Texas' 2003 Deer Outlook
Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks
With more and more big bucks showing up all across the Lone Star State, a trophy for the den wall may be in your near future. That's why we've provided this info to guide you to where you might want to hunt this season.
By Lee Leschper
"Wait 'til next year!" was the favorite slogan of Texas Aggies football fans when I was a kid. We'd start each season with more hopes and dreams than talent - and by mid-year be looking to the future.
Well, friends and Aggies, "next year" is here for Texas deer hunters! This could be the year a half-million of us have been dreaming of.
Two factors should combine to make this a great season for Texans looking for a trophy whitetail buck.
First, the state went into the summer with good moisture throughout most regions. After a mild winter and a moist spring, there was good deep-soil moisture, especially in South Texas. There were lots of new forbs providing rich nutrition, plus a decent carryover of older cover vegetation.
"Statewide we are set up for a good season," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department deer program leader Clayton Wolf. "This ought to be a heck of a year."
Another important factor in producing big bucks is age. More bucks in the field this year will be the 6-year-olds that were born during the spring of 1997. The buck fawns born during that rare spring of heavy rains, thick forage and mild temperatures got a great head start on life.
There's another, very important consideration. Today there are huge whitetail bucks in almost every county in Texas, many of them on intensely managed ranches that are enclosed behind 8-foot deer-proof fences. The preponderance of high-fenced wildlife management has completely rewritten state record books and the absolutes of trophy hunting in Texas.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Where once there were only a few counties in Texas that could be expected to produce a 170-class whitetail, and that only once every few years, there are now perhaps hundreds of ranches that produce bucks that big every year.
Where landholdings are small in the southeast and the Hill Country, landowners are banding together into wildlife co-ops that set common management goals for adjoining acreages. Where ranches are larger, landowners are devoting more and more of their resources to wildlife management. Hunting generates far more revenue than do cattle or crops.
Here's more of what trophy hunters in our state can expect this year.
SOUTH TEXAS The Brush Country is set for what could be the best season since at least 1997. The stage for a great 2003-04 whitetail season was set in June 2002. Heavy rainfall began that month and continued into the following spring. Heavy moisture plus a mild winter provided abundant growth of forbs that carried bucks through winter in prime condition.
That basically set us up for a great season. TPWD biologist Joe Herrera says that this year could be a superb one for South Texas. "Hunters can expect above average numbers of mature deer," he said. "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."
Because of the excellent range conditions, mature bucks had the chance to recover from rut stress quickly. Most mature bucks fall victim to predators after an intense rut.
What bodes so well for 2003 was that those same bucks, after recovering quickly from the 2002 rut, were able to get maximum forage as they began growing antlers. So they should have had the chance to maximize their antler-growing potential.
That rainfall in 2002 made hunting difficult on some ranches, where hunters could not get into many hunting areas. So bucks there were safe from hunters. They'll be a year older and bigger in 2003.
The longstanding big-buck counties should be superb again this year, especially Webb, La Salle, Live Oak and Maverick counties. Kleberg County, home of the King Ranch, produced four of the state's top 50 whitetails in 2002, topped by Allyn Archer's 197 5/8 net B&C; non-typical buck.
Frio County produced the Texas Big Game Awards program's biggest typical and non-typical whitetails - the non-typical, a 201 3/8 net giant shot by Jerry Wascom on the Roy Hindes Ranch; the typical, a 188 7/8 net buck shot by Sid W. Terry.
PANHANDLE Regional biologist Danny Swepston from Canyon says that the eastern Panhandle, which is part of the Rolling Plains, received good rainfall during the spring and summer, and should offer a chance at top-drawer bucks again in 2003. "The eastern counties look pretty good. The western counties I'm more hesitant about, although there will be some good deer killed in the western counties."
Top counties for taking big bucks include Donley, Collingsworth, Hall, Wheeler, Childress and Wilbarger.
The best Panhandle bucks come from areas that offer cover and access to agricultural crops. Winter wheat is very attractive to local deer. Ranches that include peanut fields are especially likely to produce big bucks; the protein-rich legumes are ideal forage for growing big antlers.
"I think we're going to have a good season, particularly for whitetails in the eastern part of our district. As you get into the northeast counties, you're going to get some big-bodied deer."
Bear in mind that deer densities in general are very low throughout this region. While ranches are often huge, measured in dozens of sections rather than in acres, whitetails may be concentrated in river bottoms or near agriculture. A hunter might search all season for one buck, but when he finds it, it could be a giant.
PINEYWOODS Jasper biologist Gary Calkins says that 2003 should be a good season for hunters willing to stay in the woods and hunt hard for a mature buck. "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."
Because hunting conditions were tough in the first part of the 2002 season, many bucks survived the early hunting pressure and should have survived until 2003, giving them a year to grow older and bigger.
"If current weather patterns persist," he said, "the northern and central portion of the district will again have the potential of producing the higher quality animals."
According to Calkins, deer numbers are growing throughout the Pineywoods. East Texas produces some whopper bucks every year, especially in areas with relatively low deer density. In particular, the western counties of the Pineywoods offer lots of high-quality forage for the limited number of deer living there. Hunting pressure is high, but bucks that manage to avoid hunters can grow to epic proportions.
