“I’ve got a buck over here, but he’s lying down,” spouts Steve Knight.
He swings the million-candlepower spotlight in a small arc, illuminating the eyes of a bedded deer about 50 yards off the caliche road.
“That could be High Rack,” he says, using the name I’ve given to a quality buck that’s been hanging in this area since late summer. The name is derived from the fact that the deer has as many as 20 points sprouting off a tall set of antlers that’s no more than 14 inches at its widest spread.
Somewhere out there in the darkness is the deer we’re looking for. This could be him, or it could be just another nice buck that lives on the ranch. The spotlight is part of the toolbox on this hot, muggy night in early September. The deer is one of more than 130 we’ll see tonight, all lit up by the burning lights as they swing back and forth over the brush.
But we’re not getting a head start on the night hunting business. We’re looking for every deer we can see on Bobby Parker’s Camp Verde Ranch, 1,300 acres of pristine Hill Country mountains and canyons, as we conduct the annual population surveys.
The information will go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Division to be use to calculate the overall population and the number of Managed Lands Deer Permits that Parker will receive for the coming season.
A controversial topic since they were conceived as a way to allow landowners more flexibility in controlling deer numbers across the state, MLDPs have become a popular way to extend hunting seasons and allow landowners room to take deer when they see them, without having to bring in hunters to do the culling.
Parker still conducts a number of hunts each year to help youngsters and other folks without another place to hunt. And the permits have helped him begin to get a handle on a deer population that had skyrocketed almost out of control in the past few years.
“We would be lost without MLDPs,” Parker says. “We wouldn’t be able to keep working on our numbers and still be able to produce quality deer that we want on the ranch.”
Parker and his family and friends have harvested more than 600 deer off the ranch in the past three years, with bucks and does in almost equal numbers.
“Our buck-doe ratio has stayed pretty much 1-1,” he says, “and we want to keep it that way. Plus we want to reduce our numbers to try to get our population closer to a deer to 6-7 acres.”
That takes lots of work and lots of hunters, but the MLDP program has helped with the process.
Basically, qualifying ranches are allowed to begin hunting at the earliest opening date in their county and continue hunting pretty much through February. Landowners are given a specific number of permits for bucks and does, and any single hunter can fill as many of those permits as possible.
In exchange, ranches keep information about body weights, sex, age and hunters that is turned over to TPWD at the end of the season. That allows the state to keep track of the progress each ranch makes in meeting its harvest goals.
Longtime ranch manager Steve Ashenfelter retired earlier this year, and Parker asked that I help him with his management on the ranch. We had to conduct three nighttime census counts, recording each animal we saw as a buck, a doe, a fawn or unknown in the case of animals that showed only their eyes and nothing else about their sex.
Parker and I also met with local TPWD biologist Johnny Arredondo to discuss management plans for the ranch and begin the process of qualifying for the permits this year. Arredondo is a young man who knows Hill Country deer and has been working with ranches in the area for years.
We talked about our plans for population and harvest, and we took a tour of the ranch. Arredondo had driven the ranch earlier to set up the census lines according to department standards for visibility and the size of the ranch.
During the course of the three nights, we saw lots of deer, though very few of the trophy deer we’ve been seeing on game cameras. Those trail cameras can also play an important part in the harvest planning on Texas ranches. They give ranchers the chance to identify certain bucks as harvest candidates and to determine ages, as well as a reasonable buck-doe ratio for the ranch.
Each night, Knight and I drove half of the census line, with Parker joining us for the final half later in the evening. We counted dozens of feral hogs and more than 100 deer per night, most of them does, which means there’s still lots of work to do on the population. The counts were in line with previous years but indicate a better overall number due to the harvest over the past few years.
But the counts aren’t there for exact numbers. The department uses a statistical protocol that arrives at an estimated number for the ranch. That’s based on previous counts, which is why the counts are so important. They are just one part of the equation that helps each ranch keep populations within the carrying capacity of the habitat.
“We’ve made lots of progress, but we still have a way to go to get where we want,” Parker said. “We’ve still got to work on our hogs and keep getting our population lower than it is.”