There’s More to Texas Hunting Than Expensive, High-Fence Ranches. Here’s Why a Texas Hunt Should Be on Your Bucket List
Texas has more public land than you think, plus a ton of affordable free-range hunts for everything from ducks to nilgai
A buddy of mine, who doesn’t hunt, moved to Texas in September some years ago. He pulled off the interstate to fill up at a Buc-ees, which are massive 60-pump gas stations where you can buy everything from fuel to deer feeders. There were dozens of people walking to their jacked-up trucks, arms full of ice and cases of beer. He went inside to pick up his own 24-pack of Lone Star, but all the coolers were near empty. Only a few Bud Light Lime tall boys remained.
He asked the closest person next to him, “what the hell is the deal? Is there a beer shortage in Texas?”
The old man was wearing a Stetson cowboy hat, had a huge handle-bar mustache, and wore a belt buckle the size of a Buick. He looked my buddy up-and-down, glared at his knitted winter stocking cap, thick-framed glasses, and painted-on skinny jeans: “It’s the dove opener ya god-damned yuppie,” and walked away.
My friend called and told me this story. I informed him that the first day of dove season is like a state holiday in Texas. You skip work, shoot birds, barbecue, and drink the wells dry. If you’re from Texas, you hunt.
But Texas actually gets a bad rap from non-resident hunters. They think it’s a private-land state that only the wealthy can afford to hunt. Not true. Texas has an incredible amount of opportunities for the everyday, blue-collar hunter, and that’s reflected in the state’s flourishing hunting culture. Many states have seen a decline in hunter numbers, but from 1966 to 2017, the number of hunters in Texas doubled, from 644,000 to 1.25 million (not all of those folks can be millionaires hunting zebras behind a 12-foot high fence). According to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) data, more than 1 million of the licenses purchased each year from 2012 to 2020 were bought by residents. The reason for that? The state cares a great deal about hunting. TPWD has created all kinds of public access opportunities (there are more public acres in Texas than 25 other states), from pronghorn draws in west Texas to gator hunts on the coast. And there are affordable private-land hunts sprinkled in between.
To give you a better idea of what it’s like to hunt Texas, I broke the state into six regions—Trans Pecos, Panhandle, Hill Country, East Texas, Coastal Prairie, and South Texas. Like any other place you hunt, the more effort you put in, the better the chances are for success. Here’s why everyone should have a Texas hunt on their bucket list.
Hunting Access in Texas
Texas has more than 1 million acres of hunt-able public and private-land access (the state leases some privately held land). That’s a lot of room to roam, though that accessible land is scattered throughout the Lone Star State’s 268,597 square miles. A program hunters should take advantage of is the Annual Public Hunting permit (APH). It costs $48 in addition to your state hunting license, but it gives you access to more than 180 hunting areas (mostly Wildlife Management Areas and state parks), plus 120 dove and small game tracts that are privately owned.
TPWD offers a booklet that details all the locations to hunt with an APH permit, plus season dates, bag limits, and access rules on the private properties. Many of these places are on the outskirts of urban areas so a larger portion of the state’s population can take advantage.
“I have lived in a few different states and hunted around the world and would say that Texas Parks and Wildlife has created this culture of stronger resources for hunters,” said Ryan Bassham, an eighth generation Texan. “You will have a better experience if you hunt or fish in Texas than in most places. It’s a special state.”
APH hunts are mostly focused on small game, with dove hunting being one of the primary draws. One of the best areas for that is on Las Palomas WMA in south Texas. Site managers plant several sunflower, milo, and millet fields that attract scores of white-winged doves (you are allowed to bag two mourning doves as part of your limit during the Special White-Whinged Dove Days) in early September as long as the weather and migration are right. There are also some fantastic bobwhite quail units in the panhandle and South Texas, plus scaled quail in South Texas as long as there’s no drought on.
“I’d say our bread and butter are the doves,” said Justin Dreibelbis, TPWD program director for private lands and public hunting. “There are also some pretty good areas for quail, but you have to get away from the cities for that. If you live in Lubbock, then it’s not too far away, but if you’re in Austin you have a long drive to get to the quail.”
Texas Public Draws
There are a wide variety of public-land draw hunts, from whitetails and mule deer to gators, pronghorn, and nilgai. Some draws are more coveted than others. Like the whitetail hunt at Chapparal WMA on 15,000 acres of South Texas brush country or the antelope hunt on Rita Blanca, which is part of the National Forest system (TPWD runs the draws for many federal sites because they have done such an exceptional job with their tag allocations).
