By Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept.
While not clear of the drought, things are looking up in many parts of the state this year and the outlook for deer and deer hunting is much brighter.
Archery-only deer season opens Saturday, Sept. 28 and runs through Nov. 1. The general firearms season begins Nov. 2. The special youth-only deer seasons are Oct. 26-27 and Jan. 6-19.
Biologists can provide some general predictions each year based on rainfall and general habitat conditions that are applicable at a landscape level scale, but whether those predictions hold true for individual properties is like trying to guess the Lotto numbers on the Saturday night drawing. Factors like rainfall, availability of native foods like acorns or mesquite bean crops, habitat quality and availability, even hunting pressure, play a role in shaping your hunting success. Aside from rainfall and general habitat conditions biologists also consider previous year's deer population characteristics to make predictions for the upcoming season.
"Statewide population trends remain stable and hunters should expect good numbers of deer year in and year out," says Alan Cain, TPWD whitetail deer program leader. "I would predict the statewide deer population to be close to or slightly above the long-term average and hover around that 3.6 million deer mark for 2013."
"One factor hunters should also keep in mind is the good carryover of deer from the 2012 season as harvest was down resulting from heavy acorn and mast crops in several regions of the state," Cain notes. "For hunters this translates into plenty of opportunities to harvest a deer." Though the deer population numbers are expected to be good this year, Cain predicts the recent September rains that resulted in a flush of green vegetation may cause bow hunters to rethink their early season hunting strategies as deer may spend less time visiting feeders. A well-traveled game trail may be more productive than hunting at the deer feeder.
Dry conditions in 2011 resulted in a significant decline in fawn production, down to 29 percent for the statewide estimate, a 24 percent departure from the long term average. Fawn crops bounced back in 2012 at 47 percent and Cain anticipates survey results will show a higher fawn crop this year. In fact, Cain is hearing reports from landowners as well as TPWD biologists of fawn production in the 60 to 80 percent range in the Hill Country and similar reports of good fawn production in other areas of the state.
For hunters fawn crops may not be as meaningful since harvest is generally focused on older age class deer, but remember those fawns this year translate into your adult deer several years into the future.
Another aspect of typical hunting season forecast is the prediction of antler quality and how many big bucks are out there across the landscape.
"As far as antler quality goes, rainfall plays a key role by influencing the native habitat and forage, ultimately affecting the quality of nutrition a buck receives in order to grow antlers," Cain explains. "In dry years we typically see a decline in overall antler quality and increases in wet years much related to nutrition."
Some managers provide supplemental feed to buffer against nutritional impact resulting from drought. However, research in South Texas has shown that native habitat is crucial to deer nutrition even when supplemental feed is provided. So maintaining quality native habitat on your property is important.
Judging from the phone calls and emails Cain has received from landowners around the state, bucks look to be in good body condition, antlers are in great shape and they are expecting a much better season than the last two years."
Cain predicts antler quality to be above average for those areas receiving good spring rains and average for those that were a little drier this spring and summer. The good news is that drought or no drought, Texas still produces some whopper bucks each year.
According to an article published by Boone and Crockett several years back Texas ranks fifth all time for entries into B&C record books. Based on 40-plus years of data collected by TPWD biologists each season the average B&C score for a 5½-year-old buck is 124, with 9.1 points, and a 15.8 inch inside spread. Even the younger bucks at 3½ years of age average a 13.5 inch inside spread and eight points.
While areas like South Texas are known for producing exceptional bucks, most anywhere in the state is capable of producing good bucks every year. In fact in 2012, two archery hunters were lucky enough to connect on a couple of large non-typical bucks scoring about 250 Boone and Crockett. Both bucks were wild, free-ranging deer taken on low-fenced properties, one in North Texas and the other in Southeast Texas. Hopefully, that trend will continue in 2013.
"Another positive trend we have observed in the last few years is that the proportion of young bucks in the harvest has declined across the state, and most noticeably in the eastern third of the state where bucks had a hard time surviving to 3½ years of age," Cain points out. "In 2012, bucks 3½-year-old and older comprised 65 percent of bucks checked during TPWD surveys which are a reflection of the deer harvested each season."
Digging a little deeper into the data Cain explains that in antler-restriction counties, 59 percent of bucks checked during TPWD surveys were 3½ or older, a dramatic improvement in age structure when those older age class bucks represented only 30-35 percent of the harvest before antler restrictions were implemented.
"This shift towards harvesting older bucks in the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Cross Timbers and Prairies regions is a direct result of the antler-restriction regulation," Cain says. "That harvest strategy has been very effective at allowing many more bucks to reach maturity. We have received many positive reports from landowners and hunters in those regions who are excited about the number and quality of bucks they are observing on their properties. "
Overall, the 2013 season is expected to be a good one with great opportunities to take a deer.