Texas deer hunting is a multi-billion-dollar industry enjoyed by more than a half-million hunters each fall and winter. And in an average year, or even a bad one when dry conditions are prevalent, we still have better deer hunting than that enjoyed by hunters in any other state in the country.
However, this year's seasons have the potential to be way above any average prognostication, notably resting on Mother Nature to provide one of the best big-buck outlooks in the past decade. Texas rainfall in the past several months has been far better than anyone could have expected! And ample rainfall generates good hunting conditions in our state.
With that in mind, here's a forecast focusing on quality over quantity, with a glimpse at what areas of the Lone Star State continue to produce the best deer each year.
Alan Cain, the white-tailed deer program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said this season should shape up to be exceptionally good, possibly one of our best on record. That's saying a lot because we've had some good ones!
"Habitat conditions have never looked better as a result of the ubiquitous spring precipitation that blanketed the state from the Red River to the Rio Grande," Cain said.
"A bird's-eye view would likely reveal a verdant Texas landscape lush with a diverse buffet of deer foods where vegetation growth can be measured in feet rather than inches this year. Meeting nutritional demands of antler growth, rearing fawns and building up body reserves for the rigors of rut as well as the winter should be an easy venture for a deer this year."
Cain said spring rains and overall rainfall are critical considerations when offering predictions for an upcoming hunting season.
"When above-average winter and spring rains occur, hunters should expect a great hunting season, and 2015 fits the criteria," he said. "For starters, the 2014 statewide deer population estimate was 3.95 million deer, the highest estimated population since 2005.
Statewide population trends indicate a slow but steady growth in the deer population over the last 10 years. The population estimate of 3.95 million deer works out to about 40.51 deer per 1,000 acres.
Although these numbers are from 2014, I would predict the deer population to be about the same if not break the 4 million deer mark for 2015 so hunters should experience a quarry-rich hunting environment this year."
But that deer population spread does not hold uniform for all areas of our state. Some regions, counties or even portions of counties can vary from the local "norm." In short, not all properties are populated equally.
"A closer look into TPWD's deer survey data reveals deer populations vary dramatically depending on the region of the state," said Cain. "The highest deer densities can be found in the Edwards Plateau ecoregion in the central portion of the state where 2014 survey results indicate a density of 116 deer per 1,000 acres or about 2.2 million deer in the ecoregion.
Density and population estimates should be similar if not a little higher for 2015. The extensive flooding in the eastern portion of the Edwards Plateau may have caused some fawn mortality this spring, but should be of minor significance in the overall production of the deer herd in the region. If your perception of a good deer hunt is seeing lots of deer, then consider looking for a hunting location in this area."
And while the Edwards Plateau may be considered the hub of Texas deer hunting, it isn't the only ecoregion within our state where abundant whitetails can be found. Cain said hunters in a number of other regions will fare well, too.
"Moving north, we run into the Cross Timbers ecoregion that supports an estimated 603,000 deer or 50.49 deer per 1,000 acres," he said. "Following statewide trends in buck age structure, hunters should expect good numbers of bucks in the 2.5-, 3.5- and 5.5-year-old age-classes relative to other age groups.
However, the Cross Timbers has a track record of good fawn production over 50 percent for the last 10 years with the exception of 2011 when fawn production dropped to 41 percent. Hunters should expect a reasonable number of middle-aged and mature bucks this year in the Cross Timbers.
"Deer populations continue to thrive in the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion. Population estimates for 2014 were about 410,000 deer or a density of 33.36 deer per 1,000 acres, respectively.
The Pineywoods continues to show a positive trend in deer population growth with an estimated 261,000 in 2014 or a density of about 19.73 deer per 1,000 acres. Deer numbers for 2015 are expected to be about the same or we may see a slight increase compared to last year.
"The antler restriction regulation continues to improve age structure of the buck population in these regions, and based on age and antler surveys, 55 percent of bucks harvested were 3.5 years or older in the Post Oak Savannah and 42 percent were 3.5 or older in the Pineywoods.
"South Texas and the western and eastern Rolling Plains have much lower deer densities with 2014 estimates of 18.37, 16.13 and 21.16 deer per 1,000 acres, respectively. Despite lower deer densities, hunting is quite good and hunter densities are generally much lower because of large-acreage ranches or deer leases limiting hunter numbers to meet their deer management strategies."
Cain noted that the age structure tends to be better balanced in South Texas and the Rolling Plains regions, with as much as half or more of overall buck harvest being deer that are at least 4 years old or older. He also said that a couple of regions shouldn't be forgotten for whitetails.
