For most outdoorsmen, the New Year begins on September 1—not January 1, as observed by the rest of the world.
Just as the first norther awakens the virility of the buck deer and fills him with energy that has slumbered all summer, the hunter comes alive. Some even take to jogging, doing push-ups or otherwise exerting themselves for the first time in months. On the first day of the season, they spring out of bed as the alarm goes off, although they normally can’t be dragged out of bed with a winch truck. Getting back to this most basic skill helps change the pace and perspective of life in a 100-mile-an-hour world.
Hunting is one of the most therapeutic strategic withdrawals available. Sitting on the side of a hill out in the Frio Canyon, a hunter can feel things falling back into the right places as it gets on toward 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s the autumn of another year in his life, and a good time to reflect.
So much for psychology. What does Texas have to offer hunters in the way of game?
Over three million deer, for openers. That’s about one-fourth of the entire nation’s deer population. And they are annually taken in about 214 of Texas’ 254 counties under widely varied circumstances.
If a hunter is up to it, he can assault the mountains and canyons of West Texas in the land known as the Trans-Pecos. Chances are he’ll get a shot at mule deer and maybe two kinds of whitetail the same day. Or he might be after a real trophy for his den in the tangled cat-claw and prickly-pear world near the Mexican border known as the Brush Country. Some of the best whitetail racks of all time have come from that southland. But if he prefers picturesque rolling hills with sparkling streams where the deer and turkey abound in awesome numbers—and where each vista looks like a Pearl Beer ad—he really ought to hunt the Hill Country. The deer aren’t the largest, but it’s the greatest concentration of them in the world.
In the Panhandle, he can hunt a brushy draw along the Canadian River, where Texas’ heaviest deer hide out. And the hilly area of the Possum Kingdom region provides thousands of whitetails for hunters west of Dallas-Ft. Worth. Even East Texas offers good hunting in the heavily timbered land along the Louisiana border. The state’s mid-section, too, the Central Oak Prairie region, in many places is lush with oak thickets and acorn fat bucks.
But there’s plenty besides deer. Over half of America’s wild turkeys are Texans and much of the country’s waterfowl winter here. This is the end of the line for those travelling the central flyway from Canada. Likewise for Sandhill cranes coming from the North to light in West Texas. Nearly ten million quail, 14 million mourning doves, a quarter of a million whitewings and a million squirrels go into the stew each season. There are still more javelinas (150,000) than pronghorn antelope (10,000) in West Texas.
Then for those who want something out of the ordinary come now the exotics, those critters not native to Texas or in most cases not even native to this country. Some, like pheasant, for instance, or prairie chicken, have been imported from other states. The most exotic ones, though, are the ones that didn’t speak English at all before coming to Texas. A glossary of game which can now be hunted in Texas reads like a Swahili road map: Oryx, Aoudad, Nilgai, Mouflon, Axis, Barasinghi, Blackbuck. And a good many others.
Probably no area in the world offers a hunter such a divergent choice of game or hunting terrain for the $5.25 cost of a resident hunting license. (See the subsequent information on licensing requirements.) And there’s an open season on something all the time.
So how does a person get into Texas hunting?
Leases Pro and Con
WELL, TO BEGIN WITH, he’ll need a place to hunt, and that’s not as simple as it used to be.
When Texas annexed the Union in 1845, one of the conditions the early Texans placed upon accepting statehood was that Texas retain title to its public lands. As a result, an abundance of federally owned public land open to free hunting simply does not exist in Texas as it does in some Western states. The National Forest lands are exceptions, but, practically speaking, he can’t just pull off the road in an unfenced area and start hunting.
Whether or not there are signs saying he cannot hunt is of no consequence. The land belongs to somebody, and a provision of the Texas Penal Code makes it a crime to trespass for the purpose of hunting, and landowners don’t condone trespassing. One ranch has a sign reading “POSTED. TRESPASSERS WILL BE VIOLATED.” Odds are it wasn’t a misprint.
On top of that, it just ain’t safe to cut across a pasture without permission. Not that the average, experienced hunter is going to wilfully shoot him it’s just that he may be passing through the sights of someone with bad eyes and a highly excitable trigger finger who might mistake him for a buck. It happens every year.
