Big bucks show up all around the Lone Star State, but some areas are better than others for producing trophy animals. Here's a closer look at some prime locations for taking a wallhanger this fall. (November 2009)
There are two certainties in Texas deer hunting.
One is a no-brainer: If you're looking for big whitetails, head to South Texas.
The second one, however, might surprise a few hunters: If you can't make it down into the Brush Country, don't worry -- the genetic potential across much of the state is catching up or is now on par with that region. And that means you could be a lot closer to the buck of a lifetime than you think.
Last season was tough for hunters and land managers as widespread drought conditions wreaked havoc on range conditions, hindering the growth of headgear in many locales, especially those areas without supplemental feeding.
That being said, even in what could be termed a bad or at best average season, deer hunting was still pretty good. Unlike their experience in previous seasons that saw solid amounts of rainfall, deer hunters last fall were faced with chasing after whitetails living in habitat that, for various reasons, hadn't received the crucial moisture necessary.
According to Mitch Lockwood, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's whitetail program leader, the drought affecting most of the state last year and into this one was unprecedented. Range conditions were as bad as seasoned hunters and ranchers had ever seen. Lockwood said that despite the poor habitat available, deer showed their resilience -- as they always do -- and hunters still saw good antler quality.
"When it comes right down to it, droughts like the one last season didn't affect the population as badly as in past years," he said. "That's all due to how well people manage their land. There's just a lot of good habitat management out there. Fawn production and antler and body quality don't take as hard a hit during dry years when the land is well taken care of."
TPWD has taken an active role in deer management and will be adding 52 more counties to the 61 that already are under antler restriction regulations. The successful implementation of the antler restriction and desired results spurred the move to add even more counties. That should provide protection for young bucks and help them survive longer. That's according to Clayton Wolf, TPWD big-game program director.
Wolf said sufficient age structure could go a long way toward producing bigger antlers, even when range conditions are less than stellar.
David Brimager, who heads up the Texas Big Game Awards, said it's no surprise, but entries were down last year for this program that highlights the efforts of landowners and land managers to produce quality deer.
"I think it certainly relates to habitat conditions and rainfall," he said. "But then again, the quality continues to increase annually. More and more hunters and landowners are doing the right things for habitat and wildlife."
Last fall was not the best season for the TBGA awards in its 18-year run. The total number of scored entries fell from an all-time high of 1,568 in the 2007-08 season to 987 last season, while the total entries fell from 1,980 to 1,501.
Brimager said he again expects an average season for the number of entries into the program, but that average is still good considering widespread drought that has impacted almost every corner of the state for the past year and a half.
"As far as where the entries come from each year, it just points to the fact that big bucks are being harvested all across the state," he said. "Most of our entries come from low-fence places and in my mind, South Texas has become just another region when it comes to producing bigger bucks."
SOUTH TEXAS PLAINS
An inspection of TBGA entries again proves that the first place to look for big bucks, if you have the chance, 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 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.
South Texas produced six of the 10 largest typical whitetails, including Gary Hall's King Ranch bow buck that netted 186 1/8 B&C points. The region also produced five of the 10 largest non-typicals, including William Shackelford's Frio County giant that netted 206 3/8.
On the strength of the King Ranch's annual efforts, Kleberg County produced the highest number of whitetails entered into the TBGA with a whopping 60 animals. The other big-buck-producing counties of last season were Dimmit with 32, LaSalle 24 and Webb 23.
This region receives the most hunting pressure in the state, but it also stands up to that level of hunting by producing the highest harvest rates annually. While a good many hunters will shoot the first mature buck they see in this region, many hold out for better quality, and even in a down year, the area gave up big bucks.
The largest whitetail entered into the TBGA from the region was a non-typical buck scoring 199 5/8 that was shot by Keith McCoy while hunting with Duncan Ranch Whitetails in Lampasas County. The top typical from the region was one killed by Steve Wright in Kimble County that scored 181 2/8.
Kerr County once again proved to be the top county for harvesting big bucks in the region. Even in a down year, Kerr produced 31 TBGA entries. The eastern portion of the region, which produced the area's biggest non-typical buck, also produced a good number of entries, including 13 from Burnet County.
Gary Calkins, district biologist for the Pineywoods region, said the big-buck outlook for East Texas is brighter than other areas of the state simply because sufficient moisture levels have held steady and should provide more forage sources.
Calkins said new antler restrictions paired with a decreased harvest due to a decrease in hunting because of hurricane activity last season should pave the way for more hunters to see more deer, and possibly a better class of animals.
"The northern portion of the district just completed the third year of antler restrictio
ns and the results seem to be showing," he said. "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 said the overall deer population in East Texas has remained stable and antler development that was good last year should continue this season if moisture levels remained at least average.
