The dawn of another Texas deer season will fall at 30 minutes before sunrise on Nov. 2, and most of the experts are saying it’s going be a good one.
No surprise, there. Favorable outlooks are somewhat of a tradition in Texas deer hunting, sort of like corn feeders, tall tower blinds and bolt-action .270s. It’s hard to expect anything less from a state with the nation’s most robust whitetail herd and an army of hunters who are just as passionate about pampering their deer as they are about chasing them.
Texas Parks & Wildlife’s latest estimates indicate there are about 5.4 million whitetails scattered across an enormous playing field spanning nearly a dozen ecological regions from the Panhandle to the South Texas Plains.
That’s an all-time number of deer using the department’s current survey methodology, says Alan Cain, TPWD whitetail deer program leader. By comparison, Mississippi’s whitetail count of about 1.6 million ranks a distant second to Texas. Missouri is third with 1.4 million, according to figures presented during a Southeast Deer Study Group conference in 2018.
Whitetail deer are North America’s most popular big game animal, and Texas is a bucket list hotspot for hunting them. I met a veteran hunter once who summarized it this way: “Plenty of states have good deer hunting. And then there is Texas. It’s a entirely different animal.”
Most of the state’s estimated 800,000 whitetail hunters will head to the woods for the upcoming season opener, with major processions of 4X4s and SUVs forming on interstates and highways leading to the Edwards Plateau, South Texas, Pineywoods/Post Oak and Cross Timbers and Prairies regions.
Together those areas account for more than 80 percent of Texas’ vast deer range. Likewise, they attract about 80 percent of the state’s deer hunters and account for about 82 percent of the state’s annual deer harvest, according to TPWD’s most recent harvest data.
The Edwards Plateau supports the highest deer density of any ecological region with about 2.3 million animals. It also garners the most hunting pressure and gives up the most venison.
In 2018, 204,000 hunters shot 288,000 deer in the Edwards Plateau. South Texas recorded the second highest harvest total (128,000), followed by the Cross Timbers (116,000), Post Oak (101,000) and the Pineywoods (99,000). Statewide, hunters harvested about 884,000 deer last season and they enjoyed a 63 percent success rate.
That’s a bounty of backstrap, but most serious hunters will agree there is much more to playing the game than scratching an itchy trigger finger and spending a bunch on deer tags.
Deer hunting is about camaraderie among close friends, hunting camp pranks and gathering around crackling fires beneath starlit skies, where old stories are retold and new ones are born.
It’s about seeking reprieve from ordinary life and sometimes finding it within the confines of a rickety box blind strategically placed at the head of a brush country sendero or alongside a white oak flat deep in the big woods of East Texas.
It’s about drafty hunting shacks and semi-sleepless nights fueled by the anticipation of the next morning’s hunt and not knowing what you may or may not see as darkness gives way to the dawn of a new day.
Dreaming whitetail comes easy in Texas, particularly when another hunting season is just days away and hunters are stoked about the prospects. The veteran wildlife biologist is particularly excited about the upcoming season for several reasons.
Barring any last minute changes in the weather, Cain says hunters are going to get to hunt this year as opposed to patching roads or pulling maintenance on deer blinds, camp houses and feeders as they did last year after torrential October rains and near-biblical flooding devastated much of the state and left many leases in shambles.
As destructive as the weather was last fall, it left a silver lining behind in its wake.
Cain says the fall moisture turned the landscape green with succulent winter weeds that persisted into early spring.
The high-quality forage translated to a nutrient-rich smorgasbord, which provided deer a timely boost for rebuilding body reserves lost over winter and through the rigors of the rut.
The cherry on top came when wet weather patterns continued into early summer. Cain said this created excellent habitat and abundant forage in many areas to help bucks maximize antler growth while promoting high survival rates among fawns.
“These conditions should translate into above average antler quality, reproduction and recruitment for whitetail deer,” Cain said. “Hunters should expect an excellent deer season in 2019.”
Following is a synopsis of whitetail hunting outlooks for Texas’ Top 5 deer hunting regions:
Edwards Plateau: TPWD technical guidance biologist Joyce Moore, of Harper, says significant improvements in antler quality have been reported across the region and deer densities are on the upswing. Hunters in some areas may see an increase in the number of mature bucks available for harvest due to carryover from last season.
Cain says there is a strong cohort of 61/2-year-old bucks on the landscape as the result of bumper fawn crop in 2013, and many of them should be wearing nice racks. The biologist encourages hunters to use their antlerless tags this season to help keep deer populations in check and improve buck/doe ratios.
Hunter success last season: 78 %
Post Oak and Pineywoods: TPWD wildlife biologist Larry Lebeau, of Tyler, says deer entered fall in great shape thanks to good range conditions that persisted throughout most of the summer. This should translate to above-average antler quality on bucks and a solid year for fawn recruitment.
Roger Wolfe, Region 5 district leader, added that hunters will likely be dealing with a bumper acorn crop this fall, which could add up to tough hunting conditions.
“I suspect it’s going to spread the deer out, so they’ll be harder to pattern and probably won’t come to corn very well because of the highly available food source,” he said “It’s going to present some challenges to hunters, but the trade off is it’s going to make for healthy herd.”
TPWD Region 6 district leader Rusty Wood, of Nacogdoches, says the situation is nearly identical in the Pineywoods. “This may be the best mast crop I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s going to be great for the deer, but it’s also going to make for some tough hunting, especially for the guy sitting in a box blind watching a corn feeder.”
