Texas'™ 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

Is this the year you finally bag the biggest buck of your deer-hunting life? We've compiled this information to help you achieve that very goal.

This is a big year for big deer my friends!

Regardless of whether you're hunting the Brush Country of South Texas, the oak, cedar and mesquite ridges of the Edwards Plateau or the pine thickets of East Texas, your chances of harvesting the buck of a lifetime are as high this fall as they've ever been.

Fantastic range conditions that stretched from last fall into this season have set the stage for great production and antler quality across the Lone Star State. No matter where you're hunting, the genetic potential of bucks also has improved dramatically from even a decade ago, thanks in large part to antler restrictions in more than 100 counties.

Alan Cain, South Texas District Leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, oversees what likely is the best big-buck habitat in the nation. He said this season is one that could shape up certainly as being one of the best in recent memory for large whitetails.

"The habitat's in great shape, and ultimately, if you can provide good nutrition, you're going to help them realize their genetic potential so to speak," Cain said. "Vegetation is great, and thanks to tropical storms and good spring rains, we could have added moisture all the way up to San Antonio, which could have helped finish off antler growth."

Cain said that it doesn't take much to figure out why South Texas continues to be such a fantastic area for quality whitetails.

"The age structure is better down here and deer just get older and produce better antlers in general," Cain said. "As far as trophy quality deer, I'm expecting good things. You just don't have years like this where you don't grow big deer — they just show up."

Cain said this season could be tough simply because there's so much forage to be had across the state, not just in his portion of Texas.

"I think honestly it's going to be tough on hunters early on just because it's so green, but we're seeing blooms on mesquite beans (in summer) and blooms will have beans potentially heading into August, September and early fall, which will keep deer from coming in to feeders," Cain said. "There also were little bitty acorns on live oak trees.

"If the deer have all this other forage, it's going to just be tough to find bucks unless a bowhunter or other hunters early in the season can pattern them before they break off from their summer patterns and the cool weather and rut start to pick up. Basically it's just going to be tough to find some of those bigger bucks just because the vegetation has been so green unless there was some kind of dropoff heading into the fall."

Cain said this season definitely has the potential to produce as many or more deer over the 200 Boone and Crockett mark than last season, which shaped up well with lots of carryover.

"I expect a good number of deer over that 200 B&C mark," Cain said. "You'll find some behind low fence and some behind high fence — it doesn't matter. The 'buck of a lifetime' is different for each person, but the conditions are set that the average guy could harvest the best deer for them. There's going to be good quality deer this year. That doesn't mean there will be 200-class deer behind every bush, but there are going to be a lot of people who kill a 3- or 4-year-old buck that's got good quality antlers. At some places under management they may consider that a mistake, only because they want the deer to get a little older."

Cain pointed to one thing when it comes to having a shot at a big buck this fall: hunting pressure. He also noted some of the top counties that again should produce big whitetails this fall.

"A lot of it comes down to management," Cain said. "When you look at low-fence places and success, you're just looking at spots that have limited hunting pressure and are buffered by larger properties. As far as counties, you've got to believe that the Dimmit, La Salle, Webb County areas are going to produce good deer. Then there's Atascosa, McMullen, places scattered around Starr County, and Frio. They may not produce as many big bucks as the others but they're going to have a good number. Even in Karnes and Wilson counties, which have been under antler restrictions for several years, they should expect to see good quality animals because they've gotten some age on them and the forage to expect good things."

One thing Cain noted about South Texas is the fact that there's more of a big-deer culture in which hunters and landowners buy into the theory of letting deer walk.

"You've got to have the deer get older and South Texas probably has more people who are more aware of that and take that into account in their management practices than other areas of Texas," Cain said. "Also, in general, hunter density is probably a bit lower. You've got larger acreages that buffer some of that hunting pressure, and limiting hunter access to some degree will aid the survival rates. In places like the Hill Country and Post Oak Savannah, you've got lots of 50-, 100- and 200-acre tracts of land where a whole family is hunting on there and killing four to 10 deer, or whatever the case may be.

"Probably 5,000 acres is the average down here and just the size helps buffer the hunting pressure. And once you take the age factor out of the equation, then you've got a little check mark on your side, especially with the vegetation out there. It's also just up to the deer taking advantage of the forage opportunities."

David Brimager, vice-president of hunting heritage for the Texas Wildlife Association, and who also oversees the Texas Big Game Awards program, said last season saw an increase in the number of overall entries into the program.

The author killed this 11-pointer in the Hill Country a couple of seasons back. This season is expected to be better for taking trophy bucks than any other that Texas hunters have seen in years. Photo by Will Leschper.

"This past season we had 1,065 scored entries, those that meet the minimum score requirements from the various regions," he said. That's up about 100 from the previous year, which had the fifth-lowest entry total in program history.

