Field & Stream reporter Steven Hill spent two months interviewing state game agency officials, deer biologists, and whitetail experts to identify the absolute best public whitetail hunting grounds in the nation. No membership fees, no meetings, no permission, no special rules -- just deer, and plenty of them.
Chaparral Wildlife Management Area
Location: south Texas
Size: 15,202 acres
The vast majority of Texas public land deer hunting is controlled by lottery draws, and the Chaparral is the Lone Star State’s hottest ticket. Every year some 2,500 hunters apply for 60 $125 permits, but those who get drawn get the bargain—and just maybe the buck—of a lifetime. Fertile red-sand soil and a diversity of native high-protein Texas brush country plants like gran jeno, mesquite, guajillo and guayacan allow deer to reach their full potential, says David Synatzske of Texas Parks and Wildlife, who has managed Chaparral for 24 years. “We see a lot of 150- and 160-class deer,” he says, “but a good 140-class is representative of our mature deer.” Hunters can take two bucks on their five-day hunt, and one must have an inside spread of ear-width or better, a harvest restriction that protects 85 percent of 2 ½-year-olds and 60 percent of 3 ½-year-olds. The result is buck-doe ratio in the range of 1 to 1.5 and a mature age structure: 50 percent of bucks harvested each year at Chaparral are 4 1/2 years or older.
Granger Wildlife Management Area
Location: Central Texas
Size: 10,888 acres
Granger boasts much better draw odds than Chaparral and quality bucks that give up nothing to their more celebrated south Texas counterparts. Better than one in three applicants snags one of 100 archery permits, and a liberal stand-by policy has thus far ensured that few wait-listed hunters who show up on hunt day are turned away. This state-managed area is located only 45 minutes from Austin in flat, open black-land prairie long ago converted to farming. Antler restrictions call for a 13-inch minimum spread, and the approach seems to be working. Area manager Trey Carpenter of Parks and Wildlife says Granger has produced several bucks in the 160- to 180-class range—of the last dozen or so harvested, all but two were Pope and Young qualifiers. “Usually, if a buck is older than 2 ½, it’s going to make the record book,” Carpenter says. “It’s a rare occasion that it doesn’t.”
Sam Houston National Forest Wildlife Management Area
Location: east Texas
Size: 161,508 acres
Firearms hunters looking for certain access should head to east Texas, where ample public land is open to all who purchase the state’s $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit. A good bet is Sam Houston, by far the largest WMA in the region. You’re less likely to find trophy deer, but the firearms general season (for bucks only) stretches from November 3 to January 6. Pine forests predominate on the relatively gentle terrain, with hardwoods mixed in along streams. “The forest service has really done a good job lately with burning 25 to 30 percent of the acreage each year,” says Bill Adams, project leader for the Pineywoods Ecosystem Project at Texas Parks and Wildlife, “and that encourages weeds and forbs and other early successional plants that really enhance forage availability for deer.” Sam Houston can be busy, especially on opening weekend, but the entire 160,000 acres is open to hunting, which gives those willing to work at it a chance to target more remote, low-traffic areas.