South Texas is big deer country.
That’s a fact, regardless if you’re scouring the senderos on a high-fence tract or spying a feeder on a low-fence lease.
However, there also is a pair of Wildlife Management Areas operated by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department that shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing potential Boone & Crockett opportunities. In addition, these two WMAs feature more public hunting options than any others across the state for a wealth of game animals and game birds, and yes, even large reptiles on one.
While the word certainly is out – these areas have some of the highest numbers of entries annually for public drawn hunts – it’s worth your time to investigate these haunts that also include walk-in and standby hunting opportunities.
What does that mean for you? If you do your homework and practice a good dose of patience in some cases, you might just bag the hunt of a lifetime in 2017.
Here’s a look at the top WMAs for public hunting in South Texas.
Chaparral Wildlife Management Area
The “Chap” is undoubtedly “the place” for public land deer hunting in the Lone Star State, and as evidenced by the multiple nice bucks taken each year, that distinction isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Chap, composed of more than 15,000 acres of native South Texas habitat, includes portions of land in La Salle and Dimmit counties between Carrizo Springs and Cotulla. The WMA, roughly a two-hour drive southwest of San Antonio, was purchased in 1969 with Pittman-Robertson funds to serve as a research and demonstration area for the Rio Grande Plains ecological area, as is the reasoning behind other WMAs across the state.
The WMA has been a vital cog in research on a number of species, including deer, quail, feral hogs, javelinas and even the venerable horned lizard.
The Chap, while a wildlife hotbed today, faced a historic fire in March 2008 that consumed about 95 percent of the entire WMA. In all, the fast-moving blaze torched roughly 50,000 acres of South Texas habitat in the area, including portions of some of the state’s most celebrated trophy whitetail ranches.
It should be noted that at the time, TPWD biologists documented only about a few dozen dead animals as a result of the blaze. That massive burn has become an intriguing case study in the effects of large-scale fire on native habitats and wildlife, said Stephen Lange, area manager for the Chaparral WMA.
“(In hindsight) that may have been the best thing that ever happened to the property,” Lange said. “In reality, it burned about two-thirds completely to the ground, but what happened was that everything we had as regrowth and re-sprout was at deer level. And it was at deer level for about the first five or six years since the fire, and then we subsequently went into our highest consecutive year of fawn production and productivity that we’ve ever had for white-tailed deer. That led to us reaching our highest deer density since the high fence was put up back in 1983.
“Because of that, we had such high numbers of deer and literally needed to shoot back the deer figures for management objectives. We had a pretty intensive public hunting program this year to get our numbers back down … we had been at a three-year average of about 17 or 18 acres per deer, so we used our harvest goals to get back to 25 acres per deer. By doing that, we’re able to go back into a drought cycle in better shape and be in a better place to maintain the range.”
Lange noted that hunters took the most deer ever on the WMA during this past season, surpassing 200 animals (130 does and 86 bucks).
“All the deer that we shoot from this point forward will be deer that were raised on this range in post-fire conditions, so that’s much different than the deer we were carrying over pre-fire,” he said. “Even if we have an average fawn crop this next year, we’ll be able to shoot 140 animals off this property, which is actually well above the long-term figure for deer harvest. It had been about 90 deer per year on average. What happens is when you have too many deer on a native landscape, over time you will see a drop-off in average weights of bucks and does, and you will also see a slight reduction in antler quality. That’s simply for the fact that because you have so many deer, they’re consuming more resources. We still have some big deer here. We had a 169-pound deer that came in dressed this year.”
The management process for public deer hunts is similar across all WMAs, with a focus on trying to make the most of available data to ensure sound wildlife practices.
“When we’re looking at proposing our hunts for an upcoming year, there are several key things to consider after looking at the previous season harvest data,” Lange said. “You know what older deer you’re going to have going into the season so you have a good idea of what quality deer you’re going to be able to take, but for management purposes (spikes and antlerless deer), you don’t really know that until September or October when you actually do your fall count and look at your total number of bucks and quality bucks, and then your total number of deer.