If he finds a ranch that he wants to hunt on, it probably would do no harm to go up to the ranch house and ask permission to hunt. The land may already be leased or may be up for lease; he’ll never know until he asks.
Most Texas ranchers that have any deer to speak of, (and maybe one or two who don’t), lease their land commercially for hunting purposes. It’s simply a matter of economics. The rancher has to make a living off his land. Deer actually detract from the rest of his agricultural operation since they compete with domestic livestock for food and are an absolute menace to some crops. A few ranchers actually consider them pests. If the deer are allowed to remain, then it stands to reason their existence ought to be justified in dollars and cents. Many ranchers consequently even look upon their game as a cash crop and manage it for the best economic return. Thus one pays to hunt in most places in Texas.
Charging a fee to hunters is not a one-sided proposition, however. There are advantages to the hunter. Most ranches that cater to hunters will improve their range with an eye toward better hunting. Some plant a few acres of oats or other grain savored by the game and provide water and salt or mineral “licks” for the wildlife. Some places, like Operation Whitetail, run by Sportsmen’s Clubs of Texas, even restock their preserves with healthy King Ranch deer each year.
Another obvious advantage in lease hunting is the assurance that his party is the only one hunting a particular pasture. Landowners seldom overload a pasture with hunters, a practice which makes hunting considerably safer.
Other advantages to this system are the hunter-convenience improvements many ranchers have made—maybe a camp house and some stands or blinds. If the lease is of sufficient duration—a year or longer—these can be constructed by the hunters themselves if the landowner has not already done so. At any rate, a hunter quite often has a better, safer, and certainly more comfortable hunt on most Texas fee-charging leases than on unimproved, public lands.
Needless to say, the cost of Texas hunting leases, whether by the day or by the season, will depend on the extent of improvements and game management practices. Naturally, a hunter would expect to pay more to go first class than he would to rough it.
Hunting leases in Texas come generally in two kinds: the season lease and the day lease. A season lease may actually be a year-round lease or for a term of years. A day lease is usually for one day at a time, but a number of ranchers are leasing for several days, an entire weekend or up to a week at a time.
If a season lease is of the year round type—for 12 months or longer—oftentimes the hunter’s whole family can use the lease before and after deer season for recreational purposes. This could include fishing, camping, or perhaps even bird or varmint hunting if the landowner will permit. Some just like to go out to the lease to get a chance to be in the country.
A season lease will usually provide more total acreage per hunter than most day leases. By having the lease for the whole season or longer, a hunter will be able to scout the terrain and find out “where they’re crossing.” By locating game trails the deer regularly use going to and from food, water, and cover, the hunter will greatly increase his chances of bringing home the venison. If the lease is of adequate duration to justify it, some hunters construct elaborate camp houses, kitchens and hunting blinds. A few others like to rough it with catalytic heaters and sliding windows in their blinds so they don’t have to brave the elements any longer than is absolutely necessary.
About the only disadvantage to a season lease is cost. Hill Country deer leases start at about $125 per gun per season. South Texas prices are higher, with some going out of sight. Hunters get about what they pay for in total hunting time and an all round better lease, as discussed, but this only holds true if they can take advantage of it. If a person cannot go hunting but once or twice, it’s not very economical.
Day leases are attractive to many occasional hunters who do not have either the time or money for a season lease. Since the rancher only charges for the day or days hunted, there’s no great outlay of cash. A day of deer hunting can still be had for $10-$20.
Probably the main disadvantage in day-hunting is that the leases tend to be over-hunted. Hunted out in fact. After a couple of weeks with an anxious hunter on each stand every day, there just aren’t many deer left. Those that are left have figured out something’s going on and avoid traveling near the stands in daylight. In some parts of the state, though, the vegetation doesn’t die off enough to make for good shooting until later in the season. Often the deer don’t move until the weather gets colder, either.
Another disadvantage to day leases is that all too often there are no stands and no place to stay. For the price, a hunter can’t expect much, but it’s a disadvantage nevertheless. If there is not a camp house, he has to either drive from home in the predawn hours, stay overnight in a motel, or camp out.
