Good deer hunting is something we have come to expect in Texas, but some areas still produce more venison than others. Here's an in-depth look at our top hunting spots for this fall. (October 2009)
For the roughly half-million deer hunters who head into the woods this fall in the Lone Star State, this season will be one sprinkled with good and bad news.
First, the good news: Increased bag limits and hunting opportunities across much of the state and lower hunter turnout last season should set the stage for more hunters to put more venison in their freezers.
Now, the bad news: Widespread drought dating back to 2007 has affected fawn production and overall deer numbers, and deer that may have reached their genetic potential in wet years simply won't this year.
This season's forecast is shaping up to be average at best by most accounts from land managers and biologists. However, in our state, with the nation's highest whitetail population at more than 4 million, that isn't necessarily a "downer" prediction.
In dry years, when natural forage sources are scarce, deer are more apt to hit feeders and food plots. This season certainly is shaping up to be one of those.
Gary Calkins, district biologist for the Pineywoods region, is one of the few state biologists who had positive things to say about a number of deer-related subjects in his neck of the woods, and for good reason -- that part of the state has been less affected by drought than elsewhere.
"Deer populations appear to be relatively stable across the Pineywoods," he said. "From our age, weight and antler data collection efforts, the harvest last year appeared to be down some so there should be a good carryover of bucks into older age-classes for this year. The northern portion of the district just completed the third year of antler restrictions and the results seem to be showing. Our data is showing harvest of younger deer has dropped off, as hoped, and that the restrictions are indeed working as desired in that part of the district. That area should continue to see an increase in older age-class deer in the upcoming season."
Calkins noted that hunter numbers were down in some places last season and so carryover numbers for this season should be up.
"The southern portion of the district will now have the antler restriction regulation hich was newly passed by the commission," he said. "This area seems to have had the greatest reduction in harvest during the 2008-09 season, so expectations are that there will already be a carryover in buck age-classes. This drop in harvest is possibly a result of decreased hunter activity following Hurricane Ike."
Calkins noted that at least one natural forage source was affected by hurricane activity.
"Antler development across the district was good in 2008 and if the weather cooperates, it should be another good year in 2009," he said. "The 2008 acorn crop was fair across the Pineywoods with the southern portion being the lightest crop due to the hurricane knocking acorns off in several areas before they were ready. The winter and early spring were touch and go from the rainfall standpoint, but if the wet conditions continued through early summer, hopefully, things will continue to look good for both body weights and antler development."
Kory Perlichek, a biologist in the Edwards Plateau hunting hotspots of McCulloch, Mason and Gillespie counties, said the entire region, which is hunted by almost a third of those pursuing whitetails in Texas, has faced a major setback due to drought.
"Drought conditions across the Edwards Plateau and throughout most of Texas during 2008 and the early part of 2009 were some of the most severe on record," he said. "According to the United States Drought Monitor Web site, more than 90 percent of the state was classified as 'abnormally dry.' The drought began in September 2007 and will have a lasting effect not only on wildlife, but livestock and crops as well. March and April rains brightened up the area, but looking into my crystal ball, I see at best an average hunting season. Fawning cover was minimal throughout much of the Hill Country. Overall, range conditions are starting to improve somewhat, but continuous moisture is needed to have a lasting effect on the habitat. Deer antler quality and fawn production and survival will be average if we are blessed with more precipitation."
The Edwards Plateau region annually reports the highest overall harvest numbers and highest hunter success rate in the state. While that may hold true again this fall, those figures likely will drop somewhat as has been the case in dry seasons in this decade.
Mike Reagan, a technical guidance biologist in the eastern half of the Edwards Plateau, said fawn crops have been affected the most by the severe dry spell.
"The fawn crop last summer (2008) in this area was the lowest I have seen in the last 30 years," he said. "Overall, deer numbers were down last year. This year's fawn crop should be a little better than last year due to the March and April rains. Antler growth will be average to slightly below average this year. If the oak trees produce a large acorn crop, the season will be a tough one. If we have less rain than normal and fewer acorns, more deer will be harvested, since they will readily come to feeders."
Gilbert Guzman, a biologist in Menard and Kimble counties, said deer numbers in some parts of the region remain steady, while in other locales they simply are too high.
"White-tailed deer carryover populations from last year are higher than recommended," he said. "Although I encouraged MLDP (Managed Land Deer Permit) cooperators in Kimble and Menard counties to use all their permits and ask for more, deer harvest fell short once again. Antler production should be off to a better than normal start because of the recent moisture. With the proper age, genetics, and now nutritional boost, bucks should be able to produce slightly better than average antler growth."
In dry years, drought only exacerbates problems in some areas, said Joyce Moore, a technical guidance biologist in the western half of the Edwards Plateau, and this season could be one with diminished numbers of younger deer.
"If drought conditions continue, look for low fawn production again in 2009 due to stressed physical condition of does," she said. "With regard to herd age structure, look for diminished numbers of 1 1/2-year-old or 'yearling' deer -- those sporting their first set of antlers -- due to poor fawn survival averages in 2008. Land managers and hunters should take the opportunity in 2009 to remove obvious culls from the herd, as infe
rior antler characteristics are magnified in a low-rainfall year. And if conditions worsen, populations should be reduced even further to prevent possible death losses."
