Outlook Bright for Upcoming Deer Hunting Season
The distinctive measured crackle of twigs and leaves. A telltale snort. The first glimpse of antlers as they leave a brushpile.
To a deer hunter, these are the sights and sounds of the season.
The white-tailed deer is arguably the No. 1 game animal in Texas with a population exceeding 3.5 million animals pursued by more than a half-million hunters. Last season, the average Texas hunter devoted more than a week of his/her time in pursuit of white-tailed deer.
The general deer season opens Nov. 2 in all of Texas except for six Panhandle counties and runs through Jan. 5 in the North Zone. In South Texas, the general season extends through Jan. 19. A special youth-only deer-hunting weekend is scheduled for Oct. 26-27 statewide in which only licensed hunters 16 years old and younger who meet the requirements for hunter education training may harvest white-tailed deer.
"Generally speaking, body conditions on deer should be good as a result of above-normal summer rains," said Clayton Wolf, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department white-tailed deer program leader. "Rains probably did not have as big an impact on antler growth, since much of the antler material was already 'on the head' when the rains came. The exception would be the northern part of Texas, where springtime conditions were more favorable."
In Texas, deer hunting is largely about tradition. Just as white-tailed deer are creatures of habit, deer hunters often return each fall to the same deer blind or area they've hunted in for years. Once they've reached their favorite haunts, many hunters draw from the same tactics used successfully on previous hunts. When hunting deer, there are good ruts and bad ruts, according to state wildlife biologists. Being able to tell the difference and adjusting hunting strategies this fall could mean the difference between success and failure.
"Although our annual deer census surveys are not in, it's almost guaranteed there are more deer out there this year than last year," said Wolf. "However, if forage and mast conditions remain good, hunters will need to focus on natural food sources, as bait will probably not be as effective. Also, because harvest was off in several ecoregions last year, many bucks gained a year that they normally would not have, which should improve your chances of harvesting a mature animal."
The following summaries offer hunters some insight into what they can anticipate around the state in the upcoming deer season based on field observations and deer census data collected by TPWD biologists:
In most areas, buck harvest is generally more concentrated in the first few weeks of the season. South Texas is the exception, where a later breeding season steers most of the hunting pressure into the middle of December. Toss in the current abundance of native food sources and hunters will need to be patient early on, according to Pleasanton-based TPWD Biologist Joe Herrera.
"Deer are healthy going into the fall," Herrera noted. "Rains came too late to greatly impact antler growth, but good antler production has been reported by landowners and our field staff. We may see above-normal antler quality next year given that habitat conditions persist. Hunting will be difficult early in the season as a result of heavy cover and abundant food."
Conditions going into the fall appear to be more characteristic of spring in South Texas than fall. According to Herrera, "We have had an excellent growth of brush, grasses and forbs. September rains have helped keep everything green and growing. There is plenty of vegetation to provide both nutrition and cover for wildlife. The basic needs of food, cover, and water have been amply supplied."
Fawn survival this year, although varied, was a little above normal with the timely increase in cover, said Herrera. "Surveys are still being conducted, but early reports have shown a 30-100 percent fawn crop with an average of around 50 percent. Some isolated areas in the northeastern part of the region have had low fawn crops, probably due to a combination of poor spring range conditions and excessive flooding."
Herrera expects above-average body weights on deer, below-average activity at corn feeders, and possibly below-average hunter success on opening weekend. "With the improved range conditions, animal health should remain good to excellent throughout the entire hunting season," he predicted. "There appeared to be an excellent carry-over of mature bucks in some areas from last year and many bucks are reaching the very old age classes."
The Hill Country is the number one destination for Texas deer hunters and last year drew 167,497 visitors. It also possesses some of the highest deer populations in the state and, not surprisingly, offers the highest harvest success rate. Last year, 72 percent of the hunters in this region bagged a deer, compared to the statewide average of 57 percent.
According to Kerrville-based TPWD Biologist Max Traweek, recent surveys indicate normal deer densities in all areas of the region. "Fawn survival was better than I expected, but still about normal for the Hill Country," he noted. "I was anticipating lower than normal fawn numbers, due to the extremely dry period we experienced during early summer."
Antler quality should be average in most areas, according to Traweek, as the excellent "green-up" in late summer and early fall was too late to have much effect on final antler size.
"Overall, Hill Country habitat will be in pretty good condition going into the general hunting season this year," Traweek said. Range conditions remain good in the eastern half of the Hill Country due to heavy rainfall there since July. Recently, the western portion of the Hill Country received some much-needed rainfall, also.
"Additionally, many areas are reporting good to excellent acorn production, which normally translates to good deer body condition," Traweek predicted. "Unfortunately, the good range conditions and availability of acorns will probably mean slow hunting until the first good freeze knocks back the vegetation and the acorns disappear. I think most hunters would trade hungry and thin deer crowding around a feeder for a possible shot at a few healthy animals coming for a snack rather than a full meal any day, though."
"As we do every year, we encourage hunters and landowners to harvest an adequate number of antlerless deer this year," he stressed. "It might take a little extra effort to get those animals in the freezer this year, given the good range conditions and acorn crop that we're looking at here in the Hill Country, but the animals that do end up on the ground should be in better-than-average body condition."
Range conditions throughout the region are good for this time of year, according to Kevin Mote, TPWD biologist in Brownwood. Much of the eastern two-thirds of the region received rainfall throughout the growing season resulting in good browse recovery and an exceptional acorn crop. The Western portion of the district remains dry but is still improved during the past several drought years.
