What A Year For Deer!

Early reports indicate the 2007-08 deer season may have been Texas' best in decades. So what does that suggest about this fall's prospects? (July 2008)

Sherman resident Dustin Sandlin shot this great buck on a small farm in Grayson County. Really big bucks like this 178 4/8 monster started showing up early in the season and kept rolling in right to the end.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Sandlin.

Signs point to the world's best white-taileddeer herd being better than it's ever been. By all accounts, Texas had a challenging 2007-08 deer season that rewarded the patient hunter with some of the highest-quality bucks ever taken. And that held true across every region.

"I believe the numbers will reveal our total harvest down slightly from the long-term average," said Clayton Wolf, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's big game program director. "A major reason for that is that we had excellent range conditions around the state. Our deer had lots of natural food available to them. And whenever that happens, harvest numbers are going to be down."

That summary pretty well captures the challenges that confronted hunters in the Lone Star State during the 2007-08 hunting campaign. Following: reports from biologists all across Texas.

PINEYWOODS
"Many of the hunters I've heard from have reported a tough season because they were hunting, but not seeing deer," said TPWD biologist Gary Calkins. "For some hunters, persistence paid off, but in general, it seems a lot of our deer were moving at night. And they just weren't hitting feeders when hunters were in the field."

Hard-mast production alone wasn't to blame. Calkins said mast was spotty, with red oaks doing really well throughout the region, but white oaks not so good. Other natural browse, however, was abundant.

"The early part (of 2007) was wetter than ever, it seemed. So there was a lot of browse available to our deer heading into the hunting season."

Calling it "tough hunting" for sure, Calkins added that hunters who did put time in were rewarded with quality bucks.

"One day alone, I scored three deer that scored more than 150," Calkins said. "That was kind of an eye-opener."

He noted that two of the three came from Pineywoods counties managed under antler restrictions, and Calkins noted that larger, more mature bucks are a sign that the regulations are, indeed, having a positive impact on the age structure of the herd.

"In some ways, this season might be the best thing that could ever happen to the deer in this part of the state," he said. "If we don't get into another extreme drought year, the overall health and quality of our deer will continue to improve."

In the Pineywoods last season, as in most other parts of Texas, outstanding range conditions made deer harder to hunt. One inevitable result of lower harvest is higher carryover. So think about it: In areas in that part of the state that have antler restrictions in place to help balance the age-structure of the deer herd, this carryover is only going to help.

HILL COUNTRY
"Our hunters are used to seeing deer out at least 100 yards from their stands," said biologist Mike Krueger, "but they couldn't see out that far last season. We had so much herbaceous vegetation that stand visibility decreased significantly.

"That doesn't necessarily mean the deer were acting a whole lot different, although they had a lot of natural browse available to them so they didn't really have to move a lot. But it does mean that they were harder for hunters to see, to locate."

Krueger expects Hill Country harvest totals to be down a little as a result, but, he was quick to add, limited visibility might not be the only reason hunters didn't see as many deer as they have in previous seasons.

"It also could be due to our numbers being down a little," he said, "and not really in a bad way. We have landowners who are doing a good job of managing their numbers to balance deer with available habitat. I feel like we are closer to the manageable numbers we would like to see. Of course, there are pockets where there are still plenty more deer than there should be, and pockets where there aren't as many as the habitat will support. That's always going to be the case."

Krueger's comments suggest that Hill Country hunters may truly begin to see a real difference in buck quality as the sex ratio and age-structure of the region's herd gets more in line with what nature intended.

"The quality of the deer harvested last season definitely was a lot better," Calkins said, "and there is no doubt that the impressive habitat quality heading into the season is a major reason for that. But we also had pretty good carryover from the 2006-07 season, and we saw older, more mature bucks coming in last season as a result."

There's little reason to think that trend won't play out again next season because there undoubtedly was higher-than-average carryover for the second year in a row throughout the Hill Country.

"We all know that trying to predict next deer season is a crapshoot," Calkins said. "And you can't paint the region, let alone the whole state, with one broad brush. However, I do know from anecdotal information that we have some areas in the Hill Country that are definitely showing a good downward trend in numbers. And we definitely will have some carryover again."

Hill Country hunters should expect to see higher numbers of older, more mature bucks as a result. Success is at this point keyed to weather. According to Calkins, it quit raining about the time last season started and hadn't picked back up again as spring arrived. If that dry trend continues, habitat quality will suffer. That's definitely a good-news/bad-news proposition: the former for stand hunters who'll get their extended field of visibility back; the latter for deer that'll have to contend with somewhat less-desirable food in their world.

SOUTH TEXAS
Biologist Jimmy Rutledge set up his season report with a review of climate conditions. "Our habitat conditions started out wonderful as the season opened," he said. "We had record rainfall amounts for most of the first eight months of 2007. But it pretty much quit raining last September -- and it has gotten drier and drier ever since."

Going into last season, Rutledge noted, South Texas deer were in pretty good shape. He reported above-average physical condition, and observed that above-average fawn survival had resulted from the improved habi

tat.

Without question, the presence of sufficient fawning cover can make an amazing difference in a year-class of whitetails. When it exists, fawns do a much better job of escaping predation; when it doesn't, they're easy pickin's.

"As the season played out, I kept hearing the same song, different verse -- no matter where I was or who I was talking to," Rutledge said. "Hunters found it real tough getting on 'em because there was so much cover."

Biologist Alan Cain, who also works in the Hill Country, corroborated Rutledge's report. "The biggest complaint I heard from hunters last season is that they just couldn't get on the deer," he said.

As was the case elsewhere, however, hunters who persisted earned the reward of a buck with a rack of much higher quality than is the norm for many areas of South Texas. And, of course, the two counties being managed with antler restrictions also are seeing many more of the older bucks.

