Texas’ big buck forecast isn’t going to be great this season, but in a state long considered among the top whitetail destinations in the country, that type of prediction isn’t bad.
Even in down or average seasons, we’ve still got it good when it comes to deer quality.
We have the largest white-tailed deer population in the country, and coupled with an increase in habitat management statewide, it means that regardless of whether you’re sitting in a Pineywoods thicket, a South Texas sendero or a Panhandle shelter belt, the odds of seeing your best buck ever are as high as they’ve ever been on any given fall afternoon.
However, ongoing drought has gripped the entire state since last year and has been detrimental to growth and overall production for all wildlife. Deer in particular have been hit hard in some areas. Without adequate moisture, forbs and other forage sources drastically have been thinned out, and in many locales does and their offspring also have greatly been affected. One thing that may help some bucks make it through this fall are the antler restrictions in place in more than 100 counties in East Texas, the oak and coastal prairie regions and the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau. Those frameworks also have aided the overall age structure in those parts of the state, which has done big things as more deer that may have been harvested in the past get more time to walk.
While the overall big buck outlook is not as bright as it has been in previous years when we received plenty of moisture and there was loads of high-protein natural forage during the spring and summer, there still are going to be plenty of deer out there with impressive headgear.
Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, is tasked with overseeing the crown jewel of state hunting, an industry that has become a year-round process. He said that based on projections and surveys, hunters will have plenty to look forward to this season.
“Each year from late July through September Texas Parks & Wildlife biologists conduct deer surveys to help estimate deer populations across the state,” he said. “It’s no secret Texas is home to the largest white-tailed deer population in the United States. Obviously, the deer population fluctuates from year to year with an eight-year average of 3.46 million deer. In 2012, the population was estimated at 3.69 million deer, about a 6.5 percent increase above the average, and a 2.8 percent increase from the 2011 population estimate during the extreme drought.”
The big buck forecast typically rests on quality, but many areas are seeing an increase in quantity, which could lay the foundation for big things in coming seasons.
“Deer population trends over the last eight years indicate an increasing deer population in the Pineywoods, Cross Timbers, Post Oak Savannah and the Rolling Plains,” Cain said. “Populations continue to remain stable in South Texas and Edwards Plateau. Statewide population trends also remain stable and hunters should expect good numbers of deer year in and year out. I would predict the statewide deer population to be close to or slightly above the long-term average and hover around that 3.6 million deer mark for 2013.”
Cain noted that good carryover will mean plenty of opportunity to see bucks this fall, likely to the same extent that hunters have become accustomed to, regardless of where they’re hunting.
“Texas has a fairly well balanced deer herd with long-term average sex ratios estimated at 3.08 does per 1 buck,” he said. “The 2012 estimated ratio was 3.09 does per buck. The sex ratio also shows a stable trend with not too much variation from year to year.”
Cain pointed out that fawn crops play a vital role in the age structure of deer herds, something that can be seen especially in down years when production is low.
“Fawn crops have lots to do with future buck numbers, so if you’re wondering why there appears to be a gap in older age class buck go back and look at previous years fawn crops for you area and see if that helps sheds some light on the subject,” he said. “For starters, hunters can expect to see a good number of 1½-year-old bucks as a result of above-average fawn crops in 2012. In addition, I expect to see a good number of 3½-, 6½- and 8½-year-old bucks compared with other age classes as a result of good fawn production in 2005, 2007, and 2010. Regardless, of specific age class there should be plenty of bucks available for harvest with a hefty statewide deer population at 3.6 million.”
The overall antler outlook is likely going to be average, Cain said, though that isn’t anything to write off, especially if you’re managing a lease or family tract at all.
Cain noted that harvest figures in a number of areas were affected by what ended up being an average or even good year for range conditions, including the Pineywoods. Lots of acorns and a surplus of good forage vegetation meant that many hunters likely didn’t see some deer, including larger bucks, since feeders didn’t have as much of an impact, Cain said.
“As far as antler quality goes, rainfall plays a key role by influencing the native habitat and forage, ultimately affecting the quality of nutrition a buck receives in order to grow antlers,” he said. “In dry years we typically see a decline in overall antler quality and increases in wet years much related to nutrition. Some managers provide supplemental feed to buffer against nutritional impact resulting from drought. However, research in South Texas has shown that native habitat is crucial to deer nutrition even when supplemental feed is provided. So maintaining quality native habitat on your property is important. With that said I’m expecting antler quality to be about average in 2013, we’ve had some rains across the state this spring, but many areas are still dry.”
Cain said the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the big buck forecast in Texas, especially when looking at historical averages that only are going to continue.
“The good news is that drought or no drought, Texas still produces some whopper bucks each year,” he said. “According to an article published by Boone & Crockett several years back, Texas ranks fifth all-time for entries into B & C record books. Based on 40+ years of age and antler data collected by TPWD biologists each season, the average B&C score for a 5½-year-old buck is 124, with 9.1 points, and a 15.8-inch inside spread. Even the younger bucks at 3½ years of age average a 13.5-inch inside spread and eight points.”
Cain pointed to a pair of freakish, massive non-typical bucks taken by archers last season as cause for celebration, even in what may be a down season.
“While areas like South Texas are known for producing exceptional bucks, most anywhere in the state is capable of producing good bucks every year,” he said. “In fact in 2012, two archery hunters were lucky enough to connect on a couple of large non-typical bucks scoring about 250 Boone & Crockett. Both bucks were free-ranging deer taken on low-fenced properties, one in North Texas and the other in Southeast Texas. Hopefully, that trend will continue in 2013.
