Big Game, Better Habitat
More than a contest, the Texas Big Game Awards program encourages responsible land management.
By John Jefferson
For years, many hunters believed most big-antlered white-tailed deer lived in the South Texas Brush Country. But in 1991, the deer world was turned upside-down when Stephen Wayne O’Carroll harvested a deer in Shackelford County that scored 190-2/8 net Boone and Crockett points. After that, when deer hunters met, one invariably asked, “Did you hear about that big ol’ deer a guy shot somewhere up near the Panhandle?” The greeting had a question mark at the end, but it was more of an exclamation.
Most Texans live east of I-35, and few could find Shackelford County on a map. Arguably, it’s not even in the Panhandle. But a lot of them knew that a massive-antlered buck had been killed there — instead of in South Texas. That was news.
Many discounted the North Texas deer as an anomaly, maybe a freak. But more big deer began showing up in other parts of the state. Texas deer hunters were learning a little geography, along with a heavy dose of reality.
“The Texas Big Game Awards is showing us where a lot of big deer were that we didn’t know about, and what it takes to grow them,” Bob Cook told me in 1995. Cook was chief of the Wildlife Branch then, but ultimately became executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He retired on August 31, 2007, after 31 years with the department.
The awards program is a partnership between the Texas Wildlife Association and TPWD. Although barely old enough to drive at 16 years of age, it has compiled some of the most significant records in Texas deer hunting history.
It began around the turn of the last decade with a memo from David Synatzske, manager of the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area, to Horace Gore, big game program leader for TPWD.
“We needed something in the way of a statewide program to not only recognize the quality of animals being produced in Texas as a result of the changing management strategies,” Synatzske said, “but also as a record-keeping system for us to monitor the progress within the state — a way for us to collect data. Gore helped get it to the forefront.”
In Austin, the hunter/landowner recognition proposal ran aground as some doubted its value and others questioned the merits of the state “running a deer contest.” Fortunately, Chuck Nash, the popular and able chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, believed in the program. His support helped it get to bat.
The first proposal, called the “Texas Mas Grande Awards,” was designed to recognize the best white-tailed deer, mule deer and pronghorn antelope taken in each region. The proposal stated that in the preceding five years, only seven mounts from Texas qualified for inclusion in the B&C record book. This past season alone, 15 Texas bucks scored above the minimum for Boone and Crockett recognition. (Their scores qualified, but Boone and Crockett does not accept deer from high-fenced ranches, so some were not entered in B&C.)
The proposal for the Texas awards divided the state into four regions. To be entered into the program, whitetails in most of the state would be required to score 135 B&C net points for typical and 155 for non-typical. South Texas minimums would be 150 typical and 165 non-typical. Mule deer would be 160 typical and 180 non-typical. Pronghorns would require 76 points.
That’s when the head banging began. Discussions were so spirited that one gentleman’s gestures caught his thumb on a truck door and nearly ripped it off. When the smoke cleared and the swelling subsided, lower minimums were established. They have remained intact for all 16 years, except in one instance (Trans-Pecos whitetail minimums lowered in 1992). In order to make consistent comparisons in the future, it is unlikely they will change. Javelina, however, has been added recently as a big game animal for the Youth Division and First Harvest award.
Eight regions were established, coinciding closely with the wildlife districts at TPWD. The regions and their minimum entry requirements are as follows: White-Tailed Deer Minimum Score
|3. Cross Timbers||130||145|
|4. Edwards Plateau||130||145|
|5. Post Oak Savannah||125||140|
|7. Coastal Prairies||125||140|
|8. South Texas||140||155|
Mule deer minimum scores are 145 for typical and 160 for non-typical. Pronghorn antelope require a minimum score of 70. Eligibility rules are set out at <www.texasbiggameawards.com/Eligibility.htm>. (Strict adherence to the rules is required. A valid hunting license is required before hunting.)
It was also decided that the landowner or land manager upon whose land the game animal was produced would be honored and, if agreeable, the ranch would be listed in the annual records.
“What we’re trying to do,” David Synatzske told me, “is convey the message that we’re trying to encourage proper habitat management. Recognizing quality big game is the way of measuring the results of management. You don’t manage by regulation, but by cooperation.”