Hunter Success Last Season: 55 % (Pineywoods) and 61 % (Post Oak)
Cross Timbers: TPWD technical guidance biologist Dean Marquardt, of Granbury, says North Texas deer hunters have plenty to look forward to this season with good numbers of mature and middle age bucks on the landscape, including some 61/2 and 71/2 year olds carried over from banner fawn crops in 2012-13. Above-average antler growth expected.
Like many parts of the state, the region is abundant with natural food sources this season, which may steer deer away from corn feeders early on.
“It turned off hot and dry in July and August but there is still a lot of feed out there — mainly live oak, post oak and blackjack acorns,” Kevin Mote, TPWD Region 3 district leader, said. Mote said acorns started hitting the ground in early October.
Hunter success last season: 66 %
South Texas: South Texas has a rich history of producing some of the state’s biggest bucks, and lots of them. Cain expects the trend to continue in 2019, thanks to mild, wet weather last winter and spring that resulted in excellent range conditions to optimize antler growth and body weights.
“Things turned off dry in July, but the bucks still managed to finish off their antlers really good,” Cain said. “The antler quality in South Texas is outstanding this year and the deer are in great shape body-wise. Hunters should really have good expectations going into the opening of the general season.”
Hunter success last season: 74 %
Things to remember
Increased “Doe Days:” Deer hunters in 20 Post Oak counties are now allowed to take two antlerless deer during the first 16 days of the general deer season.
Counties included: Bell (east of IH 35), Burleson, Delta, Ellis, Falls, Fannin, Franklin, Freestone, Hopkins, Hunt, Kaufman, Limestone, Milam, Navarro, Rains, Smith, Titus, Van Zandt, Williamson (east of IH 35) and Wood.
New “Doe Days:” Hunters in 21 counties in south-central Texas are allowed to take two antlerless deer during the four-day period spanning Thanksgiving Day through the following Sunday.
Counties included are: Austin, Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Comal (east of IH 35), De Witt, Fayette, Goliad (north of U.S. Highway 59), Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hays (east of IH 35), Jackson (north of U.S. Highway 59), Karnes, Lavaca, Lee, Travis (east of IH 35), Victoria (north of U.S. Highway 59), Waller, Washington, Wharton (north of U.S. Highway 59), and Wilson.
Hunters who take antlerless deer in the 21 counties are required to report the harvest within 24 hours to the department website or using a mobile phone application.
Antler Restrictions: Antler restrictions are in place on whitetail deer in 117 counties. Hunters are limited to two bucks, only one of which may have an inside spread of 13 inches or more. The second legal buck must have at least one unbranched antler. Reference the 2019-20 Texas Outdoor Annual to check laws and bag limits for your county.
Carcass/Trash Disposal: Hunters who process their own deer should be sure to properly dispose of carcasses, preferably using a trash service, by taking them to a landfill or burying them at the site of harvest. Tossing carcasses along public roadways or on private property without permission is illegal. The same is true of empty corn sacks and other trash that accumulates at deer camp.
CWD Reminders: Hunters who harvest deer inside the Trans-Pecos, South Central and Panhandle chronic wasting disease containment and surveillance zones are prohibited from transporting whole carcasses, or parts that contain spinal cord, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes, outside of CWD zones or from another state or country where the disease exists.
Deer heads being transported to a taxidermist outside of a CWD zone must be accompanied by a “deer head waiver” obtained at a CWD check station or from the department’s CWD website.
Avoid cutting through bones, spine or brain when processing deer carcasses.
Tagging the Animal: All harvested deer must be tagged immediately after harvest using the appropriate tag from your hunting license or a MLDP tag, if applicable. License tags must be legibly completed with the date/month of harvest removed and the harvest log on the back of the license filled out. The completed tag should be secured to an antler or leg so it will not come off in transport.
Licenses and Hunter Education: All Texas deer hunters are required to have a valid Texas hunting license. Every hunter (including out-of-state hunters) born on or after Sept. 2, 1971, must successfully complete a state-approved hunter education course. Proof of certification is required while in the field.
Hunt Prime Times: There is no bad time to be in good deer woods, but the best time is during the rut. This is when bucks are actively looking for receptive does and most prone to make mistakes they normally would not make. Peak times for rutting activity vary from one geographical region to the next. TPWD performed an extensive study to learn more about peak breeding times for each region. Check it out at tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/planning/rut_whitetailed_deer/#E11E8.
Texas Deer Hunting by the Numbers
$2.1 Billion: The estimated dollar amount generated for Texas economy by deer hunting each year.
508,155: The number of bucks shot by Texas whitetail hunters last year.
9.36 million: The estimated number of hunter days spent chasing whitetails in Texas last year.
11.58: The average number of days each hunter spent deer hunting last year.
Top 5 Texas whitetail regions
1.) Edwards Plateau: 2.3 million deer
2.) Cross Timbers: 842,000 deer
3.) Post Oak Savannah: 662,000 deer
4.) South Texas Plains: 456,000 deer
5.) Pineywoods: 270,000 deer
2019-20 whitetail deer seasons
North Zone: Nov. 2, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020
South Zone: Nov. 2, 2019-Jan. 19, 2020
Special late season
North Zone: Jan. 6-19, 2020
South Zone: Jan. 20-Feb. 2, 2020
Early Season: Oct. 26-27, 2019
Late Season: Jan. 6-19, 2020
Sep. 28-Nov. 1, 2019
Jan. 6-19, 2020