Is that even possible? Not only can you get some low-cost venison in Texas, says the author, but some great racks as well.
By Will Leschper
Texas is home to millions of acres of excellent wildlife habitat, providing exceptional hunting from the Red River to the Rio Grande. The rub for many hunters, however, is the sheer fact that the majority of that land is in private hands and open only to friends and relatives, or those willing to pay to lease hunting rights.
If there is one silver lining to the access issue in Texas, it's the fact there remain numerous areas operated by the state and open to the public for a variety of uses, including hunting. Texas' Wildlife Management Areas are diverse and far-flung, sprinkled across every ecoregion of the state comprising more than 700,000 acres. The WMA system serves as a recreational outlet for those living in urban centers who don't have regular access to land of their own. WMAs also are vital educational centers that offer in-depth research opportunities for state biologists and others.
Did you know that some state parks also offer public hunts for deer? And these hunts — if you're lucky enough to be drawn — cost a mere fraction of what they would on private property. Learn more about how to apply at tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public. Here's a look at budget-friendly hunts in some of Texas' best deer country.
The Chap, composed of more than 15,000 acres of native South Texas habitat, includes portions of land in La Salle and Dimmit counties between Carrizo Springs and Cotulla. It may be the premier spot for taking big bucks on public land in our state.
The Chap, while a wildlife hotbed today, faced a historic fire in March 2008 that consumed about 95 percent of the entire WMA. In all, the fast-moving blaze torched roughly 50,000 acres of South Texas habitat in the area, including portions of some of the state's most celebrated trophy whitetail ranches. It should be noted that at the time, TPWD biologists documented only a few dozen dead animals as a result of the blaze.
That massive burn has become an intriguing case study in the effects of large-scale fire on native habitats and wildlife, said Stephen Lange, area manager for the Chaparral WMA.
In hindsight, "That may have been the best thing that ever happened to the property," Lange acknowledged. "In reality, it burned about two-thirds completely to the ground, but what happened was that everything we had as regrowth and re-sprout was at deer level. And it was at deer level for about the first five or six years since the fire, and then we subsequently went into our highest consecutive year of fawn production and productivity that we've ever had for white-tailed deer. That led to us reaching our highest deer density since the high fence was put up back in 1983.
"Because of that, we had such high numbers of deer and literally needed to shoot back the deer figures for management objectives. We had a pretty intensive public hunting program this year to get our numbers back down. We had been at a 3-year average of about 17 or 18 acres per deer, so we used our harvest goals to get back to 25 acres per deer. By doing that, we're able to go back into a drought cycle in better shape and be in a better place to maintain the range."
Lange noted that hunters took the most deer ever on the WMA during this past season, surpassing 200 animals — 130 does and 86 bucks.
While the Chap is known for producing quality antlers, even in what are considered down seasons, this past season was a quandary on some levels for biologists and land managers, Lange noted.
"We only had one TBGA (Texas Big Game Awards) deer this year and that was actually shot by our Big Time Texas Hunts hunter," he said. "On the Chaparral we have one of the Big Buck Bonanza hunts and that hunter took a buck that scored 147 and change (Boone & Crockett). Now, last year (2015) we had a great year. We were coming off an 80 percent fawn crop from 2010 and those were our older bucks. We had a 173, a 160, a 157 — five deer total that qualified for the TBGA.
"We were scratching our heads over that much of a falloff this year, but it's because we didn't have the fawns coming up in age. Even this coming season we won't, but you look to 2018, 2019 and 2020 after the good fawn crops of 2013-15 and those should be bumper years, an opportunity to truly have some Booner-level deer."
Daughtrey, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, also is among the jewels of the Texas WMA system. Composed of more than 5,000 acres of low-fenced recreational area surrounding Choke Canyon Reservoir in Live Oak and McMullen counties, the WMA is near the town of Three Rivers, aptly named due to the proximity of the intersection of the Atascosa, Frio and Nueces rivers.
The WMA is home to an extraordinary array of wildlife and birds, ranging from deer, turkey, doves and quail to bobcats, coyotes, hogs, and yes, even alligators.
Lange, also area manager for Daughtrey, noted the differences between it and the Chap.
"Daughtrey has a much more diverse hunting program than the Chaparral because it does surround Choke Canyon Reservoir," Lange said. "The entire surface area of Choke Canyon is the Daughtrey WMA. Not only that, we also run all the hunts on that state park area, so again we have all the suite of deer hunts, draw hunts for javelina and feral hog, spring turkey and alligator."
Like the Chap, Daughtrey WMA offers a number of good deer hunting options, including public draws for archery-only, either-sex and management hunts. The WMA also offers youth-only hunts for bucks, does and spikes. Those hunts are free, as is the case at other pubic hunting locales.