Weather can affect a day-hunter more than it can the fellows on the season lease too. If he’s made arrangements to hunt, put up his money, and a sleet storm moves in, he’s got two choices: stay in bed and forfeit his money, or be miserable out in the hills.
Possibly the safest way to be assured of getting some venison for the money is the no-kill, no-pay, or guaranteed type of day-hunting. There are more and more of these types of leases coming on the scene. They work like this: The hunt is arranged for a certain day, transportation and guides being provided in some cases. If the hunter sees a deer he likes, he takes it and pays the fee. If he doesn’t get his deer, he doesn’t owe a cent. When he makes a kill, though, it isn’t cheap. The cost will vary from $150 to $200 or more for a good whitetail buck. Most of the places of this type have an abundant stock of game and manage it well. It’s a big business with them and they run it like one. Most of the shooting resorts of this type are headquartered in the Hill Country. Foremost is the famed Y. 0. Ranch at Mountain Home near Kerrville, where they guarantee a buck with eight points or better or the hunt is on them.
Although there is little public land in Texas, there is some public hunting.
PRACTICALLY ALL LANDS of the four National Forests in Texas are open to public hunting. No hunting is allowed near improved recreation areas and a few other restricted zones. That still leaves a considerable amount of the 600,000 acres of forest. There is no fee for hunting, but a valid Texas hunting license is required and all state laws must be observed. The National Forests are all in the heavily timbered East Texas Piney Woods region. Maps and further information can be obtained by writing the District Ranger at the following addresses:
Big Thicket Ranger District
Trinity Ranger District
Angelina Ranger District
Yellow Pine Ranger District
Neches Ranger District
Tenaha Ranger District
San Augustine, Texas
Raven Ranger District
1520 Ave. L
Public hunts are also conducted under the supervision and management of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife of the Federal Government as conservation projects. These hunts are on a permit basis with permits being distributed to those drawn at random from a barrel of applicants.
At present, there are two Federal preserves being hunted, both of them for bowhunters only. The Aransas Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, winter home of the famous and nearly extinct whooping crane, is open to archers prior to arrival of the rare birds.
An unlimited number of bow hunters are allowed to hunt this coastal oak thicket in order to reduce the number of surplus deer occupying the refuge. The demand of the deer upon the food supply just about exceeds the supply.
Dates for the Aransas bow hunt are Sept. 20-24, Sept. 28-Oct. 1 and Oct. 5-8. Hunters may shoot three deer, either sex, but no more than two of them may be bucks. But there’s no limit on the trophy-size mosquitoes. Kill all you can.
The Laguna Atascosa Refuge, 20 miles east of Harlingen, will host bow hunts on Oct. 5-7, 12-14, 19-21, 26- 28. Limit is one deer, either sex.
Some additional hunting is permitted on U. S. Military reservations. Fort Hood near Killeen, and Camp Bullis outside of San Antonio have permitted it in the past, and some of the others may as well. Each post or base wildlife officer should be contacted in advance.
The most significant public hunting is that conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on the various state game management areas. These hunts are by permit only, and the permits are awarded to those whose applications are drawn from the multitudes submitted.
Anyone 17 years or older may apply, so long as he holds a valid hunting license. A deer hunter can only apply once a season, for one preserve only, and cannot receive a permit in two consecutive years. As many as four hunters can apply as a party. Applications can be obtained by writing the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, John H. Reagan Building, Austin, Texas 78701, or any branch office throughout the state. Gun hunters’ applications must be obtained in early October each year, and returned prior to the deadline, which is usually around October 25. About eight management areas are open to the hunts, and are located throughout the State.
Bow hunters can also hunt during the October bow season on several areas. Applications have to be in the Parks and Wildlife offices in Austin in early September.
Mourning dove hunting will be permitted on Chaparral Area in South Texas, the Matador Area in the Panhandle, and the Pat Mayse Area north of Paris. Waterfowl will be hunted on the Murphree Area in Southeast Texas. Teal can be hunted in September and other ducks and geese can be hunted during the regular fowl season.
