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Hunting Forecast

Rains have been plentiful and there’s good habitat across the state. Looks like another great year in the field.

By John Jefferson

Quail researcher Fidel Hernandez says the recipe for producing abundant quail is to give them plenty of room and “just add water.”

Overview for the season

For quail to do really well, to have a boom year, he says, they need a lot of space with sustained rainfall over an extended period. And has it rained! When there is as much life-sustaining rainfall as Texas has been blessed with for the past couple of years, every creature on the land tends to prosper.

Quail are said to be an indicator species. When rains are plentiful and the habitat is healthy, the quail crop will be good. When times are bad or the habitat is in poor shape from overgrazing or other abuse, the number of quail on the range will be significantly reduced. And if the quail numbers are good, other species will have benefited, too. A number of usually conservative wildlife biologists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are saying conditions are in place for the best quail crop in years — maybe the best since 1987.

Biologists describe the stands of forbs (showy wildflowers) that are critical to above-average antler development as “abundant, robust and vigorous” and emphasize that those forbs were present for 90 to 120 days — much longer than usual. When these cautious wildlife professionals say the season should be “super,” you have to believe something is up.

Of course, those same wildlife researchers would insist on the following disclaimer: An infamously hot, dry Texas summer could mess up June predictions made for September publication, especially predictions for quail. But as we go to press, the food’s on the plate and there’s more in the kitchen.

While that is good news for the wildlife, it could spell harder hunting for the hunters. With more groceries easily available, deer and other game birds and animals may not venture out of cover and come to feeders like they do in dry years. This year we may have to learn how to hunt all over again.

With privilege also comes responsibility. Several of my panel of TPWD consultants cautioned that they expect a better-than-normal fawn crop, and that the Eden-like conditions providing cover and concealment as the fawns arrive should ensure higher survival numbers. That, coupled with the fact that thick vegetation could make hunting more challenging, resulting in fewer adult animal casualties, could mean a record net increase in the deer herd.

The latest figures show the total Texas herd numbers slightly more than 4 million — the largest in history, according to Mitch Lockwood, white-tailed deer program leader at TPWD. The number has increased steadily from just over 3 million in 1991. Lockwood’s figures also show that adult does exceed bucks by about five to two across the state (2.65 does per buck statewide). With adult does having one to two fawns a year, there will be a large number of new mouths to feed come weaning time in the fall. Statistics also show that Texas’ half-a-million deer hunters only harvest .82 deer per hunter (the total whitetail harvest statewide for 2003-2004 was 436,942).

That could spell trouble down the road when it quits raining for a year or two, which it inevitably will. The antidote is a committed resolve on the part of hunters and land managers to adequately reduce the number of antlerless deer before the already expanding deer herd gets any further out of control.

Many hunters say they don’t need as much venison as needs to be removed. Fine. Eating what you kill is a commendable ethic. But there are too many deer and a lot of hungry people in Texas who would appreciate donated venison. If you don’t want the venison, go online and visit www.tacaa.org, then follow the links to the Hunters for the Hungry web site where you can see how to make your donation.

Dove

Dove season is the first to open, and hunter enthusiasm would run high even if the flights were predicted to be down by half. But they’re not, and hunters should expect at least a normal opening day. Dove hunting in the early season depends upon the resident Texas dove population. Later in the season, northern doves will ride the cool fronts down.

Jay Roberson, TPWD migratory game bird program leader, points to the above-average rainfall and the seed production it will nurture. That means plenty of food to hold the doves, but David Synatzske, manager of the Chaparral WMA and Macy Ledbetter, manager of the James E. Daughtrey WMA, agree that in South Texas the availability of food and water may disperse the birds over a wide area. Technical guidance biologist Gary Homerstad in Victoria says the same for his area. Mike Hobson in Alpine reports that his staff has seen a larger than average number of nesting pairs, and expects good hunting. Chip Ruthven, manager of state WMAs in the Panhandle, echoes that, explaining that spring quail call counts are above average and range conditions are good in response to above-average rainfall. David Sierra, district biologist in the Post Oak region, says the best chance of coping with the abundance of food is to hunt a flyway between food, water and cover.

Pronghorn Antelope

Mike Hobson reports a 31 percent increase in Trans-Pecos pronghorns since 2002 and a 51 percent fawn crop in 2003, which means a substantial increase in adults for this season. Consequently, more permits will be issued. Another good fawn crop is expected due to improved habitat conditions. Through time and hunter selectivity, the numbers should continue to increase. Danny Swepston, Panhandle wildlife district leader, says the herds in that area came out of the mild winter in good shape, aided by above-average late-winter moisture. Overall numbers are estimated at about the same level as last year, but early antler development in the bucks seen so far appears good.

