The Texas Deer Forecast always brings hope, with all eyes looking at what to expect across the best whitetail habitat — and the best deer hunting state — in the country. The Lone Star State features the highest deer population in the country — we have millions of the animals and millions of acres on which to pursue them.
And with liberal limits and generous tags on our hunting licenses, every new season brings great opportunities to take animals off the range while filling our freezers with tasty fare.
Our fabled deer range extends south from the Oklahoma border at the northernmost point in the state all the way down to the Rio Grande in Deep South Texas, and from our eastern border with Louisiana all the way to the eastern edge of New Mexico. This season is one in which hunters should use as many of the five tags that accompany a hunting license as they can. Biologists in all areas have said so.
We received superb spring and summer rainfall — including heavy flooding in parts of South Texas and West Texas — putting us in good shape for the 2015 season frameworks from the range condition outlook. While we've had that kind of precipitation in past years, most land managers have taken a wait-it-out-and-see approach for the overall outlook on this year's class of huntable whitetails.
Alan Cain, the whitetail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said decent deer production from last season should bode well, including having a good fawn crop across much of the state this past spring and a good carryover of young bucks and does into this fall.
Cain touted the overall Texas whitetail figure at an estimated 3.5 million animals in most good years, and said that number is sure to have an impact on range conditions this fall if conditions again get dry after good rains during the previous winter and into the spring and early summer months. That being said, there is no reason to doubt having the opportunity to make plenty of notches on your hunting license.
"We always encourage landowners and managers to encourage hunters to meet their harvest goals for the ranch, regardless of drought or wet conditions. 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," Cain said.
He pointed out a key theory to deer management, one that especially will come into focus again across the state this fall and winter, no matter how lush or how parched the landscape shakes out.
"Biologists often tell folks to manage populations for drought condition, in other words, keep your deer density at a level that you would during tough times (such as drought) and even during wet years," he said.
"Therefore, no matter what the conditions are, plenty of native vegetation will remain to support the deer population. Obviously, with too many deer on the range, especially during poor range conditions, animal performance suffers and antler quality decreases as well as reproductive success (fawn recruitment).
If the dry conditions continue this year, I would encourage hunters to try to fill their tags and for those hunting on managed properties, try to meet their harvest recommendations this year.
"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 to discuss possible deer survey options and deer harvest recommendations.
"Establishing a population estimate on the hunting property can help hunters better manage the deer herd in their localized area and meet deer or hunting management goals."
Cain pointed to surveys done by biologists across the state, noting that even after lingering drought deer always seem to find a way to survive — if not flourish. The biggest thing he said hunters should carry along is a hearty dose of perspective, but also take heart in the fact that when hunting in Texas, things are vastly different than in many other states.
When it comes to hotspots for whitetails, Cain pointed to distinct areas of the state, some of which should come as no surprise to hunters.
"The Hill Country supports the highest deer population in the state, with an estimated 2 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 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 white-tailed deer 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 to hunters, Cain said.
"Deer population trends in most regions of the state are stable or in some cases increasing at a slow rate," he said. "If you want to increase your odds of harvesting a deer, 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."
One notable Texas whitetail hotspot is the huge swath of land encompassing the Pineywoods region, an area that is much different than the Edwards Plateau but also features high deer densities.
Gary Calkins, the longtime Pineywoods district leader for TPWD, said East Texas generally is wetter and reaps the benefits of more annual rain than other parts of the state. That being said, he noted there's almost a wait-and-see approach when forecasting a new deer season, and that is because of a variety of reasons.
"We don't get hit as bad if we have a large carryover," he said. "We don't suffer as bad as other places just because we have a lot of groceries on the ground and there are some parts of the district that are well over carrying capacity or pushing that level, but for the most part we're not bumping that carrying capacity."
Calkins said the region, which has a number of deer-hunting hotspot counties under antler restrictions, has seen the benefits of that change in management strategy by TPWD.
"We're definitely seeing some shifts in our age structure and seeing better quality deer," he said. "Even last year was a dry summer, and we had several fantastic deer killed. We've been reaping the benefits of the antler restrictions.
We've carried over a lot of animals, but ultimately the antler restrictions are doing what we wanted them to do biologically. I'm extremely happy from what I'm seeing from antler restrictions as far as our age structure and some of the shifts in buck-to-doe ratios."
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 find yourself seeking a new lease. Among the least-hunted but prime areas are the eastern Panhandle, the southern Rolling Plains, and the eastern edge of the Trans-Pecos.
Cain has pointed to certain hunting practices being the reason some hunters aren't successful. Among them simply the fact that hunters may get complacent in the way they approach the pursuit — no matter where they're hunting.
"We go sit in a box stand or we sit on our favorite tree or water hole and we don't mix it up when conditions change," he said. "Obviously that makes it hard for hunters to fill their tags if they don't adapt and adjust. Each season the conditions change around the state."
Cain said that, as with any pursuit, hunters need to think about maximizing the success and laying the groundwork as soon as possible.
"The biggest problem I hear is that people have a lease they've hunted the same way for 20 years," he said. "The deer have seen that (setup) for 20 years and they get smart. The deer are still there; hunters just have to change the way they hunt. You've got to change your game up; deer aren't dumb."
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. Participants in the MLDP program get more tags, and this past season they were able to harvest bucks and does from October right through February.
There are three levels of MLDPs (Level 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 for deer hunts in state parks, wildlife management areas and even private ranches each year, with thousands of permits issued annually.
There also are numerous drawings for youth hunts, which not only can be a great way to introduce young hunters 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.
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 for some hunters who do not have access to leases or family tracts of land to hunt is to buy a public hunting permit, which costs $48, and take advantage of hundreds of thousands of acres that are available. That permit can be your ticket to access on a variety of resources on almost 900,000 acres.
This deer season has shaped up to be superb for hunting, regardless of what part of Texas' whitetail country you are hunting. There are opportunities galore when it comes to filling your tags.
Texas long has had the greatest whitetail hunting in the country, and not just for the folks who can afford to spend the big bucks in their attempts to harvest the bucks (and does), but also for the "average" hunter who still enjoys hunting as much as possible but may not necessarily get to head into the field as much as they'd like.
This should be a perfect year to get back to the basics of deer hunting — mainly the opportunity to spend time outdoors while providing some great-tasting venison for your family when you enjoy success.
About the author: Will Leschper's work has been recognized by the Outdoor Writers Association of America and by the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. Visit TexanOutdoors.com for more on Texas hunting and fishing.