The enormous whitetail buck stepped out of the mesquite brush and stood broadside to me at 100 yards. His dark antlers glowed in the crisp dawn light, and the image of this mature South Texas bruiser fulfilled every promise that deer hunting ever made.
I leaned forward in the tripod stand, my heart pounding and the 10X binoculars trembling in my hands. The buck's heavy rack carried 10 up with an inside beam spread of at least 22 inches. I estimated that its Boone and Crockett gross score would be in the upper 160s—a near-record animal.
I sighed and settled back, reaching not for my 7mm Remington Magnum rifle but for my 400mm Canon camera. To take him with the gun could cost me several thousand dollars: I couldn't afford to tag such a magnificent deer.
My encounter with that buck last December occurred on a high-fenced game ranch in LaSalle County, deep in the fabled Brush Country of South Texas. The hunting format on that spread was typical of most high-fenced (a.k.a. game-proof) operations: The cost for shooting a trophy is determined by its B&C score. Put simply, the bigger the buck, the bigger the bucks. An adrenaline-pumped hunter here can easily burn $5,000 or $6,000 with a single pull of a trigger, and the tab can sky-rocket in excess of $10,000 if he meets up with a true monster deer.
High fences crisscross the Brush Country, and approximately 95 percent of hunting in Texas takes place on private land. So if you hunt in Texas, you'd better get used to fences. High or low, they define a way of life, as common as long-neck Buds and cheese enchiladas. Big deer are a prized commodity here (as are wild quail, turkeys, and other species), so many landowners manage ranches for game rather than cattle or crops. Controlling what you've got is the best way to do this; thus the game-proof fences. Such enterprises consistently produce mature, high-scoring deer, but at a price increasingly beyond the means of the average hunter.
However, there are options available for a visitor aiming for a memorable hunt. The quarry isn't limited to deer: doves, turkeys, waterfowl, javelinas, feral hogs, and other species roam this immense state in sizes and numbers that rival any place in the Lower 48. And the best sport isn't limited to South Texas, which is only one of eight regions (as defined by the Texas Wildlife Association) spanning the state's 261,797 square miles. Hunting here—from the Pineywoods in the east to Big Bend Country (the Trans-Pecos) in the west—is as exceptional and exciting as the terrain is varied and vast. Here's an insider's take, organized by species, on how to get the most for your hunting dollars down in the Lone Star State.
Texas boasts the largest whitetail herd—somewhere between 3.5 million and 4 million animals—in the nation. And most of those deer thrive outside the expensive ranches of South Texas. Based on surveys by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the South Texas plains rank third in deer population, trailing the Edwards Plateau (Hill Country) of central Texas, and the Pineywoods of east Texas. The north-central Cross Timbers region and the Post Oak Savannah are right on the heels of South Texas for sheer numbers of deer.
The Hill Country is the mother lode, harboring almost 50 percent of the state's deer population and a hunter-success ratio of close to 100 percent. And it's a pleasure to hunt: a mix of cedars, oaks, and mesquites amid rolling, rocky terrain.
Hill Country deer are, on the average, smaller in size than their Brush Country cousins, but put the concept of quality in perspective: The typical deer hunter would be thrilled to tag a mature 8- or 10-point buck that scores in the 110 to 130 B&C range.
Deer of this caliber are plentiful—and affordable—in most parts of Texas. The long whitetail season, which begins in early November and extends into January (depending on region), provides plenty of opportunity to book a hunt. Private land is the general rule, but most of the ranches are low-fenced. And the three or four strands of barbed wire designed to control livestock have no impact on the movements of free-ranging deer.
Because deer can travel freely from one low-fenced ranch to another, and because many of the leases are relatively small (less than 1,000 acres), managing game herds is difficult. This can work to the budget hunter's advantage. Few, if any, monetary restrictions on antlered bucks are in effect. If you like it, take it.
Many package hunts are available for no more than $1,500 in the Edwards Plateau, Pineywoods, Cross Timbers, and Post Oak Savannah. Good low-fenced hunting opportunities do exist in South Texas, but the area's reputation encourages some operations to inflate their prices.
Regardless of region, the typical deal includes three to four days of hunting from blinds or stands, lodging, and meals. Some also allow you to take an antlerless deer and at least one feral hog and/or a javelina (where available). You can get a lot of bang for the buck, not to mention meat for the freezer, by choosing a package hunt. Here are two reputable outfitters to consider:
• KARANKAWA PLAINS OUTFITTING CO. [COASTAL PRAIRIES] A three-day hunt (for an 8-point buck measuring up to 119 inches, plus one doe and two hogs) with lodging and meals is $1,400. Contact: Mark Bigger-staff, 979-559-0113; www.karankawa.com
• LOS PATOS GUIDE SERVICE [COASTAL PRAIRIES] A three-day hunt (for an 8-point buck or better, no size restrictions, plus two does and limitless feral hogs) costs $1,500. Contact: Forrest West, 281-852-6456; www.lospatos.com
RIO GRANDE TURKEYS
Big gobblers abound in several regions—the best are the Edwards Plateau, South Texas, Panhandle, and Cross Timbers. The traditional fall turkey season runs concurrently with that for whitetails. Rio Grandes can be taken with rifle or shotgun, and the tab for adding a turkey onto a packaged deer hunt runs in the $200 to $300 range. This fee is actually pretty reasonable, especially when you consider that many veteran Hill Country hunters rate a long-bearded gobbler over all but the largest bucks.
