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DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BURNET — The 2013 general deer season opened Nov. 2 to, well, interesting reviews. While hunters brought in quite a few white-tailed deer, it wasn’t the number they might have been expecting.

And those that were killed often looked older than their ages — a good and a bad thing.

“It was kind of a weird opening weekend,” said Trey Carpenter, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist in Burnet County. “We saw some really good quality deer, but I noticed that a lot of them were younger. I think hunters were shooting young bucks because they thought they were older.”

After several years of dry conditions and a drought that left deer struggling to find enough food in preparation for winter, this year’s deer looked stronger and healthier. It’s something hunters reported across the Highland Lakes.

“The deer that were coming in were in surprisingly good condition,” said Dale Schmidt, a TPWD wildlife technician in Llano County.

Both credited good habitat conditions for the quality of deer they saw during opening-day weekend.

“The rains came at the right time,” Schmidt said.

Carpenter agreed. He pointed out the wet spring and summer and the recent fall rains have kept the habitat green, giving white-tailed deer ample food sources. One of the biggest benefits of wet weather for deer is a good acorn crop.

Biologists refer to acorns, nuts, fruits and berries that aren’t necessarily reliable sources of food due to weather conditions as a “mast crop.” When it does come, as it did this year in the form of acorns, Schmidt said it provides white-tailed deer with an important food.

This works for and against hunters.

The strong acorn crop coupled with the continued green food sources are providing white-tailed deer with the calories they need to gain weight and make it through the leaner cool months. Carpenter said the deer he saw during the opening weekend tended to be on the young side. Many were two-and-half years or younger. As a biologist, this can be a concern because it means those young deer didn’t get the time to mature.

The problem, as far as he could determine, wasn’t that hunters were intentionally taking young deer, but almost the opposite.

“The deer just looked older and more mature, so I think hunters were taking those because they thought they were older,” Carpenter said.

Schmidt, who examined — along with some help — more than 200 deer taken by hunters in Llano County, noted while there was some successful hunts over the weekend, he heard other hunters grumbling about the lack of white-tailed deer coming into their feeders.

The reason deer, especially the bucks, weren’t coming into the feeders goes back to the habitat quality. With so much green plants and acorns on the ground for food, the deer didn’t feel the need to go into feeders.

“Some of the deer are seeing food they have never seen,” Carpenter said.

These are conditions hunters and deer haven’t seen in several years during the drought. The deer quality slumped off the past several years, reflecting the lack of high-quality food during spring and summer. As a result, hunters almost became expectant of smaller deer. With a boon in food, this year’s deer are larger and healthier.

Carpenter observed many 2-year-old white-tailed deer dressing out at 100 pounds or more.

“That’s what we should see,” he said. “But we haven’t been seeing that the past few years because of the conditions out there.”

Deer aren’t the only animals benefiting from the good range conditions. Carpenter said wild turkey populations appeared to reflect the healthy habitat with good spring hatches the past two years.

A key species that reflects Highland Lakes habitat health is the bobwhite quail.

“We’ve had a hard time with quail populations. Whether that’s predators, habitat or disease causing that, I don’t really know,” Carpenter said. “But this year, we’ve seen quite a few quail, which to me is an indicator that the habitat is in great shape.”

For hunters, the high-quality habitat means a healthy deer population. But with so much food on the ground, it might mean a little more work to having a successful hunt. Carpenter and Schmidt noted that the rut (breeding season) appears to be well under way, meaning some bucks will be moving about.

Until the first frost or cold snap that knocks back the fresh browse and the acorns start spoiling, hunters can expect deer to stay out of feeders. But all hope is not lost.

“If a hunter is relying too much on a feeder, they may not have much luck,” Schmidt said. “But if they get out and do some rattling, basically, calling bucks in, they could see their luck improve.”

daniel@thepicayune.com