State eyes more liberal fishing, hunting regulations

By Shannon Tompkins

Updated 10:09 pm, Saturday, January 23, 2016
  • A proposal by Texas fisheries managers would reduce the minimum length requirement for largemouth bass to 12 inches in public waters of four southeast Texas counties and the Sabine River downstream from Toledo Bend Reservoir. Photo: Picasa

Photo: Picasa
A proposal by Texas fisheries managers would reduce the minimum length requirement for largemouth bass to 12 inches in public waters of four southeast Texas counties and the Sabine River downstream from Toledo Bend Reservoir.

Many of Texas’ 2 million anglers and million-plus hunters stand to see several more liberal regulations and increased opportunities if state wildlife officials adopt changes in state hunting and fishing regulations proposed last week.

The package of recommended changes that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff presented during a briefing to the agency’s nine-member commission includes adding 20 days to the state’s dove season, opening a hunting season for white-tailed deer in 14 Panhandle counties, increasing the number of days when antlerless whitetails can be taken in all or portions of 25 counties, adding 32 counties to the list of those having a muzzleloader-only whitetail hunting season, liberalizing the definition of “spike” whitetail buck and decreasing the minimum length requirement for largemouth bass in southeast Texas coastal estuaries.

The proposals also incorporate changes that would tighten some rules, among them reinstating the 30-inch maximum length limit for black drum after a clerical error last year left the maximum out of the legal code.

More days for doves

Under recently approved federal frameworks governing hunting of migratory game birds during the 2016-17 hunting seasons, Texas will be allowed to hunt doves for a total of 90 days, up from the 70-day dove season allowed in recent years and the longest dove season in more than 75 years. As recently as 1981, Texas was limited to a 60-day dove season.

TPWD staff recommended the additional days be split between the “early” dove season that opens in September and the “winter” dove season that opens around Christmas and runs into January. Under the proposal, the dove season in Texas’ North Zone would run Sept. 1-Nov. 13 and Dec. 17-Jan. 1; Central Zone, Sept. 1-Nov. 6 and Dec. 17-Jan. 6; South Zone, Sept. 23-Nov. 13 and Dec. 17-Jan. 23; and Special White-winged Dove Area, Sept. 3-4, 10-11, Sept. 23-Nov. 13 and Dec. 17-Jan. 19.

The additional dove-season days allow the state to extend the first segment of the regular season into November, which means it will be open when quail season begins in late October and during the youth-only deer season, giving hunters options to participate in multiple activities, Dave Morrison, small game program leader for TPWD’s wildlife division, said during the Wednesday briefing before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Texas’ 700,000 deer hunters would see a significant expansion of opportunities under the proposals for the 2016-17 hunting seasons.

TPWD staff recommends opening a white-tailed deer hunting season in 14 counties on the western side of the Panhandle. The proposal is triggered by an expanding whitetail population in that area coupled with the support of landowners in the area for opening a limited whitetail season, Alan Cain, TPWD’s whitetail deer program leader, told the commission.

The affected counties would have archery-only and general (firearms) whitetail seasons, with a one-buck, two-antlerless deer annual bag limit.

In 23 counties and portions of two counties, all in the Post Oak Savannah ecological region of the state, deer hunters would gain additional days during the general deer season during which they could take antlerless (doe) whitetails without having to hold a special antlerless deer permit or Managed Lands Deer Permit; the doe could be tagged with a standard antlerless whitetail tag from a general hunting license.

Some counties would see their first “doe days,” while others would see their number of doe days grow by as many as 12 days.

Thirty-two counties in the Post Oak Savannah would see a 14-day, muzzleloader-only deer season that would run immediately following the close of the general whitetail season.

Aid to deer population

Expanding deer numbers and deer density as well as a skewed doe/buck ration in the affected counties are behind state wildlife managers’ recommendation to expand doe days and allow the muzzleloader season. In some of the Post Oak Savannah counties, does outnumber bucks by as much as 3.5-1, Cain said.

To alleviate confusion tied to the definition of a “spike” buck legal to be taken by a hunter – considered to be a buck with at least one unbranched antler during the “general” deer season in counties with antler restriction rules and a buck with two unbranched antlers during the “special antlerless and spike only” season that follows the close of the general season – TPWD is recommending a change in regulations. The change would define a “legal buck” during the late season as a buck with at least one unbranched antler.

Anglers who fish in the near-coastal freshwater fisheries of four counties in the southeast corner of the state or the Sabine River downstream from Toledo Bend Reservoir would see a new definition of a “legal” largemouth bass change if a proposed regulation is adopted. Texas inland fisheries staff is recommending reducing the minimum length requirement for largemouths caught from those waters from the current 14-inch statewide minimum to 12 inches.

The change would apply to public waters in Chambers, Jefferson, Galveston and Orange counties and the reach of the Sabine River downstream of Toledo Bend.

The proposed change was triggered by increased interest by bass tournaments in the coastal and riverine bass fisheries in Southeast Texas coupled with the demographics and characteristics of the bass fishery in those waters.

Source of frustration

The coastal fresh/brackish waters of the lower Sabine, Neches and Trinity rivers and the bayous and marshes of the southeast corner of the state hold a thriving bass population, and the fish grow much slower and suffer higher annual natural mortality than largemouths in reservoirs or other inland waters, said Ken Kurzawski of TPWD’s inland fisheries division. While a largemouth in Sam Rayburn Reservoir typically grows to 14 inches within two years, bass in the coastal waters take four years to reach that length. The result is that few bass in the coastal estuary fisheries reach “legal” length.

That abundance of small bass and rarity of fish meeting the 14-inch minimum has been a source of frustration for bass tournaments and their participants, including high-profile professional bass tournaments as well as a growing number of high school and college bass tournament circuits that have discovered the coastal estuaries’ bass fishery in recent years.

Reducing the minimum length requirement to 12 inches for bass taken from these coastal fisheries but leaving the daily bag limit at five fish would allow tournament anglers to retain more fish for weighing and release, let the average recreational anglers keep a few more bass for the table and not increase harvest enough to damage the fishery.

While inland fisheries managers are proposing lowering the minimum length requirement for largemouth bass in a small area of the state, coastal fisheries managers are looking to reinstate a statewide maximum length limit for a popular inshore species.

Righting a wrong

A clerical error made last year in converting a table chart to text in the Texas Administrative Code inadvertently omitted the 30-inch maximum length limit for black drum. So current regulations include only a 14-inch minimum and a one-fish-over-52-inches rule for black drum, with a five-fish daily limit. (The one-over-52-inches rule is designed to allow an angler who catches a potential state-record drum to retain the fish for weighing.)

TPWD proposes reinstating the intended 14- to 30-inch “slot” limit for black drum. The 30-inch maximum was designed to protect adult black drum, helping ensure good reproduction to maintain the fishes’ population.

Although the current letter of the law allows anglers to retain black drum measuring more than 30 inches, relatively few anglers are likely to take advantage of the loophole. While juvenile black drum (those 14 to 25 inches or so) are outstanding food fish, the flesh of adult drum is invariably coarse and often riddled with parasites. Most anglers release large drum.

All proposed changes in hunting and fishing regulations are open to public comment and will be the subject of a handful of public hearings across the state in coming weeks. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will vote to adopt, modify or reject the proposals at its March 24 public hearing in Austin. Any adopted changes will take effect Sept. 1.