This deer season may not be one for the record books, but in Texas that type of prognostication isn't dire. In fact, even in what biologists and land managers would term an "average" or even "below-average" season, we've still got some pretty great hunting opportunities to look forward to.
The Lone Star State still has the largest whitetail population in the country and a generous overall framework in which to hunt them. However, lingering drought heading into this fall's season didn't lay the groundwork for as optimistic an outlook as in years past when optimum or even average moisture levels set the stage for spectacular predictions from those in the know about Texas' whitetails.
What this fall's forecasts may lack in sheer numbers or antler size is more than made up for in the pure dimensions of our white-tailed deer range, which extends all the way from the Oklahoma border at the northern peak to the Rio Grande in deep South Texas, and from the eastern border with Louisiana all the way into the eastern edge of the Trans-Pecos.
Simply put, we have millions of deer and millions of acres to hunt them on.
The state also allows us liberal limits on our hunting licenses, which means every fall season is a great opportunity to take animals off the range while filling your freezer with some tasty fare. This season especially is one in which hunters should use as many of the tags that accompany a hunting license as they can, according to biologists I am hearing from all across the state.
With that in mind, here's a glimpse into what to expect heading into this year's deer seasons.
Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said this season — like most others — again will be shaped by Mother Nature.
Cain said that regardless of what part of the state you're hunting, the odds are good that you've got plenty of deer. And he would know — he's got piles of detailed data dating back decades and gathered in various forms by biologists. Cain also spends time throughout the year discussing all things whitetail with biologists, land managers, hunting associations and even the everyman hunter himself.
He said production from this past season should bode well, including having a good fawn crop across much of the state and a good carryover of young bucks and does into this fall.
Cain also noted that the regular hotspots should remain that way during this season.
"Well, it appears that 2014 will be similar to the last three years with regards to the deer hunting forecast, much of that related to the drier conditions Texas continues to experience," he said early last summer. "Parts of North Texas and areas east of Interstate 35 received some reasonable rains this spring, giving the habitat and vegetation a much-needed boost to stay green. This should translate into good conditions for deer in these areas of the state.
"However, South Texas, the Hill Country, Panhandle and the western region of the state were not so lucky in the annual rainfall lottery. As a result, forbs, which are preferred by deer and are important from a deer forage and nutrition aspect, were in limited supply. Consequently, deer didn't get the extra nutritional boost to help in the body weight and antler growth department."
As usual, it doesn't take much to recognize the need for moisture, Cain said.
"The reason biologists look at rainfall as a predictor of hunting seasons is the direct correlation between rainfall, habitat (nutrition and cover that deer need), and antler quality and fawn production — all of which impact what hunters see each fall. Although difficult to predict, mesquite bean and prickly fruit crops seem to be more prevalent during dry years. This summer looked to be a good year for these mast crops that provide a good forage resource to help deer meet the demands of raising fawns and growing antlers during the stressful part of the summer. If those mast crops last into the fall, early hunting seasons will be a bit challenging, as deer may not visit the corn feeder as frequently."
And what about that all-important acorn crop? "It's a bit early to predict acorn production this year," said Cain, "so hunters will have to take the wait-and-see approach as to how that may play out."
Cain said annual deer surveys are conducted each year, but it's typically reasonable to look back at the previous year's population to get an indication of what the new hunting season may bring in regards to number of deer on the range.
"Statewide population estimates for 2013 were 3.8 million white-tailed deer," Cain said. "Those statistics work out to about 39 deer per 1,000 acres on average. Hunters should keep in mind density estimates vary depending on the region of the state your favorite hunting spot is located, and probably more important, the quality and quantity of native habitat that is attractive to white-tailed deer."
When it comes to hotspots for whitetails, Cain pointed to distinct areas of the state, which should come as no surprise to veteran hunters.
"The Hill Country supports the highest deer population in the state with an estimated 2.1 million deer, or an estimated deer density of 113 deer per 1,000 acres," he said. "The Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timbers regions support about 400,000 deer in each region, or 35 and 37 deer per 1,000 acres, respectively. South Texas has a much lower estimated deer population around 230,000 deer in the region, but hunter densities are much lower in this region compared to the Post Oak Savannah and the Pineywoods.
"East Texas deer population estimates for 2013 were about 240,000, or 18 deer per 1,000 acres. On the western edge of the whitetail range in the southern High Plains, deer populations are much lower with estimates of about 11,000 deer. The Trans-Pecos region has a smaller whitetail population — estimated at 50,000 animals — compared to the rest of the state, but densities can be quite high in the area, exceeding 30 deer per 1,000 acres and in better habitat 66 deer per 1,000 acres."
The outlook may not be as high as in previous years, but that doesn't mean deer won't be available, Cain said.
