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Hunting Forecast 2003

By Larry D. Hodge

Normally cautious Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists are using such phrases as "above average," "good to excellent," "exceptional" and "possibly record-setting" to describe the upcoming 2003-2004 hunting seasons.

They base their optimism on the good spring range conditions throughout the state. While still hoping that rain will continue to fall at opportune times, one veteran biologist nevertheless says, "The question is not whether it will be a good year but, barring some unforeseen, catastrophic event, just how good a year it will be."

Species by species, here’s what TPWD biologists predict hunters have to look forward to this fall.

Doves: The Most Sought-after Birds in Texas

Season Dates:

North Zone: Sept. 1-Oct. 30; north of I-30 from Texarkana to Fort Worth, then north of I-20 to its intersection with I-10, then north of I-10 to Fort Hancock, then west of Texas 148, Texas 20 and F.M. 1088.

Central Zone: Sept. 1-Oct. 30 and Dec. 26-Jan. 4; south of North Zone boundary and north of I-10 from Orange to San Antonio, then north of U.S. 90 to Del Rio, then north of U.S. 277 Spur to the international toll bridge.

South Zone: Sept. 20-Nov. 5 and Dec. 20-Jan 11; south of I-10 from Orange to San Antonio, then south of U.S. 90 to Del Rio, then south of U.S. 277 Spur to the international toll bridge.

Special White-winged Dove Area: Sept. 6-7, 13-14, Sept. 20-Nov. 5 and Dec. 20-Jan. 7; west of U.S. 83 from its intersection with U.S. 90 in Uvalde, then west of Texas 44, Texas 16, F.M. 1017 and Texas 186.

After white-tailed deer, doves generate more hunting effort in Texas than any other species. About 450,000 dove hunters spend 1.2 million days afield each year. The $435 they typically spend in pursuit of doves amounts to one-third of the money spent annually by the average hunter, and most of this money changes hands during a few weeks in September. Internationally, doves may be a symbol of peace, but in Texas, when their economic impact of close to $20 million a year is considered, doves roar.

Part of dove hunting’s popularity stems from the timing of the season, which marks the end of a long, hot summer and the beginning of the fall hunting season. Many deer hunters open their camps and begin filling feeders on Labor Day weekend, and a dove hunt adds interest and some tasty eating. This year, with Sept. 1 falling on a Monday, dove shooting will not start until Labor Day, making it a short hunt.

In a typical year, Texas hunters take some 4.5 million doves. White-winged doves, which until a few years ago were confined mainly to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, make up about a fourth of the birds taken and may show up almost anywhere in the state.

"This bird has moved northward and westward from South Texas and established populations in cities such as Waco, Brownwood and San Angelo," says Kevin Mote, TPWD district leader in Brownwood. He advises purchasing the whitewing stamp or Super Combo license if planning to hunt doves within 30 miles of a city of 15,000 to 20,000 people. "However, don’t be surprised to see a few mixed in with mourning doves, regardless of where you hunt," he says. And since silhouetted birds are sometimes hard to identify, the best advice for dove hunters is to buy the whitewing stamp.

Food sources and water concentrate doves, and TPWD biologists recommend keying on harvested grain fields and natural food sources such as sunflowers and croton. Flight paths between roosting areas and food and water sources produce the best shooting. Areas south of San Antonio and around Uvalde and Brownwood generally hold doves throughout the season. Hill Country counties such as Gillespie, Mason and McCulloch usually furnish good hunting. TPWD Trans-Pecos district leader Mike Hobson expects high dove numbers this year as well. Purchasers of an Annual Public Hunting Permit ($48) may hunt doves on any of more than 150 parcels of leased private land statewide; a map booklet gives locations, dates available and any special requirements imposed by landowners.

Waterfowl Hunters: At the Mercy of Weather

Season Dates:

Final season dates for waterfowl hunting are set in August. Consult the "2003-2004 Waterfowl Digest" for dates and zone boundaries. The following dates were those proposed at press time. Waterfowl hunting begins with teal season Sept. 20-Sept. 28. (In the High Plains Mallard Management Unit, one week of the split duck season is proposed to begin Sept. 29, in effect making the teal season there 16 days, with the added bonus of being able to take other ducks as well after the 28th.) Goose season begins Oct. 25. The first big push of geese onto the coastal prairies west of Houston usually comes by Nov. 10, with white-fronted (specklebellied) and snow geese arriving first.

