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The dos and don'ts of deer hunting season in Texas

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Ray Sasser, Outdoor Writer

Most of Texas' estimated 700,000 white-tailed deer hunters will be afield when the traditional firearms season begins Saturday. They can expect an average season for antlers with average to above-average numbers of deer harvested, according to Alan Cain, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's white-tailed deer program leader.

Cain bases his prediction on habitat conditions, which were good when 2017 began. About May, the weather pattern turned dry in most of the state. A buck's antlers continue to grow through the summer. A dry summer does not produce the best antlers.

"Dry conditions were not uniform across the state, and spotty rains left patches of green across the landscape in the western two-thirds of the state," said Cain.

There's also an age gap in the deer herd because of the 2011 drought. Few fawns survived 2011. Those fawns would have been 6 years old, the age at which bucks tend to grow their best antlers.

Most deer hunters don't care that much about antlers anyway. Their goal is to enjoy deer camp and bring home some venison. Wild game is the original sustainable food. More than 664,000 Texas white-tailed deer were harvested in 2016. That's 33 million-plus pounds of venison.

Cain expects equal success, if not a little better, this year. Texas has more deer than any other state, and the population has crept up since the drought. Last year's estimate was 4.3 million deer, the highest in 12 years, and Cain said there are similar numbers, if not more, this season.

Here are some things to remember about deer hunting:

TPWD is asking deer hunters in some counties to voluntarily submit harvested animals to a county wildlife biologist to be tested for chronic wasting disease. An unfrozen brain sample is needed for the test, which is done at no expense to the hunter. Details are at tpwd.texas.gov/cwd.

Fill your doe tags as early in the season as possible. The more deer you remove from the range early, the more food is left for remaining animals. Does taken early in the season are in better condition, translating to better venison. Generally speaking, does are better eating anyway.

Whitetails prefer the same weather as people -- cool and still. They move less when the weather is hot or windy and during periods of extreme cold or rain. The internet's long-range forecasts help you be in the field when bad weather breaks -- when the rain stops, when hot weather turns cool, when the wind dies down or when the sun warms a bitterly cold stretch. Deer bed during inclement weather and get up to feed as soon as the weather breaks. They are most active early and late in the day.

Carefully study the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Outdoor Annual (available where licenses are sold or at tpwd.texas.gov) to determine regulations on butchering a deer at camp and transporting a deer taken by another hunter. If in doubt about any rule, call the nearest game warden and ask for an interpretation. Regional phone numbers are listed in the Outdoor Annual. Read general regulations as well as specific regulations for the county where you hunt. Rules differ in some counties.

Bring plenty of ice chests to your deer hunt. Venison is only good if it's handled properly. Do not load a deer in the back of a pickup on a hot day and drive hours to your local meat processor. If you don't have a walk-in cooler where you hunt, most towns in popular hunting areas have locker plants where you can pay to hang the deer in a cooler. Otherwise, you should skin and quarter the animal and keep the meat chilled in ice chests. Rather than ice, which dampens the venison and promotes bacterial growth, freeze water in milk jugs or large soda bottles and use them to keep the meat cold. Big chunks of ice last longer than the same amount of crushed ice.

If you have more venison than your family can eat, consider donating deer to Hunters for the Hungry, a program that distributes ground venison to families or individuals in need throughout Texas. The hunter pays a minimal processing fee, about $45, to cover processing. A list of participating meat processors and other details are at feedingtexas.org/get-involved/hunt/.

Legal shooting hours for deer hunting are 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. You can find precise sunrise and sunset times for wherever you hunt at the website sunrisesunset.com/usa/texas.asp.

A white-tailed deer's first line of defense is its sense of smell. You can do two things to help defeat a deer's nose. The most important thing is stay downwind of where you expect to see a deer. That means choosing your deer stand based on wind direction. If that's not possible, at least spray yourself with one of the scent-killing sprays so popular with archery hunters. An elevated stand helps to keep your scent above the animals.

Whitetails may look delicate, but it takes a well-placed shot to humanely bring one down. Even if the deer runs away, seemingly unhurt, always follow up on every shot. Get a good mark on where the deer was standing when you shot and where it ran, wait 15 minutes (longer if you're hunting in the morning), then check thoroughly for blood or any sign that the deer was hit. A deer may run more than 100 yards despite a mortal wound. If you know that you've made a bad shot, back out and leave the animal alone for as long as possible -- overnight if the weather is cold and you're not hunting in an area with a lot of coyotes. Follow the trail the next morning.

Shot placement is more important than bullet size, construction or speed. The best shot on a whitetail is a broadside shot that places the bullet in the crease behind the deer's shoulder, about midway down its body. This shot dispatches the deer quickly and humanely, damages less meat and offers the widest margin for error. Since a deer doesn't always provide a perfect angle, study whitetail anatomy charts to learn where to shoot a deer facing you or quartering toward you or away from you. Unless the animal is already hit, do not shoot at a moving deer.

Wear latex gloves when you field dress or skin a deer or hog. The odds of contracting any disease from handling a white-tailed deer are extremely small, but it's best to err on the safe side. Hogs do carry diseases that are communicable to people. Wearing gloves also makes the cleanup easier.

Most Texas deer hunters use automatic corn feeders to bait deer near a hunting blind. The feeders scatter a few pounds of corn at prime movement times and are usually set to go off 30 minutes or so after daylight and an hour or so before dark. It doesn't take long for multiple deer, and hogs or turkeys, to clean up the corn. You can keep animals near the blind longer by hand-feeding or using a tailgate feeder on a vehicle to put out more corn before entering the blind. If a target buck sees other deer around a feeder, he's more likely to consider it safe.

