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Hunting Forecast 2008

A dry year has stressed some species, but there's still plenty of good hunting to be found

By John Jefferson

Looking back over previous years' forecasts, I noticed that I've frequently used the phrase, "What a difference a year makes." A couple of the TPWD wildlife biologists who supply information have employed it, too. One used it because torrential rains came after a drought, another because it hadn't rained in almost a year.

Texas weather is cyclical. It's up and down. One year, we pray for rain to quench a parched range; the next year we hope it will stop so we can get around and see the game.

As the cycles change from wet to dry and back again, there are effects, but they're not all bad or all good. Last year was a very wet season. Lush conditions nourished the wildlife but made hunting difficult. Then it stopped raining about the time hunters read last September's forecast. We were still in a drought when we began this article, but before it was completed, spring storms had brought limited relief to some areas and a few of the biologists' reports had to be revised. All biologists can do is tell you how the habitat looked at deadline time, what effect that will have on game and the condition of the game going into the summer. Crystal balls can be nearsighted. Consider the ever-changing Texas weather and filter this report through that grid to formulate a final forecast.

Here's what the TPWD biologists on the ground have to say.

Quail

Quail season: Statewide (all counties) Oct. 25-Feb. 22
Statewide quail program leader Robert Perez summed up last season by saying, "It started strong, especially in South Texas. As the season progressed, numbers dramatically dropped. Lack of significant rainfall inhibited growth of winter greens needed in the quail's diet. So carryover may not have been that great in some areas."

Chip Ruthven, manager of the Panhandle WMAs, though, feels that hunter success last season was hampered by thick ground cover, and, with a mild winter, could provide a good carryover. Scaled (blue) quail also carried over well west of the Pecos. Expect fair hunting. Mike Sullins, wildlife biologist in Presidio, says Gambel's quail continue to expand and reproduce.

In the Hill Country (Edwards Plateau), Mark Mitchell at Mason Mountain WMA observed a number of bobwhites starting to nest. Rufus Stephens indicates no more quail than usual in Comal and Kendall counties, not known as prime quail country. Near San Angelo, populations are still below average.

The forecast to the north of the Edwards Plateau is also grim. Danny Davis, in Ranger, says, "Quail are almost nonexistent." Jennifer Barrow reports that bobwhites north and northwest of Dallas-Ft. Worth have been on a downward trend, and it will take a long string of favorable years for recovery. Charlie Newberry, in Henrietta, is concerned over low brood stocks.

It gets a little better to the south. David Forrester in LaGrange says hunting should be "average to good" in the southeastern counties from I-10 to the coast. Brad Porter says there are still many birds in Live Oak and McMullen counties, but without rain, numbers will diminish. Randy Fugate, in Falfurrias, says last year was terrific, but there were die-offs. The western portion of South Texas is the driest. On the Chaparral WMA, the fire limited nesting cover, but opened up the habitat.

Doves

Dove season (please report leg bands to 1-800-327-BAND)
North Zone Sept. 1-Oct. 30
Central Zone Sept. 1-Oct. 30, Dec. 26-Jan. 4
South Zone Sept. 20-Nov. 9, Dec. 26-Jan. 13
Special South Texas Zone Sept. 6, 7, 13, 14,
Sept. 20-Nov. 9, Dec. 26-Jan. 9

Billy Tarrant, district biologist in Alpine, says the Trans-Pecos populations of white-winged doves and mourning doves remain above average. Scout for permanent water and sunflower patches. Most hunting on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) is for mourning doves. In the Panhandle, district biologist Danny Swepston says that dove prospects should be good. With all the grain raised there, it's little wonder. They follow the feed. Eurasian collared-doves have even moved that far north, and are a bonus bird - being exotic, they don't count in the bag limit.

Ty Bartoskewitz, technical guidance biologist in Weatherford, compiled the report for North Central Texas and a little of West Texas. Ralph Suarez, TPWD biologist in Ballinger, says spring rains brought up sunflowers and small grains, thus providing adequate feed. Whitewings have increased and spread into new areas, and Suarez reminds hunters to have the Texas Migratory Game Bird Stamp endorsement on their license.

David Sierra, district biologist in Tyler, says the best dove hunting in East Texas is probably in the northern Blackland Prairie region. In South Texas, Alan Cain suggests hunting the Hondo area due to abundant feed and birds. The Chaparral WMA, west of Cotulla, suffered a fire over most of the area in March, but Area Manager David Synatzske says the doves were the big beneficiary – almost immediately feeding on newly exposed seeds. This might be a great year there. Pick up the Early Season Migratory Game Bird Digest supplement at license agents or by visiting www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/season/.

Pheasants

Pheasant season:
Chambers, Jefferson & Liberty counties Nov. 1-Feb. 22
Panhandle (37 counties) Dec. 6-Jan. 4

Swepston says pheasants will have tough nesting due to dry weather, but will benefit from increased acreage planted in wheat, milo and corn instead of cotton. More groceries on the table! The Panhandle has also had some rain since his report was filed, so prospects should be improving even more.

