Texas fall hunting forecast bright for doves, deer, ducks, quail

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Texas hunting seasons again are almost here, and with a little help from Mother Nature things are looking up for doves, deer, ducks and a host of other wildlife.

With that in mind, here is a preview for fall hunting seasons, including the best areas of the state for a variety of game.

White-Tailed Deer

We have the largest 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.

This year that outlook is even better.

Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, said this season should shape up to be exceptional, possibly one of the best on record.

“Habitat conditions have never looked better as a result of the ubiquitous spring precipitation that blanketed the state from the Red River to the Rio Grande,” Cain said. “A bird’s-eye view would likely reveal a verdant Texas landscape lush with a diverse buffet of deer foods where vegetation growth can be measured in feet rather than inches this year. Meeting nutritional demands of antler growth, rearing fawns and building up body reserves for the rigors of rut as well as the winter should be an easy venture for a deer this year.

Cain said spring rains and overall rainfall are critical when offering predictions for an upcoming season.

“When above-average winter and spring rains occur, hunters should expect a great hunting season, and 2015 fits the criteria,” he said. “For starters, the 2014 statewide deer population estimate was 3.95 million deer, the highest estimated population since 2005. Statewide population trends indicate a slow but steady growth in the deer population over the last 10 years. The population estimate of 3.95 million deer works out to about 40.51 deer per 1,000 acres. Although these numbers are from 2014, I would predict the deer population to be about the same if not break the 4 million deer mark for 2015, so hunters should experience a quarry rich hunting environment this year.

“A closer look into TPWD’s deer survey data reveals deer populations vary dramatically depending on the region of the state. The highest deer densities can be found in the Edwards Plateau ecoregion in the central portion of the state where 2014 survey results indicate a density of 116 deer per 1,000 acres or about 2.2 million deer in the ecoregion. Density and population estimates should be similar if not a little higher for 2015. The extensive flooding in the eastern portion of the Edwards Plateau may have caused some fawn mortality this spring but should be of minor significance in the overall production of the deer herd in the region. If your perception of a good deer hunt is seeing lots of deer then then consider looking for a hunting location in this area.

Cain said other regions will fare well, too.

“Moving north, we run into the Cross Timbers ecoregion that supports an estimated 603,000 deer or 50.49 deer per 1,000 acres,” he said. “Following statewide trends in buck age structure hunters should expect good numbers of bucks in the 2.5-, 3.5- and 5.5-year-old age classes relative to other age groups. However, the Cross Timbers has a track record of good fawn production over 50 percent for the last 10 years with the exception of 2011 when fawn production dropped to 41 percent. Hunters should expect a reasonable number of middle-aged and mature bucks this year in the Cross Timbers.

“Deer populations continue to thrive in the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion. Population estimates for 2014 were about 410,000 deer or a density of 33.36 deer per 1,000 acres, respectively. The Pineywoods continues to show a positive trend in deer population growth with an estimated 261,000 in 2014 or a density of about 19.73 deer per 1,000 acres. Deer numbers for 2015 are expected to be about the same or we may see a slight increase compared to last year. The antler restriction regulation continues to improve age structure of the buck population in these regions, and based on age and antler surveys, 55 percent of bucks harvested were 3.5 years or older in the Post Oak Savannah and 42 percent were 3.5 or older in the Pineywoods. South Texas and the western and eastern Rolling Plains have much lower deer densities with 2014 estimates of 18.37, 16.13 and 21.16 deer per 1,000 acres, respectively. Despite lower deer densities hunting is quite good and hunter densities are generally much lower because of large-acreage ranches or deer leases limiting hunter numbers to meet their deer management strategies.”

Cain noted that the age structure tends to be better balanced in South Texas and the Rolling Plains regions, with as much as half or more of overall buck harvest being deer that are at least 4 years or older. He also said that a couple of regions shouldn’t be forgotten for whitetails.

“Often overlooked, the Trans-Pecos supports a healthy white-tailed deer population in the eastern portion of the region, primarily in Pecos and Terrell counties,” he said. “The deer population estimate for 2014 was about 155,000 deer or a density of 42.29 deer per 1,000 acres. The southern High Plains region generally supports one of the lowest deer densities in the state, 7.05 deer per 1,000 acres. Although numbers are low, this is not unexpected as this region is typically where white-tailed and mule deer overlap with vegetation communities more conducive to mule deer. Despite low numbers, there are some great bucks harvested in this area.”

Overall, Cain said, it’s not beyond predicting a great hunting season for quantity and quality, and in some instances, both.

“I have no reservations suggesting antler quality will be above-average this year and with a good number of bucks in the 5.5-year-old age class … I expect a number of hunters to harvest some exceptional bucks this year,” he said. “The habitat conditions statewide are much better than we’ve seen in years and the abundance of native forage will help bucks maximize antler growth this year.”

Cain pointed to the best areas to bag a huge buck, with no surprise in which ones he picked.

