Texas Hunters May Have to Change Strategy This Year
Hunters hoping for a shot at a quality deer during the 2008-09 deer season will need to get off the bench and into the game, suggest state wildlife biologists, as current range conditions indicate increased availability of native food sources.
The general deer hunting season opens statewide Nov. 1. This change in deer feeding patterns could also have an impact on opportunity around feeders during the Special Youth Season weekend Oct. 25-26. The youth-only season is available to licensed hunters ages 16 and under.
"It could be one of those years when it's not in the favor of somebody who doesn’t like to leave the corn feeder," said Mitch Lockwood, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department white-tailed deer program leader. "We're getting reports, mainly from the Hill Country, that indicate another good acorn crop and it looks similar to what we had three years ago when the acorns fell in three stages, which should spread the drop over an extended period."
Rainfall across much of the state in August helped quench parched country and recent rains have generated new plant growth biologists say should improve deer body condition heading into the season.
"It is amazing how quickly these deer can recover," said Lockwood, alluding to drought conditions that extended across much of the state during the first half of the year. "We're not seeing the impacts from the drought we did 20 years ago, no major die-offs, thanks mostly to current wildlife management practices."
Of course, nature also has a way of taking care of its own.
During the 2007-08 deer season, Texas hunters killed about 512,800 whitetails, the lowest harvest in a decade and down more than 90,000 from the previous season.
Lockwood attributes much of the harvest decline to extremely good habitat conditions, which meant deer did not need to travel much for food and water.
"The thing to look for this season is carryover from last year because harvest was down quite a bit," he noted. "Harvest numbers and better age structure should be up this year, especially in those counties where we have antler restrictions."
Here's what TPWD biologists around the state are saying about this year’s prospects in their areas:
You could have asked any of the TPWD wildlife biologists in South Texas back in March to predict what the fall hunting season would be like and most, if not all, would have given a marginal to fair outlook.
"From the 2007 Labor Day Weekend through April 20, 2008 we received barely an inch of rain," said Jimmy Rutledge of the Carrizo Springs area. "While the entire South Texas region experienced this extended dry spell, the western portion was hardest hit by the drought."
The effects were felt well into mid spring as many species of brush with shallow root systems, such as granjeno and hogplum were lying dormant in need of relief. Conditions such as this do not bode well for antler development or fawn production in white-tailed deer. Looking at recent conditions, however, it would be difficult to see any signs of drought conditions from this past winter and early spring. Hurricane Dolly dumped excessive rainfall in the lower Rio Grande Valley and contributed to abundant rainfall across the rest of South Texas throughout August, adding to some of the earlier rains that fell in July. Habitat has improved dramatically and will provide great benefits to many of the game species in South Texas.
Across the South Texas region consensus is white-tailed deer antler quality may be good despite the dry spring conditions.
Deer did not have to work hard to build up body reserve to support fawn rearing and antler development this summer.
Rutledge expects white-tailed fawn survival to be above average with the improved range conditions and abundant cover. Hunters may expect to find a good number of 1 ½-year-old bucks as a result of a good fawn crop from 2007. Decent fawn crops from 2002 and 2004 should also result in a fair number older age class bucks in the 4 ½ or 6 ½-year-old categories.
Despite the fairly abundant food resources as a result of the summer rains, the recent dry spell will encourage deer to utilize corn feeders. Thus hunters might have good harvest success this season. However hunters should not discount alternative hunting strategies instead of the old standby corn feeder. Look for well used trails or natural feeding areas to find deer, especially when trying to locate those older age class bucks that are wise to hunter activities.
If you're a hunter looking for quality antlers, be cognizant of those ranches or hunting leases where population management and maintaining deer numbers below the carrying capacity of habitat is a primary concern. Well managed properties that have in place sound wildlife habitat management programs, practices, and plans usually reap the benefits during the fall hunting seasons. These examples of good land stewardship usually stand out during stressful times.
Rainfall amounts throughout Central Texas have been below average since early last fall when the faucet was turned off after the exceptionally wet spring and summer of 2007, according to Mike Krueger, TPWD district biologist in Kerrville. Deer did not come through the winter in as good as nutritional condition as they would have with a wet winter, so they undoubtedly were not in optimum condition when bucks initiated antler growth last spring and does were entering the last stages of pregnancy.
"It continued to remain dry during the antler growing and fawn rearing period this summer and because of this, I expect fawn survival and recruitment will be below average," said Krueger. "Ditto with antler quality; I expect it to be below average and too late to salvage even though habitat conditions have improved somewhat in recent weeks."
Body conditions heading into the season are improving, thanks to an unexpected acorn crop.
"Nature is amazing in showing the ability to offset a set of poor conditions with a set of unexpectedly good conditions," Krueger noted. "A decent acorn crop can put some fat on deer this winter, but it would be too late to help improve this year's fawn production or antler quality."
TPWD technical guidance biologist Mike Reagan in Wimberley had similar things to say about this season.
"I am seeing a lot of acorns on most ranches in my areas," Reagan reported. "A lot of them began falling in September, but there seems to still be some on the trees. It should make hunting a little tougher. I also think antler growth will be below normal, but I have seen excellent antlers on some mature bucks. Yes, the fawn crop is well below normal in the eastern half of the Edwards Plateau. In most of this country the fawn crop ranged from 10-30 percent, but on some well-managed ranches it was more like 40-60 percent."