“One of the cool things about drawing a big game tag is that typically you are free to kill a feral hog as well,” Dreibelbis said. “It gives our hunters a better chance to walk away with some meat whether they end up shooting the animal they drew for or not.”
There are also guided dove hunts you can draw for, where an outfitter will actually take you. The cost to apply is only $10. Spring turkeys are a big draw as well. Most public hunts on state land for gobblers are done by draw-only, but you can purchase over-the-counter tags and hunt some federal tracts, plus private property. You can find Rios throughout the central part of the state and pockets of easterns in East Texas, though public access is quite limited.
Deer and Quail on the Texas Panhandle
This sliver of northern Texas, sandwiched between New Mexico and Oklahoma, has some of the most diverse hunting opportunities in the state. Whitetail, mule deer, pronghorn, elk (they are not a managed game species in Texas), scaled and bobwhite quail, turkey, sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, and doves are all abundant in most years (quail and turkey populations can be seriously affected by drought, which the panhandle is prone to).
“We were in a drought from about 2010 to 2012 and are still waiting for the turkeys to rebound,” said TPWD Panhandle district leader Brad Simpson. “When the playa lakes are full the sandhill crane and waterfowl hunting can be phenomenal.”
Deer hunting reigns supreme here (for both whitetail and mule deer). There are limited public draws for each species at select WMAs. Gene How, Matador, and Yokum Dunes are three of the most coveted properties. If you’re lucky enough to get drawn (thousands of hunters put in for around 10-20 tags per site depending on herd health), there are some big deer to go after on these public tracts. The Matador has had several 160- to 180-inch whitetails taken off it in recent years, and one hunter shot a 170-inch mule deer there in 2020. Gene How is open exclusively to whitetail hunting, but does have some mule deer moving in (the population is not large enough to hunt yet). If you draw a whitetail tag, focus your efforts near the Canadian River. Yokum has had several whitetails score in the 150s to 190s, and there has been a 200-inch buck killed on the property.
These drawn hunts are either two- or four-day endeavors that cost $80 to $130 in addition to your hunting license fee.
“Most of the whitetails range in the 130s to 140s, but we do have some very good deer on these WMAs,” said Chip Ruthven, TPWD project leader for the Panhandle. “Your chances are slim, but if you draw a tag it can result in a pretty good hunt.”
There is also quality quail hunting in wet years on the Matador, according to Ruthven. All you need is an APH permit and hunting license to chase bobwhites, just check with the site to make sure it’s open, because it does shutdown for 10 days to two weeks in November and December for deer hunting only. Gene How and Matador also have limited draw turkey tags.
Federal lands, like Lake Meredith and Rita Blanca National Grasslands have some of the best public quail hunting opportunities. There’s also a lengthy list of wild game species to hunt at both venues from deer and turkey to pronghorn (Rita Blanca has a very limited draw hunt). Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge also hosts some excellent youth deer and quail hunts.
If you’re looking for an economical private-land hunt, the panhandle has some of the best waterfowl and sandhill crane hunting in the country. Just outside of Lubbock is where you should go. It’s mainly field hunting for sandhills and lesser Canada geese. There is an assortment of guides to choose from in the area, but Final Descent Outfitters is one I would recommend.
“When the playa lakes are full, the goose hunting can be very good,” said Dusty Brown, a long time North Texas waterfowl guide. “And here, the birds typically feed twice a day no matter what, so you can count on them flying over you for the most part.”
Big Game in West Texas (Trans Pecos)
If you’ve ever dreamed of chasing pronghorn out west, or sheep in the high country, you have to come to the Davis Mountains at least once in your life. It’s one of Texas’ most well-kept secrets with elevations over 7,500 feet and some of the most beautiful country you will ever lay eyes on.
“Heck, I know people in Midland, which is only two hours from here, that don’t know about—and have never seen—the Davis Mountains,” said James Weaver, a biologist for TPWD. “I think one of the coolest hunts you can have here is an antelope hunt. You have the opportunity to cover a lot of country if you know the kind of animal you’re looking for.”
West Texas has a good amount of public land, but much of it is state and national forest that isn’t open to hunters. There is public quail hunting on 103,000 acres at Black Gap WMA, and the region does hold four of the six species—bobwhite, scaled, Gambel’s and Mearns (though there is not a season for it in Texas)—of quail found in North America. Elephant Mountain is known for its dove hunting, though the birds don’t flock there like they do in other parts of Texas. It also has desert big horn sheep, which is a highly-coveted hunt with long odds of drawing a tag, but only costs $9 to enter through Big Time Texas Hunts.