OUR OTHER HOTSPOTS
Best known for producing the highest densities of big bucks, South Texas should be on par this season with those of the past decade, especially if land managers utilize supplemental feeding and rein in their buck-to-doe ratios. South Texas has been hampered by severe drought, with many areas receiving only a few inches of moisture in the past year. Despite that, this year should be an average one for hunting spots in that part of Texas, which translates to "very good" anywhere else.
This region consistently has had the fourth-highest harvest rates in recent seasons, but those numbers could jump, as more doe opportunities have been offered in some hotspots. A number of counties directly west of the D/FW Metroplex have had strong seasons this decade, and hunters looking to fill their tags have done almost as well as those in the Hill Country, where deer densities are highest. The counties in the region bordering Oklahoma also have shown a propensity toward higher deer numbers.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission recently adopted a series of wildlife and hunting regulations that expand special buck antler restrictions and liberalize antlerless harvest in dozens of counties. The new rules take effect during the current hunting seasons.
One of the biggest changes involves more expansion of the department's antler restriction regulations into 52 additional counties where biologists have identified a need to provide greater protection for young buck deer.
According to Clayton Wolf, TPWD big-game program director, the antler restrictions have significantly improved age structure while maintaining ample hunting opportunity, based on data to date in the 61 counties where the rule is in effect.
New counties under antler restriction this fall include: Anderson, Angelina, Archer, Atascosa, Brazos, Brown, Chambers, Clay, Cooke, Denton, Ellis, Falls, Freestone, Grayson, Grimes, Hardin, Harris, Henderson, Hill, Hood, Hunt, Jack, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Kaufman, Liberty, Limestone, Madison, McLennan, Milam, Mills, Montague, Montgomery, Navarro, Newton, Orange, Palo Pinto, Parker, Polk, Robertson, San Jacinto, Smith, Stephens, Tarrant, Trinity, Tyler, Van Zandt, Walker, Wichita, Wise and Young.
The department also got overwhelming support for increasing bag limits in several areas of the state with growing deer numbers or with populations sufficient to support additional hunting opportunity.
The department is increasing the bag limit in most Cross Timbers and Prairies and in eastern Rolling Plains counties from three deer (no more than one buck and two antlerless) or four deer (no more than two bucks and two antlerless) to five deer (no more than two bucks). Counties include Archer, Baylor, Bell (West of I-35), Bosque, Callahan, Clay, Coryell, Hamilton, Haskell, Hill, Jack, Jones, Knox, Lampasas, McLennan, Palo Pinto, Shackelford, Somervell, Stephens, Taylor, Throckmorton, Wichita, Wilbarger, Williamson (west of I-35) and Young.
In addition, TPWD is increasing the bag limit from four deer to five in Pecos, Terrell and Upton counties. White-tailed deer densities throughout the eastern Trans-Pecos are similar to densities on the Edwards Plateau, where current rules allow the harvest of up to five antlerless deer.
Another change increases the bag limit from three deer to five (no more than one buck) in select counties of the western Rolling Plains. Counties include Armstrong, Briscoe, Carson, Childress, Collingsworth, Cottle, Crosby, Dickens, Donley, Fisher, Floyd, Foard, Garza, Gray, Hall, Hardeman, Hemphill, Hutchinson, Kent, King, Lipscomb, Motley, Ochiltree, Roberts, Scurry, Stonewall and Wheeler.
Areas of the state having sufficient antlerless deer populations to warrant additional hunting opportunity will be getting more doe days this fall. The department is increasing antlerless deer hunting from 16 days to full-season either-sex in the following areas: Dallam, Denton, Hartley, Moore, Oldham, Potter, Sherman and Tarrant counties; from 30 days to full-season either-sex in Cooke, Hardeman, Hill, Johnson, Wichita, and Wilbarger counties; from four days to 16 days in Bowie and Rusk counties; from four days to 30 days in Cherokee and Houston counties; and from no doe days to four doe days in Anderson, Henderson, Hunt, Leon, Rains, Smith and Van Zandt counties.
The department is also expanding the late antlerless and spike season into additional counties. Those include Archer, Armstrong, Baylor, Bell (west of I-35), Bosque, Briscoe, Callahan, Carson, Childress, Clay, Collingsworth, Comanche, Cooke, Coryell, Cottle, Crosby, Denton, Dickens, Donley, Eastland, Erath, Fisher, Floyd, Foard, Garza, Gray, Hall, Hamilton, Hardeman, Haskell, Hemphill, Hill, Hood, Hutchinson, Jack, Johnson, Jones, Kent, King, Knox, Lampasas, Lipscomb, McLennan, Montague, Motley, Ochiltree, Palo Pinto, Parker, Pecos, Roberts, Scurry, Shackelford, Somervell, Stephens, Stonewall, Tarrant, Taylor, Terrell, Throckmorton, Upton, Wheeler, Wichita, Wilbarger, Williamson (west of I-35), Wise and Young. In Pecos, Terrell, and Upton counties, the season would replace the current muzzleloader-only season.
The TPWD is adding an additional weekend and 10 extra weekdays in January to the youth-only season.
Private owners hold about 95 percent of the land in our state, so most hunters pursue whitetails on family property or on 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 gives 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.
For more on public hunting opportunities, visit the TPWD Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us.