Texas' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

If you measure a successful deer season by the amount of meat in your freezer, then here's where in the Lone Star State you should concentrate your hunting efforts this fall. (October 2007)

Photo by Mike Biggs.

Whoever coined the saying about variety being the spice of life must surely have been talking about the Lone Star State.

From its dense pine forests, cottonwood-laced river bottoms and mesquite thickets to its rolling sandhills, oak-dotted prairies and wide-open plains, Texas can boast a seemingly never-ending complement of varied terrain. And across nearly all of this plethora of different ecoregions, one element remains constant: the white-tailed deer.

For many hunters in the Lone Star State, the pastime begins and ends with the whitetail. Other game's out there, but when the leaves start changing and the days shorten, these men would rather be in a deer stand than anyplace else on earth. And while some are more discerning when it comes to touching off the trigger, many are simply looking to fill their tags -- and freezers -- with some tasty, high-protein venison.

And do they ever have opportunities to harvest their share!

Texas has been blessed with the nation's largest population of whitetails and hundreds of thousands of square miles across which to chase them. And while the whitetail's one of the wiliest, most-sought game animals in the country, Lone Star hunters have had consistent success filling their tags for years.

Last fall's whitetail season, though not as fruitful as in years past, showed the consistency that's made our deer hunting famous. For the fourth straight season, Texas hunters enjoyed a success rate of 61 percent and, for the second season in a row, spent an average of 7.75 days in pursuit of deer. Dropping a bit, however were total deer harvest -- from an estimated 464,378 to 449,030 -- and the number of hunters -- from 539,086 to 533,237.

That said, at least one factor likely kept some hunters from going afield in pursuit of whitetails last season. Unlike in previous seasons, the range conditions were marginal to bad in some locales, owing to a lack of moisture in spring and summer. The dry winter and early spring preceding contributed to the largest wildfires in state history, which charred more than 1 million acres of habitat in the Panhandle and Rolling Plains.

If range conditions were viewed as poor last season, they'd have to be seen as good for this season. Most of the state received average to heavy precipitation throughout the winter and spring, leading to increased production of food and cover during times crucial to antler development and fawn survival.

Clayton Wolf, big-game program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that moisture at the right time coupled with antler restrictions in many counties should help more deer get some age to them. "Last season, the Hill Country started slow," he said, "but regionally the eastern part probably did pretty well. People will see a big change in antler-restriction counties. Those had a high preponderance of young deer, and the restrictions should push a lot of animals into another age-class that might not have had protection before.

"The restrictions were intended to get most deer to 3 years of age or more. We've gotten a lot better soil moisture leading into the summer, so we should be in better shape."

Prior to last hunting season, whitetail hunting in 21 counties in the Post Oak Savannah and Gulf Prairies and Marshes regions was subject to antler restrictions. The success of those restrictions in previous seasons saw 41 more counties were placed under antler restrictions last season.

Under the restrictions, a lawful buck in the designated counties is defined as any buck having at least one unbranched antler or an inside antler spread of at least 13 inches. The bag limit in the affected counties is two bucks, no more than one of which may have an inside spread of greater than 13 inches. The restrictions have essentially created what is a slot limit for hunters wanting to take two bucks.

"The rainfall has been outstanding, and couldn't have come at a more opportune time for antler production and fawn survival." --Mike Krueger

TPWD harvest data show that the restrictions have improved the age structure of the buck herd, increased hunter harvest opportunities, and encouraged hunters and landowners to involve themselves more actively in improving habitat management.

Wolf observed that hunter numbers have seemingly been on a slide for the last decade or two. "Fortunately, we have stabilized in hunter numbers since the late 1990s," he said. "We were on a bit of a slide there for a while. Usually when we have prospects for a good season, we have higher hunter numbers. We know there are some hunters out there who don't hunt every year."

Though hunter numbers may have been down, Texas hunters are able to harvest as many buck deer as ever. Bag limits are on a countywide basis, so hunters can go to three different one-buck counties and harvest bucks as long as they don't exceed the county or total buck limits for the season. In past seasons, a hunter who harvested a buck in a one-buck county was finished for the year in all one-buck counties.

While the hunter success rate has been one of the constants in recent seasons, two other seemingly predictable pieces of data have been the high and low harvest areas in the state. Again last season, the Edwards Plateau had the highest marks in total harvest (185,929), total hunters (172,184), and success rate (76 percent) of any region in the state. Also last season, the High Plains region had the lowest total harvest (612) and total hunters (1,506).

Here's a closer look at how the coming season's shaping up in the state's major deer-producing regions.

HILL COUNTRYM

Mike Krueger, a TPWD district leader in the Edwards Plateau regulatory district, noted that hunting in the region was a little slower last season than it had been in previous years. "What we saw in the field was a relatively slow hunting season," he said. "There were low observed deer numbers, maybe due to an acorn crop at the wrong time. There was a low number of deer seen coming to feeders. Antler size was also diminished."

