Great Year For Deer!

Texas' last deer season turned out far better than biologists had predicted it would. Will the pattern hold for 2007-08? (July 2007)

Alan Bihm bagged this fine buck on opening morning last year. He was hunting Burnet County in the Hill Country, a geographic region not widely known for producing bucks of this caliber.
Photo courtesy of Alan Bihm.

This time last year, the forecast for the 2006-07 whitetail season was dismal. In fact, for hunters in some areas it was downright depressing. Much of the state was in the grips of a drought that had some landowners concerned about die-offs, and officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department predicted poor antler growth in most regions.

Just before the opening of the archery season, the state got some much-needed rainfall, which caused TPWD officials to change their tune.

"We were expecting high harvest success early in the season with less than average range conditions this year," Mitch Lockwood, TPWD white-tailed deer program leader said at the time. "Now, with the recent rain, forbs are responding and deer activity around corn feeders has started to decline.

"I'm not so sure that hunting over feeders during this greenup is the best idea," he added.

He was dead on. Well -- at least in part: While the thing most commented on by hunters in the state was the lack of action at corn feeders early in the season, those same hunters noted that the bucks that were seen were quite impressive. It seems that everyone from state biologists to leaseholders missed the boat on the quality of deer antlers that Texas would produce last year. It seemed an easy bet to write off the year as lost to the drought, but as the Lone Star State frequently shows us, anything can happen.

And in this case, it did! Here's a review of our not-so-long-ago 2006 deer season.

PINEYWOODS

Hunting in the Pineywoods was some of the best in recent memory according to many hunters in the region. Keith McDaniel, a lease warden in Newton County, said there was a lot of deer movement early on.

"Sort of the gauge we use in East Texas for the success of the rest of the season is the youth-only season, which falls right between the end of bow season and the opening of gun season," he said. "That's when our rut gets hot and heavy, so we see a lot of bucks and the young hunters usually shoot some of the best of the season. When I saw the big bucks that young hunters were getting last year, I knew we were in for a good season."

Hunters reported seeing lots of movement during the rut period as well as a secondary rush of deer movement after a couple of strong cold fronts had blown through during early December. That seems to be about the time the food supply ran out and hunters started seeing a lot of deer at feeders.

"There was a lot of deer movement around the feeders late. Early on, feeders were hit-and-miss. Hunters were seeing a lot more deer hunting trails and out along highline rights of way, but once the frosts knocked back the vegetation, the deer started hitting corn," McDaniel said.

Last year probably was one of the finest examples of the type of season in which hunters needed to stick it out to be successful. "I hunt the national forest," said Clint Starling of Pasadena, and there was a lot of deer movement early, "which is pretty much the usual thing with all of the pressure on public land. But after a lot of the hunters started leaving the woods, the deer started moving again."

Starling said recent changes in regulations that now force hunters to shoot only bucks with inside spreads of 13 inches or greater have already made a difference.

"People are seeing more bucks out there," he said. "In East Texas, hunters usually shoot the first thing they see, but with the new rules in place they have to be careful and pass on a lot of young bucks. I think this year is going to be awesome for seeing older deer. There should be a lot of them in the counties that have had these rules for a few years."

Some hunters believe there is a dark side to these rules. The new counties that took up the spread rules could see a negative effect for the first couple of years.

"Just wanted to comment on the number of bucks that were killed and left in the woods," said James Powell. "I saw seven this year (2006-07), just in the area that I hunt, that were killed and left. I guess the hunters did not want to risk getting a fine, so they were wasted. I think that if private hunting leases want to enforce this rule to build a 'big buck' lease, then great. But the state of Texas should only be concerned with buck and doe populations, not antler size."

HILL COUNTRY

Hill Country hunting was uneven last season. On the positive side, the antler production was much better than expected -- by state biologists and landowners alike. However, deer movement was minimal in some of the top counties like Llano, Gillespie and Mason.

Some of this could be due to improved range conditions that came with pre-season rains.

"Due to the greenup, hunting may be a little tough during the first few weeks of the season," TPWD biologist Max Traweek predicted just before the season opener.