"The hurricane had an effect on the acorn crop in the counties in the southern part of the region, and that could have played a role in some hunters not seeing the kind of bucks they would see in normal years," he said. "Overall, it's looking good for the fall, but there's no way to tell for sure how things are going to shake out. There are sure to be some good bucks taken across the region, even in some public tracts."
The top Pineywoods whitetail from last season was a non-typical buck harvested by Chuck Journee in Trinity County that netted 186 3/8 B&C, while the largest typical buck was taken by Jeffrey Schafer in Shelby County and scored 164 5/8.
The same counties that produced big bucks in the past again turned out large whitetails last season, led by Houston County with 24 TBGA entries. Other big-buck hotspots were Cherokee with 19 TBGA entries, Nacogdoches with 18, Trinity 16, and Freestone, Angelina and San Augustine with 11 each.
Some areas in this wide region support few deer, while others have numbers rivaling the Edwards Plateau. However, big bucks continue to be taken every year, and last season was no different.
The biggest typical reported from in this region was Jeff Mitchell's King County buck that netted 174 4/8 B&C, while the largest non-typical entered in TBGA scored 171 4/8. Pat Williams harvested the buck in Childress County.
Danny Swepston, who oversees the TPWD's Panhandle and Rolling Plains district, said last season was no different from others in the number of quality deer taken across the state. However, he said drought conditions didn't aid deer in his region, or anywhere else for that matter.
"I do think the dry weather through the spring and much of the summer impacted the antler quality," he said. "Mainly the spread is there, but the mass is not as good as in years when we get the early rains."
Swepston said the body condition of whitetails in this region appeared to be good to excellent during the season in many locales despite the overall lack of moisture.
"I believe that this is a result of the late summer, early fall rains most of the district received," he said. "In my experience, their body condition can improve dramatically even in poor years when we have these late-season rains."
While antlers may not have been as good as in years past when forage was better, Swepston said one trend in antler growth was odd.
"One unusual subject that keeps popping up is the above-average number of comments from both sides of the region concerning the number of bucks with broken antlers, main beams and points both, especially in whitetails but also in mulies," he said.
Calvin Richardson, desert big-game program leader for TPWD, said antler breakage may sound strange at first, but he has seen it in another locale.
"It has been my experience in far West Texas that antler breakage increases during years when we have a summer drought, regardless of spring rains," he said. "And this makes sense because the vast majority of protein is deposited during the first two-thirds of the antler development process, while the vast majority of the minerals, which causes antlers to harden, are deposited during the last two-thirds of the antler development process.
"Any decrease in nutritional intake during late June, July and early August can result in antlers that are below average in relative hardness. Antler growth begins and ends earlier in white-tailed deer than mule deer, so a drought that breaks midsummer would help mule deer more than whitetails in gaining some late-growth hardness."
The top counties for this region, according to TBGA entries, were Childress with 10 bucks entered, Collingsworth with nine, Hemphill and Donley with six.
This region continues to produce big bucks, thanks to the meticulous efforts of land managers; last year was no different. Three of the four largest non-typical whitetails entered into the TBGA were harvested in Bosque County, the top being a buck taken by Mike Murski that netted 214 5/8 B&C. Other bucks that surpassed 200 B&C points were killed by Christopher Ryan Dwyer and scored 201 6/8, and Rick Merrit's 201 1/8.
Bosque County also produced the top typical in the region, Mike Britt's 162 2/8 buck. Comanche County produced the region's most TBGA entries with nine, followed by Bosque at seven and Palo Pinto with six.
POST OAK SAVANNAH
This region continues to churn out some big bucks, despite more hunters shifting their attention and efforts to the area. The largest buck entered into the TBGA from the Post Oak last year was a massive non-typical killed by Brian Bender in Burleson County that scored 177 5/8. The region's top typical was a 163 3/8 net buck shot by Jerry Childers in Madison County.
The top big-buck counties from last season were Colorado with 17 entries, Guadalupe and Fayette with nine apiece.
This season has shaped up to be similar to last fall, but that's not a bad thing. Even in an average year at best, a staggering number of big bucks were bagged across the state. Hunters likely won't have to contend with Mother Nature providing excess food sources as is the case in wetter years, which means deer certainly will be easier to find and likely will frequent feeders or supplemental feeding areas with increased vigor.
Expansion of antler restrictions also will force many hunters to be more selective before pulling the trigger. That in turn could mean they hold out for a better buck than they even had a chance of seeing in previous years.
Despite negative aspects that frame this deer season, the overall outlook for big bucks is good, no matter whether you're hunting 100 acres or 10,000. What makes Texas deer hunting so great is this: You never know what could pop out of the brush at any moment, even in what might be considered a "down" season.