“Those hunters looking for a buck with good quality antlers can expect the usual locations to produce such as South Texas where the average Boone & Crockett score of a 6.5-year-old buck is about 136 B&C,” he said. “The Rolling Plains is right up there with South Texas where the average score of a 6.5-year-old buck is about 133 B&C.

It should be noted, Cain said, that other areas still produce some top-quality headgear.

“Although South Texas and the Rolling Plains are destination locations for bucks with big antlers, hunters can still connect on great deer in any ecoregion. In fact, in 2014 a beautiful 197 5/8 B&C buck was bagged in Nacogdoches County in East Texas and multiple bucks scoring 160 B&C or better were taken in many of the antler restriction counties of the Cross Timbers, Post Oak Savannah and Pineywoods,” he said. “Although those type of deer are the exception to the norm, the average 6.5-year-old buck still sports quality antlers with the statewide average around 128 B&C. The majority of ecoregions produce bucks with that quality of antlers if the bucks are able to survive to those older age classes. Regardless of where you hunt in Texas, there’s always a good chance you’ll see a great quality buck each season. Enhancing habitat to make your hunting lease or ranch more attractive to deer is always helpful to entice that big buck to your deer blind and hopefully in your crosshairs.”

Mule Deer

Calvin Richardson, TPWD’s Rolling Plains and High Plains wildlife district leader, said the mule deer outlook in his region, which along with the Trans-Pecos annually harbors huge specimens, is outstanding due almost entirely to Mother Nature and vital moisture that hasn’t been seen in a few years.

“We got a little bit of rain late last year which set us up pretty good for this really, really good spring that we’ve had. It’s been a really different kind of year for us,” Richardson said. “The mule deer fawn crop last year was an amazing 60 percent … we had seen things around 20 percent back in the drought. This year we expect really good survival of adults and a really good fawn crop for white-tailed deer and mule deer.”

When discussing horns, he said that it’s ideal to get moisture at just the right time of year.

“As far as antler development … it’s real important for those deer to be in good shape about the time their antlers drop. Everybody forgets that we had a lot of snow this winter. That put a lot of moisture in the ground and we got a lot of green up early for our forbs and cool-season grasses, so I think those deer were in fine shape when they dropped their antlers,” Richardson said. “And as they started growing them we got a little bit of rain in the Rolling Plains, but we really started getting rain in in the High Plains in late April and early May.

“Antler bases should be very massive on mature deer and I don’t think anything is going to slow down on antler development.”

The overall forecast calls for mature bucks aplenty, though dry conditions had made it tough on deer previously, Richardson said.

“Because fawn crops were a little bit down in 2011, 2012 and maybe ’13, there might not be quite as many mature deer out there as what we might have had if we had average years instead of those drought years. The ones that are out there should be supporting some really good antlers for white-tailed and mule deer,” he said.

“I definitely think last year’s fawn crop plus the fawn crop we’re going to have this summer will more than replace losses that we had in 2011, ’12 and ’13, and so we’re going to definitely get back to where we were when we had that great rainfall year in 2010. I think mule deer numbers dipped a little bit during that three-year drought. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to guarantee that our numbers will increase, but as you know, things in Texas can just change 180 degrees in 10, 12 months.”

Only time will tell just how good this season shapes up, but Richardson is focusing on the positive after several below-average rainfall years.

“There should be some healthy deer … good body growth, good weight gains. And in my observations over 35 years is that whenever we get an extended drought, that very first year that it rains is when it (antler development) really maximizes itself. That’s what I’m looking forward to in our spotlight surveys and helicopter surveys, you know, what kind of deer this moisture will produce. I’m expecting good things,” he said.

Doves

Not only does Texas have the highest dove populations in the country, it also boasts the largest number of hunters, roughly a third of the nationwide tally of 1.1 million in a normal year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures. In an average season, roughly 250,000 people put time in the field hunting mourning doves, while 125,000 target whitewings. Those hunters typically harvest about 5 million mourning doves and a million whitewings, and pump a huge amount of revenue into the state economy — more than $300 million, according to recent state and federal surveys. Those surveys show that even in average seasons hunters in Texas spend more than $8 million alone on shot shells.

Texas dove hunters in recent seasons also received increased possession limits and expanded opportunities in some of the best habitat in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an expanded special whitewing area in South Texas from San Antonio to Corpus Christi, effectively doubling its size from previous dove frameworks. Under rules adopted by the Service, the possession limit for all migratory game birds is three times the daily bag, which allows hunters to take part in a full weekend hunt from Friday through Sunday and still return home legally with a full complement of limits from each day.

Shaun Oldenburger, TPWD’s dove program leader, said that moisture again will play a key role in how well dove hunts are, but one thing is certain, there is no shortage of opportunities in Texas.

“White-winged doves are continuing to expand and increase in abundance and the mourning dove population has been increasing now that the long drought has broken the last two years in many parts of Texas. So that said, I expect increased breeding population of mourning and white-winged doves in the state,” he said. “Storms throughout May, mostly caused by high wind, have caused major nest destruction of both white-winged and mourning doves in many areas. However, luckily, these storms occurred early enough in the season for much renesting to still occur in June and July for both species – although white-winged nesting effort will decline earlier than mourning dove nesting efforts. That said, hopefully, dove production will be similar or slightly decreased from 2014 in Texas.”

