Texas' 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Big bucks can turn up almost anywhere in the Lone Star State, but a few areas are always known for consistently producing whopper deer. Here's a review of some prime locations for taking a trophy this fall. (November 2008)

The distinct charm of each of Texas' different eco-regions makes each stand out.

But whether you're a Pineywoods deer hunter who roams the evergreen thickets, a South Texas hunter who shuffles through cactus flats or a Rolling Plains hunter who traverses open spaces, you're probably not far from a big whitetail buck. More big bucks seem to be showing up in every county in the state, and many Lone Star deer hunters have had or will have the opportunity to harvest that deer of a lifetime.

This season is shaping up to be on par with previous years that have seen big whitetails taken all across the state. Most of the state received ample rains, and with a good carryover of animals from the previous season, there should be no shortage of bigger bucks sporting bigger headgear from the Pineywoods to the High Plains.

South Texas has always been the big-buck capital of Texas, but other locales too have the potential to produce a deer of the year. With that in mind, here's a look at your best bets for finding a trophy buck this season.

Hunters worldwide flock to the South Texas Brush Country for one reason: the possibility of harvesting their biggest buck ever.

An inspection of Texas Big Game Awards entries again proves that the first place to look for big bucks is below Interstate 10. South Texas again produced the highest number of TBGA entries, even though it has a higher minimum entry score than other regions. To be a TBGA entry from South Texas, a typical whitetail must score at least 140 Boone and Crockett points, while a non-typical buck must score a minimum of 155. In the Rolling Plains, High Plains, Cross Timbers and Edwards Plateau, a typical buck must meet a minimum of 130 and a non-typical 145. In the Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairies, Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies, the minimums are 125 and 140.

Last season kept David Brimager, director of the TBGA, as busy as ever. "Last year was a great year for deer in Texas," he said. "Entries were up from previous years, and we had about 2,600 entries into the program, including the first harvest numbers. As far as the big bucks we had entered, there were 1,568 entries, which would be an all-time high."

After a banner season, Brimager said, some variables could reduce the number of entries this fall. "We expect the entries to be down from last season. There are any number of things that might affect the number of deer we see -- anything from drought and fires to other stresses the weather puts on the animals."

Among the variables helping the Lone Star State produce bucks at the top end of their potential are landowner cooperation and improved management practices overall. "Everybody's working together more these days," said Brimager, "and so you're seeing more big deer coming from co-ops and other managed areas. Landowners are doing more today than they ever have to manage for deer, and the number of good bucks we're seeing proves that every year. The data we have shows that 74 to 76 percent of our entries came from low-fenced properties, so the myth that only high-fenced places produce the biggest bucks isn't true."

Every so often -- say, once a generation -- a whitetail comes along that absolutely makes anything else pale in comparison. That deer materialized last year in Webb County on the Las Raices Ranch in the form of a non-typical buck that netted 269 2/8 B&C. The buck, killed in October with a Managed Lands Deer Permit by Marko Barrett, stood head and shoulders above the rest last season and was the largest whitetail harvested in the state, as well as the largest ever entered into TBGA.

The biggest typical whitetail taken in South Texas was Gary Raesz Jr.'s 181 4/8 net McMullen County buck.

If you could pick one county to hunt this year -- and could afford the cost -- you'd want to consider Kenedy. Spurred on by the intense size and management practices of the legendary King Ranch, Kenedy produced the most TBGA entries with a total of 65. Other notable counties in the region were Dimmit with 47 entries, La Salle (37), Webb (35) and McMullen (16).

Five of the 10 biggest non-typicals and five of the 10 top typicals came from South Texas. Overall, the region produced 17 non-typicals that netted 180 or higher and 29 typical bucks that netted 160 or higher.

It's good to be the King!

This portion of the state receives the most hunting pressure and has the highest harvest rates, but that doesn't mean that some big bucks don't slip by each season. Our family has hunted on the western edge of the region for the past 15 years, and each year at least one of us has the chance to harvest a fantastic buck.

This year should be no different for our hunting party, or for anyone else in the region. Ample rainfall in the winter and spring heading into the summer months will have fostered decent food sources throughout much of the year, setting the stage for an above-average fall. Hunters on leases managed year 'round have an advantage over others in the region, but some big deer are always taken on low-fenced ranches.

The biggest whitetail buck killed in this region last fall was a Kerr County deer taken by Kirk Smith that netted 202 1/8, while the biggest typical whitetail taken was Steve Kent II's Kerr County buck netting 175 3/8.

Kerr County again was a great locale with 36 total TBGA entries, but Irion (30), San Saba (30), Reagan (19), Mason (15), and Llano (15) also produced some big whitetails.

What-ifs have always surrounded East Texas' deer season, but if the forecast holds, this year could make up for tough hunting in the past.

Gary Calkins, TPWD district leader in Jasper, believes that the eastern portion of the state is set for a good hunting year. "It should be an above-average deer season," he said. "We didn't have an excellent acorn crop or conditions last season, but they weren't too bad either.

