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September 2010 cover image Oh Deer!

2010 Fall Hunting Forecast

Post-drought rain brings increase in game populations and happy hunters.

By John Jefferson

We forget so easily. Looking back, the devastating two-year drought that ended last fall is now but a distant memory. Derrick Wolter, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist in Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties, recalled it this way: “To say most of 2008 and 2009 were dry would be an understatement.” Most of Texas was like talc, and nothing grows in powder. The drought’s negative effects on most wildlife have now been erased by seasons of nourishing rain, and except for quail and turkeys, the hunting prospects are excellent. Last season, after the rains came, conditions became so lush that deer didn’t come to feeders. The resulting harvest was down. Many bucks survived.

Populations are rebounding, and body conditions and antlers have improved. The downside that biologist Ryan Schmidt, working Edwards and Val Verde counties, sees is that there could be a bumper fawn crop added to the deer carried over from last year, leading to acute overpopulation. Here’s what the TPWD wildlife biologists say about hunting prospects.

Photo by Jack Unruh

Doves

Corey Mason, TPWD’s statewide dove program leader, says most of Texas has received winter and spring rain. “These rains will help produce both native and cultivated foods important for dove,” he reported. “Good local dove production equals good dove hunting.” Rufus Stephens in Comfort explains that even without planting grain, high forb production brought on by the rains should also make for good dove hunting where fields are left fallow. But Mary Humphrey in Sonora cautions that seasonal rains could wreak havoc on those trying to hunt around water holes if there is water everywhere. Chip Ruthven, manager of the Matador Wildlife Management Area, agrees: “A wet summer and spring, and birds will likely be spread out. Native sunflowers should still provide the best hunting.” West Texas mourning doves and white-wings continue to thrive throughout most of the Trans-Pecos, observed Billy Tarrant, in Alpine. In South Texas, Dustin Windsor indicates that the landscape is dotted with wildflowers, ponds are brimming, and birds should be profuse. Ashton Hutchins reports that Frio and Zavala counties have some of the best public dove hunting available. With several public dove hunting areas, expect to be able to find birds all season. Wes Littrell, who died in a tragic tractor accident shortly after filing his forecast, pointed out that this will be the first year dove hunting will be allowed on the Gus Engeling WMA, near Palestine. Additionally, the $48 annual public hunting permit offers dove and small game hunting on approximately 140 public dove hunting areas.

Dove Season

(Please report leg bands to 1–800–327–BAND)

North and Central Zones Sept. 1–Oct. 24, Dec. 25–Jan. 9

South Zone Sept. 17–Oct. 31, Dec. 25–Jan. 18

Special White-Winged Dove Area

Sept. 4, 5, 11 and 12

Sept. 17–Oct. 31, Dec. 25–Jan. 14

Pronghorns

The news is not good: Tarrant admits that the Trans-Pecos pronghorns have fallen on hard times. A major die-off in 2008 and reduced fawn crops the last couple of years have taken their toll, especially around Marfa, Alpine and Marathon. Permits have been reduced. Populations in Culberson and Hudspeth counties fared better. Winter and spring rains should increase fawn production and horn growth. John McEachern in San Angelo thinks the rains will help the Permian Basin pronghorns with horn production. Going north, Calvin Richardson reports, “Our best pronghorn country shows a 15 to 20 percent reduction.” Heavy snow in Dallam, Hartley, Sherman and Moore counties covered the ground for about a month. Expect horns to be average.

Pronghorn season

35 counties Oct. 2–10 (by permit only)

Small game/

Alan Cain, district biologist for South Texas, says South Texas is a great place to hunt fox squirrels, cottontails and jackrabbits. Wet months are usually followed by an explosion of rabbits and rodents, and that, as Brad Porter points out, is cold-trailed by an increase in predators like coyotes and bobcats. Daniel Kunz of Alice reports that in Jim Wells and Duval counties, rabbits, hares and squirrels have already started to rebound. Cottontail rabbit numbers are expected to be much higher this year than in 2008 or 2009. Gary Calkins, district biologist in the Pineywoods, says squirrels in some areas have had a good carryover, but it’s been a bit tough in some other areas. Littrell said high squirrel populations and heavy mast crops indicate a three-peat of great hunting years on the Engeling WMA. Small game hunting is not exclusively for kids, either. It’s a skill builder for adults, too. The more you hunt and shoot, the better you are at both.

Squirrel season

* Special Youth Season

Sept. 25-26

East Texas (51 counties)

Oct. 1–Feb. 6, May 1–31

Other open counties (See county listings in TPWD Outdoor Annual)

Sept. 1–Aug. 31

* In all counties that have Oct. 1-Feb. 6 and May 1-31 open squirrel season

Rabbits and hares: No closed season

Desert bighorn sheep

Mike Pittman points to last year’s record 1,144 sheep observed during aerial surveys and 16 permits issued, plus good carryover. Bighorns are more tolerant of dry conditions than most game. Similar population numbers and permits are expected.

