Despite dry conditions, Texas hunters enjoyed some great hunts last fall. But how does what they encountered then impact what we'll see this season? Here are some answers. (August 2009)
As is too often the case in the great state of Texas, one deer season has gone and another has yet to arrive. In other words, we are stuck between seasons. For some hunters, last fall was an exciting time highlighted with a trophy of a lifetime. However, for many others, it was a lackluster season that produced only average or even below-average antlers.
Brett Scarbar, operations manager at Venado Creek Ranch in San Augustine County, poses with an impressive 19-pointer scoring 224 points that was killed on that property.
Photo courtesy of Venado Creek Ranch owner Jim Donnan.
Much of the Lone Star State is currently in the grip of a drought extending from the winter of 2007 into the present as this article is being written. There are areas that have been blessed with some moisture, even though that's not the general consensus across the length and depth of Texas' borders. In the Hill Country and South Texas, the continued dry spell is being compared with that of the 1950s -- the drought of record by which lack of rain is often measured in our state.
However, on the other hand, Texans are well known to expect the unexpected. We know our weather can change on a moment's notice from hot-and-dry to wet-and-cold, from still-and-foggy to winds screaming like a banshee. Mother Nature can create much beauty with abundant rainfall, as well as vast devastation from too much or too little. The latter certainly is not conductive to wildlife production or good hunting.
So, what kind of hunting season was this past one in regard to white-tailed deer? Let's visit with some experts to learn what they have to say.
Hurricane Ike played a major role in the East Texas deer season this year. Striking in mid-September along Texas' Upper Gulf Coast, this powerful storm sent salt water inland possibly farther than it's ever been before. Vegetation was ruined and continues to be as this is written, partly due to lack of rainfall to wash the salt away. Hardest hit were Galveston, Chambers and Jefferson counties on the coastline. Liberty, Hardin, Jasper, Orange, Newton, Tyler and Polk counties also endured vegetation loss, as well as severe property damage.
Land and all wildlife from the Gulf Coast midway throughout East Texas suffered in some way. Because of the extensive damage, overall numbers of both hunters and harvested game were down drastically. Yes, some hunting did take place, but not as much as in previous years. It may be some time before things are totally back to normal in the southern parts of East Texas.
Gary Calkins heads the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's District 6 Wildlife Division Field Office in Jasper. According to Calkins, "The harvest was about average this past season, although it was up in the northern half.
"In the southern part, less folks hunted because they were working extended hours due to Ike," he continued. "Both hunter and harvest numbers (in the lower Pineywoods) were disappointing, again from Ike.
"There were a number of good deer killed in the northern Pineywoods due to the antler restrictions," Calkins said. "The age structure has increased, so antler size is also increasing. Boone and Crockett scores were definitely up. If the dry spell is broken, we'll have a good year, especially if antler restrictions are implemented in the southern Pineywoods region."
The first place winner in the Los Cazadores deer contest's Open Division came from the Venado Creek Ranch in San Augustine County. Lonnie Fox of Granbury took a monster non-typical buck scoring 252 4/8 Boone and Crockett points. The antlers tallied 49 5/8 inches in mass alone with 19 scoreable points. Jim Donnan, owner of the hunting preserve, said Ike did some tree and fence damage, but really had no ill effects on their overall hunting season.
PANHANDLE/ROLLING PLAINS AND TRANS-PECOS REGIONS
"Hunter numbers were about average this past season, although the harvest numbers appear to have dropped," said Duane Lucia who is with TPWD and based in Lubbock. "The Boone and Crockett scores were also average for our area. There are no antler restrictions in any of our counties at the present time."
Lucia reported drought over much of the Panhandle and Rolling Plains. "Although there was one good rain in September, no other moisture followed, which resulted in little ryegrass or winter forbs for the deer. Whitetails harvested had decreased body conditions," he said.
Gene T. Miller, TPWD at Canyon, agreed with Lucia on all statements.
