Everything is bigger in Texas, and nothing embodies that sentiment as much as the fall hunting seasons — deer, ducks, quail, geese, turkeys, pheasant, dove and squirrel.
Each fall, almost 1 million hunters criss-cross the state seeking their trophy, adventure, old friends, meat for the freezer or just a renewed acquaintance with the land.
Virtually every corner of the state, including the most populated counties, offer some sort of hunting. However, it is the small towns where the population can double overnight that the impact is really noticeable.
The hunting year starts in September with doves and ends in May with the conclusion of the spring turkey season. But when talking big in Texas, nothing compares to the state’s white-tailed deer season. It is a recreational and financial giant.
Deer season this year started in late September for a month of what used to be known as the archery-only season. In recent years, the woods of East Texas and ranches to the west also have seen an invasion of hunters with guns in October, getting an early start on management work under Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Managed Lands Deer Permit program.
The real army of hunters, more than 600,000 by season’s end, however, will hit the road this week for Saturday’s regular season opener. There will be an army of trucks and hunters moving across the state to deer leases in East Texas, the Hill Country, the Rolling Plains of North Texas and South Texas.
The joke always has been if someone needed a lawyer, doctor or even a plumber on the Thursday or Friday before opening day, they were out of luck. It might not be a joke.
The season opener is so big that Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage has repeatedly asked NASCAR to move the fall race date off of opening day of deer season because it takes away too many potential spectators.
By the end of the season deer hunters will have taken between 550,000 and 650,000 deer, just about a sixth of the statewide herd estimate of 3 million-plus, but well under biologists’ recommendations for maintaining a robust herd.
Despite projections of doom to hunting in Texas as the state has become more urbanized, deer hunting is as strong today as it was 40 years ago.
“The numbers are as big as they ever were. The numbers appear to be going up,” said Clayton Wolf, TPWD’s Wildlife Division director.
The success of hunting is important to more than just hunters. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting in Texas is a $1.8 billion business annually. That is a decline from a 2006 study that stated the value at $2.1 billion, but the 2011 survey corresponds with a nationwide recessionary period that began in 2008. With a resurgence in the state’s oil and gas industry and the money that pushes toward hunting, there is little doubt the value is back up.
“There is nothing more Texan than enjoying the great outdoors,” Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said. “Deer season is big business here in the Lone Star State. Texas generates $2.1 billion in general hunting-related retail sales with deer hunting alone bringing in $1.2 billion, which means more jobs for more Texans.”
The 2006 study showed that hunting was responsible for almost 25,000 jobs in the state, including convenience and grocery store clerks, sporting goods stores and feed store employees, taxidermists, meat processors, wildlife biologists, ranch hands, guides and outfitters, real estate agents and even county tax office employees.
Deer season drives the economic engine. From deer stands, to camo clothing, flashlights to groceries and fuel for the trip, deer hunters spend. Hill Country towns where hunting is big estimate they make 35 percent to 45 percent of their cash register receipts from October to January when the hunters come to town.
And it goes beyond what they spend at the pump or local restaurants. Deer hunting also pushes up land prices, and just as importantly helps landowners retain their property through hunting leases that can bring triple to eight times or more what landowners would get from grazing leases.
Understanding the importance of deer hunting goes back more than 70 years. A TPWD study looking at the value of deer vs. cattle in the Hill Country shows that even in the 1940s and ’50s, landowners could see a better return from leasing to deer hunters than they could from cattle, goat and sheep grazing rights.
Deer hunting also impacts commodities. It is estimated Texas deer hunters annually purchase 300 million pounds of deer corn, and some feel that number is conservative. It also doesn’t count the amount of corn and other grains used in the production of deer protein pellets, another market that barely existed 20 years ago.
The Hill Country continues to reign as the state’s most popular and successful region for deer hunting. According to TPWD, more than 177,000 hunters took 209,000 deer in the Edwards Plateau last year. The next closest region was South Texas with 102,000 hunters and a harvest of 107,000.
East Texas, both the Blacklands Prairies and the Pineywoods, are also popular regions, with each attracting more than 90,000 hunters annually. However, deer hunting is a relatively new activity in the Pineywoods. Before the 1960s white-tailed deer were an oddity in the region, where the majority of hunters sought squirrels instead.
Today’s deer hunting, with its emphasis on deer management and the goal being producing trophy bucks, can trace its beginning to 1975 and a book co-authored by Texas wildlife biologists Al Brothers and Murphy Ray “Producing Quality Whitetails.” Prior to that deer hunting in Texas was primarily a meat sport. All antlers were trophies, but bucks were as prized for their meat, and hunting does was almost unheard of.
“Important to note is that with more hunters and more hunting emphasis, both the quality of deer and the hunting experience has been greatly enhanced during the past two decades. Market-based management of resources has proven to yield tremendous results for mankind and our environment. Hunting also provides an opportunity for parents to teach children to be good stewards of our natural resources and to be responsible adults,” Staples said.
Since then management of deer herds, even on small tracts of land, has been a key emphasis. At the same time white-tailed deer are expanding into new territory in North Texas and the Panhandle.