A boon to Piney Woods hunters is the vast amount of land made available by the timber companies in East Texas. Most of them provide pamphlets showing the areas that can be hunted and ask only that you help them keep down forest fires. They’re trying to make friends. The following is a list of the lumber companies which have done this in the past:
International Paper Company, P. 0. Box 9, Jefferson, Texas (lands in Red River, Bowie, Cass, Marion, Wood and Upshur counties); International Paper Company, Box 987, Nacogdoches (Nacogdoches, Shelby and San Augustine); International Paper Company, Box 909, Woodville (Jasper, Newton and Tyler); Kirby Lumber Company, Box 1514, Houston 77001 (Liberty, Hardin, Tyler, Newton, Jasper and San Augustine counties); South- western Timber Company, 229 North Bowie, Jasper 75951 (Tyler, Hardin, Newton, Jasper, and San Augustine); Hunting Guide, Southland Paper, Box 149, Lufkin 75901 (Angelina, Cherokee. Nacogdoches, Houston, Newton, Polk, Panola, San Jacinto, Trinity and Walker); and Hunting Guide, Temple Industries, Diboll 75941 (Anderson, Cherokee, Newton, Jasper , Sabine, San Augustine. Shelby, Panola, Houston, Trinity, Angelina. Rusk and Nacogdoches).
As far as finding a hunting lease, there is a book on the market, Hunters’ Guide to Texas, by John Jefferson, Jenkins Publishing Co., 1972, which lists a number of them. Other sources are the classified ads, Chambers of Commerce, sporting goods dealers, friends who hunt, and occasionally Parks and Wildlife Game Management Officers. Some hunters even run classified ads themselves looking for leases.
What You Need
ONCE HE’S FOUND A PLACE to hunt, all a hunter really needs is 1) a gun; 2) bullets for the gun (better if they are the same caliber); and 3) a knife. Oh, a license is mandatory, too.
The resident hunting license is required of every Texas citizen who hunts outside his county of residence, or who hunts deer or turkey. It cost $5.25, but a combination hunting/fishing license is also available for $8.75, which saves $.75 off the purchase of both licenses bought separately. No Green Stamps, though. Persons under 17 and over 65 and persons hunting on land on which they reside are not required to purchase a regular license, but must have an exempt license to hunt deer and turkey. It costs a quarter.
To qualify as a “Texas Citizen,” a hunter must have been a bonafide resident of Texas for the six months preceding purchase and must not be an alien. Members of the military assigned in Texas for 30 days also qualify.
If his status is none of the above, then he needs either a non-resident hunting license ($37.50), a non-resident five-day migratory game license ($10.50), a non-resident shooting resort hunting license ($5), or a non-resident five-day archery hunting license ($5).
And of course duck and goose hunters need the Federal Migratory Bird Stamp ($5), and whitewing dove hunters need the whitewing stamp ($3). All of the licenses and stamps can be purchased from Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. game management officers or their license deputies (most sporting goods dealers and even some drive-in groceries), except the duck stamp. It has to be purchased at the Post Office.
After becoming licensed and outfitted, he can finally settle down to the pleasures of the hunt as described earlier, provided he has found a place to hunt and can get there. All sorts of accidents happen to hunters.
IF THE WHITEWING HUNTERS have it hot, the duck and goose hunter braves the other extreme. He and his accomplices will have been up since 4 a.m. in order to drive through the rain to get into the marsh long enough before daylight to get the decoys out. Man that’s fun. Then the ducks come in and “blam!” He drops one with his first shot. He sloshes over to pick it up, wishing his waders were not leaking, and sees the tell-tale markings of a mallard hen. Today he can come home with only two ducks. Why? Texas operates on what’s called the “point system” for ducks. There are more of some species than others. Instead of placing the limit at two, or four, or six, or a dozen, all species are rated a point value based on their abundance or lack thereof. Hunters in 1972 could take l00 points worth of ducks each day. The number is apt to change from year to year. The mallard hen, being a sex and species whose number is somewhat short, is rated 90 points. The next duck will put the hunter at or over 100, since the lowest point valued duck is worth ten.
Since hunters aren’t penalized if they have 90 points worth and then kill one biggie that puts them way over 100, some sharpies figured they would just tell the game warden they shot the 90-point duck last. Trouble was, the wardens were armed with rectal thermometers and could do a fair job of telling which duck had been shot last!
