Texas' 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1
October 28, 2010
With a series of good deer seasons behind us, will that trend continue through this fall's hunts? Here are the answers you've been waiting for.
It's good to be a deer hunter in Texas, no matter what part of the state you call home.
We've long had the highest deer population in the country at nearly 4 million animals, even in average seasons, and no shortage of tags to fill in the process. This fall has shaped up to be above average in terms of deer available after impressive fall, winter and spring moisture levels this past year. There also was a significant carryover of animals across the state and there should be no shortage of forage this fall, which likely could present some challenges to hunters; deer won't have to move much to find food.
However, there should be plenty of opportunity to fill your freezer with tasty, high-protein venison later in the season for young and old hunters alike. With that in mind, here's a statewide look at what you can expect this season, and some of the top spots for filling your deer tags.
This region always is the first place to look for quality bucks, but it also boasts the second-highest harvest totals for the past decade. That simply means that while you may be looking for a Boone and Crockett bruiser in December, you also have the opportunity to fill your other tags and your freezer in the process.
Alan Cain, South Texas District Leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said his region continues to be a superb locale for deer due to a variety of reasons.
"This should be a good year overall in my opinion, and it's easy to see why since we had such a terrific winter and spring for rains," Cain said. "We had good moisture from down in the Valley all the way up to where I'm at in Pleasanton. There was one spell where we had 22 inches of rain in one big event, and that's something we haven't seen in years.
"All that moisture has led to exceptional forage and weed growth for deer and they also came through the winter OK, which is always great for the herds in South Texas. There were ranches that harvested does late under the Managed Lands Deer Program and those guys said those does they took even into February still had lots of fat on them. The moisture also bodes well for a great fawn crop, and it should be a fantastic year for production. We haven't seen conditions like this in 15 years or so. (Back in the spring and summer) the wildflower and vegetation growth was simply amazing."
Cain noted that while excellent moisture levels have laid the groundwork for an above-average season, the carryover factor can do nothing but contribute to an excess of deer across the region.
"As far as numbers of bucks, there was not a lot of buck mortality this past season, and there was a good overall winter survival rate of deer in South Texas," Cain said. "From a hunter perspective, the season could start slow down here just because there will be so many forage sources and deer won't have to move very far at all to eat.
"I would anticipate the season to pick up after the first few weeks and into the end of November and into December. Hunters should take as many does as they can this fall. There's going to be a surplus of animals on the range, and it's going to get competitive if the vegetation falls back this season."Cain also offered his take on age structure and what to look for this season.
"I expect there to be a decent number of 3 1/2- and 6 1/2-year-old bucks out there, and we had good fawn crops back in '04 and '07, the last times we had good moisture levels," he said. "Those older bucks will be at their potential or past it, and this could be a season when 4- and 5-year-old bucks are a little weaker. However, hunters should be cautious since some of those younger bucks out there might put on some extra weight with all the good forage and fool some people into thinking that they're 3 or 4 instead of just a 2-year-old deer."
Texas deer hunters should find bucks in fine shape and sporting excellent antlers this season. Buddy Traham shot this one while hunting near Mertzon last year. Photo courtesy of Henry L. Preidecker.
This portion of Central Texas containing most of 40 counties, including the venerable whitetail hotspots of Kerr, Kimble, Llano, Gillespie Mason, McCulloch and San Saba counties, is where the most deer are harvested annually in the state, and this year will be no exception. The prime habitat featured across the Plateau is home to some of the highest deer densities you will find in the country, and this season will feature a large carryover of animals, setting the stage for plenty of hunting opportunities.
Mike Krueger, TPWD's Edwards Plateau district leader, offered up this take on the situation. "One positive of carryover is just deer getting an extra year of age on them, and we should have a greater proportion of older age bucks in the population. The negative to carryover is just having too many animals on the range and that can lead to more competition. With our moisture levels, hunters can expect bucks and does to be in good nutritional condition and expect good fawn survival and good habitat.
"There's a saying that you can tell next year's deer season by the previous winter, so that bodes very well for most of the state and our region in particular."Ralph Suarez, a TPWD biologist in Ballinger, which is situated in the heart of great deer country, also pointed to positives. "The range is in as good a shape as I have seen it in quite some time," he said. "There is an abundance of weeds and wildflowers, some of which I haven't seen in several years. Wildlife should have no problem finding enough food resources to allow them to flourish. This in turn should allow them to go into their respective breeding seasons in great body condition.
"The near-normal rainfall patterns that occurred during the late summer and fall of 2009 set the stage for a tremendous recovery of range condition, which in turn allowed the white-tailed deer herd to be in very good body condition. This allowed does to breed up well and could result in a big fawn crop this year.