"Also, fair to heavy acorn crops in a few areas will result in even more restricted movement by deer in those locations. But, the Hill Country is known for high deer densities, and, even with lower than average fawn survival observed this past summer, hunters will have plenty of animals to choose from during the hunting season."

Apparently his predictions proved valid.

That drop in fawn survival was likely affected as much by coyotes as the drought, according to Lewis Hogan who operates a lease in Llano County. (Editor's Note: See "Hill Country Being Invaded By Coyotes?" on pg. 12 of Texas Sportsman's May issue.)

"At night it sounded like South Texas or the Trans Pecos for coyote numbers," he said. "They have moved into the Hill Country and we saw almost zero fawns around feeders on a lease with 10 experienced hunters. Drought and coyotes are a bad mix for fawn survival."

That's likely to have an effect on hunting in the region, with a general lack of 1 1/2-year-old bucks, which typically make up a big portion of the harvest in the Hill Country.

But not all reports were poor, as the

southern and northern parts of the region had strong harvest. Rodney Clark reported that his lease near Brady produced more bucks than ever. "We only hunt a little 200-acre lease, but we had more bucks than ever and saw more bucks than does," he said. "The deer were in really good shape too. I was surprised at the antler and body condition."

Clark said there seems to be a dividing line between the north and south parts of the Hill Country in terms of consistency. "Up around Brady, we have pretty consistent hunting and antler production. The deer density is high, but there seems to be more management, which can make a big difference."

Across the board, antlers were much better than most hunters thought, with some true head-turning bucks taken. More important, there were a lot of high-quality bucks -- and there should be even more of those bucks in Bell, Coryell, Lampasas and Williamson counties with the 13-inch-inside-spread rule in effect there now. The same regulation has been in effect in areas of Travis, Hays and Comal counties east of Interstate 35 for the last couple of years.

These counties typically have had a high harvest of young bucks. So far, the regulations have received a warmer welcome than they have in the Pineywoods where some hunters are extremely resistant to change.

SOUTH TEXAS

If there is a lesson to be learned from last season, it is that South Texas should never be counted out of the trophy deer production equation. No matter what the conditions before the season, a little rain can change things dramatically; there are always a few monster deer hidden away in the thick cover.

Last summer was the driest on record in that region.

"Many old-timers said it was worse than the drought of the '50s," said TPWD biologist David Synatzske, in Cotulla. "We experienced no grass production or seed production, virtually nonexistent forb production, many of the browse species failed to green up and those that did had virtually no new growth. In addition to the lack of vegetative production, perhaps the thing I noticed most was the complete lack of mast production.

"I cannot recall in the last 23 years a year where such total mast failure existed, even with virtually no prickly pear fruit production."

However, pre-season rains filled up ponds from Encinal to Eagle Pass and the wild grounds grew green quickly. South Texas is like a jungle when the vegetation is thick, and so hunters reported seeing few deer early in the season. However, once the deer started rutting in December, things changed. Lots of bucks in the 130- to 150-class were reported with McMullen and Webb counties producing the most consistent hunting.

Another area that turned out some nice buck was the Coastal Prairies of South Texas around Port Mansfield, and the King Ranch south of Corpus Christi. If a hunter is fortunate enough to be able to hunt on the King Ranch itself, or some of the surrounding properties, seeing nice bucks is almost a guarantee.

"That stretch of coastline and the counties just west of there are highly underrated and not very publicized but I think that's because you pretty much have to be rich or know someone down there to hunt it," said Justin Tullier of Tomball.

"The lease prices are astronomical and the package hunts for trophy bucks start at around $5,000. You have to really want a buck to go that, but that area has them."

In fact, the winning buck from this year's highly coveted Los Cazadores Big-Buck Contest came from Hidalgo County, along the Rio Grande Corridor just west of Brownsville. The buck taken by David Coleman of Columbus, Miss., sported 23 points and tallied a Boone and Crockett score of 227 7/8. That's a beast by anyone's standards and anywhere it came from.