Krueger added that rainfall in the spring should be a blessing for this season. "The rainfall has been outstanding, and couldn't have come at a more opportune time for antler production and fawn survival," he said. "There had been some concern about a decreased fawn crop the last couple of years. There may be some gaps in age-classes due to a lack of faw

ns. But if the deer kill was reduced, there likely was a carryover of older bucks. That will definitely be an asset."

Krueger also said last season was the first in which antler restrictions were in force for counties in the Edwards Plateau. "They look like they met the intended purpose in most places in this area," he said. "They let some of the better-quality young deer move up another age-class."

EAST TEXAS

Unlike the other regions in the state, the Pineywoods constantly receives steady moisture. Even in dry years, the eastern portion of the state remains the wettest region in Texas.

Gary Calkins, the TPWD district leader for the Pineywoods region, reported that his part of the state remained on par with previous seasons, though the success rate remained just below 50 percent. "The Pineywoods was kind of split because of antler restrictions," he reported. "We still had a pretty good season last year. The body weights of the deer were good, but not great. We really didn't have a steady rain over the winter, but we got enough that it wasn't bad in the southern Pineywoods."

Calkins also echoed the importance of spring and summer food and cover sources that could translate into better deer production heading into the fall. "Things went into the summer in good condition," he said. "We have had a pretty good fawn crop, so we're set up for a good year. In the northern Pineywoods, the antlers have the chance to be better than average. The hunting season is going to improve from an age standpoint. Harvests have been good in the southern Pineywoods, though. We're not looking for a banner year, but it should be good."

As range conditions have improved in the Pineywoods in recent seasons, Calkins noted, the hunting's gotten tougher. He added that, for a variety of reasons (including acorn crops that fell consistently), the deer have been in better shape, but have been tough to locate.

Tougher hunting conditions in some parts of the state, including East Texas, have driven some landowners and hunters to form wildlife cooperatives -- a novel organizational model that has proved its utility by helping hunters in some places bag deer that they might not have been able to take in other seasons.

SOUTH TEXAS

Technical guidance biologist Jimmy Rutledge has worked with South Texas landowners for years, helping them manage their land better for all types of wildlife, including deer. "Many landowners are letting most of their deer get some age to them," he stated, "and they aren't as dependent on rainfall as in other parts of the state. Management levels things out so that the animals don't need as much rainfall to be as healthy."

Rutledge noted that good amounts of rainfall certainly don't hurt. "Obviously, in wetter years the deer are going to be more slick and healthy," he said. "But that's not to say they wouldn't have done well even if we hadn't received good rains in the spring and summer."

Despite opinion to the contrary, Rutledge added, it's simply untrue that high-fence operations have crowded low-fence opportunities out of South Texas. "While there are a bunch of high-fenced places, there also are a lot of low-fenced ones, too," he said, "and plenty of good, healthy deer come off those low-fenced places on a regular basis."

HIGH PLAINS & ROLLING PLAINS

While total harvest isn't as large in the High Plains and Rolling Plains regions as in other areas of the state, district leader Danny Swepston asserted that the country in his part of the state is shaping up to provide hunters with better opportunities this fall than in hunting seasons past.

"Compared to 2006, we're probably in excellent shape," he said. "As far as the deer go, the prospects should be as good as I've seen them. The spring moisture we got provided better conditions for forbs and other food sources that they might not have had last year. That should provide plenty of essential nutrients that are needed by deer both young and old."

The eastern Panhandle is shaping up to be one hotspot that hunters looking to fill their tags this season should really think about. While counties in the southern and western Panhandle have some of the lowest deer numbers in the state, the eastern portion of the top of Texas sees population numbers that rival counties farther south. Heavy spring rains helped the eastern Panhandle as much as or more than any other region in the state, filling the numerous streams and creeks that dot that part of the world's landscape. And while farmers have seen good crop production in the eastern Panhandle, the deer have enjoyed it just as much.

According to Jeff Bonner, a TPWD wildlife biologist in the Panhandle, at least two counties in his district are set for great years. "Wheeler and Hemphill counties are probably the best in the region, and two of the best in the state for seeing lots of deer," he said. "Too many in some cases. Any drainage areas along the Red River are going to have lots of deer, especially in wet years like this one. With a lot of rainfall, you get a lot of weeds and other stuff that deer prefer to eat. It's been like Baskin-Robbins in a lot of areas in the state and in the Panhandle."

PUBLIC LANDS

Private owners hold about 95 percent of the land in our state, so most hunters in the Lone Star State pursue whitetails on family property or deer leases. Play your cards right, however, and a state wildlife management area might pay off in some venison.

For $48, hunters can purchase an annual hunting permit that enables access to more than 1 million acres of land. The permit allows hunters to enter WMAs when the sites are open for general visitation and exempts the holder from any hunting permit fees applicable at those areas. For more on public hunting opportunities, visit the TPWD Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

* * *

While variety might be the spice of life, continuity's always a plus in whitetail hunting. Good range conditions and the largest whitetail population in the country mean that hunters should expect to see as many deer as ever this season, if not more. And we all hope that the trend keeps up!

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