A dim-witted reporter once asked a famous bank robber why he robbed banks.
“Because that’s where the money is,” the robber replied.
Hunters flock to the Hill Country every fall for a similar reason: That’s where the deer are. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) deer surveys show that 52 percent of the state’s deer live in the Edwards Plateau, which stretches roughly from Waco to Brownwood to San Angelo to Del Rio to San Antonio to Austin.
The heart of the Edwards Plateau is the Llano Uplift, an area of about 1.5 million acres that, long ago, was pushed upward by volcanic magma. As the land rose, the overlying limestone rock eroded faster than in surrounding areas, eventually exposing the granite below. As that granite weathered and decayed, it formed the red granite soils that typify the region.
It’s those soils that are the key to the region’s ability to produce more deer, and more deer per acre, than any other area of the state, according to TPWD wildlife biologist Mike Krueger. “The vegetation types in an area are very dependent on soil types,” he says. “Many of the vegetation types found in the Llano Uplift are distinctly different than those in adjacent areas, where soils of limestone origin are predominant.”
TPWD is now several years into a project to reclassify whitetailed deer habitat into regions based on soil types, vegetation types, land use, precipitation and other factors. The area commonly known as the Hill Country is designated Range Management Unit (RMU) 6 and includes most of Llano and Mason counties as well as parts of Gillespie, Kimble, Menard, San Saba, McCulloch, Burnet and Blanco counties. As you travel through the Hill Country, look around. If you see granite instead of limestone, you are in RMU 6.
You are also in the deer capital of the world.
The granite soils of RMU 6 and the vegetation they support have a unique ability to support whitetailed deer, although there are other factors that have led to the region having such a high deer population. “Granite gravel soils are noted for responding very rapidly to rainfall, producing an abundant and diverse array of grasses and forbs,” Krueger says. “Young, lush forbs have very high nutritive values, and are very palatable to deer, more so than woody browse. So when climatic conditions are good, nutritious deer foods are very abundant, which explains why the region can support high deer numbers.”
Of course, the other side of easy come is easy go, and the region is also known for being “droughty,” and when rain does not fall, the range can go downhill in a hurry, resulting in deer die-offs.
In fact, that’s what’s been happening in the last several years in the Hill Country, and deer numbers in recent surveys were not as high as they have been historically. But other factors are at work, too. Fewer fawns have been born in the recent dry years, the decline in sheep and goat raising in the region and reduced levels of predator control have resulted in higher predator populations, and landowners have been more aggressively managing their deer populations to improve buck-to-doe ratios.
All this is actually good news for deer hunters. Deer densities and numbers still remain the highest in the state, and lower populations mean deer will be in better condition and bucks will grow bigger antlers.
If we only hunted for meat and antlers, that alone would make the Hill Country the best place in the world to go deer hunting. But we hunt for other reasons as well, and it’s there that the Hill Country really shines.
A few years ago I visited a hunting camp on the outskirts of Kingsland, on the banks of the Llano River. All the hunters were black, and most were from the Houston area. One told me he’d been hunting on the place since the 1950s, when he paid the landowner the grand sum of $5 for a weekend hunt. “She told me as long as I took care of the place, I’d have a place to hunt,” he said. Both kept their side of the bargain. Although the price has gone up over the years, the unwritten contract between rancher and hunter has remained the same: You take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.
I shot my first deer in the Hill Country. My best buck, too. And my son and my wife took their first deer there. An annual hunt somewhere in the Hill Country is an urge that begins to stir in summer and must be satisfied come November or December.
Visit lots of deer camps in the Hill Country and you’ll hear many versions of the same story. Families and friends return to the same lease year after year, with the lease almost becoming a hereditary right passed from one generation to the next. Grandfathers can show you where on a place they shot their first deer, where their sons shot their first deer, and increasingly, where their grandsons and granddaughters shot their first.
Established blinds acquire names, and so do places on the ranch where remembered events took place–where the Jeep got stuck, where Jake saw a mountain lion, where Sam missed the big buck that no one ever saw again. Returning to the same hallowed ground year after year, people who only get to escape the city a few times a year make a connection to the land and the people who live there. They help pay the taxes on the land and the college tuition for the ranch kids, and in a way they become part of an extended family. Those connections, as much as the chance to shoot a deer, are what bring people back to the Hill Country year after year.
Several hundred thousand hunters shoot several hundred thousand deer every year in the Hill Country, yet deer numbers remain high. That’s why the area is sometimes called the deer factory of the world. Other parts of Texas now have deer densities as high or almost as high as the Hill Country, but the Hill Country has the special quality of sustaining those numbers year after year. There is less variability in deer population density in most of the Edwards Plateau than there is in other RMUs in Texas. One deer to every 8 to 10 acres is fairly consistent throughout the Edwards Plateau, whereas in the eastern Panhandle, deer densities can range from a deer to every two to three acres to one deer to 80-plus acres. A big reason for this is there is less variability in habitat throughout the Plateau than in other regions that have a lot of cropland, coastal Bermuda grass, and pavement.
