‘Wet’ whitetail deer season yields mixed results By Shannon Tompkins Updated 9:46 pm, Saturday, January 2, 2016

Flooding of the river basins was just one of the many weather-related challenges that left large swaths of East Texas inaccessible to the state's 700,000 deer hunters. All of it amounted to a frustrating 2015-16 season for whitetail hunters. Photo: Picasa

Flooding of the river basins was just one of the many weather-related challenges that left large swaths of East Texas inaccessible to the state’s 700,000 deer hunters. All of it amounted to a frustrating 2015-16 season for whitetail hunters.

When Texas’ 700,000-plus deer hunters look back on the 2015-16 whitetail deer season, which begins winding down with Sunday’s close of the general season in the state’s 212-county North Zone, many may remember it for quality over quantity. It was a season in which hunters took fewer whitetails than normal, but the ones they took were above average in body conditions and antler development.

Some, especially those whose hunting areas are in the floodplains of rivers and streams in East Texas, almost certainly will recall it as one of the most frustrating deer seasons they’ve experienced. And that’s if they got to experience it at all; a considerable amount of premier deer country has spent much of the season under water or otherwise inaccessible.

“It’s been an interesting season, for sure,” Mitch Lockwood, big-game program director for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department‘s wildlife division, said this past week. “We won’t have hard data until after the season, but, anecdotally, it looks like hunters have had good success where they had access (to hunting areas), and overall quality of the deer has been exceptional. But in some areas, access has been a problem all season. Weather has played a big role this year.”

By “weather,” Lockwood means “rain.” And that rain has proven a blessing and a curse to Texas deer hunters during the 2015-16 hunting season.

Derailed by flooding

Significant rains that fell on much of Texas deer range beginning this past winter and spring, breaking a multi-year drought that had reduced quality and quantity of deer habitat and the deer living on that dry landscape, get much credit for the outstanding prospects hunters faced ahead of the 2015-16 season. Texas’ whitetail herd, stoked by a rain-fueled flush of vegetation that provided high-quality forage and cover, had a great year. With abundant forage, winter survival was higher than normal. Does produced an above-average fawn crop. The wet spring gave bucks plenty of the high-nutrient forbs and browse crucial to antler development. The result was a 2015-16 deer season that opened with Texas’ whitetail herd having grown to an estimated 3.95 million animals, the highest population in a decade.

But the 2015-16 general whitetail deer season also opened with much of the state soaked by record-setting October rains – rains that sent rivers in the eastern third of Texas out of their banks, flooding millions of acres.

“A lot of country in river basins has been inaccessible all season,” Lockwood said, noting East Texas has been especially impacted with season-long flooding on rivers such as the Trinity, Sulphur and Sabine.

That flooding cost thousands of Texas deer hunters opportunities to get afield on private lands in the affected areas. And it derailed a considerable amount of public hunting opportunity in the eastern portion of the state.

“(TPWD) had to cancel 16 public deer hunts in East Texas because of flooding,” Lockwood said.

Many deer hunters in areas not affected by flooding had their own weather-related problems. Rain on opening weekend of the general deer season and through much of November and December turned the countryside to a muddy mess, making access to hunting leases a challenge, if not impossible, in many areas and generally discouraging hunters who didn’t relish the idea of a long, miserably wet morning afield. Add to that, a much warmer than normal November and December, including downright muggy conditions around Christmas, and the result appears to have been fewer hunters spending less time in the woods than they might have had weather been more cooperative.

Higher quality bucks

Also, the abundance of natural forage meant deer didn’t have to move as much to find food or visit deer feeders as often. And the thick vegetation produced by the wet year made it harder for hunters to spot the deer that did move.

That appears to have translated into fewer deer being taken. Several TPWD wildlife division staffers who worked high-participation weekends during the season (opening weekend, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays) collecting deer harvest data (age, weight, sex) and tissue samples for the agency’s on-going chronic wasting disease surveillance program reported seeing fewer hunters and deer than in recent seasons at the cold storage and deer processing businesses they visited.

“I’m guessing harvest will probably be down this year because of the weather conditions,” Lockwood said.

That would track with the results of the 2007-08 deer season, Texas’ most recent “wet” deer season. That season saw the lowest number of deer hunters afield (578,000), the lowest number of days they spent afield (4.7 million) and the lowest overall whitetail harvest (513,000) of any season from 2001-02 through 2014-15. By comparison, the 2014-15 deer season saw 704,000 Texas hunters spend 6.7 million days afield and take 590,000 whitetails, according to TPWD survey data.

But while the number of deer taken might be down from recent seasons, the quality of those deer appears to be up. Way up.

“Antler quality has been just exceptional,” Lockwood said. “I talked with a taxidermist in San Antonio who said this has been the best year he’s ever seen for the quality of bucks.”

Just as important, the overall physical condition of the state’s whitetails – bucks and does – and the venison they yield reflects the benefits of this year’s generally outstanding range conditions.

“Body condition of deer has been phenomenal; they’re just so fat. Every deer I’ve seen has been in great shape,” said Lockwood, who has handled dozens of hunter-taken and road-killed deer this season while collecting data for agency research.

Still opportunities left

Final word on Texas’ 2015-16 deer season remains to be written. There’s still time left for many hunters to shape how they’ll remember this season.

While the general firearms season in the state’s North Zone ends Sunday, the general season in the 30-county South Zone, home to some of the state’s premier whitetail populations, runs through Jan. 17.

In 106 North Zone counties, a two-week season for spike bucks and antlerless deer (does) begins Monday and continues through Jan. 17. The South Zone’s spike/antlerless season runs Jan. 18-31. And in 58 counties, mostly in eastern half of the state, hunters using muzzle-loaded firearms can continue trying to fill their deer tags during a Jan. 4-17 muzzleloader-only season.

Then there are the 10,000 or so properties where total deer harvest on each tract is regulated under Texas’ Managed Lands Deer Permit program and hunters are allowed to take those deer through the end of February. That’s two months from now. Maybe it’ll dry up a bit between now and then.