It’s about to be big buck time across Texas, something that should have you spending as many hours in the field as possible, no matter where you call home.
The Lone Star State has long had the largest population of white-tailed deer in the country, but the only thing that surpasses the quantity in our state is the quality, and it again has shaped up to be a fantastic year for big deer. When looking forward to a new hunting framework, hunters must look back at past ones, something that has biologists cautiously optimistic despite dry conditions heading into the summer across the entire state.
Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that present and future hunting success rests mostly on fawn production, setting the stage for bigger and better bucks.
“While most hunters don’t typically harvest fawns, fawn production each fall is extremely important since that translate into adult deer, more specifically adult bucks in future years,” Cain said. “In years with poor fawn production hunters should expect to see fewer bucks in that particular age class in each of the future years as that group matures. Looking back into the culmination of deer survey data over the years we see statewide fawn crop estimates were good in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013. Those good fawn crops, above 45 percent, means a good number of young bucks in the 1½- and 2½-year-old age classes and a good number of 4½- and 7½-year-old bucks as compared to other age classes.”
Looking at the overall big buck forecast, Cain said hunters again should expect plenty of opportunities to harvest the largest deer they may see all year.
“A hunting forecast wouldn’t be complete without some estimation of antler quality for the upcoming season,” Cain said. “Best predictions would indicate an average year for antler quality at the statewide scale, but hunters should keep in mind those localized areas in the state receiving regular rainfall this spring and hopefully into the summer will likely see antler quality just above average. For most hunters the average buck is a pretty good deer, and unless you’re a trophy antler collector, I suspect a 6½-year-old buck or older scoring 127 Boone & Crockett would be a heck of a deer, which is the statewide average for a 6½-year-old buck. Statewide average B&C score for 4½- to 5½-year-old bucks is 121 B&C with the South Texas region producing the best quality bucks at 129 B&C on average.”
Cain said that it’s easy to predict the size of racks based on using the scientific approaches he and other biologists use regularly.
“For the most part, average B&C scores and overall quality don’t fluctuate too much within an age group or age class. Lack of adequate nutrition often related to drought or too many deer on the range causing competition for forage resources have the greatest impact on antler quality from one year to the next. While any area of the state can produce a quality deer hunter would likely improve their odds of bagging a trophy quality bucks by hunting in South Texas and the Rolling Plains which on average produce the highest scoring bucks in the state.”
Gary Calkins, TPWD’s Pineywoods district leader, said the eastern portion of Texas remains a deer hot spot, and the thickets of the area should again harbor quantity and quality for a variety of reasons.
“We did pretty well as far as meeting harvest objectives across the district (in 2013-14),” Calkins said. “As always, we would have liked to see a few more antlerless deer harvested, but with the hunting conditions last year, we did pretty well overall. We didn’t do too badly however. It was a little of a tough year in some areas as deer were only moving nocturnally early in the season, so harvest was late and tough to achieve.”
Calkins said that from a horns standpoint, last fall and winter were great in his region.
“We had several fantastic bucks harvested – well into the 200-inch class – and number wise in this category probably one of the best years in recent memory,” he said. “If weather conditions hold, it looks like it has the potential to be a repeat this coming fall.”
Calkins said that in the discussion of quality, Trinity and Houston counties stand out above the other ones in East Texas, while Cass, Marion and Harrison on the Louisiana border are the best for quantity. He said that the main issue facing hunters last year rested on the area’s overall cash crop – acorns.
“(The) poor acorn crop last year seemed to have a huge impact on hunting success,” Calkins said. “For whatever reason, deer were almost exclusively nocturnal very early in the season, which also caused some challenges. Hopefully neither will repeat this year.”
Cain pointed out that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists collect age and antler survey data annually, and the figures from 2005-2013 underscore the overall big buck outlook. Statewide, the gross Boone & Crockett score for 2½- to 3½-year-old bucks is 102 6/8, while it’s 121 3/8 and 127 3/8, respectively, for the 4½- to 5½-year-old and 6½- and older age groups. The Edwards Plateau, the most heavily-hunted area of Texas actually has the lowest estimated big buck outlook, with the numbers being 93 3/8, 113 3/8 and 119 4/8 for the corresponding age classes.
The top area of the state, without even having to look at the data is South Texas, with figures of 104 2/8, 129 4/8 and 136 for the same age groups. One area that certainly can’t be overlooked is the Rolling Plains, with the eastern portion having B&C figures of 108, 125 3/8 and 133 3/8, respectively, and the western portion nearly identical at 107 1/8, 125 2/8 and 133 4/8.
The Pineywoods, which also features high hunter densities, remains another solid big-buck spot, with averages of 104 2/8, 124 3/8 and 123 2/8.
Cain noted that the data is likely to hold up for a number of years. It’s also possible that the figures could rise across entire ecoregions, especially with the increased emphasis on quality deer management practices.
