So how did Lone Star State deer hunters fare during the 2009-10 hunting season, and how will that impact our hunting this fall? Here are some answers. (July 2010)
It was the worst of deer seasons -- it was the best of deer seasons. Without argument it simply depended on who you are and where you hunted in the vast Lone Star State in 2009-10!
Hunters did surprisingly well in some regions. Travis Ayers killed this 200-inch-plus non-typical on land in Hood County that he had leased primarily for hunting turkeys!
Photo courtesy of Travis Ayers.
For most all of Texas, the rains finally came just as fall rolled in. And they stayed! The moisture was way too late to help antler growth but natural fauna flourished as it received a lavish thirst quencher. Deer that had been dining around feeders were abruptly nowhere to be seen as they stayed in the suddenly dense cover, filling their bellies with fresh green forbs.
A lot of hunters opened deer season with little fanfare. Even after harsh cold weather moved in, many of them still reported low whitetail numbers in comparison with past seasons. I hunt Liveoak County, south of San Antonio, and that was the case on our ranch; it turned out to be our worst season in eight years on the place.
Inquiries to ranch owners, land managers, wildlife biologists and even game wardens produced varied responses. Many stated the drought conditions of the past two springs and summers along with intense heat in July and August caused a die-off of both young and old deer. There also appears to have been a very low fawn crop in many areas due to poor range and poor body conditions.
One South Texas landowner said less than 25 percent of his fawns survived. Sparse cover enabled predators, especially coyotes, to feast on fawns and other deer in weak condition. This experienced whitetail man noted that does kicked off nursing fawns early, an effect Mother Nature causes due to lack of forage, and to enable the doe to maintain her health.
Ranches overgrazed by livestock produced definite consequence on wildlife populations.
Late rains coupled with early cold temperatures brought out forbs that only surface when such circumstances exist. Deer were observed feeding on who-knows-what in places where no grain was strewn or food plots existed, again failing to come to feeders.
On the other hand, ranches with good management practices, supplemental food sources and adequate water resources, combined with restricted livestock grazing, produced business-as-usual quality whitetails. Those areas of Texas that received rainfall, coupled with the aforementioned positive attributes, noticed no changes. Despite conditions, as always, there were some surprising trophies taken around the state.
That puts you, the reader, back to the opening paragraph: it was a good season for some and terrible for others. Win, lose or draw, in my own opinion, the biggest winners were those new hunters taking their very first whitetails and youngsters continuing to hunt regardless of antler size or lack of headgear at all.
Horace Gore, retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist and renowned whitetail expert, reiterated that 2009 was the kind of year hunters don't like to see -- a time of severe drought. "Mourning doves were the only game that didn't suffer," he said. "Whitetails had a poor fawn crop that will show very few mature trophy bucks in 2014."
When questioned about a die-off, here's what Gore said: "I don't think we had any type of unusual die-off, but we probably lost older deer and very young deer to natural attrition. These winter rains of 2009-10 are looking good for shaping up spring, and will set the stage for better antlers this next season on those surviving bucks."
Gore summed up the results of a poor hunting year this way. "The deer harvest across the state was down about 40 percent. Not because hunters didn't see deer but because many bucks were passed up due to poor antler quality. Those deer will be here next year and possibly be better as they'll be a year older."
The bottom line, according to Gore, is something most all hunters have learned by now. Rainfall is the key to producing and maintaining all wildlife species in Texas.
"Too much rain is seldom a problem to game animals and birds." Then Gore added, with a chuckle, "It can be a problem to hunters!"
Freer's famous Muy Grande Deer Contest reported the same number of entries as the previous year (2008-09). "We actually had more deer brought in for scoring than the previous deer season," said Imelda Garza Sharber. "The animals were very healthy, sporting impressive scores despite the drought. It's obvious this is due to proper management."
Leonel "Muy" Garza, founder and owner of the Muy Grande contest, said matter-of-factly, "There will not be a decrease in the interest of hunting ... the love for the sport will always remain."
The official deer competition in our state is the Texas Big Game Awards. The state is divided into eight regions with variance in minimum antler scores according to the different ecological areas. As this article goes to press, the final standings had yet to be posted; statistics and standings quoted here are unofficial.
New this year was the designation of high or low fenced properties, although the two are not separated into individual categories. Also, hunters were asked if they killed their trophies with a rifle, bow or crossbow.
As of January 31, 2010, the best non-typical whitetail was taken by Rick Meritt on the high-fenced Russell Ranch in Coryell County. The buck grossed 240 and netted 232 3/8 Boone and Crockett points. The top typical buck was taken on a Tarrant County low-fenced property by Edward Seay Oglesby. His trophy tallied 190 5/8 gross with a net of 184 3/8 B&C.
The Trans-Pecos Region 1 is widely known for its vast expanses of open low-fenced acreage. The area received some rainfall, and it showed with several outstanding trophies reported.
Five non-typical mule deer scored over 200 inches, while five typicals netted 160-plus B&C. Pecos County was the overall leader of top mulies. The best whitetails entered were a 145 1/8 net typical and a 150 5/8 non-typical -- trophies for sure in that area of the Lone Star State.
In the Panhandle's Region 2, the majority of whitetails taken also came from low-fenced properties. Some areas received good rainfall throughout the antler-growing season. In Garza County, hunter Nathan K
ing took an awesome 207 5/8 gross, 202 3/8 net non-typical buck.
The Cross Timbers Region 3 produced several non-typicals with gross scores over 200 inches from both high- and low-fenced ranches. One of the most interesting stories came out of Hood County. Travis Ayers, 25, had hunted a ranch two years ago with his dad, cousin and some friends. They harvested no deer but lots of turkeys. Seeking better deer hunting elsewhere, they left.
