Hunting for a Place to Hunt?
Scope out the state public hunting program, where opportunities abound.
By Ben Rehder
Hang around a group of hunters long enough and you’re likely to hear a common lament: Hunting in Texas is out of reach for the common man or woman. Opportunities are scarce, and those that exist are just too expensive. Bottom line: Hunting has become a sport for landowners, the wealthy and the well-connected.
While that assessment might not be totally off-target — especially considering that a hunt for a trophy white-tailed deer can cost $5,000 or $10,000 or more for a single weekend — many hunters overlook an affordable and readily available option: the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s public hunting program, which offers a range of hunting opportunities as diverse as the state itself.
“Practically everything that is huntable in Texas, you can hunt under our program,” says Kelly Edmiston, program specialist. And he has the specifics to back it up.
“Pheasant hunting up in the Panhandle, blue quail hunting out in West Texas, quail hunting down in South Texas, dove hunting all over,” he says. “Eastern turkey hunting out east. You want to do a little fall bowhunting for Rio Grande turkeys, you go to San Angelo. Deer hunting, obviously. Feral hog hunting in a lot of places. Even something rare, like bighorn or pronghorn, we have opportunity. We have all the rabbits and hares you can shake a stick at.
“We even have chachalaca hunting down in the Valley. Most people don’t even know what a chachalaca is, but we have it.”
Don’t forget squirrels, alligators, javelinas, waterfowl and a variety of exotics, from oryx to gemsbok. It’s all here, in an efficient, well-organized, safety-conscious program. Some participants rely on the program as their sole hunting option, while others use it to diversify their hunting experiences or simply as a good excuse to explore other parts of the state.
The biggest challenge? Choosing how you want to participate — with an annual public hunting permit (also known as “walk-in hunting”), through the drawn-hunt system or by a combination of the two. There are also plenty of opportunities for young hunters through the program’s youth-only hunts.
Annual Public Hunting Permit
A $48 annual public hunting permit, added to your hunting license as an endorsement, gives you access to just about everything the program has to offer. That includes hunting, but also a variety of other family-oriented outdoor recreational activities — fishing, camping, nature-watching and more — on public and private leased lands throughout the state, on your own schedule.
“This is the do-it-yourself part of the public hunting program that a lot of people don’t know about,” says program director Linda Campbell. “We have a little more than a million acres open to walk-in hunting. For that entire license year, you can go anywhere that is open, that has a season. That includes all our small-game leases on private lands, many of our wildlife management areas and also some state parks.”
Campbell points out that walk-in hunting requires a little more planning and effort than drawn hunts. “You have to look at the map booklet, figure out where you want to go and scout it. But the booklet is very clear. We have all the maps, we tell you how to get there, when you can go, what firearms you can use and what game you can harvest.”
Department employees who implement the public hunting program strive to balance supply and demand — to maximize hunting opportunities without creating too great an impact on available wildlife resources. For example, Trey Carpenter, the state wildlife biologist who manages hunts at the Granger Wildlife Management Area, combines archery hunting and a burgeoning feral pig population to serve as many hunters as possible.
“About 12 years ago, we started having tons of hogs,” Carpenter says. “So now I have it opened up where you can come out with archery equipment or a crossbow year-round and hunt hogs. People are just eating that up.”
One of those hunters is James Key of Round Rock, who has hunted and fished at Granger WMA for 10 years. For him, public hunting represents an excellent alternative to a private lease. It’s affordable and convenient, and the wild game at Granger is plentiful.
Key estimates that he sees wild pigs on every third visit, a rate that would make almost any hunter envious. He has also taken the time to learn the land and the best times to hunt.
“It’s my getaway from the city,” Key says. “I can get there in 35 minutes and feel like I’m out in the middle of nowhere. There’s over 10,000 acres out there to hunt. I go during the weekdays, and I may see somebody out there once out of every 20 times I go. It really does kind of feel like your own lease.”
The drawn-hunt component of the public hunting program is exactly what it sounds like. You decide what type of species you’d like to hunt, select from the available hunting areas and hunt dates for that species, then fill out a special permit application and hope you get drawn.
What are your chances of being selected? That, of course, depends on what, how and where you want to hunt, because some species and locations are in more demand than others.
