Tagging a Lone Star deer (or two) gets easier every year, it seems -- but it's still the case that some spots produce more venison than do others. Here's a close-up look at the fall's most promising deer-hunting locales. (October 2008)
It's a good time to be a deer hunter in Texas! The Lone Star State boasts the largest deer population in the country and the widest variety of terrain through which to chase our wiliest game animal. And while most dream of looking through the scope at the buck of a lifetime, more are out for an enjoyable time, and to put some tasty, high-protein venison in the freezer.
This should be another great season for setting forth on that quest.
Good range conditions across much of the state last season provided relief to areas previously hampered by drought and set the stage for a year for the books. However, improved habitat and substantial forage were arguably no boon. The truth is that, with plenty of food and cover sources, deer didn't have to move around much. That made for tough hunting in many regions, and surely reduced numbers of deer seen.
Texas hunters may see better results this season than they did last. Adequate rainfall and good carryover numbers will likely result in plenty of healthy animals that, lacking quite as much available food and cover, will be forced to travel more and, thus, expose themselves more. (Continued)
In the 2007-08 whitetail seasons, Texas hunters harvested a total of 512,852 bucks and does -- a drop from 2006-07, when hunters took a total of 604,800. Overall hunter numbers also dipped from 621,105 in 2006-07 to 578,864 last season, while total hunter days fell from 4,950,693 to 4,707,551.
The Edwards Plateau region of the state again had the highest harvest (229,391), hunter (176,074) and success (75 percent) totals in Texas. The High Plains again had the lowest harvest (1,160) and hunter (1,733) totals in the state, while Blackland Prairie hunters again had the lowest overall success rate (26 percent).
Overall, Texas hunters enjoyed a 60 percent success rate and spent an average of 8.13 days in the field last season, up slightly from the previous season (7.97). Statewide, bucks constituted 56 percent of the total harvest with the Blackland Prairies (75 percent) and Post Oak Savannah (70 percent) having the highest antlered kill rates.
Just going by the numbers, most hunters should see more deer, and, with a drop in the total harvest numbers, no shortage of opportunities to bring home some meat is expected.
Clayton Wolf, big-game program director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, noted that though hunter numbers took a hit in the previous decade, their ranks are leveling off overall. "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."
According to Wolf, antler restrictions in 61 Texas counties have helped to get a lot of young deer into an age-class they might not have made in previous seasons. He said the restrictions were put in place to help get deer to at least 3 years, or more, and so far they seem to be working.
In counties under antler restrictions, a lawful buck is defined as any 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 greater than 13 inches. The restrictions created what is essentially a slot limit for hunters wanting to take two bucks in the eastern and southeastern portion of the state.
Mitch Lockwood, TPWD whitetail program coordinator, declared the overall deer outlook for fall encouraging for both biologists and land managers across the state, and projected a season on par with those of the past decade, when more than a half-million deer were harvested.
"It sounds like the eastern third of the state has been doing well regarding rainfall and most of the state has been very dry until recently," he said. "Things are green in the Hill Country, but we don't have deep soil moisture in much of this area.
"I will say that the harvest was down last year, as predicted, so we should have some good carryover (for two years now, in much of the state) -- putting more deer into older age-classes. And I'll also say that the antler-restriction regulation currently in 61 counties is continuing to show positive results. We're extremely encouraged by what we're seeing."
Range conditions in various regions of the state seem to mirror one another in most deer seasons, and this year should be no different, according to two TPWD district leaders.
David Sierra, a TPWD district leader based in Tyler, said the Post Oak Savannah, like other parts of the state, has benefited from rains at the right time this year and last.
"The ample winter rains this past season have produced favorable range conditions throughout most of the Post Oak Savannah heading into the spring months and the spring rains have done much to continue this situation," he said. "As usual, the northern portion of the region, between Interstate 30 and the Red River, received more rainfall than counties farther south. The 2007 acorn crop was reported as good across the Post Oak Savannah."
Sierra asserted that while improved habitat aided the deer in his region, it also made for tougher hunting. "Preliminary reports indicate that the total deer harvest for the 2007 hunting season in the Post Oak is down from previous years," he said. "Mild weather conditions seem to have made life easier on the deer. Excellent habitat conditions allowed them to forage less and denser vegetation provided more screening cover. And again, better range conditions will spread the deer over larger areas and not concentrate them in the bottoms and other prime habitats.
"Population density data suggests that deer densities across the Post Oak Savannah have remained stable or have slightly increased for the past 10 years. Harvest data collected during the 2007-08 deer season indicate yearling bucks (18 months old) comprised about 27 percent of the total buck harvest. Also, harvest data from the past few years suggest a trend of increasing numbers of older bucks in the annual harvest. This trend was assisted again by the 13 counties with antler-restriction regulations."