Regarding entries in the Texas Big Game Awards, "The number of pronghorn antelope taken this past season is way up from previous seasons," stated David Brimager of the Texas Wildlife Association. "Pending re-score (a TBGA requirement for top winners), there are a couple of pronghorns that could be close to the top all-time records."
There were 57 scored antelope entries and 73 mule deer scored for the TBGA not counting those in the First Harvest and Youth Award categories.
Calvin Richardson is TPWD's Mule Deer Program Leader. "It was very dry last winter and spring with a late freeze in April of 2008," he said. "The whitetail and mule deer hunter and harvest numbers were about average for Presidio and Jeff Davis counties. The Trans Pecos area had below-average Boone and Crockett scores."
"In the Panhandle, it was average or slightly above average both in hunter numbers and B&C scores as there was a little rain in some parts." Richardson continued, "Statewide mule deer numbers are still greater than the 20-year average."
Some new counties added mule deer hunting this past season. They were Sherman and Hansford counties bordering Oklahoma, Gaines and Andrews counties on the southeastern New Mexico line and Martin County to the east of Andrews County. According to Richardson, "There were some 200-plus B&C bucks taken. There always are some exceptional bucks taken, regardless of range conditions."
THE HILL COUNTRY
"In the Hill Country region of Texas, there are no hard numbers yet available," said Mike Krueger, TPWD's Edwards Plateau Wildlife Division District Leader. "I believe overall antler scores were reduced mainly as a result of the drought conditions experienced since last winter. Recently, due to low body conditions and malnutrition, lack of adequate food sources and bouts of harsh, cold weather, we've experienced some die-offs in various locations.
"The Texas Big Game Awards program is often a good measuring stick to go by as far as number of entries and scores of deer taken in our Region 4 and elsewhere." Krueger continued, "Deer processors are also a good barometer as to last season's harvest as they handle many animals and encounter numerous hunters from all over the state."
On that note, Louis Jurek of Jurek's Smokehouse in Markham (near Bay City) agreed, "We get deer and hogs from all over Texas. We processed mule deer from West Texas, some big-bodied bucks from North and South Texas and plenty of animals from the Hill Country, our area, and even East Texas."
Jurek said there had been some good antlers showing up, as always, but he believed most were average or below average for wherever the deer came from. Body conditions varied from good to very lean, depending on how well managed the place was where the animals were killed. He reported there weren't many overly fat deer this past season, but there was no shortage of wild hogs, most in really good shape.
"My business continues to increase each year," Jurek said with a smile. "I don't know if it's just people don't like processing their own game, there are more people hunting, or what. I'm not complaining, no sir! But again, I think due to the drought across so many areas, the antler scores and deer body weights were about normal or a little lower."
"We saw a little increase in overall harvest numbers in my region due to deer coming to feeders," said David Forrester, District 7 Wildlife Leader for the Oak Prairies area. "They were hungry."
This area of the state also is known as the Coastal Prairies region by the Texas Big Game Awards.
"However," he continued, "the antler scores were down a little due to the drought. Rain occurred on a hit-and-mostly-miss basis in our area for the entire year. There was little browse in most places.
"In 2008, there was a great fawn crop resulting in lots of young deer this past season. Antler restrictions have played a vital role in helping to increase both the age structure and antler scores of our area. There may be more counties in various regions adding restrictions this next year, as it's proved most beneficial. I believe hunters are finally accepting it and reaping the rewards of better deer."
Forrester stated that while some areas within his district recently received a tiny amount of valuable moisture, more is certainly needed to get browse growing strong. If adequate rains are not received, he predicts a low fawn survival and below-average antler and body conditions for this next season.
"At the Chap, we had a really good harvest year due to visibility," said David Synatzske, manager of TPWD's Chaparral Wildlife Management Area near Artesia Wells. "It was a year ago we suffered a tremendous wildfire. The first six weeks afterward deer had nothing to eat but prickly pear, and they actually did well. However, with the drought we experienced a higher percentage of bucks with no brow tines than ever before."