Significantly, for perhaps the first time since records have been kept, the Hill Country does not have an overpopulation of deer. Population estimates for the eastern and central portions of the area indicate that landowners (and perhaps predators) have become much more effective at managing deer population densities over the past few years, to the point where deer densities are apparently biologically acceptable in much of this area. In fact, the Farm Bureau recently hosted a meeting in Llano County giving landowners a chance to voice their concerns about the relatively low deer numbers they’ve noticed over the past few years.
What? Landowners in Llano County saying they are not seeing as many deer as in the past? Are the glory days of deer hunting in the Hill Country a thing of the past?
I think not. In fact, I believe just the opposite is true. The Hill Country still has more deer than any place else in the world, and the pink granite hills and green mesquites and liveoaks I love so much haven’t gone anywhere, either.
And everywhere I turn in the Hill Country there are the memories.
There’s the place on the Llano River where I rattled up a buck for the first time, an event that so took me and the designated shooter, Mike Cox, by surprise that I finally had to whisper to Mike if he was going to shoot the eight-pointer with one broken main beam or not. Only later did I discover he’d never field-dressed a deer before, violating the deer camp rule that “You kill it, you clean it.”
“Okay, I’ll show you how–once,” I told Mike. He learned well. From then on he cleaned his own deer.
A lot of people have had their first experience inside a dead deer in the same country. And it’s been good for all of them to learn firsthand where their food comes from and what it takes to put it on the table.
Some people think rattling won’t work in the Hill Country, but I wish they could have been with me on more than one Thanksgiving week. Sometime around November 20 the bucks in the Hill Country go almost totally stupid. Once just before lunch I rattled up four bucks in 10 minutes for the rancher’s wife just to show her how easy it could be. Naturally, after lunch I took a hunter out and nothing came to the horns.
At another time and another place, rattling in bucks became so easy I sat down in the middle of a bare place to rattle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an eight-pointer jump the fence behind me. I clicked the horns, and he jumped back over, then circled downwind. Every time he went behind a bush I would hit the horns. He’d stop, look around the bush, then move on. He went all the way around me at 15 yards and never realized I was there.
That was not the case with another Hill Country buck I rattled in. I was bow-hunting on the ground–not the smartest way to do it, but I was learning, and the Hill Country is a great place to do so. I backed up into some brush overlooking a mesquite flat bordering a draw, figuring that would be the direction deer would come from. About the third time I hit the horns, I sensed rather than heard something behind me, and just as I looked over my right shoulder, I saw a buck about to climb into the bush with me. He was coming, and he was coming to fight.
We left the bush at the same instant in opposite directions.
I’ve talked to old-timers who were born and raised in the Hill Country who remembered the days when schools turned out the opening day of deer season so everybody could go deer hunting. Those were days when, believe it or not, there weren’t that many deer there. “I remember you could walk all day, and maybe you’d see a deer and maybe you wouldn’t,” one told me.
The explosion of the deer population in the Hill Country is a classic case of unintended consequences–one that turned out in our favor for a change. Two factors played key roles, and neither had anything directly to do with deer. The first had to do with the introduction of sheep and goats into the Hill Country. Goats and sheep do not coexist well with mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes, and ranchers made war on predators. That alone allowed deer numbers to rise far above normal–though the drought of the 1950s put a big dent in the population–but it was the eradication of the screw worm in the 1960s that really kicked off the deer population boom. Given the unique properties of the Hill Country that let it respond so quickly to rainfall or lack thereof, it’s no surprise that the deer population began to boom and bust.
The history of the Hill Country argues against a long-term drop in the number of deer, but we are changing history. The overpopulation of the Hill Country in the future is likely to be due to too many people as well as too many deer. The average size of landholdings in the Hill Country is already among the lowest in the state, and the trend is accelerating as more ranches are carved up so more people can have a little slice of heaven. I remember what one of the old black guys hunting near Kingsland said. Waving at the subdivision going in on the other side of the river, he mourned, “In 20 years we won’t have a place to hunt.”
I hope he’s wrong, and at least during the lifetimes of the current generation of deer hunters, the Hill Country will probably remain the number one place in the world to have a chance to kill a whitetailed deer.
And consider this. The only reason ranchers keep the land and make it available for hunting is because it generates income. No matter how long their family has owned the land, or how much they love the land and making their living from it, they can’t eat rocks, drive rocks, wear rocks or pay their bills with rocks. For that they need money, and to get that they need me and you and all the other deer hunters.
Do your part. Kill a deer in the Hill Country this year and become part of a great tradition. You’ll be glad you did.
And so will those who come after you to pass on the tradition to the next generation.
Larry Hodge is an award-winning writer and photographer with credits in Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Sportsman, Texas Sporting Journal, African Hunting Gazette and others. Check out his latest article here on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website.
First photo: Sean Loyless. All other photos by author.