Prairie Chicken and Pheasants

Swepston, joined by technical guidance biologist Gene Miller, also reports that a mild winter followed by early spring moisture set up good range conditions for ground-nesting birds, particularly on managed lands that employ thoughtful grazing systems for wildlife. The early spring green-up will help all ground-nesting birds, including pheasants and prairie chickens. There was a good carry-over of pheasants, and new plantings of corn and maize have helped raise their population slightly, causing the TPW Commission to lengthen the season to 30 days.

Quail

Biologists in every section of the state say that a couple of years of rain and two years of carryover birds, coupled with continuing rain this year, have set the stage for the best year in recent memory. Only the biologists of the Pineywoods, which isn’t known as a quail mecca, anyway, are reserved in their appraisal. Even there, where habitat is suitable, quail hunting should be good.

Bob Carroll, district biologist in La Grange, reports that the southeastern part of the state generally has a low quail population, but last year saw an increase, and the large carryover of birds means hunters can expect even better hunting this season. Max Traweek, Edwards Plateau wildlife district leader, in another area not famous for its bobwhites, said production had been aided by the green ranges. Jim Dillard says 2 years of increasing bobwhite numbers in North Central Texas have them hopeful the third year is truly a charm.

The only question marks were inserted by Gary Homerstad and Jimmy Rutledge. Homerstad works the area along the Guadalupe River from Gonzales to the coast. His take is that quail have been improving for the past 3 or 4 years and this will be the best year yet, “unless quail just drown, or something.” The flood-prone Guadalupe giveth, and it taketh away. Rutledge, technical guidance biologist stationed in Carrizo Springs, compiled a report with help from a number of South Texas biologists, and says conditions could be too lush in places. Thick stands of buffelgrass can become too dense for ground-nesting birds.

Mike Krueger, technical guidance biologist based in Lampasas, agrees with others that the rains would aid insect production, vital to a young quail’s diet, but adds that a profusion of grasshoppers could also provide alternate prey for egg-eating mammals such as skunks and others, thus helping quail survival. In West Texas, Mike Pittman, manager of Black Gap, Sierra Diablo and Elephant Mountain WMAs, says scaled quail broods were seen earlier this year than usual. In Alpine, Mike Hobson pointed out that all four quail species (bobwhites, scaled, Montezuma and Gambel’s) are found in the Trans-Pecos, and all four are doing well.

Javelina

Javelina populations remain stable in South Texas and West Texas. Mike Hobson says javelinas remain an underutilized resource in West Texas, although populations do not rival those in South Texas.

Small Game

David Sierra explains that the Post Oak Savannah, that wooded farmland running diagonally from the northeast corner of Texas to the start of the Brush Country just south of San Antonio, will have good squirrel hunting this fall. Last fall’s acorn crop is the reason. “Years of good mast production are typically followed by years of good squirrel reproduction,” Sierra says, “so sportsmen desiring some early fall hunting opportunities should be rewarded.”

Jeff Gunnels, assistant area manager at Richland Creek WMA, says there will be good squirrel hunting opportunities on the Gus Engeling and Big Lake Bottom WMAs for people holding the TPWD Annual Public Hunting Permit. However, the Pineywoods, just east of the Post Oak, did not have as good an acorn crop, says Gary Calkins, district leader for the Pineywoods. “If summer conditions remain good, populations may rebound somewhat,” he said. Most areas throughout Texas that have hardwoods could have decent squirrel hunting this year, and the fall is such a fine time to find out.

In years after good rains, the rabbit population often expands, and cottontail and jackrabbit hunting could be at its best this year. Rabbits are vegetarians, so the past 2 years have been good to them. Reproduction is also stimulated by plentiful food plants, and each female eastern cottontail can have four or five litters a year, consisting of one to eight young.

Mule Deer

Like white tails, mule deer are also doing well. This year’s census showed an 11.8 percent increase from the 2002 census. Average age of bucks harvested last year was 5 1/2. Because of the increased cover, fawning losses should be lower. When TPWD Executive Director Bob Cook was wildlife division director in the late ’90s, he told me that West Texas was in a prolonged drought and that antelope and mule deer were declining because there was so little cover that every time a fawn hit the ground there was a predator waiting there to eat it. Well, the drought may have broken, at least to an extent. Hobson was pleased with 2003 antler quality, but expects better antlers this season. Pittman expects antler quality to be “above average to excellent.”

