Hunting the Golden Triangle
January 11, 2001
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Hunting the Golden Triangle

by Rick Taylor

The first time I saw the deer, he was meandering across an open grassy area just below a tank dam on a ranch in Eagle Pass, Texas. As I drove across the dam, the setting sun had given the massive buck away as its antlers shined against the South Texas brush. I knew it was a magnificent buck and full of points, but couldn’t tell just how nice because he disappeared into the brush before I could focus my binocular on him. As I got back to the ranch house, I informed the landowner and his wife about this buck and told them I thought it would be worth the effort to hunt for him. It would be many weeks before I would actually see how good the animal truly was.

The South Texas brush country covers approximately 21 million acres and is known for its trophy white-tailed bucks. Within this region lies an even more distinct zone known affectionately by deer hunters worldwide as the “Golden Triangle.” As a wildlife biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 27 years, I had the pleasure of working with many landowners in this region for the better part of those years. And as a consulting biologist, I still spend a lot of time in this area.

Even before high fences, intensive deer management, unlimited protein feed, and genetically improved breeding stock, this region consistently produced some of the country’s largest antlered white-tailed bucks. Trophy deer management actually began in and around this part of Texas for more than a half century ago. Early on, landowners noted the increasing interest of hunters for this region and soon realized the economic potential of wildlife, specifically the white-tailed deer, and thus began managing their deer herds through proper habitat management, livestock management, deer surveys, proper harvest, and record keeping.

The Golden Triangle is an irregular triangle-shaped area generally defined by a line east from Eagle Pass and south of Highway 57, to Interstate 35 south through Cotulla to Laredo with the western boundary being the Rio Grande River. Horace Gore coined the phrase “Golden Triangle,” and described the area 20 years ago in an article for The Journal about the trophy whitetails that are produced there. This area encompasses all or part of many counties including Maverick, Dimmit, Webb, La Salle, and Zavala counties. Many large bucks have been taken within this triangle or within close proximity of the above-mentioned boundaries. According to the Boone and Crockett (B&C) record book, Webb and Dimmit counties are recognized as two of the top trophy producing areas for white-tailed deer in Texas.

Rick Taylor with Golden Triangle buck

There are claims that Dimmit County has the highest number of B&C entries per square mile in the world. A quick review of the 1999, 11th edition of the B&C Club Records of North American Big Game, Maverick, Dimmit, La Salle, Zavala and Webb counties had a total of 96 typical and non-typical white-tailed deer recognized. Not bad for such a small area in Texas! And remember that in order to qualify for the B&C record book entries must be taken under “fair chase” stipulations and high fenced ranches are excluded from the competition.

South Texas is still home to large unfenced ranches where hunting pressure is much less than the more populated areas, such as the Edwards Plateau. Major ranches such as the Comanche, Piloncillo, San Pedro, Faith, Chaparrosa, Briscoe, and the mighty Chittum are all or in part found within the Triangle. The high productivity of trophy classed white-tailed bucks in this region can be linked to a number of factors-large ranches, long growing seasons, brush diversity, and excellent soil-which all converge and allow this phenomenon to occur. Together with biological requirements of age, nutrition, and genetics to produce large antlered bucks, the Golden Triangle represents “the perfect storm” for landowners, deer managers, and hunters. It can even make the most inept wildlife manager look good.

One of the major factors in producing large antlered bucks is age, letting them reach maturity. Although sexually mature at 1½ years of age, a buck’s body and bone structure continues to grow until 4-5 years of age. Only then can his antlers show their genetic potential. Some research indicates that a deer’s antlers reach their greatest size at 7½ years of age. Hunters in this area allow the bucks to mature and their home ranges generally don’t overlap numerous smaller ranches where an eager hunter awaits to shoot anything with horns. Hunter density is generally greater where smaller acreages dominate the landscape so even the most manage-minded hunter is directly impacted by the neighbor’s decisions.

The climate within the Triangle is mild with an average growing season lasting from 340 to 360 days. Average rainfall is 17 to 24 inches, decreasing toward the western side, although droughts are frequent in this area. Warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico is brought in from the prevailing southeast winds and an occasional tropical storm. Such was the case this year when two storms hit northern Mexico and South Texas. This past summer was one of the best years in recent memory. Vegetation throughout the region stayed lush and green throughout most of the summer, and vegetation is another key to production of quality antlers.

