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Rains Throw Curve at Hunters as Deer Season Approaches
AUSTIN, Texas — Hunters who spent the summer months refining game plans for deer season might consider going back to the drawing board. That’s the advice from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists who suggest recent rains across much of Texas could put a damper on traditional tactics.
Many hunters will see plenty of green when they take to the woods opening day Nov. 4 and not much else if hunting over a feeder, as new plant growth stimulated by wet range conditions seems to have altered deer patterns significantly.
“Just a few weeks ago, we were expecting high harvest success early in the season with less than average range conditions this year,” said Mitch Lockwood, TPWD white-tailed deer program leader. “Now, with the recent rain, forbs are responding and deer activity around corn feeders has started to decline. I’m not so sure that hunting over feeders during this green-up is the best idea.”
This change in deer feeding patterns could also have an impact on opportunity around feeders during the Special Youth Season weekend Oct. 28–29. The season is available to licensed hunters ages 16 and under.
Hunters in eastern and central Texas are reminded that special buck antler restrictions are in effect in 61 counties. Under the regulation, a lawful buck in the designated counties is defined as any buck having at least one unbranched antler OR an inside antler spread of at least 13 inches. The bag limit in the affected counties is two lawful bucks, no more than one of which may have an inside spread of greater than 13 inches.
Counties that fall under this regulation for the first time include: Bell, Bosque, Bowie, Burleson, Camp, Cass, Cherokee, Comal (east of IH 35), Comanche, Coryell, Delta, Eastland, Erath, Fannin, Franklin, Gregg, Hamilton, Harrison, Hays (east of IH 35), Hopkins, Houston, Lamar, Lampasas, Leon, Marion, Morris, Nacogdoches, Panola, Rains, Red River, Rusk, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, Somervell, Titus, Travis (east of IH 35), Upshur, Williamson and Wood counties.
Other counties having the buck antler restrictions include: Austin, Bastrop, Brazoria, Caldwell, Colorado, De Witt, Fayette, Fort Bend, Goliad, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Jackson, Karnes, Lavaca, Lee, Matagorda, Victoria, Waller, Washington, Wilson and Wharton counties.
Dry conditions through the spring and summer months could have an impact on antler development, according to biologists, which may result in fewer bucks having legal antler spreads and hunters are urged to be conservative in judgments.
Despite the drought, fawn production and the overall health of the state’s deer herd appears to be good. Lockwood attributes some of that to increased habitat management efforts on private lands and the prevalence of supplemental feeding regiments. “The effects of the drought are not nearly as noticeable on the intensively managed habitats and things don’t look as bad as they did during a drought 10 years ago because of the supplemental feeding,” he noted. “It has helped carry the deer, but doesn’t do much for the range.”
Here’s how TPWD wildlife biologists around the state view conditions for this year’s deer season.
Most of the Hill Country experienced very dry conditions this past summer, so hunters should not expect much in the way of antler quality this fall, according to Max Traweek in Kerrville. Range conditions have improved greatly with the recent rains and general body condition of deer should be at least fair or better by the opening of the general season. “Due to the green-up, hunting may be a little tough during the first few weeks of the season,” Traweek notes. “Also, fair to heavy acorn crops in a few areas will result in even more restricted movement by deer in those locations. But, the Hill Country is known for high deer densities, and, even with lower than average fawn survival observed this past summer, hunters will have plenty of animals to choose from during the hunting season.” Hunters and landowners in Bell, Coryell, Lampasas and Williamson counties need to be aware of the antler restrictions in place for the first time this year. The new regulation is also in effect in those areas of Travis, Hays and Comal counties that occur east of IH-35. There are no changes to the deer regulations in areas of those three counties lying west of IH-35.
Post Oak Savannah
According to David Sierra in Tyler, timely rains are producing forage for the deer, but he does not think it will make a major impact on hunting. “It should still be a good year for hunting around food plots and in the bottoms where we’ve had a fair acorn production.” As for the new buck antler restrictions, he suggests hunters “Err on the side of caution; if you have any doubts whether it fits in the parameter of the law, pass it up because it will be there next year.” Sierra says fawn production is much better than expected, so this is a good time to harvest the recommended number of does on managed lands and he would highly recommend taking antlerless deer and those within the buck regulation. “I think harvest will be up this year and hunters will see more of the bigger bucks because they’ll be moving around more,” he predicts. “Instead of laying around under an oak tree eating acorns they’ll have to move more to find food.”