The Panhandle report is not quite as glowing, but Swepston and Ruthven expect antlers to be good to excellent.

White-tailed Deer

Biologists are singing the same song, and it ain’t the blues: “Better than average rain for the past two years.” Donnie Frels on the Kerr WMA reports the refuge is nine inches above average rainfall through April. Mike Krueger says he has heard this has been the most rainfall in at least ten years in the country he works from the Lampasas office Rutledge says, “Many areas are nearing their average annual rainfall totals as of the middle of May.” Mitch Lockwood says some Hill Country ranchers have told him this has been the best spring in 20 years. Lockwood adds that ranches that have refrained from shooting young bucks will reap more benefit from the rains.

Bob Carroll says because of the experimental antler restriction in the six counties he covers from the LaGrange office, they are just not shooting the younger bucks and are consequently seeing more buck in the older age classes. This season, that may pay off. Homerstad says it well: “Rain continued through the critical months of March and April, and hasn’t stopped yet (May). It probably won’t matter much, as far as antler growth is concerned, if it doesn’t rain a whole lot during the summer.”

In fact, a dry end of summer and early autumn could increase visibility and actually aid hunters. Synatzske pointed out that bucks from the abundant 1997 fawn crop that are still around are now 7 1/2 years old. Thick brush and tough hunting conditions the past 2 years have helped them live to maturity. He added that last season produced 29 bucks statewide that qualified for Boone & Crockett listings. “The last 2 years have provided excellent potential for antler growth and this year we will see the results,” he predicted. In South Texas, Ledbetter says “Expect a good, pronounced and early rut this year.” Hobson, speaking of the whitetails in West Texas, says he expects to see “quality antlers on mud-fat deer.”

Turkeys

Everything said about the prospects for “ground nesting birds” and abundant insects — especially grasshoppers — and food availability, applies to turkeys. Steve DeMaso, turkey and quail program leader, says there has been a good carry-over of gobblers from last season. Only Rio Grande turkeys can be hunted in the fall, though, so that restricts autumn turkey hunting to the western two-thirds of the state. Eastern turkeys can only be hunted in the spring. TPWD’s eastern turkey re-stocking program has been highly successful, though, so look out in East Texas next spring!

DeMaso says 39,000 Rio Grandes were taken by hunters last fall, and another 27,000 fell in the spring. The tally for Eastern turkeys for last spring was between 300 and 350 gobblers. For those who want to put a bird on the table at Thanksgiving or a beard on the wall, there will be ample opportunity throughout the western part of Texas, where the Rio Grandes are legal and plentiful.

Waterfowl

After hearing about all this rain, you might think Texas is now one big duck pond. Not quite so. David Sierra, in East Texas, says “having water at the right time with an abundance of acorns, invertebrates and aquatic plants” is what is needed in the bottomland forests and wetlands. Gunnels says floods on the Trinity filled potholes that will produce food as they dry up, but the ducks still have to come south for it to do any good.

Vernon Bevill, small game and habitat assessment program director, says a number of key breeding areas have been drying out, including the Dakotas, and prospects are still in question. Winter was longer than usual in the north, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys were later than expected. Consequently, migratory waterfowl regulations were not set in time to be included here.

Bevill says, however, that ice and snow on the ground could have affected nesting. There was late snow cover in a number of the goose breeding areas of the Arctic, so goose production will likely be down. He also says undocumented reports indicate that “some key duck areas received excellent moisture in the early spring after having been dry.” Some late moisture in duck breeding country might be helpful. Waterfowl program leader Dave Morrison says Texas surveys have shown an increase the past few years in spite of hunters complaining that there were no ducks. The wet weather for the past 2 years has enabled ducks to disperse more, and they just haven’t been in traditional areas.

Bevill expects at least a nine-day teal season. The dates will be the last two full weekends in September, or the last three weekends if the season runs to 16 days. Texas’ resident species, the mottled duck, seems to be poised for good production, according to Jim Sutherlin, area manager for J.D. Murphree WMA. Waterfowl biologist Bill Johnson reports that the Panhandle is “as dry as it can be” where ducks and geese are concerned, which doesn’t bode well for the fall. He does have his fingers crossed, however.

Waterfowl season regulations will be covered in the 2004-2005 Texas Waterfowl Digest.

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