"Hunters in our antler-restriction counties are seeing a lot more 3- and 4-year-old deer," he explained. "Now, our lockers are getting a lot more hunters bringing in bucks that score in the 120s and 130s. Pre-restrictions, those same hunters were shooting 1 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-old deer that were scoring in the 60 to 80 Boone and Crockett range."

Cain also mentioned another important element of the overall improvement in buck quality. "We are definitely seeing positive impact from the wildlife management cooperatives in the region," he said.

Quality continues to vary, of course, but the overall trend is upward. Cain remarked that some ranches in the region do indeed produce bucks that'll score 180, 190, even upwards of 200 inches. Each ranch is different, of course.

But the cooperatives and antler restrictions -- where the latter are in place -- definitely are helping balance deer numbers with available habitat, and to balance overall age structure in the South Texas herd.

"Any time you can carry over pretty much a whole age-class," Rutledge said, "that's never a bad thing."

POST OAK SAVANNAH
"It's pretty simple really," said biologist David Forrester, who works the region with biologist David Sierra. "Our acorn crop in the area I work was unprecedented. The overall harvest was down because of that. Our range conditions were in good shape, too, and they are still in pretty good shape because we got some rain at times when we needed it early in the year."

Forrester saw many first-quality bucks coming in during the season. "Our deer were extremely healthy last season," he said. "I personally saw a lot of deer in the field that were just of outstanding quality."

Once again, the recipe involved lots of natural food and management under antler restrictions. "Six of the counties in my district are the original six antler-restriction counties in the state," he noted. "They just finished their sixth season. The rest of my district has had antler restrictions in place for the past three years."

A similar situation was seen just a few seasons ago, Forrester recalled. "We had a lower-than-average harvest because many of the older bucks were protected by acorns," he said. "The next year turned out dry for the hunting season, and harvest was way up. There also were some magnificent antlers on the bucks."

Make no mistake: Acorns aplenty will protect bucks -- not only in Texas but anywhere. And they did that job last season not only in Forrester's area but also in Sierra's. "Our mast production was off the charts," Sierra said. "We got excellent rainfall at all the right times leading up to the season. Our deer were in excellent condition, and we had excellent range conditions." No matter what the weather does, he predicted, the harvest in his area could be down more than 30 percent from the long-term average -- once again a marker for really strong carryover heading into the 2008-09 season. And many of the counties he works in are heading into the third season of antler restrictions. "A greater percentage of the bucks that came in last year were older age-class," Sierra offered. "I estimate about 20 percent of the bucks harvested were 4 1/2 or older. There were some very good deer taken by our hunters."

And don't think hunters outside the restriction zone aren't taking notice. "I have worked at this for 31 years," Sierra said, "and this is the first time I have ever had people contact me asking for their county to go into antler restrictions. Heck, they're almost demanding it!"

Hunters in the restriction counties were able to take two bucks, but only one could have an inside antler spread of 13 inches or larger. "Some hunters ended up taking two spikes," Sierra said, "But many others took one small buck and one quality buck."

To hear Sierra describe it, the restriction framework sounds like a slot limit for largemouth bass. "Yes," he said, "a slot limit; it's very much the same kind of approach. And our landowners, managers and hunters are embracing it."

PANHANDLE/ROLLING PLAINS
Biologist Danny Swepston works in the Texas region that, as far as deer management, differs the most from the rest of the Lone Star State, especially when it comes to the impact of winter weather. He's the only one, for example, who made a point of talking about snowfall amounts in reporting on the 2007-08 season.

Although all the numbers weren't in as this was written, Swepston felt prepared to characterize last season in his area as good. "Overall, our whitetails were in good-to-excellent shape when the season opened," he said. "We got a lot of rain in that critical period when antler development starts in the spring.

"That early moisture helps develop browse, too. As a result, our body weights were very good. Our deer use winter wheat, too, and they really used it last year. We didn't have really heavy snows, either, and that was helpful."

He also pointed out that the Panhandle is one of those areas in Texas that's seen steady growth in deer numbers for 30 years. CRP acreage has been a major positive factor in that growth, he stated, adding that the time has come for hunters and landowners in the region to begin really paying attention to numbers. "We are encouraging folks to try to keep their deer numbers down," he said, "because we all know how they can increase in a hurry."

CROSS TIMBERS
Biologist Kevin Mote is one who didn't talk about lower harvest numbers. "I think our harvest was a little above average last season," he said, "just based on the number of deer coming into the locker plants. We also had a little bit more pleasant hunting conditions, especially at the start of the season. There wasn't a lot of 90-degree weather, which helped."

Deer in his region exhibited "tremendous body size and antler development," Mote reported, and many had scored exceptionally well. "Our rain started in the late spring last year, and we got it at just the right time," he added.

Mote had a couple of reasons for his very positive outlook for the 2008-09 season and beyond -- and believe it or not, drought's directly responsible for one of them. "Any time you go through a drought, which we have in recent years, the population gets pared down," he explained. "As a result, you actually have some room to breed."

In other words, lower populations help the available habitat support the deer that remain, and production tends to be good.

Another element is the focus on intense management he's seeing. While not something that's unique to his part of the Lone Star State, it's still worth mentioning here -- again -- because of its impact.

Landowners and managers are making strong efforts to improve habitat and nutrition on their lands, and they're harvesting does with an eye toward balancing the sex ratio of the deer herds they manage.

"We have more Texans that ever who are eager to balance the age structure in bucks," said White-Tailed Deer Project leader Mitch Lockwood. "We also have more landowners and land managers focusing on intensive habitat management. Our overall numbers might be down over the long-term average, but 2007-08 was a banner year for antler quality.

"The bottom line is that the whole package is coming together for us in many places around the state," Lockwood said, "and the whole package works."

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