East Texas' Public Bucks

Like to bowhunt for deer but don't have a lease lined up? These East Texas spots are open to all, and giving one of them a try can well turn out to justify the effort. (August 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Bowhunters in the Pineywoods of East Texas have it better than just about any other hunters in just about any other region of the state when it comes to access to lightly pressured areas with strong deer populations.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of pine forests and hardwood bottoms lie open to hunters for free or, at most, the cost of the $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit available from any Texas Parks and Wildlife Department license vendor.

"It's a very good deal for hunters, allowing them to gain access to a lot of public land in East Texas," said TPWD biologist Gary Calkins, of Jasper. "Bowhunters in the region can find good hunting within a short drive of just about any of the communities, whether it be Jasper, Beaumont or in the northeast part of the state."

One of the biggest bowhunting pluses for this area: The whitetail rut in the Pineywoods, particularly on the southern end of that ecosystem, begins during archery season.

A TPWD study titled "The Rut In White-Tailed Deer" found that the main rutting activity begins around Oct. 21, with the full peak of the Pineywoods rut hitting in the region's southern half around Nov. 12 and its the northern reaches on about Nov. 22.

"If you don't mind walking back into some of the farther reaches of the management areas and national forest, you will encounter no one most of the time," offered Kevin James of Center. "And when the rut kicks in, you can see a surprising amount of deer; that's when you really see how many deer East Texas has. At times you might question the population, but when the rut starts, any doubts are erased. The best part is you don't have to have an expensive lease to get in on this."

Let's take a look at the most fruitful of these affordable archery-options and find out just what it takes to hunt them.

ANGELINA/DAM B WMA

This scenic area in Jasper and Tyler counties nestles in the fork of the Angelina River, Neches River and the B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir (Dam B). A considerable portion of its 12,636 acres is covered by the reservoir, but about 5,000 acres in the dense hardwood bottoms along the reservoir and river corridor are open to bowhunting.

This area could at any time yield up a massive buck, as much of the bottoms are hard to access, and many of the deer there get a chance to hit their peak. "A deer has to be able to get past the first few years to reach his potential," said Roger Bacon, of Jasper, "and the swamps around Dam B give the bucks some sanctuary that does that for them. It would not surprise me to see a true monster buck come out of there at any time."

Bowhunters should be prepared to walk through deep mud and encounter lots of stinging, biting and otherwise potentially dangerous organisms. Wearing snakeproof boots or chaps would be prudent: These woods have something of a reputation for cottonmouths, copperheads and timber rattlers.

Mosquitoes can also be terrible in the area, and given the persistent threat of West Nile virus, it'd be wise to bring strong mosquito repellant, preferably a variety whose scent mimics natural notes like earth or pine.

Oh -- and be careful of any strange-looking "log" you might see in the sloughs: It could be an alligator. And the ones around Dam B are some of the biggest in the state!

For more information, call Gary Calkins at (409) 384-6894.

ALAZAN BAYOU WMA

Sited in the southern reaches of Nacogdoches County, this 2,063-acre area along the Angelina River corridor is a superb spot for bowhunters.

Like several public hunting units south of this one, Alazan Bayou allows no gun hunting for deer at all, so archers have the run of the place throughout the entire hunting season, the effect being that the WMA's deer are subject to very little pressure.

Hunters should focus on rub lines along the creek drainages and in the more upland areas near the border of pine forests, where deer trade between bedding cover and the bottoms in which they feed on abundant acorns and other mast.

For more information, call Joel Casto at (936) 639-1879.

MOORE PLANTATION WMA

These 26,772 acres in Sabine and Jasper counties add up to a swath of hunting land as big as its reputation.

According to TPWD officials, Moore Plantation, which is managed under a cooperative agreement among their agency, the U.S. Forest Service and the adjacent landowners, forms part of the Sabine National Forest. It's owned primarily by the National Forest Service, which is chiefly responsible for timber management and controlled burning -- so, basically, this parcel is aggressively tended to.

The WMA's terrain ranges from mature pine forests to creek bottoms, and thus offers a variety of habitats to hunt. And each year, Moore Plantation produces head-turning bucks, with a couple of those typically coming during the archery-only season.

