CAMP VERDE – It was a cool night for September on the Camp Verde Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. It was in the 70s and headed toward the 50s when the truck crossed over the cattle guard.
It was 30 minutes after sunset and, although dark, it was in some ways the start of deer season. Not with a gun or bow, but with high-powered spotlights scanning either side of a ranch road.
Spotlight counts have long been an important part of any deer season for those wanting to manage their deer population both for numbers and quality. It is also the key to participation in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Managed Lands Deer Permit program.
The truck had not even started rolling on the 5.3 mile route around the ranch when the first deer were spotted and marked down under one of four categories, buck, doe, fawn or unknown for those hiding in the grass or behind a tree.
CVR is a 1,360-acre high-fenced ranch. Although having never been stocked with farm-reared deer, the ranch has produced some excellent bucks over the years. But as can happen inside a fence, deer numbers ballooned just a few years ago.
Landowner Robert Parker began the process of turning that around toward a goal of a deer to about six or seven acres. Despite killing between 180 to 220 deer a year the last several years, the turnaround has neither been easy or quick.
Mike Leggett was driving the truck and working a spotlight on that side, scanning for deer out as far as 150 yards along the route. A veteran of surveys on ranches around the state, Leggett understands this year’s count is a window to what was gained last year and what needs to be done in the future to reach the population goal.
“You are really learning a comparison this year to what your harvest was the last season. That is what all surveys are for is to give you an idea of the progress you are making in getting your population under control,” Leggett explained.
With a relatively rich environment for white-tailed deer and the lack of predators, Leggett said population control is almost entirely left up to hunters. Without that, deer numbers can easily spike, putting a strain on nutrition that can impact fawn survival and deer quality.
“So you have to make sure that you are getting ahead of your population, and that has been a problem at Camp Verde because the population sort of got out of control for several years and we have been killing a lot of deer on this ranch the last three years trying to get back ahead of it again,” he said.
The ranch has a variety of habitat, ranging from open flats utilized as food plots, cedar thickets and draws that are nearly impossible to hunt but provide good deer cover.
To simulate that variety, the survey route does not always run through the best habitat. In some cases, you can see for hundreds of yards. In others, the route butts up against the fence line on one side and drops off immediately into a cedar canyon on the other. Some of it is through the bottom portion of the ranch and others are on top of the ridges.
The route was actually set up by a TPWD biologist who stopped every 1/10 mile to estimate visibility. In all, the route provides a view of about 351 acres, or just over 25 percent, of the ranch. That is important because it provides the multiplier for an overall population estimate.
Having seen the number of deer coming to feeders as one of the designated management shooters on the ranch in recent years, and based on some of the previous counts, Leggett was expecting the survey to be a non-stop count. That was not the case on the spotlight count or an incidental counts conducted along the route during daylight hours.
Leggett said that is the nature of spotlight counts, where deer just do not always cooperate.
“Last night, we drove the entire survey and virtually every deer was bedded down and this was an hour to an hour and a half after dark. So some nights you see almost no deer then you have some deer you see in a particular area night after night. It is going to vary,” he said.
Spotlight counts are just one of several options used for counting deer. Helicopters are also used on a number of ranches and some believe they give a better count. However, even those results can vary as some deer simply learn to sit down when the helicopter flies overhead and are not counted.
Counts for the three nights were 105, 100 and 135. Using a multiplier of 3.7 based on the amount of acreage along the route, the three-night average resulted in an estimated population of 420 deer or one per three acres, about twice the goal. Leggett said this year’s lower count could be the result of a change in people doing it, range conditions or any number of factors. That is why a long-term average is necessary and why management is ongoing.
While required for participation in the MLD program and a viable tool for large ranches interested in management, Leggett said spotlight counts probably are not necessary on most Hill Country leases and those in other parts of the state with 500 acres or less. There he said using the gun for population control and a trained eye for harvest management are the best tools possible.
“If you are interested in management, the best thing you can do is make sure everyone on the ranch knows what a mature buck looks like. We are going to shoot mature bucks. We are not going to shoot yearling deer, spikes and four-points and things like that. We are going to shoot mature bucks, I don’t care if they have four points or 10 points, and we are going to shoot does to again keep the population from getting out of control,” he explained for small lease programs.
Leggett added that 5 years old is a good management buck in the Hill Country, 6 if behind a high fence.