CORPUS CHRISTI — There was a time when Texas wildlife was completely at the mercy of nature.
But with today's emphasis on game management, especially involving white-tailed deer, millions of acres of wildlife habitat are better prepared to provide for healthy resident wildlife populations.
And I'm not just talking about habitat sequestered behind an eight-foot game fence. More and more responsible landowners are committed to returning their properties to the way it was before the land was ravaged by livestock grazing and invasive plants. Also, since experiencing two droughts in close succession, ranchers are taking further steps to provide emergency water to offset dry tanks and creek beds.
In part, because of these factors, the Texas deer population survived the drought without any major die-offs last year, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife biologists. But the fawn crop was poor, which will result in a below average year class of mature bucks in three to five years.
Fawn production and survival rebounded this year, according to Macy Ledbetter (www.whitetaildomains.com), a retired state biologist turned private consultant for some of the finest deer ranches in Texas. Many does had twins, Ledbetter said. And average fawn survival overall looks to be 50 percent or better statewide.
The question for this year's hunting season, which opened for archery Sept. 29 — the gun season opens statewide Nov. 3 — involves the productivity and survival of fawns in the spring of 2007 and 2008. The answer is mixed.
Texas' fawn crop was poor because of drought in 2008, 2009 and 2011. But it was exceptional in 2007, which should put more mature deer before hunters this season.
Perhaps the more important question for trophy hunters is whether the mature bucks in this season's healthy population will be sporting crowns worthy of a hunter's wall.
The short answer is yes, antler growth is expected to be average to above average depending on where you hunt, thanks to timely rains this winter and spring over much of the state. If you hunt in far West Texas, the answer might be no.
In parts of South Texas, we enjoyed much greater rainfall through summer, compared with last year. This should have provided ample nutrition for bucks to reach or approach their antler potential.
Evidence of this can be seen in early entries in the Pope & Young Division of the Muy Grande deer contest and in several early leaders in the Los Cazadores deer contest. Of course, the bucks entered in these contests are more impressive than anything many of us have encountered in the field.
They come from places such as the King Ranch, the Nooner Ranch and the Vaquero Ranch, along with several high-fenced deer breeding operations. Not all of them, but this describes a fair percentage of early contest entries.
Many of the deer shot before the general season involves bucks on ranches that subscribe to the Managed Land Deer Program, which allows deer to be shot with firearms starting on opening day of bow season under conditions prescribed by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
"We've gotten a bunch in already, some 170s, 180 and 190 class bucks," said Marty Prater, owner of All Creatures Great and Small taxidermy and game processing shop. "All from high-fenced MLD ranches. I don't get much from bowhunters."
Prater said he started getting calls from customers about two weeks ago. Last year he didn't start processing until November.
"So it looks like it's going to be a good year, based on what I've seen so far," Prater said.
Ledbetter's early season field perspective reveals a typical scenario for Texas hunters. Summer rainfall creates lush and green conditions with abundant water and groceries, helping to hide bucks and make them sedentary. Fat hidden bucks don't move much and have no need to visit feeders.
But because many hunters passed on prime bucks that didn't look prime during last year's drought, there should be a bulge in the population of mature and much healthier bucks for this season's hunter.
Obviously, results will vary. And there is some bad news in the outlook.
Daniel Kunz, a TPW technical guidance biologist, sees a clear contrast in habitat conditions in South Texas. Rain did not soak the east side of lower Texas to the coast as well as it did the west side.
This resulted in low fawn production, with 10 percent to 35 percent survival on average, Kunz said. Adult deer did OK thanks, in part, to an abundance of mesquite beans. Overall health of deer and wildlife in general is better than it was during last year's drought, but still below average for this part of the state, Kunz said.
Even so, South Texas hunters have already killed some 200-inch bucks, which is a testament to good genetics and quality management.
Kunz said the animals west of Highway 16 fared much better. Exceptions might be properties in Webb, LaSalle and McMullen counties with minimal or no management programs.
Fawn production and antler quality appears high on well-managed ranches west of Interstate 35. Hunters who spared marginal bucks last season are congratulating themselves on a wise decision.
What about the birds? The remarkable boom and bust character of Texas quail has shown us again that it's all about the habitat. Ledbetter is seeing lots more quail, both bobwhites and blues.
Most ranches he services are looking at a 400 percent jump in covey numbers. And those coveys are flush with birds. Still the overall quail population is far below its historical average.
At the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in LaSalle and Dimmit counties, both turkey and quail enjoyed good hatches. In the case of quail, that hatch came from a limited adult population. Good survival for both birds will depend on follow up rains. For quail, one good year does not a rebound make.
The outlook for the Rio Grande wild turkey is better. Nesting success in 2010 should put plenty of fall Toms in the field, followed by plenty of jakes by springtime. Let's hope the boost in vegetation and insects this year nurtures a good turkey crop for the future.
Whitetail deer harvest estimates and season dates
Texas Parks & Wildlife’s Big Game Survey recorded 574,808 deer killed by hunters during the 2011-12 season, with 309,207 buck and 265,601 antlerless deer.
The 2010-11 total was 647,975, with 336,550 bucks and 311,425 antlerless.
The 11-year average for the annual deer harvest is 574,423. The lowest deer harvest on record occurred during the 2007-08 season with an estimated 512,852 deer.
The general deer season runs from Nov. 3 through Jan. 6 in 209 counties in the North Zone and through Jan. 20 in the 30 counties that make up the South Zone. Check the 2012-13 Outdoor Annual of Hunting and Fishing Regulations for a list of county-specific regulations.