In the western parts of the Hill Country, TPWD technical guidance biologist Joyce Moore in Harper had this to offer.
"The far western Hill Country counties fared much better through the drought as they had more summer rainfall," she said. "Exceptional fawn crops of 60-100 percent are the norm in Sutton and Schleicher counties. As you travel east from Junction, however, fawn crops declined to about 40-50 percent.
"Right now the acorns and a few recent showers are saving the deer herd, but I am telling my co-op folks that unless we get more rain, the winter will be very stressful," she pointed out. "I am hearing many reports of declining antler quality, except for the high-fence folks who are intensively feeding protein-they say their antler quality is much better than in 2007. They believe that a dry year actually causes the bucks to consume more protein feed rather than in a wet year when they would prefer native forage."
Last year was the second year of antler restrictions in all or portions of seven Edwards Plateau counties (eastern Comal, eastern Travis, eastern Hays, Williamson, Bell, Coryell, and Lampasas).
Post Oak Savannah
The ample winter rains this past season and into the spring produced favorable range conditions throughout most of the Post Oak, according to David Sierra, TPWD district biologist in Tyler.
As opposed to other parts of the state, rainfall was sufficient to maintain good range condition throughout the summer and set the stage for an above average deer season.
"Mild weather conditions seem to have made life easier on the deer," said Sierra. "Excellent habitat conditions allowed them to forage less and denser vegetation provided more screening cover. And again, better range conditions will spread the deer over larger areas and not concentrate them in the bottoms and other prime habitats."
Surveys suggest that deer densities across the Post Oak have remained stable or have slightly increased for the past 10 years. Harvest data collected during the 2007-08 deer season indicate yearling bucks (18 months old) comprised about 27 percent of the total buck harvest. Also, harvest data from the past few years suggest a trend of increasing numbers older bucks in the annual harvest.
Health indices such as antler measurements and body weight for yearling bucks in the Post Oak have also been increasing over the past 10 to 20 years. This trend should continue this hunting season because the yearling bucks of this season was the fawn crop of the 2007 growing season, when good range conditions prevailed throughout most of the summer and winter.
"With the mild winter, excellent spring, and the amount of summer rainfall deer this year should not experience the usual environmental stresses," Sierra noted. "This should allow them to put on more body fat and use the extra nutrition to express their full genetic potential. This coupled with the increasing numbers of older deer; hunters can expect to find better than average body weights and antler quality in the upcoming deer season. Deer will be in great condition, but somewhat harder to locate."
Although the Pineywoods enjoyed similar ideal winter conditions as the Post Oak, East Texas lacked the spring and summer rains to maintain habitat.
"It was looking pretty rough before Ike," said Gary Calkins, TPWD biologist in Jasper. "It was getting to the point where even the beauty berries were shedding leaves and the ponds were drying up. I had not seen it this dry in awhile."
Calkins said the dry summer conditions will likely impact acorn production as some oaks were dropping acorns early.
"Last year we had a really good fawn crop and carryover of older deer so we were set up age structure wise, especially in the northern counties," he noted. "All we needed was the weather for antlers and we could be okay because we were already through antler development when things turned dry."
Those areas entering the third year of antler restrictions appear to be showing positive results, particularly in Rusk, Panola, Cass, Cherokee and Houston counties, and prospects are favorable for this season.
Fawn crops are running between 30-40 percent across much of North Texas, which is even a little less than last year. While range conditions are improving slightly, according to TPWD biologist Kevin Mote in Brownwood, there isn’t much growing season left and antler development has already occurred.
"We expect about average antler development," Mote said. "We're seeing some nice deer but it's probably due to the carry over from last year's poor hunting season. We still expect to see increased numbers of mature bucks in our antler restriction counties but the quality may be less than we had hoped for."
Not many forbs were produced this summer due to drought and for the most part, biologists are seeing a light acorn crop, which means deer should be a little more active as they travel to food and water.
Coastal Marshes and Prairies
Although range conditions had been dry to extremely dry in most of the area for the past several months, fawn production appears to be above average and antler production is going to be good, according to David Forrester, TPWD district biologist in LaGrange.
"Since the acorn crop was a bumper one last year, we anticipate hunting conditions will be great this year with deer readily coming to feeders or food plots, thus making them easier to encounter," Forrester said. "Again, due to that awesome acorn crop last year, we experienced a down year in harvest numbers. This bodes well for more bucks out there this year — carryover. Additionally, the fawn crop last year was a good one, so there should be plenty of yearling bucks this year."
Reports on big game species are generally good to excellent, said Danny Swepston, TPWD district biologist in Amarillo.
Some of the northwestern counties were in a serve drought during the fawning season and fawn survival was poor in those areas. White-tailed buck antler development appears normal.
Recent rains across the Panhandle should dramatically improved browse growth which will have an impact on body weights and antler development.
Most of the Trans-Pecos suffered an extended drought that lasted through last winter, spring, and half of this summer. Only in the last month have good wide-spread rains come to the Trans-Pecos, said Tim Bone, TPWD biologist in Alpine. Currently range conditions over much of the area are very good.
"Because it was so dry during the spring and early summer, I expect only an average year at best regarding mule deer antler development," Bone noted. "However, if current forage conditions hold, mule deer in the Trans-Pecos should be in good body condition."