Bighorn season

By permit only

Javelina

Ryan Darr of Kenedy reports that despite drought conditions, javelina, which are adapted to dry conditions, fared well throughout 2009, which has helped populations increase further in 2010. Pittman says the Trans-Pecos WMAs have a good carryover from last year. Cain calls them a “poorly tapped resource.” Kunz notes that javelina offer great hunting opportunities for kids.

Javelina season

43 counties Oct. 1–Feb. 27

50 counties Sept. 1–Aug. 31

Feral hogs

Cain of South Texas hit it on the snout: “One of the very few redeeming qualities of a two-year drought was the decline in the feral hog population.” But then came the rains.

They brought up new vegetation, and the swine got busy catching up. Chip Ruthven calls them “the poster critter for reproductive performance.” Over in the Pineywoods, Calkins summed up the current situation: “We certainly have no shortage … and sure wish there was a shortage.” Humphrey says hogs are moving into the western Edwards Plateau country. They are said to be in 51 of 56 Panhandle counties. They seem to serve no useful purpose except to fill a plate. A 40- to 60-pound pig, though, is as good as eating gets. Matt Reidy says there is no fear of overharvesting them.

Feral hog season

No closed season; landowner permission and hunting license required.

Quail

Last season was dreadful in most areas of Texas. Two summers without rain reduced quail populations to maybe enough to fill a Volkswagen. The Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in South Texas — often one of the better bobwhite hunting areas — even suspended hunting because of lack of birds and fear of losing more. Then the drought broke, and hopes rose. But like Rome, a quail nation cannot be rebuilt in a day. Or even a season. Evan McCoy, on the Kerr WMA, describes it like this: “We should see some tremendous hatches this spring and summer, but we may not be working with a large carryover of birds from last spring (2009) when conditions were poor.” Without enough mamas and papas, it will take more than one season for the birds to rebound. But at least it’s a start. This spring, the ground cover is thick with forbs and grasses, which will make great habitat for nesting and feeding. Numerous insects will also be available, and that’s critical for young birds. Eric Garza in Hebbronville predicts that “bobwhite quail are likely to be in lower numbers unless we get multiple hatches.” But multiple hatches on a year like this are a distinct possibility. David Forrester, in LaGrange, says what biologists in most parts of Texas are saying: “We have experienced above-average moisture over the winter, which bodes well for quail production this spring and summer.” Charlie Newberry, in Henrietta, however, is “cautiously optimistic.” “Landowners in this area have been experiencing poor recruitment,” he says. “Quail numbers have been on a decline for several years.” The Chaparral area hasn’t recovered yet, either. Tarrant, in Alpine, says that after a few subpar years, expect scaled quail populations to bounce back some this year. Most of West Texas received good winter/spring moisture, which should provide plenty of forbs. This, coupled with adequate cover, will bode well for blues throughout most of the Trans-Pecos. Increased soil moisture should also help Gambel’s quail populations along the Rio Grande, and hunters pursuing this unique game bird could be pleasantly surprised.

Quail season

Statewide (all counties) Oct. 30–Feb. 27

Photo by Jack Unruh

White-tailed deer

Llano is one of the most popular deer hunting counties in Texas. Dale Schmidt, a wildlife technician there, probably says it for all of the Hill Country: “Llano and San Saba have received ample rainfall starting in September 2009. Therefore, the overall habitat greatly improved from this time last year. With a good acorn crop last fall along with pastures green with forbs in the spring, this deer season is shaping up to be a possible record year for antler growth. With poor antler growth last year, many hunters passed on smaller bucks; this gave some of the younger bucks an extra year to mature and possibly grow a more desirable set of antlers this hunting season.” Trey Carpenter, biologist in Burnet and Williamson counties, coordinated the Hill Country report and agreed, saying, “I think this is going to be a huge factor this year. We should have really terrific carryover as a result. One more year (and a really good one so far) can make a huge difference antler-wise.” Tarrant also expects a good year in the Trans-Pecos, with numerous older age-class bucks available. Richardson noted that antler growth on Panhandle bucks got off to a good start this spring and that a couple of rains this summer to finish them off will bring an above-average year. Ruthven agreed. Moving east, Dean Marquardt, in Granbury, says, “It looks to be a banner year for white-tailed deer in North Texas! Winter rains have produced a diverse array of forbs, and deer are in great condition. Bucks were able to regain body mass shortly after the rut due to excellent range conditions, likely translating into quality antler growth for the fall.” Calkins says the Pineywoods deer are looking good; antler restrictions have helped. In South Texas, David Synatzske, on the Chaparral WMA, reports that he still saw bucks sporting past years’ antlers on April 22, indicating excellent nutrition. He expects above-average antlers. Cain, who compiled the Brush Country report, says many South Texas biologists expect above-average or exceptional antlers because of the great range conditions and quality nutritional forage. And plenty of mature bucks: Kunz reminds us that six years ago, South Texas had a very large fawn crop. Those bucks have now come of age.