POST OAK SAVANNAH

This area was one of the few in the state where predictions were right. TPWD biologist David Sierra in Tyler said fawn production was much better than expected. There were lots of deer seen at feeders, even early in the season, so meat hunters had a good season from the get go.

However, the mast crop was down a bit, which aided antler hunters by forcing big bucks to get up and move around more. Even so, there were a few noteworthy bucks reported from the Post Oak, including a 174 2/8 non-typical shot in Leon County by Tery Bing. Another buck from that region fell to Carroll Moran. His buck's rack showed obvious palmation and double drop tines. The Navarro County non-typical scored 179 4/8 inches.

TPWD biologists reported overall good harvest and a good number of quality bucks in the region.

Hunters in this area are facing increases in both development and areas that restrict hunting access. The human population is swelling from urban areas through suburbs right out into rural areas and into some formerly popular hunting areas. This trend will no doubt continue; conflicts between hunters and developers are likely to ensue.

PANHANDLE/ROLLING PLAINS

One of the most overlooked areas of the state for whitetail production is the Panhandle and the Rolling Plains that start north of Brownwood and extend up toward Abilene and on toward the Panhandle.

Judging the area simply by driving through it could give hunters the wrong impression, as it doesn't look like deer habitat as we are used to seeing it. But there's more to the region than meets the eye. A combination of agriculture and hardwood bottoms along creek and river corridors produce quite a few head turning bucks ever season.

"We were real dry the first two-thirds of the summer and range conditions were tough," said TPWD biologist Danny Swepston of Amarillo. However, during the late summer the region received enough rain to change things. Going into the hunting season last fall, range conditions were excellent. Body weights on harvested animals were good; antler development, which TPWD predicted would likely suffer because of the drought, was great.

Patrick Rainey of Salt Fork Hunting in Collingsworth County -- (866) 442-4451 -- said that despite dire predictions, the Panhandle produced some good bucks last year.

"There were a lot of really solid bucks with big body weights taken last year," he said. "People just don't realize the quality of deer in the Panhandle. There aren't as many deer, but in some ways the average deer rivals what hunters take down in South Texas."

According to Swepston, a lot of the Panhandle's success in deer production is owing to the region's bounty of food available for deer. "There's plenty for them to eat out there," he said. "We have lots of winter wheat. I would encourage folks to take does, especially on the eastern side of the region where we're seeing higher densities of deer."

The eastern side of the region is indeed seeing increasing deer numbers, yet still has relatively little hunting pressure.

Hunting pressure is much stronger south of the Panhandle, where the northern fringe of the Hill Country meets the Rolling Plains. That area suffered relatively low deer harvest last year, but like in the Pineywoods saw a comeback late in the season. That probably had a lot to do with hunters relying solely on corn feeders to draw deer early in the season. Hunters should focus their efforts on crops like winter wheat and oats, which are more reliable than corn in this relatively overlooked area of the state.

PROSPECTS FOR 2007-08

So how are things shaping up for the forthcoming season? In reality, it's still probably a bit too early to tell, but on an initial assessment, we could consider that the situation is shaping up well.

As you can discern from this story, things aren't always what they seem. Timely rains change everything, and Texas wildlife and the habitat it depends on can bounce back quickly. Rain falling onto Texas' mineral-rich soils can turn an area that's practically a moonscape to a lush green in just a few days.

One thing that will be interesting to see is how low fawn recruitment in certain areas of the state, like the Hill Country and South Texas, will affect hunting this season. A lack of fawns seen at feeders last season will lead to a lack of 1 1/2-year-old bucks and does this year.

Actually, it might be time for hunters to reevaluate the whole feeder-hunting thing, as feral hogs over much of the state are keeping deer away from feeders on far too many leases. But that's another story.

Texas hunters are pretty spoiled in terms of deer (and hog) numbers. We have the largest herd in the country, and we'll see more deer during even a poor season than hunters in some states will over several seasons.

As for an official prediction, here it is: Expect the unexpected.

Find more about Texas fishing and hunting at: TexasSportsmanMag.com

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