Texas fall, winter hunting outlook

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Most – if not all – hunting accidents can be avoided by erring on the side of caution and trusting your common sense
Dogs can be easily injured by shotgun blasts if waterfowl hunters aren't cautious.

It has been at least nine months since most hunters could head out to their favorite spot, but now that Texas hunting seasons again have commenced, it’s time to look at what to expect when it comes to doves, deer, ducks and geese.

Here’s a hunting season preview, focusing on current and upcoming opportunities for those species.

Doves

OUTLOOK: Some hunters have found birds while others have had to work for them in the early season. The ongoing drought that has affected most of the state hasn’t been as bad in East Texas and North Texas, but it still has put a premium on moisture sources for migrating birds. Hunters looking to fill their 15-dove daily limit should concentrate on even the smallest amount of steady water, be it a fresh playa or dependable stock tank.

Despite extended drought conditions that continue to linger across much of Texas, wildlife biologists are predicting a good dove hunting season, which this year offers increased opportunities for white-winged doves in South Texas. Texas boasts fall dove populations in excess of 40 million birds and its roughly 300,000 dove hunters harvest about 6 million birds annually (5 million mourning doves and a million whitewings) or more than a quarter of all doves taken in the United States. Dove hunting also contributes more than $300 million to our state economy.

Dove hunting 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 has leased tens of thousands of acres of public dove hunting fields, many of which are located near urban areas. The hunting units are distributed from South Texas to the Panhandle and from Beaumont to West Texas.

Deer

OUTLOOK: 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, the odds of seeing your best buck ever are as high as they’ve ever been.

However, ongoing drought has gripped the entire state 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 more 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.

Ducks

OUTLOOK: Texas will continue to see liberal hunting season dates and even more liberal bag limits under waterfowl frameworks issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The duck count remained well above the overall long-term average coming in at 49.2 million birds during this year’s summer report. That number is 43 percent above the long-term average, and is 8 percent higher than last year’s 45.6 million estimate.

Estimated mallard abundance was 10.9 million birds, similar to the 2013 estimate of 10.4 million birds and 42 percent above the long-term average. Greenheads always are a welcome sight in the late season and there should be plenty across the Rolling Plains, North Texas and East Texas this winter.

Blue-winged teal estimated abundance was 8.5 million, 10 percent above the 2013 estimate of 7.7 million, and 75 percent above the long-term average. Similarly, the green-winged teal estimate of 3.4 million is above last year’s count of 3.1 million and 69 percent above the long-term average. Hunters again will be able to bag six teal during the early September season in Texas based on the overall abundance of the fluttering fliers.

The pintail estimate of 3.2 million was similar to the 2013 estimate of 3.3 million and was 20 percent below the long-term average. These birds love the coast and areas such as Rockport, Port O’Connor and Baffin Bay will have rafts of them later in the season, which makes a combo saltwater fishing trip just another reason to head south, in addition to milder weather.

The estimated abundance of American wigeon was 3.1 million, 18 percent above the 2013 estimate, and 20 percent higher than the long-term average. These birds also like coastal climates, but typically can also be found in good numbers in the Cross Timbers area, enjoying the solitude of stock tanks and farm ponds that represent constant water sources.

Geese

Recent seasons have brought a decline in bird and hunter numbers, something that has biologists and wildlife officials seeking answers, especially in what traditionally had been great hunting areas including the Rolling Plains and coastal prairies.

Typically, the conditions that bode well for duck production also aid goose production, especially in years when the northern United States receive adequate to above average moisture. However, geese simply continue to move out of areas they previously frequented, especially in some of what used to be the best hunting areas in the country.

Mid-winter surveys have shown significant declines in recent years related to loss of rice acres and drought, which have decreased habitat and reasons for many geese to stick around. Light geese also continue to shift their flight paths across Texas.

While some locales in North Texas and the eastern Rolling Plains historically have had solid numbers of birds, the goose hunting in some locales has seen better times. However, there always will be the potential for good hunts around steady water and food sources, and even though the migrations may not be as great as they once were, there still will be birds passing through that need to make a pit stop. Winter wheat and other crops are among the best draws, and you should look up local guides now to see if they plan to hunt this fall and have access to areas near those attractions.

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