For more information, call Bob Baker at (409) 384-6894.

ALABAMA CREEK WMA

This 14,000-acre jewel of Trinity County is part of the Davy Crockett National Forest, and is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the TPWD under a cooperative agreement. It's another showpiece for management, as selective timber harvest and controlled burning have maximized habitat conditions and created an excellent environment for trophy buck production.

Trinity County has one of the strongest whitetail populations in East Texas, and some of its finest specimens can be found here.

For more information, call Sean Willis at (936) 639-1879.

SAM HOUSTON NATIONAL FOREST WMA

At 162,984 acres, this national forest is now the largest WMA in the region. The TPWD manages the whole area in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. Since the state has gotten involved, the quality of hunting has improved somewhat.

Hunters are now required to have a $48 annual public hunting permit to access it, and a lot of effort has been put into monitoring and managing the area.

Quite a few hunters from the Houston area hunt there, making sections right on the main roads quite busy during the early part of the season. However, anyone willing to

push back into the far reaches of the area should have no problems encountering deer. There aren't lots of trophy bucks yet, but relatively speaking, does and young bucks abound.

One hunter with a long history of taking deer from that area is Clint Sterling. "My family has hunted that area for more than 20 years," he said, "and we have always managed to get deer."

The hunter from Pasadena credits other hunters with giving up tips on where to find deer. "We have a place right on the edge of the forest where we stay in hunting season," he noted, "and we hear a lot from the hunters. One of the main things the ones who kill deer in the bow season will tell you is to stay away from the spots everybody hunts. Hunt either way back away from all of the traffic or right off the main farm roads along the boundary where no one thinks the deer would be. You would be surprised to see how many deer live right off the road because no one messes with them there."

For more information, call (936) 344-6205.

HOUSTON COUNTY PUBLIC HUNT UNITS 116 AND 117

Lying along the San Pedro and Gin Creek drainages, these two units near Crockett are very lightly pressured during the archery-only season. They'd be my picks as ranking among the best spots for bagging a nice buck.

The reason behind their excellence: They're right along the Davy Crockett National Forest's boundary and in a popular part of the forest. When those forest areas start feeling pressure, the bucks are likely to move into these PHU spots, and hunters situated along trails on the edge of thick cover should have a fair shot at bagging one.

For more information, call 1-800-792-1112.

BANNISTER WMA

This is another section of national forest (here, Angelina NF) operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the TPWD. That the 25,695-acre San Augustine County hotspot has a reputation for fostering bucks of considerable quality has a lot to do with the WMA's situation on a peninsula extending into Sam Rayburn Reservoir; further, it lies between highland pine forests and dense creek bottoms.

Target the oaks here during the bow season, keying in on whatever species, red or white, is dropping the most mast. Note that lots of hogs frequent the area, and unless the mast crop is massive, it doesn't take the pigs long to deplete the supply.

For more information, call Bob Baker at (409) 384-6894.

BIG LAKE BOTTOM WMA

Open only to bowhunters who apply for a special permit drawing, this area in Anderson County, like most that hold draw hunts, boasts a robust deer population.

Although not known for large numbers of head-turners, Big Lake Bottom does give up a number of high-quality bucks each year.

For information on the special draw-only hunt, call Corey Mason at (903) 389-7080.

NEWTON/JASPER COUNTY UNIT 144

For the entirety of deer season, this 1,250-acre tract is open only for bowhunting. A few years ago, the TPWD was having problems with poaching in this area, and so decided to change the regulations to make it easier to bust poachers -- and ended up creating a locale in which archers can find sanctuary for three months.

The hunting really gets good here when gun season starts and surrounding hunting clubs fill with hunters firing rifles, and deer there flee here. Any hunter savvy enough to scout the border areas of this public hunting spot and find the trails deer are using to trade between there and the nearby private clubs has a better-than-average chance of succeeding.

For more information, call Gary Calkins at (409) 384-6894.

NEWTON/JASPER COUNTY UNIT 125

Another bow-only spot for the entire season, this 7,406-acre venue offers plenty of options to bowhunters.

