Welcome Rains Boost the 2014 Hunting Forecast
By Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Each spring numerous requests for the deer hunting forecast come across my desk. I often contemplate how predictions for the upcoming hunting season are about as accurate as the weather forecast and will most likely change, especially when those forecasts are requested 5 to 6 months prior to the upcoming season. Weather, specifically rainfall and the timing of rainfall, is among a number of factors affecting how the hunting season will shape up and thus, ultimately, my hunt forecast.
Biologists look at rainfall as a major predictor of the hunting season because there is a direct correlation between rainfall, habitat (the nutrition and cover that deer need) and antler quality and fawn production. All of these impact what hunters see each fall and the quality of deer harvested.
This year, my prediction in July was much different from the prediction I made earlier in the spring for those early hunting forecast requests.
Back in March and early April I couldn’t have predicted the welcome rainfall events across many areas of Texas and the unusually cooler temperatures in June and early July, as compared to the last several years where 100-degree temperatures and dry conditions seemed to arrive earlier than I like.
Early in the spring many parts of the state, especially west of I-35, were very dry. It looked like winter in late March across South Texas, the Hill Country, Trans Pecos, and Rolling Plains.
Very few spring weeds and wildflowers were available, grass was still dormant and some of the brush species were slow to fully leaf-out. I was thinking the deer might have a rough time finding enough nutritional resources, ultimately affecting antler growth, fawn production and overall body condition.
My prediction at the time was that the 2014 season would be similar to the last 3 years, average to below average regarding quality and overall hunting, with much of that related to the drier conditions Texas had experienced.
Conditions started to improve however, in some cases quite dramatically. In May we had good rains across many areas of Texas. For parts of North Texas in the Cross Timbers region and areas east of I-35, habitat conditions in the early spring were in decent shape and were expected to provide deer the resources they needed to stay in good shape over the summer.
Those expectations were solidified for the eastern third of the state with late spring rains, and hunters should expect an above average year in that region. Fortunately, South Texas, the Hill Country, and lands to the west also received some reasonable rains this spring, giving the habitat and vegetation a much needed boost to stay green as we headed into summer.
These favorable conditions should help deer through the summer. However, because these areas didn’t have much winter moisture or receive the early spring rains, the flush of green weeds weren’t available to provide the nutritional boost bucks needed to get a jump start on antler growth and overall antler quality.
Despite the early dry conditions, hunters pursuing whitetails in the western half of the state should expect an average year with antler quality, which is still good for most hunters.
Those landowners managing for quality native habitat and maybe supplementing with protein will be buffered against some of the impacts from the dry conditions of early spring. These folks had the forethought to keep deer densities low to insure adequate forage was available for deer during the stress periods that could have persisted late into the spring because of the lack of precipitation. On these properties I would expect to see some exceptional bucks harvested this upcoming season, but they won’t be behind every bush.
Regional deer population estimates
Although Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) wildlife biologists started to conduct deer surveys in August, and will continue this month, a look back at the 2013 population may indicate what 2014 could bring regarding the number of deer on the range.
Statewide population estimates for 2013 were 3.8 million white-tailed deer. Those statistics work out to about 39 deer per 1,000 acres on average.
Hunters should keep in mind that density estimates vary dramatically depending on the region of the state your favorite hunting spot is in and, probably more importantly, the quality and quantity of native habitat that is available to attract and hold white-tailed deer.
The Hill Country supports the highest deer population in the state with an estimated 2.1 million deer or an estimated deer density of 113 deer per 1,000 acres.
The Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timbers regions support about 400,000 deer in each region, or 35 and 37 deer per 1,000 acres respectively.
South Texas has a much lower estimated deer population at around 230,000.
East Texas deer population estimates for 2013 were about 240,000, or 18 deer per 1,000 acres.
On the western edge of the white-tailed deer range in the southern High Plains, deer populations are much lower with estimates of about 11,000 deer.
The Trans Pecos region has a smaller white-tailed deer population compared to the rest of the state, estimated at 50,000 animals. Densities can be quite high in the area, however, exceeding 30 deer per 1,000 acres and in better habitat, 66 deer per 1,000 acres.
What does this mean for 2014 hunting?
