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The 5 Different Deer Habitats of Texas

Feast your eyes on trophy bucks and amazing scenery from the Lonestar State.

The 5 Different Deer Habitats of Texas
(Photo by Dave Richards)

Texans eagerly boast that their home state is “like a whole other country,” and it’s hard to argue with this braggadocious claim — except perhaps to suggest Texas really is more like several other countries. It’s obviously a huge place, and within its widely spaced borders you can find subtropical swamps, desert mountains, sweeping prairies and many other categories of wildlife habitat.

Yet as disparate as these locations might be, one common denominator links them: the presence of native whitetails. Over six decades of hunting the state, I’ve found them virtually from border to border, whether in the swampy flatwoods along the upper Gulf coast, the arid plains of the Panhandle or the tangled brushlands of the Rio Grande Valley. The elevation differences from one of these locations to the next can be thousands of feet, the swings in annual precipitation ranging from a few inches per year to several feet. Yet the adaptable whitetail has entrenched itself as the dominant native game animal almost everywhere.

Exploring each major habitat type in the Lone Star State would take more time and effort than most deer hunters could manage. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to any of them to get a feel for what makes them so special. Come along on this photographic journey as we see what makes Texas the most diverse whitetail state of all.

Central Texas

What’s commonly called the “Hill Country” is contained within a larger landform known as the Edwards Plateau. This chunk of Cretaceous limestone is massive; in fact, it’s larger than Indiana. The hilliest portions are mainly near the southern and eastern boundary, an abrupt drop-off known as the Balcones Escarpment. To the south lies the Brush Country, while immediately to the east is the relatively moist, flat and fertile Blackland Prairie.

whittington-texas-whitetails-central
(Photo by Dave Richards)

All of Central Texas has whitetails, but it’s far from equal in terms of deer numbers or hunting prospects. The brushy Edwards Plateau has the highest densities in Texas; numerous counties here have over 100 per square mile. Some of the most deer-rich locations are around the Llano Uplift, a huge outcropping of pink granite in the center of the state.

As recently as the early 1980s, the Edwards Plateau was home to around 10 percent of the world whitetail population, with around 1.5 million of the 15 million total. That made established Hill County properties such as the iconic YO Ranch among the most dependable whitetail destinations in North America. Many other parts of the continent have come on strong since then, but this part of Texas will always be among the most historic.

The plateau is dry, rocky, brushy country. Inland live oak, Ashe juniper and grasses dominate the uplands, while mesquite, pecan, hackberry, cedar elm, walnut, sycamore and assorted oaks are common on flatter, sandier sites. Native shrubs include Texas mountain laurel, whitebrush, sumac and agarita. On overgrazed rangelands there’s no shortage of prickly pear.

When the first settlers arrived, much of the plateau was a lush sea of grass. However, farming efforts of that era often failed, due to the thin soils and sporadic rainfall, so many settlers switched to livestock ranching. Unfortunately, the overstocking of cattle, sheep and goats, along with wildfire suppression, then removed much of the native grass and allowed low-value juniper and mesquite to spread.

While this shift cut into the carrying capacity for cattle, it set the stage for a whitetail boom. Once the devastating drought of the 1950s finally broke, the herd grew astronomically. This was due not just to improved range conditions but also successful USDA efforts to control the screwworm, a scourge that had caused high losses of livestock and whitetails. The Edwards Plateau has been full of deer ever since.

South Texas

The classic Texas whitetail image is of a mature buck with a wide, dark rack posing in prickly pear cactus and thornbrush. This image is what hunters dream of when they travel to the Brush Country, a huge area stretching from the south side of San Antonio down Interstate 37 to around Corpus Christi, then down the Gulf Coast to Brownsville, then up the Rio Grande to Del Rio and then back east to San Antonio again. This huge block of rangeland totals around 20 million acres, slightly larger than all of South Carolina. The legendary King Ranch, which lies in the northeastern part of this region, is itself the better part of a million acres.

whittington-texas-whitetails-south
(Photo by James Richards)

Along with numerous forms of cacti, South Texas has a bewildering array of well-armed shrubs. Any hunter who’s strolled into this brush has quickly learned to watch not only for rattlesnakes but also the abundant spines on vegetation. Such shrubs as granjeno (desert hackberry) and blackbrush employ wicked thorns to minimize browsing, but crafty whitetails feast on them anyway.

The fact many brush species here are evergreen adds to the forage bounty. Deer also dine on a wide spectrum of forbs (weeds), especially in areas with sandier soils. The year-round productivity of this high-protein forage base, along with light and selective hunting pressure, is why South Texas produces so many great bucks.

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This region also is the birthplace of “quality” whitetail management, starting with the innovative efforts of legendary deer manager Al Brothers a half-century ago. The main emphasis of his early work was on improving herd balance, but habitat management soon became part of the management mantra.

Supplemental feed and water sources are two of the main forms of habitat enhancement here, though in recent years roller-chopping of native brush has been used to increase the amount of nutritious native browse. Food plots are used as conditions allow. However, South Texas is semi-arid, with average annual rainfall well below 25 inches in much of the region. Most plots are planted to cereal grains during the cool season, when they can benefit both the herd and hunters.

