Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists equate good habitat with healthy wildlife populations and suggest you don't have to look hard to find plenty of both this year. Timely rainfall that began last winter and continued throughout the first half of 2010 has helped maintain range conditions and provide an ideal environment for deer to flourish.
Estimates of high fawn production in most regions of the state with upwards of 100 percent fawn survival on some intensively managed ranches, coupled with quality native food supplies, should give hunters a lot to look forward to this season. It also means that like last year, hunting over corn feeders may not be as productive because of the abundant natural forage available.
"Acorn crops have been pretty good and there is plenty of vegetation in South Texas, so the deer have plenty to eat," said Alan Cain, TPWD whitetail deer program director. "That's going to make it difficult for bowhunters to attract deer to supplemental feeding locations."
At the onset of the archery season Cain said most deer are still in a summer pattern, especially in South Texas where the rut is still a couple of months away. Bowhunters might consider focusing their efforts along heavily traveled game trails or near acorn producing trees.
He also suggests hunters take advantage of opportunities to harvest antlerless deer this season, too, in order to offset high fawn production. "Folks need to keep deer numbers at a level the habitat can sustain during lean years," said Cain.
TPWD field biologists are concerned last year's drop in overall deer harvest could carry a double-edged sword into the 2010-11 season. Nearly half of all deer taken by Texas hunters occurs in the Edwards Plateau and last season marked the lowest harvest in 10 years, attributed mainly to reduced deer movement. The upside is there should be a greater percentage of older-aged bucks in the population due to the carry-over of bucks that weren't harvested last year. The downside is there likely are more deer in the population than the habitat in many areas can adequately support without being degraded when range conditions return to normal.
"I don't wish for it to be dry, but hopefully conditions will be such during the upcoming season that deer movements will be high (i.e. deer will come to feeders), resulting in high deer observation and harvest success rates for hunters," said Trey Carpenter, TPWD wildlife biologist.
One aspect biologists are not concerned about this season is the overall health of Texas' deer herd. The abundance of acorns during the fall and winter of 2009, combined with the flush of cool-season and warm-season herbaceous plants produced from the rains provided high-quality forages for deer that helped them come through the winter in good condition and were adequately available to the deer throughout the early stages of antler production, throughout pregnancy, and during fawn-rearing.
"This year deer didn't have to go to browse until well into the growing season, unlike in dry years when they utilize browse earlier because herbaceous plants are lacking," Carpenter explained. "Not dipping into the 'savings account' of browse until late into the growing season should have a positive influence and due to the steady and consistent supply of good nutrition that has been available to deer since last fall, all segments of the deer population should be in good body condition going into the fall, buck antler production should be above average for the 2010-11 season, and fawn production and recruitment should be above average."
In parts of the state having special antler restriction, landowners and hunters should reap the rewards of above average antler growth this season as more bucks meet the requirements for legal harvest, said Cain. "It may be tough spotting those deer because they won't have to move much, so hunters need to keep that in mind. In East Texas, the antler restrictions coupled with good rainfall should mean good quality bucks."
Cain said folks involved in cooperative wildlife management groups should also see the fruits of their collaborative habitat management labors this season and expects deer hunting on ranches under wildlife management plans to be above average, too.
"It really doesn't matter what part of the state you're in, if you effectively manage the habitat for the benefit of wildlife, you're going to see better quality deer," he said. "Our biologists are working with thousands of land managers on more than 25 million acres and hunters are becoming more educated not just on how they hunt, but also wiser on management strategies."
On intensively managed ranches under Level 3 of the Managed Lands Deer Permit program, Oct. 2 is the "soft" opening day of the general deer season. Hunters on Level 3 properties have the flexibility to utilize issued permits from the archery season opener through the last day in February by any legal means and methods. MLDPs are used instead of deer tags, which means deer taken under the program do not count against a hunter's annual bag limit.
The MLDP program is a multi-tiered incentive based and habitat focused initiative that allows landowners involved in a formal management program to have the state's most flexible seasons and increased harvest opportunities. Higher levels offer additional harvest flexibility to the landowner, but also have more stringent requirements.
Some in South Texas already have their sights set on a specific buck they've spotted during deer counts or captured on trail cameras, according to Cain. "There are some landowners down here that have already got some huge bucks located," he pointed out. "We're talking bucks that will score 200 or better. Now those don't grow behind every tree but these bucks were able to recover from last year's rut and develop better because of quality range conditions."
This could also be a breakout year for the Class of 2004. That was a peak year for deer productivity and range conditions, which means the odds of seeing a mature 6 ½-year-old buck this season are pretty favorable.
"In 2004, at least in South Texas, we had good rainfall and a good fawn crop," recalled Cain. "Consequently, even with normal deer harvest over the years, we should have good carryover and I would suggest hunters consider waiting on that older buck and not pull the trigger on the first deer you see."