Right now is a great time to take advantage of the wide variety Texas hunting and fishing opportunities.
If there’s a better time to go hunting or fishing in Texas than December and January, please tell me.
Think about it. You can hunt deer, quail, turkeys, doves, ducks, and hogs all the time — or some of it. Winter fishing for hybrid striped bass and big blue catfish in fresh water and speckled trout and redfish in salt is hot, but you won’t be.
It’s an outdoor smorgasbord that will leave you wondering if you’ve died and gone to heaven. No need. When you’re in Texas you’re already there.
Of all the things to hunt and fish for during this time of plenty, my favorite has to be the white-tailed deer. My hunting lease is on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, in Val Verde County, and while the rut has already faded in most of the rest of the Lone Star State, it is on full-bore in deep South and southwest Texas.
My friend Antonio (“Sancho”) Torres knows the big bucks will be in hot pursuit of does in late December and early January. “Most of the time the bucks hide out in the thick brush in the bottoms of the canyons, but during the rut they will be running everywhere,” he says.
One New Year’s weekend we drove the ranch roads in an open Jeep, and it was obvious Torres knew what he was talking about. Deer were everywhere, and the bucks were much less wary than usual.
I had the chance to shoot several, but knowing that the best way to shoot a big buck is not to shoot a small one, I held fire. I did, that is, until we topped a ridge overlooking a canyon on the most remote, rugged part of the lease.
Two bucks burst from the brush on the canyon floor and headed up the canyon, angling to our right. The lead buck had dark, heavy, wide antlers, and he was the one I’d been looking for.
“Shoot that buck!” Torres yelled. I aimed just forward of the shoulder, squeezed the trigger, and the .270 roared.
And the buck kept running. In my excitement, I’d forgotten to allow for the steep downward angle of the shot, and the bullet went just over his back.
Torres laughed. “If you’d made that shot, you would have been a legend on this lease,” he said. “That would have been the best buck anyone has ever taken here.”
Oh well. Better luck next time.
But the lesson is clear: The rut is the time to hunt. Dustin Catrett learned that in December 2016 while hunting on La Perla Ranch in Webb County, between Zapata and Laredo. The 150-class buck he took there was the biggest of his life, but it paled in comparison to a monster that ranch owner Gary Schwarz took a week later that scored in the 180s.
A basic 10-point with a mule deer fork on the right G-2, Schwarz’s buck was far from being the biggest on the ranch. Sitting over a food plot one December evening, I got a look at a 200-inch-plus 3-year-old that is going to make some hunter very happy someday.
As much as I love deer hunting, the fun is over once you’ve pulled the trigger. That’s why I’m so fortunate to hunt where mourning and white-winged doves winter alongside ducks, and scaled, “blue,” quail hide around deer feeders and watering places.
The Christmas holiday dove season provides a good opportunity for a dove shoot around gravel and water sources, particularly in arid West Texas.
And if your rancher friend has some hay-feeding areas where doves can find loose seed, you’ve got a ready-made hunting spot. It’s the ideal opportunity to introduce a young person to hunting when the temperatures are more comfortable than during the regular dove season.
But chasing blue quail up catclaw-infested draws and across dog-pear flats is my real passion. I admire these tough, smart birds and their ability to thrive in that harsh environment.
While their numbers are heavily influenced by spring and summer rain — or lack thereof — in early January the scattered coveys band together during the “shuffle,” when quail from different coveys pair up for breeding. This not only maintains genetic diversity, but it also results in large coveys that make for exciting hunting.
Many people think that blues won’t flush and can’t fly well, but that’s not so. Once they’ve been hunted, they will flush wild and then run, making it difficult to get a shot at them.
However, there is almost always one or two that can’t make up their mind whether to flush or to run, so if you carefully approach the area where the covey was previously located, you can often jump up a single or two. Just be ready for the bird that lets you walk past it and then flushes.
For duck hunters, December and January are also the time of plenty. Deer, dove, and quail hunters should take a shotgun and nontoxic shot along, since farm ponds will likely hold some ducks.
I’ve taken mallards, teal, pintails, and widgeon by popping up over tank dams ready to shoot on ranches from Childress to Albany to Del Rio. My own place in East Texas has a small pond that attracts mallards, wood ducks, and widgeon.