East Texas

Moving northeastward up the Gulf Coast toward Houston, we find the landscape changing quickly. Live oak and other familiar native hardwoods begin to replace thornbrush, and we start to see more agricultural fields. This region is renowned for wintering waterfowl, but many of the ranches also have good deer hunting. This is the western end of the Avery Island whitetail subspecies’ range in Texas, often mixed in with the more abundant Texas strain.

whittington-texas-whitetails-east
(Photo by Russell Graves)

By the time we reach Interstate 45, the main route connecting Houston to Dallas, the countryside has become more wooded. The western part of East Texas is flat to rolling, somewhat open farming and ranching country with scattered deciduous forests. In many places, large stands of eastern red cedar and yaupon holly represent the primary evergreen cover for deer. This area isn’t famous whitetail country, but in recent years antler restrictions have resulted in a better age structure and sex ratio. As a result, each year exceptional bucks now are taken in several counties northwest of Houston.

Farther to the east, average rainfall increases from roughly 35 inches annually to around 50 inches along the Louisiana border. This part of Texas is called the Pineywoods and is the western portion of the broader Pineywoods region that also encompasses much of northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas and the southeastern corner of Oklahoma. Within Texas, the region is often split into the Northeast and Southeast Pineywoods. The latter features a vast, diverse area of lowland woods and waterways appropriately known as the “Big Thicket.” Throughout the heart of the region are abundant loblolly pines and a wide range of hardwoods species.

Featuring everything from coastal marshes and river deltas to upland pine plantations and cattle ranches, the area we broadly call “East Texas” is more reminiscent of the Deep South than the remainder of its own state. But this large chunk of real estate shouldn’t be overlooked as a potential hunting area. Despite heavy hunting pressure, some great bucks come from the region. While most properties are small, deer management is on the rise. Food plots tend to grow better here than in other parts of Texas, simply due to more dependable rainfall.

North Texas

As we turn westward toward Dallas, we gradually see the landscape change to more open pastureland and cropland. North Texas is by no means all the same, partly because of big differences in annual rainfall, but what it all has in common is flat to rolling land in livestock pastures, farm fields and heavily vegetated drainages. The average parcel size is larger in the western part of this broad area, a subregion Texans call the “Big Country.” For our purposes here, let’s include the eastern part of the Panhandle in our discussion.

whittington-texas-whitetails-north
(Photo by Russell Graves)

Along with cattle pasture, cotton, wheat and hay fields are common. Energy production is also a critical driver of the economy, with many oil and gas wells dotting the landscape. The western end of this blustery region now also features a number of wind farms.

You don’t hear that much about big whitetails in North Texas, but they’re here. In fact, some of the top free-ranging bucks in state bowhunting history have been shot in counties bordering the Red River, especially north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Some massive bucks also fall every rifle season.

The Kansas subspecies is in evidence along the river, intermingled with the far more widespread Texas subspecies. Antlers of mature bucks on well-managed North Texas properties often have good mass and notably long brow tines. On the extreme western end of the region are a few mule deer, but whitetails dominate throughout.

West Texas

No two geographers seem to be able to agree where Central or North Texas turns into West Texas. But for purposes of this tour, let’s say it encompasses the High Plains and Trans-Pecos physiographic regions as defined by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. If we draw a line from north of Amarillo south to Del Rio on the Mexico border and include everything to the west of it, we have an area of at least 60,000 square miles: a bit larger than Georgia.

whittington-texas-whitetails-west
(Photo by Russell Graves)

This doesn’t look like whitetail country, and much of it isn’t. Annual precipitation is typically under 20 inches, even along the region’s wetter eastern edge. In the western Panhandle, the High Plains’ vast expanse of shortgrass prairie over poor, shallow soils never was whitetail country. There are a few shallow creeks, but these tend to rarely hold water for long. The small, scattered playa lakes that do hold water reliably are mainly stopover habitat for migrating ducks and geese. Windmill-powered cattle troughs tend to be the most reliable water sources for livestock and wildlife alike.

The Trans-Pecos, that region west of the Pecos River, is even drier. But then, it’s the northeastern corner of Mexico’s huge Chihuahua Desert, so it should be. As on the High Plains, trees of any real size are few and far between, and the sun-baked ground is dominated by creosote bush, yucca, lecheguilla, sotol and assorted cacti. The result is a desolate place more like southern Arizona than the rest of Texas.

None of the aforementioned plants yields much in the way of whitetail browse. That, in combination with the open landscape, keeps numbers extremely low in nearly all of West Texas. The exception is along the indistinct boundary with Central Texas, where ranches on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau offer just enough scattered cover and water to hold deer in numbers.

The Trans-Pecos is home to native desert mule deer and pronghorn antelope, along with introduced aoudad sheep from North Africa. Only a few whitetails scratch out a living here. Yet even within this harsh ecosystem we see a unique whitetail adaptation. It comes in the form of a tiny, obscure subspecies: the Carmen Mountain whitetail. Named for the Sierra del Carmen, rugged mountains just across the Rio Grande in Coahuila, Mexico, this diminutive deer inhabits the higher, wetter parts of scattered peaks in the southern half of the Trans-Pecos.

The Trans-Pecos region has 91 peaks topping out at 5,000 feet or more above sea level, and the upper reaches of some offer oak, sumac and other whitetail browse plants. Since the Pleistocene, a gradual drying and heating trend has resulted in those mountaintop plant communities hanging on while similar plants at lower elevations died off. The result has been physical and genetic isolation of the mountain deer, ultimately leading to a distinct strain. It’s a story similar to that of how the Coues whitetail came to be in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.




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