Say you’d like to hunt the “Gun Deer; Either Sex” category. For the 2009–10 season, 167 applicants put in for 100 permits at White Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area. Decent odds. Conversely, Chaparral WMA — always one of the most popular destinations — is a much tougher ticket, with 3,000 to 4,000 applicants vying for only 50 permits.
David Synatzske, area manager at the Chaparral, sums it up this way: “If you really just want to go on a hunt, there are some places where you’ve got better than even odds of getting selected. You may not get selected each year, but you probably have pretty good odds of getting to hunt every other year. It depends on what the individual is looking for.”
Another option is hunting standby — hoping to fill the spot of any drawn hunter who doesn’t show up.
“Standby hunting can be fruitful in certain areas,” says Campbell. “Many public hunters have found that if they call in advance to the area, sometimes they can get an idea of whether the hunt manager thinks all the positions will be filled. And, of course, they use a very fair method to distribute those standby positions.”
Then there are the Big Time Texas Hunts — seven once-in-a-lifetime hunting packages on some of the finest private ranches and prime wildlife management areas in the state. The crown jewel is the Grand Slam, with four guided hunts for desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer and mule deer. Each premium hunt includes food, lodging and taxidermy. Cost to enter? Just $9 online.
You can find a wealth of information — including application and permit fees, the previous year’s number of permits and applicants for each area, hunter success rates and much more — in a handy booklet published each year (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0112_06_11.pdf).
The youth-only portion of the public hunting program provides an excellent way to give younger hunters an educational and memorable outdoor experience that stresses ethics, responsibility and conservation. Both drawn hunts and walk-in hunts are available, for big game and small game, on lands throughout the state. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website (www.tpwd.state.tx.us) provides detailed information regarding youth hunting licenses, necessary supervision and hunter education requirements.
Public hunt managers understand the importance of youth hunting and go to great lengths to keep up with demand.
“We are continually trying to add hunting blinds and things of that nature that will accommodate youth,” says Synatzske. “We also try to accept as many standby hunters as possible.”
Public Hunting Q&A
Q. What are the odds of a successful hunt on public land?
A. Just as on a private hunt, your public hunting experience can vary widely from one day to the next, and from location to location. For drawn hunts, your best bet is to study the previous year’s hunter success rates (available in the program booklet and on the TPWD website), and make your applications accordingly. Hunts on lands with historically high success rates naturally attract a higher number of applicants.
Q. Where do the license, application and permit fees go?
A. Texas is one of the best places in the country to hunt, and hunters help keep it that way. A full 100 percent of all hunting license fees goes to support the work of TPWD, including wildlife and habitat conservation and restoration. When you hunt in Texas, you are making an investment in conserving our state’s abundant natural resources.
Q. Is public hunting safe?
A. The public hunting program in Texas maintains a remarkable safety record. Program director Linda Campbell says: “Our drawn hunts are very controlled. Our hunt managers place hunters in either compartments or blinds. They all have a safety orientation. The staff who run these hunts are very careful to make sure people are prepared. For walk-in hunting, we have had no problems. We put a lot of safety information in the public hunt books and at on-site registration kiosks. We do as much as we can to educate people about ethical conduct and safety. In most situations, hunter orange is required when hunting with a firearm on public lands, and our game wardens patrol the areas as well.”
A. It’s a $20 daily hunting permit for some of the program’s small game hunts — dove, quail, waterfowl and squirrel — on designated wildlife management areas. These permits are issued at the hunt area on a first-come, first-served basis. The regular permit is a great option if you won’t be able to hunt more than once or twice during the license year. The fee is waived for minors (under age 17) hunting under the supervision of an adult with a regular permit.
Q. Are public hunts typically crowded?
A. They can be, especially during opening weekend and on hunt areas near larger cities. Program officials encourage hunters to consider hunting on weekdays, and to seek out the more remote hunting areas.
Q. Who is required to take a hunter education training course?
A. Anyone born on or after Sept. 2, 1971, who wishes to hunt in Texas must successfully complete a hunter education training course. Hunter education gives each participant a solid foundation on which to build a lifetime of safe hunting. The course covers the skills, regulations and responsibilities of hunting, wildlife conservation and the outdoors.