"We had 623 typical whitetail entries; those were down by about 10. There were 229 non-typical whitetail entries, which was up by 40 from the year before. We had 80 typical mule deer, which was up by 30, and we had 44 non-typical mule deer, which was up by 4."

Brimager said that even though entries weren't as high as in past seasons, this fall could likely be one for the books.

"I think we had some improved conditions last year, but I think this year could blow everything out of the water," Brimager said. "It did get dry over part of the summer, but if we got some more showers here and there heading into the fall, I definitely think it could be a banner year for us and for hunters."

Brimager said that even though many hunters take the buck of a lifetime behind a high fence or on heavily managed tracts of land, the majority of big whitetails entered into the program come from low-fence tracts and areas that really aren't under heavy management.

"You're probably looking at 80 to 85 percent of the entries coming from low-fence ranches," Brimager said. "And rifle is still the main harvest method, but bows, crossbows and handguns are picking up a little bit."

Brimager said there are a variety of reasons why more and more hunters are seeing and actually harvesting bigger deer in Texas these days.

"You're seeing an increase in habitat management and you're seeing an increase in people just letting the deer age," Brimager said. "I think the antler restrictions are helping in many of those counties that have antler restrictions. Those that have been in it for a long time are definitely seeing an increase in the quantity and quality of the deer they're harvesting, so it's helping by more hunters knowing more and wanting to learn more about how to grow bigger and better deer. It helps benefit all wildlife, not just the big game."

Jeff Bonner, a TPWD biologist in the Panhandle, echoed Cain and Brimager on the importance of age structure and the positive vibes being felt across the state, including in his region.

"It's hard to believe it (the 2010-11 hunts) could rival this past season with 22 bucks grossing over 170 and four over 200 across the entire Panhandle entered into the Texas Big Game Awards," said Bonner. "But everything is shaping up to be as good or better. Trophy potential is essentially steady all across the northeastern Panhandle, and the Panhandle is very strong genetically and nutritionally.

"The most limiting factor in this country is hunter patience. Now, you can't blame a guy for killing a 160-inch 4-year-old deer. However, there has never been a 180- to 200-inch deer killed that wasn't 160 at some point during his life, and the only reason he made it to 180 to 200 was because he didn't get killed at 160."

The age structure component of deer management is similar in the Panhandle and South Texas, mostly due to lower hunter densities at the "Top of Texas," but both areas will produce bucks sporting massive racks this fall, Cain and Bonner noted.

SOUTH TEXAS PLAINS

An inspection of TBGA entries again proves that the first place to look for big bucks is below Interstate 10 if you have the chance. South Texas again produced the highest number of TBGA entries, even though it has a higher minimum entry score than other regions. To be a TBGA entry from South Texas, a typical whitetail must score at least 140 Boone & Crockett points, while a non-typical buck must score a minimum of 155. In the Rolling Plains, High Plains, Cross Timbers and Edwards Plateau, a typical buck must meet a minimum of 130 and a non-typical 145. In the Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairies, Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies, the minimums are 125 and 140.

Kleberg County again led the way with 36 TBGA entries, followed by Dimmit with 28, Webb (24), Duval (18) and Kenedy (15).

EDWARDS PLATEAU

This region receives the most hunting pressure in the state, but it also stands up to that amount of hunting by producing the highest harvest rates annually. While a good number of hunters often harvest the first mature buck they see in this region, many hold out for better quality, and even in a somewhat down year last season, the area still gave up some big bucks.

Kerr County again produced the highest number of TBGA entries this past season, leading the region with 20. Other counties that had fair showings to the west were Irion with 8 and Tom Green at 6.

PINEYWOODS

East Texas hunters reaped the benefits of a wetter season than other parts of the state, and Trinity County led the way as the top big-buck hotspot with 22 TBGA entries. Houston County wasn't far behind with 18 while Angelina (12) and Nacogdoches (10) also had good showings.

ROLLING PLAINS/PANHANDLE

Some areas in this wide region support few deer while others have numbers rivaling the Edwards Plateau. However, big bucks continue to be taken every year, and last season was no different. Collingsworth County was the top place to find a book deer, netting 13 TBGA entries, while Cottle (11) and Donley (10) counties also produced some fine animals.

POST OAK SAVANNAH

This region continues to churn out big bucks, despite hunters shifting their attention and efforts more to the area as other parts of the state receive heavier pressure. Anderson County in the north portion of the region produced 18 TBGA entries while Colorado County in the south fared well with 16 entries.

There's no doubt about it: This deer season is shaping up nicely, no matter where you're hunting. The likelihood of seeing a big whitetail is as high as it has ever been. Hunting around feeders may be slow early on, but the activity surely will pick up as the rut kicks in and deer across the state are more likely to show themselves. You may not harvest the largest deer you've ever seen, but that doesn't mean they won't be around, and this definitely is a year when you want to spend as much time in the field as possible. I know I will!

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