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Hunting Forecast

Drought has affected many areas, but a little rain may change everything.

By John Jefferson

Earlier in the year, Texas was in a serious drought. Most of the state had been rain-deprived since last fall. Jimmy Rutledge, TPWD technical guidance biologist in Carrizo Springs, recorded rainfall from May 2005 to May 2006 of only 7.06 inches. Chip Ruthven, manager of the Matador Wildlife Management Area in the Panhandle, wrote that dry conditions had resulted in reduced quail cover, and a lot of that was either consumed by wildfires or run through a cow. Water holes were drying up. Even normally damp East Texas was dry.

Wildlife populations, however, are not always affected by just one or two years of adverse weather. Take deer, for instance, which have a possible life expectancy of six or seven years or more. Ty Bartoskewitz, biologist in Hebbronville, points to good fawn crops and survival from 2002 to 2004, which should provide plenty of bucks this season in the two-, three- and four-year age classes.

Some short-lived species - especially ground nesting birds - don't fare as well. To get an overall snapshot, let's take a look at some informational tidbits culled from reports prepared by TPWD field biologists.

Pronghorns

In the Panhandle, Danny Swepston says the pronghorns went into the 2005 season in excellent shape and several nice ones were harvested. Gene Miller, in Canyon, confirms a good carryover from last season. The Trans-Pecos herd has increased for the past four years, according to Calvin Richardson in Midland, but he feels the drought will prevent another bumper fawn crop. Much horn growth occurs during the winter and is dependent upon precipitation. Richardson and Billy Tarrant agree that lack of rain could make horns only "average" this season. Mature bucks and permits should be plentiful, however.

Pronghorn Antelope season

(by permit only): Sept. 30-Oct. 8

Bighorn Sheep

Tarrant cites helicopter surveys that show increasing numbers now at 800-plus in seven mountain ranges, and spreading. Best chance for a hunter of average means to obtain one of the limited permits is through the Texas Grand Slam drawing.

By permit only

Mule Deer

The Trans-Pecos area has been blessed with rain for the past four years, and mule deer populations have rebounded. Richardson highlights fall surveys that showed deer numbers are at an all-time high and fawn crops above average. He warns, though, that harsh conditions could retard antler development. Tarrant agrees. Richardson, though, points to the Delaware Mountains and the sand hills northwest of Midland-Odessa as areas that consistently produce wall hangers due to productive soils and low competition for food. In the Panhandle and Rolling Plains, Ruthven tells of seeing deer in declining body condition due to nutritional stress. He expects below-average reproduction and antler development.

Mule Deer Season

Archery: Sept. 30-Oct. 29

General: Panhandle (36 counties): Nov. 18-Dec. 3

SW Panhandle (7 counties): Nov. 18-26

Trans-Pecos (19 counties): Nov. 25-Dec. 10

Whitetails

In last year's hunting forecast, Mike Krueger, in Lampasas, mentioned record rainfall there from October to February, and that the eastern portion of his district toward I-35 was in the best shape. That's where the new all-time number one non-typical buck in the Texas Big Game Awards Program was taken - in Coryell County on a well-managed 2,500-acre ranch. But Krueger isn't talking like that this year: "The lack of protein-rich foods this past winter and early spring due to lack of rainfall would be expected to negatively affect antler growth." Max Traweek, in Kerrville, echoes that for the entire Hill Country, but says it won't affect deer availability - there are plenty to go around. Traweek also feels hunters may see more deer moving to find food due to the stressed habitat. David Sierra confirms lack of winter and spring rain in the Tyler area, as well, but says the area from I-30 to the Red River received more. Calkins says Hurricane Rita interfered with hunting last season, so there is a good carryover of mature deer awaiting Pineywoods hunters this fall. Gary Homerstad, in Victoria, says some of the Victoria-Goliad area received good rains; some didn't. Fawning cover will be limited. "You can see a golf ball a hundred yards away," he says. "Coyotes will have a field day." Ashton Hutchins laments lack of rain in Frio, Dimmit and Zavala counties, and says much brush has lost leaves. He expects antler quality will suffer, but on well-managed ranches where stocking rates are in line, there will be some quality bucks. Kunz reminds hunters, though, that leafless brush means more deer will be observed, and concentrated around feeders. One wet hurricane could alter that, however. In the Trans-Pecos region, Richardson says whitetails have gone from "lots of deer" to "way too many!" Without rain, he expects a die-off. Antler quality will be "average, at best," but there will still be "plenty of bucks." Ruthven has not heard of die-offs in the Panhandle, but expects sub-par antler quality. Donnie Frels, manager of the Kerr WMA, encourages a heavy harvest to help habitat recovery. Forty additional formerly one-buck counties will get the antler restrictions and additional unbranched-antler buck in the bag this season that assisted population control and improved herd age structure in other areas. Let's hope it helps.