Duck- and goose-hunting success is very dependent on weather. Warm weather north of Texas keeps ponds open, and ducks and geese may not migrate south from the northern states and Canada until cold weather forces them to. Abundant rains can scatter birds all over the country, making hunting more difficult. Drought will concentrate birds on available water, and outfitters take advantage of this by pumping water to create roost ponds and hold birds in the area.

Given the unpredictability of the weather, biologists are understandably hesitant to forecast waterfowl hunting. However, there will always be birds in traditional places such as the rice prairies west of Houston, where outfitters and landowners manage water for the birds. Jim Sutherlin, project leader for the Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project, notes that conditions appear favorable for good production of submerged aquatic plants in wetlands along the coast, and this food source should attract and hold waterfowl.

Portions of the Panhandle that receive summer rains can be covered up with ducks and geese when cold weather pushes birds south. Peanut and wheat fields in the Knox County area draw large numbers of geese, especially Canadas. Pay close attention to season and bag limit announcements this fall, however, as there is the possibility that the dark goose season in the western zone may be shortened and the bag limit reduced.

Biologist Billy Lambert notes that snow geese are expanding their range into the Post Oak Savannah. Gary Calkins in the Pineywoods expects good habitat conditions for ducks but notes, as did his counterparts in other parts of the state, that cold weather on the northern plains is needed to push ducks and geese into Texas. Scout for places with food and water and watch the weather; a severe snowstorm on the Great Plains can bring a blizzard of waterfowl to Texas. Also, locally heavy rains can cause East Texas streams to overbank; flooded hardwood bottomlands littered with acorns draw mallards and wood ducks.

Quail: High Hopes in South Texas

Season Dates:

Oct. 25-Feb. 29.

If you have a place to hunt quail, count yourself lucky. Quail populations over the eastern half of the state plummeted as habitat declined. South Texas and the Rolling Plains of North Texas and adjacent Oklahoma are the last strongholds of bobwhite quail in the United States. Scaled quail continue to do well in West Texas and western parts of South Texas.

About 90,000 quail hunters spend a bit over three days each in pursuit of quail, but their economic impact is significant. Quail Unlimited estimates each of its members spends $10,000 a year on quail hunting, with 65 percent of that being spent in the county hunted.

South Texas may be setting up for the best quail season in a decade, biologists say. "This is the second consecutive year of good quail production, and quail hunting prospects look good to excellent in South Texas," says district leader Joe Herrera. Scaled quail in West Texas also look promising, says Mike Hobson. "Regardless of future rainfall, current conditions should lead to at least an average number of quail available for harvest."

Turkeys: The Two-Season Bird

Season Dates

Rio Grande: archery, Sept. 27-Oct. 26; general, North Texas, Nov. 1-Jan. 4 and Apr. 3-May 9; South Texas, Nov. 1-Jan. 18 and Mar. 27-May 2; Brooks, Kenedy and Kleberg counties, Nov. 1-Feb. 29; youth only, Oct. 25-26 and Jan. 17-18.

Eastern: April 12-April 25.

Rio Grande turkeys share honors with squirrels as the only game animals that are in season both spring and fall (except javelinas, which may be hunted year-round in 50 counties). Fall turkeys usually are taken incidentally by deer hunters; 30 percent of the 62,000 turkeys taken in Texas last season were harvested in autumn in the Edwards Plateau. The Rolling Plains, South Texas and Cross Timbers are the other main turkey-hunting areas. Max Traweek says the Hill Country should have good numbers of adult birds this fall and expects a good hatch in 2003, boding well for the future. Prospects are even brighter in South Texas. "There should be an abundance of mature gobblers due to the above-average hatch in 2001, and the 2003 hatch should rank right up there with the best of them," says Joe Herrera.

The sleeper may be the counties in the western part of the Rio Grande’s range, west and north of Brownwood. "Much of the district has experienced good turkey reproduction for the past two years, and this year is shaping up to be another good one," says Kevin Mote. "Fall populations could be the highest in five years, with a healthy percentage of the population being mature birds."