The bottom line from a hunter’s perspective is that there will be plenty of animals to pursue in 2014.
For the most part, hunters can expect to see about the same number of deer as in 2013. Deer population trends in most regions of the state are stable, or in some cases increasing at a slow rate.
If you want to increase your odds of harvesting a deer in 2014, consider hunting the Hill Country, which supports the highest deer population in the state. With that target-rich environment, hunters should be able to put some venison in the freezer this year.
Although Texas has a healthy and abundant deer population, if we see a good mast crop (the fruit of forest trees, such as acorns) this year in the early fall, hunting season will be a bit more challenging because deer may not visit the corn feeder as frequently. It’s still a little early to predict acorn or mesquite bean production, so hunters will have to take the wait-and-see approach as to how that may play out.
Implications of fawn production
While most hunters typically don’t harvest fawns, fawn production each fall is extremely important. It translates into adult deer, specifically into adult bucks in later years.
In years with poor fawn production, hunters should expect to see fewer bucks in that particular age class in each of the coming years, as the group matures. Looking back at TPWD deer survey data over the last 9 years or so, we see statewide fawn crop estimates were good in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013. Those good fawn crops – greater than 45 percent – mean a good number of young bucks in the 1.5- and 2.5-year-old age classes and a good number of 4.5- and 7.5-year-old bucks, as compared to other age classes.
Based on range conditions this year I would expect fawn crops to be average to above average as a result of the improved range conditions.
During the 2013 season an estimated 625,577 deer were harvested of which 330,535 were bucks and 295,042 were does.
Hunter success was estimated to be 58 percent with an average harvest per hunter of 0.89 deer. These odds are not too bad for a person pursuing a white-tailed deer in Texas. I hope 2014 will have similar odds, if not better.
I encourage hunters to continue to fill their tags in areas such as the Hill Country, where deer numbers are likely beyond what the habitat should be supporting, or in areas that may start to experience drier conditions this fall.
If hunters and landowners are unsure about how many deer they should harvest on their lease or ranch, consider contacting the local TPWD wildlife biologist to discuss possible deer survey options and deer harvest recommendations. Establishing a population estimate on the hunting property can help hunters better manage the deer herd in their area while meeting deer management and hunting goals.
Check out the following link to the TPWD website to find your local TPWD biologist http://www.tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/technical_guidance/biologists/.
Antler quality estimate
A hunting forecast wouldn’t be complete without some estimation of antler quality for the upcoming season.
Although still early, predictions indicate an average year for antler quality at the statewide scale, but hunters should keep in mind the eastern portion of the state is likely to have another above average year for antlers.
For most hunters the average buck is a pretty good deer, and unless you’re a trophy antler collector, I suspect a 6.5-year-old buck or older scoring 127 Boone and Crockett (B&C) would be a heck of a deer; this is the statewide average for a 6.5-year-old buck. Statewide average B&C score for 4.5- to 5.5-year-old bucks is 121 B&C with the South Texas region producing the best quality bucks at 129 B&C on average.
Average B&C scores and overall quality do not fluctuate too much within an age group or age class. Lack of adequate nutrition often related to drought or too many deer on the range, causing competition for forage resources, have the greatest impact on antler quality from year to year.
While any area of the state can produce a quality deer, hunters would improve their odds of bagging a trophy quality buck by hunting in South Texas and the Rolling Plains, which on average produce the highest scoring bucks in the state (see table 1).
Hunters should expect a good 2014 deer season. Who knows, this may be the year you take your biggest buck, fill every tag on your license or, more importantly, enjoy the time spent in the field hunting white-tailed deer with your family and friends.
It’s all the more special if you can spend that time hunting with kids. So don’t get caught sitting on the couch this fall watching hunting shows. The deer are out there waiting for you. If you don’t have a place to hunt, check out our public hunting opportunities on the TPWD website at https://www2.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/public/public_hunt_drawing/.
The public hunting program has launched its new online application system, making it easier for hunters to apply for a number of public hunts on some of TPWD wildlife management areas, state parks and state natural areas.
Good luck and have a great hunting season!
"2014 Hunting Report" is from the September 2014 issue of The Cattleman magazine.