Ducks are found throughout Texas, wherever there is water. They are most abundant, however, in the coastal marshes from Port Arthur south to about Corpus Christi. Geese are concentrated in the rice farming country from Port Arthur down to about El Campo. Eagle Lake claims to be the “Goose Capitol of the World,” and may well be.
Goose season is usually late October or early November through mid-January, and the limit is usually about five per day. Duck season is a little shorter, but generally about the same time. A special September season on teal gives shotgunners a chance to open up earlier on the fast flying little birds, provided they can brave the mosquitoes and water moccasins.
Hunting season in Texas is ushered in each year with the opening of the north zone mourning dove season on September 1st. Perhaps the trickiest target for the hunters, those little darters probably attract more hunters than any other specie.
Texas has two zones for dove hunting. A jagged line running erratically from Eagle Pass northeast through Toledo Bend Reservoir separates the zones. The north zone opens September 1st and closes October 14. South zone shooting starts September 22 and runs through November 4 except in the counties in the valley having a whitewing season, where the mourning dove season is also open during the short whitewing shoot. Mourning dove sea- son in those counties having a whitewing season ends October 31. Both the north and south zones re-open for a winter shoot lasting from January 5-20. In the Trans-Pecos, it’s January 5-15. Daily bag limit is ten.
In some areas of south Texas, there are two kinds of quail, but a hunter still has three chances. He never knows whether he’ll flush bobs (which will fly), flush blues (which will run), or get snake bit. Rattlesnakes are no myth down there, especially during the early days of quail season. They don’t really hibernate like in the north, due to the 11-month South Texas summer. Just get some leggings and a good grip on your constitution. It’s amazing how few are actually seen, considering the man hours spent hunting.
Quail season varies from county to county throughout the state, but generally opens on November 17, with exceptions. Closing date is January 31 in some areas, February 15 in others, and a variety of dates in the rest of the counties. Bag limit is 12 per day; no exceptions.
PRONGHORN ANTELOPE OCCUR IN HUNTABLE populations in three regions in Texas. The Trans-Pecos, the Panhandle, and the Permian Basin all offer the flat, treeless plains or gently rolling prairies the antelope prefer. There they can utilize their telescopic eyesight and sprinter-like speed to evade their adversaries.
The largest concentration of pronghorns seems to be in the Trans-Pecos. Brewster, Presidio, Pecos, and Terrell Counties have good herds.
Permian Basin pronghorn hunting has been increasing in popularity of late. Good antelope herds and a shorter distance from Texas’ population centers are no doubt factors.
Pronghorns in the Panhandle are little known about in the rest of Texas. They’re there, but most of the permits go quickly to the local folks and their friends. Antelope can only be hunted by permit from the land owner.
Most ranches charge $100 and upward for the permit, depending upon what other services are included. Due to the immensity of some of the ranches, a guide and jeep are indispensible. Antelope hunts should be planned far in advance in order to assure a permit and a place to stay. Most permits are reserved long before the shooting starts. The season for the Trans-Pecos, Permian Basin and Possum Kingdom Region is September 29-October 7. The Panhandle season is September 29 through October 2.
Deer and More Deer
BUT THE REAL MADNESS COMES with the opening of deer season. Although more people may hunt doves than deer, the dedication of the deer hunter is unsurpassed.
As much as a day and a half before the season opens, traffic starts getting heavy on the highways leading to the Hill Country and South Texas from Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. A truck driver on IH 35 asked if war had broken out. “Man, I haven’t seen that many jeeps since V-J Day!”
No matter the method, more deer will be taken in the Hill Country than in the entire rest of the State. Llano County, which claims to be the “Deer Hunting Capitol of the World,” iced down 17,121 head last year. Other counties which are traditionally productive are Mason, San Saba, Gillespie, and Kerr. The season runs from November 17 to January 1, and the limit is three deer, no more than two of which may be bucks.
The Hill Country may have the most deer, but the real trophies are elsewhere. Like in the brush between San Antonio and the border.
There’s something about this land of everlasting brush, this one big undulating prairie of thorns named mesquite, huisache, huajillo, cat-claw and prickly pear, that grows big deer. Not only are the deer larger than any in Texas except those along the Canadian River, their antlers are the largest in Texas. The mineral content is ideally balanced for antler development.
