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Texas Deer Season Shaping Up To Be Best in Years
AUSTIN, Texas – With more than 83 million acres of available deer range, there is plenty of opportunity for Texas white-tailed deer to roam. And with so much of that country in ideal condition, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists suggest hunters may have to cover more ground than they are accustomed to in order to be successful this fall.
The good news is there are more than 4 million white-tailed deer in the Lone Star State and thanks to excellent range conditions; they should be in great shape with above-average antler development and high body weights.
The white-tailed deer is arguably the number one game animal in Texas, attracting more than 500,000 hunters and more than $2.5 billion annually. Many small communities in the Hill Country and South Texas receive a good portion of their annual economic base from hunting. Llano County, for example, plays host to more than 15,000 hunters who contribute more than $3.5 million to the area economy.
The general deer season opens Nov. 6 statewide, except for a few counties in the Panhandle, marking the first time in many years that the North and South Zones share the opener. The North Zone closes Jan. 2, while the South Zone continues for two additional weeks, ending Jan. 16. Special Youth-Only seasons are set for Oct. 30-31 and Jan. 15-16 statewide.
“This is the best year I’ve seen,” said TPWD white-tailed deer program leader Mitch Lockwood. “The last couple of years we had good summer rainfall, which helped set the table for the fall, but this year we had an exceptional spring as well. Many ranchers are saying range conditions are the best in 20 years, and some of the old-timers I know also claim this is the best year they have ever seen.”
While favorable weather conditions have certainly helped Texas’ deer herd, it may not have done any favors for hunters who rely heavily on supplemental feeding regimes, according to Lockwood. “I expect we’ll have a good supply of cool-season forbs and the acorn crop is exceptional throughout most of the state, which means deer are going to be less likely to come to a feeder. You might have to get out of those blinds and do it the old-fashioned way – rattling horns and stalking.”
Hunters on lands intensively managed for wildlife should see even greater rewards with improved antler growth and body weights, Lockwood noted, but will no doubt have to work that much harder to take their deer due to lush habitat conditions. “The successful hunter will be the one who gets out and hunts extensively,” he stressed.
Although few changes were made to this year’s deer hunting regulations, those hunters on managed lands should welcome one alteration. The TPW Commission has eliminated the need for “double tagging” on certain properties. According to the new rules now in effect, hunters who take deer on properties holding deer permits that require permit tagging, such as Managed Lands Deer Permits, Landowner Assisted Management Permits or on TPWD-drawn public hunts would not have to use a deer tag from their hunting license. What this means for affected hunters and landowners is less redundant paperwork and a simpler tagging system. It also means bonus deer tags are no longer needed.
The new rule also means hunters who purchase their license by phone or online will not have to wait for the actual paper hunting license to be mailed to them before they can hunt deer on lands using deer permits. The authorization number given at the time of purchase will do until the actual license arrives in the mail.
Following is a region-by-region outlook for the upcoming deer season as compiled by TPWD wildlife biologists.
Above-average and timely rains throughout the 2004 summer ensured adequate to good ground moisture for much of South Texas, according to Alice-based wildlife biologist Daniel Kunz. “Consequently, range and habitat conditions remain good to excellent,” he explained. “Some areas have seen vegetation and grass cover stay green throughout the summer. Cover remains in excellent shape for concealing deer. This reduced visibility may additionally impact hunters early this hunting season.”
Acorns and other mast crops are available in abundance this year, according to Kunz, who added that some mesquites still have beans that should drop soon.
South Texas district biologist Joe Herrera in Pleasanton reported deer are in good to excellent shape throughout the brush country, even the does with twin fawns. Antler growth is also exceptional this year with many yearling bucks and quality young deer observed by his field staff.
“You couldn’t ask for a better year as far as rainfall,” exclaimed Max Traweek, TPWD’s district biologist for the Hill Country, “and that’s going to show up in quality on those areas practicing good habitat management.”
The Hill Country remains overpopulated with deer for the most part, however, most of the herd should be in good physical condition. “The bucks had a good start on antler growth because of some good late winter and early spring rains,” said Traweek.
