A buck inside Shady Oaks on February 25, 2020.
As hunting gains popularity, finding a place to do it in a state where an estimated 95% of the land is privately owned has become more of a challenge. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Texas hunters will have their shot at about 5.4 million white-tailed deer when the 2021 hunting season opens Nov. 6.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department categorized this year’s deer population as “exceptional” in a recent press release. Citing favorable weather conditions throughout the state, TPWD said accelerated growth of grass and forbs (the weeds and flowering plants that serve as the animals’ primary food source) resulted in an abundant 2021 deer crop.

Equally robust is a new breed of Texas deer hunters for whom hunting is not just about the antlers. Free, sustainable organic meat, time in the great outdoors, and contributing to the management of a healthy ecosystem are reasons a new generation is getting outside to harvest deer.

Danielle Belleny, for example, started hunting in 2011. Now 27, Belleny described the first deer she ever shot as “an unimpressive buck with an unbranched antler.”

The wildlife biologist for Plateau Land Management and co-founder of Black Birders Week almost skipped the opportunity to take the animal and several large does because of a desire to bag a big buck with large horns.

Now, Belleny says she views hunting differently. “I came to terms that hunting is not about the trophy.”

As a longtime nature lover with a degree in wildlife and range management, Belleny understands the importance of harvesting some of the millions of deer that overpopulate the state.

“I knew that Texas had too many deer and figured it would be good to reduce the population where I can, while also getting ‘free’ meat,” she said.

Hugh Daschbach, an avid cook and fixture in San Antonio’s culinary scene, came to hunting in his 30s when a friend invited him to a Hill Country ranch near Mason. There, he learned the “field to fork” techniques of harvesting his own meat.

The 48-year-old New Orleans transplant has since taken every opportunity to hunt and learn how to process and cook venison.

Hugh Daschbach cooks a venison stew cooks on a fire.
Hugh Daschbach cooks a venison stew over an open fire. Credit: Courtesy / Hugh Daschbach

“I think some folks assume that hunting is always a violent, macho, ‘good ol’ boy’ pastime,” said Daschbach. “Most hunters are true stewards of the land and intensely interested in sustainable, responsible harvesting of the animals they hunt.

Mitch Hagney, 30, first hunted four years ago as a vegetarian. As the CEO of Local Sprout, a company that manages gardens, a farm, and a food hub in downtown San Antonio, he had rejected meat because of concerns about concentrated animal farming operations and its environmental consequences.

Now he feels hunting allows him to sustain the environment rather than damage it.

I don’t really get a thrill from taking the shot,” he said, “but I do get a great deal of satisfaction out of the butchering process, where I can make usable steaks, shanks, and tenderloin out of an animal I’ve harvested.”

Hagney, Daschbach, Belleny, and others reflect the growing diversity of Texas deer hunters. According to TPWD data, hunting and combined licenses issued for the 2020-21 season numbered 1.7 million — a 5.1% increase over the previous year. Of those, about 8.3% — 140,500 — were issued to women.

“It used to be older guys that had access to land,” said Bill Mochel, manager of Nagel’s Gun Shop in San Antonio.”Now, more young city people are into it because they try wild game and they figure, ‘I want to go hunt.’ There’s definitely been an uptick.”

Alan Cain, TPWD’s white-tailed deer program leader, confirmed the shift in hunter demographics.

“In general we’re seeing more women hunting, with broader, more diverse groups of hunters coming out,” said Cain. “And the millennial locavore movement has had big impact. They want to know where food comes from.”

As hunting gains popularity, finding a place to do it in a state where an estimated 95% of the land is privately owned has become more of a challenge.

Cain said the average cost of a deer lease, an agreement between a landowner and a hunter to lease land for hunting, ranges from $2 to $30 per acre depending on their size and location, and averages $2,000 to $3,000 annually per person/gun. “And the landowner says how many deer can be harvested,” he said.

White-tailed deer season runs through Jan. 2 in the Texas Hill Country and through Jan. 16 in areas south of Bexar County.

While the deer population in Texas appears healthy, the arrival of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a neurological illness caused by an aberrant protein similar to mad cow disease, has raised concerns about the future of hunting here. CWD first appeared in Texas in 2012 and has been reported in several counties in the last year. Scientists believe it was transferred by captive breeding operations.

Currently no evidence exists that people can be harmed or infected by eating CWD-tainted meat, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend it, said Cain.

“We all need to do our job as hunters to keep that disease contained and eradicated,” he said.

Cain said that if you shoot a deer in an area where the disease has been detected, you are required to have the animal tested at a CWD check station before processing. “It’s mandatory,” he said. See the list of CWD zones and check stations here.

As for finding a place to hunt, TPWD is providing mentors to new hunters and guidance accessing public lands through a program funded by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation called Stewards of the Wild.

The program, geared to new hunters ages 21-45, boasts 1,000 members and 10 chapters across the state. According to its website, the program stages events to “raise awareness of conservation issues facing future generations” by matching hunting mentors with beginning hunters, providing guidance on accessing deer leases and public lands, and lessons on how to process deer meat.

This story has been corrected to reflect that testing deer for chronic wasting disease is mandatory.

Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...