"The northern portion of the Pineywoods under antler restrictions is especially headed for a good year. The antler restriction data that we have shows things are going picture-perfect. We're shifting age-structures really fast after having to basically restart after a tough season in 2005."

As for as the usual suspects for producing big bucks, Calkins named a pair of counties. "Trinity and Newton counties are alm

ost sure bets for some better deer every season," he said. "There will be some good deer that pop up here and there as it goes, but there are more counties on the northern end of the Pineywoods that are producing better deer right now. There is some tough hunting, but with lower densities in some places, the chances are good when you see a buck it could be a better deer."

Calkins pointed to potentially fruitful public areas. "Bannister Wildlife Management Area always produces a couple of nice bucks for hunters every year," he said, "and there are also some public tracts in Newton County that will produce a good buck."

Last season, the biggest whitetail buck harvested in the region was a Gregg County deer taken by John Smith Jr. that netted 182; the biggest typical whitetail taken was Richard Kreger's Newton County buck netting 162 1/8. Trinity County was the hotspot in the region with 22 TBGA entries. Nacogdoches (20) and Houston (15) were among the top counties.

This region continues as a solid bet for big whitetails. Many may not consider it big-deer country at first thought, but according to David Brimager, people are noticing, and entries from the region are increasing.

"It's not a South Texas-driven deal anymore when it comes to bigger bucks," he said. "More hotspots are showing up in a lot of areas such as the eastern and southeastern Panhandle, and people are taking advantage of those opportunities."

Having lived in the Panhandle for the last decade, I can tell you that deer densities in much of the High and Rolling Plains aren't great -- but if you do see a buck, chances are good that he'll be a dandy. Especially in the eastern Panhandle, deer abound in cottonwood-laced river bottoms and tend to pack on more weight than do deer to the south. The biggest whitetail harvested in the region was Wade Arrington's Hemphill County buck that netted 193 3/8; the biggest typical whitetail was Ted Flowers' 175 6/8 net King County buck.

Overall, the region produced 11 typical bucks that netted 160 or higher. Shackelford and Throckmorton counties led the way with 18 TBGA entries each, followed by Collingsworth (12) and Hemphill and Donley (10 apiece).

I've also lived and hunted in this region, and let me tell you -- it's got the deer. This part of Texas boasts a good population that seems to stand up to adverse elements better than do deer in other portions of the state. Hunters in the area this fall will surely have an opportunity to harvest a big buck with good carryover numbers from an already large population that sees good range conditions.

The biggest whitetail buck harvested last season in the region was a Bosque County buck taken by Ray Murski that netted 210 3/8. The biggest typical whitetail taken was James King Jr.'s Coleman County buck netting 179 3/8. As for hotspots, Mills County led the way in the region with 15 TBGA entries. Cooke County (12) and Clay County (8), on the northern edge of the region, also proved fruitful, while Hamilton (8) also was right up there for good deer.

David Sierra, a TPWD district leader in Tyler, reported that favorable range conditions in the spring could translate into better antler quality in his part of the state come fall. "The acorn crop was reported as good across the region and the northern portion of this part of the state received more rainfall," he said. "Reports indicated that the total deer harvest for last season in the Post Oak was down.

"The data also suggests a trend of increasing numbers of older bucks in the annual harvest, again assisted by counties with antler-restriction regulations."

According to Sierra, this season could be the one for hunters in the Post Oak to harvest their biggest bucks ever. "The deer should put on more body fat and use the extra nutrition to express their full genetic potential," he said. "Hunters can expect to find better-than-average antler quality in the upcoming deer season."

The biggest whitetail buck harvested in the region was a Robertson County deer taken by Richard Meritt that netted 221 7/8, while the biggest typical whitetail taken was Hugo Helmcamp's Colorado County buck netting 167 3/8.

Colorado County proved to be among the best in the state with 30 TBGA entries, while Anderson (17) and Fayette (14) also should be good bets again this fall.

David Forrester, a TPWD district leader in La Grange, said his part of the state also is primed for bucks to sprout impressive headgear. "Deer just weren't coming to feeders, food plots and other sources, so the harvest was down since most hunters just didn't see as many deer," he said. "This season looks good though. The carryover from the decreased harvest and the antler restrictions should bode well for big bucks. Antler production should be above average here, since deer body condition coming out of the winter was great."

The biggest whitetail buck harvested there was a Matagorda County deer taken by Macy Herzog that netted 155 7/8. Refugio County had eight entries, the most in the region.

This region has the lowest deer harvest rate in the state, but it remains one of those places that might just produce the biggest deer you've ever seen. The counties along the Red River always are the most productive in that part of the state, and last fall was no exception.

Grayson County in particular carries the banner. The county produced the largest non-typical, a buck taken by Brock Benson that netted 201 2/8, and the largest typical, Jim Lillis' buck netting 176 7/8. Grayson also produced 10 TBGA entries, the most from the region. Hunt County was close behind with nine.

* * *

With a little help from Mother Nature, this fall could be one for the record books. Ample deer numbers boosted by improved range conditions can mean more deer spotted, and bigger bucks taken, all across the Lone Star State.

And that means more chances at a buck of a lifetime!

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