There is a fall briskness in the air, and with that comes a renewed optimism for Texas deer hunters. For many, that optimism could turn into reality when the general season opens Nov. 6 as conditions during the antler-growing season were close to perfect around the Lone Star State.
Throughout Texas, the prediction is for well above-average antler quality thanks to range conditions during the spring and summer. However, those conditions started iffy through much of the winter and certainly during the wild ride that was February 2021.
“In general, deer hunting forecast and expectations for the upcoming season are in large part driven by habitat conditions that white-tailed deer are experiencing across their range in Texas in the eight to 10 months prior to the season,” said Alan Cain, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s white-tailed deer program leader. “From a deer’s perspective, the outlook was rather bleak coming out of 2020 with dry conditions gripping much of the state. In fact, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 91 percent of the state was experiencing abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions in January.”
Before the switch flipped on the weather, range conditions pointed toward a year of not only a weak antler growth, but also reduced body weights, low fawn survival and even a greater loss of weakened deer.
“Texas weather, in good fashion, had another one of those hold-my-beer-and-watch-this moments when winter storm Uri roared in like a lion in mid-February. The extended periods of freezing temperatures, snow and ice wreaked havoc not only on the citizens of Texas but wildlife as well,” Cain said.
The weeklong sub-freezing surprise was hard on a lot of wildlife, including some exotic species like axis deer and blackbuck, but major dieoffs were localized and numbers should bounce back quickly.
White-tailed deer came through fairly unscathed although struggling from the loss of winter forage and a delayed green-up from the cold temperatures and shortage of soil moisture.
“As the days passed into April, hope for better habitat conditions rose when rains started to fall in North Texas and marched south toward the coast and lower Rio Grande Valley. By late May, much of the state had received significant rainfall and overnight native habitats blossomed. Like liquid fertilizer, the rain accelerated forb and grass production and new growth on browse species providing a buffet of natural forages for deer,” Cain said.
He added with improved habitat deer conditioning antler development steadily improved all summer.
Like the remainder of the state, eastern Texas should produce some good bucks. The drawback could be an abundance of vegetation and bumper acorn crop that keeps deer from moving early.
TPWD predicts in the Pineywoods there should be a few more bucks in the 3½- to 4½-year-old class this season based on fawn survival rates in previous years. Harvest in recent years has been made up of more than 53% bucks 3½ and older thanks in part to the 13-inch inside spread antler restriction regulation.
To the west in the Post Oak Savannah, the older age class may not be quite as strong. Another potential problem for hunter success is a high buck/doe ratio of 1 to 4.3 across the region.
With more than 2 million deer, the Hill Country is always going to be held back some in quality by overpopulation. Again, based on past fawn crop survival, hunters across the region can expect fewer 3½ and 4½ year-olds, but a greater number 5½ and older because of strong year classes from 2013-16.
Hunters in Val Verde, Uvalde, Kinney, Real and Edwards counties will continue to see a shortage of deer in general after a 2019 anthrax outbreak dropped the population in half. Biologists recommend hunters continue with a reduced antlerless harvest while numbers build back.
In South Texas, less-managed ranches are also going to feel the impact of low fawn survival in recent years. While the 6½-year-old class should be strong, there will be a shortage of bucks from 1½ to 4½ on some ranches.
In a region where the emphasis is always on big bucks, the average age buck harvested in recent years has been 4½.
With an estimated 800,000-plus deer, the Cross Timbers region in north-central Texas has the second largest population in the state. It also is known for its potential to produce quality bucks and this year should not disappoint with an abundance of deer in the 4½ and 5½ range, older than the average 3½-year-old that shows up in local locker plants.