“Another positive trend we are starting to see in the last 10 years or so is that the proportion of young bucks in the harvest is declining across the state while bucks 3½ years old or older is increasing. In 2012, 3½-year-old deer and older comprised 65 percent of deer checks during TPWD age and antler surveys which are a reflection of the deer harvested each season. I expect the trend to continue in 2013.”
Cain said that no matter what part of Texas you call home, the effectiveness of whitetail management is clearly evident. He noted that TPWD personnel work with thousands of landowners and land managers on a yearly basis on more than 20 million acres to keep the state’s deer herd at the top of the heap. He said that hunters not only are becoming more educated on how they hunt but also are learning more and more about practical management strategies, which can be implemented not only on high-fence tracts but also family deer leases.
Part of that increased focus on quality has seen a rise in the number of folks taking part in the Managed Lands Deer Permit program, which utilizes permits instead of tags, and allows state biologists to help in forming an overall management plan for single ranches and parcels of land. It also means whitetails harvested under the program do not count against a hunter’s annual bag limit, providing the opportunity to aggressively bring down a buck-to-doe ratio, which will be key this fall to help set the stage for future success. One of the main attractions to the upper-tier MLDP season that began the first week in October and ran through February this past fall and winter is that hunters and landowners who have the ability to take part get first dibs on big bucks before they break off tines or damage their racks as rutting activity and fighting picks up later in the season – something that especially is prevalent in South Texas and also in the Rolling Plains and Panhandle.
Big bucks and the rut
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.
Last season’s entries were highlighted by the two massive bucks arrowed on low-fence ranches. A.J. Downs shot his buck in San Jacinto County, with the whitetail grossing 268 5/8 B & C points and netting 256 4/8. Robert Taylor arrowed his buck in Grayson County, with it grossing 260 4/8 and netting 254 4/8. The scores put the bucks at third and fourth on the all-time TBGA non-typical whitetail list, though all of the deer ahead of them were killed on high-fence ranches.
South Texas again proved to be the best bet for killing a big whitetail, which again should come as no surprise. The brush country produced five of the 10 largest non-typical bucks harvested in the state, while the region produced six of the 10 largest typical whitetails. The region also produced a half-dozen non-typical bucks killed on high-fence properties that grossed more than 200 B & C points, while it also produced multiple typical bucks that grossed in the 170s and 180s.
While many hunters won’t have the opportunity to stack the deck in their favor by enjoying hunting time in South Texas, one thing is a great equalizer when it comes to any hunting area: the rut.
The whitetail breeding season in our state falls anywhere from early September to as late as February depending on where you’re at, and hunters looking to get a shot at the largest bucks they’ll find all year should target days when bucks are chasing does and are more susceptible to being seen. Any veteran hunter will tell you that big deer can be like ghosts. You simply won’t see them until the rut comes along, which is why you can stack the deck in your favor by examining trends and timing your hunt to coincide with peak breeding activity.
A three-year statewide study conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists and technicians shows some interesting data regarding the peak of the whitetail breeding season. In the Rolling Plains, most does were bred from Oct. 8 to Dec. 30, and study areas showed a peak date of Dec. 3 in northern stretches of the region and a peak of Nov. 20 in the south. This region also had the highest incidence of pregnancy at 97 percent with an average of 1.7 fawns for each doe examined.
By comparison, the big buck landscape of South Texas had the latest rut with breeding dates ranging from Nov. 9 to Feb. 1, and the peak dates for the eastern and western portions of the region both were well past the middle of December.
The Edwards Plateau, the area of the state with the highest whitetail and hunter densities showed conception dates ranging from as early as Oct. 9 to as late as Jan. 30. The peak dates show just how geography affects breeding cycles with the eastern portion of the region seeing a peak of Nov. 7, the central portion a peak of Nov. 24 and the western portion a peak of Dec. 5.
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This year has all the markings of another great fall and winter for deer hunters. As last season shows, even in what could be considered a down year, there still is no shortage of big bucks across the state. The list of the biggest whitetail bucks again featured deer from across the state, including the Edwards Plateau, the Rolling Plains and East and North Texas, and this year should again feature the same type of results.
No matter where you are, the buck of a lifetime isn’t far away.
Texas’ Largest Whitetail Bucks, 2012-13
Hunter County Gross Net
A.J. Downs San Jacinto 268 5/8 256 4/8
Robert Taylor Grayson 260 4/8 254 4/8
Jed Brown Webb 219 2/8 215 1/8
David Robertson Palo Pinto 227 6/8 209 5/8
Michael Ward Jack 210 6/8 204 7/8
Colby Shaw Rusk 216 2/8 202 7/8
Matthew Allen Dimmit 212 1/8 202 1/8
Robert Buker Kleberg 219 2/8 201 4/8
John Williams Val Verde 200 1/8 197
Robert Kleimann Maverick 206 4/8 196 1/8
Hunter County Gross Net
Alberto Bailleres Zavala 184 178 6/8
Mark Jackson Hunt 190 2/8 177 4/8
W. Frank McCreight Live Oak 184 5/8 176 2/8
Jimmy Bayer Maverick 183 4/8 175
Will Blake King 181 4/8 171 1/8
David Zapalac Maverick 175 5/8 170 3/8
Wes Taylor Guadalupe 175 165 5/8
Pedro Villa Rains 173 7/8 164 7/8
Michael Bonsignore Kenedy 165 3/8 164 2/8
Gene Latham Collingsworth 168 2/8 164 2/8
Source: Texas Big Game Awards; low-fence properties only