White-tailed deer season

Archery: Sept. 30-Oct. 29

General:

Special youth season: Oct. 28-29, Jan. 20-21

North Texas (200 counties): Nov. 4-Jan. 7

Panhandle (6 counties): Nov. 18-Dec. 3

South Texas (30 counties): Nov. 4-Jan. 21

Edwards Plateau (39 counties):

Late antlerless and spike: Jan. 8-21

South Texas (30 counties):

Late antlerless and spike: Jan. 22-Feb. 4

Muzzleloader (23 counties):

Antlerless and spike only: Jan. 13-21

Feral Hogs

Synatzske says the drought could affect hogs by lowering reproductive and survival rates. That's a good thing. It will also cause increased movement to water and food, thus providing hunter opportunity. Bill Adams, on the Engeling WMA in East Texas, says they have an abundance of hogs, and that hunters have little impact. Archery hunting will be allowed there this season, and hunters on drawn deer hunts may take hogs.

No closed season; landowner permission required

Javelina

Synatzske sees javelina enduring hard times better than most species if prickly pear is present. It's a major food source. Even with the prolonged drought, javelina demonstrated high reproductive rates last winter. Where there's pear, you find plenty of peccaries.

Javelina season

Approximately 43 counties: Oct. 1-Feb. 25

Approximately 50 counties: Sept. 1-Aug. 31

Rio Grande Turkeys

There is an open season on Rio Grande turkeys in the fall - but not on Eastern turkeys. The spring season focuses on both species. TPWD turkey program leader Steve DeMaso looks back at the mild winter and reports a significant carryover in turkeys. He adds, "Good production during the past few years should ensure relatively abundant turkeys throughout much of the state." With little natural feed, expect them around feeders.

Rio Grande turkey season

Archery: Sept. 30-Oct. 29

Special youth season: Oct. 28-29, Jan. 20-21

North Texas (122 counties): Nov. 4-Jan. 7

South Texas (26 counties): Nov. 4-Jan. 21

Brooks, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties: Nov. 4-Feb. 25

Doves

Billy Tarrant, in Alpine, sees the drought as a blessing, since it could concentrate doves around water holes. The mild winter also encouraged over-wintering and early breeding in the Panhandle, according to Danny Swepston. Around Brownwood, Kevin Mote sees little forb production, which is needed to hold the birds in the area. In South Texas, David Synatzske, manager of the Chaparral WMA, agrees that without rain, there will be little seed production for doves. Ashton Hutchins, in Frio County, says disked fields aren't coming up in croton and sunflowers, either. But it doesn't stop with wildflowers: Alan Cain, in Pleasanton, thinks good fields to hunt over may be hard to find since crops may not make it without rain. The bright spot, according to T. Wayne Schwertner, in Mason, may be the continued increase and expansion of white-winged doves around urban areas. Jim Dillard affirms that for North Central Texas. Rick Taylor says around Uvalde, the whitewing flights are "tremendous." Schwertner also reminds hunters that Eurasian collared-doves are increasing, are not regulated and don't count as part of the bag limit.

Dove seasons

(Please report leg bands to 800-327-BAND)

North Zone Sept. 1-Oct. 30

Central Zone Sept. 1-Oct. 30, Dec. 26-Jan. 4

South Zone Sept. 22-Nov. 12, Dec. 26-Jan. 12

Special South Texas Zone Sept. 2, 3, 9 & 10,

Sept. 22-Nov. 12,

Dec. 26-Jan. 8

Pheasants and Prairie Chickens

Swepston says Panhandle pheasants are at above-average population. Ruthven reports seeing good numbers in Castro County and feels that Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for nesting and irrigated grain fields for food and cover will benefit the big birds. Prairie chickens are another matter. Gene Miller says only 12 birds were bagged last year, and wildfires destroyed some nesting habitat and displaced birds. When the chickens come home to roost, however, the fires may have improved their habitat.

Pheasant season

Chambers, Jefferson and Liberty counties: Nov. 4-Feb. 25

Panhandle (37 counties): Dec. 2-31
(New day limit - three cocks)

Lesser prairie chicken season
(by permit only): Oct. 21-22

Small Game

Gary Homerstad, in Victoria, advises hunters that rabbits and squirrels are not as affected by drought as other species - and that it's a great way to get kids into the woods!

Bottomlands along streams provide excellent squirrel hunting. David Sierra, in Tyler, reports just enough rain to produce acorns, and correspondingly, squirrels. Jeff Gunnels predicts good hunting at Keechi Creek WMA, near Centerville, due to a good acorn crop. Gary Calkins, in Jasper, says Hurricane Rita adversely affected acorn production, but with a little rain, it ought to rebound by fall.