“We usually propose a public hunting schedule that’s pretty balanced in the fact that we know we can take a certain number of deer and we kind of underestimate the number of hunters that we need because we will draw that number and if we need more, we can fill them with our standby hunters.”
While the Chap is known for producing quality antlers even in what are down seasons, this past season was a quandary on some levels for biologists and land managers, Lange noted.
“We only had one TBGA (Texas Big Game Awards) deer this year and that was actually shot by our Big Time Texas Hunts hunter,” he said. “On the Chaparral we have one of the Big Buck Bonanza hunts and that hunter took a buck that scored 147 and change (Boone & Crockett). Now, last year we had a great year. We were coming off an 80 percent fawn crop from 2010 and those were our older bucks. We had a 173, a 160, a 157 … five deer total that qualified for the TBGA.
“We were scratching our heads over that much of a falloff this year, but it’s because we didn’t have the fawns coming up in age. Even this coming season we won’t, but you look to 2018, 2019 and 2020 after the good fawn crops of 2013-15 and those should be bumper years, an opportunity to truly have some Booner-level deer. They’ll have the age and they’ll have the food, which is the whole reason we wanted to shoot back our deer densities.”
One drawing that gains thousands of public hunting applications each year, including more than 4,000 last year, is the buck-only gun deer framework, allowing a hunter to harvest two deer. One of those bucks must have 7 or less antler points with an inside main beam spread of at least 12 inches and one buck must have an inside main beam spread equal to or wider than the ear tips.
Another drawing that gains a lot of interest in the public hunting process is the gun deer management permit, which allows a hunter to take four deer, with a two-buck limit. Under that permit, bucks must have 7 or less antler points with an inside main beam spread of at least 12 inches (limit one) or at least one unbranched antler.
Each of those permits also allows the holder to take unlimited feral hogs and coyotes, as well as one javelina.
The Chaparral also features a number of excellent youth-only hunting permits, with fewer entrants than the drawings open for adults. Those opportunities include hunts for bucks, spikes and antlerless deer, as well as openings for javelina. These hunts are open only to youths ages 8 to 16 and unlike the other public hunts, the fees for winners are waived for both adults and youths. An adult supervisor, someone who is at least 18 years of age, is required to accompany youth hunters. Like the other deer hunts, these permits also allow the harvesting of unlimited feral hogs and coyotes, as well as a one-javelina limit of either sex.
James E. Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area
Daughtrey, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, also is among the jewels of the Texas WMA system. Composed of more than 5,000 acres of low-fence recreational area surrounding Choke Canyon Reservoir in Live Oak and McMullen counties, the WMA is near the town of Three Rivers, aptly named due to the proximity of the intersection of the Atascosa, Frio and Nueces rivers.
TPWD assumed responsibility of the property in 1981 for the care, operation, maintenance and replacement of the recreation, fish and wildlife, and open space resources of Choke Canyon. The WMA is named in memory of state game warden James E. Daughtrey, who was fatally injured in a vehicle accident while pursuing game law violators in McMullen County.
The WMA is home to an extraordinary array of wildlife and birds, ranging from deer, turkey, doves and quail to bobcats, coyotes, hogs, and yes, even alligators.
Lange, also area manager for Daughtrey, noted the differences between it and the Chap.
“Daughtrey has a much more diverse hunting program than the Chaparral because it does surround Choke Canyon Reservoir,” Lange said. “The entire surface area of Choke Canyon is the Daughtrey WMA. Not only that, we also run all the hunts on that state park area, so again we have all the suite of deer hunts, draw hunts for javelina and feral hog, spring turkey and alligator.”
Choke, which covers more than 25,000 acres when full, also is a heck of a bass and catfish lake, though in dry years low water levels limit access to prime honey holes and boat ramps. The reservoir also is a great spot for another host of hunting opportunities, Lange said.
