Texas' 2004 Deer Outlook
Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks
Deer grow big racks in every part of the Lone Star State, and hunters take big bucks in every region in every season. Will this be the year you bag that buck of a lifetime? These facts should improve your chances of scoring!
By Lee Leschper
There's something big waiting for Texas deer hunters this fall. Barring calamity, 2004 has the potential to be the best season for taking big Texas bucks that most of us have ever seen.
Range conditions, new regulations, improving management practices and a bunch of older bucks that survived the last couple of years all are converging this month to make this year a season for the ages. How's that for an unqualified prediction of greatness?
And the state's deer experts agree. Clayton Wolf, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's big game program and former deer program leader, says that 2004 should be a superb season for Lone Star deer hunters seeking a trophy buck.
"We've got good ground moisture and good cover," he said. "Steady rainfall through the spring and summer set up extremely favorable range conditions. For much of Texas, if you get through June and into July (with good moisture), you're doing real good. Antlers start growing much earlier - in March and April."
In many regions last season, because of good range conditions and excellent acorn crops, the early-season harvest was down. There's no doubt that many older bucks survived the season. So those will be a year older, and surely bigger, this season.
This will be the last good year for mature bucks born during the ideal wet-and-lush summer of 1997, so that age-class should be as good as they'll ever be. Age is still the top ingredient for optimum antler development.
White-tailed deer program leader Mitch Lockwood agrees. In his view, good range conditions mean better deer body condition and antlers this fall.
"The country's just in excellent shape," he said. "It's been the best spring in most of Texas in a long time. 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."
Photo by Jeff Palmer
But this year? "We should have excellent habitat conditions from the standpoint of antler production and fawn production pretty well statewide," Lockwood asserted, adding that hunters may have to change tactics to make the most of this season. "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, because the need for deer to go to deer feeders drops. It's time to get out of the deer blind, get out the rattling antlers and do some sure-enough hunting."
While conditions are very promising, 2004 will have to stretch some to beat the superb harvest of top-end bucks taken last season. David Brimager, director of the Texas Big Game Awards program, declares 2003 a record year. "We had the most entries ever," he said, "over 2,000. It's the first time we've been over 2,000 in total entries. On the whitetail deer side, we had 966 typicals, the second-most, and 246 non-typicals, the most ever."
Impressive also, according to Brimager, was that regions with historically moderate harvests had excellent trophy bucks in 2003. For example, the rugged desert of far West Texas had its best whitetail season in a decade, thanks to substantial and timely rains.
"It was a record year from the Trans-Pecos," he said. "It was the most entries ever for mule deer and whitetails from the Trans-Pecos. It's obvious that many hunters are letting young deer walk."
And the good news for West Texas hunters is that the region has shared in this year's wet spring conditions, which bodes very well for the prospect of another good season.
The long-recognized big-buck regions made a good showing in 2003. South Texas had a season beyond dreams; there were 12 South Texas bucks that grossed more than 180 as typicals! "We had a ton of deer that grossed in the 180s," Brimager said. "We had 62 that grossed over 160. That never happens!"
Again in 2003, the eastern Panhandle proved that it takes a back seat to no region in Texas for huge deer.
The biggest buck harvested in Texas last season was the huge non-typical buck that 16-year-old Tom Isaacs shot on his family's 20,000-acre Hemphill County ranch near Canadian. The massive 12-pointer had 4 substantial additional points, including a forked G-2 on one side and an 8-inch kicker off the back of the other G-2. The massive rack, 21 6/8 inches wide with 27- and 29-inch beams, netted 216 1/8 non-typical and about 185 as a typical. It was among the largest whitetail bucks harvested in the nation in 2003.
One region that in 2003 didn't produce its normal share of goliath bucks was the band of counties just south of the Red River - Grayson, Fannin, Cooke and Montague. "It seems like they had a little down trend," Brimager said. "But they got a lot of rain last year, which may have hurt the harvest. It was the same with the Pineywoods, which usually produces a chunk of good deer. But Pineywoods entries were down too."
Last year Brimager began comparing entries with data from the TPWD and discovered some interesting details about Texas' hunters. For instance, there's no separating the impact that Mother Nature has on the "top-end" bucks harvested in any season. "You can lay scored entries on a graph with a map of the rainfall, and they follow each other," he offered.
Ready for a statistic that might shock you? Very few of the top deer in the TBGA come from high-fenced ranches. "For the 2002 season, only 9 percent of entries in the Texas Big Game Awards came from high-fenced ranches," said Brimager. "Of those, the average acres per ranch is over 4,000 acres.
"I'm reading into that that, obviously, you don't need a high fence to produce quality big game. Landowners are doing it, with hunters passing up younger deer and working together to improve habitat. In the country down on the Coastal Plains, instead of high fences, landowners are banding together in co-ops and producing really good deer."
There's another way to read all this: Given adequate age, decent nutrition with help from Mother Nature, and the luck that sends it into your path, a huge whitetail buck can appear almost anywhere in Texas.
