Buck in bush

One of deer hunting’s most captivating moments comes as darkness gives way to the first grey light of a new dawn. The 2019-20 general season gets underway statewide on Nov. 2.

The dawn of another Texas deer season will fall at 30 minutes before sunrise on Nov. 2, and most of the experts are saying it’s going be a good one.

No surprise, there. Favorable outlooks are somewhat of a tradition in Texas deer hunting, sort of like corn feeders, tall tower blinds and bolt-action .270s. It’s hard to expect anything less from a state with the nation’s most robust whitetail herd and an army of hunters who are just as passionate about pampering their deer as they are about chasing them.

Texas Parks Wildlife’s latest estimates indicate there are about 5.4 million whitetails scattered across an enormous playing field spanning nearly a dozen ecological regions from the Panhandle to the South Texas Plains.

That’s an all-time number of deer using the department’s current survey methodology, says Alan Cain, TPWD white-tailed deer program leader. By comparison, Mississippi’s whitetail count of about 1.6 million ranks a distant second to Texas; Missouri is third with 1.4 million, according to figures presented during a Southeast Deer Study Group conference in 2018.

White-tailed deer are North America’s most popular big game animal, and Texas is a bucket list hotspot for hunting them. I met a veteran hunter once who summarized it this way: “Plenty of states have good deer hunting. And then there is Texas. It’s a entirely different animal.”

Most of the state’s estimated 800,000 whitetail hunters will head to the woods for the upcoming season opener, with major processions of 4X4s and SUVs forming on interstates and highways leading to the Edwards Plateau, South Texas, Pineywoods/Post Oak and Cross Timbers and Prairies regions.

Together those areas account for more than 80 percent of Texas’ vast deer range. Likewise, they attract about 80 percent of the state's deer hunters and account for about 82 percent of the state’s annual deer harvest, according to TPWD’s most recent harvest data.

The Edwards Plateau supports the highest deer density of any ecological region with about 2.3 million animals. It also garners the most hunting pressure and gives up the most venison.

In 2018, 204,000 hunters shot 288,000 deer in the Edwards Plateau. South Texas recorded the second highest harvest total (128,000), followed by the Cross Timbers (116,000), Post Oak (101,000) and the Pineywoods (99,000). Statewide, hunters harvested about 884,000 deer last season and they enjoyed a 63 percent success rate.

That’s a bounty of backstrap, but most serious hunters will agree there is much more to playing the game than scratching an itchy trigger finger and spending a bunch of deer tags.

Deer hunting is about camaraderie among close friends, hunting camp pranks and gathering around crackling fires beneath starlit skies, where old stories are retold and new ones are born.

It’s about seeking reprieve from ordinary life and sometimes finding it within the confines of a rickety box blind strategically placed at the head a brush country sendero or alongside a white oak flat deep in the big woods of eastern Texas.

It’s about drafty hunting shacks and semi-sleepless nights fueled by the anticipation of the next morning’s hunt and not knowing what you may or may not see as darkness gives way to dawn of a new day.

Dreaming whitetail comes easy in Texas, particularly when another hunting season is just days away and guys Cain are stoked about the prospects. The veteran wildlife biologist is particularly excited about the upcoming season for several reasons.

Barring any last minute changes in the weather, Cain says hunters are going to get to hunt this year as opposed to patching roads or pulling maintenance on deer blinds, camp houses and feeders as they did last year after torrential October rains and near-biblical flooding devastated much of the state and left many leases in shambles.

Destructive as the weather was last fall, it left a silver lining behind in its wake. Cain says the fall moisture turned the landscape green with succulent winter weeds that persisted through into early spring. The high quality forage translated to a nutrient-rich smorgasbord, which provided deer a timely boost for rebuilding body reserves lost over winter and through the rigors of the rut.

The cherry on top came when wet weather patterns continued into early summer. Cain said this created excellent habitat and abundant forage in many areas to help bucks maximize antler growth while promoting high survival rates among fawns.

“These conditions should translate into above average antler quality, reproduction and recruitment for white-tailed deer,” Cain said. “Hunters should expect an excellent deer season in 2019.”

Season Outlook

Following is a synopsis of whitetail hunting outlooks for  Texas’ major deer hunting regions:

Edwards Plateau: TPWD technical guidance biologist Joyce Moore of Harper says significant improvements in antler quality have been reported across the region and deer densities are on the upswing. Hunters in some areas may see an increase in the number of mature bucks available for harvest due to carryover from last season.

Cain says there is a strong cohort of 6 1/2-year-old bucks on the landscape as the result of bumper fawn crop in 2013, and many of them should be wearing nice racks. The biologist encourages hunters use their antlerless tags this season to help keep deer populations in check and improve buck/doe ratios.

Hunter Success Last Season: 78 percent

Post Oak and Pineywoods: TPWD wildlife biologist Larry Lebeau of Tyler says deer entered fall in great shape thanks to good range conditions that persisted throughout most of the summer. This should translate to above average antler quality on bucks and a solid year for fawn recruitment.

Roger Wolfe, Region 5 district leader, added that hunters will likely be dealing with a bumper acorn crop this fall, which could add up to tough hunting conditions.

“I suspect it’s going to spread the deer out, so they’ll be harder to pattern and probably won’t come to corn very well because of the highly available food source,” he said  “It’s going to present some challenges to hunters, but the tradeoff is it’s going to make for healthy herd.”

TPWD Region 6 district leader Rusty Wood of Nacogdoches says the situation is nearly identical in the Pineywoods. “This may be the best mast crop I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s going to be great for the deer, but it’s also going to make for some tough hunting, especially for the guy sitting in a box blind watching a corn feeder.”

Hunter Success Last Season: 55 percent (Pineywoods) and 61 percent (Post Oak)

Cross Timbers: TPWD technical guidance biologist Dean Marquardt of Granbury says North Texas deer hunters have plenty to look forward to this season with good numbers mature and middle age bucks on the landscape, including some 6 1/2 and 7 1/2 year olds carried over from banner fawn crops in 2012-13. Above average antler growth expected.

Like many parts of the state, the region is abundant with natural food sources this season, which may steer deer away from corn feeders early on. “It turned off hot and dry in July and August but there is still a lot of feed out there —, mainly live oak, post oak and blackjack acorns,” said Kevin Mote, TPWD Region 3 district leader. Mote said acorns started hitting the ground in early October.

Hunter Success Last Season: 66 percent

South Texas: South Texas has a rich history of producing some of the state’s biggest bucks, and lots them. Cain expects the trend to continue in 2019, thanks to mild, wet weather last winter and spring that resulted in excellent range conditions to optimize antler growth and body weights.

“Things turned off dry in July, but the bucks still managed to finish off their antlers really good,” Cain said. “The antler quality in South Texas is outstanding this year and the deer are in great shape body-wise. Hunters should really have good expectations going into the opening of the general season.”

Hunter Success Last Season: 74 percent.

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