Texas' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Texas' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

More and more wallhanger-grade animals show up in the Lone Star State each season -- so could this be the year that you score on that trophy of a lifetime? This info could lead you to it! (November 2007)

Photo by Mike Lambeth.

Texas deer hunters might think about throwing another item in their packs before heading to the field for the fall whitetail season: a pair of sunglasses. That's because the future is bright -- at least for the coming months.

When it comes to white-tailed deer hunting in Texas, change has been good. Gone are the days when big whitetails were harvested only below Interstate 10 in the South Texas Brush Country. Nowadays, big bucks are taken regularly in every corner of the state, and Boone and Crockett animals are showing up in places they have never been seen before.

The Lone Star State has long had the country's largest deer population, but previous eras saw less emphasis placed on improving wildlife habitat and allowing deer to get enough age on them. In decades past, a hunter might have shot the first buck seen and called it a season; now, most seek rather to down a "trophy" than simply to fill a tag, and are far pickier about pulling the trigger.

While change has been good, it also has been consistent. Increased wildlife management is not centered in any particular region as hunters and landowners across the state have taken to heart the idea of providing ample opportunity for whitetails to reach their potential. And this management isn't just occurring on big high-fenced hunting operations. Landowners, whether they have 100 acres or 100,000, are realizing more than ever the value and importance of improving deer habitat.

SEASON FORECAST

The Hill Country has seen as big a philosophy change as any region in the state when it comes to letting deer get older and overall habitat improvement. In the past, it was common to see a small 8-point buck in the bed of a pickup being driven by a happy hunter on almost any given day of the fall season. Now, that same size 8-pointer won't satisfy many hunters in the region.

Mike Krueger, a former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department technical guidance biologist in the region and now the Edwards Plateau district leader, said deer hunting ideologies have changed in recent decades.

"In the past, many hunters, even ones looking for big bucks, might not have waited to pull the trigger on the first or second buck they saw," he said. "Now, hunters and landowners are big on managing for bigger, better deer. As a result, hunters are seeing bigger bucks and taking bigger bucks. Last season was tough on a lot of hunters, but many still held out for a bigger buck, despite the range conditions being as bad as they were."

Even in what could be termed a bad season, Texas deer hunting was still pretty good. Unlike their experience in previous seasons that saw solid amounts of rainfall during the spring, summer and early fall, deer hunters last season were faced with chasing after whitetails living in habitats that hadn't received crucial moisture. As a result, some hunters didn't see deer that lived up to their antler and body weight standards

According to TPWD whitetail program leader Mitch Lockwood, the drought affecting most of the state last year was unprecedented. "We had a horrible year for range conditions last season, as bad as the seasoned ranchers have seen," he said. "We were really surprised, though. Hunters in most of the state saw good antler quality. When it comes down to it, droughts like the one last season didn't affect the population as badly as in past years.

"That's all due to how well people manage their land. There's just a lot of good habitat management out there. Fawn production and antler and body quality don't take as hard a hit during dry years when the land is well taken care of."

Lockwood said that despite the dry year last season, a lot of deer fared well, as enough feed sources remained to get them by, and noted that with good moisture levels in the spring and summer and heading into the fall, those sources will only multiply exponentially for this season. Proper habitat management also has changed the overall view of where hunters can go to harvest a big buck, he added.

"Genetic potential in deer in the central part of the state is as good as in those in South Texas or anywhere else nowadays," he said. "If they're not reaching their potential, it usually has to do with hunting pressure or poor wildlife habitat management."

Lockwood also said the myth about only seeing big deer on high-fenced hunting operations is constantly proved wrong.

"We find out every year how wrong the low-fence myth is," he said. "Your chances to shoot big deer will go up if people form wildlife cooperatives and other things like that. The only thing with a high fence is that it keeps a deer from jumping it and getting shot before it should be."

Texas Big Game Awards director David Brimager reported that range conditions reduced last season's program entries. "Entries were down about 20 percent this past hunting season," he said. "You can tie that into habitat and rainfall conditions being less than average. The conditions just weren't as good for big deer last season."

While conditions may not have been as conducive to producing bigger bucks, Brimager said, this season is shaping up to be topnotch. "This hunting season is shaping up to be as good as it gets," he said. "It's easy to say this season will be better because last year was bad, but I'm optimistic."

Brimager echoed Lockwood on the fact that big deer are being taken in nearly ever corner of the state. "South Texas has become just another region in my mind," he said. "We're getting TBGA entries from across the state and this year is going to be no different. I definitely attribute big deer to landowners doing their part and taking off inferior deer and letting other ones grow and age. It's also the hunters working with landowners and having a plan."

While many do hunt high-fenced places, Brimager noted that most TBGA entries come from low-fenced leases. "On our end, we'll average about 2,000 entries," he said. "Out of that, you're looking at probably 90 percent of those coming off low-fenced places. We'll also get some entries from the wildlife management areas and national forest lands. It looks like we're going to have to get our pencils ready this season because we're going to have plenty of opportunity to score big deer."

Clayton Wolf, TPWD big-game program leader, has remained cautious when it comes to the prospects of this season, but like most, he expects things ultimately to shake out on the good side. "I am ca

utiously optimistic that we are going to have an excellent year," he said. "The only reason I say cautious is because it doesn't take long for things to turn south in Texas if we have some kind of scorching hot high pressure dome that decides to settle in. All that being said, we are set up to have as good a year as we've seen in a while."