Lange noted that one aspect of deer hunting in Texas — baiting — has provided an interesting case study on these WMAs and data that supports it as a management tool.
"On both of these areas we have no introduced genetics and no food plots or protein feed. It's just 100 percent free-range and the only baiting we allow is just during the hunts. That's the only feed these deer ever see," Lange said. "A lot of the hunters who shoot the biggest deer aren't hunting over bait. These deer don't see corn for 9 of 10 months out of the year so half the time they throw out corn then the hunters complain 'Well they're just walking over the corn.' They don't know what corn is!
"One of our justifications for allowing baiting is that if it allows a deer to stop, it now gives that hunter time to observe the deer, count points and check spread and check age to make a better management decision. We actually have presented research about the five years of seasons prior to allowing baiting and then five years since we've allowed it, and we've actually jumped our average deer by a point and a half (B&C) and almost a full year in age class. That just shows that we actually have some statistical data backing up being selective and not shooting the first thing you see."
Kerr WMA is home to the Donnie E. Harmel White-tailed Deer Research Facility, carrying the name of and dedicated to the Kerr area manager from 1975-1997. Harmel was instrumental in establishing research determining factors contributing to antler development. The 16-acre facility consists of breeding and rearing pens, and a series of alleys and chutes to facilitate care in the handling of research animals. No additional deer were added after the fall of 1974 when the facility was constructed, and the herd has been maintained as a closed, pedigreed herd ever since.
"While research is a big part of what we do at the Kerr WMA, we also have to control animal numbers, whether you're talking about deer or exotics," said Donnie Frels, area manager for Kerr WMA. "In Central Texas, deer and exotics have a major impact on the ecological landscape. We have some of the highest deer densities in the world in this part of the state, which is one prime reason why the Kerr WMA was the first to use high fences as a management tool in the 1960s. Biologists discovered that trying to control deer numbers by only using public hunts was nearly impossible with such a large population of deer. Those high fences weren't put up to keep deer in, but rather to keep deer out and maintain controls on research."
In addition to research, selective harvest remains a tried and true wildlife management practice, and the Kerr WMA does feature a number of hunts each year that are open through drawings as part of the public hunting system, Frels noted.
"The WMA does produce some pretty large deer on a regular basis that are available to the public through the draw. We offer public hunts for bucks and does, including management hunts for cull bucks. The public hunting system allows us to further control the population and remains an effective part of our overall strategy that has been in place for a number of decades," Frels said. "We also offer turkey hunts, which can be more affordable for hunters if they're selected through the drawing to hunt in the spring."
Engeling, at about 10,000 acres, sits just north of the unincorporated community of Tennessee Colony and is among the most diverse land holdings overseen by TPWD.
Jeff Gunnels, area manager for Engeling, said many of the hunting opportunities are designed with youth hunters in mind, especially when discussing introducing them to successful outings.
"All of our big WMAs try to have a big hunt on that first statewide youth-only weekend. And then this year we moved our youth either-sex deer hunts to the rut, hoping that we can give those kids an opportunity to kill a pretty good deer, which they did. We had a 137 and change (Boone & Crockett) clean 8, and a 136 and change clean 8 that were the two best deer our youth hunters killed this year."
Gunnels noted that management of the deer population at Engeling centers around maintaining a healthy herd, an aspect with which hunting plays a complementary role.
"Just like any other WMA property, our hunts are designed to meet our buck harvest and doe harvest objectives, while we manage for quality animals," he said. "Hunters are included in those objectives and we've multiple avenues of allowing hunters to take some good bucks and help meet our wildlife management targets.
"We focus on quality deer management and most of our bucks get killed at 3 and 4 years old. We try to keep a balanced age structure and we do have some good bucks that reach 5 or 6."
Some hunters may not readily equate big bucks with public hunts, but as with every WMA across the state, there are many good deer taken annually, Gunnels noted. Those nice whitetails also come much cheaper than almost every other hunt.
"Most of our hunters, if they come in on one of our five-day, $130 public hunts and shoot a 130-class buck, that's the biggest deer they'll take in their life," Gunnels said. "Trophy is in the eye of the beholder, but for many hunters, that's still a great deer on a fair-chase hunt. It's also not uncommon for us when we have some good range years where we kill bucks in the 150s."
As with other Post Oak Savannah and Pineywoods counties, Engeling features antler restrictions, though those at the WMA offer a slight variation.
"We do have antler restrictions at Engeling and we try to keep it simple as we have standardized those frameworks at a lot of our WMAs," Gunnels said. "We use inside spread that equals or exceeds the spread ear tips. It's not like the 13-inch wide restriction that we put in the countywide regulations. It's actually a little bigger because most of those deer ear tips will be 14 or 15 inches. That means by 3 1/2 most of those bucks are legal for harvest. It still protects the bulk of our yearling and 2 1/2-year-old bucks."