They call this “mañana country,” and aptly so. The opening of deer season often falls on a day too drowsy and warm to worry about deer hunting. This is particularly true in McMullin County where the season opens November 1. The rest of the region opens on November 17 and closes January 1.
Up to now, the discussion has focused upon whitetail deer. But Texas has mule deer, too. Most of them are in flats and mountainous areas of the Trans-Pecos, but the herd in Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle is increasing.
Hunting in these areas is usually initiated by vehicle and completed on foot. Hunting time is often far better spent slowly moving along the rim of a canyon, glassing the sides and floor with binoculars. Occasionally kicking a rock off into it will sometimes wake some game snoozing unnoticed by the hunters.
An oddity to Trans-Pecos hunting which is intriguing is that it is the only place where three different kinds of deer can be taken by the same hunter on the same day, if everything works to his favor. In addition to the mule deer and white tail, isolated parts of Brewster County have a little deer called a “fan tail.” Weighing only 60 pounds and characterized by an extremely large and broad tail, the fantail is a sub-species of white tail. Hunting the three deer could result in three trophies—the mule deer and white tail qualify because of their size and antlers, and the fantail due to its novelty.
Mule deer and whitetail deer season in the Panhandle is November 17-December 2. In the Trans-Pecos, the season on both species is November 4-December 9, but Terrell and Pecos Counties have a slightly longer season on whitetails, November 24-December 16, due to an increasing population of them.
Turkey and Javelina
TURKEY AND JAVELINA SEASONS coincide with deer season in several regions, but there is no closed season at all on javelinas in South Texas, making year around hunting possible. Javelina can also be hunted September 1-January 31 in the Permian Basin and Trans-Pecos. Setting turkey and javelina seasons to correspond generally with deer season was a practical move, since most such game is shot each year by deer hunters instead of by people purposely hunting them. There is also a spring turkey season which is fairly popular, though poorly attended. Much of the Hill Country and a considerable portion of the Possum Kingdom have this season.
The special turkey season comes in the spring when a turkey’s thoughts also turn to something besides baseball. This being the case, he’s quite apt to come to the call of a hen, which gives hunters a chance to try out their calling.
Varmints and Exotics
AND SPEAKING OF CALLING, Texas is probably the birthplace of modern varmint calling due to the work of the Burnham Brothers at Marble Falls. No telling how many of their calls have been put to use, and good use at that. Varmint hunting for foxes, coyotes, bob cats and other little predators is an excellent way to improve marksmanship at the same time the predator population is being controlled. A varmint rifle in the right hands is far more selective than cyanide pellets and much more humane than steel traps. Varmints may be hunted in Texas year around, except in a handful of East Texas counties. They are distributed throughout the state, but are abundant in the Brush Country.
The most popular of the exotics in Texas are mouflon rams, Aoudad rams, Axis deer and Blackbuck antelope. A majority of the exotically stocked ranches is in the Hill Country, but they are also scattered all over the state.
One exception to the lack of regulated hunting for exotics is the Aoudad ram in Palo Duro Canyon. These muttons, originally only 42 of them, were released by the State in 1957 and now number over 600. Needless to say, they adapted to Texas and acclimated quite well. Now considered game animals, they are regulated as such. The season is November 10-16, and hunting is by permit from the landowner.
As if that isn’t enough hunting, Texas also have liberal squirrel hunting, with open season and no bag limit in many counties.
But Texas hunting has far greater rewards than a little exercise, a few laughs around the campfire and something different to put on the table. It is indeed a broadening experience for the urbanite. And it provides an opportunity to leave the day-to-day problems that cloud perspective to the point that the inconsequential can become blown out of proportion to the greater blessings in life.
After returning from a hunting trip, former Governor John Connally spoke of the unhurried atmosphere he found at daybreak or around a campfire at night, and what it did for him.
“It tends to bring into focus,” Connally reflected, “the fact that, whether you live the Biblical three score and ten or not, your time is limited. Nothing can be more dramatic than the evidence you see all around you. Life is fleeting, at best, and you regain a sense of values.’
If hunting can do that, maybe everybody ought to try it.