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Texas' 2004 Deer Outlook
Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
Although bagging a deer in Texas has never been easier, some places in the state do stand out for their production of venison. Here’s a closeup on the areas offering you the best prospects for scoring this season.
By Lee Leschper
Oil up the rifle, get out the camo and sharpen the skinning knife. It's time to put modern life on hold and head for the deer woods!
The coming 2004 Texas white-tailed deer season could be the best most Lone Star hunters have ever seen. Tremendous range conditions, biological factors, new regulations and more opportunity are all combining to make 2004 a year for the books. And coming as it does on the heels of our superb season in 2003, this is all the more impressive.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has complete harvest data for last season. While the quality of bucks jumped dramatically, the total harvest remained incredibly similar to 2002. The TPWD doesn't count every deer killed, obviously, but does a representative survey and estimates total harvest based on hunter input.
The total whitetail harvest for 2003 was estimated at 436,942. That's a mere five whitetails less than the 436,947 estimated harvest for 2002. (Editor's Note: These are the TPWD's estimated figures; actual figures vary somewhat.) Interestingly, the number of Texas' deer hunters dropped a bit.
Most Texas deer hunters put in about 8 1/2 days each, identical to the long-term trend. Hunter success was pretty good as well - up slightly to 61.22 percent.
As this magazine goes to press, conditions are shaping up to be absolutely ideal. However, as fickle as Texas weather is, a change could wipe out some of this good news.
"It looks like we're set up for really another great year, for all species," said Clayton Wolf, director of TPWD's big-game program. "We've got good ground moisture and good fawning cover. That ground cover component should have a good positive impact on recruitment of young. All females are in pretty darn good condition, and weights should be high. It should be really good."
Mitch Lockwood took over this year as the state's whitetail deer program leader after working for years with Central Texas landowners as a technical guidance biologist. "The country's just in excellent shape," he said. "It's been the best spring in most of Texas in a long time. Some of the Hill Country landowners say it's the best in 20 years. Certainly it's the best since 1995.
"The last two summers we had some pretty good late-summer rains that helped the deer going into the rut, but for antler production and fawn production, those rains were too late. But they certainly helped going into the winter.
"But this year, we should have excellent habitat conditions from the standpoint of antler production and fawn production pretty well statewide. Some regions along the Pecos River" - which has been battling a brutal drought for almost a decade - "have received as much rain as we received in Kerrville."
"2003 was a great year for big animals," Wolf said, noting also that hunters anticipating a superb season in 2003 probably drove up license purchases.
"Hunters are also the ones that pay for conservation," Lockwood said. "A decline of hunter numbers does not paint a pretty picture for the future. Hunters and fishermen pay the bills."
Early hunting last season was tough, but improved later in the year. "Last year what we saw - especially in South Texas and the Hill Country - was that early in the fall we had fairly low harvest rates," Lockwood observed. "Because lots of people hunt over corn feeders, and because we had good rain and excellent acorn crops in lots of the state, deer did not have much need to go to corn feeders. So early on we saw pretty low hunter success. However, it picked up quite a bit later. The anecdotal data is that we had a pretty good harvest rate for the year."
Lockwood feels that 2004 should be a season to remember. "I anticipate a very good season," he said. "If range conditions continue as they are now, it might require hunters to get away from corn feeders, to get into brush and actually do some hunting. The chances of seeing deer at corn feeders will drop anytime we have good range conditions."
Here's a region-by-region look at where hunters are most likely to fill a tag, or a freezer, this fall.
"We thought last year was great; we were really fortunate. And we considered it another one of those good years, if you didn't call it a boom year. 2004 will compare to 1992, which was one of our wettest years on record.
"The deer also should have high fawn production, also because of the amount of cover, because the habitat and vegetation are in excellent shape. The deer should be rolling in fat.
"For South Texas, by June 15 the rain normally shuts off except for tropical storms. But the last two years we had really wet Julys. A wet summer - dry April and May and then wet summer - has our normal spring and summer reversed.
"We are just in excellent, excellent shape - range conditions, soil, vegetation, mast and fruit production - the whole nine yards is there."
"Last year's harvest dropped significantly, which we expected," Clayton Wolf said. "If the antler restrictions work, we'll expect (the harvest) to jump back up this following year. We already caught up (on buck harvest) after just one year's lag. We did not expect that."
According to Wolf, both biologists and landowners are already seeing positive effects from the antler regulations, which protect all but the oldest and youngest bucks, so it's likely those "experimental" regulations will become permanent.
"The trends we see so far, and if public opinion is comparable to that before we started the test" - when it was 70 percent in support - "we're likely to see a recommendation to make that regulation permanent," Lockwood said.
