By Mike Schoeffel
Spring Creek Outdoors owner and professional wildlife biologist Macy Ledbetter has a heightened perspective on deer hunting season.
He spends part of his year flying around the state in a helicopter, collecting information that ultimately leads to an accurate assessment of the quality and quantity that game hunters can expect when they head out into the wild.
So what has Ledbetter’s eye-in-the-sky approach showed him? That 2016 will be another prosperous season for deer hunters in the Hill Country.
“I just wrapped up my Central Texas helicopter surveys and it’s going to be outstanding across the board,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fantastic because over the last two or three years, above average rainfall — and well-timed rainfall — has led to a lot of quality animals out there. A lot of animals out there, period.”
If the 2016 season turns out to be as vigorous as Ledbetter predicts, it will be the third straight year in which hunters have experienced what he dubbed “an embarrassment of riches.” Having two consecutive years of great hunting — which Central Texas experienced in 2014 and 2015 — doesn’t happen often. Three, Ledbetter said, is almost unprecedented.
“We usually get one banner year every third year,” he said. “So yes, it’s rare that we’ve had three consecutive, progressive, growing years. There’s usually a lull in there somewhere.”
Ledbetter accounts the boom in the deer population to a number of environmental factors, most importantly mild summer temperatures mixed with abundant and timely rainfall. That combination has led to a high fawn survival rate — about 85-88 percent — and big bucks that are growing antlers at some of the highest rates in years.
“They had some ideal growing conditions,” said Lebetter. “And hunters are going to reap the rewards from that.”
While soaring over the Texas countryside, Ledbetter has spotted prize animals that are “bigger, better, and more abundant than last year,” a fact that will surely make hunters eager to head into the fray. But the same environmental conditions that have led to a robust deer population have also led to an exceedingly healthy habitat that may limit deer movement. The solution, Ledbetter said, is for hunters to become “adaptable and savvy” to ensure they have an opportunity to bag the big time trophy bucks they seek.
“The ponds are full, the rivers are running, it’s green and lush everywhere,” he said. “You’re going to see reduced activity and movement, so deer hunters need to adapt. They need to find oak trees that are dropping acorns. Stuff like that. If they do that, they’ll find more and more luck, for sure.”
Hunters will have the best opportunity to encounter big bucks when deer are forced to abandon safer locations and become mobile. This usually happens in late winter, when food is scarce, and during the peak rut (also known as mating season), which for Central Texas will likely occur in November or December.
“That’s when hunters will have a great opportunity to get some real trophy deer,” said Ledbetter. “They’re out there, but we’re going to have to be patient and present when conditions are ideal.”
Ledbetter’s core message to hunters during these most abundant of times is to not become complacent. Expecting 36 inches of rain per year and the ideal conditions that level of rainfall creates is “tomfoolery,” he said. The best thing hunters can do is hunt like there’s no tomorrow. By doing that, the deer population will be better managed during the drier times that will inevitably come.
“The reality of it is this isn’t going to last,” he said. “We need to keep our guns a-blazing and keep the deer herds under control because the next drought could start tomorrow. We know this is far, far above average, so we can’t let our guard down and be complacent.”