"Deer population trends in most regions of the state are stable or in some cases increasing at a slow rate," he said. "Bottom line from a hunter perspective is there will be plenty of animals to pursue in 2014. If you want to increase your odds of harvesting a deer in 2014 I'd be looking to hunt the Hill Country, which supports the highest deer population in the state. With that target-rich environment, hunters should be able to put some venison in the freezer this year."
Cain again touted the liberal annual bag limit for the average hunter, noting that it is a good year to use a full complement of your tags.
"I would encourage hunters to continue to fill their tags and reduce deer populations especially in the drier areas of the state such as the Hill Country where deer numbers are likely beyond what the habitat should be supporting, especially under these conditions," Cain said. "If hunters and landowners are unsure about how many deer they should harvest on their lease or ranch, consider contacting the local TPWD wildlife biologist (www.tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/technical_guidance/biologists) to discuss possible deer survey options and deer harvest recommendations."
Kevin Mote, TPWD's Cross Timbers district leader, said the overall deer-hunting objective is to provide maximum quality hunting while conserving the resource. He said last fall and winter again brought solid hunting across the best habitat in the state.
"As with every year, we would like to have taken more does," he said. "Although the population density has remained fairly stable since 2008, removing a slightly higher percentage would help put a little better habitat in the bank for years like 2011. Some individual ranches we work with do that."
Mote said that it's not uncommon for areas in his region to have similar deer densities as those in other hotspots, including some portions of the Hill Country, which again bodes well for hunters.
"Sex ratios remained consistent at around three does per buck, while the fawn crop ranged fairly normal across the area," he said, noting that habitat management continues to improve, something that should come as no surprise to hunters. "The quality of hunting opportunity anywhere in the state is directly proportional to the quality of habitat management done on that particular property and that varies greatly across the area."
While notable areas of the state, including the Hill Country and the Pineywoods, receive much more hunting pressure, other locales are worth a hard look, especially if you're seeking a new lease. Among the least-hunted but prime areas that can feature surprisingly high deer populations are the eastern Panhandle, the southern Rolling Plains and the eastern Trans-Pecos.
Philip Dickerson, TPWD's Trans-Pecos district leader, said the region, while a mule deer hotbed, isn't conducive to great whitetail hunting compared with other heavily hunted spots. But there are opportunities.
"The Trans-Pecos has been in a slow recovery mode ever since 2011," he said. "We have not had average rainfall since, but we seem to be holding our own with regard to numbers and quality of deer. Many landowners have been conservative with harvest, not knowing when the drought would break. I'm looking for much the same this year."
One tool that also has been implemented and embraced across the state is the Managed Lands Deer Permit program, which allows landowners more liberal frameworks for harvesting deer in exchange for allowing TPWD personnel to help manage and to keep records on private tracts in an attempt to better manage the overall population. The MLDP program participants get more tags and were able to harvest bucks and does from October through the end of February last season.
There are three levels of MLDPs — 1, 2 and 3 — and higher levels offer additional harvest flexibility to the landowner but also have stricter requirements. There is no fee or written application other than a Wildlife Management Plan approved by a TPWD biologist or technician.
The state also offers a variety of inexpensive opportunities in state parks, wildlife management areas and private ranches each year, with thousands of permits issued annually. There also are drawings for youth hunts, which not only can be a great way to introduce children to the pastime, but also to add to your potential meat haul. There are a number of hunts that typically have high numbers of applicants each year, but for as little as $3 you too can put your name in the hat for drawings for what can turn out to be great hunts.
And should you be lucky enough to gain entry to these areas, the old saying of venison being the most expensive meat per pound certainly doesn't hold true, not considering the frugal nature of the program.
One way to venison for some hunters who may not have access to leases or family tracts of land is to buy a public hunting permit, which costs $48, and take advantage of hundreds of thousands of acres that are opened with it. That permit can be used to gain access to a variety of resources on almost 900,000 acres.
This season has shaped up to be superb regardless of what whitetail country you're hunting. There are opportunities galore when it comes to filling your tags. Texas long has had the greatest whitetail hunting in the country, not just for the folks who can afford to spend the big bucks in their attempts to harvest the big bucks, but also for the average hunter who still enjoys hunting as much as possible but may not necessarily get to head afield as much as he'd like.
This should be a perfect year to get back to the basics of deer hunting — mainly the opportunity to spend time outdoors during a splendid time of year while providing for your family should you enjoy success.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'œgood luck tree.'
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell\'s giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands\' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it\'s just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost\'s wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail\'s Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'œchip-shot.' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it\'s a good thing he didn\'t.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson\'s persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp\'s Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'œI've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to.'
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran\'s Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who\'d spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won\'t forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'œBig Daddy' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he\'d squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he\'d hit, but couldn\'t find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand.'