Giving Deer an Open Field Advantage

We’re on the cusp of another Texas deer season, and all indications are it is going to be a good one in most parts of the state. My guess it will turn into a thriller for a handful of hunters.

Locating good numbers of does is crucial in hunting bucks on free range during the rut.

That probably won’t come as much of a surprise, because it seems like every deer season packs plenty of thrills around here. It is hard to expect anything less in a state that maintains the largest whitetail deer herd in the nation. Texas also has a rich history of producing big numbers of bucks with large antlers, even in years when range conditions are far from ideal.

Any nice-sized buck is a trophy on free range land. In reality the hunting landscape in Texas would look vastly different if everyone hunted on free range land. There would be far less giant bucks taken and more nice representative deer.

Everybody has an opinion as to why Texas deer hunting is so great, but no one can deny that hunter attitudes play a big part. Selective harvest, habitat management and supplemental feeding programs have played huge roles in producing more bucks with big antlers.

Deer management fever is running rampant statewide. More and more hunters are pampering their whitetails, letting young bucks walk so they can reach their genetic potential. Taking does and inferior bucks to help keep populations in check is also important.

Antler restrictions now in place in 117 counties across east, central and northwest Texas deserve some credit, too. Antler restrictions were first implemented in the early 2000s by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. They are intended to improve the age structure of the buck herd by encouraging hunters to lay off of immature bucks that fall short of meeting criteria guidelines. 

The theory is simple. Letting young bucks walk increases the number of older bucks in the herd. The more older bucks there are, the better the chances of seeing a big guy in the field.

It’s not something that only works behind sprawling South Texas ranches surrounded by tall fences, either. More and more hunters are paying their dues and exercising some discipline on open range these days. It has paid off with some world-class whitetails to shock the imagination.

Just ask Mark Lee of Crosby.

In September 2013, Lee blasted a spectacular buck in Houston County. That buck scores higher than any free-ranging, Texas non-typical reported in modern times.

Fittingly nicknamed “King,” the Lee buck comes in at 268 4/8 net Boone and Crockett inches with the Texas Big Game Awards Program. TBGA is a hunter recognition program run by the Texas Wildlife Association since the early 1990s.

However, the official B&C registry lists the buck at 259 3/8 net inches. This score was finalized after a special team of B&C scorers “panel judged” the antlers last February at the B&C Convention in Springfield, MO.

There have been a couple of free-range non-typicals bigger than Lee’s reported in Texas, both recorded long before the inception of TBGA. Those deer, as listed in the B&C all-time record book, includes the 284 3/8 inch “Brady Buck” taken in 1892 in McCulloch County by an “unknown hunter.” The second is a 272-inch whitetail that was found dead near Junction in 1925.

A.J. Downs of Conroe is another hunter who scored big in eastern Texas in recent times. A hardcore bowhunter, Downs arrowed a massive 28-pointer on open range in San Jacinto County in September. 2012. That buck netted 256 7/8 inches after B&C panel judging. TBGA lists the buck at 256 4/8.

The Downs buck is the biggest open range archery buck of all-time in Texas. It also is the No. 2 TBGA open-range, non-typical of all-time, as well as the No. 8 Pope and Young non-typical of all-time in North America.

Grayson County archer Robert Taylor didn’t set any official state records with the freakish non-typical he killed in Dec. 2012 near Lake Ray Roberts. Still, it would probably rank as the biggest buck ever killed on small acreage—if such a category existed.

The Taylor buck is a 44-pointer arrowed on 4.7 acres near Tioga. It comes in at 254 4/8 net, according to TBGA records. However, Taylor’s score took a hit at the 2015 P&Y convention. Panel judges taped the rack at 219 6/8 net, according to veteran B&C scorer Ken Witt of Burleson.

Taylor said he ultimately withdrew the Grayson County whitetail from P&Y records following the panel judging session.

You won’t find Makayla Hay’s name among TBGA Top 5 All-Time list. However, the impressive 23 pointer she shot on opening day of the 2012-13 general season did earn her the state open range record for youth hunters. The buck also earned a spot in the B&C all-time record book with plenty of room to spare.

Taken in Madison County, the Hay buck grosses 213 7/8 and 203 1/8 net. It is the highest scoring buck taken in Madison County in nearly 50 years.

There are several more big Texas bucks you won’t see on the TBGA all-time list, mainly because they were killed long before program existed. The biggest of the bunch is a 259 inch 27-pointer killed in 1967 in Frio County by William Brown. The free ranging Brown buck ranks fourth in B&C all-time records for Texas non-typicals.

Texas has also produced some outstanding typicals over the years, the biggest dating back to 1963 when Tom McCulloch shot a Maverick County 14 pointer that nets 196 4/8. It’s interesting to note that the state’s No. 2 and No. 3 typicals were killed more than 50 years earlier.

The No. 2 typical was shot in 1906 in McMullen Co. by Milton George. It nets 196 1/8. Basil Dailey shot the No. 3 typical in 1903 in Frio County. That deer nets 192 2/8.

The highest scoring Texas typical taken during modern times belongs to Steven O’Carroll. The gorgeous 12 pointer was shot in Shackleford County in 1991 and ranks No. 1 among TBGA Top 5 free ranging typicals. It scores 190 2/8.

The No. 2 TBGA open range typical was killed during the 1994-95 season in Donley County by Larry Pancake. It nets 187 4/8. Following Pancake on TBGA’s Top 5 list are Phillip Stringer with a Zapata County bruiser killed in 1992-93, 187 net; Terry Hall, Kleberg Co. 186 1/8, 2008-09; and Brian Sutton, Childress Co., 185 1/8 net.

Only time will tell how the upcoming season will shake out. If it goes like most, some true giants will be tagged, many of them by Texas hunters who least expect it. It happens every year.


Texas Bowhunters Can Score Big

Although Texas rifle hunters always account for the bulk of deer killed statewide, archers are often the ones who connect with the really big boys.

But why?

A.J. Downs took this 28 point trophy while bowhunting on a 12,000 acre open-range ranch in San Jacinto County in 2012.

That’s strictly a matter of opinion. Conroe bowhunter A.J. Downs thinks several factors come into play.

“There is always going to be the guy who goes bowhunting for the first time, gets lucky and kills a big buck. However, the ones who are consistently successful are the ones who do their homework. They pay strict attention things like scent control, set-up and concealment. That’s not to say archers are better hunters. The very nature of the sport forces us to pay closer attention to detail because we have to get close. A rifle hunter can shoot one from 150-200 yards in a box blind.”

Another big contributor, says Downs, is the timing of the season. The early Archery Only season always gets underway a full month before the general season. According to Downs, that means fewer hunters in the woods chasing crafty animals that are inherently wary.

“Plus,” Downs said, “The archery season always rolls around at about the same time we start to see major rutting activity, especially in eastern Texas.” “Mature bucks are more active during this period. They become more visible, more careless and they are more prone to make mistakes that they normally would not make.”

—Matt Williams


—story by Matt Williams


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