Eastern turkeys may be hunted only in the spring and generally may be found in scattered populations east of Interstate 45. Much of the hunting takes place on public land accessible to purchasers of an Annual Public Hunting Permit. For an unusual turkey hunting experience, take a boat to Wright Patman Lake southwest of Texarkana and fish your way around the shore until you hear a turkey gobble on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land around the lake. Tie up the boat and go after him.

Other Game: Small Numbers, Big Fun

Season Dates

Pronghorns: Oct. 4-Oct. 12; pheasants: Panhandle, Dec. 13-Jan. 11; coastal, Nov. 1-Feb. 29; javelinas, Sept. 1-Aug. 31 except Oct. 1-Feb. 29 in about 43 counties; see county listings in the 2003-2004 Outdoor Annual; squirrels, youth only, Sept. 27-Sept. 28; East Texas, Oct. 1-Feb. 1 and May 1-May 31; feral hogs and other exotics, no closed season.

Like mule deer, pronghorn antelope live primarily in the Trans-Pecos and parts of the Panhandle. (Pronghorns are not really antelope and, in fact, are the only species in their family.) Drought has reduced their numbers in the Trans-Pecos to about 5,400 animals; about 4,500 remain in the Panhandle. The number of antelope permits issued to landowners each year is based on the population, which means few people will have the chance to hunt these magnificent creatures (891 buck antelope permits were issued to 432 landowners in 2002). Both Mike Hobson in the Trans-Pecos and Danny Swepston in the Panhandle expect numbers to climb a bit this year, but the long-term outlook for pronghorns remains bleak.

Flushing pheasants probably cause more hearts to flutter than any other Texas game bird, which is only one of the reasons some 28,000 hunters make the long trek to the Panhandle to take an average of fewer than two birds each. That one cackling cock rising into a setting sun after a punishing day of walking can make the hunt memorable. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take cropland out of production and plant it in grass, has created a great deal of additional habitat for pheasants, even though the tangled mats of grass on CRP land (which can’t be grazed) are hard to hunt. The 30-day season this year should mean more people will be able to find the time to enjoy a pheasant hunt. While pheasant numbers are expected to remain low, the level of pleasure they bring will always be high.

Javelinas are on the increase in the Trans-Pecos and on the decrease in parts of South Texas. However, Joe Herrera points out that lush conditions in South Texas this year should result in an overall increase in numbers. About 28,000 hunters took 17,000 javelinas during the 2000-2001 season. "Javelinas are unique to the Southwest and offer excellent potential for out-of-state hunters, first-time hunters, youth and hunters using archery, muzzle-loader and handgun equipment," says David Synatzske, who is manager of the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area. Javelinas visit waterholes and feeders regularly in the Trans-Pecos, Mike Hobson says, making them fairly easy to pattern. While javelinas can be hunted year-round in most of their range, several Trans-Pecos counties have a season running Oct. 1 through the last Sunday in February; check the Outdoor Annual for the county you are hunting.

East Texas remains the stronghold of squirrel hunting. Billy Lambert says populations are good throughout the Post Oak Savannah. Find acorns and you will find squirrels. The Pineywoods had a good acorn crop last year, and the result was good litters this spring. These two ecological regions had the bulk of the hunters (44,900) and harvest (161,037) in 2001-2002. Public-land squirrel hunting can be quite good in the Pineywoods; the White Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area gives the first two weeks in October over to squirrel hunting.

Feral hogs are a dirty word to most wildlife biologists, because they compete with native wildlife and are destructive to the habitat, but all agree they are fun to hunt and good to eat. "It will benefit other wildlife if efforts are made to reduce feral hog numbers, and this will be a good year to do it," advises David Synatzske.

The other free-ranging exotic of note is the aoudad sheep, which can be found from the Edwards Plateau to the Panhandle to the Trans-Pecos. Like feral hogs and other exotics, they may be hunted year-round, and although some may tell you aoudads are not good to eat, don’t believe it. The best jalapeno/cheese summer sausage and chili meat I’ve ever eaten were made from a 200-pound male aoudad.

White-tailed Deer: What Most Texas Hunters Want

Season Dates

Archery: Sept. 27-Oct. 26; youth only: Oct. 25-26; general: North Texas, Nov. 1-Jan. 4; Panhandle (six counties), Nov. 22-Dec. 7; South Texas, Nov. 1-Jan. 18; late antlerless and spike, muzzleloader: Jan. 10-Jan. 18; Edwards Plateau, Jan. 5-Jan. 18; South Texas, Jan. 19-Feb. 1.

