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Forecast By Will Leschper

It’s easy for Texas deer hunters to get spoiled.

Nearly every region of our state — which has the largest whitetail population in the country — is loaded with deer, making it easy in most seasons to fill a number of tags, if not all of them.

However, recent seasons have been tough, mostly due to lingering drought that won’t seem to let up. Those dry conditions have somewhat knocked back the overall deer numbers and left many hunters wondering when things will return to “normal.” The best aspect of Texas deer hunting is that even in what many hunters would consider “bad” seasons, the conditions are still pretty good, especially if you’re looking to take home some great-eating venison while helping out the other deer left on the range by allowing them to feast on the groceries that are left.

This fall has shaped up to be average in many regards, which isn’t a bad thing. In most locales, especially the Hill Country, in South Texas and East Texas, hunters should expect the forecast to shape up to be good, with deer densities that make hunters in many other states jealous with envy. On a personal note, the Edwards Plateau last season again offered me a blessed time in the field, although not quite up to previous standards that come with hunting this hotspot. The deer densities were noticeably lower last year during weeks of hunting, but that didn’t mean there weren’t still plenty of tags filled by our hunting group that includes family and close friends.

Other areas of the state that aren’t blessed with the same deer numbers are sure to be impacted by having fewer animals, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be many good mornings and evenings while sitting in your favorite deer stand.

With that in mind, here’s a look at your deer options, focusing on the prospects for harvesting more than one critter and in particular revolving around involving more than one young hunter, if you can.

Alan Cain, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department white-tailed deer program leader, said hunting conditions last fall and winter mostly centered around where you found yourself in relation to the associated animal densities. However, the overall outlook still looks good, something that simply can’t be dismissed as conjecture.

“In 2011 the state population was about 3.3 million whitetails and now it is about 3.1 million,” he said. “Keep in mind that going into fall 2011 there was bad drought and things didn’t do well. This year you would expect a little decline in the deer numbers. We wanted people to harvest more, which I think they did. And you probably had some local dieoffs of adult deer, though not much. We did see low fawn crops which means you’re not going to see deer recruited as well and see some population decline, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing statewide.

“I think it’s been a decent spring and we hope we get a decent fawn crop this year — even 40 percent — which is average statewide. In 2012 a fair number of people had a decent fawn crop. In 2011 we didn’t and you should see a decrease in 2 1/2-year-old deer. Still, a lot of those deer aren’t even 13 inches and eligible for harvest in those antler-restriction counties, which is why the restrictions are in place and have worked for biological reasons. There will be a gap in the age-classes across much of the state, but hopefully East Texas and some other notable places are buffered against that a bit.”

Cain also noted that carryover of younger deer bodes well not only for this season but at least the next two or three. “It’s been a relatively mild spring from what we’re used to, and that’s going to help a tremendous amount,” he said. “Biologists look at fawn crops for an entire ecoregion, and so there’s going to be some difference on different ranches.”

Cain said the theme for this fall again will focus on harvesting and making sure that animals left on the range will have every opportunity to thrive — or at least survive.

Texas archer Robert Taylor brought down this giant buck in Grayson County during the waning days of the state’s 2012-13 deer season.

“Our message to folks was get out and start reducing the population because of the drought, and so if they did that and knocked the numbers back and the drought knocked some numbers back, the densities are going to be a little bit lower,” he said. “Some hunters don’t particularly like that, but on the other hand you’ve got a lot more resources out there this year, nutritionally speaking, so the overall herd is going to do better.”

Cain noted that despite conditions that most hunters would say were bad, the overall prospects for deer hunting in Texas remain good compared with other states, especially in areas that traditionally carry lots of bucks and does.

“Hunters ought to feel lucky that we live in Texas with the largest deer herd in the nation. There’s a lot of opportunities to harvest quality bucks wherever you’re at anywhere in the state. Our biggest problem is that we probably don’t harvest enough deer, which is good that hunters have the opportunities to harvest more deer.”

Gary Calkins, Pineywoods district biologist for TPWD, said the region is primed to remain among the best places to hunt in the state, especially with such good forage.

“It made hunting extremely difficult because deer simply did not move,” Calkins said. “The flip side to that is the deer went into the winter in the best condition they probably have in many years.”

Calkins said there aren’t harvest objectives based on numbers that biologists stress hunters to harvest, but the main objective is focused on bigger bucks.

“We are trying to harvest enough antlerless deer to pull our sex ratios closer than they have historically been and harvest older age-class bucks,” he said. “The harvest was slow across the Pineywoods this year so it does not appear that a huge number of deer were harvested. We did see a good number of antlerless deer at the processors where we work, so that was a plus. We also saw some older age-class bucks, but not in the numbers we would like to see. It is impossible to say if this is because they just weren’t out there or if it was because the harvest was so slow.”

