The Texas Hill Country and South Texas are wild places, filled with critters of all shapes and sizes. And while white-tailed deer remain king among wild game during fall and winter, there are many other options for hunters now and throughout other seasons, setting the stage for inestimable opportunities no matter what portion of the state you’re hunting.
Exotics long have been hunted in Texas, being introduced in past generations at historic locales such as the King Ranch and Y.O. Ranch to add to the bevy of already viable species, typically with huge success. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department records show just how prolific exotics have become in recent decades, going from about a dozen documented species in the 1960s totaling roughly 10,000 animals to more than 90 species numbering in the hundreds of thousands in recent years. While most hunters are familiar with high-fence hunting operations that have become the norm across the area, there remain free-ranging exotics roaming around, which means that you could be much closer to another trophy animal that you may never knew was there.
The top things to know about exotics in Texas are that you simply need a hunting license and occasion to head afield – no matter the time of year – though fall, winter and spring offer the best opportunities for hunters already in pursuit of deer, turkeys and other game in season for a specific period of time. In addition to offering superb sources of protein, these animals also can offer challenging hunts, especially when their movements aren’t constricted by game fences.
Here’s a glimpse at five exotic species that have become common across much of Texas.
Aoudad: Also known as Barbary sheep, the expert climbers are more suited to the elevated terrain of West Texas, though they also are common inhabitants of the Hill Country. Aoudad are unique sheep that sport horns that spiral outward and then back inward, as well as growths of long hair on their chest, throat and front legs. Large males can exceed 300 pounds and rams and ewes can be found in small conclaves no matter where they call home.
The animals were introduced in the 1950s in the Panhandle and have increased their range. The animals found in the Edwards Plateau mostly were stocked on game ranches, but like other exotics they’ve found ways to get through or around fences and seek out new country. Longer shots are common in elevated terrain, but most aoudads taken in the Hill Country are harvested with common deer-rifle calibers including the .270 and .30-06.
Axis: This distinctive deer native to India is a staple of exotic game ranches – it’s the most common exotic in the state – and is known as much for its delicious meat as its spotted coat and large antlers. Axis have adapted well to the Hill Country and also have expanded their range to include roughly a quarter of the state. It’s not uncommon for hunters watching a feeder on a low-fence tract to spy these impressive deer as they have moved beyond fence borders for a variety of reasons.
Axis typically congregate in large groups and during the heat of the summer breeding activity is at its peak. During this period males will compete for receptive mates and offer dominant behavior that includes a distinctive bellow. Axis typically are more active during daylight, which differs from white-tailed deer, which can go nocturnal for long periods and decrease sightings by hunters. Trophy axis bucks sport impressive headgear, with three tines on each antler. Their brow tines are dwarfed only by their longer main tines that can curve upward 30 inches or more.
Blackbuck: This Indian antelope – among the smallest of Texas exotics – also is common on game ranches and like the axis sports unique characteristics. Dominant males will turn from a reddish brown to a dark black on their necks, backs and shoulders, and feature long corkscrew-shaped horns that can measure as much as 20 inches or more. Like other antelope species, the blackbuck prefers open plains-type areas, making it suited to a swath of territory where it can spy potential threats from long distances, making spot and stalk situations more difficult.
Blackbucks are susceptible to cold weather and large winter die-offs have been documented among animal populations better suited to temperate climates. However, they also can prove resilient and are able to cover great distances. Like axis, they have spread from stocked game ranches and have expanded their range across the Edwards Plateau.
Feral hogs: The old joke goes something like this: “If a feral hog sow produces a dozen piglets, 13 survive.” However, no one’s laughing, certainly not farmers and landowners whose crops and fields prime for rooting continually are devastated by a growing menace. A Texas A&M University report compiled by scientists and biologists found that if left unchecked, the state’s hog tally — which was averaged at roughly 2.6 million animals — will more than triple in five years.
The most glaring figure from the report is the reduction rate necessary to keep the population in check. Roughly 66 percent of the animals must be taken off the range annually to keep their ranks from growing — something that’s never going to happen by any means or methods. The analysis also showed that nearly 80 percent of Texas — approximately 134 million acres — is suitable feral hog habitat. If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good there’s a feral hog — or 10 — within a square mile.
Nilgai: The massive antelope with Asian origins and dubbed “blue bulls” for their distinctive coats were imported into the King Ranch in South Texas in the 1930s and have thrived on the plains of the brush country. The population has grown from 20 to 30 animals to upward of 60,000, according to TPWD records, and free-ranging animals can roam long distances in search of food sources.
Bulls don’t have large antlers – the biggest headgear will be less than a foot long curving off their heads – but the largest of these antelope can exceed 800 pounds, making higher-caliber rifles such as a .338 or .375 vital in bringing down the hefty quarry. Most successful hunts are done safari style and spot and stalk, though the animals provide a challenging hunt due in large part to good eyesight and hearing, and those that have been hunted quickly grow wary of encroachment.