CROSS TIMBERS TPWD district leader Kevin Mote of Brownwood says that tough hunting conditions last season should have provided a good carryover of quality bucks for the 2003 season. Both the lush forage fostered by late-summer rains and the abundant acorn crop reduced deer harvest in 2002.
On highly managed ranches, the Cross Timbers produced some substantial bucks, more than during any recent season. The biggest probably was Wayne Houghton's 191 net non-typical from Erath County, a spot usually known more often for dairy cows than for big whitetails.
Other counties in this region produced whopper bucks in 2002 and should again in 2003. Hamilton County produced several giants, topped by a 187 4/8 non-typical for Phillip Ambrose. Neighboring Somervell County produced a 187 3/8 non-typical as well.
Eastland County's Trophy Express Ranch produced a 171 3/8 typical buck for Caleb Johnson. Brittney Wilson shot a whopper 185 5/8 non-typical in Hill County. Farther west and north, Sterling County yielded a 181 3/8 non-typical for Brian Corbett, and Shackelford County turned out a 180 5/8 non-typical for Ryan Eric Nelson. Mills County produced a 165 1/8 typical for David Lee Petterson Jr. while Jack County gave up a 161 5/8 typical to Art Behrens. Wilbarger County produced a 164 1/8 typical for Aaron Hendrix.
ROLLING PLAINS Biologist Ralph Suarez says that the western edge of the Rolling Plains should produce some great bucks in 2003, especially Coleman, Concho, Runnels and Coke counties. Sloppy hunting conditions in 2000 and 2001 kept a lot of hunters out of the field, sparing many bucks for two seasons.
"This allowed young bucks to move up in age-class for two seasons in a row," he said. "Good range conditions during the spring of 2002 set the stage for a very special season. Antler growth was great, and with the large number of mature deer available for harvest ... well - hunters were treated to a great hunting season!
"Some of the properties under my management were able to produce buck deer that scored over 150 inches on the Boone and Crockett scoring system. Some of the properties under intense deer management under a high fence were able to produce a few deer that scored over 170 inches."
EDWARDS PLATEAU You'd better discard your old ideas about the Hill Country as home only to rabbit-sized bucks.
Quality management has caught on in a big way in the Edwards Plateau. Look for intensely managed land, probably behind a high fence, and expect to pay a premium for it. Or look for a ranch that's part of one of the excellent wildlife co-ops in Central Texas. Some of the areas are producing mature bucks that average 120 pounds field-dressed and 130 points. While that might not be a "book" deer, it's bigger than what most Texas hunters tag in the area. Gillespie, Kerr and Kimble counties are great places to start looking in.
The other choice: Move farther west, into the drier sheep-and-goat country of Menard, Sutton, Schleicher, Edwards and Crockett counties, where ranches are larger, deer numbers lower and the potential for quality bucks higher. Hunt where ranchers have cut livestock herds, thus providing less competition for the deer.
COASTAL PRAIRIES District leader Bob K. Carroll believes that hunters may be surprised at the quality of bucks they see in this heavily hunted region this fall. New antler limitations launched in 2002 in Austin, Colorado, Lavaca, Lee, Fayette, and Washington counties left many bucks to live another season. Harvested bucks were often described as "the best I've ever seen" by hunters used to shooting the first target that presented itself.
In 2003, Carroll suggests, hunters should look at Lavaca, Gonzales, Goliad, and Refugio counties, which usually produce the best bucks. He gives Gonzales County top marks as the best trophy county in the region.
However, biologists were surprised at the number of 3-year-old bucks that hunters harvested in those six counties with tighter regulations. If that trend continues, they can expect some really substantial bucks in 2003.
"We actually had more deer taken in the 3-year-old age class than we expected," Carroll said, "because people had to hunt longer to find a legal buck. They had to stay in the woods."
"What's interesting, in these six counties, is what people observed in just the first year of the program," said the TPWD's Clayton Wolf. "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."
POST OAK SAVANNAH Biologist Billy Lambert says that trophy hunters in the Post Oak Savannah shouldn't despair, even though the region's known for high hunting pressure and smaller, younger bucks. "The larger bucks in the Post Oak area come from the western edge of the district" - western parts of Milam, Falls, Limestone, Navarro and Ellis counties - "plus Grayson County.
"The reason is simple," he explained. "In most of the Post Oak we have a tremendous number of hunters, and the resulting harvest means very few bucks make it to 5 years of age. The deer populations are lower along the western edge of the district due to fragmented habitat, and most hunters overlook the area. Fewer hunters mean more deer have a chance to make it to 4 or 5 years old, the age when antler development really starts to pick up. Grayson County is similar, in that it is bow-only and harvest is reduced."
In case you doubt the potential of this region, consider that in 2002, Grayson County produced one of the state's top 50 whitetails, a huge 202 7/8 gross non-typical for Dean Bullard, as well as 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.
Anderson County produced the state's second-best non-typical buck in 2002, a 218 2/8 gross buck for Jack Brittingham, and the state's seventh-largest non-typical, a 196 gross buck taken by Logan Bailey.
Red River County's Chapman Ranch produced a 172 B&C; typical for Clint Jackson.
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