Public Hunting Primer
With a little advance planning and research, you can find plenty of inexpensive hunting opportunities close to home.
By Steve Lightfoot
A January norther that blew in hours earlier turned the 20-minute run across Espiritu Santo Bay from Port O’Connor to Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area into a treacherous crawl. Pitch dark and in confused water, boats of various shapes and sizes negotiated myriad obstacles.
“There’s one boat stuck on a sandbar to the left of the cut and another off to the right. We missed the turn and almost nailed a platform,” offered a drenched, camouflage-clad duck hunter in his early 20s as he ambled toward the check-in station, a bag of two dozen plastic duck decoys slung over one shoulder. Despite a 30-knot “breeze” at their backs, the two beached boats would pull free and make the island in time to join a host of other waterfowlers for the morning hunt.
Public hunting in Texas is no walk in the park, but for those willing to put forth some extra effort, the 1,000,000-plus acres of public hunting lands offer affordable access to first-rate outdoor experiences.
During the second-to-last weekend of the 2005-2006 duck hunting season, 42 hunters on Matagorda Island WMA shared nearly two dozen freshwater ponds scattered across 7,300 acres and averaged better than four ducks apiece, with an impressive 13 different duck species counted among the harvest. Several young hunters strapped their first pintail drakes, and there were others, seasoned duck hunters, who cooed over a rare goldeneye drake, envied a brilliant cinnamon teal and inspected an unusual mottled duck/mallard hybrid.
Todd Merendino, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who oversees a series of WMAs along the coast, including Matagorda Island, appreciates the extra effort public hunters put into the experience and tries to be accommodating. “Public hunting is just a different style or type of hunting, primarily because unlike a guided operation or your own private lease, there is an element of the unknown,” says Merendino. “My number-one priority is to do whatever I can to make sure these folks have a good time.”
The adage about the early bird getting the worm rings true for public hunting in Texas. In many cases it is first come, first served, and it’s that element of chance that can be daunting for some.
“Folks that are in front of you at the check-in station may pick the spot you wanted to go to, or you may just be unfamiliar with the place and not know a good site to hunt,” Merendino explains. “Just like this morning, these guys will be set up an hour before shooting time. On a private lease, or a guided operation, you’ll probably be getting set up right at shooting time. If I can give somebody insight and offer advice, hopefully they’ll have a productive hunt and will want to come back.”
TPWD offers a variety of hunting opportunities through two public hunting systems. The $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit provides nearly year-round hunting on approximately 1.2 million acres of land. The increasingly popular dove hunting areas are offered through this system. The Public Hunt Drawing System provides opportunities to apply for a wide variety of supervised, drawn hunts, including special drawings for both adults and youth hunters. In addition, TPWD offers special hunt package drawings for exotic wildlife and quality native animals on TPWD-managed lands as well as specially leased private properties.
Both public hunting avenues can provide quality hunting experiences. But, like any outdoor recreational activity, depending upon your level of expertise and expectations, you get out of it what you put into it. Scouting for the right public hunting experience might mean spending a fair amount of time researching map booklets, checking the odds of success based on past years’ hunts and making calls to local wildlife biologists to find out about the prospects for a successful hunt.
“If you are a seasoned, experienced hunter proficient with a centerfire rifle, shotgun or bow, you could fill all your tags with an APH on public land,” says Kelly Edmiston, who coordinates TPWD’s Wildlife Division information phone bank and handles calls regularly from potential public hunters looking for advice. “If you’re just getting into hunting or are looking for something between a fully guided hunt and one where you are turned loose on your own, then our drawn hunts are the way to go.”
With the special drawn hunts, participants are assigned to specific areas by compartment or section and are allowed to set up blinds or move around as they choose, except in some areas — such as state parks — where hunters might be stationed in blinds for safety reasons.
“The overall selection rate is about one for every nine applicants, but that’s skewed somewhat because some areas are extremely popular and get a lot of applicants,” says Vickie Fite, TPWD public hunting coordinator. “But, some areas don’t have enough applicants to fill the available slots.”
As demand for public lands hunting continues to grow, TPWD has expanded its drawn hunt system to maximize opportunity on state parks and wildlife management areas and by leasing private land for public hunting.
“Our private small game lease program is a priority,” says Fite. “It started out just for dove hunting, but now we have private leased land for duck, quail, pheasant, rabbit, squirrel and even feral hogs. We’ve also invested in making some areas wheelchair accessible and our field staff tries to accommodate physically challenged hunters whenever possible.
“The cool thing about the lease program is that it’s geared toward the urban hunter,” she adds, “and we’ve made a conscious effort to cluster lands along the I-10 and I-35 corridors to try and put public hunting within driving distance of major cities.”
Here’s what you need to know to take advantage of the public hunting opportunities available in Texas.
- Annual Public Hunting (APH) Permit — $48
- Issued to an individual and valid for a 12-month period from
- September 1 through August 31 (the following year).
- Provides access to more than 1,000,000 acres of land for hunting, fishing, camping and other uses.
