Like everything else in the world the opening weekend of the Texas deer season has changed to a degree, but it is still a big deal to hunters and the state’s economy.
This year’s opening day is Nov. 7 and it probably still represents one of the biggest in-state migrations annually. Most of the 800,000-plus hunters will be on the road crisscrossing the state to their leases or family property.
Small towns will welcome the hunters with open arms, knowing that from the day the season begins until it ends cash registers will be ringing with sales. It used to be said that some of these stores made up to 50% of their annual sales during deer season. Among other things lease fees go a long way toward paying land taxes.
Changes through the years have made opening weekend different. The Managed Lands Deer Permit program has spread the season start out more. Active lives means hunters may not go until later in the year. And hunters are just as likely to bring everything they need with them instead of shopping local.
The good news is that the future of deer hunting is still strong, even if the focus might be changing away from big antlers to pounds of meat for some.
“Hunting has a rich tradition and culture in Texas that helps to support a robust hunting community. Hunting license sales in Texas are stable unlike some other states that have seen declines in hunter numbers and license sales,” Alan Cain Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s deer program leader, said. “Appealing to different motivations for hunting whether that be the locavore movement, time to spend with family and friends in the outdoors or for those more serious about management for quality and healthy deer populations helps to sustain our hunting heritage in the state.”
Going into this season it appears hunters could be rewarded no matter their motivation. Numbers across most of the state are up, although with an estimated herd of 5.5 million that is seldom an issue. For those hunting big bucks quality should be good because of good range conditions during the antler-growing period and a surplus of mature-aged deer. Because of strong fawn year classes in corresponding years there is expected to be an abundance of 6.5- to 8.5-year-old bucks.
TPWD estimates in 2019 that hunters killed more than 846,000 deer. The harvest total was about 54% bucks. However, the total antlerless harvest was up slightly compared to 2018 while the overall buck harvest was down 9.4%.
For most hunters the goal is still a quality or trophy buck, but years of looking at pen-reared bucks or television trophies from highly managed ranches has skewed reality.
“The statewide average Boone & Crockett score in 2019 was 124.99 for bucks 5.5 years old or older and 120.8 for 4.5-year-old bucks, which are very respectable bucks for anywhere in the state,” Cain said.
Regionally, the 15-year average B&C score for the Pineywoods is 112 5/8 for a 3 ½-year-old, 123 7/8 for a 4 ½-year-old and 127 3/8 for a 5 ½-year-old. In the Post Oak Savannah it is 112 2/8, 121 2/8 and 123 7/8.
The Hill Country average shows the results of the regions overpopulation. The 15-year average scores are 101 7/8, 112 4/8 and 118 7/8.
Even in the vaunted South Texas, record-book bucks are still oddities. The averages are 109 5/8, 124 6/8 and 133 7/8. However, the region, along with the Blackland Prairies and Western Rolling Plains, are the only ones topping out above 130.
Prospects are up from last year for East Texas’ Pineywoods and Post Oak regions.
In the Pineywoods the number of 2 ½-, 3 ½- and 7 ½-year old bucks should be up this year. In recent years more than 53 percent of the buck harvest has been deer 3 ½ years old and older, showing antler restrictions are working as intended. That ultimately should mean some good bucks are taken.
In the Post Oak region forage conditions have been good through the antler-growing season.
Compared to the statewide hunter success rate of 60 percent, the average in the Hill Country is 76 percent. Hunters in some portions of the Edwards Plateau can expect to see a number of older bucks this season, while in another area deer numbers were decimated by anthrax.
Well-managed properties in South Texas will continue to be as good as normal, but the eastern side of the region has had better natural conditions because of more rain.
In most cases hunters only take one deer because of freezer space, although they need to take more for management purposes. One option for those taking extra deer is to donate them through the Hunters for the Hungry program. Carnes Processing, 20601 S. Texas 110, between Whitehouse and Troup, is again accepting donations for the program, and will process them for free. To donate venison there hunters are asked to bring in quartered deer on ice. Coolers will be available for return once the meat has been processed.