Hunting with My Camera in the Great Smoky Mountains

By

As we drove along the snow-dusted road from Townsend, Tenn., to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few days ago, I looked down in horror at the car’s outside air temperature gauge, which read 13 degrees. I’m one of those women who gets cold when temps dip lower than 70 degrees, but I was not about to let the below-freezing temperatures cool my enthusiasm for the day’s trip. I had prepared for extreme cold with layers of Prois jackets, shirts and fleeces, as well as my sassy, multicolored toboggan.

“Why did you have to pick the coldest day of the year for us to come up here and spend the day photographing deer and turkeys?” John Phillips, my photography partner and mentor, asked. But John was prepared with layers of clothing just as I was. We’d waited months for this trip, and there was no turning back now.

In addition to teaching me about freelance writing for hunting publications, John introduced me to the world of wildlife photography when I apprenticed with him several years ago. We love photographing all types of wildlife, especially deer and turkeys, and we’ve found the perfect place to get our fix. Cades Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains is a wildlife-photographer’s paradise. There’s no hunting in the national park, so the deer and turkey in the park do not scare easily, making them the perfect models for our photographs.

As you can imagine, taking good pictures of live animals to support the articles I write for hunting magazines and websites can be daunting at times. I’ve photographed deer while in the stand and turkeys from my hunting blind, but the images turned out horribly, and quite honestly, I don’t like having the added pressure of trying to get good photographs while I’m hunting.

In past years, we’d made trips to the Smokies in October and late December with good results, so I was worried our mid-February trip might be a bust. I was afraid the deer action would be dead and that all of the animals would be hunkered down in the timber in their efforts to avoid the blustery wind.

As we drove the 11-mile loop through the cove the first time, we spotted one buck dogging some does. So we jumped out of the car and headed off in their direction, but the does scattered. At first, I assumed we’d spooked them, but then we watched as a coyote barreled out of the woods in pursuit of one of the does. It chased her the length of the field, gaining little ground, but it didn’t give up until the doe was out of sight. We got back in our car and completed the loop without seeing any other deer. I worried that we’d driven all that way from Birmingham, Ala., for nothing. But as the sun rose in the sky and we began our second loop, the deer started pouring out of the timber into the fields. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. Despite it being mid-February, some of the bucks were still sparring with each other and chasing does, while others had dropped both antlers. By the end of the day, John and I had photographed between 12 to 15 bucks and several flocks of turkeys.

Although no one can hunt in the national park, I’ve noticed over the years that numbers of hunters visit the Smokies each year. They give themselves away with their camo jackets and hats and their educated comments about rack scores and body weight when a big deer comes into view. Like John and me, many hunters enjoy photographing big deer and other animals in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other national parks throughout the country. Of course, safety is always an issue. Although the animals seem docile, they’re still wild and people have been hurt and even killed by animals in national parks. John and I always bring our long camera lenses and take great care to keep a safe distance from the animals.

I look forward to returning to the Smokies this spring in an effort to photograph turkeys strutting and doing their thing. Do any of you enjoy photographing deer, turkeys and other wildlife? Where do you most often photograph the animals? Do you carry a camera with you when you hunt?