"Often overlooked, the Trans-Pecos supports a healthy white-tailed deer population in the eastern portion of the region, primarily in Pecos and Terrell counties," he said. "The deer population estimate for 2014 was about 155,000 deer, or a density of 42.29 deer per 1,000 acres.
"The southern High Plains region generally supports one of the lowest deer densities in the state, 7.05 deer per 1,000 acres. Although numbers are low, this is not unexpected as this region is typically where the white-tailed and mule deer overlap, with vegetation communities more conducive to mule deer. Despite low numbers, there are some great bucks harvested in this area."
Overall, Cain said, it's not beyond predicting a great hunting season for quantity and quality, and in some instances, both.
"I have no reservations suggesting antler quality will be above-average this year and with a good number of bucks in the 5.5-year-old age-class. I expect a number of hunters to harvest some exceptional bucks this year," he said.
"The habitat conditions statewide are much better than we've seen in years and the abundance of native forage will help bucks maximize antler growth this year."
Cain pointed to the best areas to bag a huge buck, with no surprise in which ones he picked.
"Those hunters looking for a buck with good quality antlers can expect the usual locations to produce such as South Texas where the average Boone and Crockett score of a 6.5-year-old buck is about 136 B&C," he said. "The Rolling Plains is right up there with South Texas where the average score of a 6.5-year-old buck is about 133 B&C.
It should be noted, Cain said, that other areas still produce some top-quality headgear.
"Although South Texas and the Rolling Plains are destination locations for bucks with big antlers, hunters still can connect on great deer in any ecoregion," Cain said. "In fact, in 2014 a beautiful 197 5/8 B&C buck was bagged in Nacogdoches County in East Texas, and multiple bucks scoring 160 B&C or better were taken in many of the antler restriction counties of the Cross Timbers, Post Oak Savannah and Pineywoods.
"Although those types of deer are the exception to the norm, the average 6.5-year-old buck still sports quality antlers, with the statewide average around 128 B&C. The majority of ecoregions produce bucks with that quality of antlers if the bucks are able to survive to those older age-classes.
Regardless of where you hunt in Texas, there's always a good chance you'll see a great quality buck each season. Enhancing habitat to make your hunting lease or ranch more attractive to deer is always helpful to entice that big buck to your deer blind and then — hopefully — into your crosshairs."
Calvin Richardson, TPWD's Rolling Plains and High Plains wildlife district leader, said the mule deer outlook in his region, which along with the Trans-Pecos annually harbors huge specimens, is outstanding due almost entirely to Mother Nature and vital moisture that hasn't been seen in a few years.
"We got a little bit of rain late last year, which set us up pretty good for this really, really good spring that we've had," Richardson said. "It's been a really different kind of year for us. The mule deer fawn crop last year was an amazing 60 percent; we had seen things around 20 percent back in the drought. This year we expect really good survival of adults and a really good fawn crop for white-tailed deer and mule deer."
When discussing horns, he said that it's ideal to get moisture at just the right time of year.
"As far as antler development, it's real important for those deer to be in good shape about the time their antlers drop. Everybody forgets that we had a lot of snow this winter.
That put a lot of moisture in the ground and we got a lot of green up early for our forbs and cool-season grasses, so I think those deer were in fine shape when they dropped their antlers," Richardson said.
"And as they started growing them, we got a little bit of rain in the Rolling Plains, but we really started getting rain in the High Plains in late April and early May.
"Antler bases should be very massive on mature deer and I don't think anything is going to slow down on antler development."
The overall forecast calls for mature bucks aplenty, though dry conditions had made it tough on deer previously, Richardson said.
"Because fawn crops were a little bit down in 2011, 2012 and maybe '13, there might not be quite as many mature deer out there as what we might have had if we had average years instead of those drought years. The ones that are out there should be supporting some really good antlers for white-tailed and mule deer," he said.
"I definitely think last year's fawn crop plus the fawn crop we're going to have this summer will more than replace losses that we had in 2011, '12 and '13, and so we're definitely going to get back to where we were when we had that great rainfall year in 2010.
I think mule deer numbers dipped a little bit during that three-year drought. I don't think it's necessarily going to guarantee that our numbers will increase, but as you know, things in Texas can just change 180 degrees in 10, 12 months."
Only time will tell just how good this season turns out, but Richardson is focusing on the positive after several below-average rainfall years.
"There should be some healthy deer — good body growth, good weight gains," he said. "And my observations over 35 years is that whenever we get an extended drought, that very first year that it rains is when it (antler development) really maximizes itself.
That's what I'm looking forward to in our spotlight surveys and helicopter surveys, you know, what kind of deer this moisture will produce. I'm expecting good things."