“The one thing that was a sleeper about Daughtrey this year was duck hunting. Choke Canyon is still low – 20 feet low – but the year prior it was 30 feet low. So the lake came up 10 feet and when it came up, it flooded all that new vegetation around the shorelines and we had a very good duck hunting season,” Lange said. “Everybody thought ‘Well, the lake’s still really low’ and ‘Three of the five boat ramps are still closed so it won’t be very good hunting.’ In fact, it was the opposite. There were very few hunters and they were able to shoot quite a lot of birds.
“That’s the good thing about that walk-in permit, which allows you access to shoot all the waterfowl species and geese, as well as sandhill cranes. We’ve also got hunts for rabbits, quail and doves, both whitewing early season and general mourning dove. All of that, coupled with our drawn hunts, gives you pretty much every hunting opportunity there is in South Texas.”
Like the Chap, Daughtrey offers a number of good deer hunting options, including public draws for archery-only, either sex and management hunts. The WMA also offers youth-only hunts for buck, does and spikes, which are free, as is the framework at other pubic hunting locales.
There also are public hunts for feral hog and javelina as well as e-postcard ones for deer and hogs and predators. TPWD offers that while there are some box blinds on the WMA, hunters are encouraged to bring portable blinds.
Daughtrey also is among the few WMAs that offers spring turkey hunts to the public, with a one-gobbler bag limit. There were 12 permits last season for adult hunters and 12 for the youth-only framework. Those permits also allow a hunter to take unlimited feral hogs and predators, so if the turkeys don’t cooperate, other critters can still be had.
While Daughtrey is known for producing some excellent deer each year, its largest and most notable trophy was a reptile. Back in 2013, a high schooler from Fort Bend County and his father put in for alligator permits, not knowing how lucky they would be. Not only did they draw coveted tags to hunt Choke Canyon, they also found an 800-pound gator measuring more than 14 feet long. After catching the gator on a line, they dispatched it with a firearm, knowing it was huge.
“Because they had a certified length and a certified weight, that gator still stands as the Texas state record,” Lange noted. “The boy’s father also took a gator that taped out at about 11 feet.”
The WMA continues to offer public hunting permits for gators through the draw system, but the competition remains high. For example, last year’s September hunts featured five permits and more than 700 applicants. Because alligator hunting in Texas is conservatively managed, most hunters selected for these public hunts are first-timers and many have never seen an alligator in the wild. TPWD’s biologists go through an intensive orientation process and provide greater guidance than they would for more common hunts.
It also should be noted that TPWD recommends gator hunters bring boats and that shotguns be used to dispatch gators secured to a bait line. A .410 with light loads of No. 6 shot or slugs is adequate, according to the agency. Non-toxic shot is preferred on the WMA and rifles and handguns are prohibited as a means of killing gators on these hunts.
Lange noted that one aspect of deer hunting in Texas – baiting – has provided an interesting case study on these WMAs and data that supports it as a management tool.
“On both of these areas we have no introduced genetics and no food plots or protein feed. It’s just 100 percent free-range and the only baiting we allow is just during the hunts. That’s the only feed these deer ever see,” Lange said. “A lot of the hunters who shoot the biggest deer aren’t hunting over bait. These deer don’t see corn for nine of 10 months out of the year so half the time they throw out corn then the hunters complain ‘Well they’re just walking over the corn.’ They don’t know what corn is.
“One of our justifications for allowing baiting is that if it allows a deer to stop, it now gives that hunter time to observe the deer, count points and check spread and check age to make a better management decision. We actually have presented research about the five years of seasons prior to allowing baiting and then five years since we’ve allowed it, and we’ve actually jumped our average deer by a point and a half (B&C) and almost a full year in age class. That just shows that we actually have some statistical data backing up being selective and not shooting the first thing you see.”