If you hunt in Texas, chances are better than even that you hunt white-tailed deer. Out of nearly 1 million hunters in Texas in 2001, more than 511,000 hunted whitetails, spending nearly $1 billion in the process. Last season deer were taken in 202 of Texas’ 254 counties. Texas hunters bring down an average of 418,000 whitetails each year.

Conventional wisdom used to hold that if you just want to get a deer, go to the Hill Country; if you want to get a good deer, go to South Texas. Better habitat management by private landowners statewide is changing that. TPWD and the Texas Wildlife Association cosponsor the Texas Big Game Awards, which recognize the efforts of landowners to improve wildlife habitat. One of the results of improved habitat is larger deer, and records for the 2002-2003 season show that 46 of the bucks with typical (i.e., symmetrical) antlers entered from the Edwards Plateau met the minimum 140 Boone and Crockett score required for entry in the South Texas division. (Four of those deer came off public land — three from Fort Hood, one from the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.) No longer do you have to hunt in South Texas to have a chance at a good buck.

A handful of Hill Country counties — Gillespie, Kerr, Kimble, Llano, Mason and San Saba — tower above the rest of the state in numbers of deer hunters and deer harvested. Biologist Max Traweek expects better-than-average antler quality in the Hill Country this season, but he notes that an overpopulation of deer in the area — as many as one deer to every two to three acres — prevents most Hill Country deer from getting enough to eat to reach their full potential, either in antler size or body weight. The average Hill Country doe will field dress around 65 pounds, while bucks may weigh about 80. In South Texas, where there may be a deer to every 15 to 20 acres, the average doe will field-dress at about 80 pounds, bucks at 120 or so.

The abundance of deer and small landownerships in the Hill Country helps keep hunting there affordable. Day hunting is widely available in the Hill Country through local chambers of commerce; fees start at about $125 per hunter a day, offering very good opportunities for family hunts at a reasonable price. Ranchers trying to improve their deer herds welcome hunters who will hunt does and help bring herd numbers within the carrying capacity of the land, although a lease fee is generally charged.

Good numbers of bucks in the 3.5-year-old age class last year in the Post Oak Savannah and Pineywoods districts have biologists there anticipating an above-average season. Excellent habitat conditions and new antler restrictions put in place in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee and Washington counties last year worked as intended to reduce the taking of young bucks, giving them time to grow up and produce bigger antlers. District leader Bob Carroll expects better-than-average antler development this year and more older bucks in the herd. Kevin Mote, whose district stretches from Brownwood west to Midland and north to the Red River, also predicts above-average numbers of mature deer with good antlers this year.

South Texas biologists foresee good to excellent antlers, and with an abundance of 4.5- and 6.5-year-old bucks in the herd, they predict the coming season could be one of the best on record. The bad news is that if you don’t have a lease or package hunt lined up by the time you read this, it’s probably too late.

Mule Deer: Big Boys of the West

Season Dates

Archery: Sept. 27-Oct. 26; general, Panhandle, Nov. 22-Dec. 7; southwestern Panhandle, Nov. 22-Nov. 30; Trans-Pecos, Nov. 29-Dec. 14.

Mule deer (named for their long ears) range the deserts of the Trans-Pecos, the western fringes of the Edwards Plateau and parts of the Panhandle. Muleys in the Panhandle often are able to feed on wheat, alfalfa and grains and tend to grow bigger bodies and antlers than desert deer, sometimes field-dressing 200 pounds or better. That said, however, most of the mule deer entered in the Texas Big Game Awards for 2002-2003 came from the Trans-Pecos.

While the white-tailed deer is Everyman’s deer in Texas, low numbers of mule deer and their restricted range make muley hunters a pretty exclusive club. In 2001-2002 the 14,976 mule deer hunters in Texas took only 3,104 animals.

Muleys are still recovering from a long-term drought in West Texas. In 2000, mule deer numbers dropped below 100,000 but have climbed the last two years, to about 150,000. Mike Hobson thinks body weights and antler growth in the Trans-Pecos should be above average, assuming good summer rains. Panhandle district biologist Danny Swepston concurs and notes that muleys tend to be more common in the eastern Panhandle in the sandhills and draws along the Canadian River and the rougher areas of the Rolling Plains around the Caprock Escarpment.

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