Synatzske stated they began Boone and Crockett scoring all bucks harvested on the Chap back in 1991. That was a dry year and 5.8 percent of bucks taken were missing one or both G-1s, commonly called brow tines. This past year, deer being stressed at the earliest stages of antler development had a huge impact, as he reported 18 percent of all bucks killed were lacking eye guards, either one or both.
"South Texas results overall just depended on areas with rain and how well managed they are." Synatzske said, "We had a good fawn crop last year and there was good body condition. Due to the drought, we took the deer population of the Chap down this past year, as did a few ranches here and there. It's all in the timing of the weather and range conditions."
Current conditions don't bode well with fawn and other wildlife survival, as there is little cover for baby animals, making them easy targets for predators. In addition, lack of food sources decreases their ability to survive, too. This is especially true of areas trying to support cattle and other livestock.
As far as Synatzske's prediction for the next season, he simply stated, "It better rain!"
"A few landowners and outfitters I heard from said their lease country or package hunts were down a bit due to the economy," said Alan Cain, TPWD South Texas Wildlife District Leader in Pleasanton. "Antler quality was about average with, naturally, some really good deer taken. There was not nearly the number of 180- to 200-plus B&C bucks you typically hear about in a normal or good year."
Last season was a good example. "Like many regions of the state, ranches with well-managed habitat tend to produce better quality animals even during tough conditions," Cain predicted. "That's where the exceptional bucks were harvested. Range conditions are currently bleak; livestock grazing is in short supply. We need rain, but next season is still months away, and lots can change between now and then." As most Texas hunters know, he's so right!
Another gauge of last year's harvest is through deer contests. Texas has no shortage of them -- large, small and in-between. Some competitions have become icons in the Lone Star whitetail world, while others, whether sponsored by a chamber of commerce, feed warehouse, grocery store or local tavern, exist on a smaller, more community-oriented scale.
"Texans love to hunt and are willing to compromise in other areas financially in order to continue their sport," said Imelda Garza Sharber of the legendary Muy Grande deer contest in Freer. "Our number of entries was actually up this past season by over 150 more than last year."
Sharber is the daughter of Leonel "Muy" Garza. She and husband Kenneth opened a brand-new store just before deer season kicked off. They expanded the contest categories and also now offer a wide variety of new services for the deer hunter.
"Overall antler scores went up, too, despite the dry weather we've experienced." Sharber added, "Landowners and hunters fed aggressively throughout the year, which most certainly helped antler growth. You could not tell higher prices for gas, diesel, corn and other items had any ill effects on South Texas hunters."
In checking with several other contests across the state, the report was much the same. The number of entries was as good, and in some cases, even better than last year. The Texas Big Game Awards entry numbers were also up slightly with the First Harvest and Youth Awards generally holding steady in their numbers. Preliminary results show an estimated 1,085 total entries, of which more than 600 were scored entries, the remainder First Harvest and Youth Awards.
Warren Bluntzer is a biologist with his own well-known Warren Bluntzer Wildlife Consulting Services. Based in Uvalde, he covers ranches from West Texas throughout the Hill Country and across South Texas. "Texas is such a premier state to hunt," said Bluntz
er, "The weather conditions as far as rainfall weren't the best and the mast low, but we have a great deer herd. Texans enjoy their outdoors and I believe overall most hunters were satisfied this past season with the quality of deer seen and harvested.
"Texans so look forward to our hunting heritage, always hoping for the best season." Bluntzer concluded. He then added this pure truism: "There is no price you can put on rain in the spring!"
As always, there were some truly awesome whitetails taken across the state last fall, as well as a few outstanding mule deer and pronghorn antelope. However, it was not the super mega-buck antler year of the 2007-2008 hunting season. Like most things in life, there are ups and downs, good years and not-so-good years for hunting trophy bucks.
The crystal ball of forecast was not cloudy with rain at the very moment this article was written. But as the old saying goes: If you don't like Texas weather today, stick around, for tomorrow it's bound to change. Let's hope Mother Nature supplies every inch of the Lone Star State with adequate moisture in the weeks and months ahead so that our next hunting season will be a grand one!