South Texas has one of the most diverse vegetation communities in all of Texas. With over 281 species of woody plants, 32 species of cacti, and literally thousands of herbaceous plants, it’s no wonder this area is a nutritional mecca. Although the majority of these plants are found in the lower Rio Grande Valley, there’s still a tremendous amount of plant diversity in the Golden Triangle.

Woody plants within this area have high protein content during the growing season and many of them produce mast later in the year. White-tailed deer eat the vast majority of these plant species. Plants such as granjeno, black-brush, guayacan, Texas kidneywood, guajillo, twisted acacia, hogplum, prickly pear, and hackberry are just a minor sampling representing some of the plants in this region. Even the lowly mesquite, which has very little nutritional value as a browse, produces a very delectable bean cherished by deer.

What many people don’t realize is that it also fixes nitrogen in the soil and cools the ground, making the area around the mesquite an important microhabitat. Important carbohydrates are also available in the plants, especially cactus and grasses thus providing an important source of energy. Soils within the Golden Triangle play a major role in the vegetative diversity, which range from shallow gravel in the western parts, red sandy loam in the middle sections and heavy clays in the drainages.

Another noteworthy factor is deer density. Conducting aerial deer surveys in this country over the past 25 years indicates a relatively low deer density. This low deer density allows the animals to remain within the carrying capacity of the range, thus competition for all the preferred browse plants stays within bounds. Low deer densities can be attributed to low fawn survival during droughts or periods of limited precipitation as well as predators, which help keep this population in check. So there’s little wonder why the Golden Triangle is the premium area for producing trophy class bucks.

All the basics of producing quality deer have aligned in this area, however, the question asked by most hunters, “How can I hunt the Golden Triangle?” remains. The simplest way is the old fashioned way-inherit a ranch or marry into one because hunting the Golden Triangle can be expensive. Lease prices in this area are some of the highest in the state, occasionally reaching $20 per acre. So to obtain a year round or season lease may be out many hunters’ economic range.

Hunting-Golden-Triangle-3

Additional costs involved in blinds, feeders, camps, feeding, vehicles, travel, maintenance, etc., can double the average expenditure. But take heart, many landowners and outfitters are located within the Golden Triangle and offer hunts of all types. A four- to five-day trophy hunt may range up to, or even exceed $10,000, depending on the quality of trophy, facilities, and amenities offered. Many Managed Land Deer Permit holders have an excess supply of buck permits and plenty of management class bucks in the 120-140 class.

Landowners and outfitters have mentioned to me that it’s hard to find hunters for these types of bucks and price range from $1,500 to $3,000 for a three-day hunt. The Chaparral Wildlife Management Area is located within the Golden Triangle and is well worth applying for, despite the odds of getting drawn. In December 2008, I was fortunate to have been drawn for an either-sex deer hunt and came away with a nice 7 1⁄2-year-old nine-point. This was right after that summer’s big wildfire that scorched several thousand acres including the Chaparral Area. This buck’s antlers were black from where he had rubbed the velvet off on charred brush. This was truly a hunt of my lifetime.

The time to hunt should also be considered. Hunting early in the season may be successful because many of the bucks are patterned and are coming to deer feeders. Pre-scouting by the outfitters and guides can generally ensure success. However, it can often be very hot in a metal deer blind. Waiting later for the rut in mid to late December may bring cooler weather and a more challenging experience as the rut becomes intense. Rattling up several bucks in the early morning can be a memorable experience even if the trophy buck of a lifetime doesn’t show up.

Such was the case of the deer I mentioned at the beginning. It was during the rut that the landowner and his wife found this beautiful 15-point buck chasing a doe. The buck’s desire to mate and his hesitation offered the wife a shot at the biggest deer of her life. Every white-tailed deer hunter should hunt the famed Golden Triangle of Texas at least once in his or her lifetime. And who knows, you may even get a chance to shoot the biggest deer of your life. You will definitely have one of the most cherished and memorable hunts.

 

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