Pronghorns

Pronghorn antelope season:
(35 counties, by permit only) Oct. 4-12

Tarrant says the Trans-Pecos herd benefited from four of the last six years, and in 2007 topped 10,000 head for the first time since the 1990s. Although the recent drought will impact horns, fawn production carryover from previous years' fawn crops should provide many fine animals this season. Swepston says the Panhandle herd benefited from good rains last year, and a mild winter should indicate a good carryover of bucks. Texas' third herd of pronghorns, in the western Edwards Plateau-Permian Basin, benefited from good spring rains that improved habitat, according to Lang Alford in San Angelo.

Feral hogs

No closed season; landowner permission and hunting license required. They're everywhere! Jennifer Barrow, TPWD biologist in Decatur, north of Fort Worth, says: "I'm seeing lots of piglets of all sizes. Now is the time to be a hog hunter, as their numbers seem to be increasing rapidly, despite everyone trying to get rid of them." Hunt them day and night! It's legal.

Javelina

Javelina season:
(Approximately 43 counties) Oct. 1-Feb. 22
(Approximately 50 counties) Sept. 1-Aug. 31
Tarrant says West Texas' stable javelina populations are under-utilized, so hunter success is always high. In South Texas, last year's rain nourished prickly pear, which energized javelinas and produced more little peccaries. On the Chaparral, Synatzske says that the fire should cause an initial flush of regrowth of pear, perhaps reprising last year's reproduction.

Small game

Squirrel season:
Special youth season Sept. 27-28 (see TPW Outdoor Annual County Listings)
East Texas (51 counties) Oct. 1-Feb. 1, May 1-31
Other open counties Sept. 1-Aug. 31
Rabbits and hares: No closed season.
Often overlooked due to the allure of other species, Texas squirrel hunting offers an excellent way to introduce kids to hunting. In East Texas, it looks like this will be a bumper year. Wes Littrell, on the Engeling WMA, says the mast (acorn) crop was the best in 10 years, and that excellent squirrel hunting traditionally follows a good mast crop. Matthew Symmank says Keechi Creek WMA expects good hunting for the same reason. A $48 annual public hunting permit allows entry. David Sierra in Tyler expects good-to-excellent squirrel hunting. Gary Calkins in Jasper is a little more conservative due to a "patchy" mast crop. A little rain, though, and he expects numbers should rebound.

Mule deer

Mule deer season:
Archery-only Sept. 27-Oct. 31
General Season:
Panhandle (36 counties) Nov. 22-Dec. 7
SW Panhandle (7 counties) Nov. 22-30
Trans-Pecos (19 counties) Nov. 29-Dec. 14
Across the Pecos, the drought will affect antler development, but good fawn crops in 2003-05 should provide a number of mature bucks. Panhandle mule deer could also have less antler mass than last year, although according to Swepston, the deer came through the winter in good shape and hunting should be good. Ruthven says the great conditions in 2007 and the mild winter left the WMA's deer in good shape. He anticipates average to above average antlers. Five new counties have been given seasons this year. In the western Edwards Plateau, calls from landowners indicate mule deer are encroaching into whitetail habitat in Reagan County and some as far east as Irion. Reagan has a season; Irion does not.

Predators

No closed season: landowner permission and hunting license required.
Alford says that West Texas coyotes, bobcats and foxes are abundant even though rabbits have declined. South Texas is always rich in predators - the densest concentrations in America! Predator hunting is growing in popularity as a way for landowners to control populations. The adaptable coyotes have moved into new habitats, particularly around urban outskirts.

Bighorn sheep

(By permit only)
Mike Pittman reports a record bighorn population after aerial surveys - a statewide population estimated at 1,200 animals. Thirteen permits were issued last season - also a record. The drought resulted in poor forage conditions, but desert sheep typically weather drought better than most.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer season
Archery-only Sept. 27-Oct. 31
General season:
Special youth season Oct. 25-26, Jan. 17-18
North Texas (200 counties) Nov. 1-Jan. 4
Panhandle (6 counties) Nov. 22-Dec. 7
South Texas (30 counties) Nov. 1-Jan. 18
Late antlerless and spike:
Edwards Plateau (39 counties) Jan. 5-18
South Texas (30 counties) Jan. 19-Feb. 1
Muzzleloader (23 counties) Jan. 10-18
Jimmy Rutledge, technical guidance biologist in Carrizo Springs, compiled the South Texas report. From Labor Day 2007 through April 20, 2008, he recorded only 1.04 inches of rain. That won't produce record antlers. In West Texas, Tarrant echoes that, but says there will be a number of older bucks.