Those looking to fill their tags in the region this season should like the bigger, healthier animals they see, suggested Sierra. "Health indices such as antler measurements and body weight for yearling bucks in the Post Oak Savannah have been increasing over the past 10 to 20 years," he said. "This trend should continue this hunting season because the yearling bucks of this season were the fawn crop of the 2007 growing season, when good range conditions prevailed throughout most of the summer and winter."
Good weather conditions mean good things for deer. "This should allow them to put on more body fat and use the extra nutrition to express their full genetic potential," said Sierra. "Hunters can expect to find better-than-average body weights and antler quality in the upcoming deer season."
David Forrester, a TPWD district leader based in La Grange, said the deer outlook for his part of the state is shaping up nicely. "The deer hunting forecast for this part of the state looks good," he said. "We experienced a decrease in harvest last year due to great habitat conditions and one of the best acorn crops recorded. Deer just weren't coming to feeders, food plots and other food sources and were much harder to find."
Forrester anticipated that the animals in his region, especially bucks, would be healthy and slick this season. "The carryover from the decreased harvest coupled with the antler restriction regulation should bode well for more bucks -- and more mature bucks -- available for the 2008-09 hunting season,' he continued. "Additionally, deer body condition coming out of the winter was great, so antler production should be above average for the upcoming hunting season. Fawn production last year was good, so there should be a lot of young bucks out there, too."
Most Texas hunters shrug off mule deer hunting as requiring too much travel, but those bent on maximizing their haul of venison will find that the animals can provide an added chance to fill a couple of more tags this year.
|TEXAS WHITE-TAILED DEER|
HARVEST BY ECOLOGICAL REGION 2007-2008
|Post Oak Savannah||36,433||25,526||10,907||72,931||42%|
|South Texas Plains||100,018||58,131||41,887||102,772||67%|
Calvin Richardson, desert game program coordinator for TPWD, stated that the Trans-Pecos region would again provide hunters with a chance at a mulie or two, thanks to range conditions.
"Last year (the winter/spring of 2006-07) provided the Trans-Pecos with some above-average precipitation across the landscape," he said. "This resulted in very good deer antler quality this past hunting season. However, an extended dry period from September 2007 through spring 2008 has impacted all wildlife species and associated habitats in the Trans-Pecos. The good news is that, given the several favorable rainfall years prior to this year, there still should be plenty of hunting opportunities for sportsmen this year in the region.
"After above-normal precipitation in spring of 2007, 2008 has proved to be extremely dry during the critical antler growth period. Below-average rainfall throughout the winter and spring will probably affect antler quality to some extent this year. However, there should be numerous mature bucks available for harvest after high reproduction and survival rates from 2003-07.
numerous mature bucks is a real plus because a small portion of the buck segment seems to always produce extraordinarily large antlers, regardless of apparent nutritional conditions. Overall mule deer population estimates remain above average. If the normal pattern of summer rainfall occurs, deer should be in good physical condition this fall."
The Panhandle also has seen dry conditions in the past year, reported Richardson, but spring rains definitely will help the mulies in the region. "The Panhandle also experienced a dry fall and winter," he said. "However, spring conditions looked much better as typical precipitation patterns in spring and fall held true, and much of the region received ample rainfall in April and May.
"Antler production should be average to above-average and, given previous years of high production, mature bucks should be plentiful, at least on properties where the harvest strategy in recent years has been conservative."
According to Richardson, Panhandle mulies have been known to find food even when conditions aren't conducive to an overall greenup. "Most mule deer herds in the Panhandle are not entirely dependent on rainfall conditions," he said, "as they normally have access to warm-season crops (corn, sorghum, cotton, immature plants, blooms, tailings) and cool-season crops (winter wheat, triticale). And they will use alfalfa in summer and winter."
Peanuts and vegetables are available in limited areas. As a result of all the supplemental nutrition, much of it irrigated, mule deer bucks in the Panhandle tend to be larger, often field-dressing in excess of 200 pounds.
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 wildlife management areas when the sites are open for general visitation and exempts the holder from any hunting permit fees applicable at those areas.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission also has approved a framework for providing hunting opportunities on 41 state parks during the 2008-09 hunting seasons, offering 1,795 draw-hunt positions for the upcoming hunting season.
For more on public hunting opportunities, visit the TPWD Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us
* * *Based on preliminary estimates in the spring and summer, this deer season is shaping up as one conducive to seeing lots of animals and filling as many tags as you're willing to use. A decrease from the previous season's overall harvest of more than 90,000 deer means a huge carryover of animals left to breed, thus adding to the state's already healthy herd.
Favorable range conditions will result in plenty of cover and food sources -- but not enough to enable the animals to hide completely from prying eyes. For hunters looking to stock their freezers with healthy venison, this fall should offer a splendid chance for them to do so.
I know where I plan to be this fall!