Texas landowners have completely rewritten the old rules about where to find a trophy buck. Today they're using more liberal TPWD regulations, exploding knowledge about deer biology, and hands-on tools like high fencing, intense harvest of antlerless deer and supplemental feeding.
Little guys can play, too: More than 100 Texas wildlife co-ops have joined hundreds of small land holdings into well-managed habitat that's also changed awareness and commitment to deer management.
It's all working to produce bigger bucks. But things work even better when Mother Nature smiles - and she's been grinning like a possum all of 2004! Here's a closer look at our best big-buck regions and how they shape up for 2004.
So much of the quality deer habitat in South Texas is now in intensive management, with or without high fences, that even in marginal years, huge bucks can come from any of the prime counties. Choosing a well-managed hunting spot is more important than picking a particularly good county.
But in 2004, there'll be a lot more "good" to go around! Regional biologist Joe Herrera says that Brush Country hunters can expect big things in 2004. "It's looking fantastic," he said. "We are just in excellent, excellent shape - range conditions, soil, vegetation, mast and fruit production - the whole nine yards is there."
Because of higher-than-normal rainfall in April and May, the range conditions during prime antler-growing months were excellent, helping big bucks add inches of antler, and lots of body weight to boot. In this area you can't go far wrong in Frio, Webb, Duval, La Salle, Dimmit, Kleberg or Maverick counties.
The Edwards Plateau, long the most productive deer-hunting region in America, is now home to lots of big bucks, too. Gillespie, Llano and Mason counties still produce the most deer in the state each year. Many landowners in those counties have implemented successful management programs and nurtured bucks far larger than the norm. You'll find this growing trend in every Hill Country county. That's great for hunters who love the Hill Country, and also love big bucks!
The Hill Country went through very favorable conditions in spring and summer, reports Kerrville biologist Max Traweek, who's been managing Hill Country deer since 1980. He believes that few seasons have looked as promising as 2004.
"It just looks great right now," he said. "We had exceptional rainfall this spring. 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."
Those favorable conditions make the most of landowner management plans, which are emphasizing quality over quantity. Indeed, landowners are proving that you working with native Hill Country stock can get you some excellent-quality whitetails - even as biologists have been advocating.
How big? Uvalde, McCulloch and Williamson counties all produced non-typical bucks grossing between 190 and more than 200 B&C; points last season! How about the 187 5/8 net typical buck that Larry White Jr. shot in Medina County last season, or the 172 5/8 typical Tim Fey collected in Uvalde County? Eight Hill Country counties produced at last one 150-or-better typical buck last season.
Traweek expects that 2004 will exceed last year's excellent season. "As far as antler quality, the bucks got an excellent start on antler development," he said. "We should produce some pretty good antler quality this fall."
When picking a spot for your Hill Country hunt, look first at the ranch's management plans and past successes, especially its 2003 output. Hotspots for collecting a great whitetail lie throughout the region.
We've become accustomed to giant bucks coming from the Pineywoods of deep East Texas and the oak prairies of northeast Texas. That it didn't happen in 2003 bodes well for 2004. Overall harvests in this region were down, especially among older bucks. For reasons not quite clear, East Texas deer went nocturnal early in the fall and were just not moving when hunters were in the field. Most of the bucks harvested were yearlings; the 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds with future trophy potential lay low.
East Texas district biologist Gary Calkins says that winter conditions after the season helped those surviving bucks begin this year in good shape. "We had a pretty light winter, with moderate temperatures and a lot of winter wheat. So they still hit spring (2004) in moderately good shape. There will be a lot of old-age-class bucks there. Right now we are sitting in fantastic shape."
While the hunting pressure is some of the highest in the state, there's also more public land to hunt, especially in the southern Pineywoods. And there's also public access to some quality bucks. Alazan Bayou WMA, between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, is an archery-only area that provides an excellent chance at big bucks.
Any Texas deer hunter worth his salt has noticed the steady procession of big bucks coming from the eastern Panhandle during the past decade.
Improving habitat, with more brush and Conservation Reserve Program land for cover, has helped whitetails expand their range beyond the scant riparian areas that have long been known to hold small populations of big-bodied whitetails.
There's disagreement as to whether these top-of-Texas deer are of the larger Kansas subspecies or just grow large in the fertile, uncrowded habitat. Either way, an average mature Panhandle buck will field-dress 150 pounds, with a really good buck closer to 200.
The prime counties, within about an hour's drive of the eastern border with Oklahoma, are Hemphill, Wheeler, Collingsworth, Donley, Hall, Gray and Roberts.
Below the southern rim of the Panhandle and stretching from the Red River to Abilene, the mesquite-covered Rolling Plains offer more of a good thing - namely, big whitetail bucks. They produce bucks to compete with any region of the state, prodigious numbers of them in the 150 class. Prime counties stretch from Motley on the west and Wilbarger on the east down to Coleman and Brown.
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For a look at the best bucks of 2003, and complete info on the Texas Big Game Awards, look at www. TexasBigGameAwards.com.
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