Biologists, land managers and hunters knew the fall was going to feature a tough deer season on many levels in Texas. Severe drought dating back in recent years has sucked life out of the state’s resources during recent years, drying up water supplies and leaving choking dust in its wake.
Heading into the summer, most outlooks said hunting was going to be average. Heading into the fall, many of the same folks said it simply was going to be bad.
However, as we head toward a new season, the previous forecast that once looked bleak has turned out to have more bark than bite when it comes to the overall health of our deer herds. While last season may not have ended up being even average by some hunters’ standards, it certainly isn’t as grave as what had been predicted.
And you know what, Texas again produced some massive whitetail bucks.
Alan Cain, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department white-tailed deer program leader, said hunting frameworks last fall and winter were hit-or-miss propositions, depending on which portion of Texas hunters were lucky enough to find themselves – something that he again reiterated.
“We heard lots of hunters, especially in East Texas, complain that they didn’t see a lot of deer, but when you talk to them and also to our biologists out there in the field they say there was a record number of acorns on the range,” he said. “They were even seeing acorns into December and January on the ground that were still good across a lot of the Pineywoods. Obviously that’s going to have a huge impact on hunter success and harvest rates when there’s that much natural forage sources out there that keep deer away from feeders and food plots and other places like that.”
Cain previously has pointed to some hunting practices being the reason some hunters aren’t successful, simply the fact that hunters may get complacent in the way they approach the pursuit.
“We go sit in a box stand or we sit on our favorite tree or water hole and we don’t mix it up when conditions change,” he said. “Obviously that makes it hard for hunters to fill their tags if they don’t adapt and adjust. Each season the conditions change around the state.”
Looking at the different ecoregions, Cain noted that the results don’t lie: there again were plenty of big deer harvested in nearly every corner of Texas.
“I think the Hill Country had a decent harvest. I know early on acorns played a role and kept numbers down for hunters. However, that picked up like it usually does toward Thanksgiving and later into the season it again got pretty good. In the Panhandle hunters killed some good deer as they usually do. I know in the Oak Prairie, which is where the antler restrictions started, they saw a lot of deer. They didn’t kill a lot, but our staff did see some good ones that people brought in to check stations. In South Texas there wasn’t anything that kept deer from feeders in particular and you still saw a great number of big bucks in contests. The bottom line is there were big deer killed all over the state.”
Cain pointed to a pair of massive nontypical bucks taken in San Jacinto County (East Texas) and Grayson County (North Texas) that each green-scored more than 200 Pope & Young points as proof that even in what may be considered a down season, there still are huge deer running around. The Grayson buck was taken on a four-acre low-fence property, Cain said, while the hunter who arrowed the San Jacinto brute patterned the deer in advance of acorns hitting the ground, which could have made for tough hunting later in the season.
Cain said that the overall whitetail population figure has declined somewhat, but that’s no reason for any concern in the state with the country’s highest deer numbers.
“The (overall population) number didn’t look all that bad. In 2011 the state population was about 3.3 million whitetails and now it was about 3.1 million,” he said. “Keep in mind that going into fall 2011 there was bad drought and things didn’t do well. This year you would expect a little decline in the deer numbers. We wanted people to harvest more, which I think they did. And you probably had some local die-offs of adult deer, though not much. We did see low fawn crops which means you’re not going to see deer recruited as well and see some population decline, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing statewide.
“I expect people to rock along like normal (this fall). I think it’s been a decent spring and we hope we get a decent fawn crop this year – even 40 percent – which is average statewide. In 2012 a fair number of people had a decent fawn crop. In 2011 we didn’t and you should see a decrease in 2½-year-old deer. Still, a lot of those deer aren’t even 13 inches and eligible for harvest in those antler restriction counties, which is why the restrictions are in place and have worked for biological reasons. There will be a gap in the age classes across much of the state, but hopefully East Texas and some other notable places are buffered against that a bit.”
Gary Calkins, Pineywoods District Biologist for TPWD, said the region is primed to remain among the best places to hunt in the state, especially with such good forage, as Cain also noted.
“It made hunting extremely difficult because deer simply did not move,” Calkins said. “The flip side to that is the deer went into the winter in the best condition they probably have in many years.”
Calkins said there aren’t harvest objectives based on numbers that biologists stress hunters to harvest, but the main objective is focused on bigger bucks.
“We are trying to harvest enough antlerless deer to pull our sex ratios closer than they have historically been and harvest older age class bucks,” he said. “The harvest was slow across the Pineywoods this year so it does not appear (no solid numbers to back this statistically) that a huge number of deer were harvested. We did see a good number of antlerless deer at the processors where we work, so that was a plus. We also saw some older age class bucks, but not in the numbers we would like to see. It is impossible to say if this is because they just weren’t out there or if it was because the harvest was so slow.”
Calkins noted that fall seasons are shaping up to again be good, despite the efforts of hunters during the past season.
“With the decrease in harvest this year, it should be a good sign for next year as far as male age class carryover is concerned, but we will have to see what the density numbers look like this year with fawn recruitment to see what the carryover may do relative to overall numbers,” he said.
It may not have been a fall and winter for the record books overall last year, but in a state like Texas that isn’t all bad. Many hunters still tagged the best bucks they saw all season – including a couple of deer that potentially could eclipse a state record that is about as tough to top as any around. The foundation is set for a decent carryover, Cain said, and with even suitable range conditions, this could be a season that surpasses expectations.
All you have to do is simply look at the potential for big deer even in a down year and it will have you with a case of buck fever long before opening day.