"Unless range conditions deteriorate dramatically during the early season, it may be difficult to concentrate deer at the feeders and food plots due to abundant native browse, mast, and forbs," Mote suggested.
Deer numbers are way up due to a bumper fawn crop, said Mote, noting that body conditions and antler development appears to be above average. "Hunters should be liberal with their doe harvest early to remove excess deer prior to winter. This will help ensure adequate habitat conditions to get those mature bucks through the winter. Hunters should also be aware of increased numbers of buck fawns when hunting antlerless deer."
Hunters on the LBJ National Grasslands in Wise County are reminded that an antlerless permit is required to harvest a doe even though the county is full-season either-sex. The deadline for permit applications has passed for this year.
Coastal Prairies and Marshes
Deer hunting success should be good this fall throughout the region, except in six counties under an experimental buck harvest regulation, according to LaGrange-based Biologist Bob Carroll. "We have a lot of bucks in the yearling age class because of a good fawn crop last year," he explained. "I think it should be pretty good hunting outside those six counties because they're going to be limited."
Carroll predicted an average antler size as mid-summer rains had little effect on antler development. "We were getting dry when we got all that rain the first of July and have had sporadic rains that have kept us going along," he noted. "Our fawn crops are pretty good, a little above average in the Coastal Prairie counties and average in the Post Oak Savannah counties."
Excellent summer and early fall rains have produced excessive vegetation that may make hunting a little harder early in the season, said Carroll, but a lack of acorns may come into play. "Our acorn crop is spotty," he said. "Water oaks have produced a very good acorn crop, but the live oaks are looking very spotty and no post oak acorns. I don't see any bumper crop that would cause a deer to stay hidden all season."
In Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee and Washington counties, hunters may harvest a buck only if it is one of the following:
- A deer having a hardened antler protruding through the skin and at least one unbranched antler or:
- A deer having one antler with six or more points or:
- A deer having an inside spread measurement between the main beams of 13 inches or greater.
"Even though some much-needed moisture didn't come our way from two late season tropical storms, East Texas was fortunately spared the damage," Jasper-based Biologist Gary Calkins pointed out. "Missing that rainfall, however, has not put the Pineywoods in bad shape going into the fall hunting season.
"Throughout 2002 when conditions would get to the point of being called bad, we would get some much needed rain," said Calkins. "This has kept habitat conditions in good shape throughout the year and should have deer going into the fall in good body condition. Since the bucks have not had to scramble for food throughout the summer months, hunters could expect to see some high-quality animals."
Calkins reported a hefty mast crop throughout the Pineywoods going into fall. "This factor will help carry deer through into winter in good shape, however, the large mast crop may make the use of feeders for bringing deer into shooting range not very productive. Hunters should not procrastinate in harvesting antlerless deer early in the season to attempt to maintain sex ratios in the deer herd."
Throughout the region, slight to moderate increases in deer populations have been indicated by annual census work, Calkins explained. This year also saw the second largest fawn crop in recent memory as indicated by the field staff's census activities. Coupled with a low harvest from last year, this should theoretically mean more deer, including older ones and an improved chance of encountering good quality bucks.
Of particular note, archery hunters will have the chance to have the woods to themselves due to some changes in harvest regulations on Public Hunting Lands units in Jasper and Newton Counties in the southern Pineywoods. Five units in this area are slated for archery only deer hunting throughout the general season.
Post Oak Savannah
The majority of the Post Oak Savannah received adequate rainfall throughout the spring and summer months, according to Tyler-based Biologist Kevin Herriman. "This created outstanding habitat conditions that should carry deer and other wildlife in good shape into the fall season," he noted. "With luck, these summer rains will help to produce a normal or better acorn crop this fall."
Population density data suggests that deer densities across the Post Oak Savannah have remained stable for the past 10 years. A preliminary review of the 2002 census data suggests that fawn production will be up slightly this year, said Herriman. Harvest data collected during the 2001 deer season indicated that yearling bucks, (18 months old), comprised about 39 percent of the total harvest. Also, harvest data from the past few years suggests a trend of increasing numbers of two-and-a-half-year-old bucks in the annual harvest.
Health indices such as antler measurements and body weight for yearling bucks in the Post Oak Savannah have generally been increasing during the past 10-20 years; however, slight declines in these health parameters were noted in the 2001-02 season. According to Herriman, these indices are expected to rebound in 2002 because the yearling bucks of this coming season will be the fawn crop of the 2001 growing season, when good range conditions prevailed throughout most of the spring and summer.
"Combining these factors with the good range conditions of this spring and summer should result in producing deer for the 2002-03 season that are slightly above the normal long-term averages in body weights and antler quality," said Herriman. "Overall, herd and habitat conditions are looking good for the 2002-03 deer season in the upper Post Oak counties of East Texas. Let's hope for some cool opening weekend weather to make it even better."
Overall, game and range conditions are good, according to Gene Miller, technical guidance biologist in Canyon. The western half of the Panhandle has been somewhat drier than the eastern half, which is typical in the plains. The country is in more of a favorable condition thanks to some recent rainfall, with water in some of the playa lakes, which should bode well for waterfowl season.
Mule and white-tailed deer are in good overall condition, with good body weights and antler development.
"The effects of late rains and moderate temperatures on agricultural crops and range conditions should help improve existing (good) body and weight conditions even more as we head into the fall," said Miller. "Observed fawn production in both species is good throughout the district."