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   February 13, 2005
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Texas Sportsman Magazine
Texas' 2003 Deer Outlook
Part 1: Our Top Deer Areas
Where are the best places in our state for you to fill those deer tags this season? Here, Texas Sportsman offers some answers to that very question.

By Lee Leschper

To know where you're going, it's good to know where you've been.

And that applies as much to deer hunting in Texas as it does to anything else. So in looking at what to expect in the coming weeks and months of this deer season, it pays to start with the 2002 hunts.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department whitetail program leader Clayton Wolf said 2002 was a surprisingly good season statewide. "In most places people said deer looked good, that they were in surprisingly good-quality condition, considering that in early summer the range wasn't doing too good. Then in mid-July we started getting rains that eventually allowed the deer to catch up."

That was reflected in a huge increase in the number of deer harvested last season. Texans harvested an estimated 433,415 whitetails. That's up dramatically from the 395,160 deer hunters collected during 2001.

The number of deer hunters also increased in 2002, up to an estimated 540,586.

Texas deer hunter numbers haven't exceeded 600,000 since 1992, and have never really recovered entirely from the brutal 1996 drought and dramatically lower total harvests in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Photo by Bill Lea

But it's important to remember that regulations contributed to huge harvests in the 1980s.

For 2003, Wolf is predicting a good season, if Mother Nature cooperates.

"The observations right now look good," Wolf said earlier this summer. In early summer, South Texas soil moisture was above normal. Right now South Texas is looking better than any other region statewide.

"During the spring there were lots of forbs and good fawning cover, a lot of vegetation remaining from last fall," Wolf said. "As far as early-season parameters, we were doing good."

Another important factor in season quality is the fact that there are some old bucks out there that are reaching their prime this season.

"Statewide we had a big fawn crop in '97," Wolf said. That year abundant moisture broke the '96 drought and throughout the year provided lush vegetation that helped does have more and bigger fawns that got off to a great start.

"That cohort of big, healthy fawns, if not killed yet, has grown up with the perfect combination of conditions. Those animals that get a good start tend to blossom better. We are also looking at another good fawn crop in 2003, which will pump a bunch of animals into the system."

Here's a region-by-region look at what Texas deer hunters can expect this fall.

Not since the glorious 1997 season that produced at least 20 Boone and Crockett bucks from South Texas has the Brush Country been poised for such a season.

The stage for a great 2003-2004 whitetail season in South Texas was set beginning in late June 2002, when heavy rains drenched the Brush Country. That precipitation continued periodically until March 2003. With mild winter temperatures, that life-giving moisture produced a flush of vegetation that both fostered adult whitetails and provided ideal conditions for new fawns born in 2003.

"That basically set us up for a great season." said Joe Herrera, TPWD regional biologist for South Texas. "The 2003-2004 hunting season promises to possibly be one of the best on record. Hunters can expect above-average numbers of mature deer. There was a good carryover of deer from the 2002 season due to muddy and wet conditions, dispersal of deer due to abundant water and forage, and low visibility because of lush vegetation.

"There will be more 4 1/2- and 6 1/2-year-old bucks available for harvest due to the high fawn crops of 1997 and 1999.

"Excellent rainfall starting from midsummer 2002 through early spring 2003 produced lush vegetation with new browse growth and a flush of forbs not always available in drought-prevalent South Texas.

"These same excellent body and range conditions allowed buck deer to recuperate quickly from rutting activity with minimal losses due to stress and predation. This same high nutritional plane continued into the first half of the antler-growing period. Hunters can expect good to excellent antler development."

Counties with the highest deer number and most opportunity for hunters interested in harvesting venison instead of antlers include Uvalde and Medina. Although access is more limited, Webb, LaSalle, Live Oak and McMullen counties also produce at least 4,000 whitetails each season.

In the heart of the Hill Country, Gillespie, Llano and Mason remain the three counties with the highest whitetail harvest in Texas. More and more landowners in these counties are focusing on quality as well as quantity now.

Other counties consistently producing 7,000 or more whitetails a year in Central Texas include Bandera, Blanco and Burnet.

Quality does come at a price, and many hunters are looking to the western Edwards Plateau, because hunting pressure and prices have skyrocketed closer to the metro areas. Counties where hunter success always nears 100 percent include Edwards, Kerr, Kimble, San Saba, Menard, McCulloch, Mills, Schleicher, Sutton and Val Verde.

Biologist Ralph Suarez says the western edge of the Edwards Plateau produced great hunting last year and should offer the same in 2003. "The 2002-03 season was one of the best in recent memories for hunters in Coleman, Concho, Runnels, and Coke counties. We had very big fawn production in 2002 and 2001. This made for many deer found on the range. Very wet conditions during the 2000 and 2001 season contributed to a low deer harvest those seasons. This allowed young bucks to move up in age class for two seasons in a row.

"Concho County is traditionally the county I work that produces the largest antlered deer. I heard of a deer in Coke County that scored over 170 B&C.; Harvest numbers were finally up. The season started wet, but soon dried up. Deer were coming to feeders late in the season which allowed hunters the opportunity to harvest does."