In the Hill Country, Joyce Moore, technical guidance biologist in Harper, says the 2007 harvest was low due to massive amounts of food and cover, so carryover will be high. The Plateau was dry during the early part of the antler growing season, however, so antlers will probably be average. Rains since then have helped. Dale Schmidt says some areas of Llano are still slim due to low fawn crops in the past. Smaller populations led to larger antlers last season as fewer mouths to feed meant better nourishment. Ray Aguirre, in Comfort, says reducing deer and livestock during stress periods will help the deer that are left. Although spring storms have helped, Blake Hendon reports that Blanco and Hays counties are at 25-50 percent of normal rainfall and spring forb production was pitiful. Trey Carpenter, in Burnet County, says the lack of bluebonnets this year shows how low soil moisture was this winter. Mike Reagan, in Wimberley, points out, though, that good bucks carried over from last season will be visible at feeders if the drought continues. Derrick Wolter, working Lampasas, Bell and Coryell counties, says the antler restrictions will mean more 3- and 4-year-old bucks available. Rufus Stephens, in Kendall and Comal counties, says after last year's great season, hunters may be a little disappointed in antler quality. Donnie Frels and Dale Prochaska, on the Kerr WMA, say their region was extremely dry, but late spring rains may have helped antler growth.

In North Central Texas, James Edwards feels that antler restrictions in some counties plus a good carryover will mean more older bucks. Raymond Sims expects quality bucks in Shackelford and Throckmorton counties.

East Texas hunters should expect deer to have better antlers and be less concentrated, according to David Sierra. Older deer resulting from antler restrictions will probably have improved antlers, writes Gary Calkins, in Jasper. Jeff Gunnels and Jamie Killian expect above-average hunting on WMAs.

Although South Texas has been dry, some rain has been falling, hopefully easing stress. But, Rutledge reminds us that even in a drought, mesquite beans thrive and keep deer nourished. Eric Garza says NOAA is predicting several more dry months. Daniel Kunz in Alice reports declining nutritional quality and defoliation of brush species as the drought intensifies.

Ruthven reports that Panhandle whitetail populations have increased and heavier antlerless harvest is recommended. He feels antlers should be average or better, although Swepston thinks the drought might affect antler mass.

Rio Grande turkeys

Rio Grande turkey season
Archery-only Sept. 27-Oct. 31
Fall season:
Special youth season Oct. 25-26, Jan. 17-18
North Zone (122 counties) Nov. 1-Jan. 4
South Zone (26 counties) Nov. 1-Jan. 18
Brooks, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties Nov. 1-Feb. 22
Only Rios can be hunted in the fall, and West Texas, Pecos and Terrell counties have plenty. Tarrant indicates low hunting pressure. Reports from the western Hill Country indicate a large hatch last year, contributing to fine hunting opportunities this fall. Jason Hardin, turkey biologist in Athens, confirms the hatch. Birds are increasing around Ballinger. Nathan Rains in Cleburne says the abundance of jakes this past spring should make for good hunting this fall "unless everybody shot them this (2008) spring." From anecdotal reports, that shouldn't be a concern. The dryness in South Texas has kept many turkeys in the creek beds and drainages, according to Brad Porter.

Waterfowl

For waterfowl season dates, pick up a copy of the Waterfowl Digest or visit 2008-2009 Hunting Regulations. It's not looking good. And the drought in Texas is not the real culprit with these species. In fact, some of Texas' habitat was in decent shape in late spring. Jennifer Barrow reported that around Decatur, tanks and lakes were full, providing good stopover resorts for migrating waterfowl. Food supplies should be abundant. Lang Alford says that wood duck boxes in the Concho Valley near San Angelo attracted woodies last year, and should again this season. Hunting pressure there is light. He also points to sandhill cranes wintering in nearby agriculture fields.

Gary Calkins, in Jasper, says the East Texas habitat was excellent last year; the food was there and should be this year since a good acorn crop is expected. But the birds did not show up as anticipated, probably due to a lack of cold weather in the north. Jim Sutherlin says drying ponds along the upper coast are producing seed that will feed the ducks this season, but rain is needed.

Texas winters the birds and feeds them, but they nest in the north, and conditions there have been less than optimal. When there are dismal nesting conditions, it all flows downhill, so to speak. Fewer birds migrate down the Central Flyway to Texas. Fewer migrants means slower hunting.

So Texas waterfowl hunting depends upon how the populations fared since last season, what the breeding population figures in the north show, what the breeding conditions are as a result of rainfall (or lack thereof) and what the weather does to move them down.

Dave Morrison, TPWD's waterfowl program leader, closely follows the situation in the north, and supplied the latest figures on breeding populations after federal surveys. Looking at breeding populations first, his figures show that gadwalls, wigeons, shovelers, pintails and canvasbacks declined significantly from last year, although shovelers are still considerably above the long-term average. Mallards were down slightly. Blue-winged teal were down, too, but probably not enough to cause a shortening of last year's 16-day September season. Redheads, green-winged teal and scaups increased a little, though scaups are still 27 percent below the long-term average.

Then there's the northern habitat. Breeding conditions require plentiful water for the ducks. Too little water for the number of ducks and breeding is limited. And that is the problem this year. The wetland index in North Dakota is the lowest since 1992, and the 10th lowest in history, down 70 percent from 2007. That's dry! North of the border, the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan are not much better. Many seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands contained only minimal water and were expected to dry up completely. As Morrison puts it, "No water plus lots of ducks equals no production." The only bright spots are in the Aspen Parklands of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Texas habitat should be adequate, and hunters are anxious. There will probably be fewer birds coming down, and the weather will dictate when they will come. Sharpen your shooting! You may have to make every shot count!

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