESNP. Genetics is a factor, but they say primarily the ESNP deer are small simply because there isn’t enough quality food to go around for the number of animals.
I am honest to fault however and you need to understand, an over-population of deer is NOT the reason I chose to take the shot. If the spike had veered right or left and only offered a marginal shot, I might have held off. But this guy just made it too darn easy. When it was 33 feet away it stopped, offering the perfect shot, and I deperately needed redemption for my wounded pride from the day before. This time the arrow flew true.
The effectiveness of a well-placed arrow is an incredible thing to witness. The buck ran, but shot through the heart, he just barely got out of the “Zone of Influence” and was dead within seconds.
As I stood over the fallen deer, I knew there were five hours of daylight left and I was allowed to take two deer.
But no, one was enough for me and it was more important to get this one out of the woods and reduced to steaks in the freezer.
According to TWRA’s online records there were 26 deer taken during this ESNP hunt, including some bragging-sized bucks. There were 80 permits issued. Some hunters probably didn’t show up, and some hunters did take took deer. However those numbers equate to a 32.5 percent success rate, which is exceedingly high for any archery deer hunt.
A second hunt called the “Hunt for Warriors” will be held Oct. 22-23. The hunt is specially designated for wounded or injured veterans who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get in the woods. TWRA is working in partnership with Ft. Campbell Army base and the 101st Airborne, along with the Chattanooga Chapter of Safari Club International (SCI) to select the maximum 25 participants for the hunt. SCI is donating $3,500 to cover food and necessary lodging expenses for participants.
To those opposed to hunting at ESNP, I can tell you firsthand, the deer are not tame, there are too many for the habitat to support, and hunters deserve the same opportunity as you to take advantage of this natural resource. I promise I will never protest your right to hike or bike there. I simply ask that you provide me and my peers the same respect… and hopefully it won’t be another 27 years before I get another chance.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.