"From what we've seen so far, we are seeing a shift in the harvest distribution. We're getting more recruitment in older age-classes, which really is the goal."
Lockwood reports that, based on the preliminary success in these counties, interest in testing similar regulations has been expressed in other parts of the state. But biologists are waiting for final results before considering whether to expand the program.
"It's not something that we at the department are pushing in other areas of the state. If the public doesn't want it, there's not a biological reason to do so. There are two things we have to consider: the biological implications and public sentiment - not necessarily in that order."
"It just looks great right now," he offered. "We had exceptional rainfall this spring; everything is extremely lush. There are some spots that haven't been blessed as much as others, as always, but for the most part I don't think anybody is complaining."
There's not a bad place to deer-hunt in the Hill Country (except maybe downtown Austin), but three central counties historically lead the state harvest. "I think you'll find that those central mineral counties - Mason, Llano and Gillespie - will again be leading the state as far as harvest density, deer harvest per acre, or hunter success. We always average better than 1 deer per hunter."
But, he added, Hill Country landowners are now working toward quality as well as quantity. "We're seeing more and more quality management all the time. They are proving you can produce quality whitetails in the Hill Country with native stock, and that's what we've been advocating. But it's nice to see those people doing everything right, and seeing the results."
Part of that new focus on management is a more proactive approach to antlerless deer harvest, Traweek said. "We've seen a change in attitude for landowners. They are realizing that they can take a lot more female animals than they had in the past and still have plenty of deer available. And if they do everything else right, also see some improvement in quality of habitat.
"I think a good bit of it is more people accepted that antlerless harvest is an important part of any management program. Over the years I've been here, it has changed dramatically in terms of antlerless harvest. There are new resident landowners - turnover - plus a lot of older generation passed on or moved on, and you get some folks in there that are a little more open to management recommendations. And, hopefully, not as dependent on livestock. It's hard to make a living with livestock today, and they realize that wildlife is valuable. There are a lot of different factors, but there's no doubt that there's been a change in attitude."
In Traweek's view, 2004 should exceed last year's excellent season in the Hill Country. "I would expect, as far as antler quality, the bucks got an excellent start on antler development. In that regard, expect to see some improvement, and a little better antler quality."
"Last winter we had a pretty poor acorn crop," he explained, "and deer didn't have a lot of food going into the season, but we had a pretty light winter, with moderate temperatures and lot of winter wheat. So they still hit spring (2004) in moderate good shape."
"We didn't kill very many deer (in 2003), and the harvest on older deer went down, while the harvest on 1 1/2-year-old deer went up. They started going nocturnal last year. With no acorn crop, the deer should have been hitting the feeders, and they did - but it was all at night. We've got no clue whether it was hunting pressure or weather or what. It was one of those seasons where you almost hated to go hunting!
"The killing of 2 1/2-year-old deer was low," Calkins continued, "and we'll carry over a lot of those deer to this year. We will have opportunity for a good harvest. There will be a lot of old-age-class bucks there.
"Right now we are sitting in fantastic shape. Our browse is growing like crazy; we've had a lot of rain. We have high hunting pressure - that's one of the problems we run into with the harvest of 1 1/2-year-old deer. But we can sustain that pressure, because 95 percent of hunters don't have 1/10th of an acre of visibility, so it's easy for deer to move around and not be seen. We can carry numbers of hunters, so long as they use common sense with harvest."
This fall Pineywoods hunters in Cherokee, Houston, Gregg and Rusk counties and Post Oak deerslayers in Grimes, Madison, Brazos and Robertson counties will get more doe days on Thanksgiving weekend.
Historically, the East Texas counties with highest harvest rates are Angelina, Trinity, Tyler, Jasper and Polk. More liberal bag limits, with two bucks and two does, help make that possible.
The northeastern corner of the state also offers prime deer hunting country. "Marion, Harrison, Panola and Cass counties are covered up with deer, but have less doe harvest opportunity, which affects their total harvest," Calkins said. "Our public land is primarily in the southern part of the Pineywoods. The big national forests provide the majority of our public hunting lands."
Some of these areas include the chance to harvest whopper deer, he said. Alazan Bayou WMA, between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, is an archery-only hunting area that provides a chance at some big bucks.
"Actually between the public hunting lands, and some of the public lands that are archery-only, there are some fantastic deer. You've got a good shot at a nice deer on public land. There is also some open national forest, where you can take some fantastic deer.
"We do have the chance for a good season, if the deer don't do whatever it was they did last year, we have the makings here for a really bang-up hunting season. With the age carryover and good spring conditions, the makings are there."
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