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A Banner Year for Deer
With big bucks reported from all corners of the Lone Star State, that's a pretty good description of our last deer season.
By Lee Leschper
It was a year that began dry, ushering out a mediocre deer season from 2001. By most standards, deer hunting in 2002 should not have been much better.
But sometimes Mother Nature snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, with timely rain and a state full of older bucks.
Clayton Wolf, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's deer program leader, says 2002 surpassed earlier predictions and made a lot of hunters happy. "Data is still coming off our annual survey, but it seems like in general we had a pretty good season. I'd say fair to good.
"The one comment that I've heard from several regions - from down south to out in the Trans-Pecos - is that, although rains came late in the summer (of 2002), apparently the deer did a heck of a job of catching up. The rain was so late that we anticipated it wouldn't help, but guys were seeing some pretty decent deer."
Weather, as always, played a big part in hunter success.
"It seems like in much of the eastern half of the state, the season started off rather slow. They had some pretty foul weather on opening weekend. But folks seemed to do a decent job of catching up after the weather improved."
Much of the harvest in East Texas comes in the first days of the season. Get blown out early and by Thanksgiving you'll wonder if every deer has evaporated.
"The harvest was down (in 2001)," said Wolf, "but not because animals were not out there. The critters were there; we've found no significant decrease in population, it was just a bad season for hunting conditions and hunter success.
"For many years we've predicted, that when we see an increase in antler size, what we've actually seen is an increase in age-class. These are deer that got a reprieve during last year's season. The later the rainfall comes after a dry spring or summer, the less impact it will have on antler development.
"They will take on nutrients and add body weight, but it won't do much for antlers. Rain in July could have some impact on antler growth. Really for most of the state, for the ideal situation for antler growth, you need those springtime rains, that soil moisture. But you've still got to get the age on them also.
"As far as next year goes, it's still hard to say," Wolf said. "We have some adequate moisture statewide. But you really can't tell what will happen this summer. The winter forbs over-wintered in pretty good shape.
"If we can hold soil moisture up through the formative months, that has a big impact. Obviously if you just have a good early season in conjunction with the latter part of antler-growing season, that's where you can capitalize."
Those good winter conditions should have brought does into the spring fawning season in good shape, also meaning lots of recruitment - or birth of new fawns. The buck fawns born in a good spring are the Muy Grandes six years from now. That's why the best bucks of 2002 were probably fawned in the superb wet spring and summer of 1997.
David Brimager, director of the Texas Big Game Awards program, said there were fewer entries to the program in 2002, despite some whopper bucks from around the state.
Entries typically average about 1,700 a season. But this year with a week to go until deadline, TBGA was sitting at close to 1,500.
"The overall quality of the deer was above-average statewide," Brimager said. "More and more people are understanding what management is about. They're getting the point. They're letting the younger deer walk, allowing for bigger deer to be taken.
"But there are a couple of other interesting things from this season," Brimager added. "Around San Angelo, several of the counties like Tom Green and Sterling produced some really big deer. I kept asking 'What's going on there?' but finally decided that the hunters have just not been harvesting their deer and this year those bucks hit 6 1/2 and were real trophies.
"We saw the same thing west of Fort Worth. There were some huge deer from Parker County, and a 180-class buck from Eastland County. And I've talked to a Stephenville hunter who took a 200-gross buck on his dairy farm in Erath County."
The lesson is that there are now big bucks, and some huge bucks, in every corner of the Lone Star State.
"They could come from anywhere," Brimager said. "For example, one of the top deer from Region 3 came from Hill County; it's a 200-class buck killed by Brittany Wilson, a young lady hunting with her dad."
"There were a couple of 190s from Hamilton County. Phillip Ambrose from Garland shot one of these, a 193 non-typical from a low-fence ranch."
Joe Wimpee shot another massive Hamilton County 10-pointer that grossed 170 4/8 B&C.;
This past season, entries seemed to be down. "Of course, they had a green year there last year, and the deer were not moving much of the season," Brimager observed. "And we had all kinds of weird ruts. It was only in the last three weeks of the season that deer finally got moving quite a bit."
Less deer movement means less visibility and usually less deer harvested anywhere, but especially in the mesquite and cactus jungle of South Texas.
"A lot of people from South Texas have said it was not a normal year. There was an awkward rut, a sporadic rut throughout the year. A lot of deer were staying hidden and not hitting the feed."
But two giant bucks did step out of the brush for the last time. Allyn Archer was hunting the King Ranch in Kleberg County when he shot a huge non-typical buck that grossed 203 5/8. Frio County produced the region's biggest buck for Jerry Wascom. Jerry's buck, with two drop tines and multiple forked tines, grossed 214 B&C.; Watch for a full story on that buck in the August issue of Texas Sportsman.
Childress and Cottle counties, near the Red River, produced a number of good bucks topped by Kurt Stalnaker's 169 2/8 B&C; 10-point from Childress County. Gerald Sitton of Sportsman's Taxidermy in Amarillo says it was a superb season in the Panhandle. The eastern Panhandle, in particular, has produced book whitetails and mule deer consistently for the past decade.
"We were up at least 20 percent. It was a really good year for horns. But, you know, we never see the biggest bucks in a good year.
"There are not many hunters who will pass up a 140-class buck. So in a good year, when there are a lot of nice medium-sized bucks out there, they'll shoot the first one. And the biggest bucks never get killed.
"It's in the poor years, when they're not seeing anything and they keep hunting, that they're out there when that big old buck finally gets stupid and gets dead! That's why we always see the Boone and Crockett bucks in the poor years."