As for increased antler size, Wolf said, a little age can go a long way. "As far as antlers go, the bucks are already well on their way to producing a great set of antlers, so anywhere there is sufficient age structure, we should see some good horns. More important for the future, we should realize some excellent fawn recruitment. In most of the state, the fawns hit the ground by the middle of June. All the forage and cover should result in excellent survival. There should be enough residual moisture to maintain critical cover."

BY THE NUMBERS

Though South Texas has become "another region" to many involved with Lone Star whitetails, it remains the most consistent spot to see and harvest a possible B&C buck. With good cover and food sources in some of the best whitetail habitat anywhere, South Texas whitetails seem to have a better chance of sprouting big antlers than deer in other locales do.

Despite rough range conditions statewide last season, South Texas again produced the highest number of TBGA entries. South Texas also has a higher minimum score for entry into the TBGA than other regions do. To be a TBGA entry from South Texas, a typical whitetail must score at least 140 inches, while a non-typical buck must score a minimum of 155. In the Panhandle, Cross Timbers and Edwards Plateau regions, a buck must meet a typical minimum of 130 and a non-typical minimum of 145. In the Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies regions, the minimums are 125 and 140.

Last season, South Texas' LaSalle County led the state with 36 typical TBGA entries and 11 non-typicals, the second-biggest of which was a non-typical taken by New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte that scored 182 6/8. Webb County also had a strong showing with 31 typical entries and one non-typical.

Other South Texas counties and their entries: Kleberg, 22 typicals, six non-typicals; Dimmit, 22 typicals, four non-typicals; Maverick, 15 typicals, six non-typicals; and Kleberg, 17 typicals, two non-typicals. Combined those counties again proved the region is the hotspot for hunters hoping to bag their biggest buck. The region tallied 241 total qualifiers.

The region also produced the largest TBGA entry, a Hidalgo County buck taken by David F. Coleman that scored 213 3/8. The second-largest buck also was taken in South Texas; a Zavala County brute harvested by Alberto Bailleres scored 206 6/8.

What might have been an average year for South Texas as far as TBGA entries are concerned was a good year for other portions of the state. Kerr County, with 24 typicals and 14 non-typicals, had the second-highest number of entries for any county while having the highest number of non-typical qualifiers. Another Edwards Plateau county that had a strong showing for the region was Coryell County, which had 10 typical and four non-typical qualifiers. The top Edwards Plateau buck was a San Saba County beast taken by Mariah Gary scoring 202 2/8.

The Cross Timbers region had a solid year for big deer last season with 159 entries, the second-most in the state. Reagan County (21 typicals, three non-typicals) and Shackelford County (14 typicals, two non-typicals) were the top places in that region for big bucks. Throckmorton County (11 typicals, two non-typicals) also had a solid showing. The largest Cross Timbers bucks were Bosque County non-typicals taken by George Singleton and Ray A. Murski that scored 199 2/8 and 198 1/8, respectively. The region also produced the largest TBGA typical, a Hamilton County monster scoring 176 2/8 taken by Glenn Christian.

Like South Texas, the Pineywoods may have had an average season by most standards, but the eastern part of the state had two counties near the top of the list when it comes to high numbers of big bucks. Houston County (22 typicals, two non-typicals) and Trinity County (19 typicals) again proved sufficient moisture can result in big hauls of big horns. San Jacinto County produced the top Pineywoods non-typical, a buck scoring 189 6/8 taken by John Eric Meekins. The top East Texas typical buck was taken by Chris Ricks in Angelina County and scored 163 7/8.

The Post Oak Savannah region may have had one of the lowest numbers of TBGA entries, but Anderson County (12 typicals, four non-typicals) was tops in that portion of the state for harvesting a big whitetail, as evidenced by Jack Brittingham's 202 3/8 non-typical.

In the Coastal Prairies region, Colorado County led the way with 23 typicals and one non-typical entered into TBGA. The top Coastal buck, scoring 183 7/8, was harvested in Karnes County by Dan Watson.

The Panhandle and Rolling Plains regions again had the lowest number of TBGA qualifiers, but Hemphill County in the northeast Panhandle proved to be as good for finding a big buck as most other areas in the state. Hemphill had eight typical and four non-typical entries, including the third-largest non-typical, a 203 3/8 buck taken by Everette Newland.

WHAT IT MEANS

After a tough season in 2006-07 for most Lone Star State hunters, this deer season should offer welcome relief. Sufficient moisture at the right times promoted fawn development and survival, so future seasons should see deer numbers stay steady or even rise; it also helped the food sources that can aid whitetails in adding to their headgear and body size.

Though overall hunter and whitetail harvest numbers were down last season, according to TPWD data, this season no doubt will bring out many hunters who might not have picked up the rifle had the poor range conditions carried over. Most of Texas remains ripe for growing big bucks and with an added push from Mother Nature, this season should essentially produce higher-quality whitetails, ones that were given a better chance to hit their top-end potential.

Texas does remain almost entirely privately owned, but as bigger bucks have seemingly materialized in every corner of the state, there is no better time to spend days out in the woods chasing after that buck of a lifetime.

Just remember to bring your sunglasses!

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

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