“All of our acorns have already fallen and about half are good and the others are hollow,” reports Gary Calkins in Jasper. “Deer aren’t even hitting the acorns, they’re going after the new green weeds and we’re seeing a lot of movement.” Calkins says in the 16 counties in his area that fall within the new buck antler restrictions this year, his only concern has been the impacts of the drought on antler quality. “With the dry weather we’ve had this year, rains right now don’t make up for the months of drought, so we need to take a lot of does,” he notes. “Doe days were increased in some counties a couple of years ago, so hunters need to take advantage of the opportunities.” He went on to add that hunting should be very good this year because of the deer movement. The area saw fair fawn production this year, but because production was good last year there will be a lot of 1½ and 2½ year old deer so hunters need to be patient.
Kevin Mote in Brownwood reports most of north-central Texas has experienced below average rainfall since August of 2005. “We’ve had very little habitat recovery during the growing season due to extremely hot and dry conditions. Dry conditions have delayed the availability of winter wheat and oat crops that are typically a good source of protein for deer heading into the fall hunting season.” He says acorn crops are spotty and the much needed fall forbs have yet to appear. “All of this could certainly mean more deer at the feeders this year,” he predicts. “Managers are strongly encouraged to take deer early. Well managed properties will still produce quality deer this year but as a general rule, we expect below average to average body weights and antler development throughout the eastern three-quarters of the district.”
David Synatzske in Cotulla says the drought has had an impact on fawn production and deer quality this year, but the recent rains have turned things around dramatically. “The past three months have been the driest on record, but also the last six months and the last 12 months as well. Many old-timers said it was worse than the drought of the 50s. We experienced no grass production or seed production, virtually non-existent forb production, many of the browse species failed to green up and those that did had virtually no new growth. In addition to the lack of vegetative production, perhaps the thing I noticed most was the complete lack of mast production. I cannot recall in the last 23 years a year where such total mast failure existed, even with virtually no prickly pear fruit production.” But what a difference rain makes. “The same area where we’d had less than two inches since the first of the year has had seven-plus inches in the last five weeks! Grass and forb production is unbelievable and brush has exhibited a tremendous level of new growth. Since one of those rains was 4.5 inches we have more water than we’ve probably had in many of the ponds in the past 10 years and deep moisture is present as well.” Deer movements have been noted to be severely impacted by the flush of vegetation and it will likely be a harder than normal season for hunters as a result.
“We were real dry the first two thirds of the summer and range conditions were tough,” says Danny Swepston in Amarillo. “Since late July, things have improved dramatically and range conditions going into the season are good to excellent. Body weights should be good, but antler development likely suffered during the drought.” Swepston reports the Panhandle is not lacking in available food for deer. “There’s plenty for them to eat out there. We have lots of winter wheat. I would encourage folks to take does, especially on the eastern side of the region where we’re seeing higher densities of deer.”
Coastal Prairies and Marshes
David Forrester in LaGrange notes, “Other than in Brazoria, Matagorda and Victoria counties, the majority of the area has experienced poor range conditions since last winter. As a result, antler development would not be expected to be as good as it was in the 2005–2006 hunting season. Additionally, last year’s fawn crop was substantial, so we expect a large number of young bucks entering the 1½ year-old cohort. Although recent rains should provide some good forbs and browse going into winter, deer will probably readily visit existing feeders.” The acorn crop is spotty in this region, although live oak seems to be producing well. There are reports of some water oak, but not much else. “I would urge hunters in the antler restriction counties to make use of the unbranched antlered tag this year,” recommends Forrester. “Also, if hunters are able to harvest does, they should try to accomplish this as early as possible. Get the mouths off the range as soon as you can.”
“We had a very dry winter after several years of good rain and it dried out, which will affect our antler development,” says Tim Bone in Alpine. “I anticipate antler development will probably be average and our fawn crop may be down a bit.” Late summer rains have helped create a “green up” and forage conditions are very good across the Trans Pecos, says Bone, “and we’re getting rain in October. Any winter moisture we can get is great.” Body conditions ought to be real good and Bone also emphasizes doe harvest, especially in the eastern end of the district in Terrell and Pecos counties.
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