Calkins noted that fall seasons again have shaped up to be good, despite the efforts of hunters during the past season.

“With the decrease in harvest this year, it should be a good sign for next year as far as male age-class carryover is concerned,” he said. “But we will have to see what the density numbers look like this year with fawn recruitment to see what the carryover may do relative to overall numbers.”

Dana Wright, a TPWD biologist in the Rolling Plains/Panhandle region, said that portion of the state doesn’t receive the same hunting pressure as other areas, including the Hill Country, but hunters shouldn’t overlook that fact.

In fact, hunters looking for new areas and leases to chase after whitetails should be inclined to shift their efforts north, but it’s also good to temper expectations, even in a region that harbors some areas that can feature high whitetail densities on par with other notable hotspots.

“Most landowners and hunters reported seeing less deer compared to previous years,” she said. “TPWD biologists collect age and antler data from deer processors in the Panhandle; 64 percent of this year’s data was collected by me in the area that I cover. Less than 1 percent of the deer that we checked were 1/2 or 1 1/2 years of age. This tells me that we basically had no whitetail fawn production in 2011 and 2012 and are missing two age-classes of deer.”

Those under the Managed Lands Deer Permit program were also very conservative in their deer harvest this past year. Overall harvest was down considerably from past years.

Wright said that having less production can hinder deer management efforts — mainly due to decreased overall population figures — but that doesn’t necessarily bring a cause for concern if hunters looking to fill tags take care of the lands they hunt the best they can.

“Individual landowners practicing good habitat management practices, reduced livestock stocking rates or completely deferred grazing and providing supplemental feed, experienced higher fawn survival,” Wright said. “I think that because we are missing two age-classes of deer, four years down the road we will not see as many quality bucks being harvested from this area; we just won’t have the age structure.”

Wright pointed to rain and snow levels as having helped a large portion of the northern part of the state, which does feature relatively stable deer densities, especially toward the eastern edge of the Panhandle, near the Oklahoma border, in counties including Wheeler and Collingsworth.

“Pastures without adequate ground cover and forage will experience low fawn survival and herd recruitment. Especially hard-hit areas are the southeastern Panhandle counties. Northern Panhandle counties had moisture last winter, which will help the habitat recover, providing cover and forage for deer,” Wright said.

Kelly Edmiston, TPWD’s public hunting program coordinator, noted that the state offers a variety of inexpensive opportunities in state parks, wildlife management areas and even private ranches each year, with approximately 5,000 permits issued statewide. There also are numerous drawings for youth hunts, which not only can be a great way to introduce children to the pastime, but also to add to your potential meat supply.

And should you be lucky enough to gain entry to any of those areas, the old saying of venison being the most expensive meat per pound certainly doesn’t hold true considering the frugal nature of the program.

One way for some hunters who may not have access to leases or family tracts of land is to buy a public hunting permit, which costs $48, and take advantage of hundreds of thousands of acres that are available, Edmiston said. That permit can be used to gain access to a variety of resources on almost 900,000 acres.

“The APH permit allows you to choose from multiple areas to hunt for a variety of legal species,” Edmiston said. “You can select the time and place to hunt and you can utilize the areas as many times as you want.”

Another hunting tool that also has been implemented and embraced across the state is the Managed Lands Deer Permit program, which allows landowners more liberal frameworks for harvesting deer in exchange for allowing TPWD personnel to help manage and to keep records on private tracts in an attempt to better manage the overall population. MLDP program participants get more tags and are able to harvest bucks and does from October through the end of February each season.

There are three levels of MLDPs. Higher levels offer additional harvest flexibility to the landowner but also have stricter requirements. There is no fee or written application other than a Wildlife Management Plan approved by a TPWD biologist or technician.

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This season has shaped up to be relatively good regardless of what part of Texas’ whitetail country you’re hunting. There are opportunities galore when it comes to filling your tags, something that can’t be overlooked for a variety of reasons. Texas long has had the greatest whitetail hunting in the country, not just for the folks who can afford to spend the big bucks in their attempts to harvest the big bucks, but also for the average hunter who still enjoys hunting as much as possible but may not necessarily get to head afield as much as he’d like.

This fall again should be another perfect year to get back to the basics of deer hunting — mainly the opportunity to spend time outdoors during a splendid time of year while providing for your family should you enjoy success. And based on those figures from recent seasons, the vast majority of folks are.

Make sure that you’re able to carve out time this fall and winter to partake in the best deer hunting in the country. Hundreds of thousands of others certainly will.

Be sure to share your impressive deer photos with us on Game & Fish Camera Corner!