- Offers more than 200 different areas, including about 130 special dove hunting units.
- Many areas are open year-round for authorized activities by permit holders.
- Access to about 140 dove and small game leases covering nearly 60,000 acres in 48 counties. Majority of locations are within an hour’s drive of major metropolitan areas.
- Allows hunting for deer, feral hogs, squirrel, turkey, dove, waterfowl, quail and other legal game.
- The APH Permit waives any applicable daily hunting permit fees on the listed areas.
- Youth under age 17 may hunt free with a permitted adult.
- The APH Permit provides entry to TPWD Wildlife Management Areas at times when they are open for general visitation.
Only permit holders receive a map booklet listing available areas, facilities, rules and schedules. Booklets are online and can be downloaded for review.
APH Permits are available at TPWD offices and all license vendors (a place that sells hunting and fishing licenses), or by calling 1-800-TX-LIC-4U (menu choice 1 for license sales) and paying by Visa, Discover or MasterCard. If the permit is purchased at a TPWD office, the map booklet and supplement will be provided immediately at the time of purchase; otherwise, the publications will be mailed to the permit holder within two weeks of purchase.
Insider Tips: Check out the TPWD Annual Public Hunting map booklet online to locate hunting areas near home. Take advance scouting trips to become familiar with the land. Plan to hunt midweek or after the opening week of the season to avoid crowds. Remember, these are “your” hunting leases, so treat them with respect.
Computer Drawings for Supervised Hunts
Drawings are held to select a limited number of participants in high-quality supervised hunts for white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, exotics, feral hogs, javelina, turkey, alligators and guided hunt packages. Most hunts take place on department-managed lands, including state parks and WMAs.
- Requires submission of a completed application and fees prior to an established deadline.
- Hunt applications and schedules are posted online during the summer.
- Application fees (required for adults only) are $3 per person for most drawn hunts and $10 per person on certain packaged hunts.
- Among the packaged hunts are top-shelf Big Time Texas Hunts, including the Grand Slam package of four separate hunts for desert bighorn sheep, whitetailed deer, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.
- Selected applicants will be awarded a 1- to 4-day hunt with $75-$125 hunt permit fee assessed for adults. No permit fee for youth hunters.
- Some drawn hunts have restrictions (archery, muzzleloader, handgun or shotgun only).
- Some drawn hunts are reserved exclusively for hunting by supervised youth (no application or hunt permit fees are charged).
- Application deadlines for the categories of Computer Drawn Hunts are as follows:
- Alligator, Archery Alligator, Youth-only Alligator — early August
- Pronghorn Antelope, Archery Deer, Archery Exotic — mid-August
- Gun Deer (Either-Sex, Antlerless/Spike, Management Buck, Youth-only Either Sex, Youth-only Antlerless/Spike, Private Lands Management Either Sex, Private Lands Antlerless/Spike) — early September
- Javelina, Youth-only Javelina and Guided Deer Hunt Packages — early October
- Feral Hog, Youth Feral Hog — early November
- Exotic Only — mid-November
- Youth Spring Turkey, Spring Turkey, Guided Scimitar-Horned Oryx Hunt Package, Guided Gemsbok and Guided Waterbuck Hunt Packages — early December
Insider Tips: Research the listing of drawn hunts online in midsummer; check the odds for success and selection. Call the site to see what the prospects are before applying. Look into standby hunting opportunities at sites near home (unfilled slots are awarded to those who show up the day of the hunt on an as-needed basis). Standby hunting offers the best odds of getting selected.
Regular Permit Hunts
A $15 Daily Hunting Permit purchased at the hunting area is available for some of the small game hunts (youth under 17 free with permitted adult), including waterfowl. This information is found in the Applications for Drawings on Public Hunting Lands booklet.
- Dove, quail, waterfowl, squirrel and rabbit may be hunted at designated times on designated Wildlife Management Areas.
- Some hunts are youth-only hunts where only supervised youth are allowed to hunt.
Insider Tips: This is an economical way for a group of friends to check out dove or waterfowl hunting, particularly those who have been out of hunting for awhile.
Federal Public Hunting Lands in Texas
There is free access and/or by permit for hunting on several National Wildlife Refuges in Texas, as well as on USDA Forest Service lands.
- Reserved space hunting areas available on some NWRs for $10 a day or $40 a year.
- Some NWRs have self-issued permits available at the check-in site.
- Some areas, such as the Trinity River NWR, have application drawings for big game hunts.
- Accessible hunt blinds are available in some locations, which can be reserved for hunters with a disability.
Additional information, including detailed maps and the refuge-required permits are available at refuge offices and visitor information stations. The required permit and maps may be downloaded from <www.fws.gov/ southwest/refuges/txrefuges.html>
Insider Tips: Some of the best waterfowl hunting opportunities in Southeast Texas are available seasonally on Anahuac NWR, where 40 percent of the refuge is open to hunting. For bowhunters, the Hagerman NWR in Northeast Texas holds some of the biggest white-tailed deer found anywhere.