Traweek expects that deer may be harder to come by early in the season due to an above-average acorn crop, which will keep deer movement to a minimum.
North-Central Texas has been blessed with ample rainfall this year and some areas have been blessed more than others, noted Kevin Mote, TPWD district biologist in Brownwood. A number of intensive rainstorms bringing more than eight inches during a 24-hour period have been reported throughout the district during the spring and summer months.
“If you hunted deer in North Texas last year, you probably experienced tough hunting conditions due to much-improved habitat conditions,” said Mote. “Plenty of food, water, and cover meant deer didn’t have to move much. Last year had the potential to be a great habitat-building year for those managers that were mindful of limiting livestock and deer numbers. This year is no different.”
Improved habitat conditions last year, which included a bumper acorn crop, may have resulted in fewer deer coming to the feeder. Take heart, they are still there and the bucks are a year older, said Mote. “Plentiful rains in 2004 should help antler development as well as fawn production,” he noted. “The downside is two years of high fawn production may require increased doe harvest early in the season to keep the population at or below winter carrying capacity of the habitat.”
Ever since last fall, far West Texas has been getting timely rain and that’s a significant improvement from recent years, according to Alpine-based district biologist Mike Hobson. “We anticipate this mule deer season will be a really good year,” he said. “The problem hunters will face is that when you have lush vegetation, especially out here in the desert country, but it’s going to be difficult for hunters to find the deer. Deer don’t move nearly as much to fill their bellies when conditions are lush like they are now.”
This year’s mast crop in East Texas is looking pretty good, not a bumper crop, but extensive enough to provide a mainstay food source for deer and because the acorns are falling early. Jasper-based district biologist Gary Calkins believes hunters should not expect to see much activity around feeders.
Despite a mid-summer dry spell, current range conditions are excellent, thanks to recent rainfall, according to Calkins. “Those conditions will make hunting tougher as deer won’t be moving around as much because of all the food,” he added, “but the abundance of browse will put the deer in outstanding shape. From the deer we’re seeing in our spotlight census surveys, body conditions are still good even with does carrying twins.”
A change in the regulations this year has created a four-day doe season in eight East Texas counties where the current antlerless harvest is by permit only. Counties with doe days Nov. 25-28 include: Brazos, Cherokee, Gregg, Grimes, Houston, Madison, Robertson and Rusk counties.
“All the data we looked at going into that regulation discussion showed a skewed sex ratio (too many does per buck),” said Calkins. “We’re still overpopulated in some areas and when you add in this year’s big fawn crop on top of that, the timing for this regulation change was pretty good.”
Post Oak Savannah
“We had a lot of late summer rains and early fall rains, so conditions are good,” noted David Sierra, Sulphur Springs-based district biologist. “The acorns are already dropping so it’ll make it tough for hunters early on in the season.”
Deer body weights should be in good condition due to above-average habitat throughout most of the Post Oak, he noted.
Several of the counties receiving four doe days this year are in the Post Oak and according to Sierra, even though these new opportunities are pretty conservative, they will be beneficial to hunters. “It will give the youth who are out for the holidays a chance to take a doe when they normally couldn’t.”
Bob Carroll in LaGrange said he has been amazed at the shift in attitudes among hunters and landowners during the last couple of years as a result of the experimental buck harvest regulations in place in six counties in the area between Houston and Austin. “The attitudes of hunters and landowners alike are very positive,” he noted. “They are excited about what they see heading into the third season under this experiment.”
Carroll expects hunters will likely see more bucks that meet the harvest restrictions this year because of good range conditions and the limited harvest on younger deer during the last two seasons, which has shifted the bulk of the hunting pressure from year-and-a-half old bucks those more than 3 years old.
Range conditions for whitetails and mule deer look excellent, and the majority of the district has had well above-average rainfall, said Canyon-based district biologist Danny Swepston. “We’re seeing some really good bucks during our spotlight surveys. For the first time in many years, the rainfall has been spread out.”
One of the big things hunters will notice during the early part of the season is the presence of deer cover and with the good range conditions deer may not come to feeders. “They’re also not coming to the winter wheat because there’s so much native browse to eat, but once we get that first freeze it should start pushing them into the fields,” he noted.
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