We Texas hunters have had it good for the past couple of decades.
We have the largest population of white-tailed deer in the country. That fact coupled with an increase in habitat management statewide means that regardless of whether you're sitting in a Pineywoods thicket, a South Texas sendero or a Panhandle shelterbelt, the odds of seeing your best buck ever are as high as they've ever been on any given fall afternoon.
However, deer seasons this year are going to be much tougher for hunters seeking the buck of a lifetime, thanks to Mother Nature. Horrific drought has gripped the entire state since this past fall and has been detrimental to growth and overall production for all wildlife. Deer in particular have been hit hard and were forced to alter their diets to eat whatever was available to them rather than getting good groceries that typically are available even in years with average rainfall.
Without adequate moisture, forbs and other forage sources drastically have been thinned out, and in many locales does and their offspring also have been affected. One thing that may help some bucks make it through this fall are the antler restrictions in place in more than 100 counties in East Texas, the oak and coastal prairie regions and the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau. Those frameworks also have aided the overall age structure in those parts of the state. They have done big things as more deer that might have been harvested in the past got more time to walk.
While the overall big-buck outlook is not as bright as it has been in previous years when we received plenty of moisture and there was loads of high-protein natural forage during the spring and summer, there still are going to be plenty of deer out there with impressive headgear.
Alan Cain, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's whitetail program director, noted that prolonged drought can have a large impact on deer for a number of reasons. But he further said there was a good fawn crop during this past year, which led to a good carryover of younger bucks — 1 1/2-year-old deer that, given a couple of seasons to mature, will be closer to hitting their potential.
"Antler quality will likely be down a bit this year as compared to last year, but even during drought, Texas still produces some great quality bucks," he said.
Cain noted that harvest figures in a number of areas were affected by what ended up being a good year for range conditions. Lots of acorns and a surplus of good forage vegetation meant that many hunters likely didn't see some deer, including larger bucks, since feeders didn't have as much of an impact.
"Native habitats are key to successful deer management programs and keeping deer populations in check so as not to damage those native habitats is critical to success," he said.
Cain said that competition for forage in drier years is much higher, which certainly has the potential to affect antler quality and body weights. That should lead many hunters to fill as many tags as possible this season, especially in areas such as the Hill Country, which has some of the highest deer densities in the nation.
With increased competition and good carryover of bucks from this past season, it could affect the rut in some locales, which Cain said has a lot to do with range conditions, and in the early stages of the fall many deer still are in what is classified as a summer pattern.
Cain said that no matter what part of Texas you call home, the effectiveness of whitetail management is clearly evident. He noted that TPWD personnel work with thousands of landowners and land managers on a yearly basis on more than 25 million acres to keep the state's deer herd at the top of the heap. He said that hunters not only are becoming more educated on how they hunt, but also are learning more about practical management strategies, which can be implemented not only on high-fenced tracts but also on family deer leases.
Part of that increased focus on quality has seen a rise in the number of folks taking part in the Managed Lands Deer Permit program, which utilizes permits instead of tags, and allows state biologists to help in forming an overall management plan for single ranches and parcels of land. It also means whitetails harvested under the program do not count against a hunter's annual bag limit, providing the opportunity to aggressively bring down a buck-to-doe ratio, which will be key this fall to help set the stage for future success. One of the main attractions to the upper-tier MLDP season that began the first week in October and ran through February this past fall and winter is that hunters and landowners had the ability to take part and get first dibs on big bucks before they break off tines or damage their racks as rutting activity and fighting picks up later in the season. That's something that's especially prevalent in South Texas and the Rolling Plains and Panhandle.
Cain noted that heading into the fall of 2010 the strength of the big-buck forecast rested squarely on production, thanks to great range conditions in 2004. It is a good bet that many of those bucks made it through last year's seasons, and while they may not hit their potential this fall, they still should be impressive. Biologists from the top of Texas to the bottom unanimously agree that the best way to improve the age-class and overall structure of a deer herd is to let larger bucks walk. But this could be a season in which many mature deer will be harvested, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
TOP WHITETAILS OF 2010-11
The Texas Big Game Awards is regarded as the official deer competition in our state, though its main goal is to highlight the management efforts of landowners and land managers. For records purposes, the state is divided into eight regions with varying score requirements based on traditional big-deer territory. 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 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 high-fenced ranches produced the largest non-typical and typical whitetails this past season, and each set a program record in their respective categories. Both bucks also were taken in October before they had a chance to break off points during fighting in the peak of the rut. Mark Barrett harvested the largest non-typical whitetail buck entered into the TBGA program with a rifle at his ranch in Webb County. The massive buck, which was harvested under the MLDP program, grossed 307 1/8 B&C points and netted 292 1/8. Later that month, Jack Brittingham arrowed the top all-time typical buck at his Dimmit Country ranch, a whitetail grossing 213 7/8 B&C and netting 196 1/8.