Like the previously discussed unit, it's great to hunt during the gun season, particular when the rut peaks during the first couple of weeks of November. Because gun hunting has been shut out of the area, and poaching curtailed, the doe population has picked up considerably.

Archers should concentrate rut-time efforts on areas in which does congregate, as they're key to bagging bucks at this crucial time of year.

For more information, call Gary Calkins at (409) 384-6894.

SABINE NATIONAL FOREST

This chunk of national forest land along the Highway 87 corridor harbors a solid deer population and offers easy access to hunters. The forest features a nice mix of rolling, pine-covered hills and hardwood bottoms with pine plantations along their borders.

A note of interest for hunters choosing this area: You have a definite chance of seeing eastern turkeys there, but remember: They're only huntable legally during the spring season -- there's no fall season (yet).

For more information, call (409) 787-3870.

DAVY CROCKETT NF

Sited adjacent to Sam Houston NF, this area probably feels the most hunting pressure, as a fair-sized cohort of Houston/Conroe area and Lufkin hunters will be targeting it.

The key areas to address here are the remote creek bottoms and likely spots along the edges of pine thickets at the points at which they meet the more-open pine forests.

For more information, call (936) 655-2299.

ANGELINA NF

Of all the national forests in Texas, this is probably the most beautiful --and probably the least pressured of all the areas, simply because it's so distant from the larger cities.

Many squirrel hunters in the area typically focus on the main trails in and out of the forest. Other than that, this area is as good as any in the region for hunting whitetails during the archery-only season.

For more information, call (936) 897-1068.

LEGAL REQUIREMENTS

"Hunting is a very popular outdoor sport in East Texas," said U.S. Forest Service supervisor Fred Salinas, "and we have many hunters who love to hunt the national forests and grasslands in Texas. Our primary concern is the safety of hunters and other visitors, so we encourage hunters to be familiar with and follow all hunting guidelines."

One of the main requirements at any of the public lands in East Texas is the use of hunter or blaze orange clothing, even during bow season. U.S. Forest Service regulations are that hunters must wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange -- 144 square inches visible on both the chest and back, and a fluorescent orange cap or hat.

"Hunt either way back away from all of the traffic, or right off the main farm roads along the boundary where no one thinks the deer would be. You would be surpr

ised to see how many deer live right off the road because no one messes with them there."-- Clint Sterling

Hunters using the wildlife management areas must also have the $48 annual hunting permit, including those hunters using WMAs within national forest boundaries. Those would be: Alabama Creek WMA in Davy Crockett NF; Bannister WMA in Angelina NF; and Moore Plantation WMA in the Sabine NF. As noted earlier, the entire Sam Houston NF is now entirely a WMA.

In most cases, hunting on national forest land is free of charge, but with changes to a TPWD-managed status for many properties, hunters should be mindful of their specific location.

"It's the hunter's responsibility to know the regulations and game limits while hunting in national forests and grasslands," noted David Norsworthy, U.S. Forest Service captain in a statement sent out before hunting season last year. "Hunters should check bag limits for the county where they are hunting and refer to this year's hunting booklets for information to avoid citations. No baiting for wildlife or hunting over baited areas is allowed on the national forests or grasslands in Texas."

That last sentence reflects a change brought about by the TPWD's increasing management responsibility for national forest land. Though baiting deer is illegal at all TPWD management areas, it was formerly legal on national forest land. State officials felt it would be better to stop the baiting altogether and eliminate law enforcement headaches.

Norsworthy offered another reminder -- namely, that only portable deer stands are allowed in national forests, and are limited to remaining 72 hours in one location. To prevent timber damage, the stands must not be nailed to trees.

"We have noticed some illegal deer stands that are permanent," he said, "and we're making attempts to locate the builders. However, anyone occupying an illegal stand will be issued a citation as well. We aggressively pursue illegal permanent deer hunting structures and other illegal activity."

Again, be mindful of the specific laws in the areas that you hunt. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Some game wardens will extend courtesy to hunters who make an honest mistake, but there are no guarantees.

The Pineywoods region offers more opportunities to bowhunters on a budget than does any other part of the state. The laws can be a little tricky, but if you pay close attention, you'll have nothing more to worry about than collecting a little venison for the freezer, or maybe some antlers for the wall.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.