Top whitetails of 2013-14
The Texas Big Game Awards is regarded as the official deer competition in our state, though its main goal is to highlight the management efforts of landowners and land managers. For records purposes, the state is divided into eight regions with varying score requirements based on traditional big deer territory. To be a TBGA entry from South Texas, a typical whitetail must score at least 140 Boone & Crockett points, while a non-typical must score a minimum of 155. In the High Plains, Cross Timbers and Edwards Plateau, a typical buck must meet a minimum of 130 and a non-typical 145. In the Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairies, Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies, the minimums are 125 and 140.
South Texas, long a national big buck Mecca, again proved to be the place to be in the pursuit of massive whitetails – even if you’re not hunting under a high fence. The region accounted seven of the 10 largest typical entries, which is on par with previous seasons. Those entries all came from the low-fence division of the Big Game Awards, which also collects data on high-fence bucks. The sprawling King Ranch in South Texas, again produced a gargantuan amount of big bucks, and Kleberg County is among the top whitetail destinations in all of America. Other notable South Texas locales for large whitetails are LaSalle, McMullen and Webb counties, and each produced multiple entries into the typical and non-typical categories.
One surprise when looking at the overall results, though it’s not really shocking, is that East Texas produced the top two non-typical whitetails harvested on low-fence tracts. Mark Lee’s Houston County buck was a whopper, grossing 278 5/8 Boone & Crockett points and netting 268 4/8, while Shelton Booth’s Harrison County buck taped out at 224 gross and 218 1/8 net. Those bucks follow in the footsteps of numerous other big Pineywoods bucks taken in recent years, including many harvest via archery equipment.
Other notable non-typical whitetails that netted more than 200 B & C included Hil Stroup’s Dimmit County buck that scored 205 4/8 and Makayla Hay’s Madison County monster that scored 205 exactly.
On the typical side, Mike Purdum’s LaSalle County giant led the way in the low-fence division, grossing 182 1/8 and netting 176 2/8. Not far behind that outstanding buck was Daryl Frye’s Uvalde County hulk that grossed 187 1/8 and netted 175 5/8.
When discussing big bucks, it’s tough to overlook the impact that the restrictions have had in producing larger deer for hunters in some of the most heavily frequented areas of the state. The antler frameworks define a legal buck as one with at least one unbranched antler or an inside spread of 13 inches or greater. The inside spread requirement does not apply to any buck that has an unbranched antler, however, the restrictions do not apply to properties for which Level 2 or Level 3 MLDPs have been issued.
Cain said the age structure appears to be improving in those areas that are under antler restrictions, shifting the average age of bucks, which exactly is what they were designed to do. He said that in some regions, including the Post Oak area where the restrictions have been in place the longest, as many as 70 percent or more of the bucks are at least 3½ years old.
That means should you could be closer to much larger bucks than you may think, should you be fortunate enough to be hunting in that region of the state.
The Pineywoods area, where restrictions have been in place not quite as long, has experienced the same general trend when it comes to the age structure of bucks, Cain has noted, something that’s easy to quantify when looking at the number of monster Big Game Awards entries from that part of the state in recent seasons.
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There’s no doubt that Texas is the epicenter of the big deer craze, which is highlighted by hundreds of thousands of acres closed off by high fences and supplemental high-protein feeding year-round, but it’s also the epicenter of the everyman’s dream, which is seen every season. Like clockwork, there are numerous stories each fall of hunters harvesting their buck of a lifetime on small low-fence tracts, typically deer that they never had laid eyes on before which simply roamed into new territory.
The great part about hunting Texas in the fall is that you have the chance to be that lucky fellow who finds himself looking down the barrel at such a fine specimen. The only way to ensure that you have the opportunity is to carve out time and make sure it’s spent in the field.
There’s no better time than the present to partake in the annual fall tradition that is whitetail hunting. And it’s a sure bet that it will be time well spent.
“Hunters should expect a good 2014 deer season. Who knows, this may be the year you take your biggest buck,” Cain said.
Texas’ Largest Whitetails 2013-14
Hunter County Gross Net
Mark Lee Houston 278 5/8 268 4/8
Shelton Booth Harrison 224 218 1/8
Hil Stroup Dimmit 209 4/8 205 4/8
Makayla Hay Madison 215 4/8 205
Waylan Langford Hardeman 204 5/8 199 1/8
Kaden Hooker Wichita 206 1/8 198 6/8
Jimmy Green Medina 193 6/8 190 3/8
Kyle Weatherford Anderson 197 5/8 190 1/8
James Riggs Navarro 194 1/8 186 7/8
Walter Sheaffer III Wise 191 6/8 186 7/8
Hunter County Gross Net
Mike Purdum La Salle 182 1/8 176 2/8
Daryl Frye Uvalde 187 1/8 175 5/8
Alberto Bailleres Zavala 175 6/8 172 5/8
Clifford Maples Cottle 179 1/8 168 2/8
Joe Schneider McMullen 169 5/8 166 2/8
Neil Smith Kleberg 178 166 1/8
Shaun McConathy Maverick 173 164 4/8
Gordon Brown Kleberg 173 7/8 163 6/8
Travis Hunter La Salle 180 1/8 163 1/8
Jeff Wilhoit Shackelford 169 3/8 163
Source: Texas Big Game Awards; low-fence properties