The largest buck taken in the always fruitful region, but not behind a high fence, was killed by David Adams on the King Ranch in Brooks County and netted 215 4/8 as a non-typical. The sprawling ranch, which sits in parts of four counties, again had the most entries for a single ranch, and Kleberg County produced 34 TBGA entries. The top big-buck county in this region was Webb County with 48 entries, while Dimmit also had a strong showing with 37.
South Texas' monster buck status remains strong as the region produced 7 of the 10 largest non-typical whitetails in the TBGA program, and half of the Top 10 typicals. Other big-buck hotspots include LaSalle County, which produced 21 TBGA entries, along with McMullen and Atascosa counties.
The High Plains region is known more for producing huge mule deer, including in its fertile eastern areas in the watershed of the Red River, but last season again saw hunters bag some impressive whitetails. The largest TBGA entry from the region was a Gray County non-typical buck harvested with a crossbow by Vance Vanderburg that grossed 200 1/8 B&C points and netted 194 4/8. The largest typical from the area, and the second-largest typical taken statewide, was an impressive Childress County buck harvested by Brian Sutton that grossed 195 6/8 and netted 185 1/8. While the age structure of the High Plains and Rolling Plains is similar to that of South Texas, despite having fewer deer, it should be noted that none of the TBGA entries were harvested on high-fence tracts.
In the Cross Timbers region, an area not known for naturally occurring big deer, high-fenced ranches have reaped the benefits of their management efforts, especially the Buxton Ranch in Bosque County, which produced a pair of non-typicals, each grossing 220 B&C or better.
The Edwards Plateau, which has the highest hunter density and harvest rates, was aided by superb range conditions across much of the area heading into the season. The venerable whitetail hotspot of Kerr County again led the pack when it comes to big deer in the region, producing 22 TBGA entries. The largest buck harvested in the region was taken on a high-fence hunt with a bow by Heath Eckermann and netted 197 6/8. Other counties that produced good numbers of TBGA entries were Llano with 14, Mason (11) and San Saba (9).
In East Texas, Sharon Lane entered the largest non-typical whitetail, a Navarro County buck that grossed 202 7/8 and netted 200 2/8, while Tracy Murphy harvested the biggest typical, a Houston County buck that grossed 165 7/8 and netted 161.
The Coastal Prairie region, much like the Cross Timbers, isn't known for producing a large number of big whitetails every year, but like the area farther north it also has seen high-fence efforts rewarded. The largest non-typical from the coastal region was harvested on the Twisted Oaks Ranch in Lavaca County and netted 220 3/8, while the top typical buck from the region was taken on the San Christoval Ranch in Karnes County and netted 174 7/8.
The antler frameworks define a legal buck as one with at least one unbranched antler or an inside spread of 13 inches or greater. The inside spread requirement does not apply to any buck that has an unbranched antler, however, the restrictions do not apply to properties for which Level 2 or Level 3 MLDPs have been issued.
A clear example of the value of the restrictions can be seen in the Pineywoods region of East Texas. The region is more or less split by counties in the northern portions that have been under the antler frameworks for the past six seasons and those to the south that have only been under the regulations for a few years. A look at TBGA entries shows that the northern portion of the Pineywoods consistently has produced larger bucks than its southern counties in recent seasons, even though hunting pressure is much heavier to the north.
However, a look at the figures from this past season shows the southern portion of the region had more entries than the previous year. And it appears that the south should be catching up in the big-buck competition, thanks mostly to a larger carryover of good bucks that typically would have been harvested in seasons past.
* * *
This deer season likely isn't going to be a slam dunk for many hunters as in years past — at least not in some of the known big-buck hotspots across the state. But there is a glimmer of hope. Range conditions in South Texas during the early summer were not as good as I have seen them previously, but in many areas it still was relatively lush considering that the region had received about half the average rainfall it typically does through the spring.
Farther to the north, the area north and east of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex showed promise in the same time period. Many areas that I observed, especially near the Oklahoma border, had plenty of green vegetation and even some lush areas and looked as if they had avoided the fate of the rest of the state after waves of strong thunderstorms blanketed the area for a couple of weeks.
Ultimately, it appears that this fall won't be a season for the record books as a whole, but there are still going to be plenty of big whitetails harvested. You never know; a down year might be your best chance for success. I know I'll be one of those out there trying!