Use a daypack to organize your hunting gear so you always have a flashlight, spare batteries, sharp knife, binoculars, extra ammunition, functioning ink pen for filling out your tag and the harvest log on your license, hearing protection, rain gear, warm gloves, latex gloves, snacks, water, tape or some other means of attaching your deer tag to the deer, and anything else you consider necessary for a deer hunt.

Bring a good digital camera on every hunting trip. Use it to take photos of the camp, campfire and your hunting companions, especially if there are kids in the hunting party. A good photo of a child's first deer is a keepsake to cherish for generations. If a hunter is lucky enough to take an outstanding buck, spend some time setting up the photograph. It will take almost a year for a taxidermist to do a good job on a mount.

Hunt as much as possible during the rut (deer breeding season). Bucks are more active during the rut, and even mature bucks that have survived six or more hunting seasons can act suicidal. TPWD has done studies that pinpoint when deer breed in each region. The results can be found at TPWD's website. Cold weather results in more daytime breeding activity. Regardless of weather, deer breed about the same time every year. In warm weather, breeding activity mostly occurs at night.

If you have a problem sitting still in a deer blind, take along a book, an electronic device with ear buds so you can listen to music, or maybe a small radio with ear buds to catch a weekend football game. Deer hunting success means being in the right place at the right time. The longer you sit still in a good place, the luckier you get.

Carry your cellphone for safety or entertainment but turn the ringer off. Understand that rural Texas still has many places with no cell service. Tell hunting companions where you intend to hunt so they'll know where to look if you don't show up at camp.

Be careful with guns, especially in and around vehicles. In Texas, it's legal to hunt from a vehicle on private property, and this promotes riding around with loaded rifles. Do not ride around with a loaded rifle. Load the magazine and don't chamber a cartridge until you see a target animal and the rifle is pointed in a safe direction, outside the vehicle window. Handling a rifle is awkward inside the vehicle, which is what makes riding with a loaded rifle so dangerous.

Aside from rifles and driving to the hunting lease (you're far more likely to be injured by a car wreck than a hunting accident), the most dangerous part of deer hunting is climbing into an elevated blind. It's easy to lose your balance and fall, particularly in the dark, encumbered by a rifle over one shoulder and a pack over the other. If your ladder is the least bit difficult to climb, carry your rifle (unloaded) up first and place it safely in the blind. Then climb back down for another load. Don't forget to load the rifle once you're situated in the blind and unload it before starting down. Metal stairways that replace vertical ladders are the best deer hunting safety development in years.

Stock up on ammunition before heading for a rural hunting lease. If you have a rifle problem that requires resighting, several shots may be required. You cannot rely on a local hardware store in rural Texas to stock the brand of ammunition, bullet design and bullet weight that you prefer.

Common deer hunting violations

No hunter education certificate: Every hunter born on or after Sept. 1, 1971, must take and pass a state-approved hunter education program. A one-time deferral costing $10 is available for hunters 17 or older who have not passed the course.

Improperly tagged deer: Use a knife or scissors to cut out the date of harvest and an ink pen to write the appropriate information on the tag.

Harvest log violation: Use your pen to duplicate the tag information on the hunting license harvest log printed on the back of your license.

Untagged deer: The deer must be tagged with the appropriate hunting license tag as soon as it is recovered. Your hunting gear should include tape, wire or some other means of attaching the tag to the carcass.

Hunting without a license: Every hunter, regardless of age, must have a hunting license.

2017-18 white-tailed deer season dates

North Texas: Nov. 4-Jan. 7

South Texas: Nov. 4-Jan. 21

CALENDAR

SATURDAY, NOV. 4 -- White-tailed deer season begins.

SATURDAY-SUNDAY, NOV. 4-5 --Youth-only North Zone duck season.

SATURDAY, NOV. 4 -- Dallas Fly Fishers fly-tying session, 10 a.m.-noon at Orvis Dallas, 8300 Preston Road. Details by calling 214-265-1600.

SATURDAY, NOV 4 --Dallas Fly Fishers will teach the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Basic Fly Fishing Class, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, 201 E. Jones St., Lewisville. Class is free, but there is a $5 access fee. Class includes casting, fly-tying, knots, fish entomology, safety, regulations and Boy Scout merit badge requirements. Details by calling Richard Johnson at 469-877-0695.

MONDAY, NOV. 6 -- Monthly meeting of the Dallas Fly Fishers at the Wyndham Hotel, 7800 Alpha Road. Free to the public. Program on warm-water bass fishing by artist, author and angler Jeff Currier. He will decorate and donate a fly box from 5-6 p.m., followed by a social hour and the fishing program. For details, call Richard Johnson at 469-877-0695.

THURSDAY, NOV. 9 -- Coastal Conservation Association Dallas membership meeting, 6 p.m. at Tailwaters Fly Fishing Co., 1933 E. Levee, Dallas. Shane Bonnot, advocacy director for CCA Texas, is guest speaker. His subject is Hurricane Harvey and oyster harvest regulations changes. Details from Matt Scherer by e-mailing matt.scherer@ryan.com.

SATURDAY, NOV. 11 -- First split of duck season begins in North Zone.

SATURDAY, NOV. 11 -- Dallas Fly Fishers fly-tying session, 10 a.m.-noon at Orvis Dallas, 8300 Preston Road. Details by calling 214-265-1600.