One of my favorite ways to hunt ducks, however, is a combination cast-and-blast trip on the Texas Gulf Coast. You can start off the day over a spread of decoys on a point on the bay, then drift the flats for speckled trout and redfish, or find the mouth of a creek and wait for a flounder to come by.
That’s what my wife, Zoe Ann Stinchcomb, and I did last January with guide Glenn Ging (979-479-1460). We set up with the southeast breeze to our backs and waited for the ducks to come in. It was exciting shooting.
Flocks of pintails, teal, and widgeon came in so low over the water that they were hard to see until the very last minute. Then the birds shot straight up when they realized something was not quite right.
While ducks in areas with freshwater ponds and lakes tend only to fly early and then sit tight once they’ve found an area where they can feed and loaf undisturbed, ducks on the Gulf Coast feeding on saltwater grasses have to fly to fresh water periodically.
If you like, you can sit tight and peck away at passing ducks until you tire out or get a limit. We chose to go fishing instead and were rewarded with catches of speckled trout, redfish, and flounder.
Lakes offer the opportunity to do a freshwater version of our cast-and-blast. Lakes such as Caddo, Fork, Palestine, Cooper, Tawakoni and Richland-Chambers attract ducks, and they also offer fishing for largemouth bass, channel catfish, hybrid striped bass, and blue catfish.
Winter is the time when hybrids and blue cats go on feeding binges. Guide Bob Holmes (214-728-3310) took me drift-fishing for blue cats on Richland-Chambers one cool day.
A gentle north breeze pushed us across the lake as we watched the array of rods baited with cut bait for the telltale dip signaling a bite. The tips of the rods jiggled a bit as the bait dragged the bottom, but when a 15-pound blue cat takes the bait, there is no doubt there’s a fish on.
For a different winter fishing experience, I went with guide Tony Parker (903-348-1619). Parker specializes in hybrid stripers on Cooper and Tawakoni, and he introduced me to a way of fishing I’d heard about but doubted for years: That was hammering.
The concept is simple: Beat on the side of the boat with a rubber mallet while running a trolling motor in reverse with just the tips of the blades hitting the water. The theory is that the vibrations in the water simulate a feeding frenzy, and hybrids will come to the commotion and bite.
And to my surprise, they did!
Parker takes the technique to a new level, however. He turns his fishfinder so he can see it from the front of the boat, and then sits facing it with his rod in his left hand while he pounds the gunwale with a mallet. As the boat drifts, the lures trace straight lines across the screen.
Parker suspends his lures a foot or two above the fish he can see on the finder, and now and again one of them makes a run at a lure. Even though the fish are suspended and not feeding, the pounding on the boat prods them into biting. Perhaps it’s just the aggravation of the constant noise, but whatever the reason, it works.
I was raised on a farm where we produced most of our own food, and wintertime was hog-killing time. Thank goodness I’m not a farmer, but winter still means killing hogs. Fortunately — if you’re a hunter — Texas offers plenty of hog hunting, from commercial fenced put-and-take operations to free-ranging hogs on private and public land.
I’ve hunted hogs on all types of places with bow, rifle, and shotgun, and the little extra added element of danger makes hog hunting special. It’s perhaps the only type of hunting commonly practiced in Texas where you can simultaneously be predator and prey — especially if you are bowhunting hogs on the ground.
A wounded hog in thick brush at night is not to be taken lightly. Hogs have sharp tushes and live by the eye-for-an-eye rule. A wounded hog will charge you, and they will try to take revenge on something or someone who has hurt them.
December and January are my favorite times to be out in the field in Texas. Yes, it’s a pain to have to carry bow, rifle, shotgun and dog everywhere, but it would be worse to stumble onto some hunting I wasn’t equipped to take advantage of. So, I just deal with it.
With so many species to hunt and so many seasons in different parts of the state to keep track of, it is easy to forget what’s legal where you happen to be. I doubt you carry a printed copy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Outdoor Annual in your pocket when you hunt, but I’ll bet you don’t go anywhere without your cell phone. Just download the free app “Texas Outdoor Annual,” and you’ll have all the information on species, bag limits, and seasons, by county, right in your pocket. It’s available for both Apple and android products.
(Editor’s note: For more information on introducing youngsters to our sport, see “Borrowed Boots” by Andy Olivera in the October, 2017, issue of Texas Sportsman.)