Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Rodrigs missed the buck of his life last year.
The young hunter had set up a deer stand along a creek bed on his grandmother’s 600-acre ranch in Montague County in north Texas. He hadn’t seen any monsters on the trail cams, but he knew the deer used the creek as a thoroughfare and he thought he was ready when a 10-pointer walked out at 250 yards.
But a miscalculation sent his shot flying past the big buck, and he couldn’t get a follow-up shot before the buck escaped.
He kept at it, hunting that same spot for weeks until the last day of youth whitetail season.
“I kept going to that deer stand over and over,” Rodrigs said. “But I didn’t want to push it, so I spaced out my times and stayed patient.”
That’s when he got his second opportunity. The same buck appeared again, this time at 100 yards, and Rodrigs put him down. He didn’t get the deer judged officially, but he estimates the Boone & Crockett score to be around 145.
Rodrigs’ personal best may not set any state records, but the hunter has already had a more successful career than many hunters twice his age. Before his 18th birthday, Rodrigs had taken home a 21.5-inch 8-point, an 11-point, another 10-point, and a 7-point — all on that same parcel in north Texas.
The Next Big Tex?
Rodrigs’ success on a low-fence ranch in the northern portion of the state might strike some as a surprise. The high-fence operations in south Texas are legendary for producing monster bucks, and the Hill Country has some of the state’s densest whitetail populations.
But talk to any biologist or outfitter from north-Texas counties, especially along the Red River, and they’ll say that the big-buck population is on the rise with no signs of slowing down.
Experts cite several reasons for the change. Clayton Herzog of Prone Outfitters said the large parcels of farm land in north Texas provide plenty of nutritious food for bucks to grow large bodies and antlers. He also pointed out that the upper portions of the state have received ample rain in recent years.
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“Three years out of one of the worst droughts in history and things are looking very good,” Herzog said.
Land use and rain have contributed to buck growth, but outfitters and biologists cited one explanation almost unanimously: antler restrictions, which limits the harvest of antlered deer to those possessing a hardened antler protruding through the skin and at least one unbranched antler or an inside spread measurement between the main beams of 13 inches or greater.
“Comparing past harvests to current harvests, we are getting more older age-class bucks in the harvest, mainly due to the antler restrictions,” said Ragan White, the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) District Wildlife Biologist for four counties along the Red River.
James Ray of Oxferd Outfitters has seen the same trend on the 10 ranches he hunts in north Texas. When asked whether he’s seen a rise in the number of mature bucks, he responded immediately: “Absolutely.
“When I first started there were no antler restrictions,” the 14-year guide and lifelong whitetail hunter said. “I was a bit uptight when Texas Parks and Wildlife instituted the restrictions because a lot of customers aren’t happy unless you’re killing stuff. But I’ve seen an increase in the number of mature bucks.
“I’m pleased. Antler restrictions are a good thing. A very good thing.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Antler restrictions aren’t limited to north Texas, of course. But the three eco-regions in the north-central portion of the state are showing improved herd and antler sizes that surpass statewide averages.
Data obtained from TPWD Whitetail Program Director Alan Cain indicates that between 2005 and 2018, gross B&C scores rose in the eco-regions of Post Oak Savannah, Cross Timbers and Prairies, and Blackland Prairies. By contrast, the gross B&C scores in South Texas dropped, and those in Edwards Plateau have remained static over the same time period.
The numbers aren’t dramatic. The gross B&C score in Cross Timbers and Prairies, for example, rose by 0.9 points per year, and those in South Texas dropped by 0.5 points per year. But the average B&C rise per year in Cross Timbers (0.9) and Blackland Prairies (1.0) represent the highest average increases of any eco-region in the state, and they quadruple the statewide average increase of 0.2 points per year.
South Texas still boasts the highest absolute gross B&C scores, but their lead over north Texas regions only averages between 5 to 10 points, depending on the age class. If this trend continues, we could eventually see northern regions take the throne as the premier whitetail hunting grounds in the state.
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The area along the Red River is looking especially promising. According to Cain, in the two deer management areas along the river, bucks 3.5 years and older represent between 44 and 48 percent of the harvest — a jump from previous years. Antler restrictions have shifted the age structure to the older-age side and allowed bucks to mature and grow larger antlers.
Hunters have noticed the change.
“There are massive deer up there,” Rodrigs said, referring to the Red River Valley. “The biggest buck I’ve ever seen was shot along the river. The bodies up there are way bigger.”