Last season, they again leased that same no-deer property with intentions of hunting both fall and spring turkeys. For fun, Ayers put up a game camera. Shortening a long story, night photos revealed a giant non-typical whitetail. But prior commitments, family illness and heavy rains weren't conductive to hunting.
Finally able to hunt, Ayers got in his blind on Saturday, Dec. 12. He planned to spend the entire weekend hunting. Just after 7 a.m. he connected with the largest whitetail he'd ever seen live on the hoof. Afraid the buck was a pen-raised escapee, Ayers checked for ear tag holes and tattoos but found none.
With an inside spread of 22 1/8 inches, the rack had 19 scoreable points with some stickers broken off. One brow tine split double with the other boasting triple points. The main beams stretched 24 inches, each featuring a 4-inch drop tine. The G-3s measured more than 11 inches each.
As a main-frame 10-pointer, the buck grossed 168. Adding all the extra headgear, the antlers tallied 209 B&C gross. Ayers drove six hours to Pearsall to capture first place in the Los Cazadores Low Fence Division. A neighboring hunter, Kirk Armstrong, contacted Ayers to report he'd been after that buck for three seasons. Armstrong had missed his shot at the monster as a typical 12-point last season. The two hunters have since become good friends.
The majority of Region 4 Edwards Plateau big bucks grew up behind high fences, but some great ones came from elsewhere, too. A non-typical low-fence Bell County buck netted 167 1/8 for Reid Walinder. The Toft Ranch in Kinney County yielded a typical trophy of 168 4/8 gross, 158 3/8 net for Curtis Land.
West Columbia resident Charles "Boogie" Kapalski hunted the Nooner Ranch near Hondo. He bagged a Medina County buck, a 9-pointer sporting a mule deer fork on its 14-inch G-2. With G-3s of 9 and 10 inches, Kapalski's 155 1/8 B&C buck won first place in the 9-point division of the Los Cuernos de Tejas big-buck contest.
Region 5 is known as the Post Oak Savannah. Scott Greenwood of Little Rock, Arkansas, hunted the Nicked LL's Ranch in Burleson County. Using a Mathews Switchback XT bow, he tagged a non-typical netting 228 B&C. On a low-fenced Kaufman County property, Eric Minter arrowed a 212 3/8 gross, 205 2/8 net B&C whitetail.
A Red River County typical whitetail netting 157-even brought smiles to Clint Hastings. Freestone County produced the most TBGA entries for this region, both typical and non-typical whitetails. Joyce Ooten used a crossbow in Grayson County to take a 167 4/8 net trophy. The Lazy S Ranch produced a 135 3/8 Leon County trophy for rifle hunter Calam Earley.
Rainfall blessed the top section of East Texas. The majority of the Pineywoods is still low fenced. Michael Lance Hinsen took a Rusk County non-typical buck netting 165 1/8 B&C. Trinity County grew a typical 168 4/8 net for Loren Joy. As this was being written TBGA had more than 80 scored entries for Region 6, proving it was a good season for hunters there.
The Texas Gulf Coast's Matagorda County produced an exceptional trophy for Wesley Smolik of El Campo. Having hunted the same ranch for a number of years, good management practices were finally showing in spite of the extreme drought conditions. Smolik arrowed a whitetail scoring 151 6/8 gross, 142 2/8 net -- one of his best yet.
Colorado County led the Coastal Prairies for producing the most bucks scored for Region 7, regardless of fence height. The unofficial top-scoring typical, a 177 net for Richard M. Young, and top non-typical, Kent Sams' gross B&C 203 /18, both came from that county. The low-fenced Miller Ranch yielded a 155 2/8 net B&C non-typical for Richard Grobe and a 133 4/8 gross typical for Anthony Janda.
Then there was South Texas. Alan Cain is the South Texas wildlife district leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife. "Best estimate is harvest is down by 30 to 35 percent this season," he said. "Some locker plants that process deer are reporting deer numbers down as much as 40 to 45 percent.
"The fall and winter rains created a flush of green forbs, and deer didn't have to move far to find food. Consequently, deer were not frequenting feeders; hunters wondered what happened."
Cain added there were all sorts of excuses for low deer numbers, everything from too many coyotes to die-offs to drought and heat, but he says it was simply that deer weren't visible.
"The positive side is a good number of bucks probably made it through the season to be available next season, a year older," said Cain. "Current range conditions should help bucks recover well after the rut and set the stage for good antler growth this spring and summer.
"As always, the well-managed ranches produced excellent trophy-quality bucks."
Cain predicts a good 2010-11 deer season with above-average antlers. "If the wet weather continues, hunters may have to change their tactics and look for deer at locations other than the traditional corn feeder," he concluded.
Hunters, you've been warned!
Maverick County produced a fine 197 3/8 net non-typical for Tim Kennedy. Chaparrosa Ranch owner Alberto Bailleres placed in several contests with two Zavala County bucks, a 184 4/8 net non-typical followed by a 175 1/8 net typical.
Clayton Leonard took home a fine 180 3/8 Webb County whitetail, as did Danny McConal with his 146 5/8 Sombrerito Ranch buck. Dozens of trophies came from the Golden Triangle of Webb, Dimmit and LaSalle counties.
The famous King Ranch produced dozens of trophies for its hunters. The centuries-old Mecca of South Texas wildlife proved strong and hardy once again. Justin Feild, resident King Ranch biologist, stated that while 2009-10 wasn't an outstanding year for antlers, it was still a good one.
It was the best of deer seasons -- it was the worst of deer seasons. You be the judge. It was great if you got to hunt even once and not so good if, for whatever reason, you never ventured into the brush, woods or plains. Perhaps next year will be your time for a trophy. Good luck!