Whitetail season

Archery-Only Season Oct. 2–Nov. 5

General Season

* Special Youth Season Oct. 30–31, Jan. 3–16

North Texas (208 counties) Nov. 6–Jan. 2

South Texas (30 counties) Nov. 6–Jan. 16

Late Anterless and Spike

Panhandle (28 counties) and Edwards Plateau (39 counties) Jan. 3–16

South Texas (30 counties) Jan. 17– 30

Muzzleloader (57 counties) Jan. 3–16

* In all counties that have an open whitetail season

Mule deer

Mike Pittman manages the three Trans-Pecos WMAs – Black Gap, Sierra Diablo and Elephant Mountain. He says it’s been very dry on all three areas during winter and spring. That’s typical. Some early summer rain fell, however, and he thinks that will help. He reports a good carryover of mule deer and expects antler growth to be average. In the Panhandle, it’s a different, somewhat brighter story. Ruthven expects a “great year” for mule deer. Two of the main ingredients for a good season are present: good winter survival and great range conditions. He anticipates good body weights and above-average antlers.

Mule deer season

Archery-Only Season Oct. 2–Nov. 5

General Season Panhandle (39 counties) Nov. 20 –Dec. 5

SW Panhandle (11 counties) Nov. 20–28

Trans-Pecos (19 counties) Nov. 26–Dec.12

Photo by Jack Unruh

Rio Grande turkeys

Most Texas turkey hunting is now done in the spring, but some unlucky toms happen past deer hunters and end up on the table at Thanksgiving. Unlike quail hunters, most fall turkey hunters don’t benefit from good conditions that year; they are hunting a hatch from previous seasons. Wolter says this spring in the Hill Country was “the best we’ve had in three years,” but the class of 2010 won’t help until next year. Ruthven, however, says the Rolling Plains had good reproduction in 2007 and 2009, so there will be an adequate population there. Tarrant tells us that Trans-Pecos turkeys are definitely underutilized; populations there are stable or increasing. In South Texas, Cain laments several years of decline, but David Rios predicts a good season in the turkey-abundant Uvalde area.

Rio Grande turkey season

Archery-Only Season Oct. 2–Nov. 5

Fall Season

* Special Youth Season Oct. 30–31, Jan. 15–16

North Zone (122 counties) Nov. 6–Jan. 2

South Zone (26 counties) Nov. 6–Jan. 16

Brooks, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties Nov. 6–Feb. 27

* In all counties that have an open turkey season

Fall season is closed for Eastern turkeys.

Pheasants

Good winter moisture and spring rainfall project a good nesting season. Playas are wet and will produce excellent cover as well as forage (forbs, insects, seeds). Continued moisture throughout summer is needed to ensure good brood-rearing habitat. Richardson says the best pheasant numbers will be found in areas with a combination of large grains (corn or sorghum), small grains (wheat, triticale) and escape cover in the form of playas and/or weedy corners.

Pheasant season

Chambers, Jefferson and Liberty counties Oct. 30–Feb. 27

Panhandle (37 counties) Dec. 4–Jan. 2

Waterfowl

If you think it’s inexact trying to forecast overall hunting prospects for game in Texas, consider what it’s like trying to predict waterfowl hunting when breeding is done, in some cases, a continent away from Texas. And then the birds have the entire middle part of America to fly over to get here!

But even with that caveat, it’s looking pretty good. The situation in Texas is much brighter this year since an 18- to 24-month drought broke last fall, and the state was still getting some rain through the middle of the summer. There is less worry about habitat for wintering birds this year than there was at this time last year. A year ago, fears arose that dry conditions could cause waterfowl to pass on through to more hospitable habitat in Mexico or farther south. That’s no longer the case.

So much, though, is dependent upon conditions in the north. Dave Morrison, TPWD’s waterfowl program leader, keeps a watchful eye on the breeding grounds and reports that the

Dakotas have excellent water conditions in key spots. There has been loss of habitat because of Conservation Reserve Program reductions, and that equates to declines in nesting cover. In spite of that, Morrison says reports from North Dakota indicate that ducks have increased 12 percent over last year and 107 percent above the long-term average.

In Canada, good habitat conditions have been reported in southern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, but conditions are only fair to poor in southern Alberta. Alaska is in good shape, and more geese appear to be on the northern horizon since there was an early ice-out.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that mallard, gadwall and American wigeon populations have declined slightly since last season, but mallards, totaling 8.4 million birds, are still 12 percent above average, and gadwalls are 67 percent higher. Wigeons continue to be below continental population objectives.

Green-winged teal estimates are up slightly from last season, but blue-winged teal declined by 14 percent. Even at that, a bluewing population of 6.3 million ducks is still 36 percent above the long-term average, and greenwings, with nearly 3.5 million, are a whopping 78 percent over it!

Northern shovelers have slipped 7 percent from last year’s numbers but are 76 percent above the average. Northern pintails, by contrast, have multiplied 9 percent higher than in 2009 but are still under the long-term average by 13 percent. Pintails now number 3.5 million birds. Redheads gained a couple of percentage points over the previous seasons and are still flying 63 percent above the average. Canvasbacks sank 12 percent after a modest increase last year but continue to be one of the most stable ducks populations in North America, with just over half a million birds. Scaups increased 2 percent from 2009 but are still playing catch-up, being 16 percent below average.

Barring a hurricane that could scatter the birds and disrupt migration patterns, this season looks promising.

 

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