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An objective look at deer hunting in Texas

April 22, 2015
Luke Clayton

Deer hunting has changed dramatically since my early days as a deer hunter, back in the early sixties when I was a kid in northeast Texas. Back then, deer numbers were low and we spent a great deal more time hunting than actually harvesting. Then, when the boon years for whitetail deer occurred in the seventies and eighties, hunting opportunities were greatly increased and many hunters that had previously concentrated on small game became interested in deer. 

Deer herds across the state were all but eliminated during the first half of the past century by meat hunting and lack of laws that regulated management and harvested. In the fifties and sixties, restocking programs occurred and deer were once again reintroduced to areas where they had once thrived. These stockings occurred from various regions and genetics in a particular area reflected characteristics of the brood deer. Many generations later, these genes have passed along the bloodlines of the various herds across the state. 

In my weekly outdoor radio program, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the top experts in deer and deer breeding in the state. Each week, a member of TDA (Texas Deer Association)  is my guest and spends time talking about the fascinating subject of deer and deer hunting. Many of these guys and gals own high fenced deer breeding facilities and some also offer hunts on their properties. 

One of the many things I’ve learned is that over the years, through inbreeding and overharvest of desirable sire bucks, the overall quality of many herds of free range deer has suffered. 

As Karl Kinsel, executive director of TDA recently pointed out, “The overall quality of the deer herd in any particular area can be greatly enhanced by the introduction of quality bucks and does with desirable genetics.” 

The ultimate goal of any deer breeding program is to produce and enhance the size of bucks. The adage “follow the money” holds true when it comes to deer hunting. Hunting is the driving force that fuels all the research and hard work that goes into a breeding program. Big bucks with heavy antlers are the ultimate goal and it’s ultimately hunters’ dollars that drive this industry. 

Superior bucks reared behind high fence on deer breeding facilities are used as brood stock to insure their qualities are passed on down the line. Other bucks are used to stock ranches that need a boost in the genetics of their native deer herd or stocked on hunting ranches for harvest. Deer breeding today is all about improving the overall quality of the herd which, in turn, produces bigger bucks with bigger antlers. I’ve also learned that while superior trophy bucks might be much easier to identify simply by looking at their antlers, the doe is equally important.

Pedigree records are kept on the doe as well as bucks and savvy breeders looking to improve genetics and ultimately antler size of bucks study the pedigrees of female deer and mate them with bucks that carry the genetics to produce the traits they are looking to achieve in their herd. Deer breeding today is science based and much has been learned in the past two or three decades about improving the quality of deer both behind high fences and open range. 

If you stop and think about it, it becomes obvious that under the controlled conditions of a deer breeding facility, it’s much easier to study deer than when observing them in open range conditions.  

As Mike Wood, one of the regional directors for TDA mentioned in a recent interview, “Deer hunting has changed greatly in Texas during the past couple decades. With today’s busy lifestyle, fewer folks have the time to lease land and set up their own hunting operations. Many hunters have discovered that they can book hunts on well managed ranches, both high fenced and low fenced and leave the food plots, stand construction and feeder filling to the rancher that owns the land. When they can schedule time away from their busy schedules, they are actually hunting.” 

One thing is for certain, thanks in large part to the deer breeding industry and Texas Deer Association, the overall size and quality of bucks harvested in the state has increased. Back in the sixties, the number of Boone and Crockett bucks harvested in the state annually could be counted on two hands. Not so today, thanks to good management and smart harvest and the introduction of deer with the genetics necessary to produce big antlers, bucks with record book racks are taken with regularity throughout the state. 

Hunters can squabble all they want about the practice of containing deer behind high fences but the results of good science stands as testament that selective breeding works for deer just as it does for any animal. 

I remember my longtime friend Mike Ford, a lifetime TDA member and owner of the Rio Rojo Rancho in Red River County stating, “Luke, if you were going into the cattle business and looking to improve your herd, would you pick out a scrawny bull to pass along his genetics to your herd or continually inbreed your herd?”

The same holds true when improving the whitetail deer herd! 

I don’t have a magic ball or any special insights into which direction the management and hunting of deer will go in Texas but I can easily observe after over fifty years of hunting them here in our great state that deer hunting today is vastly improved over those early years of my hunting career. I am positive that the Texas Deer Association will continue to make a good situation even better!