The real reason you come to the Trans Pecos is to hunt big game. You will almost certainly have to pay for access, but pronghorn and whitetail hunts are not highly sought after here, and a guided hunt can be had for $2,500 to $3,500. That typically includes lodging, meals, and game processing (skinning and quartering out the buck). I have rifle hunted whitetails in the Davis Mountains and it is worth the money. You can stalk bucks in the cedars and scrub, not sit in a blind over bait. And you get to see some of the most beautiful country the U.S. has to offer. It’s a very unique experience.
Antelope hunts go for about the same price, and if you do it right (that means covering a lot of ground to find a good buck), it’s an equally worthwhile endeavor.
“A lot of hunters are focused on mule deer, and they don’t really consider hunting whitetails, so sometimes you can get a pretty good price on a hunt,” Weaver said.
Mule deer hunts are more costly, but if you do some research and are an industrious hunter, you can run across cull hunts for $1,000 or less.
“Maybe a landowner wants to get a spike or four-pointer off his property,” Weaver said. “That’s a great opportunity for any hunter, and you will likely be able to take any hog or javelina you run across.”
Aoudad hunts have continued to grow in popularity, but it is a pricey hunt (expect to pay $3,500 to $5,000). You can hunt them year-round since they are an exotic. And in terms of sheep hunting, it’s still the most affordable non-resident sheep hunt in North America.
“You can come here in February when there’s a foot of snow on the ground where you live and it’s 75 degrees here in the desert,” Woods said. “It’s a really enjoyable spot-and-stalk hunt.”
Deer and Small Game in East Texas (Piney Woods)
Many Texans joke that East Texas is more like western Louisiana, because of its hardwood forests and interspersed pastures. It’s not a dry, arid desert like much of the rest of the state. Whitetails are the prime quarry here, and hunters have close to 300,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land to pursue deer on. The Piney Woods are mostly located south of Tyler, east of the Trinity River and north of Houston. Within those boundaries are four U.S. Forests—Sam Houston, Angelina, Davy Crockett, and Sabine.
“We sell about 45,000 APH permits (statewide) every year,” said Bill Adams, project leader for the TPWD’s Piney Woods ecosystem. “Around 30 percent of the hunters that buy those licenses will hunt Sam Houston. It’s only 30 minutes from north Houston, so it sees 6,000 to 7,000 hunters a year.”
Sam Houston is one of the largest pieces of public land in Texas at 163,000 acres. To hunt whitetails (or any species of wild game there), you only need a hunting license and an APH permit. There is no deer draw at Sam Houston, though they do set up check stations on two special weekend hunts (typically the first two Saturdays of the season). If you kill a deer, you must check it in during these times, but otherwise hunters can tag their buck or doe and pack it out.
It’s a little different at Angelina, Davy Crocket, and Sabine. TPWD manages WMA acres within all three of these forests, and offers draw hunts for does only. The property surrounding the WMAs is for bucks-only, and again, all you need is a hunting license and the $48 APH card. There are also some draw-only deer hunts on other state WMAs, like Alazan Bayou. Success rates are higher for the drawn hunts than the public hunting found on U.S. Forest lands (less than 20 percent of hunters will kill a deer on most of the national forests, according to TPWD).
“When we have a draw hunt at Alazan, we are putting hunters in good areas where the deer are, so it lends to more success,” Adams said. “Hunting a national forest is much more challenging. You have to know how to find deer, and compete with other hunters. I typically wait till later in the year. Because even though a majority of our deer are harvested in the first two weeks of the season, I would rather not run into another hunter.”
Each forest has a variety of hunt-able species. Squirrel hunting with dogs is still popular in the Piney Woods, though Adams says interest has begun to fall off in recent years. You can also hunt hogs (there’s no bag limit statewide) waterfowl, and other legal game on forest land. TPWD manages a total of eight public tracts in East Texas and leases three others from private landowners. The leased units are not actively managed, but public hunting is allowed.