Scoring for the contest is by B&C guidelines, utilizing the net, green score, and must be done by a TBGA certified scorer. Awards are presented at eight regional banquets, and the top three trophies in the state in each category are recognized again at the TWA Banquet, the last weekend of June each year at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, west of San Antonio. The top three typical and non-typical whitetails and mule deer and the top three pronghorns are re-scored prior to the banquet.
The banquets combine hunter and landowner recognition with educational seminars and a lot of socializing. They have become an annual rendezvous for the hunting community. The first regional banquet was in Alpine, according to David K. Langford, executive vice president of TWA through the formative years of the TBGA.
“We didn’t think anyone would come, but they did, including eight people all the way from Beaumont,” Langford remembered. Two subsequent Trans-Pecos banquets were in Van Horn.
“The high school and junior high kids there in the Culberson County 4-H Club put them on,” Langford said. “They did all the work, served the food and made the presentations. It was cool!” That set a pattern, and regional banquets have since been run by student chapters of The Wildlife Society from Texas Tech University, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M – Kingsville, Sul Ross University and Stephen F. Austin University. David Brimager joined TWA in San Antonio for the 1989-99 season and now directs TBGA, the data collection and all the banquets.
Prior to Brimager’s arrival, the records were kept by TPWD wildlife biologist Bryan Richards, now with the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin. Through Richards’ efforts, the Youth Division was created for the 1997-98 season, with no minimum score required for entry. Hunters who harvested their first big game animal — also regardless of score — had been recognized from the start. Kirby Brown, current TWA executive vice president, remembers one in particular.
“We recognized a 79-year-old gentleman who had just taken his first big game animal,” Brown said, “and he was as happy as any of the kids out there!” My wife was not quite that elated when introduced as “the oldest First Harvest participant in this year’s awards.”
“I think one of the best things to come out of the Big Game Awards,” Richards said, “is the fact we taught people that a deer’s age is important in growing large antlers.”
“Look at what we have accomplished with the (recent) antler restrictions,” Synatzske said. “Those restrictions would have been impossible 17 years ago without a program like the TBGA laying the groundwork for them.”
Synatzske also feels that the TPWD Lone Star Land Steward Awards and the Texas Youth Hunting Program were spawned from the success of the TBGA partnership between TPWD and TWA.
TBGA now awards thirty $500 college scholarships to qualified applicants, sponsored by Carter’s Country Outdoor Stores, and awards a lifetime hunting and fishing license to a hunter selected from those who enter the TBGA by January 31 of each year. The license is sponsored by Smith’s Abrasives and Hunter’s Specialties.
The first year of the program, 1991, got off to a slow start. Only 668 entries were scored: 550 whitetails, 93 mule deer and 25 pronghorns. Another 165 were awarded certificates for their first harvest. The second year, it went through the roof. A total of 1,113 entries were scored: 918 whitetails, 74 mule deer and 66 antelope. Good whitetail fawn crops in ’85 and ’86 grew up big and heavy-horned after the rains in 1991 and ’92, and produced a record number of entries. Practically every year since then has shown an increase in whitetail entries, except during drought years. Even in the rain-deprived 2006 and 2007 seasons, there were 1,600 entries each year.
The prolonged drought in West Texas kept mule deer and antelope numbers down, however. Healthy habitat in West Texas the past few years has even brought those up considerably. Mule deer entries totaled 158 in 2005, the highest in the 16-year history. Antelope numbers were also the highest ever in 2005, but topped they that again in 2007.
Everybody expected South Texas to dominate the whitetail records, and, to be sure, the Brush Country has had more qualified entries than any other region. The Cross Timbers region was the next-highest. Drawing particular interest were the number-one typical deer in the state in 1991 (Shackelford County), 1993 (Archer County), 1994 (Donley County), 1995 (Eastland County), and the number-one non-typicals in 1995 (Young County) and 1996 (Bosque County). The Big Game Awards program has opened some eyes.
“TBGA is unique because it acknowledges that a quality big game animal is more than what’s hanging on the wall,” Brimager said. “It begins with a land manager’s decision to do the right thing for the habitat and ends with a hunter’s well-placed shot.”
Most ranchers understand the economics of creating habitat conducive to growing big racks and are managing for it. And improving habitat for white-tailed deer means improving habitat for all species of wildlife.
That’s what the Big Game Awards program is all about.