The spring turkey season is a major event running between late March and early May (depending on the area), and many outfitters offer packages. A two- to four-day hunt with a two-gobbler bag limit (Texas has an annual limit of four per hunter) runs in the $500 to $1,000 range.
• MESQUITE COUNTRY OUTFITTERS [PANHANDLE] A two-day, three-night hunt with a two-turkey limit including lodging and meals costs $875. Contact: James Stephens, 806-689-2302; www.mcohunts.com
• TEXAS OUTFITTERS LTD. [SOUTH TEXAS] A three-day package (two-bird limit) with lodging and a guide is $750. Contact: Frank Fackovec, 800-839-4868; www.texasoutfittersltd.com
The coastal marshes and prairies of south-east Texas, the bay flats and marshes of the middle and lower coast, and the grainfields of north Texas are among the many opportunities for hunting ducks and geese migrating down the Central Flyway.
Seasons begin in late September and extend into January, with a special light-goose conservation season running through March. The daily limits (with various restrictions on each species) are six ducks and as many as five dark geese and 20 light geese.
Dozens of day-hunt operations are located in the prime areas. As a rule, those commanding the most acreage offer the best chances for success since they have the luxury of rotating productive fields and ponds and establishing no-hunting roost areas to help hold the birds.
Most waterfowl hunting takes place only in the morning (to allow birds to regroup during the afternoon), and the going rate for a full-service hunt with a guide, dogs, and a blind or field decoy spread is between $100 and $150.
• CENTRAL FLYWAY OUTFITTERS [PINEYWOODS] A day hunt over white spreads or decoys—four hunters to a guide—is $150, or $175 with lodging. Contact: Will Beatty, 281-255-4868; www.hunttexas.com
• BUTCH'S GUIDE SERVICE [COASTAL PRAIRIES] A day hunt over decoys is $120, four hunters per guide. Contact: Butch Waggoner, 281-391-4381; www.texashunting.net
An estimated 50 million mourning and whitewing doves make their home in the Lone Star State. It's one of the most popular and productive Texas species to hunt, and many of the finest opportunities are within a short drive of major urban centers. For example, a colony of more than a million whitewings flies in the area around San Antonio.
Dove seasons are set according to zones—north, central, and south—and the latter two also offer a winter season from late December into January. The daily bag limits are generous: 15 in the north and 12 in the central and south zones. A typical day in the dove field costs between $50 and $75.
• WEB & FIN GUIDE SERVICE [PINEYWOODS] A guided hunt is $50 per day. Contact: Mark Hooker, 281-782-9034; www.webandfin.net
• SANDY OAKS RANCH [SOUTH TEXAS] It's $50 per day, or $450 for a three-day package including lodging and meals. Contact: Foard Houston, 830-665-3202; www.sandyoaksranch.com
Ranchers are trying to trim populations of resident hogs, which run rampant in many areas, pillaging game feeders and food plots. Hogs breed constantly, and the piglets seem to be half hair and half Kryptonite. Several generations removed from the barnyard, the porkers are legitimate game—wary and elusive—and they get big. A mature boar with long tusks might weigh 300 to 400 pounds, and stalking a giant boar can provide more excitement than the average hunter desires.
These hunts usually cost less than $500. Options range from one trophy boar to two or three smaller "meat pigs" to "shoot as many of the damned things as you can." Hog hunting is available across the state, and because feral hogs aren't native animals, no seasons or bag limits are in effect.
• LONE STAR OUTDOORS [EDWARDS PLATEAU] A three-day hunt, lodging, and meals costs $750. Hunters can take three hogs. Contact: Rick Hodges, 830-609-3600; www.2hunttexas.com
• CEDAR SPRINGS HOG HUNTING [PINEYWOODS] A two-day hunt with lodging is $395 (one trophy hog or three meat hogs). Contact: David Clifton, 936-867-9275; www.huntinfo.com/cedarsprings
The collared peccary, or javelina, is synonymous with the Rio Grande country of South Texas, but they thrive across portions of the Hill Country and west Texas, too. With their sharp, tusklike teeth and bristling hair, javelinas have an unfounded reputation for ferocity. But they have poor senses of sight and hearing, and a hunter with minimal stalking skills can creep up on a gang of snuffling "cactus pigs."
A close encounter can be exciting—javelinas have a larger-than-life aura. They are deceptively small, averaging 30 to 40 pounds, and it seems as if half that weight is in their heads. Javelina mounts are one of the few trophies that seem to grow as they hang on the wall. These hunts, which cost $100 to $200, are usually provided as add-ons to deer and hog hunts.
8 HUNTING REGIONS OF TEXAS*
 TRANS-PECOS  PANHANDLE  CROSS TIMBERS  EDWARDS PLATEAU  POST OAK SAVANNAH  PINEYWOODS  COASTAL PRAIRIES  SOUTH TEXAS *TEXAS WILDLIFE ASSOCIATION
 TRANS-PECOS  PANHANDLE  CROSS TIMBERS  EDWARDS PLATEAU  POST OAK SAVANNAH  PINEYWOODS  COASTAL PRAIRIES  SOUTH TEXAS
*TEXAS WILDLIFE ASSOCIATION