What’s more, there’s reason to believe north Texas will continue to produce big bucks. Deer populations are growing across the state, but north Texas eco-regions have seen three of the four highest growth rates since 2005. Cross Timbers shows the strongest growth with 3.4 deer/1,000 acres per year, Eastern Rolling Plains boasts the third highest rate (1.8), and Post Oak Savannah has the fourth (1.5). Edwards Plateau is adding deer at the second highest rate (3.0), but the South Texas herds are growing by only 0.4 deer per 1,000 acres per year.
Long story short, antler sizes and deer herds are increasing simultaneously in north Texas, and there’s never been a better time to harvest a trophy in these counties.
GET IN ON THE ACTION
Knowing the bucks are out there and getting them in the truck are two different things, however. Bagging a trophy on low-fence land in north Texas requires some know-how.
First step? Scouting.
“Know the habitat,” Ragan recommends. “Get out and scout. Learn the deer’s movements and what they’re feeding on.”
Ragan advises hunters to look for north-Texas plants like American beautyberry, blackberries, and dewberries. As with any whitetail hunt, setting up between these food sources and watering holes or bedding areas will provide a decent chance of seeing a big buck.
For feeders and food plots, Ray encourages hunters to keep it simple.
“Why spend a lot of money on an expensive plot mix that might not be drought resistant or the seed may not be native to your area?” Ray asked. “Or why feed protein pellets for antler growth if your neighbor is going to kill it graveyard dead if it comes over to him?”
Instead, Ray recommends planting wheat. It’s drought-resistant and hardy in north Texas, and “it’ll outdo any two-hundred-dollar-a-bag plot mix.”
Same goes for feeder food. Ray said corn is more weather-resistant than pellets and works just as well.
In terms of cover, Ragan looks for a savannah-type setting that isn’t too overgrown with brush but still has a grass component to provide cover. He also noted that any pieces of land that utilizes prescribed fire often attract deer.
Once hunters have found a promising piece of north-Texas habitat, trail cams can provide the information necessary for knowing a big buck’s habits. After that, their job is simple: stay out of the woods.
“The hunter has to respect the habitat,” Ray said. “Never go into the buck bedding area. Never go into the doe family unit bedding area. Go to your feeder, take care of it, check your trail camera, and get the heck out of there.”
If the rut has come and gone and a big buck remains elusive, Ray recommends looking for uninhabited areas with perennial winter grass (also called ryegrass). If hunters identify these areas before the season begins, Ray advises fertilizing the grass with nitrogen and setting up a natural blind.
“That’s your Plan B, but if you know the buck is on your ranch and he’s not popping up at the plot or the feeder, that’s the area you want to target,” Ray said.
Trophy bucks can be found throughout their range in the Lone Star State. TPWD District Leader Kevin Mote told Texas Sportsman that, contrary to popular belief, “trophy genetics” aren’t limited to any specific region.
“What makes the difference between regions and even between ranches separated by a barbed wire fence is the habitat and population management that has been employed,” he said.
By all indications, north Texas is quickly becoming one of those promising regions.
That’s been Rodrigs’ experience, at any rate, and he encourages whitetail hunters to try what his home counties have to offer.
“If you can understand the land and understand deer, and you can get a good buck in north Texas,” he said.
TARSAL WHAT? GET NOCTURNAL BUCKS TO COME OUT DURING THE DAY.
Big bucks aren’t stupid. Some of them seem to have read Sec. 62.004 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife code, which prohibits killing game animals at night. Fortunately, there are strategies to convince these crafty critters to leave their law degrees at home and venture out during shooting hours.
One of the best tactics, according to James Ray of Oxferd Outfitters, is to use a buck’s territorial instinct against him. Ray guides on 10 ranches in three counties in north Texas, and he’s used this trick to bag nocturnal bucks for decades.
First, hunters should find a local meat locker and ask the proprietors for the tarsal glands from a buck. Tarsal glands are located on a deer’s back legs, and bucks urinate on them to mark their territory.
Ray recommends cleaning the back side of both tarsal glands and letting them soak for two days in a refrigerated milk jug filled about three-quarters full of water. Go out to the nocturnal buck’s territory, make a few scrapes, and pour some of the solution on the ground.
“You’re duplicating urine from a buck that’s been in rut,” Ray explained. “The buck that’s being nocturnal thinks that an intruder is in his area. He thinks his nocturnal pattern isn’t being effective at fighting the intruder.
“He wants him out of there, so he starts the search in the daytime, thinking that’s when he’s coming. That’s when you can draw him out from being nocturnal into making daytime appearances.”
Once hunters identify the new daytime pattern, they can set up during those hours and bag the smartest trophy in the woods.