Hill Country Turkeys
This region of Texas is aptly named for its rolling and jagged hills. It encompasses Austin to the east, San Antonio to the south, and is bordered by the Balcones Encampment, a fault line that runs from Del Rio north to Dallas, to the west. You can hunt spring turkeys across this state, but it is the Hill Country that is most famous for Rio Grande gobblers. In this region, turkeys are every bit as popular to hunt as redheads on the coast or whitetails in south Texas. The only drawback is, though the birds are plentiful here, there is very little public access to hunt them on. Kerr WMA, west of Austin has drawn hunts you must apply for, but there are virtually no public places you can just show up and go after a Rio (and if there are, those in the know are playing it very close to the vest).
“When those bluebonnets and sunflowers are popping during the first weeks of the season, man, I can’t think of a more picturesque place to turkey hunt,” said Noah Thompson, a life-long Texan, who grew up hunting and fishing Hill Country. “The problem is there is not much public access at all.”
Many hunters lease ranches with friends, or pay a trespass fee, which can run $500 to $1,000, to get access. Outfitted hunts can be pricey (a few thousand dollars). In most cases, you’re going to have to pay to shoot your two Rios here.
“There may not be a lot of public land to hunt them on down here, but it’s only grown in popularity,” Thompson said. “Turkeys in the spring are tradition here in Hill Country.”
Whitetail and feral hog hunting are more accessible to the public hunter. Granger Lake, Kerr, and Lake Sommerville all allow hunting of both species. You can also hunt a variety of small game on each unit, including squirrel, rabbits, dove, quail, waterfowl, and other small gamebirds, like rail and snipe. Just make sure you check the site regulations before you go, because each one has slightly different rules to follow.
One of the bonuses of being drawn for a whitetail hunt at Kerr is you can shoot exotics in addition to your deer tag. The most common species you will find are aoudad, but axis deer, fallow, and sika deer also inhabit the WMA.
“Hunters need to be realistic about harvesting an exotic,” said Ryan Rietz, TPWD project leader for Kerr and Mason Mountain WMAs. “We actively manage exotics so they do not infringe upon the whitetail habitat. Years ago, there were a number of exotics running around, but that’s not the case anymore.”
Mason Mountain offers a very limited guided hunt for water buck and gemsbok oryx. It’s by draw, and only costs $10. The youth deer and javelina hunts are also by draw at Mason, and are free to young hunters who get selected.
Fishing is a major draw to this region (Texas has fairly liberal water access laws in comparison to many western states). There are around 7,000 lakes and 15 major rivers that run through this state, and Hill Country is well known for float trips down the Lower Colorado, Llano, Pedernales, and more than a handful of other rivers. There are some very unique species in Texas (like the Guadalupe bass), plus more common fish—largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, stripers, brim (bluegill), gar, carp, and more. Spring is the safest time for anglers, whether you bait fish or cast a fly, because water levels are typically high. You have to be careful during the dry months, because your boat can run out of navigable water in a hurry and you can become stranded.
“Growing up, we didn’t have access to much land (for hunting), so I spent a lot of time on the water around Austin (and the Texas coast),” Thompson said. “Floating a river here allows you to see some of the most stunning environments Texas has to offer.”
Waterfowl Hunting the Coastal Prairie & Coastline
This region was once known for its rice production, which attracted around 1 million snow geese at the height of waterfowl season from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Like southern Illinois and the Eastern Shore of Maryland were historic migration stops for Canada geese, the Texas coast and interior riceland prairie was the hot spot for wintering snows. Hunters came from around the country to hunt the massive flocks of white birds. But that all changed in 2012 when the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) cut off river water access to farmers. With no water to grow rice the snow geese stopped coming to this part of Texas (a majority of those birds have shifted their wintering range to Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta).
But this region is now one of the most underrated duck hunting locations in the U.S. The coast and prairie winters around 2 million ducks on average (that fluctuates depending on weather). And the Laguna Madre off the Texas coast (as well as Mexico) is the winter home to more than 80 percent of the continental population of redheads. That’s 700,000 birds.
The access on the coast is phenomenal. There’s more than 360 miles of coastline in Texas, much of it public. Many of the bays are shallow and you need a bay boat or airboat to get to the redheads, pintail, teal, and wigeon (there are plenty of guided hunts that run about $250-$300 per gun). But there are also public marshes you only need a johnboat with a 15- to 25-hp motor to navigate. There are also multiple public walk-in areas. Take a look at Justin Hurst , Mad Island, and Guadalupe Delta WMAs, and San Bernard and Aransas National Wildlife Refuges from mid-December to the end of the season in January. Just know, each place has different access rules. Some are wide open where an industrious duck hunter can find a good hunt. Others are under a more regulated draw system in which the best stakes will go to hunters drawn first. Also note, the closer you are to Houston the more crowded these areas are likely to be.