Squirrel season

Special youth season: Sept. 23-24 (In all counties that have an Oct.1 - Feb 4 and May 1 - 31 open squirrel season)

East Texas (51 counties): Oct. 1-Feb. 4, May 1-31

Other open counties
(see Outdoor Annual): Sept. 1-Aug. 31

Rabbits and hares: no closed season.

Predators

Rick Taylor writes that coyotes and bobcats are running out of rodents and rabbits to eat, and should be attracted to calls. Synatzske says he expects a predator decline, though, as prey diminishes.

No closed season on predators.

Landowner permission required.

Quail

Steve DeMaso, TPWD's turkey and quail program leader, says the mild winter and difficult hunting conditions last year combined to provide a good carryover of adult quail. That's the good news. But quail need a certain amount of moisture in the soil to hatch chicks. It won't happen on powder-dry ground. And there has to be nesting cover to mask them from predators. Then, assuming they hatch, there has to be enough green vegetation to harbor the insects upon which the young chicks dine. None of that was present in late spring. Rick Taylor, in Uvalde, sees through the glass dimly: "Carryover from last year could provide a decent season this year, but without moisture, it could decline." So, as the drought progressed through the spring, reports from all the traditional quail venues sound ominously similar. Tarrant in West Texas says, "Adult birds should be fairly plentiful." He even feels the blue (scaled) quail population is at a 20-year high. But he doesn't expect many young birds in the bag for the above reasons. Ruthven says lack of cool season forbs kept the Panhandle quail from getting into breeding condition. "At best, breeding will be delayed," he says. In northern Central Texas, Kevin Mote, in Brownwood, sings the same song. Jim Dillard, in Mineral Wells, joins in the chorus. But nowhere is the song as sad as in South Texas. Daniel Kunz, in Alice, says helicopter surveys showed far fewer coveys than last fall. Alan Cain writes that "Croton, sunflower, ragweed and other spring weeds are absent," confirming a lack of available forage. "Summer survival for quail will likely be lower than normal, which translates into much smaller covey sizes in the fall," Cain adds. Ashton Hutchins, though, offers a ray of hope: "It is not uncommon for quail in South Texas to nest early or late in response to rain." Begin those rain dances now.

Quail season

Statewide (all counties) Oct. 28-Feb. 25

Waterfowl

Last season, some waterfowlers felt the hunting was a little off. Most had an opinion as to why. Some blamed the dry conditions. But Travis Hanna, with Bay Prairie Outfitters, pointed out that "where there was water, there were mallards." Others said the two fall hurricanes disturbed the birds. Many experienced hunters believed that many of the birds settled in before they got to Texas. A few even reread our "Waterfowl Forecast" from last year and agreed that numbers of mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal and scaups were low, as TPWD waterfowl program leader Dave Morrison predicted.

This year, we have had dry conditions, but then it started raining along the coast, providing some relief. But more was needed.

Waterfowl regulations are strictly controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and are based on surveys conducted in June. "Preliminary information suggests a season structure similar to last year," Morrison reported.

According to Morrison, the surveys showed that the habitat in the north fared a little better this year than last. That's where waterfowl breeds, and that's vital to a good population.

"Improvements in Canadian and U.S. prairie habitats were primarily due to average-to above-average precipitation, warm spring temperatures and carry-over effects from the good summer of 2005," Morrison explained. "The 2006 estimate of ponds in prairie Canada was 4.4 million ponds, a 13 percent increase from last year's estimate of 3.9 million ponds." More water usually equates to more birds.

The surveys bore that out. The total duck population estimate came to 36.2 million birds - 14 percent higher than last year's estimate. That's also 13 percent above the long-term average compiled from 1955-2005.

So, what about particular species?

Mallard numbers are about the same as they were last year. Blue-winged teal are up again for the second year in a row -- 28 percent higher than last year. Greenwings, which showed a decline last year, have increased 20 percent from 2005. Both teal species are well above the long-term average, as are shovelers (also called spoonbills). Gadwalls, down last year, have increased by 30 percent this season. Both canvasbacks and redheads increased considerably from last season.

About the only duck species to decline were widgeons and scaups - the latter hitting an all-time low for the second straight year. Pintails are still well below the long term average, but up 32 percent from 2005.

Final goose estimates were not yet available, but preliminary counts looked promising. For seasons and bag limits for all waterfowl species, consult the 2006-2007 Texas Waterfowl Digest or go online to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/season/2006/waterfowl.

If you listen closely, you can probably hear the honkers overhead.

Conclusion

There are a lot of variables that could potentially affect the hunting outlook - mostly unresolved weather issues. At press time, it's beginning to rain in some areas. Will it continue? Will it be enough? Did it come too late?

I end this, though, with total confidence in a statement from Mark Mitchell, manager of the Mason Mountain WMA: "You may not be sure what to expect, but hunting any time is good!"

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