The overall forecast calls for plenty of vegetation to still be around heading into the fall, which may or may not impact your particular dove shoot, he said.

“The large amount of rain this spring will create lots of groceries (native sunflowers, planted, croton, ragweed, rye grass) on the landscape this summer which will undoubtedly decrease food plots’ attractiveness in some areas. It has also created lots of stock ponds and temporary ponds to be available to doves throughout Texas which will spread out doves – if the water retains,” Oldenburger said. “That all said, I expect that Texas hunters may need to do a little more scouting this year, but there will be ample opportunities in many places, per usual, to harvest good numbers of white-winged and mourning doves. It just might take a little bit more work to pattern them this year due to the possibility of lots of opportunities for seeds in September. However, with this carryover, I could see the second season being great in many areas since many mourning doves north of us may spend all winter in Texas due to possible food production.”

If you had to pick a select number of counties that consistently provide quality shoots, you’d have to look in Central Texas, the Rolling Plains and South Texas. The top counties in the north and central dove zones typically are Brown, Coleman, Comanche, Throckmorton, Haskell and Shackelford, while Karnes, Live Oak, Frio, Starr, Hidalgo and La Salle are among the best in the south zone.

Dove hunting also provides an entry into the sport of hunting because it is relatively economical and accessible. Through its Public Hunting Program, TPWD offers affordable access to quality hunting experiences with the purchase of a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit.

This year TPWD again will lease tens of thousands of acres of public dove hunting fields, many of which are located near major urban areas. The hunting units are distributed from South Texas to the Panhandle and from Beaumont to West Texas.

Texas Duck Hunting Forecast

Waterfowl

Dave Morrison, small game program leader for TPWD, said duck seasons again should be good in many locales and notable haunts.

“I do think that what we’re going to see is very likely conditions not as favorable, but I think we had enough ducks on the ground the last several years that I think that it shouldn’t be a problem. All this (late spring) rain is going to help us,” he said. “In some places it’s a drought-buster and that certainly is going to be a positive for what’s coming up this fall, and so when those birds get here from the north things should be positive because we should have good habitat and good conditions. The playas got a lot of rain. In East Texas a lot of those reservoirs are full and overflowing. If we get timely rains after the ducks move south we should be in a pretty good position.”

In regard to goose hunting, Morrison noted that conditions aren’t as good as they historically have been.

“The numbers of geese coming to Texas is down, there’s no question. White geese numbers have been on the decline for several years,” he said. “Part of that ties into the loss of a lot of our rice paddies because of the drought. The rains won’t help this year but it does put us in a position hopefully in years to come that that rice acreage may be put back on the landscape.”

Morrison said that the migration of geese, particularly more wary light geese, is changing.

“Those (light) geese are shifting. There’s more and more white geese going over toward Arkansas. Is that because of the loss of rice paddies? Is that because of other factors? Who knows what drives those birds? They go where they want to go,” he said.

Quail and Pheasant

Quail production is a positive note, Morrison said.

“We had a pretty good quail crop last year,” he said. “All these (spring) rains have certainly put a lot of habitat on the ground for those birds. These big flood events can have devastating effects in localized areas, but by and large, putting that rainfall on the ground, I’d take it any day of the week.

“Quail populations tend to go up as far as they fill up the space that they’re in and then they blossom outward. So those places that had good habitat last year they kind of got in good position and so now those numbers can start spreading across the landscape.”

Morrison said that conditions are set for an increase in ground-nesting birds across much of the state.

“For quail and pheasant, these rains have been a blessing, and I think we’ll see an uptick and quail and pheasant,” he said. “Now, from blues (quail), it’s a little trickier. They’ve been on a long-term decline. Yes, a lot of that desert country in far West Texas has seen some decent rains, but we’ll just have to see how the blues respond to it. I do know there were some places along the Texas-New Mexico line where the blues were just phenomenal.

“East of I-35 they’re in good position. West of I-35 there are still some lingering effects, but it definitely is a step in the right direction.”

Whitetail success

Ten-year average estimated gross Boone & Crockett scores by ecoregion based on TPWD age and antler survey data (2005-2014)

Ecological Region            2.5-3.5 Age Group           4.5-5.5 Age Group           6.5+ Age Group

Cross Timbers                   105 1/8                                 122 7/8                                127 7/8

Eastern Rolling Plains    107 5/8                                125 5/8                                 133 4/8

Edwards Plateau              93 2/8                                    113 4/8                                 119 5/8

Pineywoods                       104 6/8                                 124 4/8                                 123 2/8

Post Oak Savannah         105 0/8                                 122 0/8                                 123 2/8

South Texas Plains          104 4/8                                 129 1/8                                 136 3/8

Western Rolling Plains  106 2/8                                 125 3/8                                 133 5/8

Statewide                           102 7/8                                 121 4/8                                 127 7/8

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