"The increase in total deer will make it imperative that managers balance deer numbers with available food resources. Carrying capacity, or the number of deer the range can support without causing damage to the native plant communities, will vary from ranch to ranch. Properly managed ranges that control livestock grazing and deer numbers can have a higher carrying capacity than ranges that may be heavily stocke
d with domestic livestock and/or deer."
Suarez noted that there should be no shortage of bucks, which could provide hunters in two-buck counties with more chances.
"Buck deer were also in good shape last winter as they entered the breeding season. Fortunately, the abundance of winter forage, native grasses and crops allowed bucks to recover from rutting activities fairly quickly. Buck deer may lose almost 25 percent of their body weight during the breeding season, and buck mortality can be higher when natural resources are in short supply due to dry conditions.
"That being said, I noticed antler growth in bucks starting early this year. During the spring season I saw several bucks with 2 to 4 inches of new-growth antler. Conditions are set to allow bucks to reach their potential for antler growth this year. With the below-average harvest last year, we could see more bucks that made it into this year and will be a year older.
Suarez said that in addition to the counties already noted, there are a few others in the region that feature habitat suitable to above-average deer populations.
"Some of the heaviest deer densities that I see occur in the southern portion of Concho County, and they range from 7 to 10 acres per deer," Suarez said. "Some of the habitats that occur in that area are more typical of habitats that you find in the Texas Hill Country -- lots of live oak, red oak, elbow bush, skunk bush and others. The northern part of the county is more typical of the Rolling Plains, landscapes dominated by mesquite, prickly pear, lote bush, juniper, lime prickly ash, etc. Deer numbers also are high in these areas, ranging from 10 acres per deer to less than 20 acres per deer."
Farther to the west, the sheep and goat country of the region is not often thought to be good deer country. However, this season surely will be improved for those hunters west of San Angelo.
Mary Humphrey, a TPWD biologist in Sonora, said that moisture is the key that will make this an above-average year in the west, spurring production of key deer food crops.
"Great diversity of weeds have been on the ground since fall 2009, and grass growing conditions started off rather slow in 2010 because of cool temperatures. But grass conditions improved greatly with the onset of somewhat warmer days. The flush of vegetative growth could actually have gained strength with a short drying trend. Autumn 2010 is predicted to be very wet and should round out the year nicely. The late winter and early spring of 2010 has been the first in a while that we have not lost a lot of plant growth or mast blooms to late freezes, so mast and mesquite bean production should be excellent."
This region is rich with deer-hunting history. Among the pine thickets and lush vegetation there should be plenty of animals available to hunters looking to utilize their tags. That's according to TPWD Pineywoods District Biologist Gary Calkins.
"The District is more or less split by those counties in the north that now have four years of the antler restrictions under their belt, and the southern counties with only one year under the regulation," Calkins said. "Both are probably looking at good years this year -- the northern portion due to the fact of the returns of the antler restrictions finally reaching the real payoff point as far as older bucks producing good antlers -- the southern portion because there was not as much hunting pressure for some reason, and so there is going to be a carryover simply from less harvest added to the first year of the antler restrictions."
Calkins said that despite some negatives over the winter, the animals in his region should have bounced back, and pointed to one large area that always has lots of deer.
"The deer came into the winter of 2009-10 in pretty good shape and had a spotty but good acorn crop," Calkins said. "It was a cold winter, but they seem to have come through in good shape. Early rains this year certainly helped. As far as numbers, any county in the northern portion of the Pineywoods is loaded with deer."
Jeff Bonner, a TPWD biologist in Pampa, said the eastern Panhandle remains a hotspot for deer, with populations on par with most counties farther south.
"Yes, we had a fabulously wet winter and early spring," Bonner said. "Counties with the highest deer numbers in the northeastern Panhandle continue to be Hemphill, Wheeler and Donley with wooded creek and river bottoms in Lipscomb, Roberts and eastern Gray bringing up a close second. Hunters should try their best to fill all of their doe tags and take advantage of the two-week doe-only season as some populations are reaching an "uncatchable" status.
"While rainfall is great for antlers, it also is great for fawn production, which frankly, in most parts of the northeastern Panhandle could use a break," Bonner said. "Multiple years of heavy doe harvest could be made null and void with a single year's huge fawn crop (80 percent or better). The flip side to that is lots of good bucks in four to seven years."
This deer season, again, should be one for the books -- in more ways than one. It seems there will be plenty of opportunities for hunters to partake in all that Texas deer hunting has to offer.
This just might be the rare year when a lot of Texas deer hunters fill all of their tags!