This is the first year Texas will offer draw permits for the newly-acquired Powderhorn WMA (Wildlife Management Area). This area will certainly offer the best opportunity to hunt free-range sambar deer in the US. The only other free-range Sambar hunt—on St. Vincent Island NWR in Florida—has an incredibly low success rate, with an average of about seven deer (including does) harvested out of 130 permits issued each year.
Powderhorn is a 17,351-acre former private ranch on the Gulf Coast, soon to become a mixed state park/WMA. Besides sambar deer, the WMA also has whitetail, axis deer, and feral hog. For 2018 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) will offer permits for either sex deer (including exotics) or exotics-only in separate draws.
Kelly Edmiston, a Public Hunting Coordinator at TPWD, says that for the 2018-2019 season about 60 permits will be drawn: 24 either sex deer, 24 youth either sex deer, and 12 exotics-only. Either sex permit holders may take up to three white-tailed deer (limit one buck), one sambar deer and one axis deer. Sucessful applicants for either sex will be assigned to hunt either October 23-25, 2018 or January 8-10, 2019, with hunters drawing the October hunt getting the first pass at the WMA for the season. Exotic deer permit holders may take one axis and one sambar. That hunt will take place February 5-7. Edimiston says that each hunter will be assigned to a compartment within the WMA.
The application deadline for exotics is August 15, and the deadline for either sex gun deer is September 15. Both cost $3 to apply.
We spoke to Daniel Walker, a TPWD biologist who manages Powderhorn and has served as project leader there for the last three years. He tells us that the WMA portion of the ranch will comprise around 15,000 acres.
“The area holds abundant populations of sambar, axis and whitetail. The sambar were brought there around the 1950s, and they have taken to the habitat well. All deer species can be spotted regularly, although the axis and sambar deer do get into cover well. The hunt compartments range from 1,500 to 400 or 500 acres, some of which front on Matagorda Bay. The area is fairly flat, with lots of brush, although we have done some work to clear brush and restore native coastal prairie. The area has some good gravel roads, and compartments can be accessed even with a two-wheel drive vehicle. No vehicles will be allowed off-road, so hunters will be walking in the compartments. We encourage anyone to bring a pop-up blind.”
Walker says that he has seen some big stags in the WMA, with main branches close to 36-inches. These deer are impressive trophies—sambar are the largest cervids next to moose and elk.
Axis deer (or chital), although much smaller in body than sambar, make for a interesting hunt and a beautiful trophy too. They can be in hard horn at any time of year, although the main rut is in July. Powderhorn will likely be the best public draw hunt for these deer outside of Hawaii, as other hunts in areas of Texas with axis deer are over-subscribed to cull the population of exotic animals. Hunters are also limited to assigned blinds in most of those areas.
The trophy potential and success rate at Powderhorn should be particularly good in the 2018-2019 season. A 2017 youth hunt organized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is the only hunting that has taken place in recent years. Despite inclement weather, 14 hunters took seven axis deer, five sambar and four whitetails during four days of hunting.
As for draw odds, it’s too early to tell how many will apply. Walker tells us that TPWD has received a lot of calls about the hunt both from residents and non-residents, who have an equal chance in the draw.
The Powderhorn Ranch represents a major acquisition for TPWD in a state famously lacking in public land. Mulitple partners raised $37.7 million to purchase the area, with most funds coming from money paid out by BP and Transocean following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The title passed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation in 2016, with full ownership to be transferred to TPWD by 2018. The overall project will cost over $50 million, including infrastructure for the state park and extensive removal of running live oak thickets to restore native grasses.
If you hunt Powderhorn this season, please file a report so we can learn more about this unique hunt opportunity.
Besides Powderhorn and Saint Vincent Island, the only available hunt for free-range sambar in the US takes place on private land in California adjacent to the Hearst Castle. That area is hunted exclusively by Anderson Taxidermy & Guide Service (http://thehuntpro.com; 805-466-3240). Only a few hunts are offered each year, and you can expect to pay over $10,000 for a large trophy stag. Of course, there are a number of ranches with sambar deer behind wire, particularly in the Hill Country, but the cost will be considerable.
Many more private ranches have axis deer, which range freely over low-fence properties in Gillespie, Sutton, and Bandera County. As mentioned above, the other available public land hunts for this species are less promising. Garner State Park and South Llano River State Park, and the Del Norte Unit of Devil’s River all have axis deer, but relatively low success rates. Hunters targeting axis in these areas will generally be looking for meat. In Del Norte the axis deer will likely be absent from higher terrain, with some animals in lower compartments. What you can hunt will depend on the compartment you draw. Hunting in South Llano and Garner is from assigned blinds. South Llano also has areas with few axis present; baiting is allowed.
For areas like Honey Creek State Natural Area (SNA), Enchanted Rock SNA, and Guadalupe River SP the Texas draw catalog states that “exotics are present in limited numbers.” Baiting is allowed on these areas, and sika and fallow deer are present as well as axis deer.
We will delve more into Texas’ unique draw opportunities for free-range exotics in a future issue. For the moment, a final note for hunters hoping to draw for nilgai antelope on the Laguna Atacosa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR: In past years, hunters who drew exotics permits had the first shot at the NWRs for the season. For 2018-2019, the dates for the general deer hunt conclude before those for the exotics hunt, meaning that deer permit holders will have the best shot at trophy nilgai bulls. The application deadlines are September 15 for general deer permits, October 15 for exotics (note that NWR hunts are in a separate category of the draw catalog). Successful applicants may take unlimited nilgai. All Texas draw hunts may be applied for at tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public