November 04, 2019
By Gordon Whittington
If he were blindfolded, then hauled to this spot and dumped, not even a crusty world traveler could have pointed to it on a globe. In every direction, dry, treeless land led to a sharp horizon. Sub-Saharan Africa? Inner Mongolia? The Australian Outback? Nothing in view made a strong case for any one answer.
Long minutes ticked by. Then, with the sun creeping into view came a clue: an animal on the horizon. Training my SIG Sauer binoculars on it literally brought everything into focus. This couldn’t have been Africa, Asia or Australia . . . the animal was a white-tailed deer.
The buck walked down the far side of the draw, heading toward the point on which T Fork Outfitters owner Tye Sims and I waited. With my Browning X-Bolt resting atop its bipod, we watched the deer march from roughly 500 yards down to 185 and then stop.
In a whisper, Tye asked if I felt the deer was big enough. Forward movement of my thumb on the safety suggested my feelings. Seconds later, the .270’s report confirmed them.
As we drove to the nearby Texas Panhandle ranching community of Mobeetie to celebrate my filled tag, I reflected on the hunt and, especially, on its location. I’d just shot a 5 1/2-year-old 8-pointer on land where the very term “deer woods” seems a stretch. Don’t you need trees in order to have woods? Well, maybe not. In the past couple decades, this ranching country has become about as productive a whitetail region as any other, even if it doesn’t look the part.
A LAND OF WHITETAIL DIVERSITY
Texas offers a broader range of whitetail opportunities than anywhere else on earth. I cut my hunting teeth on these animals as a Central Texas rancher’s kid and since then have pursued them in roughly 40 other states and provinces across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, plus New Zealand and Finland. Those far-flung travels have only reinforced my belief that in the wide world of whitetails, there’s Texas and then there’s everywhere else.
Nearly every county in the eastern two-thirds of the state has decent to high deer numbers. The most common whitetail race here is the Texas subspecies. However, along the mid- to upper coast, you’ll find the Avery Island whitetail. In isolated high country of the Big Bend region way out west lives the tiny Carmen Mountain race. And, in parts of East and North Texas, genes of the husky Kansas subspecies are in evidence.
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As you might guess, there’s overlapping of gene pools in some areas. One is the Panhandle. There, near the Oklahoma border, I’ve seen stocky, reddish-blond bucks with crisp, white markings interact with daintier bucks bearing the classic salt-and-pepper gray coat and murky throat patches of the Texas subspecies. And 500 miles south, just inland from the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve hunted a ranch straddling the historic range of the Texas and Avery Island subspecies and still featuring both.
While nature made the Lone Star State a diverse whitetail world, man also has played a role. In the early 1900s, with all wildlife under pressure from unregulated hunting, predators and changes in land use, whitetails from the King Ranch south of Corpus Christi were trapped and relocated to other areas around the state. These releases jump-started the statewide deer boom still in evidence today.
And, early on, some private landowners were at the forefront of many management methods now considered common. These include not only supplemental feeding but also such intensive practices as artificial insemination and introducing handpicked “breeder” bucks to boost genetics.
These more extreme efforts to grow big racks led to the stereotype of Texas as a land of semi-tame whitetails trapped inside “pens.”
In reality, even in the South Texas Brush Country, only a minority of tracts are high-fenced. Most Texas whitetails being hunted today were born in the wild and remain totally free to roam.
THE RIGHT HUNT FOR YOU
There isn’t much public hunting land for a state so big, and competition for good access is high. For nonresidents, quality opportunity is most often by way of package-style guided hunts.
Because Texas is so big, has so many types of habitat and features extremely liberal season dates, bag limits and other regulations, you can customize a hunt to a far greater extent than is practical in most other places.
While prices vary widely (with some ranches even charging by the gross antler score of deer taken), the high success rates and uniqueness of the experience can make for good value in today’s world of big-game hunting.
Overall, the Rio Grande region of South Texas is the state’s most expensive place to hunt free-ranging deer. But then, the average size of bucks shot there is the highest of any part of the state. And you often get to see and hunt a lot of land.
This Brush Country region also offers the most uniquely Texas deer experience, with a December rut in habitat full of memorable sights and sounds. Bobcats, cougars, coyotes, javelinas, quail, doves, waterfowl, rattlesnakes, roadrunners, neotropical songbirds: the list of fascinating critters is a long one.
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Antler rattling got its start here, and it’s still popular. Balanced buck-to-doe ratios on the better ranches make the rut an intense affair. Plus, it’s among the latest in North America, with peak rut occurring in December and trickling at least in to January. In fact, one Feb. 22 I shot a bruiser 8-pointer as he was headed to an actual buck fight in the brush. That low-fenced South Texas ranch had an extended gun season via the state’s Managed Lands Deer Permit program.
In much of Texas, the rut peaks in November, coinciding with the first few weeks of the lengthy general gun season. But you don’t have to hunt then to take a nice buck. In the Panhandle and Central Texas Hill Country, I’ve also had great trips in December, well after peak rut in those regions.
Much of what makes for good season-long deer activity is light overall hunting pressure. Another factor is the lack of legal restrictions on supplemental feeding/baiting. Many ranches provide feed year-round, often delivered via timed feeders.
In recent years, hunting over food plots also has caught on. Plots tend to be more productive in the eastern half of the state, due to more reliable rainfall, but some also exist elsewhere. The “Texas tower” style of blind—an enclosed shooting house set high enough to offer a view over the brush—remains popular for good reason.
With the exception of snow tracking and dogging, any whitetail tactic used anywhere else in North America is a practical option for the nonresident somewhere in Texas.
A WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY
When it comes to whitetail hunting, Texas really is like a whole other country. It shares habitat types with several other states, plus Mexico, yet has a relaxed feel all its own.
So there are options galore. Which means the hardest part can be deciding which regions and hunting methods not to try on your first hunt. But that’s just a good excuse to plan a return trip.
A TEXAS SAMPLER
The Lone Star state is so vast it’s hard to know where to start the search for a good hunt. Here are a few operations that feature memorable hunts for whitetails, as well as other species:
- T Fork Outfitters
- (806) 336-7584
- Wide-open rangeland broken every few miles by thin drainages might not look like great habitat, but there are plenty of big whitetails hiding out here. Peak rut is in November.
- Wildlife Systems
- (325) 655-0877
- While the rocky hills of the Edwards Plateau boast sky-high deer densities, the better ranches also yield some impressive bucks. The rut runs from late October deep into November.
- La Lupita Ranch
- (956) 212-9081
- In the lower Rio Grande Valley, ranches with roots in centuries-old Spanish land grants offer unique hunting and cultural experiences. This part of Texas is renowned for its December rut.
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Texas Parks & Wildlife Department