Bucks came out of the 2002 season in good shape and got a fast start on 2003. "I believe we will have another good season this fall," Suarez concluded.

Regional biologist Danny Swepston says good range conditions could provide another great season in the Panhandle and Rolling Plains.

"We've got 56 counties here, so it's hard to generalize. But particularly on the east and in some of our southeastern counties we caught some pretty good rains."

The western Panhandle has been less lucky for several years now, he added, and conditions are less favorable there. "In the western counties I'm more hesitant. I think we're talking about an average season there.

"You can not get away from the impact of agricultural crops. They make a big difference up here. You have to remember that the Panhandle has the shortest growing season of the entire state. And we have very limited browse species here, so a lot of ag crops make all the difference."

Both whitetail and mule deer are expanding their ranges throughout the Panhandle. "They're killing whitetails even north of Dalhart now," said Swepston. "Likewise we've got some mule deer pushing east. They're not to Wichita Falls yet, but they're definitely in Hardeman County."

Counties with highest deer numbers and success rates include Wheeler, Collingsworth and Hall on the north and Coleman, Runnels, Callahan and Shackelford to the south.

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  • Texas' 2003 Deer Outlook
    Jasper biologist Gary Calkins says last season was a good one for deer hunters in the woods of deep East Texas. "The 2002-03 hunting season was an improvement over the preceding year, but fell in line with long-term averages insofar as total harvest based on processing plant data collection.

    "Antler characteristics and body weights were up in most age classes throughout the Pineywoods based on our sample. Antlerless harvest estimates indicate the highest numbers in several years."

    Calkins said that those willing to put in the time were generally pleased, while casual hunters were still likely to have been disappointed. "This past hunting season, hunters indicated a tough time locating deer on a consistent basis, but those who stayed in the woods located animals to harvest."

    Mother Nature threw East Texas hunters a few curves gain in 2002. "The opening weekend was terrible as far as success, due to major rainstorms throughout the district. The central portion of the district seemed to have the highest harvest and best quality animals. This includes Rusk, Nacogdoches, Angelina, San Augustine and Sabine counties. Other counties produced a sprinkling of quality deer, however."

    The northern and central portions of the region should again have the potential of producing the higher quality animals. Population estimates for the majority of the district are on an upswing, and so there should be surplus animals for the taking.

    TPWD district leader Kevin Mote of Brownwood says that the challenging 2002 season should actually give hunters hope for 2003.

    "Deer hunters in the Possum Kingdom District experienced tougher-than-usual hunting conditions in 2002. Much-improved habitat conditions and an abundant acorn crop translated into fewer deer coming to feeders and food plots.

    "Reports from locker plants, sportsmen, and local biologists' experience suggest that overall numbers and quality of deer taken in the district were equal to or slightly better than the 2001 season."

    Cross Timbers hunters can expect to see more bucks and does in 2003, with a little help from Mother Nature.

    "Last year's improved habitat conditions also resulted in high fawn crops across the district. This high fawn crop may translate into a higher percentage of the fall population being composed of 1 1/2-year-old deer. Selectively harvesting bucks with less-desirable antler characteristics from this age-class and retaining better quality bucks would be a good harvest strategy for this year.

    "Higher-than-desirable deer populations could exist, necessitating higher harvest to keep deer populations in balance with the habitat."

    Brown County traditionally has the region's highest harvest, while Comanche, Bosque and Hamilton usually have a lower harvest, but high hunter success.

    District leader Bob K. Carroll said new regulations and weather conditions conspired to make 2002 a tough season, but they set the stage for a strong 2003 hunt.

    "The 2002 harvest was a little down," he said. "The first two weekends of the hunting season were terrible weather: Rainy the first and hot the second weekend. Antler quality was average. Antlerless harvest was about the same."

    Those conditions also suppressed rutting activity, making it harder for hunters to find mature bucks.

    "Colorado and Lavaca counties usually have the highest harvest. However, antler restriction regulations reduced the buck harvest in 2002. Lavaca, Gonzales, Goliad, and Refugio counties usually produce the best bucks. Gonzales is probably the best of the group."

    The first year of special antler-based restrictions on buck harvest had a big impact on hunters and the buck harvest, he added. "Austin, Colorado, Lavaca, Lee, Fayette, and Washington counties all were in the first year of a three year antler restriction regulation which is designed to shift harvest from the younger age classes to the 3 1/2-year-old and older age-classes. Age and antler data collected at check stations during the season indicated that this shift did occur, and the majority of the 1 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-old bucks were protected."

    That bodes well for hunters in the region this fall. "They're going to see some pretty good deer," Wolf concluded.

    State deer leader Clayton Wolf can't contain his optimism for the coming season. Overall, things look right for a good season. But even if hunters see only an average season, they can expect good hunting.

    For, as TPWD executive director Bob Cook is fond of saying, "An average year of deer hunting in Texas is as good as a great year anywhere else!"


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