“An ambitious hunter, who isn’t afraid of a little elbow grease can have some darn good hunts on the Texas coast,” said Todd Meredino of Ducks Unlimited. “And if you buy a 16-foot flat-bottom boat with a tiller-handle outboard, your options are almost unlimited.”
Meredino has lived in coastal Texas most of his life, and managed several public waterfowl units for Texas Parks and Wildlife before coming to DU. He is still a mostly public hunter, unless he wants to hunt the interior prairie. There is no public access to speak of on the coastal plains. Much of it leased or privately held by outfitters and landowners, but you can still get access for a nominal fee.
There are plenty of clubs that charge day rates ($250 per gun is average) where a guide will take you to a flooded agriculture field or impoundment for the morning. You can also pay a gate fee that will give you access to a wetland or single blind for the day. There’s no guide, just a pin on a map that you drive to and hunt on your own. On the coast, there’s a similar option where a guide will drop you off and pick you up at blind on the bays for around $100. All the decoys are there, so you essentially are paying for a ride. Some clubs have memberships that range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars (and more) per year.
“There are so many different styles of hunting down here, and such a variety of species,” Meredino said. “You can have days where you shoot six different species to fill a limit. Or you can have a morning like I just had recently where the gadwall decoy like mallards. But it’s not like that every morning.
“I always tell people that come down here and hunt public that you can’t base your experience—good or bad—off one hunt at a WMA. Give it year. Hunt it multiple times. Explore it. That will give you a real idea of what it’s like to hunt the coast.”
If you’re looking for a destination experience where you can hunt and fish multiple species, this region is the place to go. Come here in September to shoot doves (Texas has all three species: mourning, white-wing and invasive Eurasians), teal, kill a gator, and fish for reds and speckled trout on the bays.
“There is some really good public dove hunting down by Brownsville, but you can also pay $100 a gun for private teal and dove hunts,” Meredino said. “It’s a pretty popular trip to come down to bird hunt and fish in September.”
If you want to get really adventurous, there are public-land nilgai hunts—by draw only—on the coast. The massive antelope are native to India and were first brought to U.S. zoos before being released on Texas ranches. Bulls can tip the scales at over 600 pounds, and the meat is delicious. Both firearm and bow hunts are available, but the seasons are short and you will be competing with other hunters.
“I had low expectations about this hunt,” said Sloane Brown, who drew a tag and killed a nilgai with his compound bow in 2021. “Draw odds are less than 2 percent, and hunter success rates are probably lower than that, especially when you’re bowhunting them. They have super keen senses. We were lucky to have 20-plus mph winds and rain for our stalk. I was able to sneak in on a bull and buck the statistics.
“I would encourage every hunter to apply for Texas public land hunts. They’re extremely affordable, and incredibly unique adventures to be had.”
Deer and Doves in South Texas
The thorny scrub country of south Texas is known for its giant whitetails (Texas has long been a top 10 Boone & Crockett state). If you’re looking for a heavy, chocolate-racked buck, better come down here. It’s a private-land endeavor though, so it’s going to cost you. Typically, you’re looking at $2,000 to $3,000 to hunt, but then there are trophy fees. The bigger the rack, the more you’re going to shell out (shoot a 200-inch deer and you can forget about sending your kid to college).
There are much cheaper endeavors. The white-wing dove hunting at Las Palomas WMA in early September can be phenomenal, and all you need is a hunting license and APH permit. There’s no draw, you just do some scouting and have at it.
You can also partake in a very unique hunt for chachalacas on one of five units at Las Palomas with an APH permit. Chachalacas are a small bird you will mostly find on the ground holed up in scrub brush near water. It’s a challenging hunt, but one you can’t do in many other places. It’s worth the time and effort you’ll put in, even if you get skunked.
“You can find them along the river, but there are also a series of roads at Las Palomas and most hunters walk those and just listen for them,” Dreibelbis said. “It’s more of a spot-and-stalk kind of deal.”
You’ll find plenty of javelina down here as well. Most deer hunters are not fond of javelinas because they are notorious for running off deer. And there’s a great opportunity to take your revenge on them in South Texas. It’s a public draw hunt, and most of the hunts on WMAs are from blinds over a water source. Some WMAs will allow hunters to bait.
“Texas is special for a lot of reasons,” Bassham said. “It is so diverse. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for being a true sportsman’s paradise.”