The county also provided a 179 5/8 non-typical for Dale Moses, a 171 3/8 12-pointer for Mark Svane and a 169 2/8 11-pointer for Ray Petree. However, it's a limited percentage region with low deer numbers and limited hunting access.
"The harvest in the six-county antler restriction regulation area was down considerably as by design. We did not have a really good acorn crop. However, because of the abundance of forbs caused by the fall rains, the deer body condition was good. If the rainfall continues thru the spring, we should have good fawn survival and antler development on the bucks."
But not all big ones got away.
High school student Sam Kirkendall was hunting family land in Wilson County when he crossed paths with a massive non-typical. The multi-pointed buck with two long drop tines grossed 200 B&C;!
The first year of revolutionary new deer regulations in six southeast Texas counties, west of Houston, gives a glimpse of new hope for even heavily-hunted areas.
"What's interesting in these six counties is what people observed in just the first year of the program," Wolf said. "People reported observing more bucks - and more bucks at the end of the season - than they've ever seen. That's in part because of the regulations and also because of a pretty decent fawn crop last year. We ought to be able to track this cohort (age-class) of bucks through time in this area.
"They're going to see some pretty good deer. In the first year, as part of the age composition, I think we surpassed expectations.
"We actually had more deer taken in the 3-year-old age-class than we expected - we think because people had to hunt longer to find a legal buck. They had to stay in the woods.
"I think when we get the harvest survey completed, it will also show more hunter days in the woods this season."
The challenge of hunting harder didn't discourage hunters, he added.
"Some folks speculated that we'd kill hunting because people would not want to have to subject themselves to that process (of hunting harder). But these guys are saying they're excited about next year, because they've never seen this many bucks before.
"I think next year they will be surprised at what they will see."
"Harvest surveys indicated only 3.8 per cent of the mule deer buck population in the TP was harvested during the 2001-02 deer season. This is the lowest mule deer harvest since census and harvest surveys were standardized in 1978. Fewer hunters decided to hunt in West Texas during 2001-02 because of the particularly dry year, poor recruitment, and the conservative nature of the landowners in the TP to harvest only mature deer."
Hobson said new vegetation that sprouted after the summer rains made hunting tougher. "Deer did not have to travel far to get a belly full of food. Lack of movement by deer resulted in hunters having to actually hunt versus shoot deer.
"Rut activity in the TP seemed to occur earlier this season, resulting in the harvest of mature, trophy-class mule deer and WTD. Most of the hunters described this season as excellent.
"During the hunting season, the vast majority of both mule and white-tailed deer were mud-fat. Body condition was excellent. Numerous mule deer bucks field-dressed over 200 pounds. The increased body weights of field-dressed deer were a direct result of improved forage conditions because of the summer rainfall."
Hobson is cautiously optimistic that 2003 might offer more of the same. "Because of the timely rainfall in the summer/early fall and the mild winter, the 2003-2004 deer hunting season in the Trans-Pecos should be better than average."
Rainfall hurt the early season.
"Extremely heavy rains on the opening weekend had an impact on the hunting success in the district," Calkins said. "Hunters may have failed to bag a deer opening weekend, then did not return to the woods, thus decreasing hunting pressure and the number of deer harvested. There was also a good mast crop this year, making deer avoid food plots and feeders until late in the season.
"The rut in the district appeared to be somewhat later than typical, but not to the point it should have been detrimental to the hunters. Deer taken this year were in good-to-excellent body condition throughout the district."
The region still produced plenty of trophy animals. Probably the most impressive of these is a unique and massive 11-pointer with matching forked G-2s shot by Marjorie Seaman in Angelina County. Marjorie's buck scored 169 4/8 B&C.;
"Deer populations are still high from the low harvest during the 2001-02 season and there seems to be a good carryover of older age-class animals."
That bodes well for 2003. "Good weather conditions through the summer and fall will be the primary keys to the hunting season next year," Calkins said. "With high deer densities, if habitat conditions stay good through the summer, hunting season next year should be good."
One of those bucks big enough to make the TBGA program was killed by the editor of Texas Sportsman. Nick Gilmore shot a 137 6/8-gross 10-pointer on the Gene Perry Ranch in Crockett County on Jan. 3.
"The overall harvest was up from past years," Suarez noted, "but due to the very high fawn production and increased survival rates due to favorable range condition, most areas still fell short of the total number of deer they needed to harvest. The past several years we experienced low harvest rates around feeders due to the abundance of native foods. This allowed for more young bucks to go into the next age group. This happened two years in a row and it allowed for a larger number of mature bucks to harvest than we normally see.
"The doe population also exploded. If does were not harvested in adequate numbers, the doe-to-buck ratio surely changed to favor the does."
Suarez also credits Mother Nature with throwing hunters some curves. "The weather tried to play a big role in the hunting season. It started out wet, but ended up dry. Early wet weather allowed for fairly good growth of winter weeds. Some hunters claimed deer would sometimes go past the corn feeders without taking any corn. Harvest was down early in the season, but as the weather turned dry, deer were more regular at feeders, which allowed hunters the opportunity to harvest animals.
"The rut was very early in our area. Deer were in good shape and range conditions were favorable, this normally means an early rut. We saw deer breeding in mid-October in some areas, but the first big group of does cycled in late October and early November.
"Deer harvested were in very good body condition early in the season. Body condition fell as the weather turned dry. Based on what I saw, we can expect a large number of fawns born.
"Three years of good growing conditions have allowed young buck deer to grow properly, and if hunters were careful to harvest the more mature deer on their ranches, these bucks should step up into the mature age groups and should allow for some very good hunting again."
For more information on deer harvested by region, see the Texas Big Game Awards Web site at www.texasbiggameawards.com. The site includes photos of several hundred of the best deer entered in the program this year.
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